Diasporic Thoughts on Migration: Of Plants and Places


Michael Marder


Sometimes, right on its semantic surfaces, language relieves the burden of repression that has built up over the millennia of metaphysical thought. This is the case with the word diaspora. An obdurately entrenched popular conviction that plants are immobile is a symptom for the repression of insights—practical intuitions more than elaborate theories, to be sure—into vegetal motility. And yet, one of our main figures for the effects of human migration borrows a technical term from botanical discourse, where diaspore refers to seeds or spores, plus the plant’s anatomical structures fitted for their dispersal. A fruit with its seeds is a diaspore, as is the white dandelion puff ball and tumbleweed rolling across wind-swept plains. Diasporic communities are the residues of human migratory flows, imagined by analogy to the movement of plants.

What is it that moves and how, when diaspores and diasporas are set loose? At its Greek source, the word indicates the splitting of the scattered. An obvious interpretation of this etymology would be that seed dispersal units, such as ripe fruits ready to fall to the ground, detach from the mother plant, and that human migrants are cut off from their original communities cast in the role of trees that nourished them. There is, however, much more to diaspores and diasporas than initially meets the eye.

Detachment is the intimate possibility of plants, with many of their parts “prosthetic,” replaceable, ready to be shed without causing harm to those that tentatively stay behind. Further, scatter is not an accident that only belatedly affects the seed; whether we are talking about spora or sperma (the difference between vegetal, animal, and human reproduction blurred), seed is essentially scatter, still before it reaches the ground, is carried by water, or glides on air. Its division into two (dia-) and into an infinity that stirs between two intensifies the dynamics proper to what is internally, congenitally divided. In their hyperbolic, almost tautological reiteration of pre-existing detachment and scatter, diaspores and diasporas make visible those movements that have always traversed, if imperceptibly, plant and human existences.

The inorganic world gets caught up in the semantics of the diaspore as well, considering that it lends a name to a mineral (diasporite, empholite), which, after being heated, breaks up into white pearly scales. But, despite the blurring of boundaries among biological kingdoms and between organic and inorganic realms, vegetal migrations have their distinctive traits. For one, plants use reproductive structures specialized for seed or spore dispersal, whereas animals and humans may journey both in the encrypted form of their DNA, separate from the bodies that have released it, and as “whole” organisms. For another, plants catch a ride on the backs of others: the elements, such as atmospheric movements of air masses; insects wings ; the digestive tracts of animals, who will excrete the seeds they have devoured without interfering with their generative, germinal potential… Let us follow each of these two threads and see whither they lead us in their unspooling.

In seeds, spores, and pollen, plants condense themselves, distilling their being into something portable. (A tumbleweed diaspore deviates from this rule, as virtually the entire plant detaches from the root to roam the earth in the wind. A perfect metaphor for an uprooted neoliberal individual, it invites a more direct comparison to human migrations than the scatter of pollen or seeds. That said, the value of directness is dubious where originary dispersion is at stake.) By and large, they travel light, packing the bare minimum indispensable for future growth elsewhere, the growth that will be shaped by and will eventually shape the seed’s landing site. Our migrations are not as flexible. Human migrants stand in need of careful transplanting techniques so as to grow new roots in the soil of another country, culture, place, while abiding between identities, cultures, histories.

Still, the contrast between vegetal parts and human wholes has its limits. If, rather than organs, diaspores are the autonomous and anarchic multiplicities, then they are both more and less than an organism. Their simultaneously supra- and infra-organismic makeup allows them to prefigure dispersed communities on the move or, in a word, diasporas. Multiplicity is engrained in the singularity of a migratory identity, very much in keeping with the subjectivity of plants that are one in many and many in one. Migration has to do with population fluxes, and a migrant is a fleeting individuation out of the motile mass, a flickering speck in the scatter of numerous dots. To disregard the primacy of mass movements is to switch attention, surreptitiously, from migrants to itinerant persons and, hence, to depoliticize them.

