In the Middle: Vegetal Mediations

by

Michael Marder

 

In Plant-Thinking I characterized plants as “the media of proto-communication between diverse aspects of phusis” (66).[1] While developing the idea of vegetal mediation, I relied on Hegel’s dialectical approach, according to which plants are the first material bridges between the concrete universality of the earth and the purely abstract, ideal being of light. The problem, however, is that dialectical thought is in a rash to abandon the middle, to make its salto mortale and reach a new stage on the spiral itinerary of spirit, which is one or another version of the sky or the earth, idealism or realism. The vegetal in-between disappears. Far from unique to Hegel, such precipitousness is the hallmark of our cognition that hurries past the middle resolved into the union of mediated terms or, as so often happens now, that senses terror in the face of the encroaching end (of the world, of the planet, of life as such…) and speeds ahead toward the very thing it is afraid of. As a result, our thinking is poorly equipped for dealing with mundane existence (be it human, animal or vegetal), habitually situated in the middle of things, in medias res, living through its finite “meanwhile.”

I propose that we consider mediation from the unsurpassable middle—the milieu, the place of plants and of place-ness itself, a relation irreducible either to the relating or the related. The outcome of this exercise should bring us closer to vegetal being. And it should also dispel the myth of the beginning (is there any other kind of myth?) that least of all applies to plants, whose seeds and roots alike are the temporal and spatial extensions of the middle, rather than the origins they have been taken to represent.

It is, for all that, incredibly difficult to remain in the middle because, as a place, it is utterly unstable, prone to sudden about-faces, inversions and perversions. The vegetal bridge between the earth and the sky is, itself, a chasm; not only does it span the abyss, each time in a singular and essentially imperfect manner, but it also is an abyss in its own right. Or, in other words: a medium, an open passage from one thing or one plane to another, is at the same time an aporia, a non-passage, especially for the one who or that which lingers there. The middle is accessible solely in a state of suspension—between “above” and “below,” for instance—and irretrievable loss, the loss of what, in passing, does not come to pass, does not emerge from the channel to nowhere that is the milieu of existence. Seeing that their ontology belongs in the elemental in-between, at the intersection of various elements, plants, too, are suspended as though in midair, despite their ontic rootedness in the soil, and, so suspended, leave everything in suspense, uncertain. Existentially understood, existence is groundless, notwithstanding the fact that it resides entirely within the finite terrestrial fold (which is a synecdoche for the elemental fourfold). And, logically speaking, the middle is not a synthesis of multiplicities that traverse it but, on the contrary, the indigestible and the un-synthesizable, the so-called excluded middle, obeying the strange formula neither/nor and both/and.

All of this might be of help as we try to conceive of mediation as a mode of relation and, in turn, of relation as the simultaneity of articulation and disarticulation, togetherness and separation. Without the negative moment, without the gap that preserves the in-between, a relation would have been, at best, a mere fusion of two or more terms. A relational cut, the negativity of the void, is at the heart of mediation, above all in its vegetal iteration. This might seem counterintuitive—after all, a plant cannot be severed from its roots lest it perish. But insistence on continuity free of ruptures is misdirected even in the concrete instance of growth: a stem cutting taken from the mother-plant is capable of putting down new roots and re-establishing itself elsewhere (and this is not to mention root cuttings and leaf cuttings). Still, the constitutively interrupted vegetal mediation I am imagining has nothing to do with actual fragmentation. Let me explain.

The plant as a mediator among the elements distinguishes itself from, while in some sense carrying on, the purely inorganic articulation of the world. It no longer strictly obeys the mechanical laws of physics, as Avicenna, among others recognized, assigning the upward growth of the stem, which contravenes the force of gravity, to a super- or extra-natural (let us say, metaphysical) cause: the vegetal soul. Kant, for his part, gave an acknowledging nod to the divergence of physical and biological reasoning when he famously stated in his Critique of Judgment that “there will never be a Newton for a blade of grass.” The discontinuity and the cut, then, happen at the level of causality; of course, things are still related to one another there where organic being is non-existent (say, on Mars—albeit this absence of life is far from certain) but their relatedness is distinct from the relationality that emerges with plants. The vegetal articulation and disarticulation of the elements is no longer that of water falling on rocks or of sand that, disturbed by a gust of wind, flies into the air. Rely as a plant might on physical and chemical processes, such as osmosis in its intake of water, there is something that, thanks to its intervention, changes in the element beyond the usual cycles of evaporation and condensation. Something of the water absorbed by roots does not return, is processed and reprocessed, diverted into the detours of vegetal growth—or, if it returns, it does so in a shape that bears vague resemblance to the element (sap, juice, etc.).

