This Plant Who Is a Ghost


Michael Marder


When a specter haunts, who or what returns? In what way? Is it the form of a bygone existence? Its content? Or something that survives of the relation between them, tense and self-contradictory as that relation may have been?

Although the revenant is supposed to be immaterial, we often imagine it as having a determinate shape, vaguely reminiscent of a silhouette, which used to belong to the deceased. Typically, this shape is human; occasionally, it is recognizable as an animal (think back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, inspired by a posthumous legend of Squire Richard Cabell, whose ghost was periodically spotted leading a phantom pack of hounds). But what about plants? Is the fact they do not seem to merit the status of specters not a symptom of their exclusion from the realm of spirit?

Whatever the outlines of a ghostly figure, the logic driving its apparitions is rigorously animalistic. The biological organism perishes as a whole and, thereafter, its spiritual form, too, returns as a whole, as an ideal unity that pulled together and bestowed meaning upon the material substratum of life. The revenant’s silhouette is the trace of a mortal totality. A “pure” organism, separate from its tissues and organs, viscera and limbs, is thus a ghost. If this is the principle of spectral logic, then indeed plants do not fit the bill: they neither live as an organismic totality nor die all at once. Still, the fragmentary nature of plant life-death need not bar flowers, trees, shrubs, and even the grass from joining the ranks of ghosts. Quite the opposite: at its most intense, spectrality is vegetal.

The confluence of living and dying in the “same” space and time of existence supports the hypothesis regarding the vegetal nature of spectrality. The collective being that is the plant consists of living, dying, and dead members. More to the point, vegetal life is haunted by vegetal death: it lives off decaying and decayed plants turned into compost, including (in the case of a tree) its own fallen leaves and fruits. Other kinds of lives are also haunted by vegetal death. Whether receiving nourishment from animal or plant flesh, we metabolize the rot that fed plants that fed animals… in a shorter or longer chain of ghostly transformations. It is due to this excess over life in vegetal life that plants spook us and are represented as zombie-like in horror films and fiction. Animals and humans likewise contain such an excess, but its hiddenness from sight means that they come back to disturb the living after their death.

Seeds are tiny specters waiting on the sidelines of time to make their comeback. Dried or deep-frozen, they may delay the renaissance of the plant they issued from by hundreds of years. Between their release from the mother plant’s pod or cone and the instant of their germination that may never arrive, they linger in the grey area of living death. From there, they haunt the possibilities of survival, capable of overturning the historical verdict, according to which their species becomes extinct.

If, as Jacques Derrida was fond of saying, a ghost is a host, who not only revisits a house (aposteriori) but opens it up for habitation (apriori), then vegetal ghosts are the perfect hosts. Providing the atmospheric and nutritional conditions for human and animal vitality, they welcome life and hold the keys to the biosphere. Theirs, moreover, is a hospitality without interiority, corresponding to a mode of subjectivity without an inner self withdrawn from the world. And the dwelling they haunt, the ecology they dream up with their lives-deaths, is equally exterior, extraverted, stitched together of uneven and disjunctive surfaces. We are not the hostages of our vegetal hosts or ghosts: instead of holding us inside a haunted house, they keep us in an adjacent garden, the one we are actively changing into a barren, world-encompassing desert. (Wouldn’t the secular version of humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden involve a self-imposed exile from the flora?)   

The very air we inhale is the expiration of plants, their after-breath. A macro-phenomenon nestling at the micro-level of our respiratory systems, the exteriority of the atmosphere entering the lungs is the vegetal specter in us. Given that, from Athens to Jerusalem, the ancients deemed the soul pneumatic, made of or related to air, this physiological fact is not trifling. The breath of life in Stoicism and in the Book of Genesis is a bridge from a corporeal to a spiritual reality, with vegetal, oxygen-generating respiration for a vanishing mediator between these shores of being.

“OK,” you might respond. “But animals and humans do not die—and, therefore, do not live—the way plants do. Unlike them, we pass away (a euphemism that already envisions the return of the specter) in one piece, now alive and dead the next moment. Does this basic difference not proscribe all speculations on the vegetal core of spectrality as such?”

Fair enough. What the obvious rejoinder forgets, however, is that behind the monolithic narrative construction of human and animal deaths, we share a much more fragmentary mode of finite existence with plants. Our cells and tissues continually renewed, we die and survive bit by bit. The skin, the body’s largest organ, is akin to a tree trunk: a dead layer of keratinized squames on the outside, actively dividing basal cells on the inside; hard bark facing out, pith responsible for new growth tucked in. The objective traces of our activities—some as beautiful as a painting or a sculpture, others as monstrous as carbon emissions—are also a part of our piecemeal survival.  

And that is the elephant, or the giant sequoia, in the room: the carbon footprint. Exactly whose footprint is it? Who leaves it with what, or with whom? Burning fossil fuels, we conjure the ghosts of long-dead plants and prompt them to upend the breathing of those living today. As the atmosphere fills with greenhouse gases, a spectral struggle ensues between the respiration that gives the gift of air and that which takes it away. Before pneumatomachy can signify the denial of the deity of the Holy Spirit, it means a battle over breath, for or against the possibility of breathing, the battle wherein humanity takes the side of breathlessness, aggravated by a drastic deforestation of the Earth. In a crowning moment of Western metaphysics, the breath of spirit that resurrects dead vegetal and animal matter leads directly to physical suffocation. The vegetal specter in our lungs is double: a specter and the specter of this specter, oxygen and carbon emissions, a past suffused with futurity and a futureless past.

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