How plants are dispersed is equally significant. Letting the diaspore and its contents drop down to earth or entrusting it to the wind, the pollen attaching to butterfly wings or the seeds wending their way to another place in the stomachs of birds—all these acts are awash with the contingencies of carrying and of landing. In throwing themselves, in opening themselves up to dis- or relocation, plants throw their fates to chance. As a compensation for the uncertainty of the outcome, they increase the number of throws, following a near infinity of possible trajectories, some of them bound to succeed where a vast majority fail. Is this luxury available to a human migrant?

In truth, the categories of success and failure only make sense upon arrival at a destination, however unexpected that terminal point may be. The logic of arrival is foreign to diaspora and migration. Neither an emigrant nor an immigrant, a migrant, like a mobile diaspore, is suspended in the in-between after departure and before arrival. For many, most recently in the Mediterranean basin, the suspension has proven deadly. It put them in limbo, in a broken transit line with no end in sight, both finite and infinite, the “middle passage,” as Edouard Glissant christened it with regard to forced migrations in transatlantic slave trade. (It bears mentioning here that okra seeds migrated to the New World across the middle passage, concealed in the hair of African slaves.) But even those who safely reach the desired shores are not free from the uncanny interval containing in itself the entire phenomenon of migration in miniature. Awaiting their transplantation, human migrants, again like seeds and pollen, migrate in their afterlife, which is also their beforelife, a stretch, a span as temporal as it is spatial. The spatiotemporal stretch is none other than the stretching of existence, at once posthumous and prehumous, not yet compartmentalized into individual and collective, mine and ours. As a perpetual migrant, I thus dare assert: migration is being-human, just as, with all the necessary modifications, it is being-vegetal and being-animal.

Their scattering at the beginning and in the end notwithstanding, human migratory flows display determinate patterns and follow clearly identifiable vectors. People flee from extreme danger and scarcity to perceived safety, plentiful resources, and the promise of well-being, if not of happiness. Plants, too, can respond to perilous situations (e.g., of being under attack by herbivories) by initiating physiological, morphological, or other changes in themselves, and they can grow deliberately toward the resources that are vital for them, including sunlight, moisture and minerals in the soil. But when they release their so-called genetic material to be carried by the wind or by bees, they do not calculate the trajectory of the throw and refrain from choosing an optimal vector for the realization of their procreative goals. Unless they do so at a transgenerational, evolutionary level…

The German and French philosophical traditions, encompassing among others Kant, Schiller, and Hegel, as well as Bataille and Derrida, to whose dissemination I feel incredibly close (what is dissemination, if not the Latinized rendering of the Greek diaspora?), have framed the vegetal wager as excessive and superfluous, a surfeit over and above (or below) the economic logic of investment-and-return, as though the throw were “for nothing.” This eccentric behavior is strange for an ideal and ideally autonomous human subject alone. Vegetal heteronomy means that, having been thrown and in all probability thrown away, the seed retraces, outside the usual pitting of activity against passivity, the pathways of others, from the elements to the swarms of insects and flocks of birds. Plants are essentially collaborative, synergetic beings, which is why their migratory itineraries rehearse and reaffirm the large-scale movements of air masses, of the retreating ice sheets, or of animal and human populations.

Proceeding sporadically, at a halting rhythm, where every step may be the last and where the continuity of concerted motion is in com-motion, peppered with discontinuities, migrations impel migrants to travel with split identities: already not the same as they were in the place they left and not yet the other they will become in the new locale. Plants exist as migrants in themselves—which is to say, in the other—even when their seeds do not disperse in space; they travel in the cracks of sameness and difference, between self and other. Their growth, along with every instance of becoming, is exilic from the perspective of pure and immutable being: it shatters the fictitious unity of the seed, which is shattered as such, prior to and apart from the first signs of germination and sprouting. We, humans, are also capable of migrating in ourselves, by becoming other to ourselves, without really leaving the places where we physically are. The name for this capacity is imagination.

