A Ripening Injury


Michael Marder


As he brings his discussion of plants in The Philosophy of Nature to a close, Hegel suggests that the formation of fruit results from a “destructive process.”[i] One of the theses supporting his suggestion is that “the ripening of the fruit is also its downfall; for injury to the fruit assists its ripening.”[ii] Hegel’s observation reveals yet again how plants turn adversity into advantage, a presumably negative condition into a positive precondition for thriving. (I say, “yet again,” seeing that the loss of bodily extension in pruning has already transformed lack into plenitude, seeing that pruned bushes and trees grow exuberantly, lusher than ever.) Instead of actively opposing or passively succumbing to a threat, plants incorporate it into their own constitution and life-process, making the most out of it.

Note the difference between the dialectical insight and Nietzsche’s lesson “from life’s school of war [aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens],” long since adapted as a piece of folk wisdom: “Whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger [Was mich nicht umbingt, macht mich stärker].”[iii] Here, demise and enhanced survival are still at odds with one another, whereas, in Hegel’s line of reasoning, whatever damages the fruit speeds up its journey toward success. Rather than blocking the potentialities of an injured being, the injury does the work of time itself, letting fruit ripen before its appointed time. It is not evading danger that boosts the chances of a fruit, but, on the contrary, getting in harm’s way. This is what I call “ripening violence.”

In the course of ripening, a fruit attains its identity—the color, size, flavor and other characteristics that differentiate it from the initial (and relatively homogeneous) state of greenness, smallness, sourness, shared by all fruit regardless of distinctions among species. Seen through a dialectical prism, mechanical or insect-induced injury as a catalyst for ripening is the agent of determinate negation, that is, of a negation, which determines the thing it negates, actually dispensing to that thing what is most proper to it. The plant-based phenomenon of ripening violence appears both as the exemplary encapsulation (in Hegelspeak, a concrete universal) of “creative” negativity that fleshes out and actualizes being.

A curious nuance of determinate negation via an injury is that it does not arise from a self-negating thrust, immanent to the injured entity in question. The cause is quite arbitrary, accidental, and external (even if it’s a worm that burrows deep into the flesh of a fruit)—something that is to be expected at the abstract and initial stages of the dialectical journey, not at its concretizing culmination. Hegel does not address this inconsistency in Philosophy of Nature, but, were he to do so, he would have justified it with regard to the dearth of self-relatedness (and, therefore, of self-negation) in vegetal being, its presumed indifference to itself as to a fully developed subjective self. Given that the plant is itself only when it is not in itself, the individuating factor is equally external to it, as well. The determinate negation of vegetal existence is carried out by the other—haphazardly and unexpectedly—, because the plant lives in and through its other. A mechanical injury or a worm may, all of a sudden, step in and take over the time and the being of a plant (for instance, the ripening of its fruit), because vegetal being and time are already, “in” themselves, heterontology and heterotemporality.[iv]

Now, if vegetal ripening violence is a concrete universal, then how does it apply to an animal organism and to a human being? There are at least three methods for advancing this line of inquiry.

The first, and the least dialectical among these, is analogico-allegorical. It involves the act of making external comparisons and drawing parallels that treat an injury inflicted on a fruit as an allegory of violence perpetrated against an animal or a human, and ripening as a metaphor for maturation, more psychological than physiological in our case. An early champion of this method is St. Augustine, who, on the upside, sees in Biblical fruit an allegory of good works.

The second method is hermeneutical. Coming closer to the modus operandi of dialectics, it renders explicit what was merely implicit in the abstract equivalences of formal analogies, in keeping with their inner logic and with a sense that is neither purely literal nor allegorical. Instead of aligning in neat parallels the injury suffered by a fruit with disease, trauma, physical, economic, political, and cultural types of violence, it shows how they are mutually complicit, or coimplicit, and how it is possible to tease these other kinds of harm out of vegetal injury. (I must add that, contrary to the claims it lays on a seamless and continuous emanation of meanings and interpretations in interpertation, this method negates the immediate structure and flow of a text or a reality. The beam of selective attention, shining from the hermeneutical gesture, penetrates the interpreted materials, burrowing into them like a worm, or smashes them into fragments, ready for citation, exegetical dissection and discussion. Though stirring within, it marks the site of injury and makes the implicit explicit with a good dose of ripening violence.)

The third method is properly dialectical—not because it sublates or overcomes plant in animal and human existences, but because it patiently outlines the shape of singular universality qua universal, and, therefore, somehow relevant to other singularities. It is neither the application of an abstract principle to a particular case, nor an analogy, nor an exegesis… and it is all of the above. A dialectical method does not even shy away from going against the formal tenets of dialectics, for instance, by endorsing an external comparison when it befits a being said to exist largely outside itself. Hence, an analogico-allegorical approach, too, is valid when plants are involved, even if ripening injury exceeds the scope of their existence. From a singular universal, one can only leap to another singularity, which is neither included under the umbrella of the first universality nor under that of an abstract universal. How to leap from a ripening injury to an individuating disease and on to enabling violence? What sort of non-analogical analogies and non-explicative interpretations would rise to the occasion, yielding affinities among disparate modes of being?

While plants may suffer from diseases, Hegel’s strictly dialectical deployment of the term is inapplicable to vegetation. The very concept of disease implies an animal organism, which is “in a state of disease when one of systems or organs, stimulated into conflict with the inorganic power, establishes itself in isolation and persists in its particular activity against the activity of the whole.”[v] Since, in vegetal constitution, there is no mediated integration of the whole and its parts—since the parts of a plant are also potential wholes—, there is no possibility of a conflict between a part that “establishes itself in isolation” and “the activity of the whole.” Following Hegel’s line of reasoning, plants are never in a state of disease or (amounting to the same thing) they are always, by default, in a state of disease. This state, in fact, corresponds to the internal injury of a self-negated, self-mediated, self-related being, the injury that affects, more than an isolated system or organ, interiority as such: “While the division of animal life is the animal type in its self-particularization, so now, in disease, the individual organism, too, is capable of one particularization that does not accord with its notion, i.e., with its total particularity.”[vi] And what is that “total particularity,” which does not accord with the notion of the animal, other than vegetality?

Without pausing to mark moments of transition between the methods we have been availing ourselves of thus far in extending the phenomenon of ripening injury outside the realm of plants, we have already covered two such methods: the analogical and the hermeneutical. The analogy between an external injury and an internal disease gets exquisitely complicated, given that the effects of illness, viewed philosophically, transgress the relation of mere parallelism, which an analogy affords, and render an animal organism plant-like. For its part, hermeneutical work is also far from finished: like vegetal injury, disease has a positive function of bestowing particularity onto the diseased organism, albeit not in accord with the dialectical concept of the animal.

Novalis takes an extra step in this direction when he writes: “Our illnesses are all phenomena of enhanced sensibility, which wants to pass over into still higher forces… Illnesses belong to individualization.”[vii] Whereas Hegel construes disease as particularization that rebels against the totality of the organism, for Novalis, it is individualization, leading a body beyond itself thanks to “enhanced sensibility.” Consequently, instead of Hegel’s vegetalized animal, we are faced with Novalis’s animalized plant: “Diseases of plants are animalizations. Diseases of animals are ratiocinations. Diseases of stones are vegetation.”[viii] He elaborates and refines the analogy of a ripening injury to illness: the old scala naturae is creatively perverted in his text, inasmuch the heightening of sensibility, a transition to higher rungs on the ontological ladder, happens by way of disease. At the apex, the human is the sickest being of all, which also means the most individuated—a diseased animal, who or that is a diseased plant, who or that is a diseased stone… Allegorical, hermeneutical, and dialectical paths converge in an individuating illness, in which a ripening injury is reinvented, or in which it reinvents itself, as the enhancement of sensibility. “The disease of the individual”—the title of section (a) in paragraph 371 of Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature—becomes individual as disease in Novalis’s writings.    

Going back to the fruit, which an injury paradoxically hastens toward ripeness, we now see that, in this manner, the fruit is confronted with its Janus-faced individuality. A mechanical injury confirms the fruit’s own sensibility and individuation as a diseased stone. The impact it receives from an inorganic object or surface reminds it what it has “passed over,” what it has been, but also what remains unsurpassable. The worm that burrows into it insinuates the disease yet to come—“diseases of plants are animalizations”—into the fruit’s flesh. Slotted between two individuations, two illnesses conventionally categorized as two types of existence, the injured fruit comes into its own as doubly other to itself.

We cannot help but highlight a stark divergence between Novalis and Hegel on the subject of the ontological and productive workings of disease, that is, on the subject of how disease produces certain types of being or orchestrates a transition from one kind of being to another. Instead of animalization as the disease of plants, Hegel presents us with vegetalization as the disease of animals. A cure for the latter is the recovery of organismic totality mobilized by the very self-assertion of particularity it negates: “The process of recovery implicit in fever consists in the totality of the organism becoming active. In so doing, the organism raises itself out of its submergence in particularity; it is alive as a total organism.”[ix] To be cured is to subdue the plant in oneself, to overcome the vegetality of an animal or human body. The equivalent of a ripening injury is, nevertheless, evident: harmful as it is, disease awakens the forces that will facilitate convalescence. Creative, determinate negativity prevails both when a fruit speeds up to ripeness thank to an injury it receives and a body bounces to a state of health from—and thanks to—the symptoms of its disease. What differs, though, is that a ripe fruit is the affirmative negation of a plant (which attains a provisional end in it), whereas a cure is the suppressive negation of planthood that irrupts as illness from an animal body.

Mechanical or physiological trauma bears superficial resemblance to psychic trauma, if only by virtue of relying on the same word to express the damage inflicted on the body and the psyche respectively. Psychic trauma cannot, for all that, play the role of a ripening injury. It refuses to pass, to become the past—a little like the inorganic heritage of organic existence. Rather than speeding up the flows of mental life and enriching it with “learning from experience,” psychic trauma is a non-experience that results in an extreme fixation, bringing this life to a grinding halt (which can sometimes appear in the guise of frantic activity). Hegel comes across the non-productive negativity of trauma when he discusses a form of disease “which originates in the universal subject, especially in man. These are diseases of the soul [Seele], which are caused by terror, grief, etc., and which can even result in death.”[x] There is nothing else he can add to this short and dry description, precisely because traumatic “diseases of the soul” contribute nothing to the ripening determination of the subject, unless one endorses the nihilistic equation of ultimate ripeness and death. The trigger event may well be external, but this sort of disease does not arise on the outside, its etiology also setting it apart from the mechanical and insect-induced injuries of fruit.

Still, in keeping with the conceptual pattern of organic illness, the disturbances of the soul would pit a part of psychic constitution against the whole. They would, in this way, vegetalize the mind, ramified into “total particularity,” which negates at its core the notion of the “universal subject,” in whom they arise. And, again extending the scheme of physical disease, an effective cure of such disturbances can only be a total mobilization of universal subjectivity against that part which arrogates to itself the status of a whole, so that the soul would raise itself from its submergence in particularity toward rationality. According to Novalis, however, the (Kantian and) Hegelian cure is pathology: ratiocinations are the diseases of animals, while animalizations are the diseases of plants. Reason—which Kant considered pure so long as it was free of the pathologies of individual bias, position, or inclination—becomes, for Novalis, a pathology responsible for the making of human being.

When it comes to us, humans, psychological trauma and physiological illness are not the ends of the story. The undoubtedly conservative gesture of psychologizing social, economic, and political problems shifts the spotlight onto the individual, an entity that is, itself, individuated through pathology if seen against the backdrop of plant and animal life. So, what are the instances of a ripening injury at these supra-individual levels?

A prime example of socio-cultural ripening injury that comes to mind is something Gayatri Spivak has talked about for decades, namely “enabling violation.” The context for it in her work is colonial and postcolonial: the education and the language provided by the colonial or postcolonial authority simultaneously violates—by demeaning, sidelining, disregarding, or outright forbidding—local knowledges and languages and gives the colonial or postcolonial subject the tools to forge new bonds of solidarity, to change their dire situation for the better, to have a voice. Spivak writes: “If, instead of each identitarian group remaining in its own enclave, some of us engage in ab-using the enabling violation of our colonial past to converse with each other, we may be able not only to turn globalization around, but also to supplement the necessary uniformization of globalization with linguistic diversity.”[xi] And again: “British colonialism is an enabling violation. Our point has long been that, in the house of language, we must remember the violation as well as the enablement.”[xii]

We could launch ourselves headfirst into the allegorical, hermeneutic, and dialectical comparisons of the enabling violation Spivak keeps coming back in her work to and an injury that hastens a damaged fruit to the state of ripeness. But it would be advisable to acknowledge, beforehand, the sharp contrast between the socio-cultural effects of this violation and its politico-economic ramifications. When Spivak writes about “turn[ing] globalization around,” she has in mind the possibility of using the language of the colonizer in order to shatter colonial chains—hence, “ab-using” this language in a way that yields an unforeseen outcome, unintended by the colonizer, namely the creation of solidarity among the colonized, or the previously colonized, groups. Diversity would be then recovered through homogenization, fostering unexpected alliances among those whose languages and cultures were to be undone, reduced to dust and ash on the highway of globalization.

