A Ripening Injury

by

Michael Marder

 

As he brings his discussion of plants in The Philosophy of Nature to a close, Hegel suggests that the formation of fruit results from a “destructive process.”[i] One of the theses supporting his suggestion is that “the ripening of the fruit is also its downfall; for injury to the fruit assists its ripening.”[ii] Hegel’s observation reveals yet again how plants turn adversity into advantage, a presumably negative condition into a positive precondition for thriving. (I say, “yet again,” seeing that the loss of bodily extension in pruning has already transformed lack into plenitude, seeing that pruned bushes and trees grow exuberantly, lusher than ever.) Instead of actively opposing or passively succumbing to a threat, plants incorporate it into their own constitution and life-process, making the most out of it.

Note the difference between the dialectical insight and Nietzsche’s lesson “from life’s school of war [aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens],” long since adapted as a piece of folk wisdom: “Whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger [Was mich nicht umbingt, macht mich stärker].”[iii] Here, demise and enhanced survival are still at odds with one another, whereas, in Hegel’s line of reasoning, whatever damages the fruit speeds up its journey toward success. Rather than blocking the potentialities of an injured being, the injury does the work of time itself, letting fruit ripen before its appointed time. It is not evading danger that boosts the chances of a fruit, but, on the contrary, getting in harm’s way. This is what I call “ripening violence.”

In the course of ripening, a fruit attains its identity—the color, size, flavor and other characteristics that differentiate it from the initial (and relatively homogeneous) state of greenness, smallness, sourness, shared by all fruit regardless of distinctions among species. Seen through a dialectical prism, mechanical or insect-induced injury as a catalyst for ripening is the agent of determinate negation, that is, of a negation, which determines the thing it negates, actually dispensing to that thing what is most proper to it. The plant-based phenomenon of ripening violence appears both as the exemplary encapsulation (in Hegelspeak, a concrete universal) of “creative” negativity that fleshes out and actualizes being.

A curious nuance of determinate negation via an injury is that it does not arise from a self-negating thrust, immanent to the injured entity in question. The cause is quite arbitrary, accidental, and external (even if it’s a worm that burrows deep into the flesh of a fruit)—something that is to be expected at the abstract and initial stages of the dialectical journey, not at its concretizing culmination. Hegel does not address this inconsistency in Philosophy of Nature, but, were he to do so, he would have justified it with regard to the dearth of self-relatedness (and, therefore, of self-negation) in vegetal being, its presumed indifference to itself as to a fully developed subjective self. Given that the plant is itself only when it is not in itself, the individuating factor is equally external to it, as well. The determinate negation of vegetal existence is carried out by the other—haphazardly and unexpectedly—, because the plant lives in and through its other. A mechanical injury or a worm may, all of a sudden, step in and take over the time and the being of a plant (for instance, the ripening of its fruit), because vegetal being and time are already, “in” themselves, heterontology and heterotemporality.[iv]

Now, if vegetal ripening violence is a concrete universal, then how does it apply to an animal organism and to a human being? There are at least three methods for advancing this line of inquiry.

The first, and the least dialectical among these, is analogico-allegorical. It involves the act of making external comparisons and drawing parallels that treat an injury inflicted on a fruit as an allegory of violence perpetrated against an animal or a human, and ripening as a metaphor for maturation, more psychological than physiological in our case. An early champion of this method is St. Augustine, who, on the upside, sees in Biblical fruit an allegory of good works.

The second method is hermeneutical. Coming closer to the modus operandi of dialectics, it renders explicit what was merely implicit in the abstract equivalences of formal analogies, in keeping with their inner logic and with a sense that is neither purely literal nor allegorical. Instead of aligning in neat parallels the injury suffered by a fruit with disease, trauma, physical, economic, political, and cultural types of violence, it shows how they are mutually complicit, or coimplicit, and how it is possible to tease these other kinds of harm out of vegetal injury. (I must add that, contrary to the claims it lays on a seamless and continuous emanation of meanings and interpretations in interpertation, this method negates the immediate structure and flow of a text or a reality. The beam of selective attention, shining from the hermeneutical gesture, penetrates the interpreted materials, burrowing into them like a worm, or smashes them into fragments, ready for citation, exegetical dissection and discussion. Though stirring within, it marks the site of injury and makes the implicit explicit with a good dose of ripening violence.)

The third method is properly dialectical—not because it sublates or overcomes plant in animal and human existences, but because it patiently outlines the shape of singular universality qua universal, and, therefore, somehow relevant to other singularities. It is neither the application of an abstract principle to a particular case, nor an analogy, nor an exegesis… and it is all of the above. A dialectical method does not even shy away from going against the formal tenets of dialectics, for instance, by endorsing an external comparison when it befits a being said to exist largely outside itself. Hence, an analogico-allegorical approach, too, is valid when plants are involved, even if ripening injury exceeds the scope of their existence. From a singular universal, one can only leap to another singularity, which is neither included under the umbrella of the first universality nor under that of an abstract universal. How to leap from a ripening injury to an individuating disease and on to enabling violence? What sort of non-analogical analogies and non-explicative interpretations would rise to the occasion, yielding affinities among disparate modes of being?

While plants may suffer from diseases, Hegel’s strictly dialectical deployment of the term is inapplicable to vegetation. The very concept of disease implies an animal organism, which is “in a state of disease when one of systems or organs, stimulated into conflict with the inorganic power, establishes itself in isolation and persists in its particular activity against the activity of the whole.”[v] Since, in vegetal constitution, there is no mediated integration of the whole and its parts—since the parts of a plant are also potential wholes—, there is no possibility of a conflict between a part that “establishes itself in isolation” and “the activity of the whole.” Following Hegel’s line of reasoning, plants are never in a state of disease or (amounting to the same thing) they are always, by default, in a state of disease. This state, in fact, corresponds to the internal injury of a self-negated, self-mediated, self-related being, the injury that affects, more than an isolated system or organ, interiority as such: “While the division of animal life is the animal type in its self-particularization, so now, in disease, the individual organism, too, is capable of one particularization that does not accord with its notion, i.e., with its total particularity.”[vi] And what is that “total particularity,” which does not accord with the notion of the animal, other than vegetality?

