Voiceless Speech, or Vegetal Logos without Logos

by

Michael Marder

 

The obscure underside of the question who speaks? is a generally unquestioned assumption that there is something (a what, rather than a who) that does not speak. Speech or, more precisely, the capacity to speak confers the right to subjectivity and, hence, fitness to be counted as a who, not a what. This capacity wrests speaking beings from the world of mere noise or mute existence and bestows upon them the privilege of sense—of making, giving, and receiving sense. And it leaves many others behind in the dim regions of senselessness, of insignificance tied to the presumed absence of self-signifying.

Things become a little clearer if we translate the question who speaks?qui parle?—into yet another language, the vernacular of the Western metaphysical tradition. In the context of ancient Greek thought it asks who has access to logos? For Plato and Aristotle, both a portion of our own psyches and various non-human modes of existence are grouped under the heading alogon, that is to say, of that which is voiceless, shorn of speech, inarticulate, but also irrational, unreasonable, absurd… The polysemy of logos is then experienced in terms of its internal fissuring: humans speak and reason, but can fall into absurdity; animals have a voice without reason; plants have neither voice nor reason. As a result, tensions and contradictions persist in how logos is allocated among human beings, depending on which criteria are valid for a speech not deemed nonsensical, and among animals, according to their association with the power of vocalization devoid of reason. When it comes to plants, however, the exclusion appears to be absolute, rather than relative or partial, preventing them from latching onto any aspect of logos.

In response to who speaks?, we say with the utmost assurance: not a plant. But, even on the grounds of metaphysical thought, can anything or anyone be maintained, kept in being, without a modicum of articulation and hence without the gathering activity of logos? How can we hear plants speak? What kind of an ear is required so as to listen to their speech bereft of a voice, or, at least, of one that would be recognizable and familiar to us? These have been some of the most persistent, at once ontological and ethical, preoccupations of my plant-thinking.

A way of attending to the concerns raised here with regard to vegetal life is redrawing the boundaries of what is called speech. Such an exercise does not envision a growing inclusion of beings previously considered voiceless within the concentric circles surrounding an expanded notion of the voice. Instead, I’d like to focus on another meaning of logos, namely articulation, and with its help hasten a shift away from the contrast between muteness and speech.

Articulation is a beautiful word that does what it says; it articulates two disparate regimes, which, in Descartes, stood for extended and cognitive realities, respectively—res extensa and res cogitans. To articulate is to join things in space, as well as to render them into words; to put together and make contiguous, as well as to express and vocalize. Its operations destabilize the difference between the ideal and the material, just as, for Derrida, a certain type of broken articulation (the hinge, la brissure) disturbed the distinction between speech and writing.

In this light, who speaks? elliptically enquires: who speaks with what? Who articulates by means of a voice? Who resorts to a speech that, though voiceless, is no less articulate and articulated in its reliance on spatial jointures? A plant, for instance, is a specific self-articulation in response to the other, be it sunlight, water, or the other elements it draws together in its acts of living. It speaks by articulating itself in the place of its growth, by developing roots and branches, by producing the open-ended and infinitely replicated multiplicities of “morphological structures.” Not necessarily communicating anything, a plant speaks with and as its body, insofar as it is the very extending of the extended and the cognizing of cognition that gets in touch better, more thoroughly, with the world around as it grows.

Vegetal being is nothing but an articulation (and, as I’ve already mentioned, a self-articulation) of the extended-cognizing “thing.” It, too, contributes to the inevitable fracturing of logos, whence it receives speech without voice, a logos without logos. Far from a deficiency, this is the sine qua non of speaking: no finite articulation is in a position to articulate logos (articulation) as such and as a whole. “Who” speaks always limits the range, content, form, tone, rhythm, and modulations of the speaking that ensues. But in the absence of this enabling limitation there is no speech whatsoever. We should thus not hear in the vegetal logos without logos the deficiency and privation it has been linked to throughout the history of Western thought. The plant’s speech without voice is the positive limit of expression, promising to enrich our own sense of articulation and to rescue our theories of signification from their idealist impasse.

 

 

Leave a Reply

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