L’Écriture Végétale

Photograph by Ben Mitchell


 Michael Marder

October 10, 2016

If it is indeed the case that plant-thinking drastically changes how we view both plants and ourselves (in relation to them, each to her- or himself, and to each other), then a qualitatively new mode of writing is sorely needed so as to express such seismic shifts of perspective. For my part, I have not tried deliberately to cultivate a writing style that, in the footsteps of last century’s experiments by philosophers including Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray with l’écriture féminine (“feminine writing”), I would like to term l’écriture végétale (“vegetal writing”). But the absence of a deliberate plan did not mean that the seeds of vegetal writing remained dormant and have not germinated in something recognizable only in retrospect. In effect, the unconscious manner in which this non-project unfolded was probably more faithful to plants than all the painstaking attempts to emulate their growth in conscious, self-conscious, and representation-bound human thought.

The rapid extension of my initial project from Plant-Thinking (2013) took me by surprise. I often joke that my philosophy of vegetal life itself grew like a plant, tending in all directions at once: toward the sciences and the arts, ethics and politics, intellectual biography and autobiography. There is more than a grain of truth in this statement. The content, form, and method of plant-thinking cannot be easily parsed out into its independent components, its how, where, and when influencing the what. Its life and its text are as much about the milieu and the context as they are about whatever is conveyed by means of the formal expression all too swiftly inserted into a venerable lineage of “critical” and “academic” discourses.

I started with a theoretical exploration of the place of plants in metaphysics and of the role they could play in a postmetaphysical transition. From there, I embarked on a journey through the fields, groves, forests, and gardens of philosophy, seeking guidance for an alternative reading of the tradition (and of certain philosophical biographies) from the vegetation that proliferated in the canon’s blind spots. The results of this exercise are gathered in The Philosopher’s Plant (2014). Soon thereafter, together with Luce Irigaray, I delved into a collaborative auto-hetero-phyto-bio-graphy, the sharing of a life or of lives among the co-authors, the readers, and plants themselves. Thus Through Vegetal Being (2016) was born. Another collaborative attempt (this time with Anaïs Tondeur) sifted through autobiographic, aesthetic, historical, and phytological prisms also came to fruition this year in The Chernobyl Herbarium. And, finally, the collection Grafts appeared, as I say in the preface to that book, “in the in-between space where previously unimagined forms of thinking eventually come to life” thanks to the interventions, interactions, interpretations and interviews focused on the thinking of—about but also proper to—plants.

A definite pattern comes through here, in this path I have briefly sketched out: moving from the universal to the singular and, in an immediate reflux, back again from a more or less solitary work to thinking with and growing with others, human or not. But a loose pattern is not the same thing as a method—itself a way, which is universally prescribed or at least universalizable and is therefore valid to the extent that it lends itself to being trodden by many feet over and over again. If I am correct in teasing out from my itinerary a tendency toward the singular that intersects with but is not dissolved in the universal, then the path I have taken thus far is an anti-method, which, on its own terms, prohibits any following-after, though you are absolutely free to let the above prohibition fall on deaf ears. In the ambiguous interplay of its singular and universal moments, in its exemplary non-exemplariness, I discern the outlines of l’écriture végétale that replicates the singular universality of the plants themselves. While plants are parts of the natural world (understood in the Greek sense of phusis: overall growth, emergence, coming-to-appearance, or coming-out-of-itself), they embody, in all their singularity, the universality of nature. While l’écriture végétale departs from and circles back to the vegetal, it sweeps the entire world into its midst, not sparing us either.

I am not going to dwell at length on the convergences and divergences between l’écriture féminine and l’écriture végétale. Such a comparison deserves much more care and attention than I can give it here. One thing ought to be mentioned, however: both kinds of writing invite misinterpretation based on what amounts to the seduction of the category. It is assumed that the feminine or the vegetal are categories like any other, that is to say, discrete kinds or immaterial boxes within which women and plants respectively belong. Yet, nothing is further from the truth. Not only do vegetal and feminine ontologies embrace unfathomably more than the ontic realities of plants and women, but they are, in themselves, plastic enough to accommodate their other (the human, the masculine…) who has traditionally denigrated and abused them. In their singularity, l’écriture féminine and l’écriture végétale gesture toward universality.

But why direct our attention to writing? Could it be that this medium most effectively challenges and subverts the silence, to which western logos once submitted the feminine and the vegetal alike, and often the one as the other? Note that I am not saying (or writing—and that is not a minor nuance) that the experimental modes of expression discussed here break the silence imposed on certain living beings as a curse or a prison. Instead, these modes of expression dispense with the deafening noise of logos and put their hopes in the voice-less supplement of speech, namely writing, which, according to Jacques Derrida, comes first, preceding that which it supplements. Slipping below the incessant “talk-show” (I hear this term with a literal, as well as a phenomenological, ear) that speech is or has become, l’écriture féminine and l’écriture végétale touch upon something of arche-writing, the practice of tracing and inscribing inseparable from existence as such. That they do so is testimony to the fact that neither of them is easily categorizable, and so is not detainable within the empirical confines of a writing style, let alone of identity politics everywhere seeking the “voices” of those who seem to represent previously oppressed groups.

L’écriture végétale is further distinguished by two imperfectly overlapping frames, their edges unaligned with one another. On the one hand—the writing or archi-writing of plants and of the vegetal aspect in creatures normally not categorized as plants; on the other—the writing about vegetal archi-writing, retracing its traces, or letting these traces come to the fore, finally liberated from a long history of their erasure. The gap between the two frames is far from a debilitating condition; it opens the breathing space that guarantees some measure of autonomy to plants, even as it foments our intimate relation to them. Supplemented by plant-writing (and the supplement always comes first!), plant-thinking operates within the enabling limits of this double framing that de-termines it without imposing the suffocating closure of categorial thought.

One thought on “L’Écriture Végétale

  1. This interesting article made me remember Michael Pollan’s introduction to *The Botany of Desire* so I dug it out from the shelves. Indeed, “plants have been evolving much, much longer than we have, have been inventing new strategies for survival and perfecting their designs for so long that to say that one of us is the more ‘advanced’ really depends on how you define that term, on what ‘advances’ you value. Naturally we value abilities such as consciousness, toolmaking, and language, if only because these have been the destinations of our own evolutionary journey thus far. Plants have traveled all that distance and then some — they’ve just traveled in a different direction. Plants are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil, and sunlight into an array of precious substances . . .”

    Thanks for this — I’ll look it up.

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