Plant life and the fate of sexual difference (with and against Hegel)


Michael Marder


If sexual difference begins in the vegetal world, it does not find its pure origin in that world. Rather, it cuts right through the plant kingdom, whose members rely both on sexual and on asexual modes of reproduction. Suffused with sexuality, the corporeity called human bears this difference as a trace of vegetality, but it is precisely here, in the suffusion of animal and human bodies with sexuality that Hegel records their (our) divergence from the sexualisation of plants. According to his Philosophy of Nature, sexual difference is “only quite partial” in the vegetal kingdom (“der Unterschied ist so nur ganz partiell[i]) for two reasons. First, plant sexuality is indeterminate, and “the differences are very often changeable while plants are growing.” Second, and more importantly, this sexuality is concentrated in the flower, a detachable and superfluous part of plant, ein abgeschiedener Teil. “The different individuals,” Hegel writes, “cannot therefore be regarded as of different sexes because they have not been completely imbued with the principle of their opposition [sie nicht in daß Prinzip ihrer Eingegensetzung ganz eingetaucht find]—because this does not completely pervade them [nicht ganz durchbringt], is not a universal moment of the entire individual…”

In keeping with the Hegelian dialectics, plant indeterminacy expresses itself in the indecision between sexual and asexual modes of being and, within sexuality, between the masculine and the feminine sides. Vegetal sexual difference oscillates between the disjunction and the conjunction of the polarities it interrelates, on the one hand, and their erasure in asexual reproduction, on the other. Its refinement and determination will require a transition to animal existence, where the entire flesh is awash in sexuality, arranged in oppositional formations of the masculine against the feminine, us versus them.

What Hegel postulates, then, is the animalization of sexual difference through “the principle of opposition,” as a sign of the animal’s engagement, interest, non-indifference in itself and its other. And he interprets the precarious situation of the plant as that of an indifferent difference: uncommitted, utterly malleable, plastic, fluid due to its presumed lack of involvement, the incapacity to negate itself and its other on a path to the flowering of subjectivity. The breath-taking freedom of the plant flips, on Hegel’s prompting, into a nearly mechanistic individuality, a moment of technicity of and in nature.

To the polymorphous sexuality of plants, to their non-oppositionality, Hegel opposes “the principle of opposition,” that is, the dialectical principle par excellence. The implications of this move are broad. “We” can no longer say we or us without, in the same breath, standing over and against “them,” who are not just “not-us” but ontologically opposed to us. With this proviso: so long as “we” suppress “our” vegetal heritage. Being oneself is being against the other, not thriving in contiguity with alterity in the manner of plants; when all is said and done, it is being an animal, animalizing all difference, including sexual, in saying (roaring, screeching, growling, chirping, croaking, bellowing, hissing, barking, squeeking…) we in opposition to others who are not “us.”

From Hegel’s standpoint, not being against the other, the plant is also not itself. Immersed in the immediacy of an affirmation toward the outside, often indistinguishable from the inside, the plant is not bathed in, soaked, permeated (eingetaucht, durchbringt) with sexual difference as the principle of opposition. Or, at least, not totally (ganz) so, for this is a matter of partiality and totality: the totality of difference or its detachable, easily differentiated expression in a relatively free-standing part. The plant’s immersion in pure immanence separates its sexual organs, namely the flowers, from the rest of its body that disobeys the principle of opposition, in and through which difference is registered, organized, and incorporated into organic being. The Hegelian flower is cut apriori, culled from the vegetal extension to which it belongs, as it were, by accident, as a playful and not entirely necessary supplement.