Without pausing to mark moments of transition between the methods we have been availing ourselves of thus far in extending the phenomenon of ripening injury outside the realm of plants, we have already covered two such methods: the analogical and the hermeneutical. The analogy between an external injury and an internal disease gets exquisitely complicated, given that the effects of illness, viewed philosophically, transgress the relation of mere parallelism, which an analogy affords, and render an animal organism plant-like. For its part, hermeneutical work is also far from finished: like vegetal injury, disease has a positive function of bestowing particularity onto the diseased organism, albeit not in accord with the dialectical concept of the animal.

Novalis takes an extra step in this direction when he writes: “Our illnesses are all phenomena of enhanced sensibility, which wants to pass over into still higher forces… Illnesses belong to individualization.”[vii] Whereas Hegel construes disease as particularization that rebels against the totality of the organism, for Novalis, it is individualization, leading a body beyond itself thanks to “enhanced sensibility.” Consequently, instead of Hegel’s vegetalized animal, we are faced with Novalis’s animalized plant: “Diseases of plants are animalizations. Diseases of animals are ratiocinations. Diseases of stones are vegetation.”[viii] He elaborates and refines the analogy of a ripening injury to illness: the old scala naturae is creatively perverted in his text, inasmuch the heightening of sensibility, a transition to higher rungs on the ontological ladder, happens by way of disease. At the apex, the human is the sickest being of all, which also means the most individuated—a diseased animal, who or that is a diseased plant, who or that is a diseased stone… Allegorical, hermeneutical, and dialectical paths converge in an individuating illness, in which a ripening injury is reinvented, or in which it reinvents itself, as the enhancement of sensibility. “The disease of the individual”—the title of section (a) in paragraph 371 of Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature—becomes individual as disease in Novalis’s writings.    

Going back to the fruit, which an injury paradoxically hastens toward ripeness, we now see that, in this manner, the fruit is confronted with its Janus-faced individuality. A mechanical injury confirms the fruit’s own sensibility and individuation as a diseased stone. The impact it receives from an inorganic object or surface reminds it what it has “passed over,” what it has been, but also what remains unsurpassable. The worm that burrows into it insinuates the disease yet to come—“diseases of plants are animalizations”—into the fruit’s flesh. Slotted between two individuations, two illnesses conventionally categorized as two types of existence, the injured fruit comes into its own as doubly other to itself.

We cannot help but highlight a stark divergence between Novalis and Hegel on the subject of the ontological and productive workings of disease, that is, on the subject of how disease produces certain types of being or orchestrates a transition from one kind of being to another. Instead of animalization as the disease of plants, Hegel presents us with vegetalization as the disease of animals. A cure for the latter is the recovery of organismic totality mobilized by the very self-assertion of particularity it negates: “The process of recovery implicit in fever consists in the totality of the organism becoming active. In so doing, the organism raises itself out of its submergence in particularity; it is alive as a total organism.”[ix] To be cured is to subdue the plant in oneself, to overcome the vegetality of an animal or human body. The equivalent of a ripening injury is, nevertheless, evident: harmful as it is, disease awakens the forces that will facilitate convalescence. Creative, determinate negativity prevails both when a fruit speeds up to ripeness thank to an injury it receives and a body bounces to a state of health from—and thanks to—the symptoms of its disease. What differs, though, is that a ripe fruit is the affirmative negation of a plant (which attains a provisional end in it), whereas a cure is the suppressive negation of planthood that irrupts as illness from an animal body.

Mechanical or physiological trauma bears superficial resemblance to psychic trauma, if only by virtue of relying on the same word to express the damage inflicted on the body and the psyche respectively. Psychic trauma cannot, for all that, play the role of a ripening injury. It refuses to pass, to become the past—a little like the inorganic heritage of organic existence. Rather than speeding up the flows of mental life and enriching it with “learning from experience,” psychic trauma is a non-experience that results in an extreme fixation, bringing this life to a grinding halt (which can sometimes appear in the guise of frantic activity). Hegel comes across the non-productive negativity of trauma when he discusses a form of disease “which originates in the universal subject, especially in man. These are diseases of the soul [Seele], which are caused by terror, grief, etc., and which can even result in death.”[x] There is nothing else he can add to this short and dry description, precisely because traumatic “diseases of the soul” contribute nothing to the ripening determination of the subject, unless one endorses the nihilistic equation of ultimate ripeness and death. The trigger event may well be external, but this sort of disease does not arise on the outside, its etiology also setting it apart from the mechanical and insect-induced injuries of fruit.

Still, in keeping with the conceptual pattern of organic illness, the disturbances of the soul would pit a part of psychic constitution against the whole. They would, in this way, vegetalize the mind, ramified into “total particularity,” which negates at its core the notion of the “universal subject,” in whom they arise. And, again extending the scheme of physical disease, an effective cure of such disturbances can only be a total mobilization of universal subjectivity against that part which arrogates to itself the status of a whole, so that the soul would raise itself from its submergence in particularity toward rationality. According to Novalis, however, the (Kantian and) Hegelian cure is pathology: ratiocinations are the diseases of animals, while animalizations are the diseases of plants. Reason—which Kant considered pure so long as it was free of the pathologies of individual bias, position, or inclination—becomes, for Novalis, a pathology responsible for the making of human being.

