Like a Flower of the Skin

Photograph by Randi Deuro


 Michael Marder

March 24, 2016

Like a flower of the skin: I graft this expression onto English from other, Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese). À fleur de peau, a flor de piel, à flor da pele. I graft it, also, like a flower onto the skin — a plant part onto an animal or human organ enveloping the entire organism.

That our exterior sheath, the porous covering of our bodies, would be analogized to a blossom sounds at once strange and perfectly plausible. Flowering plants are relative latecomers on the evolutionary scene, as is the entire sphere of vegetal sexuality they embody. They are, perhaps, the most individuated varieties, frequently interpreted as the figures or figurations of sensitivity. Hence, the overlap with skin. According to Goethe’s conception, petals are rarefied, refined, ethereal leaves, as closely related to the world of spirit as the roots are to the dark underworld of pure matter. But, for all the associations with spiritual life, to bring flowers into a direct and immediate contact with the organ of contact, which is the skin, is to beg the question. The skin, after all, cannot blossom; it can only break out in a rash, in pimples, or acne that, far from ornamental, are taken as blemishes on its virginal, ideally smooth surface. We are yet to discover what “like a flower of the skin” means.

It might be helpful to invoke, in this context, another Romance expression involving flowers — the French fleur de sel or the Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese flor de sal. “The flower of salt” is the hand-harvested thin coating of sea salt, scraped off the crystals’ top layer. While in “the flower of skin,” vegetal phenomena are projected onto non-vegetal creatures, here they are transposed onto the elements of the inorganic world. Why? Because, in each case, this unique part of plants bespeaks exteriority, be it of the skin or of the prized stratum of salt. An exteriority that is fragile, thin, as refined as a petal, and as exposed as a flower, too.

The above observation provides us with the context sufficient for appreciating the untranslatable expression I have translated as “like a flower of the skin.” One of its possible renditions in English is “skin-deep,” that is to say, not deep at all, situated right on the surface, essentially superficial. The exteriority it invokes is sensitive and sensuous, emotional and passionate: being on edge, a bundle of nerves, easily set off by any little thing, but also being super-delicate, awash with raw sentiments. If we experience the world à fleur de peau, its stimuli impressed on the outermost casing of our outermost organ so that even the lightest touch makes us fly off our handle, then we exhibit a heightened attunement to our environment, the attunement presumably shared with flowers. At the very minimum, then, the expression contains a hunch about the sensitivity of plants, to which we are privy only in our “raw” moments, suffused with excitement, emotion, and vulnerability to the other.    

All of a sudden we realize that the skin can blossom when we are subject to strong sentiments, blushing with embarrassment or becoming pale with anxiety (exhibiting if not changes in color, then at least those in temperature). Our emotional state evident on the surface, we wear our hearts on our sleeves. This superficiality, shared with the ontological shallowness of plants, has been often treated as though it were inferior to the deeply rational constitution of human being or, more precisely, of a select group of gendered, racialized, and classed human beings. For the ideology of depth, the skin is ideally a blank surface, a barrier between the inside and the outside, an organ of separation and containment. Skin is skin, flowers are flowers, and nothing will disturb these impermeable identities by grafting the one on the other. Except for rhetoric, which, like emotion, ought to be kept at bay and beaten into submission by pure logic.

The problem is that we have dared to imagine (and then have passed the figment of our imagination for unquestionable truth) that there is something to our ontological constitution besides the surface, i.e., the hidden precinct of the soul, which cannot make its appearance a flor de piel, “like a flower of the skin.” Later on, we have extended this harmful truism to the rest of the world, presumed to possess a deep essence under the skin of appearances to be peeled off, at will, by the subject of reason. In contrast, flowers, rhetoric, the flowers of rhetoric, the mutual grafting of languages we call “translation,” the grafts of our bodily tissues onto plant organs and vice versa—all these figures, figurations, and configurations elicit the repressed insight that there is no depth underneath the superficies, the sheath à flor da pele overlaying, albeit never completely occluding, yet another surface.

For, what does a purely rational subject really know if he (and it is typically or prototypically a he) does not experience the world “like a flower of the skin”? Throughout the history of Western metaphysics, we are presented with innumerable examples of philosophers fighting against, mentally eliminating, or reducing external reality. This struggle is of one piece with the forgetting of vegetal life, the denigration of emotion, and contempt for the surface. Usually, postmetaphysical thinkers criticize such a subject as disembodied, an I who becomes identical to the life of the mind. In my turn, I would refer to this “I” as de-skinned (which paradoxically means the same as skinned), deprived of contact with exteriority and as a result confined to the solitary cell of a drastically impoverished interiority, so separated from the outside, so radically divested of the membrane keeping its integrity and articulating it with the world that the outside, thought to be what is intimately one’s own, invades and takes over it in the form of transcendental subjectivity. Skinned, or de-skinned, we are, by the same token, de-flowered, absolutely violated through the removal of the surface capable of registering violations.