Plant sexual ontology condenses in itself all the promises and paradoxes of plant ontology as such. Their slipping away from the principle of opposition liberates plants from two things as once: the dominion of a principle and the logic of oppositionality. Growing and reproducing regardless of a single governing rule (say, the “law” of sexual reproduction) and without beginning, an-archically, the meaning of plants blossoms and comes to fruition at the pace of their life or lives, full of surprising twists and turns, of differences that are “very changeable,” mutable, alterable: sehr wandelbar. The vegetal world is home to different differences, i.e., differences that preclude sameness both at the level of their form and at the level of content, while Hegel strives to set up a dialectic of difference in content and formal sameness, which is the principle of negation and contradiction. Sexual difference is not an exception from this rule. By being too different in its vegetal version, it reverts back, in Hegel’s eyes, to indifference and non-differentiation, affecting the “genus-process,” Gattungs-Prozeß, and the life-process of each plant.

What is the vegetal “we,” then, quilted together as it is from different differences, absent a foothold, or a roothold, in sameness? (I note in passing that radical difference is a quality of vegetal subjectivity, which cannot be observed within the knowledge context of biology. Evidently, plant cells and DNA do not display that kind of difference, even if they support it with remarkable phenotypic plasticity and, more pertinently, fluid sex determination.) In the case of animal and human communities, a we consists of a number of individuals; it names a grouping or an assembly comprised of members who are distinct from the collectivity and who, while participating in it, maintain their identity outside it. But the Hegelian point is that, in order to occupy this position inside-out or outside-in, the individual must be imbued with the principle oppositionality, starting with the oppositional organization of sexual difference. In its entirety, as a whole, the individual is determined by the possibility of a total negation by the other, with sexuality and death, Eros and Thanatos, fleshing out the totality of existential negation. The individuals’ participation in a community is a return, a conscious taking-hold of, or, in totalitarian systems, delivering themselves to, the forces responsible for their individuation. First and foremost, their sexual individuation, seeing that “the entire habit (habitus) of the individual must be bound up with its sex [Der ganze Habitus des Individuums muß mit seinem Geschlecht verbunden sein],” that is to say, with the principle of oppositionality that defines dialectical sexual ontology and dialectics as such, itself an expression of oppositionally organized sexual difference in thought.

Plants, for their part, are and think differently, indicating an escape route from dialectics within dialectics and putting into question the suffocating totality of community. “The difference reached by the plant, which is a difference of one vegetative self [einem vegetativen Selbst] from another vegetative self, each of which has the urge to identify itself with the other—this determination exists only as an analogue of the sexual relation [ein Analogon des Geschlechts-Verhältnisse]. For the sides of the relation are not two individuals.” The vegetal we is made not of individuals but of super- or infra-individual differences, because the “self” of a plant is not an individual, either. In the flora, sexual difference is a relation involving something more or something less than two individuals, which, for Hegel, is no longer or not yet a relation, but its “analogue”—literally, the putting into proportion of differences. The analogy of the sexual relation slots plants above and below logos, the realm of principles and oppositions summed up in the principle of oppositionality. Circumventing the mediations of logos, the vegetal we is unsayable, uncontainable in the medium of the voice and inappropriate to a way of assembling thoughts in the formations of contra-diction or non-contra-diction. Rather than inside-out or outside-in a community, the plant is completely outside, which, if we follow Hegel, comes to being completely within, based on the indifference of radical difference.

Besides the extra-individual nature of vegetal existence, which contributes to the misalignment of communal boundaries between this existence and that of animals and humans, the “analogy of the sexual relation” explains the essential superficiality of plant life. Sexualisation grants the dialectical subject its form, as well as its specific character. At its crest, only “when the inner, generative forces have reached complete penetration and saturation [die ganze Durchbringung und Sättigung], does the individual possess the sexual impulse, and only then is it awakened.”

The subjective interiority of the animal and the human is the product of the withholding of the sexual impulse within a totality forged by generative forces in a state of “complete penetration and saturation.” Before the act of penetration, the individual is penetrated by sexual difference, to the point of repletion and satiation, triggering the sexual impulse. Its subjectivity is nothing other than a force (here, the drive, “generative forces”) kept at bay and inexhaustible in its occasional exteriorizations. Any we that may emerge from the tensions and bursts of that accumulated force will happen as a meeting of two or more interiorities, of dark recesses and reserves where each subject will hide, despite and in the course of its exposure to the other.

