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


Michael Marder


Preamble 1

Vertimus. We become, we turn. Into what? Into whom? Too early to tell and too early to ask. The first-person plural of the Latin vertere (to change, become, turn, revolve, exchange, translate, alter, overthrow) is, for me, the base, like a turntable for playing the vinyl records of the yesteryear. Whenever you or I become; whenever she, he, or it becomes, we become. Underlying verto, vertis, and vertit is vertimus. No one becomes her-, him-, or itself in isolation, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps à la Baron Munchausen. I become I, I become myself through the becoming-we, which is of course not exclusively human. Every version (above all, of me, myself) is a conversion, and not just of different kinds of energy. The con-version of each version is the with-turning, the becoming-with at every developmental turn, in every twist of the existential plot. If existence is a being-with (Dasein = Mitdasein), then becoming even more so unfolds in common, shared and participative. And plant-becoming, across all its conversions, whether or not they bear upon energy, is the sincerest embrace of the with.

Preamble 2

I am still preparing the ground for what’s to come with these brief introductory remarks. (What will become of them?) Preparing the ground, working with the earth, with the soil—this, too, is included in the verb vertere. The very first sentence in Book I of Virgil’s Georgics (1:1) begins from the absolute agricultural beginning: terram vertere, overturning the soil, or, simply, ploughing the field in a certain type of human engagement with plants meant to encourage their becoming. It indicates that to become, to turn (say, a bountiful plant), it is necessary to disturb, to turn around and overturn the soil or the present state of affairs. Guiding plants to their ownmost optimal becoming, care for the land and for what grows on it demands nothing less than overturning the status quo, be it soil in a state of rest or the seed, which must overthrow its condensed form, break out of its coat, and change into a seedling. The twist of becoming: turning into something or someone, we turn out of someone or something else. There is no becoming without a revolution properly so called, an overturning overthrow, in which we turn (vertimus) together with the beings swept into the whirl of this movement. Dehiscence: the curtain drawn or raised, still before the beginning of Act 1?

Preamble 3

The overturning overthrow of becoming seems insatiable. Besides negating every actual state of being, it reduces being itself to nothing. Except that the nihilation of being is only half of the phenomenon of becoming, as Hegel construes it in the two Logics. In Encyclopedia Logic, “the principle of becoming” is “that being is the transitioning into nothing and nothing the transitioning into being [das Sein das Übergehen in Nichts, und das Nichts das Übergehen ins Seins ist].”[i] In The Science of Logic, the vanishing of the proposition “being and nothing are the same” gives rise to the movement of becoming.[ii] Moderating the negation of a state of being, as much as of being itself, is the negation of the nothing to which what has been negated devolved. Considering this symmetry, what does an overturning overthrow—a revolution—in nothing look like? After the seed disappears as seed, it reappears in the seedling, and, in fact, in the Preface to Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel paints the history of philosophy using a whole palette of plant metamorphoses—the bud, the blossom, the fruit… Nothing—the nothing itself—works behind the scenes and never makes an appearance in the open, in the finite opening of existence it helps along. We can only infer the work of nothing from the othering of the same, its dis- or refiguring. As for the mutually opposed, albeit complementary, “transitions” of becoming that commemorate a “vanishing” identity of being and nothing, they cultivate ontology starting from the vegetal world. If becoming is both a coming-into-being and a passing-away, becoming and unbecoming, coming and going, venir and de-venir, then it is both growing and decaying, with metamorphosis, or change of shape, happening between these concrete transitions. Which leads me to the first thesis: all becoming is becoming-plant.

Thesis 1

All becoming is becoming-plant. As we become anything or anyone, we become plants; we become them and with them. This does not necessarily mean that we blossom or develop roots, literally or metaphorically. The definition of becoming as becoming-vegetal parallels the synecdoche of plant nature and nature as such, upon which I have commented at length elsewhere. For Goethe, the essence of plants is metamorphosis. Change of shape does not overlay an immutable core making them what they are. Metamorphosis is plants; their living form is the alteration of form. Becoming-plant, becoming-vegetal we turn (vertimus) into metamorphosis, become the becoming. We deliver ourselves to a finite becoming, which is at the same time endless, does not have an end in sight. There is a double deferral at play here, pushing back against nothing as much as against being, understood as what has become, what has come out of becoming, the end result, a final outcome. Becoming, after all, is a journey without a fixed destination and, even though something is supposed to come out of vegetal becoming (fruit and seeds are the obvious references), this “something” lacks ultimacy, because it, in its turn (the turn of vertere), initiates a new growth and decay. Circular closure coincides with absolute openness. Usually taken to signify immobility and stagnation, plants are mutable, versatile, and supple enough to flesh out the becoming of those without a formal membership in their biological kingdom—say, us, ourselves. Metamorphosing, they are that which is on the way toward or out of being, green transitions between being and nothing. Passing from one state to another, we also become plants.

