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that the nineteenth- and twentieth-century theory of the state as an organic totality, modeled after an animal body, is outdated, there are no guarantees that vegetal (or any other kind of) decentering is the magic key to emancipation.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.

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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.

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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.