When a mediator appears on the scene, what vanishes is the indifference of aspects related to one another on a merely physical plane and what arises is the world of meaning, that is to say, simply the world, which is always and necessarily a site of meaning for someone. This non-indifference, combined with the retreat of substance (a certain de-substantivation or virtualization) I have touched upon just now, is traditionally taken to be a mark of the soul. While they affirmed the uniqueness of vegetal soul, from Aristotle to Hegel, philosophers have considered it to be weak: too close—in space and in the logical order of things—to the mineral realm; too thoroughly imbued with apparent indifference; too substantive, outward, lacking the possibility of self-relation, with its non-extended circularity sheltering subjective interiority. The metaphysical plant mediates the world for the other, remaining by and large oblivious to itself, which is why no ethical qualms arise in its instrumentalization for extraneous ends. It has no inherent ends to speak of—so the argument goes—and, therefore, we, animal and human beings, complete its ontological incompletion by gifting it with our ends, which it is recruited to serve. We are thus incapable of leaving plants to their endlessness, assuming instead that they mediate the world for us—most materially and somewhat crudely—by making the world edible, by quasi-alchemically creating sustenance from water, sunlight, and dirt.

In contrast, the vegetal means shorn of an end that I would like us to come to terms with are faithful to the existential notion of existence, growing, unfolding, developing, moving for nothing (which we have converted into something for us). That is not to say that concerns with utility either are unimportant or can be wished away on theoretical whim. In the middle where we hopefully still are, we go a step further and interrogate the utility of utility, the use of use, which, as we will see is not, by far, the whole story. Succinctly put, the use of use is, itself, useless; all there is is a mediation of mediation—the middle of/in/for a middle…

To receive this lesson from plants, I invite you to transport or transplant yourselves to another time and place, namely the China of third century BCE, or the late Warring States period. There, we find a tale about Carpenter Shi and an oak, whose author Master Zhuangzi is acutely aware that plants, as well as all other living beings, live in excess of the value systems we thrust upon them. The carpenter’s complaint about an old oak he encounters near a village shrine is that it is useless—neither yielding edible fruit nor timber that could stay afloat if used to construct a boat. When the oak appears in his dream, it queries him about the value of value, understood in the sense of usefulness. The utility of fructiferous trees, it states, “makes life miserable for them, and so they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them but are cut off in mid-journey. […] As for me, I’ve been trying for a long time to be of no use. […] If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large? Moreover, you and I are both of us things. What’s the point of this—things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die—how do you know I am a worthless tree?”[2]

The teaching of the tree itself is that all existence is worthless from the standpoint of instrumental rationality, of the logic of means-and-ends. The oak speaks from the middle and it is the middle; through it and in it, the middle speaks. From it emanates a speech liberated from imposed ends and, indeed, from any ends whatsoever. Even if there were criteria for judging worth and worthlessness, these would have been inaccessible to the human carpenter, who projects his own ends onto everything, who sees in trees only potential lumber, and who is therefore expelled by his own posture and attitude from the middle point, crystalized in this parable from the Middle Kingdom. The oak, for its part, hints at the elusive mediation when it announces, “You and I are both of us things,” and asks, “What’s the point of this—things condemning things?” It creates a common ground for itself and a human being not by invoking their mastery over the world as subjects, but, to the contrary, the passivity of their being in the world and subjection to the relentlessness of time. The carpenter’s and the tree’s thingly nature implies their finitude, which simultaneously unites and separates them, or, in our terms, puts them in relation with one another. Mortality is the unique intimation of the end in this schema of means, media, middles cut off from pragmatic and ethical ends.

In addition to the different temporalities of human and vegetal existences, explored among other texts in Plant-Thinking, we have increased the ontological distance between plants and ourselves by becoming convinced that our lives have inherent ends, while those of plants do not. (Ironically, the preferred metaphor to convey teleological achievement is derived from the flora and entails the fruit, coming to fruition.) A metaphysical corrective to the ethical disasters provoked by metaphysics is extending the status of the ends-in-themselves, of autonomous and active agents, to plants. Eluding this solution is the insight that the ends militate against existence, which, whether inside or outside ourselves, is made subservient to them. An alternative suggestion would then depart from the shared condition of a finite endlessness and drift back to the middle from there. To exist, as a plant or a human, is to be in the middle: neither entirely within nor completely outside oneself. Let’s not hurry to leave this suspended and suspenseful spot, let’s let plants be finitely endless, and let’s let our own existence, too, recover its vegetal mediations.

 

[1] Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

[2] Zhuangzi, The Complete Works of Zhuangzi, translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 30-1.

Leave a Reply

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