Conversely, the vegetal we will be superficial, craving nothing more than a caress of sunrays, of a gust of wind or butterfly wings spreading pollen. In its exteriority, the “analogy of the sexual relation” is a brushing of two or more surfaces that do not occlude a hidden reserve but open unto to the other unreservedly. There might be friction but no opposition there, where in place of the drive, pulsion of force, “an impulse,” one finds “the development of its [the plant’s] organs [daß Bildende seiner Organe],” the formation and opening of flowers. Flowering toward the other (outside the vegetal world, femininity in general has been frequently associated with such flowering) is in stark contrast to penetrating or being penetrated by the other. How to imagine the we of this flowering and the flowered-toward…?

Hegel, for one, is incapable of doing and saying so. Devoid of opposition, vegetal difference becomes indistinguishable from indifference, otherness from sameness, unconditional openness to the other from absolute closure. So much so that Hegel disclaims the sexual difference of plants: “The plant therefore is asexual [Geschlechtlos], even the Dioecia, because the sexual parts form a closed, separate circle [eine abgeschlossenen, besonderen Kreis] apart from their individuality.” Beyond dialectical being, concretized across its self-negations and self-determinations that commence with its abstract opposition to nothing, there is but non-being; outside the confines of dialectical thought—only non-thought.

To be sure, Hegel could not have known about phytoestrogens and complex hormonal networks traversing the bodies of plants and carrying these and other hormones. But this is not a good excuse. Behind his use of botanical data at the cutting edge of nineteenth-century science is a double methodological thrust I have already pointed out: 1) to cull the flower from the rest of the vegetal body, whose asexual and deathless non-individuated limits it transgresses and 2) by culling the flower, to cut the plant from relationality and a possible model of community—something “we” must resist today, especially when contemplating how to say we, us, nosotrxs

Why then read Philosophy of Nature, Part II of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences in “our” twenty-first century, given that the author of this treatise seems to preclude the more just, inclusive, ecologically and socially sensitive ways of articulating the common? Because dialectical reason works behind Hegel’s back: in addition to co-opting and neutralizing, it promotes the vectors of liberation, among them the vegetal and the communal.

Take, for instance, the early formulation of sexual difference in plants in Paragraph 348: “But the plant does not attain to a relationship between individuals as such [als solcher] but only to a difference, whose sides are not at the same time in themselves whole individuals…; therefore, the difference, too, does not go beyond a beginning [einem Beginn] and an adumbration of the genus-process.” A relationship between individual terms recedes to the background in the measure that the terms are individuated and foregrounded, obstructing with their definite outlines the very relation they participate in; in other words, they leave no room for relationality or difference as such. Plants, however, attain to a difference underlying any relation, a silent word underwriting all speech. They have already articulated their we before “us” and as a precondition for “our” saying anything whatsoever. That articulation “does not go beyond a beginning”—in fact, it may even precede the beginning—but its commencement is one “we” must always return to in every aspiration to a beyond. The uniqueness of vegetal difference is that it is generic albeit not abstract, different as such and not as such, essentially and existentially. For this reason, it admits diverse genres and genders into its midst, even as it withdraws from the relational grounds it fertilizes.

I wonder, at the same time, what would have happened, were Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature to transition not only from vegetality to animality, but also from animality (“the animal organism,” with which it culminates) to humanity, and were it to do so precisely as a philosophy of nature, rather than a phenomenology of spirit. How would the manifold differences in sexual difference have appeared? In which light would they have been cast?

