Further Contributions to Phytogenesis

by

Michael Marder

 

“Further Contributions…” The beginning does not begin as it should. Least of all, when we begin with the beginning, in and at the beginning—for instance, with In the beginning, God created heavens and earth. To begin with, there is either too much or too little there, in the beginning. Or, indeed, both: too-much-too-little.

The tired theological question Did God create the world out of nothing—ex nihilo—or out of something? concentrates in itself the religious as much as the secular paradox of the beginning, of a genesis invariably nullified by itself. If the world is created out of nothing, then the beginning is also nil: it does not exist, for, as soon as there is something, it is no longer a beginning. If, conversely, the world is created out of something, then the beginning will have been preceded by something else that will have begun before it, again denying it the honor of being a beginning. In secular (or, at least, in secularized) terms, the beginning detained at a unique and clearly identifiable point in time is not a beginning but a stop-frame of reality. Suffice it to press the play button, and the beginning evanesces, now as a mere moment of transition in the temporal flow.

The incipient Biblical words themselves, In the beginning…, begin with a major confusion, which translations from Hebrew to Greek and on to English and other languages only aggravate. B’reshith (בְּרֵאשִׁית) is rendered in the Septuagint as en archē (Ἐν ἀρχῇ).[1] Lost in translation is the literal aspect of the Hebrew word, meaning “in or at the head.” One does not begin abstractly with the beginning; rather, what first emerges (as in the birth process) is a figure, or a figuration, of that which claims to be the first. Namely, a head. We ought to put to one side the can of worms this interpretation opens: In whose head did God create heavens and earth? His own? Or, do heavens and earth stand for the double head of creation itself? What matters for our purposes is that the Greek archē, the complexities of which Latinate derivations try to express with recourse to the couple principle/principal (the first Biblical verse according to the Vulgata is In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram), takes over the beginning, disembodying, if not decapitating, it. More than that, what is noteworthy is the absence of genesis, that other word for the beginning, lending the inaugural book of the Pentateuch its Greek title.

Whatever happens or fails to happen at that point in the beginning erases the beginning. In Greek—and not only—, Genesis entitles the translation of the book that in Hebrew is known as B’reshith, but, instead of genesis, we find archē among the book’s opening words. So, what if we were to perform the opposite hermeneutical-exegetical gesture, insinuating genesis in place of archē?

Here, a brief overview of the significations of genesis in ancient Greek is in order. With this word, Plato designates birth or being born, as in Phaedo 88a—prin kai genesthai hēmas, “before we were even born.” Then, in The Republic, he reads becoming into genesis, advising against studying it and advocating, instead, a contemplation of being: “If [a study] compels you to contemplate being, it is suitable, if becoming—unsuitable [ei de genesin, ou prosēkei]” (526e). Aristotle distinguishes between absolute becoming, as coming-into-being, and relative becoming, as becoming-this-or-that: “for we say that he who learns becomes learned [gignesthai men epistēmona], but not that he comes to be as such [gignesthai d’haplos]” (De Gen. et Corr. 318a35).

These and many other texts interweave the two semantic threads of genesis: 1) coming to be and 2) continuing to become. It is the source or the origin and that which emanates from the origin. One cannot unsnarl this conceptual knot without undercutting the intelligibility of what is tied in it. Articulated as genesis, the beginning does not have an end, insofar as it extends to everything and everyone springing forth from it. Nor does it have a beginning, because there is no definitive cut preceding it, no void, but birthing from the other. (Even in ex nihilo, the preposition ex—out of—emphasizes the continuity of emanation, despite the radicality of derivation from the void, from nothing.)

As a result, genesis appears to be much more vegetal than archē. The dimming down of clear-cut beginnings and ends, in the midst of an account given of the beginning, focuses the spotlight on the ever-extending metamorphosing middle, closer to a germinating seed than to an emerging head. The extension of this middle in the generative process also sketches out a vegetal way of being born, retaining the organs that tether the existent in statu nascendi to the earth, rather than cutting the umbilical cord. Indeed, plants are rooted both in the earth and in the sky, coming closer, in their singular way, to the universality of what was in the beginning, from the very beginning, split into two—the sky and the earth. I would thus venture my first hypothesis, borne out in a different manner by each new beginning: all genesis is a phytogenesis, whether or not plants are present in or expressly absent from its unraveling.