An additional complication in the story of migration surfaces, as if exposed by the melting Arctic ice or floating on the waves of the rising seas, in the age of climate change. Membership in the category environmental refugees, encompassing not only humans but also plants, animals, fungi, and countless other forms of life, is snowballing as global temperature rise. Displaced populations of all kinds are on the move. Climate change is one of the elemental forces, akin to wind, driving human migrations, in contravention of the belief that humanity has finally managed to dominate and subdue the capricious and destructive powers of “first” nature. The historical, economic, religious, and other tendencies of our “second” nature fulfil, moreover, the functions of air and water currents, carrying human populations away from sectarian violence or toward increased economic opportunities. The emergence of “second” nature foments elemental social forces, doing the work of the physical elements on another plane of existence. And climate change is where the two natures intersect, the one pushing the other in a downward spiral to the brink of devastation.

It is, therefore, doubly crucial to contemplate the sense of anthropogenic impact on the environment and how this impact ricochets, hitting both human and non-human populations. On the one hand, climate change means that places are no longer in place; they shift elsewhere, migrate, are displaced, misplaced, or unplaced. What, then, does migration look like in a world of wandering places that are no longer the ultimate wherein of movement? How to paint the image of a displacement within relentless and pervasive displacement? On the other hand, isn’t a place always displaced in itself, with global climate change merely bringing this implicit structural feature to the fore? If so, then places are both analogous to seeds (displacement indwells the place; diaspora inheres in a seed) and they are seeds, divided in themselves, disseminated, dispersed in their very unity, unicity, and uniqueness.

The global environmental catastrophe we are living or dying through cannot be reduced to the displacement of vegetal, human, animal populations from their native habitats. Nor—though here we are in greater vicinity to the heart of the matter—is it tantamount to a displacement of places, mysteriously progressing, regressing, or digressing from there where they are at this precise instant. It turns out that the livable character of the world—whoever it is a world for—has been ensured by the largely unlivable, iced over swathes of the earth. Circumscribed placelessness has guaranteed the relative stability of places. With the intervals of existence shrinking and dwindling, the destination of the unhinged and unhinging movement of places is evident: the mass migration of places tends toward placelessness no longer circumscribed, generalized, unchained, thwarting the conditions of habitability that make a place what it is. The sixth mass extinction now under way is a comet’s tail of this development.

Given the fitful history of life on the planet, we find some hope in our dire predicament: our consolation is that, though no longer suitable for us, a place may still be propitious to the lives of others, notably of other-than-human forms of life. Under the banner of ecological resilience, meant to make an unmitigated disaster palatable, plants are the main protagonists. It is true that their plasticity is remarkable at the physiological and epigenetic levels. Vegetation is able to adapt to ionizing radiation and to resist environmental mutagens better, more efficiently than we do. Plants survive Chernobyl; fresh, brilliantly green shoots are not long in sprouting after devastating and ever more frequent forest fires; and grasses and weeds make their comeback to the postindustrial wastelands. They come to embody in this manner the miraculous, phoenix-like attributes humans have been imputing to the natural environment since times immemorial, the attributes according to which no matter the severity of the violence our species unleashes onto the planet, ecosystems will regenerate and the “circle of life” will begin gyrating once again.

The projection of a world without us where paradisiac, prelapsarian nature will be recovered thanks to vegetal diasporas is a hard-to-resist temptation. Migrating seeds will accidentally fall on polluted or burnt soil, near contaminated rivers and lakes, and redeem the ravished earth, cutting short the migration of places into placelessness. Rewilding is in vogue. The plants will inherit the earth. Mantras such as these help keep the thought of a globally encroaching terrestrial and marine toxic desert at bay. At what cost? At the cost of migratory discontinuities, halting rhythms, and sporadic renewals that may or may not happen.

