The Garden as Form

by

Michael Marder

 

This is not your garden-variety reflection on gardens.

It is, in fact, extremely difficult to think about gardens, at a carefully calibrated distance thinking requires, because our minds are awash with positive, sentimental, and nostalgically inflected cultural associations with these cultivated, carefully manicured green spaces. Forests connote danger and darkness, disorientation and wild life, both animal and vegetal; gardens are the products of life’s taming and domestication, as much cultural as they are natural. The former jolt thinking into action; the latter are the tranquilizers that put thought to sleep. The outward signs of aesthetic excess, gardens are also indicative of how we make sense of the world, even if their geometrical arrangement happens to be labyrinthine, as in Renaissance Europe, or if they purposefully blend and conflate organic and inorganic shapes, as in some of the traditional Chinese gardens.

In the course of writing these lines, I am facing a small garden through a glass partition that, though generally transparent, reflects parts of my desk and myself. Perspective matters: are we contemplating gardens from the inside, looking out, or from the outside, prying into them? The perspective in question is not only visual but also conceptual. To restate, then: are we focusing on the contents of a garden, the mélange of living beings that inhabit or pass through it—grass, bushes, flowers, trees, bees, mosquitoes, birds, spiders, worms, the microorganisms dwelling in the soil, and, last but not least, ourselves—, or on the environmental form that hedges them (and us) in? Should we consider the garden in terms of an ephemeral generalization of cross-pollinations, interspecies synergies, hybridizations, let alone frictions, struggles, and downright conflicts simmering there often outside the sphere of our attention and control, we would imagine it as a space of freedom. Should we start from the formal limit that defines it, however, we would discern something else entirely, namely an enclosure, within which the most diverse beings are primed for appropriation.

Stressing more the perimeter than the territory it encompasses, garden relates not to what it guards but to how living things are guarded. In a sleight-of-hand, the word itself has changed its semantic form by switching from an adjective, which it was in the Vulgar Latin expression hortus gardinus (“enclosed garden”), to a noun. In the process, it usurped the positive meaning of the milieu it had previously circumscribed in a merely negative manner. Form became content.

The act of guarding guards things for and against something. The guarding of the garden detains the plants growing there and the small ecosystems that develop around them for the purpose of capturing, securely holding, and finally possessing whatever lies within its confines. The capture is, by and large, ideal rather than real, and it converts the actual appropriation of a plot of land destined to be a garden into a sign of proprietary power. Is it an accident that, traditionally, the physical seats of power (say, the royal palaces) are surrounded by magnificent and extensive gardens? Ideal capture peaks in the conceptual relation of knowing. The concept seizes conceptualized matter with the phantom hand of abstract thought. The garden is nature conceptualized, guarded in a seemingly innocuous form as the reminder of a threat neutralized, of “monstrous” growth subdued.

What the garden guards against is the intrusion of others who do not belong there. It is not enough to wall off or fence in a territory to accomplish this negative function: insects, birds, airborne seeds, rodents, and pollen breach the perimeter and disturb humanly planned configurations. Additionally, the others may be the cultivated plants themselves that overgrow the boundaries, shapes, and structures horticulture has slotted them into. In the garden, too, vegetal otherness makes it slow but inexorable comeback, frustrating our landscaping blueprints.

To ward off external intruders, some gardeners resort to herbicides, insecticides, repellants, and other poisons, unleashed as part of the global toxic flood we are living or dying through nowadays. Within the rigid confines of what the garden guards, trying to ensure the purity of the species gathered there, these are the undifferentiated chemical killers that affect everything and everyone on their path. The stricture of controlled difference, which is the garden, relies on lethal indifference and nondifferentiation for its consolidation.

Against the internal disruption of garden architecture by the “good” plants it admits, topiary, pleaching, pruning, bonsai cultivation, tree shaping or tree training and other similar techniques are deployed. Trunks, branches, stalks, and leaves are brought into line and made to follow certain lines and patterns, as though plants were mere materials in need of form, as though, that is, vegetal matter had no living forms proper to and coemergent with it. The garden, then, is the form of form, a meta-order bent on preserving order as such, whether it guards its contents against the trespassing others or serves to consolidate the proprietary power.

In this somewhat depressing light, the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden displays new hermeneutical hues. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve are marked out as different from the plants and animals that inhabit that paradisiac space, because, unlike the nonhuman species, they are the guarded guardians of the rest of creation. They are responsible for the garden, where they nevertheless live as some precious and rare flowers, without having any sort of perspective of their milieu. Human creatures are only capable of relating to it as garden once they find themselves outside it, even if they are still physically situated on its territory, as in the stretch of time between the moment of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and that of their judgment, sentencing, and expulsion. In effect, their sin—the primordial sin, to be precise—is that they defied the divine ownership of paradise by trespassing the formal limit God drew at the heart of it. (Could it be that the true object of knowledge they acquired as they bit into the forbidden fruit was the concept of private property, from which the proprietorship over their own naked bodies and the corresponding experience of shame was derivative?)

At any rate, it is by virtue of Eden being a garden that the expulsion of Adam and Eve is effective. The first woman and man were a privileged part of paradise guarded for God’s amusement, satisfaction, or some other reason; after the fall, the place they used to belong to is guarded against them. Supplanting the forbidden fruit that, circumscribed by the formal divine prohibition, represented a garden within the garden, the entire paradisiac form becomes off-bounds, set apart from the mundane space for existence. This begs the question: if paradise is literally an enclosure or a walled-off garden, then was it prepared by God in his perfect foreknowledge to keep some aspects of creation out, notably the humans? And the reverse also holds: while paradise is not just a garden but the formal being-garden of a garden, every garden is a paradise… in the worst possible sense of the word.

Whither went the fallen beings that were expelled from the Garden of Eden? Certainly not into the forest, which is bereft of enclosures, but into a world lacerated by fences, walls, private property with either actual or implied No trespassing! signs, and, therefore, into a world of gardens, if not into the world as garden, currently mutating into a desert at a dizzyingly fast pace. Something of the forest admittedly survives in the garden, as well. I am referring to what I earlier called “vegetal otherness,” continually challenging the aesthetic form foisted onto the cultivated plants.

Now, vegetal otherness is the otherness of matter itself, thwarting the forms that temporarily overlay it. The garden is matter spiritualized—rendered familiar, quelled, and mastered—through an act of formalization, but it is always on the verge of deformalization and, indeed, of self-deformalization. The forest breaks through the form of the garden, as the garden’s own recoil from the inflexible limitations it imposes on its contents. It is akin to a feral cat, who so astonishingly quickly loses the genetic memory of domestication. But this is not to say that the forest is formless or spiritless; rather, it harbors a form that, far from an enclosure, flourishes in and with matter. No longer acquainted with such a unity, we experience its effects as sudden disruptions and obstacles on the ideal and ideally unperturbed path of our concepts and projects. We have all but repressed this nonformal form foreign to the garden, one that guards nothing but the future of growth, unfolding, development—hence, guards everything without the residual possession and mastery inherent to guardianship. 

Avid gardeners are likely to raise a series of objections to the argument regarding the formality of their beloved environment. Isn’t gardening an open-ended experimentation often proceeding in the dark, both with respect to its outcomes and the belowground level where surprising alliances are forged and battles are waged? Doesn’t this activity give up on immutable plans and programs still before it commences, and doesn’t it, consequently, come to terms with failure, modestly aspiring only to fail better next time? Having a green thumb is possessing a special gift to collaborate with plants, the sun and the shade, the soil and water, so as to encourage the garden’s flourishing. So, how can one impute any degree of formalism or idealism to gardening?

Such objections are valid only inasmuch as they represent an internal perspective on the garden. They do not in the least touch upon the garden itself as form, notably as a form guarding over its contents and warding off potential intruders. They do not, therefore, address what I am tempted to dub the problem of guardening. A fruitful reaction to the problem could be loosening the boundaries separating the inside from the outside of the garden, including those that, cutting through its heart, are associated with vegetal otherness. In practical terms, “rewilding” corresponds to a liberation of vegetal growth from the selectivity, size limitations, shaping, and other human impositions. At the extreme, it reinvents the garden as a miniature forest. Yet, this solution does not go nearly far enough in diminishing the garden’s proprietary vigilance. For one, it guards an illusion that we are powerful enough, in our conscious rejection of mastery and dominance, to bring back the past of wilderness and to erase a long history of human-plant interactions that have profoundly influenced the two parties to the relation. For another, it preserves a form that has been sundered from matter, just in a softer, more porous and malleable version.

In order to tackle the problem of gardening (or of guardening) at its root, it is necessary to give the garden a different form, or, better yet, to refrain from bestowing a form on it. We would need to let the garden’s form—the form that is the garden—develop from matter itself, no longer worrying about its perimeter. Which means expanding the definition to symbioses of plants previously unrecognizable as a garden. Letting the garden be, refraining from form-bestowal, should we do nothing? Not exactly. What appears as “doing nothing” is actually taking a step back from matter to form and, through this retrogression, acting on the latter. To let the garden be otherwise is to hasten its deformalization and to see to it that the garden’s stiff form would disintegrate, so much so that it would become, perhaps, a garden without a garden, which amounts to a garden without guarding.

Although my suggestion sounds a lot like rewilding, it goes further than that. Instead of loosening the garden’s limits, its formal makeover foregoes the enclosure and allows the garden grow from the interactions among its various participants, be they organic or inorganic. In the absence of a prior circumscription, according to which form is an empty container haphazardly filled with sundry elements of matter, it would not figure as property, and certainly not as private property. There will be no one to guard and plenty of human and nonhuman actors to care for it. Paradise lost might not be such a bad thing, after all.

 

Note: This essay first appeared in The Learned Pig at the end of 2018: http://www.thelearnedpig.org/michael-marder-garden-as-form/5821.

For a Peace Treaty with Plants

by

Michael Marder

 

Peace with plants? With them, themselves, or through them, as the symbols of pacific existence? Or both at the same time?

Since its inception, what is called our “civilization” has been waging a war on the vegetal world. In the early agrarian societies that flourished along the Nile River and in the Mesopotamian Basin, the cultivation of crops depended upon the first genetic manipulation of the living, their standardization, and concerted production. From the beginning, plant and human cultures were ideally, if never completely so, monocultures: predictable, regularized, docile, homogenized. Violence against plants was of one piece with the fierceness, with which the places of their growth were taken over, colonized, modified, narrowed or expanded. Swamps drained and terrains flattened, agriculture molded the world, vegetation, and our communities. Whereas objective differences between plant specimens were leveled, those among humans were magnified, giving rise to the unequal division of labor and socio-economic stratification.

