The Garden as Form

by

Michael Marder

 

This is not your garden-variety reflection on gardens.

It is, in fact, extremely difficult to think about gardens, at a carefully calibrated distance thinking requires, because our minds are awash with positive, sentimental, and nostalgically inflected cultural associations with these cultivated, carefully manicured green spaces. Forests connote danger and darkness, disorientation and wild life, both animal and vegetal; gardens are the products of life’s taming and domestication, as much cultural as they are natural. The former jolt thinking into action; the latter are the tranquilizers that put thought to sleep. The outward signs of aesthetic excess, gardens are also indicative of how we make sense of the world, even if their geometrical arrangement happens to be labyrinthine, as in Renaissance Europe, or if they purposefully blend and conflate organic and inorganic shapes, as in some of the traditional Chinese gardens.

In the course of writing these lines, I am facing a small garden through a glass partition that, though generally transparent, reflects parts of my desk and myself. Perspective matters: are we contemplating gardens from the inside, looking out, or from the outside, prying into them? The perspective in question is not only visual but also conceptual. To restate, then: are we focusing on the contents of a garden, the mélange of living beings that inhabit or pass through it—grass, bushes, flowers, trees, bees, mosquitoes, birds, spiders, worms, the microorganisms dwelling in the soil, and, last but not least, ourselves—, or on the environmental form that hedges them (and us) in? Should we consider the garden in terms of an ephemeral generalization of cross-pollinations, interspecies synergies, hybridizations, let alone frictions, struggles, and downright conflicts simmering there often outside the sphere of our attention and control, we would imagine it as a space of freedom. Should we start from the formal limit that defines it, however, we would discern something else entirely, namely an enclosure, within which the most diverse beings are primed for appropriation.

Stressing more the perimeter than the territory it encompasses, garden relates not to what it guards but to how living things are guarded. In a sleight-of-hand, the word itself has changed its semantic form by switching from an adjective, which it was in the Vulgar Latin expression hortus gardinus (“enclosed garden”), to a noun. In the process, it usurped the positive meaning of the milieu it had previously circumscribed in a merely negative manner. Form became content.

The act of guarding guards things for and against something. The guarding of the garden detains the plants growing there and the small ecosystems that develop around them for the purpose of capturing, securely holding, and finally possessing whatever lies within its confines. The capture is, by and large, ideal rather than real, and it converts the actual appropriation of a plot of land destined to be a garden into a sign of proprietary power. Is it an accident that, traditionally, the physical seats of power (say, the royal palaces) are surrounded by magnificent and extensive gardens? Ideal capture peaks in the conceptual relation of knowing. The concept seizes conceptualized matter with the phantom hand of abstract thought. The garden is nature conceptualized, guarded in a seemingly innocuous form as the reminder of a threat neutralized, of “monstrous” growth subdued.

What the garden guards against is the intrusion of others who do not belong there. It is not enough to wall off or fence in a territory to accomplish this negative function: insects, birds, airborne seeds, rodents, and pollen breach the perimeter and disturb humanly planned configurations. Additionally, the others may be the cultivated plants themselves that overgrow the boundaries, shapes, and structures horticulture has slotted them into. In the garden, too, vegetal otherness makes it slow but inexorable comeback, frustrating our landscaping blueprints.

To ward off external intruders, some gardeners resort to herbicides, insecticides, repellants, and other poisons, unleashed as part of the global toxic flood we are living or dying through nowadays. Within the rigid confines of what the garden guards, trying to ensure the purity of the species gathered there, these are the undifferentiated chemical killers that affect everything and everyone on their path. The stricture of controlled difference, which is the garden, relies on lethal indifference and nondifferentiation for its consolidation.

Against the internal disruption of garden architecture by the “good” plants it admits, topiary, pleaching, pruning, bonsai cultivation, tree shaping or tree training and other similar techniques are deployed. Trunks, branches, stalks, and leaves are brought into line and made to follow certain lines and patterns, as though plants were mere materials in need of form, as though, that is, vegetal matter had no living forms proper to and coemergent with it. The garden, then, is the form of form, a meta-order bent on preserving order as such, whether it guards its contents against the trespassing others or serves to consolidate the proprietary power.

In this somewhat depressing light, the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden displays new hermeneutical hues. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve are marked out as different from the plants and animals that inhabit that paradisiac space, because, unlike the nonhuman species, they are the guarded guardians of the rest of creation. They are responsible for the garden, where they nevertheless live as some precious and rare flowers, without having any sort of perspective of their milieu. Human creatures are only capable of relating to it as garden once they find themselves outside it, even if they are still physically situated on its territory, as in the stretch of time between the moment of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and that of their judgment, sentencing, and expulsion. In effect, their sin—the primordial sin, to be precise—is that they defied the divine ownership of paradise by trespassing the formal limit God drew at the heart of it. (Could it be that the true object of knowledge they acquired as they bit into the forbidden fruit was the concept of private property, from which the proprietorship over their own naked bodies and the corresponding experience of shame was derivative?)

At any rate, it is by virtue of Eden being a garden that the expulsion of Adam and Eve is effective. The first woman and man were a privileged part of paradise guarded for God’s amusement, satisfaction, or some other reason; after the fall, the place they used to belong to is guarded against them. Supplanting the forbidden fruit that, circumscribed by the formal divine prohibition, represented a garden within the garden, the entire paradisiac form becomes off-bounds, set apart from the mundane space for existence. This begs the question: if paradise is literally an enclosure or a walled-off garden, then was it prepared by God in his perfect foreknowledge to keep some aspects of creation out, notably the humans? And the reverse also holds: while paradise is not just a garden but the formal being-garden of a garden, every garden is a paradise… in the worst possible sense of the word.

Whither went the fallen beings that were expelled from the Garden of Eden? Certainly not into the forest, which is bereft of enclosures, but into a world lacerated by fences, walls, private property with either actual or implied No trespassing! signs, and, therefore, into a world of gardens, if not into the world as garden, currently mutating into a desert at a dizzyingly fast pace. Something of the forest admittedly survives in the garden, as well. I am referring to what I earlier called “vegetal otherness,” continually challenging the aesthetic form foisted onto the cultivated plants.

Now, vegetal otherness is the otherness of matter itself, thwarting the forms that temporarily overlay it. The garden is matter spiritualized—rendered familiar, quelled, and mastered—through an act of formalization, but it is always on the verge of deformalization and, indeed, of self-deformalization. The forest breaks through the form of the garden, as the garden’s own recoil from the inflexible limitations it imposes on its contents. It is akin to a feral cat, who so astonishingly quickly loses the genetic memory of domestication. But this is not to say that the forest is formless or spiritless; rather, it harbors a form that, far from an enclosure, flourishes in and with matter. No longer acquainted with such a unity, we experience its effects as sudden disruptions and obstacles on the ideal and ideally unperturbed path of our concepts and projects. We have all but repressed this nonformal form foreign to the garden, one that guards nothing but the future of growth, unfolding, development—hence, guards everything without the residual possession and mastery inherent to guardianship. 

Avid gardeners are likely to raise a series of objections to the argument regarding the formality of their beloved environment. Isn’t gardening an open-ended experimentation often proceeding in the dark, both with respect to its outcomes and the belowground level where surprising alliances are forged and battles are waged? Doesn’t this activity give up on immutable plans and programs still before it commences, and doesn’t it, consequently, come to terms with failure, modestly aspiring only to fail better next time? Having a green thumb is possessing a special gift to collaborate with plants, the sun and the shade, the soil and water, so as to encourage the garden’s flourishing. So, how can one impute any degree of formalism or idealism to gardening?

Such objections are valid only inasmuch as they represent an internal perspective on the garden. They do not in the least touch upon the garden itself as form, notably as a form guarding over its contents and warding off potential intruders. They do not, therefore, address what I am tempted to dub the problem of guardening. A fruitful reaction to the problem could be loosening the boundaries separating the inside from the outside of the garden, including those that, cutting through its heart, are associated with vegetal otherness. In practical terms, “rewilding” corresponds to a liberation of vegetal growth from the selectivity, size limitations, shaping, and other human impositions. At the extreme, it reinvents the garden as a miniature forest. Yet, this solution does not go nearly far enough in diminishing the garden’s proprietary vigilance. For one, it guards an illusion that we are powerful enough, in our conscious rejection of mastery and dominance, to bring back the past of wilderness and to erase a long history of human-plant interactions that have profoundly influenced the two parties to the relation. For another, it preserves a form that has been sundered from matter, just in a softer, more porous and malleable version.

In order to tackle the problem of gardening (or of guardening) at its root, it is necessary to give the garden a different form, or, better yet, to refrain from bestowing a form on it. We would need to let the garden’s form—the form that is the garden—develop from matter itself, no longer worrying about its perimeter. Which means expanding the definition to symbioses of plants previously unrecognizable as a garden. Letting the garden be, refraining from form-bestowal, should we do nothing? Not exactly. What appears as “doing nothing” is actually taking a step back from matter to form and, through this retrogression, acting on the latter. To let the garden be otherwise is to hasten its deformalization and to see to it that the garden’s stiff form would disintegrate, so much so that it would become, perhaps, a garden without a garden, which amounts to a garden without guarding.

Although my suggestion sounds a lot like rewilding, it goes further than that. Instead of loosening the garden’s limits, its formal makeover foregoes the enclosure and allows the garden grow from the interactions among its various participants, be they organic or inorganic. In the absence of a prior circumscription, according to which form is an empty container haphazardly filled with sundry elements of matter, it would not figure as property, and certainly not as private property. There will be no one to guard and plenty of human and nonhuman actors to care for it. Paradise lost might not be such a bad thing, after all.

 

Note: This essay first appeared in The Learned Pig at the end of 2018: http://www.thelearnedpig.org/michael-marder-garden-as-form/5821.

For a Peace Treaty with Plants

by

Michael Marder

 

Peace with plants? With them, themselves, or through them, as the symbols of pacific existence? Or both at the same time?

Since its inception, what is called our “civilization” has been waging a war on the vegetal world. In the early agrarian societies that flourished along the Nile River and in the Mesopotamian Basin, the cultivation of crops depended upon the first genetic manipulation of the living, their standardization, and concerted production. From the beginning, plant and human cultures were ideally, if never completely so, monocultures: predictable, regularized, docile, homogenized. Violence against plants was of one piece with the fierceness, with which the places of their growth were taken over, colonized, modified, narrowed or expanded. Swamps drained and terrains flattened, agriculture molded the world, vegetation, and our communities. Whereas objective differences between plant specimens were leveled, those among humans were magnified, giving rise to the unequal division of labor and socio-economic stratification.

The European civilization asserted itself against the forest, which still harbors darkness, obscurity, irrationality, and mystery in the fairytales that bear the imprints of culture’s deeper historical crusts. This is not only the case in Central and Eastern Europe, from Germany to Russia, where collective identity has been established in relation to, but also at a distance from, the woods. Already in the Ancient Greece of Aristotle, matter (hulé) was associated with lumber and with the forest, its density emblematic of corporeality and of potentiality not yet actualized by the vital principle that sets itself to work in a body presumed to be inanimate in its absence. The very human existence (Dasein) Martin Heidegger construed in terms of a clearing (Lichtung) in being replays the idea that a clearing in the forest is the place of spirit, liberated from the tight grip of matter. Concretely, the practices of deforestation carry on the metaphysical task of expanding the spiritual domain at the expense of essentially wooden matter. In a desert alone is pure spirit fully at home, on an unlivable earth vacated of plants, the horizon directly touching the sky.