When it comes to us, humans, psychological trauma and physiological illness are not the ends of the story. The undoubtedly conservative gesture of psychologizing social, economic, and political problems shifts the spotlight onto the individual, an entity that is, itself, individuated through pathology if seen against the backdrop of plant and animal life. So, what are the instances of a ripening injury at these supra-individual levels?

A prime example of socio-cultural ripening injury that comes to mind is something Gayatri Spivak has talked about for decades, namely “enabling violation.” The context for it in her work is colonial and postcolonial: the education and the language provided by the colonial or postcolonial authority simultaneously violates—by demeaning, sidelining, disregarding, or outright forbidding—local knowledges and languages and gives the colonial or postcolonial subject the tools to forge new bonds of solidarity, to change their dire situation for the better, to have a voice. Spivak writes: “If, instead of each identitarian group remaining in its own enclave, some of us engage in ab-using the enabling violation of our colonial past to converse with each other, we may be able not only to turn globalization around, but also to supplement the necessary uniformization of globalization with linguistic diversity.”[xi] And again: “British colonialism is an enabling violation. Our point has long been that, in the house of language, we must remember the violation as well as the enablement.”[xii]

We could launch ourselves headfirst into the allegorical, hermeneutic, and dialectical comparisons of the enabling violation Spivak keeps coming back in her work to and an injury that hastens a damaged fruit to the state of ripeness. But it would be advisable to acknowledge, beforehand, the sharp contrast between the socio-cultural effects of this violation and its politico-economic ramifications. When Spivak writes about “turn[ing] globalization around,” she has in mind the possibility of using the language of the colonizer in order to shatter colonial chains—hence, “ab-using” this language in a way that yields an unforeseen outcome, unintended by the colonizer, namely the creation of solidarity among the colonized, or the previously colonized, groups. Diversity would be then recovered through homogenization, fostering unexpected alliances among those whose languages and cultures were to be undone, reduced to dust and ash on the highway of globalization.

Although the forging of solidarity (thanks, in part, to the colonial lingua franca) borders on the political, it is a far cry from the institutional politics that invariably emerges in the postcolony in the form of entrenched nationalism. Is this, also, an “enabling violation,” and, if so, whom does it enable? While things might be a little murky in the political sphere that hovers somewhere between the cultural and the economic, the latter is utterly resistant to the mission of turning globalization around. The postcolony is included in the fold of global capital under the aegis of “development,” and only the most ardent fans of neoliberalism (Spivak is not one of them) would claim that the benefits reaped from this misnomer of a process are enabling, even with the proviso that the enablement they represent is mixed with a violation. The contradiction Spivak’s term harbors comes into the light as soon as we recall that “the house of language” she mentions without citing Heidegger is being itself, which englobes all ontic regions—not only cultures and their thick linguistic, ritual, custom-based fabrics, but also politics and economics, where the very fate of being is now at stake.

In any event, what does it mean for the subjects of the colony or the postcolony to endure an enabling violation, given the conclusion we’ve reached about the ripening injuries of the fruit? Do they attain their identity, the determinate (negative) concreteness of their subjectivity, through such a violation? Speaking analogically-allegorically, is the imposition of the colonizer akin to a worm biting into the flesh of a fruit from within or to the blunt impact of mechanical trauma, causing the fruit to ripen from without? It would seem that, for Spivak, the initial traumatic encounter with the colonizer corresponds to the impact of mechanical force, whereas—much more insidious—colonial education functions like a worm, indwelling, destroying, and hastening the maturation of the educated subject. The analogue of a ripening injury in the colonial context is, therefore, double: outer and inner. The enabling violence of education and language presupposes, as their half-forgotten prehistory, the raw force of domination.

The hermeneutic take on the matter should account for the reversal of Hegel, for whom the ripening of the fruit is its downfall, in Spivak’s text, where the colonial downfall allows for the ripening of the postcolonial subject. If the Hegelian twisted circle, woven out of multiple speculative propositions, reveals anything, it reveals that violation is enablement (the injury of the fruit that ripens it) and enablement is the ultimate violation, dissolution, decay (ripening as downfall). Spivak, for her part, puts two contradictory effects side-by-side—violation as well as enablement—, stopping short of establishing their speculative identity. Whatever one does with these contradictions, the positive teleological model of coming-to-fruition no longer works, when apparent success is a sign of decline and when two logically incompatible effects derive from the same cause.

And the Hegelian twists do not stop there, as they lead us to the heart of dialectical method. The fruit’s decay and downfall are the marks of vegetal triumph, considering that the “true” identity of the fruit is the kernel or the seed it contains (which is, however, too abstract, self-enclosed, and indeterminate to stand higher than the fruit). Ripening injuries allow the seed to be revealed sooner and, possibly, to obtain its first nourishment from the fruit’s decaying remains. The enabling violence of colonial and postcolonial education is also empowering in this diabolical sense: it permits for a faster extraction of value (above all, of surplus value) from the educated subject who speaks the language of the colonizer. The economic seed is not just wrapped in superfluous cultural trappings; rather, it is fed by the dissolution and decay of the fruity flesh that surrounds it. The destructive process is formative in a plethora of ways. Adversity flips into advantage: whose advantage? Cui bono?

 

                       

Notes:

[i] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Nature: Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Part II, translated by A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 348

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

[iii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer. In Portable Nietzsche, edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York & London: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 467 [translation modified].

[iv] I explain the latter of these terms in Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 95ff. The former is mentioned here for the first time.

[v] Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, p. 428.

[vi] Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, p. 428.

[vii] Novalis, Werke, Tagebücher und Briefe, edited by Hans-Joachim Mähl & Richard Samuel, Vol. 2: Das philosophisch-theoretische Werk (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1987), pp. 824, 835.

[viii] Novalis, Werke 2, p. 824.

[ix] Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, p. 435.

[x] Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, p. 432.

[xi] Gayatri C. Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 28.

[xii] Spivak, An Aesthetic Education, p. 315.

Moss: The Inassimilable

by

Michael Marder

 

In July 2018, desperate to escape from unbearable summer heat, I went with my then two-year-old son on an impromptu week-long vacation in the region of Sintra, just outside of Lisbon, Portugal. Sintra is a lush mountainous area, very close to the westernmost point of continental Europe, an area boasting its own humid and cool microclimate. During the long walks along winding forest paths and small mountain roads, my son immediately learned a new word he would often repeat throughout our stay in Sintra and thereafter: moss. Indeed, moss was everywhere, covering with a thick carpet roadside stone fences, tree trunks and boulders scattered on the forest floor. Touching its humid green softness with an open palm of his hand, my son would savor as much the experience as the word, repeating the gesture and uttering it over and over. I am convinced that, in his mind, the entire place was linked to the ubiquitous tiny plant he had encountered for the first time there.

Such fascination is foreign to philosophers who, habitually neglecting plants, pay no attention whatsoever to the smallest among them. Plant nature in general and mosses in particular are beneath them, those lofty thinkers refusing to bend, to stoop, physically or spiritually, as low as that. One salient exception is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, quipping in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker: “They say a German once wrote a book about a lemon-skin. I could have written one about every grass in the meadows, every moss in the woods, every lichen covering the rocks—and I didn’t want to leave even one blade of grass or atom of vegetation without a full and detailed description.”[i] Behind the most careful naturalistic observations and reflections, we do not find the ideal of scholarly detachment, but passionate commitment, a child’s wonder and curiosity preserved throughout one’s life and triggered, precisely, by “every grass in the meadows, every moss in the woods, every lichen covering the rocks.” It is an excess of enthusiasm that borders on the impossible: to describe the tiniest bit, every “atom of vegetation,” incorporating it into an overarching project of writing, or rewriting, the world.

The father of modern scientific method aspiring to smash the so-called idols of the mind, Francis Bacon did study mosses, which, together with mushrooms, he considered to be “imperfect plants.”[ii] If his studies are interesting, they are so not for what they reveal about moss, but, on the contrary, for what they say by omission and despite themselves, as though unconsciously. For example, Bacon insists that the “moss of trees is a kind of hair; for it is the juice of the tree that is excerned, and doth not assimilate.”[iii] Obviously, he forgets that moss can grow on trees as well as on rocks, where the theory that it consists of the exuded and unassimilated “juice” of a host plant makes no sense whatsoever. Still, in this glaring oversight, there is a glimmer of insight, an inadvertent admission that moss, as this unique plant and as a condensation of the flora in the miniature, is inassimilable for metaphysical thought. It is this relation of the inassimilable that I want to explore with you in today’s remarks.

According to Bacon’s theory of juicy exudence, older plants grow more moss because their vigor is diminished, their sap unable to permeate the entire tree: “Old trees are more mossy far than young; for that the sap is not so frank as to rise all to the boughs, but tireth by the way and put out moss.”[iv] The emergence of moss is linked to stagnation, the diminished quality of plant metabolism that results in the exteriorization of the inassimilable portion of tree sap.

Bacon is, in fact, not alone in thinking that moss is a sign of decline in vegetal vigor. St. Hildegard of Bingen writes in her Physica: “When trees grow old, they begin to lose their inner greenness (viriditas), and if they are not young, they send the greenness and health, which they ought to have inside, to the exterior bark. Thus, moss grows on the bark because these trees do not have inner greenness.”[v] Moss prompts a spatial confusion between what is (or should be) inside and what is (or should be) outside: it literally turns vigor inside out, implanted on the bark instead of circulating in the tree. While consisting of “greenness and health,” it expresses their weakening in the host. More than that, neither Bacon nor Hildegard before him acknowledge the host as host, since they do not see in moss a parasitic plant living on a plant of another species. The view of moss as inassimilable hides the gap between the same and the other, actually assimilating the symbiont to the host.

Colloquially speaking, “gathering moss” is growing old. As an old Latin proverb goes, “A rolling stone gathers no moss [Saxum volutum non obducitur musco].” While, in its initial sense, the dictum criticized those who, rootless and roaming the earth, assumed no responsibilities, according to a modern interpretation (picked up by Bob Dylan and the British rock bank “The Rolling Stones”), it meant that, being in constant motion, one escaped the states of stagnation and senescence. The historical shift in the interpretation of the proverb is telling. For the ancients, the contrast is not between rest and motion, but between kinds of movement: the purely mechanical, relatively fast displacement of a stone, on the one hand, and the self-directed, relatively slow movement of vegetal growth, on the other. And this is not to mention that, with varying degrees of approval, the proverb describes a situation, where strict dividing lines are maintained between the inorganic realm and the organicity of moss. A rolling stone refuses the community—indeed, an entire world—moss could have created on its surface. Still, moss remains inassimilable to a narrow vision of movement and within an order built on the need to compartmentalize various kinds of being, if not segregate them from one another.   

Perhaps the most remarkable piece of evidence for how inassimilable moss is to metaphysical thought is its unique temporality. Just as it confounds the distinction between the inside and the outside with regard to vitality, so it muddles the difference between youth and old age, the before and the after of vegetal life. With moss, the bookends of plant history close into a circle: “the most primitive of land plants,”[vi] one of the vegetal pioneers preparing the ground for future growth,[vii] it thrives on nearly lifeless or entirely dead trees. Softening not only the sharp outlines of rocks and leafless branches but also the edges of time—those abruptly dropping cliffs of the beginning and the end—, moss escapes the power of linear chronologies and hierarchies. Anarchic, it performs the work of time, grinding down the rocks, speeding up the decay of fallen tree trunks, metabolizing mineral and vegetal matter. As Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it: “The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet yielding to a soft green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces, grain by grain bringing them slowly back to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure.”[viii] I would add that the conversation, too, is beyond ancient: it is that of time itself.

Why is our conceptualization of time, drawing on metaphysical order and stability, ineffectual when it comes to the time of moss? First, as we have seen, the relative terms “young” and “old,” “before” and “after,” are inapplicable there where a linear chronology breaks down. Second, the paradigm of energy gradually dissipating in the measure of distancing from an energetically rich beginning no longer works: diminished vitality coincides with the exuberance of mossy vegetal life, one that infinitely mirrors and is mirrored in “the architecture of the surrounding forest.”[ix] Third, though “primitive,” moss encompasses at least 14,000 species and includes virtually all methods of plant reproduction (be they sexual or asexual) and growth, reliant on mutual interactions with the boundary layer. Hence, already in the nineteenth-century a relevant entry in The Edinburgh Encyclopedia stated: “He who could examine the nutrition, the growth, the regular confirmation, the provision made for the continuation of the species…of even the minutes Phascum [mosses], without perceiving in them proofs of intelligence, power, and goodness, would probably receive no more conviction from the sublimest truths that astronomy can unfold.”[x] Finally, moss grinds rocks to sand and builds up the soil for future plant growth; it performs simultaneously the tasks of analysis and synthesis, complicating the image of time as a universal destroyer, the merciless devourer of all without exception.

As for the philosophers’ relation to moss, it would be fair to conclude that, even in the best of cases, this plant remains inassimilable to their thought, which it nonetheless stimulates and props up from the outside. Let’s refer to Rousseau once again and pair him with Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. The Genevan philosopher recalls reaching a patch of wilderness in the mountains of the Môtiers region, which left him speechless. “Gradually succumbing to the powerful impression of my surroundings,” he relates, “I forgot about botany and plants, sat down on pillows of lycopodium and mosses, and began dreaming to my heart’s content, imagining that I was in a sanctuary unknown to the whole universe.”[xi]

Besides furnishing a pillow that supports Rousseau’s body, mosses are the strange plants that make him “forget about botany and plants.” What sort of oblivion is that? I think that the pairing of the forgotten plants with botany is revealing: Rousseau cleanses from his mind plants as objects of botanical study, arranged in systems of strict classification. The “sanctuary unknown” he imagines himself in is another relation to vegetal life not mediated by such scientific constructs. The dreamy state Rousseau immerses himself in—the state that marks his reveries—is that of a forgetting that ultimately recalls something else outside the sphere of conscious representation, namely a togetherness with plants. Plunging into the deep reserves of the unconscious, he reconnects with the sources, whence his philosophy springs. And all that is occasioned by moss that, despite not having roots (it only has rhizoids), despite not burrowing deep into the dark of the earth, which could epitomize the unconscious, induces rapture and claims for itself the philosopher, body and soul—the body seated on its soft pillows and the soul enduring under the sway of its powerful impressions.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra also dreams (and, indeed, sleeps) on moss. He lies down on a bed of moss under a tree in a period of transition, when he realizes that he needs living companions, not dead ones: “Zarathustra found himself in a deep forest, and he did not see a path anywhere. So he laid the dead man into a hollow tree—for he wanted to protect him from the wolves—and he himself lay down on the ground and the moss, his head under the tree. And soon he fell asleep, his body weary but his soul unmoved.”[xii] Rousseau sat on pillows of moss; for Zarathustra, mossy ground becomes the support for his prone body, his head slotted between plants: the moss below him and the tree above. Without a path in the dark of a forest, Zarathustra finds a way in his own unconscious, in sleep facilitated by moss. Waking up rejuvenated, he utters his famous speech, addressing the living and refusing to speak to and for the dead. From below, moss bolsters and refreshes his thought and his relation to life, producing an effect that is diametrically opposed to the loss of vigor, with which it had been associated. Inassimilable, mentioned but in passing in the narrative of Zarathustra’s sleep and awakening, moss secretly prepares the moment of high noon, of another enlightenment and the shortest shadows.

To return to Sintra and to my son’s first experience with moss, what was stunning (albeit in line with the way children tend to think) was that he applied this word he had just learned to the place where he first encountered it, to all tiny plants, to the trimmed grass of lawns, to lichens… And so, in his mind, moss became easily assimilated and extended to the category small growing things. We should note, however, that it was in this way assimilable to a world seen through a child’s eyes, which is, precisely, the world inassimilable to the proud and self-sufficient adult experience of those who, at Kant’s urging, should emerge from their “self-incurred immaturity.” The category small growing things is given a certain shape, figured as moss. Its concrete universality, to resort to Hegel’s terms, is highly significant, above all as an alternative manner of approaching plant life. (I must note that, although Hegel treats moss as universal vegetation in his Philosophy of Nature, he considers it to be an indeterminate universal.)

In their turn, Rousseau’s reveries and the enlightenment of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra try to recover a child’s wonder, the point of view that, in this case, identifies with and recognizes itself in small growing things. Instead of advocating on behalf of adult seriousness, one should appeal to that immaturity which is of a piece with the promise of life, with life’s own essential unripeness and playful puerility. Within that jovial scheme, calling all small growing things moss is not lumping them together into one and the same conceptual basket; rather, it is giving something like a proper name to a category, rendered singular thanks to this name. The apparent disorder among levels of generality that ensues is, actually, a different order, attentive to moss’s inassimilability, its irreducibility to the taxonomic division (or the phylum) Bryophyta within the kingdom Plantae.

We say that things gather moss when they grow old, unless they—like a rolling stone—maintain themselves in motion. But here it is moss that gathers beings regardless of their formal classifications and, overcoming the segregation ingrained right into our “mature” cognition, rejuvenates thinking. This is what I discovered in Sintra with my son’s help. This is what I rediscovered in Rousseau and Nietzsche. And this is what I keep finding out in my forays into the philosophy of vegetal life.

 

Notes:

[i] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker (London & New York: Penguin, 1979), p. 84.

[ii] Francis Bacon, Philosophical Works, edited by James Spedding et al. Volume IV (Boston: Brown & Taggard, 1862), p.  407.

[iii] Bacon, Philosophical Works, p. 406.

[iv] Bacon, Philosophical Works, p. 405.

[v] Hildegard von Bingen, Physica, translated by Priscilla Throop (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998), p. 133.

[vi] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2003), p. 13

[vii] Robert M. Stark, A Popular History of British Mosses (London: Lovell Reeve, 1852), p. 4.

[viii] Kimmerer, Gathering Moss, p. 5.

[ix] Kimmerer, Gathering Moss, p. 10.

[x] “Musci,” The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, First American Edition, edited by David Brewster, Volume XIV (Philadelphia: Joseph & Edward Parker, 1832), p. 2.

[xi] Rousseau, Reveries, p. 118.

[xii] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” in Portable Nietzsche, edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York & London: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 135.

What a Plant Learns. A Curious Case of Mimosa pudica

by

Monica Gagliano and Michael Marder

 

Wandering through the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, renowned for housing one of the most diverse collection of living plants on the planet, you can be sure to fall under the spell of its notorious residents. There are the mighty oaks, thirteen-storey-tall redwoods, the sacred and endangered Pōhutukawa tree from Aotearoa, the striking spectacle of the giant Amazon waterlily. If lucky, you may even spot a flowering Titan arum with its unbearable corpse-like stench.

Among a treasure of distinct forms, colours and smells, you will also start discerning the relatively smaller, closer-to-the-ground dwellers, those whose feats are not displayed by virtue of their sheer size, but their actions. Action? A strange thought, perhaps, when talking of plants, given our misperception of them as stock-still and oblivious. However, it is precisely because her delicate fern-like leaves will suddenly curl up and droop to shy away from our touch, that many enjoy this intriguing plant and her weird performance.

Best known as touch-me-not or the sensitive plant, we are, of course, speaking of Mimosa pudica. Quietly, the highly touch-sensitive Mimosa recomposes herself by uncurling her leaves and pulling her stems upright again within a few minutes after the ordeal. This plant’s behaviour, especially her distinctive ability to ‘play dead’ in reaction to external disturbance such as touch, has captured human attention since ancient times and ignited the flames of imagination for centuries.

Now, the specimens of Mimosa residing in Kew Gardens no longer curl up to the nudging fingers of countless human visitors. As a colleague has recently pointed out, so many visitors of the Gardens have been touching these plants to see them perform their trick, that the plants cease to respond. Could it be that the Mimosa plants have learned that being touched repeatedly is a disturbance, yes, but one with no life-threatening consequences and therefore requiring no reaction?

The question underscores a phenomenon known as ‘habituation’, which is considered the simplest form of learning, one that scientists have observed pretty much wherever they have looked. And there is no reason to exclude plants from the effects of habituation merely on the basis of entrenched prejudices. Experimental evidence, combined with a sound theoretical framework that accounts for their behaviour, is required for us to make that call.

Like yawning, shivering, eye-blinking and knee-jerking in humans, the leaf-closing behaviour of Mimosa is an excellent example of an automatic response or reflex. Like all reflexes, Mimosa’s leaf folding trick is an evolutionary survival mechanism developed by members of the species through innumerable generations in the process of natural selection. It is part of the acquired habitus of the species, which has become deeply ingrained over its evolutionary history because it helped the specimens survive. How so?

Mimosa’s leaf folding allows the plant to respond quickly to perceived trouble, in order to protect her from harm. However, it does not come for free. When the plant folds her leaves shut, her capacity to forage for light suddenly plunges by half, meaning that the plant could face the risk of starvation. This risk may be a justifiable price to pay if the danger is real. But it is clearly a waste of precious opportunities to forage for light and thrive, when a perceived dangerous situation turns out to be not dangerous at all.

Mimosa is faced with a persistent emergency situation, urging her to keep evaluating the trade-off between the energetic gain of foraging and the risk of being eaten, constantly choosing between life and death. Wouldn’t it then be surprising to find that Mimosa has little or no control over her own fate? That the plant is incapable of assessing what the circumstances demand and what they offer? That she would be unable to learn from experience, unable to learn to ignore the harmless nuisance of, for example, being touched by yet another human finger visiting Kew Gardens, so as to spare herself the unnecessary trouble (and energy loss) of closing her leaves?

It would be surprising, indeed! Actually, this is not what these plants do: they learn. What we observe inside the controlled settings of a scientific laboratory[1], as well as outdoors in places like Kew Gardens confirms that plants can learn, remember, evaluate the choices they are faced with, and make decisions. So, the true surprise is our insistence on thinking that plants can respond only in pre-programmed and automatic ways already encoded to their DNA or that, devoid of agency, they are somehow being acted upon rather than acting in their own right[2].

Refusing to conforming to our expectations of how they should behave (or whether they are capable of behaving at all), plants are decomposing our obsolete ideas of what it means to be plant and more generally, living. Learning is a survival strategy, without which life would not have perdured. Because the circumstances of their existence and the environment are constantly shifting, it is important for organisms to act in new and creative ways, so as to rise to the occasion of unexpected challenges.

Implicit or explicit, learning is a tool permitting them to do just that: to rely, with the help of memory, on a storehouse of accumulated past experiences in order to change their behavioural patterns into the future. In the age of climate change, the organismic learning capacity is more crucial than ever, seeing that environmental conditions undergo swifter alterations than before, posing a greater number of serious threats to life. Plants, in their turn, have collectively gone through many more climate catastrophes than Homo sapiens sapiens, which means that they are, perhaps, even better learners than we are. Obviously, such a comparison of a biological kingdom to a single species may look unbalanced, but it is wholly justified as a response to rampant anthropocentrism, which elevates our own species above all other forms of life on earth.

We might say that the living learn to go on living, and that their lives are pieced together from experiences that present myriads of learning opportunities. Plants have an added urgency to learn and to engage in flexible behaviours on that basis, because they are sessile organisms, unable leave their habitats and to flee from dangerous situations. With regard to catastrophic climate change, we learn that we, too, are sessile, bound to Earth, unless we are tempted by fantasies of permanent human colonies on other planets, the fantasies of humanity becoming an interplanetary species. This realization means that we are on the verge of developing a vegetal consciousness (of being a global species within the terrestrial fold) as a consequence of learning—including from plants.

But let us go back from the planetary, if not cosmic scale, to Kew Gardens and their diminutive inhabitants. When she learns not to close her leaves in response to thousands upon thousands of caressing fingers, Mimosa pudica teaches us a vital lesson about the nature of learning and intelligence. She shows that we share the faculties and processes once considered exclusively human not only with other animals but also with plants. No matter her small size, she puts us in our place: shoulder-to-shoulder (or shoulder-to-branch) with all those living.

 

Notes:

[1] Gagliano M, Renton M, Depczynski M & S Mancuso (2014) Experience teaches plants to learn faster and forget slower in environments where it matters. Oecologia 175:63-72. (DOI 10.1007/s00442-013-2873-7)

[2] Calvo P, Gagliano M, Souza GM & A Trewavas (in press) Plants are intelligent: here i show. Annals of Botany; Michael Marder (2013) Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, NY: Columbia University Press; Michael Marder (2012) Plant Intentionality and the Phenomenological Framework of Plant Intelligence, Plant Signaling and Behavior 7: 1365-1372.

 

A version of this article has been published in Botany One.

 

Confessions of a Plant Philosopher

by

Michael Marder

 

More and more, I hear—or rather see in print—references to myself as a “plant philosopher.” In 2014, the American BOMB Magazine characterized me as “arguably the closest contemporary figure we have to a canonical plant philosopher.” The moniker has resurfaced many time since, most recently in Prudence Gibson’s book The Plant Contract and in the playbill of Manuela Infante’s theatre production Estado Vegetal, “The Vegetative State.”

This is not a term I invented. It has been, like a name one receives before one is able to form memories, given to me by others. Obviously, the fields of my philosophical investigations are not limited to plants; I write on politics, energy, ecological devastation, dust… But it is also true that the others know us better than we know ourselves, which means that there is a deeper truth in their assessment. So, I accept the designation, even if, like you, I am curious to learn precisely what it means.

Let’s start with the words themselves. “Plant philosopher” may refer to the one who philosophizes about plants. Or, it may be a shorthand for “a philosopher of plants,” an expression that needs further unpacking. On the one hand, its sense overlaps with philosophizing about plants, adding nothing new to the preceding interpretation. On the other hand, it becomes really strange, assuming that “of plants” implies belonging to them, being claimed by and for them. Heard in this sense, the expression vegetalizes me. To my mind, this ambiguity is as irresolvable as it is significant. In short, it integrates theory with practice, thinking with doing, knowledge production with ethical concerns.  

 The project of plant-thinking, limited as its scope seems, has gradually drawn the philosopher (yours truly), philosophy as such, and the figure of the human into its orbit. Which is why, regardless of what I (or anyone, for that matter) think, we are all plant philosophers. We owe our thinking (all of it without remainder!) to plants—both at its source, at the inception of thought, and at its points of destination. I will explain myself on this in a moment, but, first, you might be musing: “What is his backstory? How did his affair with plants happen?”

 My relation to plants has never been easy. Since the age of three, I have been suffering from debilitating bouts of pollen allergy, so severe that the doctors in Moscow, where I was born, recommended that I spend much of the spring in another climate. Many years later, I would hypothesize that, the ideal of immutable being is a symptom of philosophy’s conceptual allergy to plants. After all, trees, flowers, bushes, grass are the exact opposite of this ideal: they are living beings in perpetual metamorphosis, growing, changing, shedding leaves or petals, adding new organs. While I could not do much about my physiological allergic reaction, I was determined to tackle the conceptual allergy, which I perceived to be incomparably more harmful to humans and plants alike.

Despite these early experiences, I have always been fascinated with plants. My nickname in elementary and middle school was botanik, “botanist.” For a few years running, I participated in city-wide and regional “Olympiads” on the subject. Living at the outskirts of the city, my geographical location was at the edge of an extensive forest “Elk Island,” which was granted the status of Russia’s first national park in 1983, the year of my initial allergy outbreak. The forest was an integral part of my existence, a place where I took endless walks, gathered berries in the summer, skied in the winter, imbibed the smells and sights of the fallen and already half-rotten leaves in the autumn.  

No wonder that the idea of plant-thinking came to me in another forest (which is, by the way, also a national park)—Paneda-Gerês, spanning the border between Northern Portugal and Spain. Though very different from the woods of my childhood, this enchanted and enchanting place with moss-covered trees and wild horses stimulated my body and mind, lungs, eyes, and cognition like few others before. I spent my days in the forest and, at nightfall, I huddled by the fireplace of the lodge where I was staying with a book on Aristotle by Italian philosopher Claudia Baracchi. It was then and there that I became aware of how plant life was a lacuna in contemporary thought, not to mention in ethical approaches to the world.

 For Aristotle, the soul (by which he means something like the principle of vitality that animates beings, putting them in motion) has three possible forms. A uniquely human principle of vitality is rationality, the capacity to reason; the animal soul revolves around sentience, the senses, feelings, emotions. And there is also the vegetal principle of vitality responsible for nourishment and reproduction.