In light of their enviable capacity for regeneration and self-refashioning, losing and adding on organs according to the seasons and the environmental circumstances, plants are the virtuosos of genesis; in the middle of existence, they start each time from the beginning of themselves and of the world. In a decidedly human context, the capacity to begin repeatedly is, for Hannah Arendt, the capacity to act, where the beginning “is not the beginning of something out of something but of somebody, who is a beginner himself.”[2] Her word for the first beginning as the event of our appearance in the world is natality, recapturing via Latin nātus (born, arisen), aspects of the Greek genesis. The second beginning, then, germinates in our self-recreation together with others through an action that is properly political (but also vegetal).[3] I am sure that plants were far from Arendt’s mind when she formulated her theory of political action as the second beginning, the other natality, a new genesis. Still, according to her own criteria, plants are the perpetual beginners, who recommence over and over again, thanks to their inventive self-articulations. In this, they are also consummately political, reborn together with the elements, with other plants, with fungi, subterranean microorganisms, insects…

Inspired by a heterodox reading of Arendt, my second hypothesis is that to be a plant is to be a beginner, or, in other words, that there is a secret equivalence between the two parts of the composite word phytogenesis. Phyto = genesis. After all, the verb, from which the Greek for plant (phuton) and for nature (phusis) derive, is phuein—to grow, as much as to emerge, to beget, to be born, and, hence, to begin, to come-to-be.[4] (I should mention, within a parenthesis that could be extended almost indefinitely, that our contemporary negation of nature as a meaningful concept is, in the first and last instances, a refusal to continue speaking and thinking in Latin, to keep abiding by everything the translation or mistranslation of phusis into natura has implied over the centuries. “Without nature” entails nothing more and nothing less than “without ‘nature’.” All too often, and unbeknownst to themselves, such negative and dismissive gestures end up affirming a patchwork of elements that inhere in phusis. Delatinizing “nature,” which conceptual and natural language or languages do they choose to speak?)

In the word itself, as this word, genesis will have been preceded: it rebegins what phyto has already announced and begun otherwise. In the same breath, phytogenesis says the first and the second beginning, the two folded into one and each unfolding both in itself and in the other, in the middle, between the other and itself. Redoubled, the beginning is bolstered and displaced or disordered, stays put and is set in motion: energized. It emerges from the density of the elemental abode, it is born, it comes to be and grows without giving up on the freshness of its inception, faithful to its roots and punctuating the continuity of linear emanations, literally turned back into the points that they are. 

My first and second hypotheses—like the first and second beginnings, like phyto-genesis—convey the reversibility of the subject and the predicate. They say, in effect: every beginning is a plant and every plant is a beginner. We should proceed with caution, however, considering that this phytogenetic beginning is not an origin; it is not at all inconsistent with being in the middle and with commencing always in and from the middle of actual existence. If, together with plant (phuton), nature (phusis) names a beginning—as in Empedocles’ Fragment 8: “there is neither a phusis nor an end of all mortal things”[5]—, then meta-physics attempts to break, once and for all, with the beginning, and to insinuate itself after, as much as behind, that beginning as the true origin and end of all things. In contrast to the origin, which is but a head cut from the rest of the body, the beginning does not stay enclosed in itself, immune to external changes and inner transformations. As soon as it is, it bursts forth into generation, a moving lineage in an ongoing tension with the starting point. A beginning configured as nature-plant (phusis-phuton) grows, decays and metamorphoses; an origin clings to the illusion of its unperturbed immutability.