Our delusional dreams of being surrounded by an inexhaustibly fertile nature, construed as an infinitely stocked warehouse, skip over the diasporic register of no return and, perhaps, no advance of any meaningful sort. Ongoing regeneration occurs within the fragile and relatively narrow limits that are currently under a severe threat. Seeds that have just fallen in the cracks of concrete have a chance to germinate. Will the odds be the same by the end of the century when droughts, excessively high temperatures, and depleted soils will be the global rule, rather than an exception? In a 2014 report, the UN warned that, assuming current rates of degradation, most of the planet’s topsoil could be gone by 2075. The alarming prospect is that the earth has less than sixty years of crops to give before becoming infertile. The daunting “point of no-return,” at which the window of opportunity to forestall a global environmental catastrophe shuts close, is a radically diasporic one, slipping discontinuity into cumulative change and exploding into a multitude of terminal points, as far as species’ and ecosystems’ survival is concerned.

It may seem that our analysis of diaspora has strayed from a focus on human and plant migrations, let alone from the subterranean influence each kind of movement exerts on the other. But that is only a matter of seeming. Plants are of a piece with climates and the sites they inhabit. Migration in a place comprises vegetative growth—fleshing out a way of living in-between, without definite departure and arrival terminals—and asexual reproduction; the migration of plant parts to other places accounts for sexual reproduction. Through the plants’ being-in-place and their flight elsewhere, the places themselves grow or contract, metamorphose, and wander otherwise than they do in elemental circulation and in the macabre course of climate change. With its own scatter both in growth and reproduction, vegetation disperses places and, in so doing, hands them back to themselves, not to the looming placelessness tied to the decline of habitability. In more senses than one, diasporic thought is plant-thinking.

The question is: how can human diasporas accomplish the vegetal feat? How, in the dispersion of the seed, to respect the placeness of place? To learn from plants in this regard is not to embrace a static mode of being, staying put and conservatively protecting one’s own territory. On the contrary, it is to transform the in-between of movement, growth, and becoming into the sole destination, without imposing a preset genetic or other program onto the future, without, that is, transplanting past behavioral molds onto another place and time.

Traveling light is heavy on responsibility and, indeed, on responsiveness to a different spatiotemporal stretch, in which—and as which—one locates oneself. Migratory responsiveness exceeds a vigilant reaction to the shifting circumstances. It corresponds to constant structural alterations in the responding being that grows with its places of growth, rather than passing through them with more or less destructive force while maintaining itself essentially the same. Or, perhaps, keeping in mind a certain lightness in the assessment of outcomes in terms of successes and failures, one would neither grow with nor pass through a place but, after the manner of a dormant seed, simply stay in reserve. This would also be a response, negative and oblique, to the inappropriateness of the environmental conditions and circumstances to the growing being, or of that being to the new place.  

If, as Hegel observed in his philosophy of nature, plant sexuality is the threshold, at which vegetality outstrips itself and passes over into what it is not, then it is only fitting that the self-understanding of human migrations involves aspects of sexual reproduction drawn from the world of plants: diasporas cite the precedent of diaspores. An upshot of reclaimed vegetal heritage is that perspectives on migration, community, place and even time are tacitly sexualized. Diasporic movements pursue along their plural routes the process of plant sexuality in disguise.

Alternatively, working backwards from human to vegetal phenomena, we might say that diaspora privileges the reproductive moment already salient in plant sexuality: it problematizes the hurling of the past into the future in a jagged timeline, full of lacunae and gaps puncturing the illusion of continuity. The string of our migrations is tied to the seed scattered in itself, that is, harboring time in its embryonic body. Existing in several times at the same time, the divided seed is likewise never of a single place; it belongs to a whole array of locales, from the one where it first materialized to the one where it may germinate and a welter of others between the two. In their turn, diasporas replace, through a not-so-subtle mutation or permutation, biological birth from a pair of parents with cultural renaissance from the interstitial sociality of human existence. Their intermittencies are those of a death in life, a suspension of relentless vitality, like holding one’s breath without knowing whether another moment of inhalation would follow respiratory interruption. Without knowing whether the reproduction of existence, vegetal or human, would ensue ever again.

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