A parting provocation: Try not only to live but also to think “like a flower of the skin!” How is this possible? There is no set answer, save for a continual practice of honing the sensitivity of thought, grazed on its surface by everyone and everything. In the instance of this meditation — by the beautiful, multilingual, and still enigmatic expression à flor da pele, a flor de piel, à fleur de peau.

Three Questions on Plant Intelligence

Photograph by g

 Javier Yanes interviews Michael Marder

March 4, 2016

Javier Yanes: There is currently a wide scientific corpus on plants’ cognition-communication-decision making etc., but how should we call all this? Neurobiology? Intelligence? What is the point of the terminological debate from a philosophical perspective?

Michael Marder: When we slot the capacities of plants into a coherent conceptual framework, how we refer to these capacities is not a matter of mere nominalism, that is, of attaching an extraneous label to a phenomenon, which remains unaffected by the name it bears. We touch, rather, upon the very meaning of intelligence, not only tied to the central nervous system but also inherent to life itself. The point is to begin regarding human intelligence as an example, or a subspecies, of the general concept of intelligence, alongside that of plants, animals, and even unicellular organisms. Broadly, intelligence would then designate a set of interactions and a way of negotiating a dynamic, open-ended fit between a living being and its milieu, wherein this being is capable of orienting itself, intending desirable outcomes and avoiding the undesirable ones, making decisions, solving problems, etc. Some of the notable features of plant intelligence are that it is 1) de-centered (or dispersed), 2) modular (akin to “parallel processing”) and 3) directed toward the other thanks to the maximization of exposure to solar radiation.  What do these characteristics tell us about intelligence “in general”? Plenty of work is yet to be done to address this question.

Do you believe that there is some reluctance to close this debate because our views about intelligence are too “cerebrocentric”?

Indeed. Many people, including those in the academic world, seem to be unable to differentiate between the physical or physiological structures of biological intelligence and the functions served by these structures. It is not the case that only primates have been successful from the evolutionary point of view. If anything, plants have had much more time to perfect their evolutionary strategies than animals, and in each case the goals have been analogous: to attain the resources necessary for survival, to reproduce, and to occupy a comfortable niche in the environmental milieu. When it comes to the issue of sensitivity, we know, for instance, that plants register a wider range of light waves than we, humans, do. However, plants do not have anything recognizable as eyes. It does not follow from this “lack” that they do not see; on the contrary, they have specialized photosensitive cells, dedicated to capturing different kinds of light. The same is true for intelligence. If plants “lack” the brain, this does not mean that they are incapable of performing the operations we tend to associate with thinking. What exactly enables the functioning of intelligent responses in plants is still a subject of intense debate among scientists: hormonal networks, calcium / potassium absorption mechanisms, neuronal-like networks in the roots? That said, we would be committing an unforgivable fallacy were we to deem plants unintelligent only because we are still ignorant of the specific physiological structures that perform this vital function, without which life (and survival) would have been simply impossible.

In what sense do you think that this knowledge should shape our ethics? Authors like Simcha Lev-Yadun have warned that this could give rise to new extremisms (he uses “salad is murder” as a joke), but there are also initiatives like the reference of the Swiss constitution to “plants’ dignity.” How should we adapt to this new reality?

I firmly believe that, as we learn more about the wonderful capacities of plants, we are obliged to revise the way we treat them. Rather than plant ethics, I think that what is extremist is the refusal to adjust our ethical precepts to the ontological view of plants, currently undergoing a rapid change as a result of new scientific findings. We cannot remain entrenched in the old paradigm of plants as barely alive, passive, machine-like… But neither can we extend a liberal-individualistic ethics to them. The difficult task at hand is finding an ethical and political mode of treating plants that would do justice to their particular mode of existence. I have already mentioned that plant intelligence is dispersed, modular, and oriented to the other. The dividing lines between “individual” and “community” are very loose in the vegetal world: any single plant may be considered a multiplicity of growths symbiotically bound together, while a whole ecosystem, such as a forest in which trees of the same species share their roots, may be viewed as an individual being. As I see it, the ethics of plant life will be one that both respects and engages with multiplicity, taking care not to destroy communities of plants nor to convert them wholesale into the means for satisfying our own needs, producing them for no other purpose than human consumption. We should, instead, work with the plants themselves, making use, if necessary, of their modular parts, of the many aspects of vegetal life that are not “essential” and that can be gifted to us by plants without undue harm to their communal being.