Let us assume that at some point in human history the war on plants was a matter of survival, given all the uncertainties of food provisions derived through hunting and gathering. Today, things are very different: the continuation of such hostilities endangers all life on earth. Despite the inventions of Hubble Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider, we are still seeing our natural environment with the same eyes as the pioneers of the “civilizing mission.” We have been exceptionally slow when it comes to inverting in our minds the valuations that have been long overturned in reality. To continue Heidegger’s line of thought, we are still yearning to build upon and cultivate every corner of the planet, while forgetting that there is no dwelling without letting-be, leaving open, ceding mastery.

In order for the above not to sound too abstract, I suggest translating letting-be into letting-grow. The change I propose is not at all arbitrary, in light of what Heidegger himself says about the first beginning of philosophy that comprehended being as phusis, nature, or literally everything that grows, burgeons out, as well as the movement of such growing or burgeoning out. But what does it mean, exactly, to let grow? To forsake the activity of gardening, with its selective care for some plants and not for others? To allow our sidewalks, streets, and squares overgrow with vegetation? To let weeds be, even if they are suffocating the life of other plants?

Letting-grow signifies, to my mind, a global shift in attitude, a new socio-natural contract, or an alternative physio-ontological configuration of the living. A peace treaty with plants, if you will. Obviously, a carrot and a weeping fig are not going to sit at the table to sign any treaty, but neither does the imagined community that establishes the classical social contract fundamental to human cohabitation. French philosopher Michel Serres, for one, has already endorsed the creation of a Biogaia parliament, a world-wide institution, where “air and water, energy and the earth, living species, or, in short, Biogaia, would be represented.”[1] His idea is commendable, despite the fact that, as we know full well, parliamentary discussions usually amount to little more than hot air, water under the bridge, energy wasted for nothing… Before inquiring into the modes of representation and expression in such a parliament, however, it would be necessary to forge the peace of cohabitation and collaboration with all those comprising such an institution.

A peace treaty is a rapprochement between previously hostile factions. Yet, in the war on plants—the war now entering a super-aggressive phase of genetic engineering, 24-hour growing lamps, and monocultures that exacerbate the logic of the past—hostilities have been utterly one-sided: it was humanity that endeavored to master, subjugate, and determine, to determine by mastering and subjugating, the very being of plants that have, in turn, exerted a quiet, if persistent, influence on us from within, including at the genetic level. Therefore, the onus of responsibility is squarely on us to rectify this injurious relation and, through a new treaty or a new treatment of the vegetal, to mend the effects of our violence against the earth, against the elemental realm as such, and against the living. Should it ever be achieved, peace with plants would provide a comprehensive framework for environmental justice that, not merely formal and calculative, would be ontologically and ecologically grounded.

So, our rapprochement with plants is, largely, a matter of our own responsibility. An important step in that direction would be to acknowledge that the flora is not so non-oppositional as to merge entirely with the context of its growth and that humans are not so oppositional as to negate and destroy everything that surrounds us. Indeed, our relation to plants has never really been a relation, for, how can one articulate total oppositionality, with which the human has been conflated, and absolute non-oppositionality, to which the plant has been equated? A war worse than overt military hostilities, the assault on vegetal nature fails to recognize the enemy qua enemy. We see nothing but a green blur, chunks of which are concretized whenever we are hungry or require construction materials only to vanish into the satisfaction or the dissatisfaction of perpetually arising need. An approximation to plants does not traverse the distance between us and them; it establishes and calibrates this distance in the first place.

Approaching the vegetal as a who, rather than a what, is prior to the decision on what will follow this engagement: hostility or peace. Further, the plant is a who that grows, to the point of being defined by growing activity with its own degrees of freedom, decisions on blossoming, branching out, genetic transcription, memory and its retrieval, and so forth. A who that grows with its environment, reacting to the minute alterations that happen there, separated from the world by the minimal barrier, which is at the same time a mediation (i.e., a membrane), of the with. Our peaceful being-with-plants is unthinkable unless we let them be with their surrounds, let them grow. Letting-grow, for nothing (at least, nothing that we can reap for ourselves), is giving due to the vegetal who. More than desistence or inaction—though desist from the seemingly never-ending exploitation of plants we must—it is a combined ethical and aesthetic stance that promotes growing, regardless of externally imposed objectives, be they pragmatic or purely decorative.

At this point, a suspicion might creep into the readers’ minds: is peace again a hollow word, a utopian wish to be fulfilled exclusively on the dreamy fields of art? Is it a function of the pacification of need (Herbert Marcuse’s “pacification of existence”) whereby, armed with luxury and superfluity, we can at long last afford to quell the struggle for survival, attended by violence against human and non-human beings? Far from it. I do not intend to marshal aesthetics as a panacea of the sated bourgeoisie to the ongoing horrors of world history and civilization. What I would like to get at, by way of my appeal to a peace treaty with plants, is a peaceful satisfaction of need within the so-called “realm of necessity” and a cultivation of environmentally ethical behavior in the “realm of freedom.” Translating letting-be into letting-grow, I conjure up a future, where our default growing against everything and everyone would give place to growing with the other. Not exactly symbiotically, but maintaining the differences we would be ready to share without organizing them into oppositional, militaristic clusters of friend-and-foe.

One sign that a peace treaty with plants is in effect is a regime of agricultural organization and work responsive to the capacities and needs of the plants themselves. Does agriculture linger—patiently, forbearingly—with vegetal temporality, the tempo or rhythm of reproductive possibilities undetermined by the human “producers”? Does it skirt the trap of monocultures and care, instead, for the diversity of the plant world? Is it receptive to the limitations and singularities of the place that is being cultivated and to the fulfillment of agricultural workers?

Some will argue that, given the exponential rates of increase in the global human population, none of this will come to pass. An ethical agriculture would remain a private fantasy, confined to a few pockets of the affluent world. The problem is not the slow, inefficient, seasonal, parasite- and weather-contingent growth of plants but the snowballing demand for foodstuffs and raw materials on the part of the human who forces, rather than lets, all else grow. For too long, we have been arrogating letting-grow—which in any case is not tantamount to an infinite quantitative increase—to ourselves, while pressing both organic and inorganic worlds to grow with us, in accord with our swelling needs and accelerating paces of consumption. The ensuing extreme imbalances in the growing of phusis are as old as our history; only relatively recently have they escalated to a situation of crisis. That is why it is crucial to combine the precepts of letting-grow and growing-with in a relational whole of freedom (the letting part) hemmed in by mutual constraints (the with part). Within these limits, we will finally have a chance to ask who the other, vegetal party is as well as who we are after the end of our war on nature that has been draining our energies and diverting much of our creativity, not to mention other existential possibilities, into the struggle for survival. 

Peace treaties imply a temporary cessation of hostilities that may recommence at a future point in time. They are, by definition, conditional, in contrast to the unconditional, perpetual peace Immanuel Kant postulated as the cosmopolitan end of human history. To be truly meaningful, our peace with plants would need to veer toward the second, unconditional variety. Why a “treaty” then? Because it is an occasion for our assembly, with each other and with plants, the assembly that echoes the etymological sense of the Old French traitié. A germ of growing-with.

 

[1] Michel Serres, Temps des crises (Paris: Éditions Le Pommier, 2009), p. 51, translation mine.

Diasporic Thoughts on Migration: Of Plants and Places

by

Michael Marder

 

Sometimes, right on its semantic surfaces, language relieves the burden of repression that has built up over the millennia of metaphysical thought. This is the case with the word diaspora. An obdurately entrenched popular conviction that plants are immobile is a symptom for the repression of insights—practical intuitions more than elaborate theories, to be sure—into vegetal motility. And yet, one of our main figures for the effects of human migration borrows a technical term from botanical discourse, where diaspore refers to seeds or spores, plus the plant’s anatomical structures fitted for their dispersal. A fruit with its seeds is a diaspore, as is the white dandelion puff ball and tumbleweed rolling across wind-swept plains. Diasporic communities are the residues of human migratory flows, imagined by analogy to the movement of plants.

What is it that moves and how, when diaspores and diasporas are set loose? At its Greek source, the word indicates the splitting of the scattered. An obvious interpretation of this etymology would be that seed dispersal units, such as ripe fruits ready to fall to the ground, detach from the mother plant, and that human migrants are cut off from their original communities cast in the role of trees that nourished them. There is, however, much more to diaspores and diasporas than initially meets the eye.

Detachment is the intimate possibility of plants, with many of their parts “prosthetic,” replaceable, ready to be shed without causing harm to those that tentatively stay behind. Further, scatter is not an accident that only belatedly affects the seed; whether we are talking about spora or sperma (the difference between vegetal, animal, and human reproduction blurred), seed is essentially scatter, still before it reaches the ground, is carried by water, or glides on air. Its division into two (dia-) and into an infinity that stirs between two intensifies the dynamics proper to what is internally, congenitally divided. In their hyperbolic, almost tautological reiteration of pre-existing detachment and scatter, diaspores and diasporas make visible those movements that have always traversed, if imperceptibly, plant and human existences.

The inorganic world gets caught up in the semantics of the diaspore as well, considering that it lends a name to a mineral (diasporite, empholite), which, after being heated, breaks up into white pearly scales. But, despite the blurring of boundaries among biological kingdoms and between organic and inorganic realms, vegetal migrations have their distinctive traits. For one, plants use reproductive structures specialized for seed or spore dispersal, whereas animals and humans may journey both in the encrypted form of their DNA, separate from the bodies that have released it, and as “whole” organisms. For another, plants catch a ride on the backs of others: the elements, such as atmospheric movements of air masses; insects wings ; the digestive tracts of animals, who will excrete the seeds they have devoured without interfering with their generative, germinal potential… Let us follow each of these two threads and see whither they lead us in their unspooling.

In seeds, spores, and pollen, plants condense themselves, distilling their being into something portable. (A tumbleweed diaspore deviates from this rule, as virtually the entire plant detaches from the root to roam the earth in the wind. A perfect metaphor for an uprooted neoliberal individual, it invites a more direct comparison to human migrations than the scatter of pollen or seeds. That said, the value of directness is dubious where originary dispersion is at stake.) By and large, they travel light, packing the bare minimum indispensable for future growth elsewhere, the growth that will be shaped by and will eventually shape the seed’s landing site. Our migrations are not as flexible. Human migrants stand in need of careful transplanting techniques so as to grow new roots in the soil of another country, culture, place, while abiding between identities, cultures, histories.

Still, the contrast between vegetal parts and human wholes has its limits. If, rather than organs, diaspores are the autonomous and anarchic multiplicities, then they are both more and less than an organism. Their simultaneously supra- and infra-organismic makeup allows them to prefigure dispersed communities on the move or, in a word, diasporas. Multiplicity is engrained in the singularity of a migratory identity, very much in keeping with the subjectivity of plants that are one in many and many in one. Migration has to do with population fluxes, and a migrant is a fleeting individuation out of the motile mass, a flickering speck in the scatter of numerous dots. To disregard the primacy of mass movements is to switch attention, surreptitiously, from migrants to itinerant persons and, hence, to depoliticize them.

