Bataille’s Vegetal Decay

Anya Gallaccio, Red on Green, 2012. Installation view, Jupiter Artland. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

 by Michael Marder

MAY 23, 2014


To appreciate life fully, in all its fragility, we must contemplate its growth, as much as its decay. While meaninglessness persistently obtrudes on the limited domain of meaning, rotting both makes possible and invariably succeeds growth. Finitude is the ever-present shadow and source of nourishment for existence.

Concentrating on the underside of plant and human lives, Georges Bataille de-idealizes both. To the ideal of beauty, usually associated with flowers, he opposes the fact that “even the most beautiful flowers are spoiled in their centers by hairy sexual organs.”[i] “[A]fter a very short period of glory,” he goes on to say on the same page of Visions of Excess, “the marvelous corolla rots indecently in the sun, thus becoming, for the plant a garish withering.” The price to be paid for excessive growth is an equally spectacular decay, whose products, we might add, have been, after countless millennia, converted by us into an engine of economic growth—natural gas and oil. The erectile excess that “projects plants in a vertical direction,” “in a general thrust from low to high,”[ii] is powerless when it comes to maintaining the metaphysical bias of virility; the erection, symbolized by a flower stem, falls: “[p]lants rise in the direction of the sun and then collapse in the direction of the ground.”[iii] Despite dreaming of the vast expanses of the sky, growth and finite existence as a whole return to the rotting piles of the dump we call “the earth.”

With Bataille, we find ourselves immersed in the maggot-infested lower part of the world-plant or the Soul of All, which Plotinus both despised and wished to cleanse in his Enneads. Post-metaphysical thought acknowledges the staying power of decay, for “while the visible parts [of the plant] are nobly elevated, the ignoble and sticky roots wallow in the ground, loving rottenness just as leaves love light.”[iv] The excess of growth, reaching all the way to that which rots, is due to the excessive polarization of the growing being, its tending in all directions, including polar opposites.Whereas, for Plotinus, this excess symbolized the way of evil, Bataille points out how indispensible it is for the flourishing of a plant or of any living being, for that matter. Ironically, the post-metaphysical root, most intimately engaged with material decay in the soil, is no longer the withdrawn refuge place of the One but the hotbed of Plotinian evil. From a metaphysical perspective, the foundation is (the) base in the moral sense of the word: “There is reason to note, moreover, that the incontestable moral value of the term base conforms to this systematic interpretation of the meaning of roots.”[v] As soon as the foundation sheds its false façade of immutability and begins to set root, its own growth internally unhinges it, drives it out of itself, perpetually un-founds it. Bataille’s thought is, therefore, nothing other than the repressed truth of Plotinus: post-metaphysics is metaphysics thought through to its logical conclusion. The emanations of the One, grafted onto a universal tree, undo from within this physical-metaphysical entity.

Plant growth and decay are also significant for the enunciation of Bataille’s famous notion of expenditure and his theory of “general economy.” Unconditional, non-productive expenditure, which is not recoverable in an equal exchange or consumption, is the epitome of existential excess, of existence as an excessive and unbalanced (excessive, because unbalanced) wasting or spending of itself. This is, by far, not the prerogative of human beings alone: Bataille sees in disequilibrium the conditions of possibility for life, down to the biochemical level. As he puts it, “[o]n the whole, […] excess energy provides for the growth or the turbulence of individuals. […] Plants manifest the same excess but it is much more pronounced in their case. They are nothing but growth and reproduction (the energy necessary for their functional activity is negligible).”[vi] Vegetal growth is excess because it is pure expenditure, limited solely by external environmental conditions. In and of itself, it is unconditional and hence separate from the restricted economy of exchange (for instance, the exchange of gases between a growing organism and the atmosphere). The de-monstrative exposure of plants, the open-ended multiplication of their extensions, and their decay are in line with the post-metaphysical approach to life. In their rise and fall, proliferation and rotting, we ought to recognize our phenomenal appearing in the world and the rhythms of our tragic existence.



[i] Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p.12.

[ii] Bataille, Visions of Excess, pp. 75, 13.

[iii] Bataille, Visions of Excess, p. 7.

[iv] Bataille, Visions of Excess, p. 13.

