Plants Are the Perfect Self-Drawing Diagrams

Photograph by Jan Fidler.

Margarida Mendes in interview with Michael Marder

MAY 5, 2015

Your essay “Vegetal Democracy: The Plant That Is Not One” departs from an analysis of plant growth schematics, while reflecting on political structures. What can we learn from thinking politics through the observation of non-human entities?

The human patterns of collective organization cannot break entirely with similar patterns in the physical, natural world. To think otherwise is to idealize politics entirely, reducing it to a pure activity of disembodied spirit. Indeed, traditionally, humans have identified with animals and recognized in their own societies certain unmistakable features of animal groupings, for instance, of ants or bees. Aristotle, too, famously defined the human as a “political animal,” zoōn politikon.

My question, in turn, is: “What if we think about ourselves as political plants?” The main difference between plants and animals is that the former are not organismic units, that is to say, self-enclosed living totalities where each part is subordinated to the demands of a coherent whole. So, if we want to escape from proto-fascism in our political thought, whereby the state is equated to an organic whole and individuals to its rather insignificant organs, we must turn toward a vegetal model of the political. The outcome of this exercise is going to be a sort of anarchic proliferation of multiplicities, of branches and twigs that retain their semi-independence while participating in the overall growth of plant-society. Such bio-politics would be incompatible with the spirit of sacrifice, logically expected within confines of an organismic arrangement; instead, it would encourage the flourishing of all within a mutually supportive environment, where there isn’t a conflict—nor even a clear-cut division—between the individual and the collective. That, for me, is the most important political lesson of plants. 

There has been a recent inquiry in Utrecht into the takeover of its underground paths and canals by a fern plague. A study group was gathered to map and analyse all the fern species present there, from which a particular species, Azolla filiculoides, has been identified. An indisputable image of the parasite emerges here. What are your thoughts about the entropic growth of green structures that exist in parallel with anthropogenic ones?

I am not so sure that vegetal “entropic” growth unfolds side-by-side with the proliferation of anthropogenic structures. Our growth is not as orderly as we think and it is certainly subject to entropy, like everything in the material world. Nor are human processes and categories entirely separate from other modes of life, no matter how much we try to suppress and repress these nonhuman manifestations of vitality in us. Much of the human biomass is comprised on bacteria, many of them beneficial for the functioning of the digestive system, for instance. The human neo-cortex coevolved with the microorganisms that cover it and that probably played a crucial role in the development of our intelligence. Rather than a small island in the sea of organic life and an even larger ocean of the inorganic universe, the human is a point of intersection for diverse types of existence, not to mention the classical elements of water, fire, earth, and air. In fact, much of the current environmental crisis is due to our refusal to acknowledge our co-imbrication with the rest of the world, which we unabashedly mould in our own image, heavily skewed toward abstract intelligence. It is only from this vantage point that the entropy of “raw” nature seems to be opposed to well-structured, logically explicable anthropogenic processes.

As for parasitism, again, I have my doubts that it makes sense to draw a solid demarcation line between “the host” and “the parasites.” What we deem to be hosts are themselves, necessarily, parasitic on a larger milieu they inhabit; the humans, for example, are the parasites of the earth. After all, etymologically, parasitism refers to networks of nourishment, whereby a living entity feeds alongside (para) some other entity or entities. So, while certain microorganisms nourish themselves on our bodies, we nourish ourselves on the earth—hence, on whatever issues from it.

In the case of plants, the phenomenon of parasitism is more interesting still. We will not be amiss if we conclude that each part of a plant is parasitic on other parts, even as this composite growing being is parasitic on the soil wherein it is rooted. You will recall that it is impossible to establish definitively the boundaries of vegetal individuals. On the one hand, a twig, detached from the mother-plant, can develop its own roots, given enough moisture and mineral nutrients. On the other hand, ostensibly separate plants, including trees, may share their system of roots and, therefore, formally belong to the same mega-plant as its outgrowths. Who is the parasite and who is the host here? All I can say is that plants grow on, live on, and nourish themselves on other plants… ad infinitum. This happens within the “same” plant that combines a multiplicity of potentially independent plants, traversed by a common network of nourishment. And it also happens between “different” plants, such as moss growing on tree trunks or grafts of a peach on a pear tree. We tend to classify this latter situation as parasitic. But the way any given plant or a community of plants belonging to the same species is structured is not really qualitatively distinct from such an arrangement. 

Plants grow exponentially as modular unities that spread through the ground as perfect rhizomes. They remind me of cybernetic systems. How do you see the comparison, if any, between the behavioural growth of plants and computational processes? 