The European civilization asserted itself against the forest, which still harbors darkness, obscurity, irrationality, and mystery in the fairytales that bear the imprints of culture’s deeper historical crusts. This is not only the case in Central and Eastern Europe, from Germany to Russia, where collective identity has been established in relation to, but also at a distance from, the woods. Already in the Ancient Greece of Aristotle, matter (hulé) was associated with lumber and with the forest, its density emblematic of corporeality and of potentiality not yet actualized by the vital principle that sets itself to work in a body presumed to be inanimate in its absence. The very human existence (Dasein) Martin Heidegger construed in terms of a clearing (Lichtung) in being replays the idea that a clearing in the forest is the place of spirit, liberated from the tight grip of matter. Concretely, the practices of deforestation carry on the metaphysical task of expanding the spiritual domain at the expense of essentially wooden matter. In a desert alone is pure spirit fully at home, on an unlivable earth vacated of plants, the horizon directly touching the sky.

Let us assume that at some point in human history the war on plants was a matter of survival, given all the uncertainties of food provisions derived through hunting and gathering. Today, things are very different: the continuation of such hostilities endangers all life on earth. Despite the inventions of Hubble Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider, we are still seeing our natural environment with the same eyes as the pioneers of the “civilizing mission.” We have been exceptionally slow when it comes to inverting in our minds the valuations that have been long overturned in reality. To continue Heidegger’s line of thought, we are still yearning to build upon and cultivate every corner of the planet, while forgetting that there is no dwelling without letting-be, leaving open, ceding mastery.

In order for the above not to sound too abstract, I suggest translating letting-be into letting-grow. The change I propose is not at all arbitrary, in light of what Heidegger himself says about the first beginning of philosophy that comprehended being as phusis, nature, or literally everything that grows, burgeons out, as well as the movement of such growing or burgeoning out. But what does it mean, exactly, to let grow? To forsake the activity of gardening, with its selective care for some plants and not for others? To allow our sidewalks, streets, and squares overgrow with vegetation? To let weeds be, even if they are suffocating the life of other plants?

Letting-grow signifies, to my mind, a global shift in attitude, a new socio-natural contract, or an alternative physio-ontological configuration of the living. A peace treaty with plants, if you will. Obviously, a carrot and a weeping fig are not going to sit at the table to sign any treaty, but neither does the imagined community that establishes the classical social contract fundamental to human cohabitation. French philosopher Michel Serres, for one, has already endorsed the creation of a Biogaia parliament, a world-wide institution, where “air and water, energy and the earth, living species, or, in short, Biogaia, would be represented.”[1] His idea is commendable, despite the fact that, as we know full well, parliamentary discussions usually amount to little more than hot air, water under the bridge, energy wasted for nothing… Before inquiring into the modes of representation and expression in such a parliament, however, it would be necessary to forge the peace of cohabitation and collaboration with all those comprising such an institution.

A peace treaty is a rapprochement between previously hostile factions. Yet, in the war on plants—the war now entering a super-aggressive phase of genetic engineering, 24-hour growing lamps, and monocultures that exacerbate the logic of the past—hostilities have been utterly one-sided: it was humanity that endeavored to master, subjugate, and determine, to determine by mastering and subjugating, the very being of plants that have, in turn, exerted a quiet, if persistent, influence on us from within, including at the genetic level. Therefore, the onus of responsibility is squarely on us to rectify this injurious relation and, through a new treaty or a new treatment of the vegetal, to mend the effects of our violence against the earth, against the elemental realm as such, and against the living. Should it ever be achieved, peace with plants would provide a comprehensive framework for environmental justice that, not merely formal and calculative, would be ontologically and ecologically grounded.

So, our rapprochement with plants is, largely, a matter of our own responsibility. An important step in that direction would be to acknowledge that the flora is not so non-oppositional as to merge entirely with the context of its growth and that humans are not so oppositional as to negate and destroy everything that surrounds us. Indeed, our relation to plants has never really been a relation, for, how can one articulate total oppositionality, with which the human has been conflated, and absolute non-oppositionality, to which the plant has been equated? A war worse than overt military hostilities, the assault on vegetal nature fails to recognize the enemy qua enemy. We see nothing but a green blur, chunks of which are concretized whenever we are hungry or require construction materials only to vanish into the satisfaction or the dissatisfaction of perpetually arising need. An approximation to plants does not traverse the distance between us and them; it establishes and calibrates this distance in the first place.

Approaching the vegetal as a who, rather than a what, is prior to the decision on what will follow this engagement: hostility or peace. Further, the plant is a who that grows, to the point of being defined by growing activity with its own degrees of freedom, decisions on blossoming, branching out, genetic transcription, memory and its retrieval, and so forth. A who that grows with its environment, reacting to the minute alterations that happen there, separated from the world by the minimal barrier, which is at the same time a mediation (i.e., a membrane), of the with. Our peaceful being-with-plants is unthinkable unless we let them be with their surrounds, let them grow. Letting-grow, for nothing (at least, nothing that we can reap for ourselves), is giving due to the vegetal who. More than desistence or inaction—though desist from the seemingly never-ending exploitation of plants we must—it is a combined ethical and aesthetic stance that promotes growing, regardless of externally imposed objectives, be they pragmatic or purely decorative.

At this point, a suspicion might creep into the readers’ minds: is peace again a hollow word, a utopian wish to be fulfilled exclusively on the dreamy fields of art? Is it a function of the pacification of need (Herbert Marcuse’s “pacification of existence”) whereby, armed with luxury and superfluity, we can at long last afford to quell the struggle for survival, attended by violence against human and non-human beings? Far from it. I do not intend to marshal aesthetics as a panacea of the sated bourgeoisie to the ongoing horrors of world history and civilization. What I would like to get at, by way of my appeal to a peace treaty with plants, is a peaceful satisfaction of need within the so-called “realm of necessity” and a cultivation of environmentally ethical behavior in the “realm of freedom.” Translating letting-be into letting-grow, I conjure up a future, where our default growing against everything and everyone would give place to growing with the other. Not exactly symbiotically, but maintaining the differences we would be ready to share without organizing them into oppositional, militaristic clusters of friend-and-foe.

One sign that a peace treaty with plants is in effect is a regime of agricultural organization and work responsive to the capacities and needs of the plants themselves. Does agriculture linger—patiently, forbearingly—with vegetal temporality, the tempo or rhythm of reproductive possibilities undetermined by the human “producers”? Does it skirt the trap of monocultures and care, instead, for the diversity of the plant world? Is it receptive to the limitations and singularities of the place that is being cultivated and to the fulfillment of agricultural workers?

Some will argue that, given the exponential rates of increase in the global human population, none of this will come to pass. An ethical agriculture would remain a private fantasy, confined to a few pockets of the affluent world. The problem is not the slow, inefficient, seasonal, parasite- and weather-contingent growth of plants but the snowballing demand for foodstuffs and raw materials on the part of the human who forces, rather than lets, all else grow. For too long, we have been arrogating letting-grow—which in any case is not tantamount to an infinite quantitative increase—to ourselves, while pressing both organic and inorganic worlds to grow with us, in accord with our swelling needs and accelerating paces of consumption. The ensuing extreme imbalances in the growing of phusis are as old as our history; only relatively recently have they escalated to a situation of crisis. That is why it is crucial to combine the precepts of letting-grow and growing-with in a relational whole of freedom (the letting part) hemmed in by mutual constraints (the with part). Within these limits, we will finally have a chance to ask who the other, vegetal party is as well as who we are after the end of our war on nature that has been draining our energies and diverting much of our creativity, not to mention other existential possibilities, into the struggle for survival. 

Peace treaties imply a temporary cessation of hostilities that may recommence at a future point in time. They are, by definition, conditional, in contrast to the unconditional, perpetual peace Immanuel Kant postulated as the cosmopolitan end of human history. To be truly meaningful, our peace with plants would need to veer toward the second, unconditional variety. Why a “treaty” then? Because it is an occasion for our assembly, with each other and with plants, the assembly that echoes the etymological sense of the Old French traitié. A germ of growing-with.

 

[1] Michel Serres, Temps des crises (Paris: Éditions Le Pommier, 2009), p. 51, translation mine.

Plant-Listening

by

Michael Marder

 

If you are familiar with the tenets of plant-thinking, you know that this term is not a cognitive one—or, at least, not only cognitive. Revolving around the non-identity of vegetal being (in the first instance, its non-identity with itself), it flies “in the face of the insanity of transcendent thought” (Plant-Thinking 168). It thinks, then, in the immanence of existence, with and as the other. There is no strict distinction between thinking and feeling, thinking and sensing, thinking and being, thinking and living here. Of its own accord, plant-thinking turns inside out into plant-seeing, plant-listening, plant-touching…

Let us together examine the seemingly strange case of plant-listening. By definition, the rules of plant-thinking apply to it, as well. If plant-thinking is, simultaneously, the thinking of the plants themselves, our thinking about plants, and the dynamic interaction between these two poles of the event, then plant-listening is how the plants themselves listen, our listening to them, and the resonance of their and our auditory attentions.

First: the listening of the plants themselves. Without the obviously recognizable ears, they are all ears, the vegetal body (or bodies: the proliferation of semiautonomous growths within “one” plant) attuned to the minutest of vibrations above and below ground-level. To be all ears is to be exceptionally attentive, open to others and to the world. Plants exhibit such extreme attention to more than twenty environmental conditions, from humidity gradients to a wide spectrum of light wavelengths. So, why would they not be sensitive to sounds and vibrations? From roots using sound to locate underground sources of water, through adaptive germination and growth responses to auditory stimuli, to leaf vibrations that result from herbivore chewing transformed into distress signals, plants are all ears. But, perhaps, we should also hear this idiomatic expression in its literal register: the functional equivalent of animal and human ears is not localized in one particular anatomical structure; it is evenly distributed throughout the plant, which listens with its entire body to its whole environment. Now, because vegetal ears do not have a limited, circumscribed, proper site, they overlap with the plant’s lungs and mouths, eyes and skin… All ears, the plant is all eyes and all thinking, all vibrant and vibrating with life in every part.