[v] Bataille, Visions of Excess, p. 13.

[vi] Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991), p. 28.

Nietzsche’s Jungle

 Heidi Norton, Radiation Jungle, 2014, archival pigment print. 30 x 24 inches. Image courtesy Monique Meloche Gallery.

 by Michael Marder

MAY 1, 2014


RUMOR HAS IT that Friedrich Nietzsche’s mental breakdown, from which he never recovered, began on January 3, 1889, when in broad daylight he embraced a horse that was being whipped on a street in Turin, Italy. It is, of course, tempting to see in this “mad” gesture a kind of cross-species identification of a beleaguered philosopher with an abused animal. We will never know with any degree of certainty what Nietzsche felt or thought at that precise moment. But we might surmise from his writings the common foundation of life, shared by humans, animals, and even plants. The name of this foundation is the will to power.

For Nietzsche, an attempt to understand life in all its manifestations could not afford to exclude either animals or plants from the general formula that only philosophy, rather than biology, could get at. Human, animal, and vegetal vitalities had to be viewed as variations on the same theme, namely a striving for existence. That is why roughly one year prior to his collapse in Turin, Nietzsche jotted down a question in his notebook: “For what do the trees in a jungle fight each other? For ‘happiness’?” And immediately responded: “—For power!—“[1] Plato and his followers deduced the fact of vegetal desire from the wilting of plants that were deprived of water and therefore experienced something like thirst. Nietzsche goes further than that. His implicit conclusion is that, beneath a physical craving in all kinds of living creatures, we find a metaphysical longing for power. Or, to put it differently, for being.

Unbeknownst to themselves, contemporary scientists confirm Nietzsche’s hypothesis in describing the outcomes of kin recognition in plants. The specimens of Cakile edentula, for instance, produced more roots when they shared a pot with strangers (plants of the same species, grown from seeds that derived from a different mother plant) than when they germinated in the same pot as their kin (defined as plants grown from seeds collected from the same mother plant).[2] Perhaps, the assumption that roots engage competitive or altruistic behaviors, depending on the identity of their neighbors, is nothing but a projection of human expectations onto non-human nature. Perhaps, Nietzsche’s interpretation of the “fight” among trees growing in a jungle is also a theoretical fiction, which, in turn, naturalizes the struggle for survival in human societies. But, having said that, we ought to look for the philosophical, rather than bio-anthropological, sense of the will to power in order to assess its significance for our understanding of plants, as well as of humans.

Growth, or an increase in extension, is the most physical manifestation of the common basis for life in plants, animals, and humans. This is not Nietzsche’s invention; in fact, for the ancient Greeks, nature was a sum total of growth embodied in all kinds of living beings. What is remarkable is his take on power and the will — two terms that we usually do not associate with plants.

Although he depicts trees thriving in the jungle in nearly militaristic terms, their power is strictly ontological. It is the power to be, to persevere in being, without succumbing to entropy and descending into nothingness. Plant behavior, which is expressed in patterns of growth, and human comportment, which is evinced in more complex and sublimated activities, share this goal.

By seeking power — and their place under the sun — humans and plants do not merely exist; they will to be. Of course, unlike us, plants do not face any existential problems and cannot choose to terminate their lives at will. But their willing amounts to the intentionality of life itself, its anonymous and impersonal striving to existence. (In the case of plants, the striving is oriented at once toward the sun and the mineral resources hidden in the soil.) Our more abstract and refined wills, sometimes said to be free, presuppose this material foundation for vitality.

Despite the elegance of the Nietzschean solution to the riddle of life, the question concerning the aggressiveness of the will to power remains. In their willing to be, do trees have to trample their “competitors” in the process? What about the vast array of symbiotic forms of inter-species coexistence one encounters in the jungle and elsewhere? And, for humans, is living at all possible in the absence of cooperation and sharing with others? Finally, where was Nietzsche’s own will to power, when he embraced and wept over a horse in Turin? Did he have to slide into madness to entrust it to an animal, let alone to a plant?

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 375.

[2] S.A. Dudley & A.L. File, “Kin Recognition in an Annual Plant,” Biology Letters 3, 2007, 435-438.