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


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/