In a more restricted, technical sense, phytogenesis means 1) the growth and development of a plant (often at a cellular level) and 2) the emergence and evolutionary development of plants. At the same time, phytogenic signifies “caused by or consisting of plants,” as in phytogenic dam, phytogenic dune,[6] and phytogenic shores, “formed as a result of the life activities of plant organisms.”[7] The conflation of various scales and levels of existence and analysis is far from accidental here. The same composite word of Greek provenance describes the development of a single plant, of plant communities molding over time landscapes and waterscapes, of a species and of the entire biological kingdom. It puts plants in the position of objects for evolutionary, geological, biological, ecological, cytological, and other kinds of study, while also acknowledging their role as subjects in crafting themselves and their worlds.

The scientific use of the term goes back to Matthias Jacob Schleiden and his 1838 essay “Beiträge zur Phytogenesis [Contributions to Phytogenesis],” where the concern is with cell origination, division and renewal. There, too, phytogenesis blurs the microscopic and the macroscopic planes of vegetal existence, seeing that “every plant, developed to a somewhat higher degree, is an aggregate of fully individualized independent beings, even the very cells.” “Each cell,” Schleiden continues, “leads a double life: an entirely independent one, belonging to its own development alone; and an incidental one, in so far as it has become the constituent part of a plant.”[8] He is equally preoccupied with the question of plant development and origination, both of them implied in phytogenesis. The doubling Schleiden attributes to the life of the cell cannot help but affect its origin, which, split into two, is indefinitely displaced, transposed onto the terrain of multiple beginnings. And the mechanism of cell renewal, which he discovers with the help of state-of-the-art microscopes using Zeiss lenses, is, itself, a doubling, the replication of chromosomes and their subsequent separation into two daughter nuclei in the process now known as mitosis.[9] Not only the nucleus and the cell but also the origin is divided against itself, genetically, in the course of phytogenesis.

Schleiden relies on experimental methodology in his studies of plants as a counterpoint to speculative botany, spearheaded by Goethe and Hegel. But this does not prevent him from reaching conclusions that are formally analogous to theirs. Regardless of the method they follow, Schleiden and philosophically motivated botanists chance upon the speculative identity of a part and the whole. For Goethe, this identity hinges on the leaf—at once a part of plants and a generic-genetic principle, according to which all other plant parts are formed.[10] Schleiden, in turn, calls the organelles of plant cells that capture his attention cytoblasts: “As I have to treat of an entirely peculiar, and, as it appears to me, of a universal elementary organ of vegetables, I do not deem it necessary to excuse myself for applying to this body a definite name, and shall term it Cytoblast (κῦτος βλαστός) with reference to its function.”[11] Cytoblasts are those parts of cells, including above all the nucleus, where development takes place. The Greek blastos refers to a germ, or a bud, derived from the verb blastanein: to bud, to sprout, to grow. The vessels of sprouting and growth, cytoblasts are the containers of the uncontainable, of what, by definition, overflows their (and its own) limits. They encapsulate the growing beings and the perpetual beginners that plants are, completing the speculative identity of vegetal parts and whole, without forgetting that the plants themselves are a part of phusis they expressively condense in the breathtaking synecdoche I have explored in many of my previous works.[12]

Schleiden’s theoretical opponent, Hegel eyes all beginnings with suspicion, including those of organicity and life with respect to plants. In Hegel’s system, the beginning is the most abstract, least determined state that, having been posited, has not yet undergone enough negations to attain dialectical concreteness and self-differentiation. Plants are not an exception to the rule of the dialectical critique of beginnings: “the vegetable world” is “the first stage of being-for-self, of reflection-into-self: but only immediate, formal being-for-self, not yet the genuine infinity.”[13] Phytogenesis, for Hegel (who does not, admittedly, resort to this composite word), is the inception of organic existence glimpsed through the lens of the concept, a “reflection-into-self” that begins to round off the circle of subjectivity. This rounding-off in plant life, this return of a living vegetal being back to itself, is still incomplete, the bending and twisting of its itinerary not yet sealed at a point where the beginning and the end meet. Hence, instead of a “genuine infinity” of self-reflection tied to itself in a circular relation, plants embody in the stages of their growth the “bad infinity” of a straight line. “Plant-life therefore begins where the vital principle gathers itself into a point and this point sustains and produces itself, repels itself, and produces new points.”[14]

Implicit in Hegel’s account is the supposition that the abstraction of geometrical elements corresponds to vegetal existence because, like basic geometry, vegetality makes a bare, formal beginning—of spatiality and understanding in the one case, and of life in the other. (Space and understanding, too, are no more than the beginnings of dialectical mechanics and the phenomenology of spirit at the stage of consciousness devoid of self-consciousness, respectively.)  The negative self-relation of a point produces a line, which consists of an infinite number of such points; the point of plant life, representing “the vital principle,” is a seed that repels itself by way of physical elongation and ramification in growth, culminating, in turn, in new seeds. Needless to say, the explanation is faulty, as is, also, every attempt to describe the point of the beginning, the beginning as a simple atomic point. Already in the thickets of Hegel’s text, the self-gathering of the vital principle betrays a previous dispersion it must overcome for plant life to commence. Analogously, in the dialectical mechanics of Hegel’s philosophy of nature, the point is, far from originary, produced through the self-negation of infinite and indeterminate space. The seed is a product of past plant life, not a starting point, or, more accurately, it is a starting point and an end point simultaneously—much closer to the genuine infinity of a circle than Hegel likes to think.

As organic figures of “the vital principle [that] gathers itself into a point,” seeds are the metonymies of a beginning without beginning and an end without end. Not only does the sexual reproduction of plants negate, according to Hegel, the vegetal mode of being and mark a dialectical transition to animality, but it also devolves back to geologic nature: “In the seed and the fruit the plant has produced two organic beings [zwei organische Wesen] which, however, are indifferent to each other and fall apart. The power which gives birth to the seed becomes the earth [die Erde]; it is not the fruit that is the womb.”[15] The principle of phytogenesis is, at once, posterior and anterior to plants. How can this mélange of the after and the before gather itself into a point? In what way can the two “indifferent to each other” become one, who or that is also two, but, precisely, non-indifferent insofar as reflected into themselves (or into itself)?

Inadvertently, Hegel got something right about phytogenesis, in which, as I put it above, the origin is divided against itself, genetically. It is now prudent to add that this “itself,” against which the origin is divided, is unequal to itself on the two sides of the equation. Rather than a simple self-alienation of genesis, anticipating its future self-reconciliation, the division of and at the origin involves genesis and phyto, the two that, though they seem to say the same thing, are radically different from (and, perhaps, indifferent to) one another. Phyto = genesis, but the opposite, obviously, holds as well: phyto genesis. Any further contributions on phytogenesis will do well to depart from the conjunction of these two formulas.

        

Notes:

[1] In the translation of Gen. 1:1 by Aquila of Synope, the first words are rendered in Greek as Ἐν κεφαλαίῳ, referring literally to the head.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Second Edition (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 177

[3] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 9.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words, 2nd Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 34.

[5] Lewis, Studies in Words, p. 34.

[6] “Phytogenic,” in Academic Press Dictionary of Science and Technology, edited by Christopher G. Morris (San Diego & New York: Academic Press, 1992), p. 1644.

[7] “Phytogenic shores,” Igor S. Zonn et al.The Caspian Sea Encyclopedia (Berlin: Springer, 2010), p. 331.

[8] M.J. Schleiden, “Contributions to Our Knowledge of Phytogenesis.” In Scientific Memoirs, Selected from the Transactions of Foreign Academies of Science and Learned Societies, edited by Richard Taylor. Volume 2 (

edited by Richard Taylor (London: Richard & John Taylor, 1841), p. 281.

[9] Schleiden, “Contributions,” pp. 283ff.

[10] Johann Wolfgang Goethe, The Metamorphosis of Plants (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009), p. 65.

[11] Schleiden, “Contributions,” p. 283.

[12] See Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 28ff; The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), pp. 179, 219; Grafts: Writings on Plants (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), pp. 97ff.

[13] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Nature: Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Part II, translated by A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 303.

[14] Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, p. 303.

[15] Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, p. 349.

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