How plants are dispersed is equally significant. Letting the diaspore and its contents drop down to earth or entrusting it to the wind, the pollen attaching to butterfly wings or the seeds wending their way to another place in the stomachs of birds—all these acts are awash with the contingencies of carrying and of landing. In throwing themselves, in opening themselves up to dis- or relocation, plants throw their fates to chance. As a compensation for the uncertainty of the outcome, they increase the number of throws, following a near infinity of possible trajectories, some of them bound to succeed where a vast majority fail. Is this luxury available to a human migrant?

In truth, the categories of success and failure only make sense upon arrival at a destination, however unexpected that terminal point may be. The logic of arrival is foreign to diaspora and migration. Neither an emigrant nor an immigrant, a migrant, like a mobile diaspore, is suspended in the in-between after departure and before arrival. For many, most recently in the Mediterranean basin, the suspension has proven deadly. It put them in limbo, in a broken transit line with no end in sight, both finite and infinite, the “middle passage,” as Edouard Glissant christened it with regard to forced migrations in transatlantic slave trade. (It bears mentioning here that okra seeds migrated to the New World across the middle passage, concealed in the hair of African slaves.) But even those who safely reach the desired shores are not free from the uncanny interval containing in itself the entire phenomenon of migration in miniature. Awaiting their transplantation, human migrants, again like seeds and pollen, migrate in their afterlife, which is also their beforelife, a stretch, a span as temporal as it is spatial. The spatiotemporal stretch is none other than the stretching of existence, at once posthumous and prehumous, not yet compartmentalized into individual and collective, mine and ours. As a perpetual migrant, I thus dare assert: migration is being-human, just as, with all the necessary modifications, it is being-vegetal and being-animal.

Their scattering at the beginning and in the end notwithstanding, human migratory flows display determinate patterns and follow clearly identifiable vectors. People flee from extreme danger and scarcity to perceived safety, plentiful resources, and the promise of well-being, if not of happiness. Plants, too, can respond to perilous situations (e.g., of being under attack by herbivories) by initiating physiological, morphological, or other changes in themselves, and they can grow deliberately toward the resources that are vital for them, including sunlight, moisture and minerals in the soil. But when they release their so-called genetic material to be carried by the wind or by bees, they do not calculate the trajectory of the throw and refrain from choosing an optimal vector for the realization of their procreative goals. Unless they do so at a transgenerational, evolutionary level…

The German and French philosophical traditions, encompassing among others Kant, Schiller, and Hegel, as well as Bataille and Derrida, to whose dissemination I feel incredibly close (what is dissemination, if not the Latinized rendering of the Greek diaspora?), have framed the vegetal wager as excessive and superfluous, a surfeit over and above (or below) the economic logic of investment-and-return, as though the throw were “for nothing.” This eccentric behavior is strange for an ideal and ideally autonomous human subject alone. Vegetal heteronomy means that, having been thrown and in all probability thrown away, the seed retraces, outside the usual pitting of activity against passivity, the pathways of others, from the elements to the swarms of insects and flocks of birds. Plants are essentially collaborative, synergetic beings, which is why their migratory itineraries rehearse and reaffirm the large-scale movements of air masses, of the retreating ice sheets, or of animal and human populations.

Proceeding sporadically, at a halting rhythm, where every step may be the last and where the continuity of concerted motion is in com-motion, peppered with discontinuities, migrations impel migrants to travel with split identities: already not the same as they were in the place they left and not yet the other they will become in the new locale. Plants exist as migrants in themselves—which is to say, in the other—even when their seeds do not disperse in space; they travel in the cracks of sameness and difference, between self and other. Their growth, along with every instance of becoming, is exilic from the perspective of pure and immutable being: it shatters the fictitious unity of the seed, which is shattered as such, prior to and apart from the first signs of germination and sprouting. We, humans, are also capable of migrating in ourselves, by becoming other to ourselves, without really leaving the places where we physically are. The name for this capacity is imagination.

An additional complication in the story of migration surfaces, as if exposed by the melting Arctic ice or floating on the waves of the rising seas, in the age of climate change. Membership in the category environmental refugees, encompassing not only humans but also plants, animals, fungi, and countless other forms of life, is snowballing as global temperature rise. Displaced populations of all kinds are on the move. Climate change is one of the elemental forces, akin to wind, driving human migrations, in contravention of the belief that humanity has finally managed to dominate and subdue the capricious and destructive powers of “first” nature. The historical, economic, religious, and other tendencies of our “second” nature fulfil, moreover, the functions of air and water currents, carrying human populations away from sectarian violence or toward increased economic opportunities. The emergence of “second” nature foments elemental social forces, doing the work of the physical elements on another plane of existence. And climate change is where the two natures intersect, the one pushing the other in a downward spiral to the brink of devastation.

It is, therefore, doubly crucial to contemplate the sense of anthropogenic impact on the environment and how this impact ricochets, hitting both human and non-human populations. On the one hand, climate change means that places are no longer in place; they shift elsewhere, migrate, are displaced, misplaced, or unplaced. What, then, does migration look like in a world of wandering places that are no longer the ultimate wherein of movement? How to paint the image of a displacement within relentless and pervasive displacement? On the other hand, isn’t a place always displaced in itself, with global climate change merely bringing this implicit structural feature to the fore? If so, then places are both analogous to seeds (displacement indwells the place; diaspora inheres in a seed) and they are seeds, divided in themselves, disseminated, dispersed in their very unity, unicity, and uniqueness.

The global environmental catastrophe we are living or dying through cannot be reduced to the displacement of vegetal, human, animal populations from their native habitats. Nor—though here we are in greater vicinity to the heart of the matter—is it tantamount to a displacement of places, mysteriously progressing, regressing, or digressing from there where they are at this precise instant. It turns out that the livable character of the world—whoever it is a world for—has been ensured by the largely unlivable, iced over swathes of the earth. Circumscribed placelessness has guaranteed the relative stability of places. With the intervals of existence shrinking and dwindling, the destination of the unhinged and unhinging movement of places is evident: the mass migration of places tends toward placelessness no longer circumscribed, generalized, unchained, thwarting the conditions of habitability that make a place what it is. The sixth mass extinction now under way is a comet’s tail of this development.

Given the fitful history of life on the planet, we find some hope in our dire predicament: our consolation is that, though no longer suitable for us, a place may still be propitious to the lives of others, notably of other-than-human forms of life. Under the banner of ecological resilience, meant to make an unmitigated disaster palatable, plants are the main protagonists. It is true that their plasticity is remarkable at the physiological and epigenetic levels. Vegetation is able to adapt to ionizing radiation and to resist environmental mutagens better, more efficiently than we do. Plants survive Chernobyl; fresh, brilliantly green shoots are not long in sprouting after devastating and ever more frequent forest fires; and grasses and weeds make their comeback to the postindustrial wastelands. They come to embody in this manner the miraculous, phoenix-like attributes humans have been imputing to the natural environment since times immemorial, the attributes according to which no matter the severity of the violence our species unleashes onto the planet, ecosystems will regenerate and the “circle of life” will begin gyrating once again.

The projection of a world without us where paradisiac, prelapsarian nature will be recovered thanks to vegetal diasporas is a hard-to-resist temptation. Migrating seeds will accidentally fall on polluted or burnt soil, near contaminated rivers and lakes, and redeem the ravished earth, cutting short the migration of places into placelessness. Rewilding is in vogue. The plants will inherit the earth. Mantras such as these help keep the thought of a globally encroaching terrestrial and marine toxic desert at bay. At what cost? At the cost of migratory discontinuities, halting rhythms, and sporadic renewals that may or may not happen.

Our delusional dreams of being surrounded by an inexhaustibly fertile nature, construed as an infinitely stocked warehouse, skip over the diasporic register of no return and, perhaps, no advance of any meaningful sort. Ongoing regeneration occurs within the fragile and relatively narrow limits that are currently under a severe threat. Seeds that have just fallen in the cracks of concrete have a chance to germinate. Will the odds be the same by the end of the century when droughts, excessively high temperatures, and depleted soils will be the global rule, rather than an exception? In a 2014 report, the UN warned that, assuming current rates of degradation, most of the planet’s topsoil could be gone by 2075. The alarming prospect is that the earth has less than sixty years of crops to give before becoming infertile. The daunting “point of no-return,” at which the window of opportunity to forestall a global environmental catastrophe shuts close, is a radically diasporic one, slipping discontinuity into cumulative change and exploding into a multitude of terminal points, as far as species’ and ecosystems’ survival is concerned.

It may seem that our analysis of diaspora has strayed from a focus on human and plant migrations, let alone from the subterranean influence each kind of movement exerts on the other. But that is only a matter of seeming. Plants are of a piece with climates and the sites they inhabit. Migration in a place comprises vegetative growth—fleshing out a way of living in-between, without definite departure and arrival terminals—and asexual reproduction; the migration of plant parts to other places accounts for sexual reproduction. Through the plants’ being-in-place and their flight elsewhere, the places themselves grow or contract, metamorphose, and wander otherwise than they do in elemental circulation and in the macabre course of climate change. With its own scatter both in growth and reproduction, vegetation disperses places and, in so doing, hands them back to themselves, not to the looming placelessness tied to the decline of habitability. In more senses than one, diasporic thought is plant-thinking.

The question is: how can human diasporas accomplish the vegetal feat? How, in the dispersion of the seed, to respect the placeness of place? To learn from plants in this regard is not to embrace a static mode of being, staying put and conservatively protecting one’s own territory. On the contrary, it is to transform the in-between of movement, growth, and becoming into the sole destination, without imposing a preset genetic or other program onto the future, without, that is, transplanting past behavioral molds onto another place and time.

Traveling light is heavy on responsibility and, indeed, on responsiveness to a different spatiotemporal stretch, in which—and as which—one locates oneself. Migratory responsiveness exceeds a vigilant reaction to the shifting circumstances. It corresponds to constant structural alterations in the responding being that grows with its places of growth, rather than passing through them with more or less destructive force while maintaining itself essentially the same. Or, perhaps, keeping in mind a certain lightness in the assessment of outcomes in terms of successes and failures, one would neither grow with nor pass through a place but, after the manner of a dormant seed, simply stay in reserve. This would also be a response, negative and oblique, to the inappropriateness of the environmental conditions and circumstances to the growing being, or of that being to the new place.  

If, as Hegel observed in his philosophy of nature, plant sexuality is the threshold, at which vegetality outstrips itself and passes over into what it is not, then it is only fitting that the self-understanding of human migrations involves aspects of sexual reproduction drawn from the world of plants: diasporas cite the precedent of diaspores. An upshot of reclaimed vegetal heritage is that perspectives on migration, community, place and even time are tacitly sexualized. Diasporic movements pursue along their plural routes the process of plant sexuality in disguise.