Second: our listening to plants. This has been an unmitigated failure. With the exception of certain poetic insights and the budding, though still quite small, field of plant bioacoustics, the human consensus on the silence of vegetation has been overwhelming. We take the fact that plants lack actual ears and an apparatus for generating sounds akin to ours or to that of animals who are similar to us for evidence of their muteness and absolute deafness, sheltered from the very possibility of hearing. We, who without giving it a second thought subscribe to such a view, judge plants in advance, pre-judge them, and it is this prejudice that deafens us. For too long their hypersensitivity has slipped through the cracks of our crude perceptual and cognitive systems. In 2018, this failure of discernment is inexcusable.

Third: the resonance of the human and vegetal auditory attentions has been, consequently, fraught and doubly asymmetrical. While plants co-vibrate with us and with the rest of the world, we do not; while they are all ears, we have only two that, to add insult to injury, are too rudimentary to pick bioacoustic signals emanating from plants. Just as plant-thinking requires the ongoing work of reconfiguring, if not transfiguring, “the symbiotic relation” between human thought and vegetal existence (Plant-Thinking 10), so also the attunement of human listening to that of plants needs to be refined, finessed. How?

In a vegetal manner, we may learn to listen with our entire bodies, rather than exclusively with the ears. In fact, it is a matter of merely discovering something that is already there, as opposed to acquiring a new skill. It is a matter, then, of laying bare the repressed vegetality of our own bodies and psychic strata. Vibrations do not strike the ear alone; they affect and unsettle every material medium, such that sentient surfaces in particular should be able to register them. The first sentient surface of our bodies is the skin, and it turns out that its vibrations convey information to the brain in a way similar to the auditory system. The skin is probably our most vegetal organ, breathing through its pores, like a leaf, sensing light without being an eye, “hearing” vibrations without being an ear. An organ as versatile and multifunctional as those of plants…

Even the scope of what we listen to would change following the lead of plants. Besides technologically altering the perceptual thresholds, within which we typically receive sounds, we would no longer seek speech and song, howling and chirping, hissing and roaring as the indicators of communication that is conflated with vocalization. Clicking frequencies, such as those maize roots emit, or insect buzzing in “buzz pollination” that triggers the release of pollen at an opportune time when the pollinator is around are examples of “mere noise” that has been heard (sometimes using sophisticated equipment that amplifies our bodily capacities) but not really listened to. The expanded scope of listening entails a painstaking transition from hearing to interpretatively attending to sound waves or vibrations, which plants either produce or receive, as carriers of meaning. It invites a different approach to plants, not only as organic materials to be interpreted but as the interpreters of their world.

The resonance of distinct modes of listening deserves further analysis. It is the resonance of ears (or their equivalents), not of voices, which means that it is markedly silent. A vibrant silence permeates plant-listening, the silence within which speech first makes sense. Historically, the silences resonating in the listening of the plants themselves and in our listening to plants have been polar opposites: one is pregnant with meaning, the other blocks the semantic flows emanating from everyone and everything not human. Sure, there have been (and there still are) cultures, groups, and individuals who do not fit my description and whose ears have been exquisitely receptive to the vegetal. Still, their existence does little to interfere with the predominant model of plant-listening featuring the resonance of all and nothing, of vivacious openness and austere closure, of heedful excess and dearth of attention. Our goal should be not to carve out some exceptional niches of acoustic sensitivity in the general deafness to plants, but to turn the cultural tide of ontologically neglecting plants; not merely to prick up our ears and pick the previously inaudible signals, but to intervene in the interactive (or interpassive) structure of plant-listening.  

Phenomenologically speaking, the promise of explorations in vegetal acoustics is that it expands the fields of noesis and noema alike—in this case, of the listening and of the listened-to. The difference between listening and hearing is crucial here. This difference does not have to do with the fact that the former is attentive and saddled with the interpretation of sounds, whereas the latter is not. One may hear anything whatsoever, the noises coming from every direction; listening, however, always listens to the other. So, plant-listening, in the second sense of our listening to them, is ipso facto a way of treating plants as others, irreducible to the vague background of white noise or silence. Folded into the listened-to are the attended-to and the respected. And the multiplication of noematic layers does not end there: since the plant listens to (and listens in on) its entire environment, listening to the plant, we eavesdrop, with and through it, on the rest of the world. Through vegetal vibrations, we inch closer to the vibrancy of being.

Walking among Plants

by

Michael Marder

 

On the verge of a brief journey I’d love you to join me in, and as we get ready for a mental exercise in phyto-peripatetics, let us begin with a simple contrast. When we walk in a field, meander in a grove, or stroll in a garden, we move among plants that stay in place. It bears noting right away that the contrast is a little deceptive: vegetal being-in-place is not the opposite of movement. Plants move in the locales of their growth precisely by virtue of growing, irradiating outwards, unfurling themselves, and experiencing a lived time-space, which does not predate them as an empty continuum but which co-evolves together with and as them. Even so, human displacement among trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers accentuates our locomotion against the backdrop of their presumably stationary existence. And this bare beginning, discernible in the contrast which will accompany us all the way to the end, is not without significance.

The most unsympathetic interpretation would assert that, playing with the opposition between human mobility and vegetal immobility, we (however unconsciously) establish or reestablish our superiority over the flora. It is as though a walker is saying by means of the body’s kinetic activity and, hence, without uttering anything: “Look: I can linger for a little while under the shade of an oak or in front of a rose, but I can also move on, whether to another plant or to another place altogether. Or I might not linger at all, rather keeping a steady pace at which the vegetation around me coalesces into a kind of green blur. In these possibilities, reflecting my decision, lies my freedom—the freedom you, plants, cannot have.” I reject this cruel interpretation, especially in those cases when walking among plants is done for nothing, i.e., not in order to reach some other destination but to lose and perhaps discover (or rediscover) oneself in the vegetal world.

Backtracking for a moment, I must retrace my steps and comment upon peripatetic philosophy, as alive in Aristotle’s Lyceum as in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s reveries. Peri + patein: walking around. Around what? Which perimeter does a walker-thinker circumscribe? Itinerant, philosophers may well walk among plants—or the colonnades that have supplanted plants as human reinventions of tree trunks in the academy of Athens—but they invariably revolve around themselves, notably their thoughts. In fact, the adjective “peripatetic” makes no mention whatsoever of the context wherein walking around takes place, and it is this abstraction from the surroundings that invisibly prepares the ground for the abstract universality indifferent to its when and where. Such universality then passes for thought.

That said, the peripatetics realize, if only implicitly, that there is no direct route to oneself. Thought is activated thanks to detours and digressions, first, through physical walks prompting the body to move so as to shake cognition out of its stagnation, and, second, through the vegetal world. Plants, as well as their remainders or reminders, become the signposts for our movement, not so much helping orient us in space as orienting us in thought (recall Kant’s “What Is Orientation in Thinking?”), referring us, who walk among them, back to ourselves. Do they do so by way of the contrast, with which we have started this foray, now resembling a constant digression? Do they give something to thought—to thinking as an activity and its own outcome; to be thought, infinitely, into the future—that cannot be found elsewhere?

Rousseau’s peripatetic experience is nonetheless dissimilar to that we encounter in classical philosophy. His returns to himself via the mediation of walking among plants are incidental; what prevails in his Reveries is the daydream, a freely associative, hardly self-conscious existence with and in the flora. His “botanical expeditions,” the countryside strolls during which he collected the commonest of plant specimens, were intended to lose, rather than to find, himself. The ecstasy of the desired self-abandon was best achieved through the walker’s contact with vegetation outside him, which drew him back to the vegetal dimension of his own life. For Rousseau, botany was a “salutary science”: a poison and a remedy, despite the pitfalls of scientific rationality, it held the potential of reorienting modern humanity away from the excesses of civilization that, more and more, set us adrift. Along the same lines, it is possible to conclude that walking among plants is conducive to a salutary movement of thought, pulling against the cognitive tendency toward abstraction and thus embedding our ideas once again in sensuous experience.

The sensuous experience of the vegetal world reawakens in us another kind of thinking resistant to abstraction. Swathed in the sights and smells, tastes (if we are lucky enough to stumble upon berries or fruit) and tactile sensations (for instance, of grass against bare feet, but most often not those mediated by the hand, unless this typically privileged organ of touch is used gently to move aside a branch blocking the path), peripatetic explorers feel-think on the periphery of their sentient bodies, akin to plants that cognize the world on the outer edges of their extension (root tips, unfurling leaves, and so forth). Rather than objectifying, thinking of something, or representing, we discover what it means to think around while walking around—peripatetically, peripherally, perimetrically. In addition to the sensuous materiality of thought, whither plants recall us, they give us this other mode of thinking to think, the mode I have termed “essentially superficial.” Our contact with them could not be more superficial than when we walk among—not past—them, the lived times and spaces of vegetal and human beings hardly brushing upon one another, which is what a genuine encounter looks and feels like.

Walking in the midst of plants, we above all cherish the difference between us and them, as well as among them. As readers of this LARB channel know, I resist the contemporary proposals, many of them inspired in works by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, to become-X: here, to become-plant. Mature humanity, ready to share in difference with human and non-human beings alike, eschews the ancient mimetic need to become the other, the need betokening more than anything a certain anthropocentric imperialism. The rhythm of our walking and living among plants will not coincide with the rhythm, tempo, or temporality of vegetal vitality, its movements virtually imperceptible, because much slower than those of locomotion. But there is nothing wrong with the dissonance between the cadences of human and plant existences, revealed in the course of phyto-peripatetic ventures. The discrepancy dispenses to each their own: it makes us alive to the otherwise taken-for-granted pace of our being in the world and to the underappreciated otherness of plants that are in the world in a distinct manner. Tangentially, peripherally, the act of walking among plants gives an intimation of ontological justice, appropriating neither side to the needs of the other, acknowledging the co-involvement and mindful of the divide between the vegetal and the human.

Herbarium Trauma: For the Thirty-Second Anniversary of “Chernobyl”

by

Michael Marder

 

Every collection accretes around a void it strives, in vain, to eclipse. For all the profusion of the collated or collected material stuff, there is an Eastern, undoubtedly Buddhist, bit at its centre: nothing. Dispersion predates and follows on the heels of selecting, assembling, and arranging an assortment of things. Why bother, then? Why compile that which comes from dust and is destined to entropy? –Because throbbing in the pincers of total closure and absolute openness is the possibility to make sense of the world. “Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return,” says the Bible. It passes in silence the intuition that in this interval between the anonymous infinities of dust you come together with yourself and with others. You slot another punctuation mark between two ellipses. A question?