Over the past fifty years or so, “the human” has been subject to unpicking through critiques of reason as a fake universality, one that spins absolute standards out of particular male, propertied, European experiences. In the last twenty-five years, traditional constructs of the animal as deficient in comparison to the human have been also questioned. At the heart of these constructs is a trick, a sleight-of-hand condensed in the assertion (whether or not implicit) that because animals neither think nor speak as we do, they neither think nor speak, period. Be this as it may, radical changes in the human self-conception and in the notion of the animal intervene in, unsettle, and reframe the upper crusts of the Aristotelian soul, or at least of the shape in which it has reached us.

It dawned on me one fine evening in Gerês that, for all their daring, current interrogations of the human and the animal have left the foundations of the entire philosophical edifice relatively untouched. They have not engaged with plants. Already Aristotle deemed vegetal vitality (or organismic capacity to obtain nourishment and reproduce) to be a shared faculty of the soul, presupposed in the animal and human modes of existence. But there is much more to this faculty than Aristotle is willing to admit. Unless one debunks the myths that plants cannot think and are not sentient, the rest of the exercise in what is known, somewhat pompously, as “the deconstruction of Western metaphysics” is going to be superficial.

 By taking an apparent detour, we have stumbled upon an answer to the question why the project of plant-thinking has drawn this philosopher, philosophy as a whole, and the human into its orbit. If vegetal vitality is the most basic, shared, common life, pulsing through plants, animals, and humans, then it replaces a particularly human brand of reason as the true home of universality. Further, if other modes of vitality, including sentience and thinking, are not external superimpositions but the often-times unrecognizable outgrowths of vegetality, then to really understand them we need to go back to their vegetal roots. It is for this reason that I claimed in Plant-Thinking that even in our highest endeavors we remain sublimated plants.

In concrete terms, is it at all possible to obtain nourishment, reproduce, and finally live without thinking? Would any organism invest large amounts of energy into movement or growth in a haphazard manner, regardless of the whereabouts of what it is seeking? Evidently, such a scenario would be absurd. In fact, plant scientists have shown that roots grow intelligently toward patches of soil that have the most mineral and water resources. Along the way, they utilize biochemical substances to communicate with the roots of other plants. In the so-called transition zones that surround them, they exchange information with fungi and bacteria, with which they live in a symbiotic relation. They can adjust the direction of their growth, navigating underground labyrinths, filled with obstacles and rewards, no less proficiently than rodents placed in above-ground labyrinthine structures. 

This is just a small piece of the puzzle in the rapidly expanding field of plant intelligence studies. I have great respect for scientists (including, among others, Monica Gagliano, Stefano Mancuso, Frantisek Baluska, Richard Karban) who are spearheading this field. They are still working in a state of siege, under attack by their more traditionally-minded colleagues who deny that plants are intelligent and who prefer to see in them green, photosynthesizing machines. But I do not think that intelligence is the whole story here. For me, intelligence and thinking are not synonymous, not interchangeable. Plant-thinking is emphatically not plant-intelligence. So, what’s the difference between them?

Intelligence is basically instrumental. It is a sophisticated tool—using calculations, algorithmic functions, and so on—for getting what one needs or wants in an efficient way. Although different kinds of beings have different types of intelligence at their disposal, the form of intelligent conduct is suspiciously homogeneous: it boils down to utility-maximizing subjects acting to avoid pain (or environmental stress) and to procure pleasure (or ensure optimal conditions for flourishing).

Thinking will have none of that. I see it more as a fragile balancing act happening in the interfaces of the organism and its environment, an act looking, Janus-faced, both ways at the same time. Thinking is not utility-maximizing; it is, precisely, the opposite—leaving one’s comfort zone, one’s enclosure in oneself. It catapults the thinker into the world, for nothing in particular, for no apparent purpose or end. Thinking is existence. (You will have recognized that I am inverting Descartes’ dictum into “I am, therefore, I think.”) Arguably, plants think with unrivalled intensity, because their mode of existence constantly takes them outside of themselves into leafing, blossoming, extending branches and roots. Not only do they have transition zones around some of their organs, but they also are transition zones between themselves and their environments. That is the place of thinking, the site where it happens.

As you can imagine, these and related arguments have landed me in hot water over the years. To give you an example, exactly seven years ago I penned an op-ed titled “If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?” for “The Stone” philosophy section of The New York Times. I did not expect at that time that it would stir as much controversy (peppered with online death threats) as it did in the following weeks. I was attacked by everyone from Christian fundamentalists to vegans and from neuroscientists to humanist rationalists. I see in the scandal that ensued a symptom of psychological resistance. For centuries, if not millennia, plenty of psychic energy has been poured into creating and maintaining a certain image of humanity, accorded a place at the pinnacle of existence, with lower positions assigned to non-human lifeforms. These ideational structures cannot collapse overnight (and the spans of ten, twenty-five, or fifty years amount to “overnight” compared to the history of metaphysics). When its walls are breached, defenses are mobilized and everything is done to patch up the damaged section and to repel a perceived menace.

Another possibility is that, in my capacity of a plant philosopher, I have been unconsciously conflated with the plants themselves. And so, I have received a fraction of the negative and nihilistic discharge our culture releases against life and, above all, against vegetal life.

Whimsical as it may sound, to be a plant philosopher is to assume the utmost responsibility, which goes beyond the tasks of representing the interests of plants or speaking for them. Deeply engrained in the fabric of existence, of my thinking-breathing body, this ethical function cannot be limited to that of a press secretary or even a legal representative. An ethical stance, which is quite different from a moral position, motivates the unfolding of one’s life and thought in excess of a coherently formulated commitment, a decision one makes. At that level, none of us really knows her- or himself, just as we have no memories of ourselves roughly before the age of three. Others know us better than we, ourselves, do. It is only fitting, then, that they would name us, that they would name me, for example, “plant philosopher.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.