Alternatively, working backwards from human to vegetal phenomena, we might say that diaspora privileges the reproductive moment already salient in plant sexuality: it problematizes the hurling of the past into the future in a jagged timeline, full of lacunae and gaps puncturing the illusion of continuity. The string of our migrations is tied to the seed scattered in itself, that is, harboring time in its embryonic body. Existing in several times at the same time, the divided seed is likewise never of a single place; it belongs to a whole array of locales, from the one where it first materialized to the one where it may germinate and a welter of others between the two. In their turn, diasporas replace, through a not-so-subtle mutation or permutation, biological birth from a pair of parents with cultural renaissance from the interstitial sociality of human existence. Their intermittencies are those of a death in life, a suspension of relentless vitality, like holding one’s breath without knowing whether another moment of inhalation would follow respiratory interruption. Without knowing whether the reproduction of existence, vegetal or human, would ensue ever again.

Plant-Listening

by

Michael Marder

 

If you are familiar with the tenets of plant-thinking, you know that this term is not a cognitive one—or, at least, not only cognitive. Revolving around the non-identity of vegetal being (in the first instance, its non-identity with itself), it flies “in the face of the insanity of transcendent thought” (Plant-Thinking 168). It thinks, then, in the immanence of existence, with and as the other. There is no strict distinction between thinking and feeling, thinking and sensing, thinking and being, thinking and living here. Of its own accord, plant-thinking turns inside out into plant-seeing, plant-listening, plant-touching…

Let us together examine the seemingly strange case of plant-listening. By definition, the rules of plant-thinking apply to it, as well. If plant-thinking is, simultaneously, the thinking of the plants themselves, our thinking about plants, and the dynamic interaction between these two poles of the event, then plant-listening is how the plants themselves listen, our listening to them, and the resonance of their and our auditory attentions.

First: the listening of the plants themselves. Without the obviously recognizable ears, they are all ears, the vegetal body (or bodies: the proliferation of semiautonomous growths within “one” plant) attuned to the minutest of vibrations above and below ground-level. To be all ears is to be exceptionally attentive, open to others and to the world. Plants exhibit such extreme attention to more than twenty environmental conditions, from humidity gradients to a wide spectrum of light wavelengths. So, why would they not be sensitive to sounds and vibrations? From roots using sound to locate underground sources of water, through adaptive germination and growth responses to auditory stimuli, to leaf vibrations that result from herbivore chewing transformed into distress signals, plants are all ears. But, perhaps, we should also hear this idiomatic expression in its literal register: the functional equivalent of animal and human ears is not localized in one particular anatomical structure; it is evenly distributed throughout the plant, which listens with its entire body to its whole environment. Now, because vegetal ears do not have a limited, circumscribed, proper site, they overlap with the plant’s lungs and mouths, eyes and skin… All ears, the plant is all eyes and all thinking, all vibrant and vibrating with life in every part.

Second: our listening to plants. This has been an unmitigated failure. With the exception of certain poetic insights and the budding, though still quite small, field of plant bioacoustics, the human consensus on the silence of vegetation has been overwhelming. We take the fact that plants lack actual ears and an apparatus for generating sounds akin to ours or to that of animals who are similar to us for evidence of their muteness and absolute deafness, sheltered from the very possibility of hearing. We, who without giving it a second thought subscribe to such a view, judge plants in advance, pre-judge them, and it is this prejudice that deafens us. For too long their hypersensitivity has slipped through the cracks of our crude perceptual and cognitive systems. In 2018, this failure of discernment is inexcusable.

Third: the resonance of the human and vegetal auditory attentions has been, consequently, fraught and doubly asymmetrical. While plants co-vibrate with us and with the rest of the world, we do not; while they are all ears, we have only two that, to add insult to injury, are too rudimentary to pick bioacoustic signals emanating from plants. Just as plant-thinking requires the ongoing work of reconfiguring, if not transfiguring, “the symbiotic relation” between human thought and vegetal existence (Plant-Thinking 10), so also the attunement of human listening to that of plants needs to be refined, finessed. How?

In a vegetal manner, we may learn to listen with our entire bodies, rather than exclusively with the ears. In fact, it is a matter of merely discovering something that is already there, as opposed to acquiring a new skill. It is a matter, then, of laying bare the repressed vegetality of our own bodies and psychic strata. Vibrations do not strike the ear alone; they affect and unsettle every material medium, such that sentient surfaces in particular should be able to register them. The first sentient surface of our bodies is the skin, and it turns out that its vibrations convey information to the brain in a way similar to the auditory system. The skin is probably our most vegetal organ, breathing through its pores, like a leaf, sensing light without being an eye, “hearing” vibrations without being an ear. An organ as versatile and multifunctional as those of plants…

Even the scope of what we listen to would change following the lead of plants. Besides technologically altering the perceptual thresholds, within which we typically receive sounds, we would no longer seek speech and song, howling and chirping, hissing and roaring as the indicators of communication that is conflated with vocalization. Clicking frequencies, such as those maize roots emit, or insect buzzing in “buzz pollination” that triggers the release of pollen at an opportune time when the pollinator is around are examples of “mere noise” that has been heard (sometimes using sophisticated equipment that amplifies our bodily capacities) but not really listened to. The expanded scope of listening entails a painstaking transition from hearing to interpretatively attending to sound waves or vibrations, which plants either produce or receive, as carriers of meaning. It invites a different approach to plants, not only as organic materials to be interpreted but as the interpreters of their world.

The resonance of distinct modes of listening deserves further analysis. It is the resonance of ears (or their equivalents), not of voices, which means that it is markedly silent. A vibrant silence permeates plant-listening, the silence within which speech first makes sense. Historically, the silences resonating in the listening of the plants themselves and in our listening to plants have been polar opposites: one is pregnant with meaning, the other blocks the semantic flows emanating from everyone and everything not human. Sure, there have been (and there still are) cultures, groups, and individuals who do not fit my description and whose ears have been exquisitely receptive to the vegetal. Still, their existence does little to interfere with the predominant model of plant-listening featuring the resonance of all and nothing, of vivacious openness and austere closure, of heedful excess and dearth of attention. Our goal should be not to carve out some exceptional niches of acoustic sensitivity in the general deafness to plants, but to turn the cultural tide of ontologically neglecting plants; not merely to prick up our ears and pick the previously inaudible signals, but to intervene in the interactive (or interpassive) structure of plant-listening.  

Phenomenologically speaking, the promise of explorations in vegetal acoustics is that it expands the fields of noesis and noema alike—in this case, of the listening and of the listened-to. The difference between listening and hearing is crucial here. This difference does not have to do with the fact that the former is attentive and saddled with the interpretation of sounds, whereas the latter is not. One may hear anything whatsoever, the noises coming from every direction; listening, however, always listens to the other. So, plant-listening, in the second sense of our listening to them, is ipso facto a way of treating plants as others, irreducible to the vague background of white noise or silence. Folded into the listened-to are the attended-to and the respected. And the multiplication of noematic layers does not end there: since the plant listens to (and listens in on) its entire environment, listening to the plant, we eavesdrop, with and through it, on the rest of the world. Through vegetal vibrations, we inch closer to the vibrancy of being.

Walking among Plants

by

Michael Marder

 

On the verge of a brief journey I’d love you to join me in, and as we get ready for a mental exercise in phyto-peripatetics, let us begin with a simple contrast. When we walk in a field, meander in a grove, or stroll in a garden, we move among plants that stay in place. It bears noting right away that the contrast is a little deceptive: vegetal being-in-place is not the opposite of movement. Plants move in the locales of their growth precisely by virtue of growing, irradiating outwards, unfurling themselves, and experiencing a lived time-space, which does not predate them as an empty continuum but which co-evolves together with and as them. Even so, human displacement among trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers accentuates our locomotion against the backdrop of their presumably stationary existence. And this bare beginning, discernible in the contrast which will accompany us all the way to the end, is not without significance.

The most unsympathetic interpretation would assert that, playing with the opposition between human mobility and vegetal immobility, we (however unconsciously) establish or reestablish our superiority over the flora. It is as though a walker is saying by means of the body’s kinetic activity and, hence, without uttering anything: “Look: I can linger for a little while under the shade of an oak or in front of a rose, but I can also move on, whether to another plant or to another place altogether. Or I might not linger at all, rather keeping a steady pace at which the vegetation around me coalesces into a kind of green blur. In these possibilities, reflecting my decision, lies my freedom—the freedom you, plants, cannot have.” I reject this cruel interpretation, especially in those cases when walking among plants is done for nothing, i.e., not in order to reach some other destination but to lose and perhaps discover (or rediscover) oneself in the vegetal world.

Backtracking for a moment, I must retrace my steps and comment upon peripatetic philosophy, as alive in Aristotle’s Lyceum as in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s reveries. Peri + patein: walking around. Around what? Which perimeter does a walker-thinker circumscribe? Itinerant, philosophers may well walk among plants—or the colonnades that have supplanted plants as human reinventions of tree trunks in the academy of Athens—but they invariably revolve around themselves, notably their thoughts. In fact, the adjective “peripatetic” makes no mention whatsoever of the context wherein walking around takes place, and it is this abstraction from the surroundings that invisibly prepares the ground for the abstract universality indifferent to its when and where. Such universality then passes for thought.

That said, the peripatetics realize, if only implicitly, that there is no direct route to oneself. Thought is activated thanks to detours and digressions, first, through physical walks prompting the body to move so as to shake cognition out of its stagnation, and, second, through the vegetal world. Plants, as well as their remainders or reminders, become the signposts for our movement, not so much helping orient us in space as orienting us in thought (recall Kant’s “What Is Orientation in Thinking?”), referring us, who walk among them, back to ourselves. Do they do so by way of the contrast, with which we have started this foray, now resembling a constant digression? Do they give something to thought—to thinking as an activity and its own outcome; to be thought, infinitely, into the future—that cannot be found elsewhere?

Rousseau’s peripatetic experience is nonetheless dissimilar to that we encounter in classical philosophy. His returns to himself via the mediation of walking among plants are incidental; what prevails in his Reveries is the daydream, a freely associative, hardly self-conscious existence with and in the flora. His “botanical expeditions,” the countryside strolls during which he collected the commonest of plant specimens, were intended to lose, rather than to find, himself. The ecstasy of the desired self-abandon was best achieved through the walker’s contact with vegetation outside him, which drew him back to the vegetal dimension of his own life. For Rousseau, botany was a “salutary science”: a poison and a remedy, despite the pitfalls of scientific rationality, it held the potential of reorienting modern humanity away from the excesses of civilization that, more and more, set us adrift. Along the same lines, it is possible to conclude that walking among plants is conducive to a salutary movement of thought, pulling against the cognitive tendency toward abstraction and thus embedding our ideas once again in sensuous experience.

The sensuous experience of the vegetal world reawakens in us another kind of thinking resistant to abstraction. Swathed in the sights and smells, tastes (if we are lucky enough to stumble upon berries or fruit) and tactile sensations (for instance, of grass against bare feet, but most often not those mediated by the hand, unless this typically privileged organ of touch is used gently to move aside a branch blocking the path), peripatetic explorers feel-think on the periphery of their sentient bodies, akin to plants that cognize the world on the outer edges of their extension (root tips, unfurling leaves, and so forth). Rather than objectifying, thinking of something, or representing, we discover what it means to think around while walking around—peripatetically, peripherally, perimetrically. In addition to the sensuous materiality of thought, whither plants recall us, they give us this other mode of thinking to think, the mode I have termed “essentially superficial.” Our contact with them could not be more superficial than when we walk among—not past—them, the lived times and spaces of vegetal and human beings hardly brushing upon one another, which is what a genuine encounter looks and feels like.

Walking in the midst of plants, we above all cherish the difference between us and them, as well as among them. As readers of this LARB channel know, I resist the contemporary proposals, many of them inspired in works by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, to become-X: here, to become-plant. Mature humanity, ready to share in difference with human and non-human beings alike, eschews the ancient mimetic need to become the other, the need betokening more than anything a certain anthropocentric imperialism. The rhythm of our walking and living among plants will not coincide with the rhythm, tempo, or temporality of vegetal vitality, its movements virtually imperceptible, because much slower than those of locomotion. But there is nothing wrong with the dissonance between the cadences of human and plant existences, revealed in the course of phyto-peripatetic ventures. The discrepancy dispenses to each their own: it makes us alive to the otherwise taken-for-granted pace of our being in the world and to the underappreciated otherness of plants that are in the world in a distinct manner. Tangentially, peripherally, the act of walking among plants gives an intimation of ontological justice, appropriating neither side to the needs of the other, acknowledging the co-involvement and mindful of the divide between the vegetal and the human.

Herbarium Trauma: For the Thirty-Second Anniversary of “Chernobyl”

by

Michael Marder

 

Every collection accretes around a void it strives, in vain, to eclipse. For all the profusion of the collated or collected material stuff, there is an Eastern, undoubtedly Buddhist, bit at its centre: nothing. Dispersion predates and follows on the heels of selecting, assembling, and arranging an assortment of things. Why bother, then? Why compile that which comes from dust and is destined to entropy? –Because throbbing in the pincers of total closure and absolute openness is the possibility to make sense of the world. “Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return,” says the Bible. It passes in silence the intuition that in this interval between the anonymous infinities of dust you come together with yourself and with others. You slot another punctuation mark between two ellipses. A question?

I am gathering my thoughts in preparation for archiving them on these digital pages. Do you see them displayed, dried up and ready for viewing? To appear in this minuscule metaherbarium, ideas had to be culled, detached from a non-existent plant. Perhaps from…

Only the dispersed may be collected—so as to disperse again. Gathering is a detour, more or less lengthy, more or less elaborate, from dispersion to dispersion, from dust to dust, which also keeps gathering. But how does what is not yet, or already not, dispersed disperse? At its rhythm, on its own time? Or is it helped along? There is a big difference between gathering fallen maple leaves in November (the month when I was presumably gathering my thoughts on gathering, though piling up questions was more like it; too late to harvest anything) and plucking wildflowers in June; between picking up fruit from an apple tree in late August and uprooting an entire lily of the valley plant in May. Generalized, the difference is between disrupting vegetal life at the peak of its vitality and keeping the elements of this life past their “due date,” between destroying and preserving, decimating and saving, or, more precisely, destroying the chance for a being’s self-preservation and preserving its self-destruction.

Let us stay with the flowers for a moment, while they have not yet wilted and faded at least before our mind’s eye. We say that we gather them when we irreparably cut their connection to the soil and the rest of the plant body we castrate. (It matters which flowers we are talking about, however. Those that blossom on a rosebush, for instance, turn such “castration,” along with other pruning techniques, into a fertile source for future growth.) As if they were not gathered with themselves and as if their arrangement in a bouquet, a wreath, or on an herbarium page offered a better sense of togetherness. And, indeed, like other parts of plants, flowers are not gathered amongst themselves, or, if they are, then only loosely so! Violence against plants unfailingly finds justification in this or that feature of their being, their ontology propitious to the ethics of openness to the other as much as to the most brutal exploitation.

“Herbarium Trauma” puts a couple nouns together, unmediated, unprotected from one another, gathered around nothing other than a typographic space

Plants are foragers and collectors who do not hoard what they collect but let it go with and as parts of themselves. I am not referring just to accumulated solar energy and moisture. In Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, trees raise radioactive particles from the ground and drop them back when their leaves change in the anticipation of winter. Fall season is fallout time, all over again, the time for reliving-redying the trauma of the earth and of all it bears.

Whenever you think you are cutting, culling, plucking, or otherwise gathering parts of plants, you are wrong; you are regathering, recutting… The gathering and the cut have happened outside the sphere of your memory, of your control, and you are repeating these acts of the plants that incessantly make and unmake themselves. You will have noticed that I am vegetalizing the structure of the trace, which is deeply traumatic. The illusion of control is like a collection that grows around the void in a futile effort to fill the abyss of the first unwilled cut.

To gather is to adumbrate the distance between dispersed elements to the point where they enter each other’s gravitational fields and the push-and-pull of a relation becomes palpable. To gather flowers is to pretend that, prior to falling into the gatherer’s gravitational field, they are dispersed, inexpressive, nonrelational. And to gather the imprints of radioactive plants in an herbarium composed of their photograms? A blueprint for an answer: art is the make-belief that drops the pretence.

From scientists to subsistence farmers, people who gather fruits and vegetables in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone regather the vegetal gathering. Knowingly or not, the human gatherers also receive a bonus the plants growing there have incorporated, namely traces of radioactivity, the isotopes of Cs-134/137 or Sr-90. Plants absorb the trauma of the earth, their connection to the soil lingering on after the acts of culling, felling, picking their bodies made of everything they have imbibed. In the case of those consuming Chernobyl’s produce, the eaten and the eater alike are the afterlives of radiation’s half-lives. That is how we are gathered, brought together, but also plucked, in the planet’s post-traumatic (the locution is a category mistake: we are still far from post- and, at any rate, it is uncertain that trauma admits an after) stress disorder. Being is being-gathered-with—not corralled together like a herd of animals, but cut with others like flowers, or, more precisely, corralled together insofar as cut-with.

Consider an analogy. From the Greek legein, the barely translatable word logos entails assembling, gathering, putting together, articulating. It, too, collects its semantic contents around an unbridgeable chasm, the silence no voice can ever drown. Logos responds, without quite corresponding to, the trauma of absolute dispersion. So long as it is alive, so long as its petrification is yet to come, logos is not an animal, as the ancients pictured it, but a plant, its nutrient uptake including the very dispersion it pushes against. It is a plant we cultivate in every stab at gathering or assembling. Not least in creating an herbarium, the re-regathering of plants subject to further cropping, clipping, and trimming so as to be displayed. (N.B. Ever a believer in wholeness, Rousseau was averse to standard herbarium procedures. Whenever possible, he tried to fit the entire bent and contorted plant, root and all, on the page.)

“Among discrete quantities he discusses in his Categories, Aristotle somewhat surprisingly cites logos, its parts—the syllables—lacking a common limit, and so discontinuous with one another (4b, 34-6). That which establishes commonalities does not have contiguous borders between its components; it is internally fractured, bereft of the common, koinon (4b, 36-7). At this moment in Aristotle’s text, speech is not the province of pure metaphysical presence. Logos proceeds at a halting rhythm, its syllables taken together disjointedly. If politics is an engagement in logos, its spatiotemporal work of gathering is, at its origin, scattered and disassembled, working against itself.” [Michael Marder, Political Categories, forthcoming]

Cut and paste, paste and paste, cut and cut and cut. To gather flowers is to gather the cuts, cut the cuts, cut and paste the cuts. Same with thoughts and citations. There it is—an anthology, the logos of collected texts and flowers.

Post festum is the time of art, not just of (Hegelian) thought. Instead of culling, art gleans the leftovers of a harvest, or even gleans the gleaning, as Agnès Varda does in Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000). Anaïs Tondeur’s Chernobyl Herbarium also arrives late in the aftermath of a dizzying array of gatherings and cuts: vegetal, historical, scientific… And yet, her work enables plants and their uptake of radiation to speak either bypassing logos or twisting logos’s assemblages into surprising shapes. Their arrival ineluctably belated, the photograms peek at the primal scene of the “first” gathering and cut. They look trauma in the face, which is a surface, say, of a leaf. Or, more superficially still, they contend with the impressions of leaves on another surface, that of photosensitive paper. Traumatic depth lends itself to experience at the outermost limit, in surface-to-surface contact. And what are plants and art, if not tireless inventors and purveyors of surfaces?

Assuming that the language of plants consists in an open-ended series of articulated shapes, we come to the conclusion that the cut of negativity is absent from vegetal being. This idea receives further reinforcement from the rootedness of plants in the earth, which provides them with a continuous stream of nourishment. So, where is the traumatic void, the disruptive nothing, in their unperturbed existence? –Everywhere. Because plant “organs” are not combined with each other in a totality, they are gathered together in a self-cleaving fashion: spatially and physically contiguous, yet metaphysically disjointed. Speaking in ontological terms, vegetation grows around and on nothing.

 

 

Image from Anaïs Tondeur’s Chernobyl Herbarium: http://www.anais-tondeur.com/projects/chernobyl-s-herbarium–text/

 

A Word of Caution: Against the Commodification of Vegetal Subjectivity

by

Michael Marder

 

Scientific discussions of what plants know, of vegetal intelligence, or of plant signaling and communication give off the appearance of a break with the disrespect toward (if not the abuse of) our “green cousins” now assigned their rightful place as subjects. We should harbor no illusions, however: plant knowledges are not spared the fate reserved for all other modes and systems of knowing under capitalism the extracts them from the knowers as a profitable form of value. To count as a nonhuman subject, or a nonhuman person, is not a panacea from politico-economic exploitation; on the contrary, it is subjects and persons who are the temporary placeholders of economic value in “knowledge economies.”

The unconscious danger lurking in the shadows of granting subjectivity to plants, animals, and entire ecosystems is not just that global capitalism may cunningly coopt challenges to anthropocentrism but that the newfangled status of other-than-human lives may actually be the next logical step in the extension of immaterial, subjective, cognitively mediated commodities. The enlargement of the subjective sphere is conducive to the growth not of plants but of capital. After all, the dominant form of the commodity today is not a consumable object; it is the subject itself, in all its multicolored, pluralist splendor.

In light of this presentiment, the promise of the decentralized mode of intelligence characteristic of plants (say, the swarm-like thinking of roots) may be greatly exaggerated. While it is true that the nineteenth- and twentieth-century theory of the state as an organic totality, modeled after an animal body, is outdated, there are no guarantees that vegetal (or any other kind of) decentering is the magic key to emancipation.

We already live in a world of networks lacking a single command and control center, that is, in a social and political reality that is vegetal, even though we have not quite become cognizant of this transformation. It is not easy to shake off millennia-old definitions of the human as a political animal (Aristotle) and to consider ourselves as political plants. Nonetheless, the pliability of capitalism means that it can accommodate this ground-shift, if not profit from it as value production transitions from the industrial to the postindustrial mode.

When dispersed desires, pleasures, and knowledges are harnessed for the purpose of value creation and extraction, “the plant in us” becomes a locus of meta-surplus-value, the blind spot of the entire disseminated system that bestows meaning on that system and enables the more or less imperceptible continuation of exploitation. Critiques of the subjectivized commodity form in consumer capitalism are yet to contend with the vegetal shape of decentralized subjectivity, the “inner network” (now including the structure of the brain) that predicates the smooth functioning of the “outer” social, economic, and political network. Or, more fundamentally still, with the interface of the two kinds of network that seamlessly pass into one another in the manner of plant existence, eschewing the hard-and-fast barriers between interiority and exteriority.  

Like ontological plurality, the dispersal of intelligence into a multiplicity of minds, distributed across the sentient extension of plants, is not an assured escape route from metaphysical and capitalist domination. In our “knowledge economies,” intelligence is the commodity that produces and reproduces itself with the excess of surplus-value, over and above what is strictly required for its self-reproduction. Why would plant intelligence be any different?

Capitalism and metaphysics coax knowledges out, extract, attribute value to, and traffic in them. The surplus over the knowing and the known is the capacity to know, a potentiality prior to its actualization. Doesn’t the surge of interest in plant intelligence zero in (and capitalize) on this capacity of plants, which it then converts into the principles of vegetal robotics, environment sensing, or biochemical signaling? There is nothing inherently wrong with learning these things from plants in a cross-species or cross-kingdoms pedagogy that is not limited to capitalism. The troublesome bit is the form such learning and its objective outcomes assume: a commodity. Of course, nothing and no one is ensured against the far-reaching power of commodification, insinuating itself into the previously noneconomic domains of life (in the discourse of economics: “externalities”). If, however, plant intelligence is also under the spell of the commodity form, then we cannot assert that it maintains and fosters an innately redemptive potential in the midst of the current capitalist-metaphysical onslaught.

 It is for this reason that I much prefer plant-thinking, an expression I coined with the inspiration of Plotinus’s phutiké noesis (“vegetal mind”), to plant intelligence. In a nutshell, intelligence is instrumental; thinking is not. Intelligence is meant to solve problems and achieve determinate goals; thinking problematizes things and makes them indeterminate. Intelligence is the triumphant, algorithmically verifiable application of the mind to matter (or to the environment), forced to do the mind’s bidding. Thinking happens when the instrumental approach fails; it is a positive sign of failure, of disquiet, of an unending albeit finite search. Intelligence is the tool of evolutionary success, enabling the survival of the fittest; thinking is a mark of in-adaptation, without which, nevertheless, adaptation is not possible. Finally, intelligence enables commodification, while thinking may resist this sprawling phenomenon.

Plant-thinking, then, is not plant intelligence; it could very well be that the two are mutually incompatible. The extension of plant parts—leaves, roots, shoots—to the other, their tending in all directions at once, is a dynamic, material, living image of intentionality. Vegetal extended and extending intentionality goes beyond the use of that to which it strives, first, because it does not represent sunlight and other vital “resources” as objects and, second, because the solar target of its striving is unreachable. Unfolding between earth and sky ever since the initial bifurcation of the germinating seed, the spatialized thinking of a plant is the unrest of and in the middle. Plant-thinking is a growing in-between, the middle place or the milieu, later on formalized into environment. In a certain sense, plant-thinking is environment-thinking.

***

Consumer capitalism and knowledge economies have subjectivized the commodity form, drawing value and surplus-value from the knower or consumer subject. Today, something else is afoot. All around us, “subject-object binaries” break down: in object-oriented ontology (OOO), the environmental humanities, posthumanism, participatory action research… The collapse of the subject-object relation undeniably affects the status of plants and, in light of the advances in quantum physics, what used to be considered inanimate matter. Descartes is buried, time and again, to loud self-congratulatory applause of his gravediggers. But what if the commodity form has mutated once more? What if, neither objective nor subjective, it stems from the breakdown of the subject-object coupling?

Consider the following. The boundaries of the subject have been distended to the extent that nothing is a (manipulable) object any more, resulting in the end of subjectivity as a determinate concept. That everything is an object—from global warming to jetlag, from a tree to a unicorn—is the reverse side of the same coin, which some currents of thought, such as OOO, favor. The totalizing assertion about the nature of “everything” robs objecthood of its meaning. The articulations of the extremes, each of them claiming to have gained an upper hand over the other, malfunction beyond repair: we are way past subject-object correlations, correspondences, or dialectical syntheses. As a result, we survive amidst the ruins of the dyad, surreptitiously receiving negative energy from its ongoing disintegration.

The initial thrust of fragmentation gives way to the haphazard piling up of multiplicities. It is not by chance that logos, translated not as “study” (as in the usual renditions of socio-logy, bio-logy, etc.) but as “articulation” is now a dirty word, and ecology has grown incomprehensible. In response to Timothy Morton’s cheers for ecology without nature, I would say that we ours is the age of the environment without ecology—our environs, our surroundings, void of integral connections. Just as our metaphysics is the downfall and bankruptcy of metaphysics.

As far as the logic of self-valorizing value, or capital, is concerned, the amassing ruins of the subject-object split (and we should never forget that “we” are a part of these ruins) serve a double purpose: they hide the relations of exploitation and imperceptibly supplant the hylomorphic (from the Greek “formed matter” or “form-matter”) organization of beings with an alien form, which is none other than that of the commodity. The subjectivization of the commodity has already fulfilled, to a significant extent, the first purpose of obfuscation. With the innermost potentialities of the intelligent and consuming subject commodified, exploitation has gone into hiding, tying its routines to dreams, pleasures, and desires, including those of knowing—Sigmund Freud’s and Melanie Klein’s “epistemophilic drive.” The nearly psychotic breakdown of the subject-object paradigm further occludes relations of exploitation, in that it precludes the articulation of any relations whatsoever. The subject-object split is itself split, resulting in a conceptual explosion akin to the one nuclear fission instigates. The infamous “butterfly effect,” according to which everything is interconnected and any action can cause any reaction, remote as it may be from its source, is the highest stage of this disarticulation, analogous to statements “Everything is an object” or “Everything is a subject.”

And this leads us to the second purpose in replacing formed matter with the commodity form. If, paradoxically, global interconnectedness coincides with the absence of external relations, not to mention of a theory of relationality, this is attributable to the dearth of inner relations (or self-relations, if you will, whether harmonious or clashing and self-contradictory) between the form and the content of existences. The ensuing disintegration by far outstrips the nonorganismic, open structure of vegetal life: not cohering together, lacking any sort of logos, the fragments of the subject-object paradigm receive their sense from the outside, from the commodity form imposed in lieu of the phosphorescent glow of their intimate meaning.

When it comes to plants, they (along with all other entities and processes with which experimental science occupies itself) are both physically and conceptually analyzed into hormonal networks and biochemical elements, electrical signals and genomes, calcium transduction pathways and transmembrane proteins. The plant as plant disappears. On the one hand, what comes to the fore, in its stead, are the vegetal tendencies that the phenomenologically accessible shape of plants has been hitherto obscuring. On the other hand, its disjointed component parts supply easily manipulable, formless materials. The promise with which the dynamic view of the plant beckons us, stressing its tendencies (I resist the scientifically correct “functions”) as opposed to fixed structures, grows dim as soon as science, technology, and the capital that animates them recruit its capacities.

Needless to say, the logic I am describing is not new. Its prototype is the system of metaphysics that spirits away the sense of entities it explains on the grounds of a single, omnipotent and omnipresent, concept or Being. Two of the salient novel aspects of this logic’s current instantiation are: 1) its remarkable capacity to construct reality not only at the ideational-ideological but also at the physical-material level; and 2) its derivation of philosophical, socio-cultural, and economic values from the disintegration of previous conceptual unities and corporealities.

For centuries, metaphysics has been obliquely influencing human and nonhuman lives by generating the blueprints for our approaches to what is and to ourselves. Now, in its antimetaphysical, perverse shape, it is directly molding the world, lending the nightmarish fantasy an actual body.

Take the patenting of plants’ genetic sequences or of their medicinal properties known to traditional healers well before the advent of capitalism. Relying on the apparatus of applied science and starting from the decimation and evisceration of the plant, biomedical and biogenetic research offers an ideal basis—the code: life translated into information—for a possible reconstruction of what has been destroyed. The code is private property, and the realization of the possibility to put the flesh on the abstract skeleton all over again hinges on paying for it. Half the passage from the ideal to the real is folded into capital, while the other half, moving away from the real, ends up in an ecological disaster, the irrecoverable derealization of biodiversity and mass extinction. Gene banks and seed vaults, such as the one in Svalbard, Norway, artificially bridge the dialectical thesis and its antithesis: they are the repositories of information regarding plants reduced to mere genetic materials (germplasm) and deemed useful, or potentially useful, to human beings who may resort to them in the event of their extinction.

***

My word of caution for you, then, is not to accompany the budding recognition of the plants’ surprising capacities with a self-congratulatory pat on the back. However far removed from their traditional human figuration, “subjectivity” and “agency” are not foolproof solutions to oppression and, above all, exploitation. Mark this acknowledgement, instead, as the first stride on the path toward genuine liberation, the announcement that the struggle has begun, or rebegun, for all of us, whether human or not.

 

 

 

 

 

A Portrait of Plants as Artists

by

Michael Marder

 

I find it quite impossible to imagine art totally vacant of plants. Even those theological traditions, like Islam, that (as part of their reaction against idolatry) proscribe the depiction of animals and humans, excel in floral designs. Plants figure prominently in landscape paintings and still lifes that extract them from the hardly noticeable background of everyday existence. The vegetal content of traditional art is not what interests me here, however. I want to focus not on the artist’s plants but on plants as our equal, if not superior, partners in aesthetic and poietic processes broadly understood. With these brief reflections, I would like to contribute a few conceptual brushstrokes to the portrait of plants as artists.

Before anything appears on canvas or is etched in wood, plants serve as materials for the artwork. The substratum for visual arts is often vegetal. Spreading pigments on paper, we paint with plants on plants: with gum arabic from acacia trees in watercolours, with oil paints using linseed oil, and so on. (As painters, are we the mirrors, in which plants see without seeing themselves?) Before the digital age, motion pictures used celluloid film, made on the basis of plant substance, cellulose. Wood carvings date back to the very beginnings of humanity.

Putting aside the strange question about human mirrors that has imposed itself on me, it might appear that the human artists’ use of vegetal materials reduces these to a passive role of means for purely external ends. Unless we recall that the remains of plants we paint, sculpt, build houses, or film with not only receive the sensuous image of the artist’s idea but also offer the sort of resistance that bends the initial blueprint. In woodcarving, the size of the tree trunk determines the dimensions of the finished sculpture. The grain of wood dictates the course and direction of the sculptor’s work, typically cutting plant fibres across the grain. “Imperfections” in plant materials may be incorporated as the unexpected and previously unplanned features of the art piece. Drying vegetal-derived pigments will impose their own color scheme on the painting and change with the passage of time. The varying absorption capacities of canvas paper or fabric will introduce their corrections into the hues and outlines of whatever is depicted on it.

These examples are much more than instances of mechanical resistance to “spiritual” human endeavours that modify our abstract ideas falling into the world of matter. The afterlife of plants in a chopped down trunk or in vegetal-based paint is an alien intentionality, with which the human artist must be in constant negotiation and collaboration. The work of art wherein vegetal materials participate is thus a product of plant-human synergy overflowing the boundaries between animate and inanimate beings, let alone distinct biological kingdoms.