I am gathering my thoughts in preparation for archiving them on these digital pages. Do you see them displayed, dried up and ready for viewing? To appear in this minuscule metaherbarium, ideas had to be culled, detached from a non-existent plant. Perhaps from…

Only the dispersed may be collected—so as to disperse again. Gathering is a detour, more or less lengthy, more or less elaborate, from dispersion to dispersion, from dust to dust, which also keeps gathering. But how does what is not yet, or already not, dispersed disperse? At its rhythm, on its own time? Or is it helped along? There is a big difference between gathering fallen maple leaves in November (the month when I was presumably gathering my thoughts on gathering, though piling up questions was more like it; too late to harvest anything) and plucking wildflowers in June; between picking up fruit from an apple tree in late August and uprooting an entire lily of the valley plant in May. Generalized, the difference is between disrupting vegetal life at the peak of its vitality and keeping the elements of this life past their “due date,” between destroying and preserving, decimating and saving, or, more precisely, destroying the chance for a being’s self-preservation and preserving its self-destruction.

Let us stay with the flowers for a moment, while they have not yet wilted and faded at least before our mind’s eye. We say that we gather them when we irreparably cut their connection to the soil and the rest of the plant body we castrate. (It matters which flowers we are talking about, however. Those that blossom on a rosebush, for instance, turn such “castration,” along with other pruning techniques, into a fertile source for future growth.) As if they were not gathered with themselves and as if their arrangement in a bouquet, a wreath, or on an herbarium page offered a better sense of togetherness. And, indeed, like other parts of plants, flowers are not gathered amongst themselves, or, if they are, then only loosely so! Violence against plants unfailingly finds justification in this or that feature of their being, their ontology propitious to the ethics of openness to the other as much as to the most brutal exploitation.

“Herbarium Trauma” puts a couple nouns together, unmediated, unprotected from one another, gathered around nothing other than a typographic space

Plants are foragers and collectors who do not hoard what they collect but let it go with and as parts of themselves. I am not referring just to accumulated solar energy and moisture. In Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, trees raise radioactive particles from the ground and drop them back when their leaves change in the anticipation of winter. Fall season is fallout time, all over again, the time for reliving-redying the trauma of the earth and of all it bears.

Whenever you think you are cutting, culling, plucking, or otherwise gathering parts of plants, you are wrong; you are regathering, recutting… The gathering and the cut have happened outside the sphere of your memory, of your control, and you are repeating these acts of the plants that incessantly make and unmake themselves. You will have noticed that I am vegetalizing the structure of the trace, which is deeply traumatic. The illusion of control is like a collection that grows around the void in a futile effort to fill the abyss of the first unwilled cut.

To gather is to adumbrate the distance between dispersed elements to the point where they enter each other’s gravitational fields and the push-and-pull of a relation becomes palpable. To gather flowers is to pretend that, prior to falling into the gatherer’s gravitational field, they are dispersed, inexpressive, nonrelational. And to gather the imprints of radioactive plants in an herbarium composed of their photograms? A blueprint for an answer: art is the make-belief that drops the pretence.

From scientists to subsistence farmers, people who gather fruits and vegetables in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone regather the vegetal gathering. Knowingly or not, the human gatherers also receive a bonus the plants growing there have incorporated, namely traces of radioactivity, the isotopes of Cs-134/137 or Sr-90. Plants absorb the trauma of the earth, their connection to the soil lingering on after the acts of culling, felling, picking their bodies made of everything they have imbibed. In the case of those consuming Chernobyl’s produce, the eaten and the eater alike are the afterlives of radiation’s half-lives. That is how we are gathered, brought together, but also plucked, in the planet’s post-traumatic (the locution is a category mistake: we are still far from post- and, at any rate, it is uncertain that trauma admits an after) stress disorder. Being is being-gathered-with—not corralled together like a herd of animals, but cut with others like flowers, or, more precisely, corralled together insofar as cut-with.

Consider an analogy. From the Greek legein, the barely translatable word logos entails assembling, gathering, putting together, articulating. It, too, collects its semantic contents around an unbridgeable chasm, the silence no voice can ever drown. Logos responds, without quite corresponding to, the trauma of absolute dispersion. So long as it is alive, so long as its petrification is yet to come, logos is not an animal, as the ancients pictured it, but a plant, its nutrient uptake including the very dispersion it pushes against. It is a plant we cultivate in every stab at gathering or assembling. Not least in creating an herbarium, the re-regathering of plants subject to further cropping, clipping, and trimming so as to be displayed. (N.B. Ever a believer in wholeness, Rousseau was averse to standard herbarium procedures. Whenever possible, he tried to fit the entire bent and contorted plant, root and all, on the page.)

“Among discrete quantities he discusses in his Categories, Aristotle somewhat surprisingly cites logos, its parts—the syllables—lacking a common limit, and so discontinuous with one another (4b, 34-6). That which establishes commonalities does not have contiguous borders between its components; it is internally fractured, bereft of the common, koinon (4b, 36-7). At this moment in Aristotle’s text, speech is not the province of pure metaphysical presence. Logos proceeds at a halting rhythm, its syllables taken together disjointedly. If politics is an engagement in logos, its spatiotemporal work of gathering is, at its origin, scattered and disassembled, working against itself.” [Michael Marder, Political Categories, forthcoming]

Cut and paste, paste and paste, cut and cut and cut. To gather flowers is to gather the cuts, cut the cuts, cut and paste the cuts. Same with thoughts and citations. There it is—an anthology, the logos of collected texts and flowers.

Post festum is the time of art, not just of (Hegelian) thought. Instead of culling, art gleans the leftovers of a harvest, or even gleans the gleaning, as Agnès Varda does in Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000). Anaïs Tondeur’s Chernobyl Herbarium also arrives late in the aftermath of a dizzying array of gatherings and cuts: vegetal, historical, scientific… And yet, her work enables plants and their uptake of radiation to speak either bypassing logos or twisting logos’s assemblages into surprising shapes. Their arrival ineluctably belated, the photograms peek at the primal scene of the “first” gathering and cut. They look trauma in the face, which is a surface, say, of a leaf. Or, more superficially still, they contend with the impressions of leaves on another surface, that of photosensitive paper. Traumatic depth lends itself to experience at the outermost limit, in surface-to-surface contact. And what are plants and art, if not tireless inventors and purveyors of surfaces?

Assuming that the language of plants consists in an open-ended series of articulated shapes, we come to the conclusion that the cut of negativity is absent from vegetal being. This idea receives further reinforcement from the rootedness of plants in the earth, which provides them with a continuous stream of nourishment. So, where is the traumatic void, the disruptive nothing, in their unperturbed existence? –Everywhere. Because plant “organs” are not combined with each other in a totality, they are gathered together in a self-cleaving fashion: spatially and physically contiguous, yet metaphysically disjointed. Speaking in ontological terms, vegetation grows around and on nothing.

 

 

Image from Anaïs Tondeur’s Chernobyl Herbarium: http://www.anais-tondeur.com/projects/chernobyl-s-herbarium–text/

 

A Word of Caution: Against the Commodification of Vegetal Subjectivity

by

Michael Marder

 

Scientific discussions of what plants know, of vegetal intelligence, or of plant signaling and communication give off the appearance of a break with the disrespect toward (if not the abuse of) our “green cousins” now assigned their rightful place as subjects. We should harbor no illusions, however: plant knowledges are not spared the fate reserved for all other modes and systems of knowing under capitalism the extracts them from the knowers as a profitable form of value. To count as a nonhuman subject, or a nonhuman person, is not a panacea from politico-economic exploitation; on the contrary, it is subjects and persons who are the temporary placeholders of economic value in “knowledge economies.”

The unconscious danger lurking in the shadows of granting subjectivity to plants, animals, and entire ecosystems is not just that global capitalism may cunningly coopt challenges to anthropocentrism but that the newfangled status of other-than-human lives may actually be the next logical step in the extension of immaterial, subjective, cognitively mediated commodities. The enlargement of the subjective sphere is conducive to the growth not of plants but of capital. After all, the dominant form of the commodity today is not a consumable object; it is the subject itself, in all its multicolored, pluralist splendor.

In light of this presentiment, the promise of the decentralized mode of intelligence characteristic of plants (say, the swarm-like thinking of roots) may be greatly exaggerated. While it is true that the nineteenth- and twentieth-century theory of the state as an organic totality, modeled after an animal body, is outdated, there are no guarantees that vegetal (or any other kind of) decentering is the magic key to emancipation.

We already live in a world of networks lacking a single command and control center, that is, in a social and political reality that is vegetal, even though we have not quite become cognizant of this transformation. It is not easy to shake off millennia-old definitions of the human as a political animal (Aristotle) and to consider ourselves as political plants. Nonetheless, the pliability of capitalism means that it can accommodate this ground-shift, if not profit from it as value production transitions from the industrial to the postindustrial mode.

When dispersed desires, pleasures, and knowledges are harnessed for the purpose of value creation and extraction, “the plant in us” becomes a locus of meta-surplus-value, the blind spot of the entire disseminated system that bestows meaning on that system and enables the more or less imperceptible continuation of exploitation. Critiques of the subjectivized commodity form in consumer capitalism are yet to contend with the vegetal shape of decentralized subjectivity, the “inner network” (now including the structure of the brain) that predicates the smooth functioning of the “outer” social, economic, and political network. Or, more fundamentally still, with the interface of the two kinds of network that seamlessly pass into one another in the manner of plant existence, eschewing the hard-and-fast barriers between interiority and exteriority.  

Like ontological plurality, the dispersal of intelligence into a multiplicity of minds, distributed across the sentient extension of plants, is not an assured escape route from metaphysical and capitalist domination. In our “knowledge economies,” intelligence is the commodity that produces and reproduces itself with the excess of surplus-value, over and above what is strictly required for its self-reproduction. Why would plant intelligence be any different?

Capitalism and metaphysics coax knowledges out, extract, attribute value to, and traffic in them. The surplus over the knowing and the known is the capacity to know, a potentiality prior to its actualization. Doesn’t the surge of interest in plant intelligence zero in (and capitalize) on this capacity of plants, which it then converts into the principles of vegetal robotics, environment sensing, or biochemical signaling? There is nothing inherently wrong with learning these things from plants in a cross-species or cross-kingdoms pedagogy that is not limited to capitalism. The troublesome bit is the form such learning and its objective outcomes assume: a commodity. Of course, nothing and no one is ensured against the far-reaching power of commodification, insinuating itself into the previously noneconomic domains of life (in the discourse of economics: “externalities”). If, however, plant intelligence is also under the spell of the commodity form, then we cannot assert that it maintains and fosters an innately redemptive potential in the midst of the current capitalist-metaphysical onslaught.

 It is for this reason that I much prefer plant-thinking, an expression I coined with the inspiration of Plotinus’s phutiké noesis (“vegetal mind”), to plant intelligence. In a nutshell, intelligence is instrumental; thinking is not. Intelligence is meant to solve problems and achieve determinate goals; thinking problematizes things and makes them indeterminate. Intelligence is the triumphant, algorithmically verifiable application of the mind to matter (or to the environment), forced to do the mind’s bidding. Thinking happens when the instrumental approach fails; it is a positive sign of failure, of disquiet, of an unending albeit finite search. Intelligence is the tool of evolutionary success, enabling the survival of the fittest; thinking is a mark of in-adaptation, without which, nevertheless, adaptation is not possible. Finally, intelligence enables commodification, while thinking may resist this sprawling phenomenon.

Plant-thinking, then, is not plant intelligence; it could very well be that the two are mutually incompatible. The extension of plant parts—leaves, roots, shoots—to the other, their tending in all directions at once, is a dynamic, material, living image of intentionality. Vegetal extended and extending intentionality goes beyond the use of that to which it strives, first, because it does not represent sunlight and other vital “resources” as objects and, second, because the solar target of its striving is unreachable. Unfolding between earth and sky ever since the initial bifurcation of the germinating seed, the spatialized thinking of a plant is the unrest of and in the middle. Plant-thinking is a growing in-between, the middle place or the milieu, later on formalized into environment. In a certain sense, plant-thinking is environment-thinking.

***

Consumer capitalism and knowledge economies have subjectivized the commodity form, drawing value and surplus-value from the knower or consumer subject. Today, something else is afoot. All around us, “subject-object binaries” break down: in object-oriented ontology (OOO), the environmental humanities, posthumanism, participatory action research… The collapse of the subject-object relation undeniably affects the status of plants and, in light of the advances in quantum physics, what used to be considered inanimate matter. Descartes is buried, time and again, to loud self-congratulatory applause of his gravediggers. But what if the commodity form has mutated once more? What if, neither objective nor subjective, it stems from the breakdown of the subject-object coupling?

Consider the following. The boundaries of the subject have been distended to the extent that nothing is a (manipulable) object any more, resulting in the end of subjectivity as a determinate concept. That everything is an object—from global warming to jetlag, from a tree to a unicorn—is the reverse side of the same coin, which some currents of thought, such as OOO, favor. The totalizing assertion about the nature of “everything” robs objecthood of its meaning. The articulations of the extremes, each of them claiming to have gained an upper hand over the other, malfunction beyond repair: we are way past subject-object correlations, correspondences, or dialectical syntheses. As a result, we survive amidst the ruins of the dyad, surreptitiously receiving negative energy from its ongoing disintegration.

The initial thrust of fragmentation gives way to the haphazard piling up of multiplicities. It is not by chance that logos, translated not as “study” (as in the usual renditions of socio-logy, bio-logy, etc.) but as “articulation” is now a dirty word, and ecology has grown incomprehensible. In response to Timothy Morton’s cheers for ecology without nature, I would say that we ours is the age of the environment without ecology—our environs, our surroundings, void of integral connections. Just as our metaphysics is the downfall and bankruptcy of metaphysics.

As far as the logic of self-valorizing value, or capital, is concerned, the amassing ruins of the subject-object split (and we should never forget that “we” are a part of these ruins) serve a double purpose: they hide the relations of exploitation and imperceptibly supplant the hylomorphic (from the Greek “formed matter” or “form-matter”) organization of beings with an alien form, which is none other than that of the commodity. The subjectivization of the commodity has already fulfilled, to a significant extent, the first purpose of obfuscation. With the innermost potentialities of the intelligent and consuming subject commodified, exploitation has gone into hiding, tying its routines to dreams, pleasures, and desires, including those of knowing—Sigmund Freud’s and Melanie Klein’s “epistemophilic drive.” The nearly psychotic breakdown of the subject-object paradigm further occludes relations of exploitation, in that it precludes the articulation of any relations whatsoever. The subject-object split is itself split, resulting in a conceptual explosion akin to the one nuclear fission instigates. The infamous “butterfly effect,” according to which everything is interconnected and any action can cause any reaction, remote as it may be from its source, is the highest stage of this disarticulation, analogous to statements “Everything is an object” or “Everything is a subject.”

And this leads us to the second purpose in replacing formed matter with the commodity form. If, paradoxically, global interconnectedness coincides with the absence of external relations, not to mention of a theory of relationality, this is attributable to the dearth of inner relations (or self-relations, if you will, whether harmonious or clashing and self-contradictory) between the form and the content of existences. The ensuing disintegration by far outstrips the nonorganismic, open structure of vegetal life: not cohering together, lacking any sort of logos, the fragments of the subject-object paradigm receive their sense from the outside, from the commodity form imposed in lieu of the phosphorescent glow of their intimate meaning.

When it comes to plants, they (along with all other entities and processes with which experimental science occupies itself) are both physically and conceptually analyzed into hormonal networks and biochemical elements, electrical signals and genomes, calcium transduction pathways and transmembrane proteins. The plant as plant disappears. On the one hand, what comes to the fore, in its stead, are the vegetal tendencies that the phenomenologically accessible shape of plants has been hitherto obscuring. On the other hand, its disjointed component parts supply easily manipulable, formless materials. The promise with which the dynamic view of the plant beckons us, stressing its tendencies (I resist the scientifically correct “functions”) as opposed to fixed structures, grows dim as soon as science, technology, and the capital that animates them recruit its capacities.

Needless to say, the logic I am describing is not new. Its prototype is the system of metaphysics that spirits away the sense of entities it explains on the grounds of a single, omnipotent and omnipresent, concept or Being. Two of the salient novel aspects of this logic’s current instantiation are: 1) its remarkable capacity to construct reality not only at the ideational-ideological but also at the physical-material level; and 2) its derivation of philosophical, socio-cultural, and economic values from the disintegration of previous conceptual unities and corporealities.

For centuries, metaphysics has been obliquely influencing human and nonhuman lives by generating the blueprints for our approaches to what is and to ourselves. Now, in its antimetaphysical, perverse shape, it is directly molding the world, lending the nightmarish fantasy an actual body.

Take the patenting of plants’ genetic sequences or of their medicinal properties known to traditional healers well before the advent of capitalism. Relying on the apparatus of applied science and starting from the decimation and evisceration of the plant, biomedical and biogenetic research offers an ideal basis—the code: life translated into information—for a possible reconstruction of what has been destroyed. The code is private property, and the realization of the possibility to put the flesh on the abstract skeleton all over again hinges on paying for it. Half the passage from the ideal to the real is folded into capital, while the other half, moving away from the real, ends up in an ecological disaster, the irrecoverable derealization of biodiversity and mass extinction. Gene banks and seed vaults, such as the one in Svalbard, Norway, artificially bridge the dialectical thesis and its antithesis: they are the repositories of information regarding plants reduced to mere genetic materials (germplasm) and deemed useful, or potentially useful, to human beings who may resort to them in the event of their extinction.

***

My word of caution for you, then, is not to accompany the budding recognition of the plants’ surprising capacities with a self-congratulatory pat on the back. However far removed from their traditional human figuration, “subjectivity” and “agency” are not foolproof solutions to oppression and, above all, exploitation. Mark this acknowledgement, instead, as the first stride on the path toward genuine liberation, the announcement that the struggle has begun, or rebegun, for all of us, whether human or not.

 

 

 

 

 

A Portrait of Plants as Artists

by

Michael Marder

 

I find it quite impossible to imagine art totally vacant of plants. Even those theological traditions, like Islam, that (as part of their reaction against idolatry) proscribe the depiction of animals and humans, excel in floral designs. Plants figure prominently in landscape paintings and still lifes that extract them from the hardly noticeable background of everyday existence. The vegetal content of traditional art is not what interests me here, however. I want to focus not on the artist’s plants but on plants as our equal, if not superior, partners in aesthetic and poietic processes broadly understood. With these brief reflections, I would like to contribute a few conceptual brushstrokes to the portrait of plants as artists.

Before anything appears on canvas or is etched in wood, plants serve as materials for the artwork. The substratum for visual arts is often vegetal. Spreading pigments on paper, we paint with plants on plants: with gum arabic from acacia trees in watercolours, with oil paints using linseed oil, and so on. (As painters, are we the mirrors, in which plants see without seeing themselves?) Before the digital age, motion pictures used celluloid film, made on the basis of plant substance, cellulose. Wood carvings date back to the very beginnings of humanity.

Putting aside the strange question about human mirrors that has imposed itself on me, it might appear that the human artists’ use of vegetal materials reduces these to a passive role of means for purely external ends. Unless we recall that the remains of plants we paint, sculpt, build houses, or film with not only receive the sensuous image of the artist’s idea but also offer the sort of resistance that bends the initial blueprint. In woodcarving, the size of the tree trunk determines the dimensions of the finished sculpture. The grain of wood dictates the course and direction of the sculptor’s work, typically cutting plant fibres across the grain. “Imperfections” in plant materials may be incorporated as the unexpected and previously unplanned features of the art piece. Drying vegetal-derived pigments will impose their own color scheme on the painting and change with the passage of time. The varying absorption capacities of canvas paper or fabric will introduce their corrections into the hues and outlines of whatever is depicted on it.

These examples are much more than instances of mechanical resistance to “spiritual” human endeavours that modify our abstract ideas falling into the world of matter. The afterlife of plants in a chopped down trunk or in vegetal-based paint is an alien intentionality, with which the human artist must be in constant negotiation and collaboration. The work of art wherein vegetal materials participate is thus a product of plant-human synergy overflowing the boundaries between animate and inanimate beings, let alone distinct biological kingdoms.

If the Greek poiesis means creation, then plants are the co-creators of the artworks, for which parts of their bodies are utilized, as well as the creators of themselves, of the atmosphere, and of the world. More on this later. For the moment, another Greek word is worth considering, namely aesthesis. At the root of aesthetics, it refers to perception (from the verb aisthesthai, “to perceive”). In this sense, too, plants are aesthetic agents. They appeal to the human and other-than-human perceptual apparatuses—for instance, through the shapes, colours, and smells of their flowers or the taste of their fruits. And they perceive the world occasionally better—on a wider spectrum of possible stimuli—than we do, as Daniel Chamovitz has recently shown in his book What a Plant Knows.

With respect to how plants give themselves to the perception of bees, humans, butterflies, and birds, we might say that they are not inertly available, as a rock might be. Instead, a rose prepares itself for the moment when its petals would open, exuding a delicate aroma; delicious figs take the time to ripen before their fruits release their honey-like contents in our mouths; orchid flowers shapes themselves in a certain way to resemble a female wasp before a male specimen spots them and flies over so as to consummate, by mistake, a cross-kingdoms sexual act. Plants paint the world in intense colours and fill it with elaborate shapes. They swathe life in a plethora of smells and addictive tastes.

It is not that an individual rosebush, fig tree, or orchid deliberately presents itself in this or that fashion to the senses of beings who not plants. Vegetal aesthetics consists in the achievements of evolution, sometimes coupled with human efforts at cultivation. Cultivating a particularly aromatic variety of flowers, we, once again, participate together with them in a creative process, in aesthetic synergy. As for evolution, we still need to come to terms with what this concept actually signifies. The tendency is to treat it as a new, scientific incarnation of God, through which everything makes sense and all the phenomena of life are explicable. In fact, evolution is nothing but the ties that bind this rose or this fig tree to countless generations of its predecessors, as well as to a coevolving environment. It disperses vegetal subjectivity across space through collective constitution together with genetic kin and drowns this subjectivity in deep time. Henri Bergson’s notion of creative evolution touched upon something of an aesthetic agency in excess of the phenotype, even though the French philosopher also risked fetishizing evolutionary reason.  

The self-presentation of plants is more obviously aesthetic to the extent that it revels in the spectacle, in the spectacular dynamics of display. The drama and suspense preceding the opening of flowers is quickly followed by the exuberance of the blossoming period and a similarly stunning fading, withering, and decay. The nonflowering varieties that rely on asexual reproduction do not stay far behind, because vegetal display is a corollary to the maximum exposure that distinguishes the plant’s mode of being.

The proliferation of living exposed surfaces, whether green or multicoloured, is ultimately responsible for the rich aesthetics of vegetation, which Schiller includes under the heading of material play, a prototype of the formal play drive, in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. In Letter 27, he writes: “Even in mindless nature there is revealed a luxury of powers and a laxity of determination which in that natural context might as well be called play. The tree puts forth innumerable buds which perish without developing, and stretches out for nourishment many more roots, branches and leaves than are used for the maintenance of itself and its species. What the tree returns from its lavish profusion unused and unenjoyed to the kingdom of the elements, the living creature may squander in joyous movements. So nature gives us even in her material realm a prelude to the infinite, and even here partly removes the chains which she casts away entirely in the realm of form.”[1]

Display and, even more so, play are the aesthetic antidotes to the seriousness of evolutionary reason. As Schiller has it, they happen for nothing, out of the overabundance of life in a playful, displaying creature. Above all, in a plant. Schiller goes so far as to deem the play drive a sign of happiness, of a plant, animal, or human rejoicing in itself. Of course, at issue is not joy as an emotion but ontological joy, a being revelling in its power to be and in the actualization of this potentiality beyond what is strictly needed (say, for survival). The exuberance of flourishing, the abundance of display, is the aesthetic function of play, which in the logic of means-and-ends is utterly superfluous. In the last instance, the leaves are exposed not in order to maximize their capture of sunlight and opportunities for photosynthesis. Instrumental exposure is what remains of the plant’s massive “squandering” of itself into the outwardly expressed joy of its being. Georges Bataille’s general economy, of which restricted economy oriented to specific calculable ends is a subspecies, follows on the heels of such play. And, with regard to Bataille’s suggestion, we might say that playful aesthetic experimentation, not the least by the plants themselves, is the milieu, the atmosphere, or the climate within which adaptation and survival become possible.

Across its play and display, vegetal being does not diverge from appearance: the plant wears what it is on its sleeve, or, more accurately, on its leaf. To assert that plants are the artists of sensuous appearances, offering untold aesthetic riches to whomever they attract, is to claim in the same breath that they are the artists of being. In effect, plants create and recreate themselves all the time, growing new limbs, shedding leaves, putting out new sexual organs (i.e., the flowers). They are performative creatures par excellence, the artists of themselves. Vegetal self-creation and self-recreation takes its cues from the conditions outside—cold for shedding leaves; warmth and longer hours of daylight for flowering; sun exposure for growing new branches—without a rigidly predetermined organismic plan. The artistry of plants that make themselves is, therefore, of one piece with the world.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that, attentive as they are to exteriority, plants are manipulated, marionette-like, by their environment into self-creation. Not only do they reach complex decisions on the timing of changes in their morphology and physiology, but they also make the places where they grow, by which they are, in turn, made. Photosynthesizing, plants are the artisans of the atmosphere and of the world. They bring together the organic and the inorganic realm and gather around and on themselves creatures from various biological kingdoms: fungi, insects, bacteria, animals… Before they are landscaped by human hands and well before they feature in landscape paintings, plants create airscapes and earthscapes, microclimates, and breathable air, cooling and humidifying the sites of their existence, and returning organic richness to the earth in the process of decay. Our moulding of the world is an inverted image of its vegetal creation: we fill the air with C02, deplete the soil, prompt global warming, make the desert expand. The human art of world-creation verges on world-destruction, diminishing the concrete possibilities for future life. Conversely, plants are the architects of the environment who expand the liveable realm both through their crafting of climates and through their activities of growth and decay.

It is often observed that plants are marvellous alchemists, converting inorganic particles coupled with sunshine into organic matter fit for the nourishment of others. This is artistic creation, the culinary arts of ripening with the varying degrees of solar heat and in symbiosis with human and other-than-human palates. Making their fruits edible, sometimes by adding an enzyme intended just for that, refining their juices, and cooking in the sun, plants are exquisite chefs, rather than suppliers of raw materials for gastronomy.

A final brushstroke I would like to add to the portrait of plants as artists has to do with their unique subjectivity. Vegetal existence is, to borrow the expression of Jean-Luc Nancy, singular-plural, thriving above and below the thresholds of individuality. In other contexts, I have addressed its ontological, ethical, and political implications; the aesthetic sense of the plants’ mode of being is yet to be thought through. At minimum, their mode of being indicates that plant authorship and artistry are anonymous and dispersed, as well as collective and collaborative. Postmodernism celebrates the death of the author as a solitary genius, a heroic and creative individual behind the work. What this theoretical current leaves out is the upside of the momentous event it points out: the afterlife of the author and the artist is vegetal. Don’t “our” writing and aesthetic practices approximate those of plants once the illusion of autonomously individual authorship is laid to rest? Don’t their outcomes become not just ours—the property that is mine, yours, or yours and mine at the same time—but also of the plants with which and on which we write and create, of the microorganisms that nestle in the work, of the dust that settles on and gets engrained in it?

But I have gotten carried away and started painting outside the frame of the portrait I’ve been working on together with plants, inorganic materials, and—yes!—dust. How intellectual property rights might metamorphose, grow or decay, upon contact with plant subjectivity is a theme for another sketch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man, translated by Reginald Snell (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), p. 133.

Vegetality

by

Michael Marder

 

We live in an age when critiques of essentialism and theoretical positions priding themselves on being nonessentialist are the norm. The typical formula of the somewhat quixotic battles against this philosophical strawman (or straw-woman) is, “There is no X” (fill in the blank: animal, human, world…), with the positive proviso: “There are only Xs (animals, humans, worlds…).” In other words, the norm nowadays is to espouse one’s sincere desire to do away with essence as the product of normalization meant to bring into line every singular deviation from the impossible ideal. In place of a unified, static, and oppressive essence, we get the radical empiricism of scattered, mobile, if not nomadic, multiplicities strategically and temporarily assembled around a common term that has an air of nominalism about it. But is this alternative an improvement on what it rejects? And do we know what we are rebuffing when we tout our presumably revolutionary non- or anti-essentialism?

On the surface of it, essence signifies the being that is (est, es, ist, есть, asmi, ἐστί);[i] it says its “yes” (this English word, too, growing from the same semantic root) to being. Nonessentialists, then, are for or on the side of nonbeing, to which they assent, mouthing their “yes,” as though despite themselves, despite their “no” to essence. In effect, they are left with nothing on their hands, albeit a nothing that is not pure negativity and that, infinitely mutating, is but a negative imprint of essential being. The solution to the conundrum of essence is thus more complicated than a forthright negation: it is necessary to unravel essence from within, to discover the “no” inside its “yes,” which might as well turn out to be the very essence of essence.

That is where vegetality enters the fray: although, on par with humanity and animality, it proposes to name the essence of plants, every path toward the “green” comprehension it opens winds up in a gray area of essential nonessentiality. Let me direct the beams of theoretical spotlight onto three such paths, namely the spatial, temporal, and behavioral interpretations of vegetality. Even if, in one way or another, I have discussed all three in my previous philosophical explorations of plants, they will get a new lease on life in the gray glow of what I have just termed “essential nonessentiality.”

         Space. In its physiology, at the ontic level of its existence, a plant thrives by maximizing its exposure to the outside world. As I’ve noted in my Plant-Thinking, vegetal existence is essentially superficial,[ii] subverting or perverting in its essence the very logic of essence as a deep, permanently hidden, and inert core of appearances. Buried in the fruit, the kernel that has been a staple figuration of concealed essence, as in Hegel’s philosophy, is only provisionally withdrawn from sight, waiting for the flesh that surrounds it to rot, so that it could be exposed to the elements and nourished by decay, the plant reborn from it. Burrowing into the earth, the root can nonetheless develop from other plant parts that appear in the open and is, therefore, not as indispensable (essential in the sense of necessity, of the vegetal sine qua non) as we think. So, when essence is grafted onto the skin of appearances, when it becomes sensible to the point of tangibility, when physical superficies endlessly overlay other superficies rather than a profoundly metaphysical ultimate reality, then essential nonessentiality flourishes in a mode of existence that branches out and leafs into the isyes it addresses to the world.    

         Time. The temporal dimension of a self-subverting essence concerns history. Whereas, at the heights of metaphysics, historical fluctuations and upheavals held little significance because they left the ahistorical essence of the phenomenon unaffected, essential nonessentiality obeys the existential rule that the meaning of being is time. Time or, concretely speaking, existence itself elevated to the status of essence is the original alloy of becoming and being, which never attains any degree of purity. The being that is is a fleeting moment between the being that was and the being that will be. Each phase of a plant’s life sees it beholden to a vegetal heterotemporality, an expression I’ve coined to refer to the time of its other, be it seasonal alteration and alternation or the human agro-activity that tempers with such cycles, from the simple contraption of the hothouse to the introduction of the ripening gas C2H4 (Ethylene), now the most widely manufactured organic compound in the world. Temporally, plants are insofar as, without uttering anything, they say yes to the other through everything they do in an affirmation that precisely takes time to become effective. And the same holds for the concept of the plant as for the heterotemporal constitution of plants: there is indeed no ideal construct, from which the actual historical versions of planthood would deviate; however, this does not mean that we should give up on vegetality, understood as the sum total of deviations lacking a norm or as an infinite number of detours toward the other. Whatever we are collectively inflicting on plants at the current (and at any other) intersection of human and vegetal histories meddles directly with their essence. The commercial production of sterile seeds, for instance, not only robs plants of their reproductive potential but also consolidates vegetality as something sterile, radically finite (nonreproducible) in itself yet marshalled toward infinite growth, corresponding to the infinite (nonsatisfiable) demands of capital, to which vegetality is forced monotonously to say its yes.   

         Activity. Growing is the activity of plants that seems to retrieve the old model of essence. While we can subtract virtually every one of their features, taking growth away would do away with plants. It is the aspect of their existence that is irreducible, absolute, essential, and fundamental to what they are. Upon a closer look, we spot various fissures in the recovered façade of vegetal essence. Growth fills in the metaphysical gap between being and doing: what a plant does passes seamlessly into what it is and vice versa. Vegetation vegetates; plant behavior derives from the morphological changes, initiated by biochemical cues, hormonal stimuli, genetic or epigenetic expressions in response to environmental conditions, predation, or proximity of other plants. To our ear, the verb “to vegetate” sounds hopelessly passive, yet it is thanks to this association that the second crack in the behavioral façade of vegetality comes to light: besides erasing the difference between being and doing, the essential nonessentiality of growth invalidates the distinction between activity and passivity. Although the Latin vegēre means “to excite” and connotes vigor, virility, and strength, vegetating has acquired the opposite sense of dullness and idleness, later on re-projected onto plants and coloring their image that predominates in the popular imagination. Probably because vegetal doing is often so subtle, so firmly anchored in metamorphosis that requires a relatively long time to be accomplished, it is mistaken for nondoing, for inactivity. As a result, X and not-X mingle in vegetality, jointly constituting plant essence. Something of this formal logical contradiction reverberates in the claim to and of growth, a signature activity of plants that, at the same time, characterizes the whole of what we know as nature. That is another fissure, the third for those who are counting: the most essential property of plants is also what is most common to all living beings; the growth proper to them is entirely improper; that which is theirs is at the same time not theirs. non solum vegēt et vegent sed verum vegēo, vegēs, vegēmus—not only does it vegetate (or excite) and not only do they vegetate, but also I vegetate, you vegetate, we vegetate (or excite).   

 The spatial, temporal, and behavioral “glitches” in vegetality—the glitches that, far from accidental, are built into its “program”—amount to the internal displacement of plant essence, which is the paradigm case of the internal displacement of essence proper, of the essence of essence. It feels rather hollow to assert, in formal philosophical terms and together with the Hegel of Philosophy of Nature, that vegetal identity is its nonidentity and that a fair bit of necessary confusion between the same and the other permeates plant world. More vividly than that, we can consider how the vegetal is is a yes to the other so vehement as to hand plant essence over to the other—to another essence or to the other of essence, a nonessence. In divesting itself of “autonomous” being that would stand over and against other kinds of being on the one hand and nonbeing on the other, in de-essentializing itself, vegetality is all the more faithful to the essence of essence, in that it gathers together as petals in a bud the different sense of the *es-. It is this ontological generosity that allows it nonviolently to sup-plant being “as such” (i.e., essential being).

I have devoted many pages of my theoretical writings to the plant/nature synecdoche, a vegetal part representing the whole it participates in. The activity of vegetality inverts this relation, prompting the question: What if the plant were not in the first instance a synecdoche of nature? What if it were nature “itself,” before its formalization into an abstract totality of organic and inorganic beings, or the “sum total of appearances” as Kant puts it? Could it be the case that all natural entities were initially understood as vegetal—above all growing, as well as decaying and capable of self-reproduction? In addition to plants, animals, and humans (with the later addition of fungi and microorganisms), the vegetality of nature would then encompass the rising-growing and the setting-decaying sun, waxing and waning lunar phases, volcanic formations and the swell of mountains commemorating them, the metal ores thought of as plant-like in alchemy, and so forth. Still, it will be pointed out, a big difference exists between claiming that all of nature is vegetal and arguing that the essence of essence, or being “as such,” is vegetality. How to bridge these levels of analysis, if that’s what they are?

Martin Heidegger offers a clue with his suggestion that, in ancient Greece, nature (phusis) as a burgeoning, blossoming, overall movement of growth was the name, or the misnomer, for being. “What does the word phusis say?” Heidegger asks. His response: “It says what emerges from itself (for example, the emergence, the blossoming, of a rose), the unfolding that opens itself up, the coming-into-appearance in such unfolding, and holding itself and persisting in appearance—in short, the emerging-abiding sway. […] This emerging and standing-out-in-itself-from-itself may not be taken as just one process among others that we observe in beings. Phusis is Being itself, by virtue of which beings first become and remain observable.”[iii] There is no “emerging-abiding sway” of phusis without vegetality, without a journey through every stage of plant germination, growth, blossoming, and finite self-preservation through reproduction. The nature of nature, the essence of essence, is a yes-sence, saluting and affirming vegetal being, which is, for its part, the saluting affirmation of the other. It is the spatiotemporal ecstasy of a seed that, uncontainable in itself, spills out or dehisces and germinates, impatient to be, to exist; of a leaf that unfolds and presents itself to light and to sight (touch, smell, and taste); of a flower that leaves the bud behind and blossoms forth welcoming bees and butterflies and its own wilting and decay. The standing-out-in-itself-from-itself essential to the active stillness of phusis reiterates plant growth and presages existence, a one-word condensation of this standing-out.

Emerging, forming, growing right before our eyes is the defundamental ontology of vegetality, the anarchic principle of plant being that deletes itself from every representation, from every world-picture so as to give room to being as such, with neither a beginning nor a clearly established hierarchical order nor a single guiding directive. None of this, however, goes to the vegetal, semantic, or conceptual root of essence, where the articulation of the copula, the is, resides.

A tautology: essence is. Or, is it (a tautology)? The is leads whatever precedes it (conventionally, the grammatical subject) outside and beyond itself, mediating between it and the predicate. Even in the case of a predicate identical to the subject, even in the case of nothing following it, as in the statement “essence is,” where the is implicitly articulates essence with being, in and as which it is. Led outside and beyond itself, the subject replicates the activity of nature that stands out in itself from itself. The copula is a conductor to the beyond, the initiator of a relation. It shares this role with plants that articulate the classical elements of water, the earth, solar fire, and air, previously indifferent toward (and, hence, unrelated to) one another. And, like the plant that stands in for the whole of nature, the copula is a grammatical form of the verb “to be,” conjugated in the present tense third person singular, that betokens verbal being as such. Discursively, plant being is being; vegetality is the is: finite in space, time, type of activity, and designation, it is infinitely malleable and immanently self-transcendent in its “emerging-abiding sway.”

It follows that the fullness of essence or of being is not the all-embracing totality Emmanuel Levinas has made it out to be, but the overflow of a singularity that unfolds toward the other and, in this unfolding, subtracts itself from the relations it makes possible, leaving in its wake the roominess wherein the articulated terms can subsist. The copula—this link forged from a specific variation on the verb “to be”—and the plant—this particular living being—do not conquer and dominate the rest of the grammatical and biological forms they welcome by saying their “yes,” by serving as passageways between diverse elements: subject and predicate, earth and sky. They are, rather, the figures of the essence beyond essence, a “beyond” that is perhaps what is most essential to essence.

Now, essence beyond essence, or “essential nonessentiality,” is existence, the standing outside itself in itself of being. Instead of a static edifice, being is non-self-coincidence: growing, becoming, vegetal. In medieval thought, only in God as ens perfectissimum (the most perfect being) were essence and existence one and the same. The coincidence of the two presupposed, in turn, a prior separation between the stable and the unstable, atemporal and temporal being, overcome nowhere else but in the exceptionality of divine essence-existence. Vegetality demonstrates this coalescence in a manner different from that of divinity: it shows that essence is already existence, its “in-itself” primordially twisted into “outside-itself” and, therefore, into “for-the-other.” It reveals the existentiality of essence, translated not only into a yes-sence but also into an ex-sence, the outwardness, exteriority, extending or tending toward the other. And, because vegetality is both proper to plants and shared with other kinds of beings, it extends this growing extension beyond itself all the way to essence and existence “as such.” Conversely, to segregate essence from other essences and from existence, to close it off by blocking its “beyond,” is to uproot the plant in it, which is what the metaphysical tradition in the West has been doing for centuries. In any event, essence will be de-essentialized. The question is: How? Will it be subject to external negation at the hands of antiessentialists? Will it negate itself in affirming its absolute independence? Or, will it come to its end (not to be conflated with termination) in the acceptance of its existential bent, in and through vegetality that brings essence to itself by putting it face-to-face with the other?

[i] Essence is derived from *es-, the Proto-Indo-European root for “to be.”

[ii] Cf. Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 80ff.

[iii] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 15.

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

by

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 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.

Why then read Philosophy of Nature, Part II of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences in “our” twenty-first century? 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 what lies beyond it. 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.”

Wooden Materiality

by

Michael Marder

 

Aristotle has given us the language of philosophy by way of refiguring, delimiting, and, yes, inventing a number of Greek words. And he has likewise gifted us with the concept of matter. Or, rather, not quite a concept, and not exactly of matter, at least in the literal register implied in our translation of this term from Latin into English.

Perhaps more than other expressions lifted out of their everyday context and borrowed for philosophical use, matter remained profoundly marked and incompletely separated from the (immemorial) place and time of its initial enunciation. What we call “matter” in an adaptation of the Latin materia is first denominated by Aristotle with a common Greek noun hulē, referring to wood. A paradox is already apparent in this semantic choice: a particular kind of “stuff” whence something can be made stands in its singularity for any material and, finally, for all the “stuff” of which the world is comprised. Just as the growing plant that, a being among other beings in nature, condenses (thanks to the growth it embodies) the whole of nature in the pairing phutō-phusis, so vegetal matter comes to define matter as such. Synecdoche reigns supreme.

It would be advisable, nonetheless, to lower the pace at which we are proceeding and to loosen the associative links between “matter” and “stuff,” to which we are so accustomed. The Aristotelian hulē is not only timber, not only the dead wood left behind as a trace of past vitality after a tree has been chopped down, but also the woods, that is, living vegetality in its flourishing multiplicity as an ecosystem. The late Russian philosopher Vladimir Bibikhin dedicated an entire seminar to the woodiness of Aristotelian matter; major sections of that text appeared in my translation in English two years ago.[i]

There are, certainly, signs of life in the matter Aristotle’s philosophy uncovers or discovers, encounters or invents—the signs that are absent insofar as we, the ultra-moderns, are concerned. The living character of matter as vegetal helps explain the ancient view of kosmos, as well: a shining order breathing with vitality in each of its parts. Whereas for us life is an exception in the cosmic scheme of things, for ancient Greeks it was death that stood out from the general rule of a living totality. At the same time, the inherent ambiguity of hulē should complicate this black-and-white caricature: as the woods and wood, as the trees themselves and timber, matter is both living and dead, the line between life and death (not to mention nature and culture) rendered indeterminate in it. And, as soon as its constitutive ambiguity dissipates, it changes beyond recognition. Separated, if only for analytic purposes, from a living form with which it has co-originated, such unambiguous matter cannot help but reflect the absence of life, a feature that has gradually become predominant in our thinking about it.    

How did hulē  get transformed into materia? Did that transformation have anything to do with the deadening of matter? Note that the meaning of materia is overdetermined, insofar as the Greek ambiguity persists in it. On the one hand, it names the mother, mater, vis-à-vis whom form is gendered or engendered in the masculine; on the other hand, it invokes madera, wood as timber, in a selective inheritance of Aristotle. The emergent conceptual matrix is, consequently, that of assigning to the feminine a passive-receptive attitude, and to the masculine—the principle of individuation, of an active form, of forming activity to be received by materia-mater-madera. The flora, too, is understood in terms of a passive mode of existence, entirely subservient to animal and human needs and desires, which is why, as this line of thinking goes, it is so propitious for figuring matter. 

Though undoubtedly influenced by Aristotle’s philosophical formalization of hulē, the Latin grasp of that quasi-concept misses the point of his take on the Platonic khōra as the “material” receptacle, the womb of the world, the place that takes place in and with the taking place of everything. In the paradigm operating with the category materia, the segregation of form from matter has already happened, such that the latter has received the imprint of the former from the outside. In Aristotle, however, unless hulē obtains a form (morphē) from itself alone, in forging a relation to itself as other to itself, hylomorphism (i.e., the co-originariness and co-belonging of “matter” and “form”) makes little sense.

After a brief sketch of the idea of matter, we are prepared to contemplate both the roots and the branches of its affinity to the vegetal world. Crucially, a turn to plants does not lead to a naïve, because insufficiently abstract, perspective on materiality; what it suggests is a middle path between the Scylla of interpreting matter as a chaotic agglomeration of atoms or subatomic particles and the Charybdis of its determination as a rigid, teleologically-inflected order. Rolling the theoretical dice and seeing whether matter is purely alive or purely dead is not enough, since the purity of these respective qualifications invariably deadens by representing that which they in each instance qualify as either a direct or an inverted reflection of the ideal, non-material form. The question is, rather: What sort of life is proper to matter?

The response seems obvious: Every sort is. Yet, in its blatant indifference to the unique, this curt reply pre-decides, before offering a cogent argument, against hylomorphism. To respond in this manner is to blind oneself to “the proper” of matter, which is an extension of the pre-ontological hospitality to what is other to it, namely to “the improper.” Vegetal life welcomes all the other modes of living, as well as a non-life, into its midst; hence, the doubling of hulē into the living woods and dead timber. (In another context, in his as yet unpublished seminar from the 1970, Jacques Derrida has baptized this condition la vie la mort, or “life death,” without, he insists, the hyphen that could have mediated between the two.) This self-expropriation, this self-subtraction of the vegetal from essence (indeed, from the very essence of essence) gives it the right to be the synecdoche that it is.   

Now, if matter is vegetal, wooden and of the woods, then it must partake of the phenomena and movements characteristic of the plant world: growth, decay, metamorphosis. While it will be fairly uncontroversial to assert that matter is in a constant flux, lending itself to ever-new forms, the ascription to it of the first two vegetal markers will raise eyebrows. Within the limits of the prevalent metaphysico-scientific framework, regardless of all the changes that take place in them, matter and energy themselves, as such, do not change, uncreated and indestructible as they are. But what if matter and energy, the one as the other, grew and decayed, plant-like? Over one hundred years ago, Gustave Le Bon alluded to this possibility, when he retracted from the two concepts their “privilege of immortality” and argued that they “also must enter into the cycle of things condemned to grow old and die.”[ii]

Wooden and woody, materiality is finite also in the sense of its aesthetic delimitation; far from amorphous, matter is replete with its own forms. Its infinity lies in its infinite finitude and an open-ended chain of synecdochal variations, prompting Leibniz, for instance, to define it as a garden within a garden within a garden… But all this—growth and decay; the stain of finitude; delimitation by material forms—conveys the corruption of pure ideality in the most intransigent strains of the metaphysico-theological tradition (e.g., Gnosticism). Matter becomes evil, the evil that ought to be expunged for the ideal and unburdened spirit to triumph. As Clement of Alexandria puts it: “the gnostic soul must be consecrated to the light, stripped of the integuments of matter, devoid of the frivolousness of the body and of all the passions, which are acquired through vain and lying opinions, and divested of the lusts of the flesh” (Strom. 5.11). The element of light, to which the plant-hulē tends above ground, denotes the pure spirit St. Clement wishes to preserve in its purity at the expense of vegetal matter, the indwelling of the flesh with its sinfulness, falsehood, and “frivolousness.”

Much of the same happens in the post-revolutionary Terror in France, with Robespierre decrying “corruption,” “l’excés de la corruption humaine,” his preferred term for the materiality of existence.[iii] Like the Gnostics, he bemoans the fall of spirit into matter, the loss of the human in the wooden and woody density of existence, the corruption of our rational dimension by its entwinement with the opaqueness of the body. If the ensuing purges were of such a total, totalizing nature, that is because their target was, besides the corrupt public officials and institutions, everything corruptible—matter taken as a whole, whether in its actual or potential aspect. Valid as they are, current complaints about political corruption, presupposing the vanished Golden Age or the utopian ideal of purity, either run the risk of falling flat as vague attempts to blow off the steam of discontent, or, provided that they are substantive, flirt with a maximally anti-material posture, culminating in the purges.

To be clear, this does not mean that we should fatalistically accept the ever-worsening abuse of power wielded for the sake of private interest. Instead, working with the hylomorphism of vegetal matter within the political sphere (which cannot rot infinitely just as it cannot grow indefinitely), we should help along those changes in its materiality that would bring with them new forms of organizing a shared existence. The choice we face is, therefore, stark:

-to excoriate corruption by setting the wooden and woody body of the world and body politic on fire, the element of choice for rituals of purification, or

-to cultivate or to craft—depending on when it shows itself as the woods and when as wood—hulē in a different manner, letting alternative forms to emerge from it, while fully accepting that they, too, are destined to metamorphose, grow, and decay.

There will be always something “rotten in the state of Denmark”; the problem is how to turn this rottenness into a fertile ground for another growth.

I began by stating that Aristotle gave us the language of philosophy—a claim that is, on the face of it, open to the charges of Eurocentrism. I would go a step further and argue that philosophy is not just Eurocentric: it is Hellas-centric. Despite its global spread and influence, it remains an endeavor tied, for better or for worse, to its Greek beginning. Medieval thinkers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, took this for granted and nicknamed Aristotle, precisely, The Philosopher. But, needless to say, the language of philosophy is not the same thing as the languages of thinking, untethered to whatever we call “Europe” or “Greece.” There is nothing wrong in admitting that these languages are not those of philosophy, especially now that philosophy, at the close of its unfolding as the history of metaphysics, is caught up in internal turmoil and disintegration, all the while keeping the hope that from its end would germinate a “beginning of thinking.” On the contrary, to impose the form of philosophy on other traditions is to disrespect the materiality of their thought, to violate the hylomorphism of their thinking, to excoriate the plant in them.        

Still, the languages of thinking often resonate with that of philosophy, participate in intellectual cross-pollination, borrow its insights or lend theirs to it. The wooden-woody notion of matter is one such resonance site. Consider the following. In the Indian milieu, Jainism ascribed great significance to plants, so much so that it espied in them the fifth elemental building block of the universe, alongside the other classical elements of earth, water, fire, and air.[iv] We might leap into the thickets of conceptual translation and surmise that, for the Jains as well, matter is partially vegetal. Except that such a leap would impute to Jain thinking a foreign notion, whose hollow form is transposed, without giving this theoretical act much thought, from a certain Latin rendition of Aristotle. The Jain discernment can communicate with the philosophy of hulē, albeit on the condition that the two hylomorphic units grow (transplanted, perhaps) side-by-side, each faithful to its vegetal self-shaping. And that is the heart of (the) matter.

[i] Vladimir Bibikhin, The Wood(s), Chs. 1, 6, 8, translated by Michael Marder. Stasis, 3, 2015, pp. 8-52.

[ii] Gustave Le Bon, The Evolution of Forces (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1908), p. 10

[iii] Maximilian Robespierre, Textes Choisis, Volume III (Paris: Éditions Sociales, 1958), p. 60.

[iv] Sibajiban Bhattacharya, The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. X: Jain Philosophy (New Delhi: The American Institute of Indian Studies, 1970), p. 165.