Cornucopia

by

Michael Marder

 

Whatever the context, abundance at bottom connotes for us various aspects of the plant kingdom. Why? Perhaps, as a consequence of flashbacks in our unconscious to the time when we lived surrounded by vegetal environment, rather than the concrete jungle most of us roam in today. A tree in bloom, fertile earth bearing plentiful crops, a basket full of fruit or freshly culled flowers symbolize, throughout the different seasons, the seemingly inexhaustible giving of the bounty we receive from the world beyond our receptive capacity. The giving of thanks, ephemerally reflected in the celebration of Thanksgiving, is a timid and impossible attempt to repay the debt we had incurred to plants before such a “we” has had a chance to evolve into Homo sapiens—the debt of nourishment, breathable air, and livable climates.

Among the mythical symbols of abundance, the one that stands out is cornucopia, also called “the horn of plenty” or “Amalthea’s horn.” Amalthea was, admittedly, not a plant but an animal, a she-goat who suckled Zeus in his infancy while he was hidden from the murderous reach of his father, Cronos. It was her horn that, under mysterious circumstances, broke off from her body and, blessed by the god, bore plenitude. Cornucopia, then, is a hollow animal form filled with the vegetal content that overflows it. Uncontrollable and uncontainable within the rigid limits of an almost inorganic vessel, the yields of cornucopia are pure proliferation, the infinity of finite life that lives above and beyond itself (that reproduces itself) without, at the same time, resorting to the machinations of transcendence.

Our relation to the natural environment is governed by our unshakable faith in its cornucopia. The giving of vegetal life is converted into its mute and ongoing givenness; we think and act as though our picking, plucking, cutting down, felling, or uprooting of plants does not make a dent in the endless warehouse the world has become. Famines, droughts, and other variations on dearth are but local aberrations and temporary disruptions in the cornucopia of a tirelessly laboring nature, the Spinozan natura naturans (“nature naturing”). Even when everything is burnt to the ground and reduced to ash, the first seeds are ready to sprout. Mass extinction is far from our minds at this sight, or as we observe the cycles of tenacious rebirth despite the violence we unleash against life on the planet. The category of “renewable energy” includes vast crops grown for no other reason than to go up in flames as “biomass” from which ethanol will then be distilled. Amalthea’s horn is now a torch passed over to the Phoenix.

In the Western tradition, physical copiousness is typically symptomatic of metaphysical lack. The-other-side-of-the-coin argument, according to which material plenitude masks spiritual paucity, offers a convenient method for philosophy to tame and domesticate abundance. For Plato, multiple things are chaotic and disorganized unless traced back to their original unity in a single idea. Spinoza deems plural phenomena to be distractions from the one substance that envelops everything. At a certain end of metaphysics, Hegel considers the bustling data of sensory experience to be the most abstract and deficient stage, initial on the itinerary of Spirit. Cornucopia is the enemy of philosophy, which intuits in the anarchic life of plants devoid of an underlying unity the prime example of abhorrent empirical richness. “The” plant is embodied (and enacted) ideas, substances, spirits, intelligences, and proliferations obstinately resistant to the One, which is to say that “the” plant does not exist. Flora is a wellspring of suitable images for material abundance because vegetation is steeped in what we might term an ontological cornucopia, revealing that there is no Being behind its becoming, no unified core, center, or common denominator for growing multiplicities.

Psychoanalytically speaking, metaphysical philosophy produces a castrated image of vegetal existence (a stand-in for finite existence in general) as a projection of its own castration anxiety. What metaphysics has to say about plants is revealing of something crucial in its own structure: the lack it presumably spots in the vegetal world is the missing phallus of metaphysics itself, a dearth of the all-powerful unity it is obsessed with. Rather than recognize a gap in itself, such thought transposes it onto the other, who or that can then be depreciated and despised for the failure, which is actually internal to the depreciator. For, just as there is no “the” plant, so “the” One does not exist—an insight that gives a major blow to metaphysical thought.

Fair enough. But what about our economies and their repercussions? Are we not tired of the ideology of growth and weary of how our world is oversaturated with manufactured things as a consequence? The planet is drowning in piles of junk: plastic packages, Styrofoam, un-decomposable batteries, gadgets, appliances, clothes, furniture, and so forth that instantaneously become obsolete so as to satisfy the demand for constant growth… Is that also cornucopia? Is that how we imitate vegetal abundance?

For all the possible parallels between the overwhelming quantities of the fruit of human labor and actual fruit, the answer to the above questions is no. The products of vegetal growth enrich the soil as they decompose, while those of our industries are, more often than not, the non-biodegradable contaminants of the environment, nourishing nothing but the increase of capital. That is, in effect, the unmistakable unity behind the commodities that surround and suffocate us, namely the implacable law of economic value. More crucially still, the form of value is utterly indifferent to the content of what grows on the poisonous tree of capitalism: be it bombs or designer sunglasses, iPhones or pesticides. Vegetal cornucopia, for its part, is hylomorphic, meaning that plant matter is intimately tied to (and equiprimordial with) plant forms. And that is the only sufferable type of abundance, which results neither from the propagation of “stuff” at the expense of “spirit” nor from the deepening of the latter at the expense of the former.

There is, nonetheless, something disconcerting in cornucopia. Its iconic representations, such as Peter Paul Rubens’s Abundantia (c. 1630; cf. above), demonstrate the imbrication of animal form and vegetal matter, the fruit spilling over from the rigid shape of the horn. Unable to conceive of plant abundance in its own right, we seek the animal mediation in the hope that it would delimit the vegetal gift. An empty and inflexible horn gives form to, even if, as I have already mentioned, it cannot contain in itself plant giving. Let me try to put my finger on what is most unsettling here: the relation between a part of the mythical she-goat and the outpouring of plenty is as indifferent as that between the abstraction of exchange-value and the concrete use-values of the commodities produced under capitalism’s economic regime. Denied their claim to a form that, for a lack of a better term, is self-given, the contents of cornucopia are transformed into biomass and detained in the nightmare of a life which is not theirs. But not for long: the fruit tumble out, their excess over a frame foreign to them investing cornucopia with meaning.

In Rubens’s painting, the final moment—the destination or the destiny—of cornucopia is not the release of the fruits from the horn but the putti who gather them, both catching in midair and picking them up from the ground. Vegetal movement is frozen in the animal frame that holds it and the (quasi) humans who catch it. Rubens does not quite let the fruits fall; he delivers them to a clasping hand or to the ground. On the contrary, a cornucopia faithful to the vegetal world valorizes the interval of the free fall, the in-between that diverges from the competing frames imposed on it. After plant hylomorphism, that is the next best thing.

 

Note: A version of this text will appear in The Turnip Truck(s), vol. 4.

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