You are right to note that, far from one type of plant roots, rhizome is the synecdoche of vegetal growth in general. Lacking a single command centre that could orchestrate all of its development, a plant grows by iterations, replicating already existing structures. It branches out above and below ground, creating baroque-like gardens upon gardens upon gardens, as Leibniz once put it.

It is, of course, quite tempting to consider this kind of growth as an open network and, subsequently, to re-project the computational grid back onto plants. Not surprisingly, today, the network is our preferred master-concept, an imaginary key to the understanding of the environment, of society, of bodily functions, and of thinking itself. But I, myself, would not rush to this conclusion. Why?

First, we must historicize our conceptual practices and to realize that the image of the network says much more about us, who overuse it, than about the phenomena it is meant to explain. This image has merely replaced the early modern metaphor of a machine, admittedly less flexible than a network but similarly overarching as an explanatory device. Second, we should accept that there isn’t one master-concept, useful for elucidating everything in the world. Although the time of great metaphysical narratives is apparently over, science, or better, scientificity, carries on the legacy of metaphysics in the name of a non- or even an anti-metaphysical worldview. To qualify as a metaphysician, you do not need to relate everything either to God or to a God-like construct; you only need to believe that a single foundation undergirds all reality, which is epiphenomenal in reference to this foundation. Cybernetics and the network-theory of society, nature, and intelligence are the cornerstones of the contemporary metaphysics that refuses to go under this name. Third, we ought to revive the question of life, which remains conceptually elusive and irreducible to computation of the best course of action at a given conjuncture between an organism and its environment. The challenge is to think life not as another all-encompassing metaphysical concept, but as an inherently meaningful framework, interpretable “from within” in the practices of living by microorganisms, plants, animals, humans…

Having said that, I must admit that many of my colleagues in plant sciences and philosophy alike favour a computational theory of plant intelligence. They study, for instance, flowering decisions of cherry trees based on the comparisons of day length, carried out by these plants with the help of their cellular memories of the last sunrays, gathered over a specific stretch of time. I do not want to deny the value of these studies, nor to doubt their contribution to shaping the notion of plant intelligence. What I take issue with is the idea that these and similar computations exhaust the content and, especially, the form of this notion. Just as a human being whose intelligence is defined exclusively in terms of calculation would be rather impoverished and robot-like at best, so a plant that “thinks” and lives along these lines alone would be something like a green, mean computing machine.    

The notion of deterritorialisation is intrinsic to the history of vegetable life, not only due to the aerial migration of seeds, but also by their colonial exploitation. In your forthcoming book co-written with Luce Irigaray you write about your personal relation to vegetable life as a mode of thinking exile and uprooting. Discontinuity and manipulation are evident characteristics in terms of how humans regulate and make use of natural entities, addressed by them as subjectless mass. How do you relate to the position of the subaltern here? 

It is true that, despite popular beliefs, plants are very mobile. Not only do their seeds and pollen migrate far and wide, but they also move within their milieu in ways that are different from locomotion. Their decay, growth, and metamorphosis constitute three other types of movement, which Aristotle recognized in his Physics. Still, plants represent, for us, the archetype of a firm attachment to a place, of which we are increasingly nostalgic in the age of globalization.

Ethical problems arise when we associate embeddedness in a locale with passivity. In this instance, plants appear to be our feudal surfs, completely enchained to the context of their growth, while the surfs themselves must have been treated by their feudal masters, more or less, as the crops they cultivated. The praise of dislocation and uprooting is the other side of the same coin that links mobility to active subjectivity and anchoring in a place to the passive existence of a “subjectless mass,” as you aptly put it. In an effort to prevent such a violent schematization of different life-forms, we cannot bypass the ancient Greeks, who thought of life as the capacity for self-movement and self-organization. As we have just established, together with Aristotle, plants are capable of moving in every one of the four ways he pinpointed. So, it follows that they cannot be justifiably treated as though they were dumb “matter primed for reproduction,” in the words of Immanuel Kant.

What I cannot accept from the Greeks, however, is the ontological hierarchy, in which they lined up all living beings. Restoring to plants their self-moving, self-organizing traits is not enough if their subjectivity is still taken to be inferior to those of animals and humans. As an alternative, I suggest that we strain to imagine, at the limits of our theoretical imagination, how plants construct a world for themselves; how they produce the structures of embodied sense, meaningful for them; what they pay attention to; where they locate the foci of significance; and how they act and are acted upon by the world that is imbued with meaning for them. The preliminary name I have given to this project is phytophenomenology, or the phenomenology of vegetal life. I do not know whether an endeavour like this can really come to fruition, but, at least, it is worth giving it a try.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *