Beneath the “Patriarchy-Animality-Metaphysics” Complex

Photograph by Michael Marder.


Luis Garagalza

 and Michael Marder

June 24, 2015

Philosophy flourished in Ancient Greece on the basis of the question of nature, construed in vegetal terms. The Greek word for nature was phusis, alluding to growth and, in particular, to the germination and blossoming forth of plants. Nonetheless, the version of classical metaphysics that became predominant in the West was transfixed by the animal world. In fact, provoking the laughter of Diogenes, Plato characterized the human as a featherless bipedal animal and presented an indelible image of the soul as a charioteer who tries to steer a carriage drawn by two horses. Aristotle, in turn, defined the human as a “rational animal.”

The metaphysical privileging of the animal, hierarchically standing above vegetal life, has situated this mode of thinking in opposition to phusis-nature, closely linked to the world of plants. Paradoxically, the most ethereal, spiritual dimension of metaphysical thought unfolds contra natura, against nature, which is to say, against plants. We emphasize the paradoxality of this move particularly in relation to Aristotle’s philosophy, where the demand is to think each being according to what it is, in keeping with its nature, kata phusin. But what does “according to nature” mean, when the word is divested of its vegetal connotations? Perhaps, one can say that metaphysics thinks nature itself against nature and that, it is consistently with this de-vegetalized “counter-nature nature,” that singular beings and being as a whole are grasped.

Aristotle’s expression kata phusin actually contains a veiled double allusion to vegetal life. We have mentioned the first of these overtones, namely the origination of phusis in plant processes and phenomena of growth. The other is hidden in the word kata: according to… , in keeping with… . Kata implies the continuity of thinking with the matter thought about, the former faithfully following whatever the latter presents and dictates. Aristotelian thought cannot, under any circumstances, oppose itself to the object of its inquiry, thinking against it. In fact, it has no object, considering that this construct is something posited over and against the subject, thus violating the continuity of kata phusin. Unbeknownst to him, twice over, Aristotle calls upon us to think similarly to plants, jointly with the environment, with the elements of the earth, water, air, and celestial fire, and with everything else gathered under the vegetal heading of growth. To think not by opposing ourselves to and hence objectifying the known, in what is nothing but mimicry of an animal’s relation to the world, but by tracking whatever has caught our interest like a sunflower that retraces the daily course of the sun.

The attraction of metaphysics to the figure of the animal may be correlated to the preference that this tradition accords to patriarchy and masculinity over matriarchy and femininity. Along with plants, women have been for a long time considered irrational, lacking in intelligence, much closer to the earth and the world of matter than that of spirit. To a certain extent, that has also been the fate of animals, considering that reason has been exclusively attributed to humanity, and only to its male representatives at that. Still, it has been much easier for us to accept that there is something like animal intelligence than to admit that there is also an intelligence of plants. What explains this strong resistance? Could it be due to the nature of patriarchal rationality, sustaining our techno-instrumental world, which displays more affinities to animal activity? Does a rigidly masculine mode of reasoning intuitively feel that the life of plants constitutes its unsurpassable limit? Is that why it cannot help but view vegetation as too passive, strange, foreign, and other to be considered intelligent?

Plant scientists, such as Stefano Mancuso and Frantisek Baluska who investigate vegetal intelligence, have reminded us of Charles Darwin’s idea that plants have a kind of “brain” situated in their roots that detect numerous factors essential to their survival and enable their adaptive responses. Whereas the animal has a brain above, in the air, the plant has a rough cerebral equivalent below, in the obscurity of the earth. In this sense, we might associate the discovery of vegetal intelligence with what psychologist Eric Neumann has termed “matriarchal consciousness,” acting from inside the unconscious and in continuity with its processes. This psychic structure gives rise to a peculiar kind of activity, which cannot be reduced to that of an animal and which, from the patriarchal-animal perspective, remains invisible or appears as mere passivity. At the same time, the later “patriarchal consciousness” separates from and opposes itself to the unconscious in an aggressive fashion, corresponding more to the way an animal’s brain responds to the requirements of its natural environment. A complex opposition thus emerges between acting contra natura, objective-objectifying knowledge, masculinity, metaphysical subjectivity, and animality, on the one hand, and living in contiguity with the world, non-objectivating knowing, femininity, a pre- and post-metaphysical subjectivity, and plant life, on the other.

In patriarchal cultures and mythologies, humans usually interpret themselves starting from animality, as superior or spiritual animals, with whose mobility and projective behavior they identify, all the while striving to domesticate or hunt them. For all its emphasis on pure rationality and the enlightenment, Western metaphysics inherits this bias, sensing an unconscious need to assert its independence vis-à-vis the vegetal world, biological origins in birth from a woman, and a model of reasoning predicated on continuity between thought and existence. Now, matriarchal mythologies that originate from the gathering, as opposed to a hunting, mode of life recognize themselves in the cycles of death and regeneration of vegetation, with its mode of adapting to and working with the environment without ruthlessly transforming it. Although the process of humanization has shifted from the vegetal to the animal, it need not detain itself at the latter stage forever. Its culmination would signal a coexistence of the animal-patriarchal spirit with the vegetal-matriarchal soul, recovered in the context of freedom, equality, and communal attachment. It would, thus, mean thinking according to and against “nature,” keeping the objectivating drive in check.

How Plants Lead Us beyond Organismic Logic

Photograph by Scott Horvath.

by Michael Marder

June 8, 2015

Since the second half of the nineteenth century, European thinkers have been rebelling against the totalizing worldview that reached its crest in the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard used fragmentation and absolute singularity as part of their arsenal in the struggle against the totality. In twentieth-century French thought, this drive continued unabated. Emmanuel Levinas appealed to the infinity of the Other; Gilles Deleuze favored a series of becomings that signaled the disintegration of “molar” structures; and Jacques Derrida heralded deconstruction as a way (or a no-way: aporia) of suspending the operations of analysis and synthesis.

But here is the problem, as I see it. Whilst philosophers were waging battle against the totality, empirical scientists were busy dissolving its biological instantiation in organismic units into a multitude of biochemical reactions, biophysical properties, and algorithmic-computational processes. By the time this dissolution was completed, there was no longer any living totality to oppose. The philosophers’ squabbles appeared as nothing more than a quixotic fight against windmills and phantasms. And botany was one of the notable casualties of the scientific revolution, which supplanted it with “plant sciences.” A staple of that discipline, the morphological study of vegetal forms became a thing of the past. Botanical is now meaningful only if it serves as a designation in the history of science or an indication of vegan food items on restaurant menus.

Is scientific reductionism a better alternative to organismic categories? Should we welcome just about any sort of fragmentation or de-totalization? Doesn’t the loss of the most important figure of individuation in biology (namely, the organism) carry rather negative consequences for the ethics of our engagement with the worlds of non-human living beings that surround and inhabit us? For, what is to be respected in networks of hormonal transduction or bioelectrical signaling that happens in certain organic tissues and cells?

There are no easy solutions to these quandaries. Our nostalgia for organismic integrity would be as misplaced as an enthusiastic acceptance of contemporary scientific reductionism. The challenge is to discover a biological mode of individuation that would be neither bewitched by the logic of the organism nor would subscribe to a complete disintegration and nano-mechanization of the world.

Certainly, the fate of plants that, processed by the relevant sciences, lose all recognizable shape is shared by all living beings, including human and non-human animals. As far as most scientists are concerned, their (and our) coherent outlines disappear and what remains in the wake of forms are material processes, into which they have been analyzed. More often than not, in the aftermath of this overzealous destruction of the whole, integrative functions and their corresponding structures are a matter of intense speculation and debate, especially in the case of plant behavior. Like strands of Anglo-American philosophy called “analytic,” most sciences today succumb to a one-sided method lacking the moment of synthesis. There is no simple recipe for putting back together in thought the parts, into which they have disassembled organic and inorganic entities alike. (Even in the circles of non-analytic philosophy, the heavy emphasis placed on “criticism,” either of a textual or of a conceptual variety, often loses track of affirmative thinking that is not synonymous with mere acquiescence.) Ecology is an exception to this trend, precisely because it considers living beings in interaction with each other and with their milieu, giving us a preview of their non-totalizing syntheses.

What is special about plants is that their status was already ambiguous in total systems of thought. In Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature they were confined to a gray area between the minerals and the world of animal organisms. Metaphysical dead-ends, for us they hold the promise of a radically different biological individuation, the individuation that does not ruthlessly pit the one against the many. Plants are both more and less than organisms; they are sub-organismic processes and supra-organismic ensembles. The scientific shattering of their Gestalt (their totalizing form) is thus valuable, provided that it is mitigated by a new type of relational agency—ecological, anarchic-communitarian, and unclassifiable in terms of what in one of the previous contributions to The Philosopher’s Plant I identified as “species-thought.”[1] All in all, decisions on what constitutes a species are reached based on judging significant certain differences in form, backed by the genetic component. That is our present-day variation on the Platonic eidos, referring to the image (the look) of things and to their guiding blueprint. But, in the absence of a unitary shape, such decisions are implausible. Contemporary science destroys species-thought, and yet does not extend a bridge to another kind of thinking.

The twist in all of this is that the organisms per se are, also, both more and less than organisms. Human and non-human animals do not live up to the exigencies of organismic logic, because living and being a totality are two mutually incompatible conditions. We, too, are at once sub- and supra-organismic, micro-dispersed and macro-participatory, even if we still do not fully comprehend our predicament, clinging instead to the outmoded totality of personhood or individuality. Given the ground-shift in the scientific landscape where the notion of the organism is now suppressed, plants, traditionally excluded from the organismic realm, can provide us with markers for orientation on the novel terrain. They can, for instance, intimate to us what togetherness in falling apart looks like at every level, from living tissues to groups and communities. They can illuminate uniqueness and singularity outside the constraints of individuality. And they can reveal what it means to affirm the other and the world without, thereby, abnegating ourselves.