How Plants Lead Us beyond Organismic Logic

Photograph by Scott Horvath.

by Michael Marder

June 8, 2015

Since the second half of the nineteenth century, European thinkers have been rebelling against the totalizing worldview that reached its crest in the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard used fragmentation and absolute singularity as part of their arsenal in the struggle against the totality. In twentieth-century French thought, this drive continued unabated. Emmanuel Levinas appealed to the infinity of the Other; Gilles Deleuze favored a series of becomings that signaled the disintegration of “molar” structures; and Jacques Derrida heralded deconstruction as a way (or a no-way: aporia) of suspending the operations of analysis and synthesis.

But here is the problem, as I see it. Whilst philosophers were waging battle against the totality, empirical scientists were busy dissolving its biological instantiation in organismic units into a multitude of biochemical reactions, biophysical properties, and algorithmic-computational processes. By the time this dissolution was completed, there was no longer any living totality to oppose. The philosophers’ squabbles appeared as nothing more than a quixotic fight against windmills and phantasms. And botany was one of the notable casualties of the scientific revolution, which supplanted it with “plant sciences.” A staple of that discipline, the morphological study of vegetal forms became a thing of the past. Botanical is now meaningful only if it serves as a designation in the history of science or an indication of vegan food items on restaurant menus.

Is scientific reductionism a better alternative to organismic categories? Should we welcome just about any sort of fragmentation or de-totalization? Doesn’t the loss of the most important figure of individuation in biology (namely, the organism) carry rather negative consequences for the ethics of our engagement with the worlds of non-human living beings that surround and inhabit us? For, what is to be respected in networks of hormonal transduction or bioelectrical signaling that happens in certain organic tissues and cells?

There are no easy solutions to these quandaries. Our nostalgia for organismic integrity would be as misplaced as an enthusiastic acceptance of contemporary scientific reductionism. The challenge is to discover a biological mode of individuation that would be neither bewitched by the logic of the organism nor would subscribe to a complete disintegration and nano-mechanization of the world.

Certainly, the fate of plants that, processed by the relevant sciences, lose all recognizable shape is shared by all living beings, including human and non-human animals. As far as most scientists are concerned, their (and our) coherent outlines disappear and what remains in the wake of forms are material processes, into which they have been analyzed. More often than not, in the aftermath of this overzealous destruction of the whole, integrative functions and their corresponding structures are a matter of intense speculation and debate, especially in the case of plant behavior. Like strands of Anglo-American philosophy called “analytic,” most sciences today succumb to a one-sided method lacking the moment of synthesis. There is no simple recipe for putting back together in thought the parts, into which they have disassembled organic and inorganic entities alike. (Even in the circles of non-analytic philosophy, the heavy emphasis placed on “criticism,” either of a textual or of a conceptual variety, often loses track of affirmative thinking that is not synonymous with mere acquiescence.) Ecology is an exception to this trend, precisely because it considers living beings in interaction with each other and with their milieu, giving us a preview of their non-totalizing syntheses.

What is special about plants is that their status was already ambiguous in total systems of thought. In Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature they were confined to a gray area between the minerals and the world of animal organisms. Metaphysical dead-ends, for us they hold the promise of a radically different biological individuation, the individuation that does not ruthlessly pit the one against the many. Plants are both more and less than organisms; they are sub-organismic processes and supra-organismic ensembles. The scientific shattering of their Gestalt (their totalizing form) is thus valuable, provided that it is mitigated by a new type of relational agency—ecological, anarchic-communitarian, and unclassifiable in terms of what in one of the previous contributions to The Philosopher’s Plant I identified as “species-thought.”[1] All in all, decisions on what constitutes a species are reached based on judging significant certain differences in form, backed by the genetic component. That is our present-day variation on the Platonic eidos, referring to the image (the look) of things and to their guiding blueprint. But, in the absence of a unitary shape, such decisions are implausible. Contemporary science destroys species-thought, and yet does not extend a bridge to another kind of thinking.

The twist in all of this is that the organisms per se are, also, both more and less than organisms. Human and non-human animals do not live up to the exigencies of organismic logic, because living and being a totality are two mutually incompatible conditions. We, too, are at once sub- and supra-organismic, micro-dispersed and macro-participatory, even if we still do not fully comprehend our predicament, clinging instead to the outmoded totality of personhood or individuality. Given the ground-shift in the scientific landscape where the notion of the organism is now suppressed, plants, traditionally excluded from the organismic realm, can provide us with markers for orientation on the novel terrain. They can, for instance, intimate to us what togetherness in falling apart looks like at every level, from living tissues to groups and communities. They can illuminate uniqueness and singularity outside the constraints of individuality. And they can reveal what it means to affirm the other and the world without, thereby, abnegating ourselves.


One thought on “How Plants Lead Us beyond Organismic Logic

  1. “The challenge is to discover a biological mode of individuation that would be neither bewitched by the logic of the organism nor would subscribe to a complete disintegration and nano-mechanization of the world.”

    This posting, along an earlier one on plant-thinking, resonates with me, particularly in light of my own reflections on the development of “new materialism” and its influence in many avenues of social and political theory.

    I’ve been troubled by the reduction of singularity to what you term nano-mechanistic views of the world. Lost is a notion of agency and responsibility that goes to the heart of much ethico-political thought. Implications of the process-mechanized world view were the subject of a much earlier posting of my own on Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center blog:

    At the same time, I am interested, as you are, in finding ways “to affirm the other and the world without, thereby, abnegating ourselves.”

    A process-focused ontology seems an ethical dead-end. Your posting offers another way forward. Thanks for the insights.

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