If the Greek poiesis means creation, then plants are the co-creators of the artworks, for which parts of their bodies are utilized, as well as the creators of themselves, of the atmosphere, and of the world. More on this later. For the moment, another Greek word is worth considering, namely aesthesis. At the root of aesthetics, it refers to perception (from the verb aisthesthai, “to perceive”). In this sense, too, plants are aesthetic agents. They appeal to the human and other-than-human perceptual apparatuses—for instance, through the shapes, colours, and smells of their flowers or the taste of their fruits. And they perceive the world occasionally better—on a wider spectrum of possible stimuli—than we do, as Daniel Chamovitz has recently shown in his book What a Plant Knows.

With respect to how plants give themselves to the perception of bees, humans, butterflies, and birds, we might say that they are not inertly available, as a rock might be. Instead, a rose prepares itself for the moment when its petals would open, exuding a delicate aroma; delicious figs take the time to ripen before their fruits release their honey-like contents in our mouths; orchid flowers shapes themselves in a certain way to resemble a female wasp before a male specimen spots them and flies over so as to consummate, by mistake, a cross-kingdoms sexual act. Plants paint the world in intense colours and fill it with elaborate shapes. They swathe life in a plethora of smells and addictive tastes.

It is not that an individual rosebush, fig tree, or orchid deliberately presents itself in this or that fashion to the senses of beings who not plants. Vegetal aesthetics consists in the achievements of evolution, sometimes coupled with human efforts at cultivation. Cultivating a particularly aromatic variety of flowers, we, once again, participate together with them in a creative process, in aesthetic synergy. As for evolution, we still need to come to terms with what this concept actually signifies. The tendency is to treat it as a new, scientific incarnation of God, through which everything makes sense and all the phenomena of life are explicable. In fact, evolution is nothing but the ties that bind this rose or this fig tree to countless generations of its predecessors, as well as to a coevolving environment. It disperses vegetal subjectivity across space through collective constitution together with genetic kin and drowns this subjectivity in deep time. Henri Bergson’s notion of creative evolution touched upon something of an aesthetic agency in excess of the phenotype, even though the French philosopher also risked fetishizing evolutionary reason.  

The self-presentation of plants is more obviously aesthetic to the extent that it revels in the spectacle, in the spectacular dynamics of display. The drama and suspense preceding the opening of flowers is quickly followed by the exuberance of the blossoming period and a similarly stunning fading, withering, and decay. The nonflowering varieties that rely on asexual reproduction do not stay far behind, because vegetal display is a corollary to the maximum exposure that distinguishes the plant’s mode of being.

The proliferation of living exposed surfaces, whether green or multicoloured, is ultimately responsible for the rich aesthetics of vegetation, which Schiller includes under the heading of material play, a prototype of the formal play drive, in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. In Letter 27, he writes: “Even in mindless nature there is revealed a luxury of powers and a laxity of determination which in that natural context might as well be called play. The tree puts forth innumerable buds which perish without developing, and stretches out for nourishment many more roots, branches and leaves than are used for the maintenance of itself and its species. What the tree returns from its lavish profusion unused and unenjoyed to the kingdom of the elements, the living creature may squander in joyous movements. So nature gives us even in her material realm a prelude to the infinite, and even here partly removes the chains which she casts away entirely in the realm of form.”[1]

Display and, even more so, play are the aesthetic antidotes to the seriousness of evolutionary reason. As Schiller has it, they happen for nothing, out of the overabundance of life in a playful, displaying creature. Above all, in a plant. Schiller goes so far as to deem the play drive a sign of happiness, of a plant, animal, or human rejoicing in itself. Of course, at issue is not joy as an emotion but ontological joy, a being revelling in its power to be and in the actualization of this potentiality beyond what is strictly needed (say, for survival). The exuberance of flourishing, the abundance of display, is the aesthetic function of play, which in the logic of means-and-ends is utterly superfluous. In the last instance, the leaves are exposed not in order to maximize their capture of sunlight and opportunities for photosynthesis. Instrumental exposure is what remains of the plant’s massive “squandering” of itself into the outwardly expressed joy of its being. Georges Bataille’s general economy, of which restricted economy oriented to specific calculable ends is a subspecies, follows on the heels of such play. And, with regard to Bataille’s suggestion, we might say that playful aesthetic experimentation, not the least by the plants themselves, is the milieu, the atmosphere, or the climate within which adaptation and survival become possible.

Across its play and display, vegetal being does not diverge from appearance: the plant wears what it is on its sleeve, or, more accurately, on its leaf. To assert that plants are the artists of sensuous appearances, offering untold aesthetic riches to whomever they attract, is to claim in the same breath that they are the artists of being. In effect, plants create and recreate themselves all the time, growing new limbs, shedding leaves, putting out new sexual organs (i.e., the flowers). They are performative creatures par excellence, the artists of themselves. Vegetal self-creation and self-recreation takes its cues from the conditions outside—cold for shedding leaves; warmth and longer hours of daylight for flowering; sun exposure for growing new branches—without a rigidly predetermined organismic plan. The artistry of plants that make themselves is, therefore, of one piece with the world.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that, attentive as they are to exteriority, plants are manipulated, marionette-like, by their environment into self-creation. Not only do they reach complex decisions on the timing of changes in their morphology and physiology, but they also make the places where they grow, by which they are, in turn, made. Photosynthesizing, plants are the artisans of the atmosphere and of the world. They bring together the organic and the inorganic realm and gather around and on themselves creatures from various biological kingdoms: fungi, insects, bacteria, animals… Before they are landscaped by human hands and well before they feature in landscape paintings, plants create airscapes and earthscapes, microclimates, and breathable air, cooling and humidifying the sites of their existence, and returning organic richness to the earth in the process of decay. Our moulding of the world is an inverted image of its vegetal creation: we fill the air with C02, deplete the soil, prompt global warming, make the desert expand. The human art of world-creation verges on world-destruction, diminishing the concrete possibilities for future life. Conversely, plants are the architects of the environment who expand the liveable realm both through their crafting of climates and through their activities of growth and decay.

It is often observed that plants are marvellous alchemists, converting inorganic particles coupled with sunshine into organic matter fit for the nourishment of others. This is artistic creation, the culinary arts of ripening with the varying degrees of solar heat and in symbiosis with human and other-than-human palates. Making their fruits edible, sometimes by adding an enzyme intended just for that, refining their juices, and cooking in the sun, plants are exquisite chefs, rather than suppliers of raw materials for gastronomy.

A final brushstroke I would like to add to the portrait of plants as artists has to do with their unique subjectivity. Vegetal existence is, to borrow the expression of Jean-Luc Nancy, singular-plural, thriving above and below the thresholds of individuality. In other contexts, I have addressed its ontological, ethical, and political implications; the aesthetic sense of the plants’ mode of being is yet to be thought through. At minimum, their mode of being indicates that plant authorship and artistry are anonymous and dispersed, as well as collective and collaborative. Postmodernism celebrates the death of the author as a solitary genius, a heroic and creative individual behind the work. What this theoretical current leaves out is the upside of the momentous event it points out: the afterlife of the author and the artist is vegetal. Don’t “our” writing and aesthetic practices approximate those of plants once the illusion of autonomously individual authorship is laid to rest? Don’t their outcomes become not just ours—the property that is mine, yours, or yours and mine at the same time—but also of the plants with which and on which we write and create, of the microorganisms that nestle in the work, of the dust that settles on and gets engrained in it?

But I have gotten carried away and started painting outside the frame of the portrait I’ve been working on together with plants, inorganic materials, and—yes!—dust. How intellectual property rights might metamorphose, grow or decay, upon contact with plant subjectivity is a theme for another sketch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man, translated by Reginald Snell (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), p. 133.

This Plant Who Is a Ghost

by

Michael Marder

 

When a specter haunts, who or what returns? In what way? Is it the form of a bygone existence? Its content? Or something that survives of the relation between them, tense and self-contradictory as that relation may have been?

Although the revenant is supposed to be immaterial, we often imagine it as having a determinate shape, vaguely reminiscent of a silhouette, which used to belong to the deceased. Typically, this shape is human; occasionally, it is recognizable as an animal (think back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, inspired by a posthumous legend of Squire Richard Cabell, whose ghost was periodically spotted leading a phantom pack of hounds). But what about plants? Is the fact they do not seem to merit the status of specters not a symptom of their exclusion from the realm of spirit?

Whatever the outlines of a ghostly figure, the logic driving its apparitions is rigorously animalistic. The biological organism perishes as a whole and, thereafter, its spiritual form, too, returns as a whole, as an ideal unity that pulled together and bestowed meaning upon the material substratum of life. The revenant’s silhouette is the trace of a mortal totality. A “pure” organism, separate from its tissues and organs, viscera and limbs, is thus a ghost. If this is the principle of spectral logic, then indeed plants do not fit the bill: they neither live as an organismic totality nor die all at once. Still, the fragmentary nature of plant life-death need not bar flowers, trees, shrubs, and even the grass from joining the ranks of ghosts. Quite the opposite: at its most intense, spectrality is vegetal.

The confluence of living and dying in the “same” space and time of existence supports the hypothesis regarding the vegetal nature of spectrality. The collective being that is the plant consists of living, dying, and dead members. More to the point, vegetal life is haunted by vegetal death: it lives off decaying and decayed plants turned into compost, including (in the case of a tree) its own fallen leaves and fruits. Other kinds of lives are also haunted by vegetal death. Whether receiving nourishment from animal or plant flesh, we metabolize the rot that fed plants that fed animals… in a shorter or longer chain of ghostly transformations. It is due to this excess over life in vegetal life that plants spook us and are represented as zombie-like in horror films and fiction. Animals and humans likewise contain such an excess, but its hiddenness from sight means that they come back to disturb the living after their death.

Seeds are tiny specters waiting on the sidelines of time to make their comeback. Dried or deep-frozen, they may delay the renaissance of the plant they issued from by hundreds of years. Between their release from the mother plant’s pod or cone and the instant of their germination that may never arrive, they linger in the grey area of living death. From there, they haunt the possibilities of survival, capable of overturning the historical verdict, according to which their species becomes extinct.

If, as Jacques Derrida was fond of saying, a ghost is a host, who not only revisits a house (aposteriori) but opens it up for habitation (apriori), then vegetal ghosts are the perfect hosts. Providing the atmospheric and nutritional conditions for human and animal vitality, they welcome life and hold the keys to the biosphere. Theirs, moreover, is a hospitality without interiority, corresponding to a mode of subjectivity without an inner self withdrawn from the world. And the dwelling they haunt, the ecology they dream up with their lives-deaths, is equally exterior, extraverted, stitched together of uneven and disjunctive surfaces. We are not the hostages of our vegetal hosts or ghosts: instead of holding us inside a haunted house, they keep us in an adjacent garden, the one we are actively changing into a barren, world-encompassing desert. (Wouldn’t the secular version of humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden involve a self-imposed exile from the flora?)   

The very air we inhale is the expiration of plants, their after-breath. A macro-phenomenon nestling at the micro-level of our respiratory systems, the exteriority of the atmosphere entering the lungs is the vegetal specter in us. Given that, from Athens to Jerusalem, the ancients deemed the soul pneumatic, made of or related to air, this physiological fact is not trifling. The breath of life in Stoicism and in the Book of Genesis is a bridge from a corporeal to a spiritual reality, with vegetal, oxygen-generating respiration for a vanishing mediator between these shores of being.

