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.”