This Plant Who Is a Ghost


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)


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:***


[i] Enc. Logic, 140