Although the forging of solidarity (thanks, in part, to the colonial lingua franca) borders on the political, it is a far cry from the institutional politics that invariably emerges in the postcolony in the form of entrenched nationalism. Is this, also, an “enabling violation,” and, if so, whom does it enable? While things might be a little murky in the political sphere that hovers somewhere between the cultural and the economic, the latter is utterly resistant to the mission of turning globalization around. The postcolony is included in the fold of global capital under the aegis of “development,” and only the most ardent fans of neoliberalism (Spivak is not one of them) would claim that the benefits reaped from this misnomer of a process are enabling, even with the proviso that the enablement they represent is mixed with a violation. The contradiction Spivak’s term harbors comes into the light as soon as we recall that “the house of language” she mentions without citing Heidegger is being itself, which englobes all ontic regions—not only cultures and their thick linguistic, ritual, custom-based fabrics, but also politics and economics, where the very fate of being is now at stake.

In any event, what does it mean for the subjects of the colony or the postcolony to endure an enabling violation, given the conclusion we’ve reached about the ripening injuries of the fruit? Do they attain their identity, the determinate (negative) concreteness of their subjectivity, through such a violation? Speaking analogically-allegorically, is the imposition of the colonizer akin to a worm biting into the flesh of a fruit from within or to the blunt impact of mechanical trauma, causing the fruit to ripen from without? It would seem that, for Spivak, the initial traumatic encounter with the colonizer corresponds to the impact of mechanical force, whereas—much more insidious—colonial education functions like a worm, indwelling, destroying, and hastening the maturation of the educated subject. The analogue of a ripening injury in the colonial context is, therefore, double: outer and inner. The enabling violence of education and language presupposes, as their half-forgotten prehistory, the raw force of domination.

The hermeneutic take on the matter should account for the reversal of Hegel, for whom the ripening of the fruit is its downfall, in Spivak’s text, where the colonial downfall allows for the ripening of the postcolonial subject. If the Hegelian twisted circle, woven out of multiple speculative propositions, reveals anything, it reveals that violation is enablement (the injury of the fruit that ripens it) and enablement is the ultimate violation, dissolution, decay (ripening as downfall). Spivak, for her part, puts two contradictory effects side-by-side—violation as well as enablement—, stopping short of establishing their speculative identity. Whatever one does with these contradictions, the positive teleological model of coming-to-fruition no longer works, when apparent success is a sign of decline and when two logically incompatible effects derive from the same cause.

And the Hegelian twists do not stop there, as they lead us to the heart of dialectical method. The fruit’s decay and downfall are the marks of vegetal triumph, considering that the “true” identity of the fruit is the kernel or the seed it contains (which is, however, too abstract, self-enclosed, and indeterminate to stand higher than the fruit). Ripening injuries allow the seed to be revealed sooner and, possibly, to obtain its first nourishment from the fruit’s decaying remains. The enabling violence of colonial and postcolonial education is also empowering in this diabolical sense: it permits for a faster extraction of value (above all, of surplus value) from the educated subject who speaks the language of the colonizer. The economic seed is not just wrapped in superfluous cultural trappings; rather, it is fed by the dissolution and decay of the fruity flesh that surrounds it. The destructive process is formative in a plethora of ways. Adversity flips into advantage: whose advantage? Cui bono?




[i] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Nature: Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Part II, translated by A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 348

[ii] Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, p. 349.

[iii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer. In Portable Nietzsche, edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York & London: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 467 [translation modified].

[iv] I explain the latter of these terms in Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 95ff. The former is mentioned here for the first time.

[v] Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, p. 428.

[vi] Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, p. 428.

[vii] Novalis, Werke, Tagebücher und Briefe, edited by Hans-Joachim Mähl & Richard Samuel, Vol. 2: Das philosophisch-theoretische Werk (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1987), pp. 824, 835.

[viii] Novalis, Werke 2, p. 824.

[ix] Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, p. 435.

[x] Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, p. 432.

[xi] Gayatri C. Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 28.

[xii] Spivak, An Aesthetic Education, p. 315.