Thesis 2

Becoming-plant is becoming-we. To put it in the negative, becoming-plant is a phenomenon of deindividuation, irreducible to the dispersion of Deleuze and Guattari’s “becoming-molecular.” In deep coma, it is said that one becomes a vegetable, one’s life reduced to the barest and widely shared physiological functions. By contrast, becoming a human is the task of radical individuation, setting us on a collision course with plants. The grain of truth in the intuitive description of a comatose patient as a vegetable is that, to loosen the boundaries separating the I and the we, I must partake in becoming-plant. The communal constitution of vegetal life—including a single specimen comprised of a multiplicity of growths, its relation to its environment and to the “kin” that is not entirely differentiated from its “self”—brings us back to the idea that there is a we behind every I. Thus, becoming-plant, we become we, and turn or return (vertimus) to the we that I am.

Thesis 3

Plants send us mementos of the serial pattern of becoming. Though nearly generic in their singular growing-and-decaying (see Thesis 1), plants provide overwhelming evidence for the serial and determinate nature of becoming. This, in effect, is what distinguishes it from change, not to mention from the amorphous flux it has sometimes been mistaken for. The twists and turns of change (the alterations of vertere) point whichever way in a transformation that is utterly indirect, whereas becoming is the directing of this indirection, “structuring” it, if you will. Becoming, unlike random change, has a pace, a rhythm, and therefore a pattern. It displays an arrangement in a series, which makes it if not ideal, then minimally idealizable, repeatable. This pattern is sensual (visual, auditory, etc.) and temporal, its tempo dictating the time of the becoming entity. In addition to the alteration of change, becoming involves alternation, particularly in the seasonal heterotemporality of plants I have outlined in my Plant-Thinking. Among the alternating shapes of vegetal becoming we find a bud, a flower, a fruit, themselves the phenomenal expressions (or else, the still frames) of temporal, paced, rhythmic movements. Our becoming-plant cannot, as already mentioned, be equivalent to a literal or metaphoric imitation of these and other vegetal structures; rather, we must attune ourselves to and, to the extent possible, participate in plant rhythms, tempos, and therefore times. Between being and nothing, metamorphosis does not have a monopoly on ontological transition. The missing ingredient is metabolism (metabolé), which reveals the temporal side of becoming, while metamorphosis refers to its spatial aspect.

Thesis 4

Becoming-plant is our metamorphosing into a continuing metamorphosis, as well as our being metabolized in the metabolic relation. Let me try to define the difference between two Greek words for change as crisply as possible. Metamorphosis is a change of shape, trans-formation, structural alteration; metabolé is a change of tendency, trans-jection, functional othering. Becoming is navigating between the space of metamorphosis and the time of metabolé (both of them slotted between being and nothing), directing their spatiotemporal indirection, their turns and turnings, their curvatures. A change of shape need not be shared with another being. It is an event, an undergoing proper to an individual subject of becoming, even if, as a rule, it responds to a “stimulus” in the external environment. Metabolé, however, is associative, if not social: a throw from here to there, an interrelation of the digesting and the digested (wherein the digesting is also metabolized), a co-becoming, a waltz of the changing and the changed that turn around one another until it is no longer clear which one is the active initiator and which the patient of an action. Speaking of “becoming-plant,” in one of the variations on becoming-nonhuman, we rarely have metabolé in mind. We picture to ourselves, instead, a vegetal shape grafted onto the human body, the phenomenal part of becoming. How can we not only metamorphose but also metabolize into plants in the temporal sense of vertimus, turning in time? Digestive metabolism is probably the most mundane and material illustration for the metabolic turn in general: it takes time for the eaten to become the eater and, vice versa, for the latter to be metabolized into the former. Every time you nourish yourself on a carrot or a peach, red beans or apples, you become them, at least at the molecular level—hence, the old adage [/ˈædɪdʒ/] Nietzsche picks up in his psychophysiology: “You are what you eat.” (The metabolic turn of vertimus is a turning of the stomach and of the intestine.) Theories of becoming-plant cannot discount this process as trivial any more than they can drive away the impression that, once the floodgates open, our entire being is digested into plant-being, which, at bottom, we already are. What we are facing, then, is both a mirror reflection and an inversion of St. Augustine’s vision, according to which the believers are digested into God, held and remembered in divine interiority (a kind of invisible stomach) forever in a metabolic act that puts an end to metabolism: “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you, like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me [cibus sum grandium: cresce et manducabis me. nec tu me in te mutabis sicut cibum carnis tuae, sed tu mutaberis in me]” (Confessions VII, 10). To be digested into vegetal being, on the contrary, is to flow into interminable becoming, not into the stagnant waters of what is always the same and does not change. Such digestion exceeds the limits of nourishment, itself a crucial component of the Aristotelian plant soul; it happens on the occasions of our experience, thinking, and “time-consciousness” (or, better, “time-unconsciousness”) approximating vegetal rhythms, cadences, tempos, as in certain meditative practices. 

…to be continued…


[i] Hegel, Enc. Logic, 143

[ii] Hegel, Sci Logic, 67