“OK,” you might respond. “But animals and humans do not die—and, therefore, do not live—the way plants do. Unlike them, we pass away (a euphemism that already envisions the return of the specter) in one piece, now alive and dead the next moment. Does this basic difference not proscribe all speculations on the vegetal core of spectrality as such?”

Fair enough. What the obvious rejoinder forgets, however, is that behind the monolithic narrative construction of human and animal deaths, we share a much more fragmentary mode of finite existence with plants. Our cells and tissues continually renewed, we die and survive bit by bit. The skin, the body’s largest organ, is akin to a tree trunk: a dead layer of keratinized squames on the outside, actively dividing basal cells on the inside; hard bark facing out, pith responsible for new growth tucked in. The objective traces of our activities—some as beautiful as a painting or a sculpture, others as monstrous as carbon emissions—are also a part of our piecemeal survival.  

And that is the elephant, or the giant sequoia, in the room: the carbon footprint. Exactly whose footprint is it? Who leaves it with what, or with whom? Burning fossil fuels, we conjure the ghosts of long-dead plants and prompt them to upend the breathing of those living today. As the atmosphere fills with greenhouse gases, a spectral struggle ensues between the respiration that gives the gift of air and that which takes it away. Before pneumatomachy can signify the denial of the deity of the Holy Spirit, it means a battle over breath, for or against the possibility of breathing, the battle wherein humanity takes the side of breathlessness, aggravated by a drastic deforestation of the Earth. In a crowning moment of Western metaphysics, the breath of spirit that resurrects dead vegetal and animal matter leads directly to physical suffocation. The vegetal specter in our lungs is double: a specter and the specter of this specter, oxygen and carbon emissions, a past suffused with futurity and a futureless past.

Vertimus: Theses on ‘Becoming-Plant’ (Part II)

by

Michael Marder

 

Thesis 5

The mimetic portion of becoming (especially taken in isolation from the metabolic relation) risks colonizing the other-than-human lifeworld. In Aristotle’s philosophical universe, mimesis is the mark of humanization: “mimesis distinguishes humans from other animals, and the human is the most mimetic of them all” (Poetics 1448b, 5-10). A sign of human privilege, it is nothing fixed; humanization is not arrival at a predetermined essence but the capacity to become anything and anyone other than human. We turn (vertimus) human when we potentially turn into the other—plant, animal, stone, rain, volcano, the sun and the moon… Everything and everyone turns together with the turn of this mimetic center, anthropos, subtracted from the rest of the world’s circumference and, by means of its absence, primed for replacing whatever existence. On this view, the other-than-human realm is the comet tail of humanity, the substratum on which to imprint our unmatched (inimitable) powers of imitation.  And, indeed, anthropocentrically mimetic becoming is a matter of power and pleasure: mimesis, Aristotle contends, “creates pleasure [poiéseo tèn hedonèn]” in the one who knows the imitated original and can compare it to and comprehend it in the imitated copy (1448b, 17). Beyond the comparison, the pleasure mimesis produces emanates from the power to recreate the original by becoming it and so to gain full control over that which is imitated. (The same logic underpins the circumstances in which, rather than opting for a fight-or-flight response, an animal freezes in its tracks in the face of mortal danger. Its near immobility is not paralysis, but the mimesis of death in a last-ditch effort to control its impending demise.) So, what if, far from relinquishing the reins of power, our becoming-tree, so prevalent in contemporary literature (suffice it to think of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian or Sumana Roy’s How I Became a Tree), extended this power past the limits of the animal kingdom? What if that is the reason why the preferred recipient of vegetal mimesis is the so-called “higher plant,” namely a tree or a flower, its shape already strangely resembling the human?

Thesis 6

The saving grace of mimesis is its vegetality. Taking the vegetal features of mimesis into account, we might be able to mitigate its colonizing thrust. First, becoming a plant is not only imitating its shape in metamorphosis but also its physiology in metabolism, broadly conceived. To become a tree, we must hand ourselves over to growth and decay that surreptitiously govern our psychic and corporeal lives in their human incarnation, as well; growing and decaying, we become towards difference, not towards the domestication of what is alien. (Parenthetically, I note that, under the pressure of the current environmental crisis, it is more urgent to rediscover how to decay than how to grow, which is to say, to know how to grow without stemming out the possibilities and the future of other growths.) The release of vegetal vitality in us from its shackles is at odds with the intent to control the other-than-human that we are or that we turn into. Letting grow is letting go of the mimetic reins of power. Second, mimesis, says Aristotle, “can be produced in rhythm [tèn mimesin en ruthmõ]” (1447a, 20). We may, to be sure, derive mimetic pleasure from the reproduction of vegetal rhythms, tempos, or temporalities, but, at any rate, that pleasure will be cut off from the power it was to signify. The mimesis of plant rhythms transports us to the alteration and alternation of the seasons, the rotations of the planet, with which and on which we turn (vertimus). What would it feel like to be in control of a being that thrives to the extent that it is not in control of itself, not autonomous but heteronomous, that moves (grows, metamorphoses, decays) at the pace of the time of the other: the seasons, one annual rotation or many perennial cycles, diurnal and nocturnal alternations? Third, Aristotle puts his finger on the vegetal roots of mimesis, “implanted [sumphuton] in humans since childhood” (1448b, 5). Sumphuton, the word that has been rendered as “implanted” in the English Loeb translation, means “a shared nature” or “growing-with,” and, incidentally, Plato used it to describe the collaboration (sumphutō dunamei) among the charioteer and the horses in the complex figure of the soul he introduces in Phaedrus (246a). Translating it this way gives us a different perspective on mimesis that has grown with humans, with the mimetic plants that we are, ever since our childhood. The defining anthropocentric quality, the one that empowers us to put ourselves in the shoes of other beings, is not ours at all: it belongs to the vegetal world. And understandably so in light of the generic singularities plants are.

Thesis 7

Becoming-plant is metamorphic abstraction and metabolic concretion. Does this formulation retrieve the something of the distinction between becoming-molar and becoming-molecular in Deleuze and Guattari? Since the shape of the plant does not exist, Goethe’s dreams of die Urpflanze (the archetypal plant) notwithstanding, our metamorphosis into the plant can only wind up on the arid terrain of abstraction. When the shape is salient, becoming a cucumber, becoming a lily, becoming a thorn have the becoming in common, not a mooring to the biological category “plant.” But when shapes recede from theoretical and practical sight, the movement of becoming comes to the fore: growth and decay, nourishment and reproduction. Becoming-plant is only concrete to the extent that it denotes the metabolic component of becoming—an existential tendency or a group of such tendencies amounting to a mode of being. Perhaps, we should say becoming-vegetal if we want to draw attention to the turning itself, as opposed to the contours of that which or the one who turns.

Thesis 8

There are two possible approaches to becoming-plant: an indifferent difference and a different indifference. On the path to becoming-plant, we turn (vertimus) into the turning. But the question is: How does it turn? And how do we turn with, in, and as it? Becoming can erase difference or it can affirm it, depending on whether, in the Hegelian terms, it highlights the transition (das Übergehen) from being to nothing and from nothing to being or the unity (die Einheit) of the two moments.[i] In mimesis, as we have seen, difference is erased and, in the same stroke, affirmed thanks to a set of vegetal interventions; the turns of mimesis are analogous to vertere stilum, the practice of scribes, who flipped the stylus to the blunt side in order to correct, by rubbing out, what had been already written before reverting to the sharp end of the writing implement. Mimetic erasure is consistent with “indifferent difference,” unconcerned with the particular content and shape/form of what one may become. Exercising their impressive capacity for mimesis, humans can become virtually anything, so why not a plant? Here, the provisional destinations of the journey that is becoming are interchangeable: today—a plant; tomorrow—a microbe; the day after—a rock… We view with total indifference the difference that momentarily stands out only to give way to yet another. Abstract possibility regulates everything, unwilling to commit to any specific mode of being. Spindle-like, we turn (vertimus) monotonously taking on and shedding identities that do not in the least affect the mimetic machine that we are or have become. Becoming-plant dissolves in the haphazard mix of becoming-X, becoming a blank we’ve spotted in our initial discussion of vegetality. Yet, in some sense, the plant is precisely this blank in all its concreteness, and it grows at the source of mimesis together with the growing human child. The turning overturns; indifferent difference tips over into the different indifference of the vegetal, its unconditional welcome to the other in actuality, at an arm’s length from abstract and unrealizable possibilities, where each unique incarnation is but water under the bridge. Becoming-plant under the star of different indifference is becoming determinately generic, a condition Hegel could think at the limit with his “determinate negation.” Both metamorphosis and metabolé play with the turns and overturnings inherent to the two modes of becoming: metamorphosis operates with so many forms (morphés) that it is beyond (meta-) form; metabolé juggles so many trajectories or throws (bolés) of becoming that it is beyond (meta-) throwing or –jection. But is the beyond of an apparent form ensconced in that form or does it lie outside it? Is the beyond of a throw forecast by that which is cast or is it preserved, immobile, on the hither side of every possible trajectory? Is the beyond of becoming internal or external to that which becomes? Finally, does the beyond of metaphysics lie hidden in phusis (hinting at nature’s love of self-concealment) or does it subsist in some supernatural sphere? While the approach of different indifference favours the first choice, indifferent difference opts for the second. The becoming of plants proceeds beyond-within. Our becoming-plant adds another convolution to the vegetal twist: we may either become plants as plants become non-plants, or we may become plants in complete oblivion to their singular detours from being to nothing and from nothing to being, the detours of growth and decay that are, despite their singularity, the turning points of becoming as such.

Thesis 9

Becoming-plant, we turn around and become (vertimus) what we already are. In the future of becoming-plant, we stumble upon our deepest, thoroughly repressed past: attachment to the singularity of the place where we live and grow, a way of thinking rooted in the nourished and sexualized body, a vital exposure to the outside not yet segregated from the psychophysical interiority. When we turn (vertimus) into a plant, recapturing its tendencies and trajectories of becoming, time itself turns, circles back, reverts without regressing. Time is not, then, a straight arrow of progress, leaving the past behind and rushing through the present toward an entirely new future. Swivelling, it advances and retreats, just as a growing plant follows the course of nutational or circumnutational movement. Revolving around its axis, the plant orbits itself as other to itself in a rounding-off of its becoming and of every becoming. There is to my mind no better spatial image of time. In becoming-plant, we pivot back to what we are, to what we have been and have since lost touch with, to what awaits us in the future that has never been present. Our wishes to become an oak or a rose are the individual and cultural symptoms of a desire to overcome our stratospheric separation (in philosophical jargon, our alienation) each from her- or himself and from us, from the becoming-we. In defiance of the enormous distance that cuts into us and cuts us into individual pieces, we vaguely realize that what is slipping away from us is the vegetal tendency of existence, immemorially present in us and cobbling us together. We turn to (and into; vertimus, either way) plant shapes in a token of unconscious appreciation for that lost heritage.

Thesis 10

Vertimus, ergo virēmus. We turn, we become, therefore we are verdant and vigorous: we flourish.

 

***This text is a continuation of “Vertimus, Part I: http://philosoplant.lareviewofbooks.org/?p=220***

Notes:

[i] Enc. Logic, 140