A possible conjecture is that, once humanized, sexual difference will be wrapped in tragedy. Already an animal experiences sexuality as the embodied principle of opposition, permeating the entire organism, and, therefore, as “the negative power [die negative Macht] over the individual, realized through the sacrifice of this individual which it replaces by another.”[i] The very negative power that produces the individual by turning the self against itself and against its other consumes its product in the species, to which the organism is subordinated. The we gains an upper hand over the I, if only by adding another I meant to replace the first.   Resolving oppositionally configured sexual difference in progeny is not a happy synthesis but, on the contrary, intergenerational sacrifice, continuing to fuel dialectical frictions between the singular and the universal.

As for the human, sexual difference reaches over into the legal and political spheres, where the opposition between the masculine and the feminine comes to a head. In Phenomenology of Spirit (Paragraph 708), Creon and Antigone enact the tragic dimension that exacerbates the power of negativity palpable in animal sexuality. Sublimated, the principle of oppositionality that saturates a sexed body spills over into distinct conceptions and practices of communal being with irreconcilable demands laid on the subject: the we of the family and a living tradition versus the we of the state and a deadening law. The gendered assignment of roles and modalities of communal belonging become ultimately incompatible and discordant. But the tragedy, stricto sensu, is that, while the human is both, the interplay of sexual difference leads to a sacrifice of one term in the relation (here, Antigone) to the other (Creon). That is a pyrrhic victory of humanity, its most intimate difference and relationality in ruins, over which presides a neutral and neutralizing “human law,” as opposed to the “divine law” that dies with Antigone. Negative power migrates from the species-organism to the law-legal subject nexus, making Creon one of technocracy’s pioneers.

Because Hegel takes the generic character of sexual difference in plants to be “formal,” and so immune to internal negation and to permeation by the spirit of opposition, he concedes that the element of sacrifice is absent from vegetal sexuality. Instead of a negative power, the plant incarnates “this positive side,” diese positive Seite, of the genus-process, which is one and the same as its “relationship to the outer world.” Its I is immediately a we, and its we an I oriented toward exteriority. The self-production of a vegetal living being is its reproduction in the other, and its replacement by another is an affirmation of the heteronomous self. The positive side that knows no sacrifice is, in the end, “the only necessary side of the negation [allein nötige Seite der Negation]” oblivious to dialectical mediations. Too different, it lapses into sameness. So, whereas the animal or animalized iterations of sexual difference are tragic, the vegetal varieties are comic, full of sudden reversals, mishmashes, and confusions. (In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel asserts that plants were the living enablers of the “mingling” or “blending,” Vermischung, of natural forms and forms of thought—hence, what I term plant-thinking”). The comic element of vegetal sexuality resides in these confusions or immediate identifications of extremes as much as in “playful superfluity” and contingency, given that the plant can reproduce itself without resorting to sexual difference.

To the problem of the we, to the question concerning “us,” sexual difference in plants silently responds that existence is coexistence. No doubt, this insight holds for human beings, too, and Heidegger put it with utmost lucidity when he described Dasein as Mitdasein, being-there as being-with. But, although playful inversions and confusions are abundant in human life, they are nowhere near the plasticity of vegetal existence, sexual or otherwise. At this point, again, the significance of Hegel is glaring. For all that one may learn from plants, direct mimesis (a non-representational imitation of their being) is a non-starter. Hegel’s take-home message is that mediation is ineluctable, not the least for ecologically different sexual differences. Deepening the tragic standoff of animality, human sexuality has not yet become human; if anything—and much like family, society, law, politics and other ingredients of the Hegelian right (Recht)—it has been hyperanimalized. Becoming human does not imply rejecting “our” rich non-human heritage, but, on the contrary, drawing on more of this heritage, especially on the repressed vegetal dimension of sexual difference. The challenge is to embrace the plant and the animal, surface and depth, non-oppositionality and oppositionality in a condition I can only call tragicomic. To combine what Nietzsche derided as “bearish seriousness” with flowery levity.


[i] Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Nature: Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Part II, translated by A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), the section on “Vegetable Nature.”

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