Vegetal Memories

Photograph by Kit


 Michael Marder

August 29, 2016

To begin, I cut and paste a citation, grafting it onto the nascent body of my text. “Memories are like plants: if you care for them, they grow.” So goes the remarkable first line in the otherwise unremarkable novel by Juliana Romano, Summer in the Invisible City. How to interpret this analogy? Care for plants and for memories requires their cultivation, the work of providing them with an adequate supply of the elements (water, soil, the mentally revisited contextual web surrounding an event) conducive to their flourishing. At its most basic, however, as a condition of possibility for the very possibility of growth, caring for something or someone demands that we simply pay attention to them and do not remain indifferent to their existence or—what from the perspective of indifference amounts to the same thing—nonexistence. A lack of care spells out neglect and indifference: letting a plant wither or be overcome by weeds; letting a memory be swallowed by forgetting or recede to the unconscious layers of psychic life… Before any practical engagement, caring puts us in the right frame of mind (the frame of mind that, for Husserl, defines intentionality) and directs us toward the cared-for.

Hence, the reverse of Romano’s assertion is equally true: plants are like memories. Although the vegetal is almost always there in the inconspicuous background of our lives, particular plants only stand out when, to paraphrase Heidegger, we remember that they not only are but also exist, when we concentrate on them and perceptually, if not cognitively, acknowledge their “being-there” in the first place. In this, they are akin to memories that mostly linger around the edges of consciousness and only sporadically (often unexpectedly, provoked by a long-forgotten sight, sound, smell or taste—as with Proust’s madeleines) come into the spotlight of our mental regard. Care, then, implies much more than mere cultivation. Charged with ontological significance, its non-indifference lets beings, including plants and memories, be, rescues them from the void of oblivion, consigns them to safekeeping, which is incidentally the goal of the philosophical enterprise already, and especially, in Plato. The task of thinking is not to discover new, yet unknown shores of what is but to provoke anamnesis, literally the “unforgetting” (a double negative) or the re-remembrance of the world around us and of ourselves.

For me, plant-thinking has been an indispensable response to the Platonic call for anamnesis as it pertains to both dimensions of the world outside and within the human. On the one hand, I have tried to contribute to the arduous and ever-incomplete efforts of rescuing plants from oblivion (whether phenomenological or ontological) that has resulted in their conversion into the pure means used to satisfy the needs of animals and the needs, as well as the desires, of humans. On the other hand, I have focused on remembering our deep vegetal heritage, particularly at the level of that which we refer to as “thought”. These two aspects of plant-thinking are, moreover, closely interconnected. If our fundamental modes of thinking are vegetal, if we share with plants certain existential states (such as exposure and attunement to exteriority), certain discernments (of light and humidity gradients, for instance) and exigencies to communicate, certain strategies of producing and reproducing existence (everything Aristotle groups under the broad heading of to threptikon), then actual plants cannot be denied their claim to subjectivity. In identifying these formal similarities, I am not backtracking on the claim I see as crucial to plant-thinking, namely that plants are (our) others and that they relate to their others non-appropriatively and non-violently—in a word, at an infinite distance. Rather, the sharing I am highlighting here pertains largely to the unconscious layers of our embodied thought, whereby we, too, are others to ourselves and, thanks to this alterity within, can be brought together with plants.

To return to the issue at hand: memories are not only like plants, and vice versa, but plants also are and have memories. Indeed, the distinction between being and having does not make much sense in the case of vegetation, which, as I have mentioned, keeps to a non-appropriative mode of existing. Vegetal memories are the plants themselves, and the simplest example of this incarnate remembrance are tree rings, commemorating annual patterns of growth, nutrient intake, traumatic events in the immediate milieu, etc. in the bodily extension of the trunk. Tree rings give us a clue as to the nature of plant memory, which is non-representational and non-objectifying. While we, humans, consciously recall discrete objects and processes, replaying them in the theater of our minds, the plant retains a trace of light itself, rather than a representation of luminosity, in its cells. This direct inscription of light memory onto the cellular substratum permits plants to use the photon energy absorbed in excess by some leaves to improve the chances of survival for the whole plant (e.g., Arabidopsis) in the future.[i] To speculate, perhaps that is how our unconscious also works, leaving representational remembrance to conscious psychic life and retaining something of the remembered not in the shape of an image or a picture, but, more dramatically, as a quantum of libidinal energy.

In fact, it is absurd to suggest that plants, or any other living beings for that matter, have no memory, because without the recollection of past events, without forming patterns out of these, and without projecting them into the future via anticipation, survival is impossible. What phenomenologists have described as the notion of lived temporality, the time of retention-and-protention that, according to them, makes up psychic life, ought to be extended to all forms of vitality, not the least the vegetal. Now, in plants, memory is decentralized in keeping with the rest of vegetal being; we do not need to postulate an overarching processing mechanism or structure, similar to the central nervous system, in order to validate its reality. Without “central path integration,” the retrieval of memories can be quite situational: the part of plant that contains an embodied recollection can at any moment signal to the rest of the plant, with the help of biochemical cues, that which has been directly inscribed (the trace trapped) in its cells or tissues. Vegetal memory is modular and dispersed, and so is our unconscious remembrance, which, thanks to its dispersion, works on the basis of free association and activates various affective intensities corresponding to the amounts of libidinal energy contained in respective unconscious memory-traces.

Plant bodies are the archives of past events, of the nutrients, light, and injuries (be they mechanical, radioactive, or biochemical) received from their environment. That is the axiom of vegetal memory. But the plants themselves are a memory—the memory of an evolutionary pattern of adaptation fit for sessile living beings. Humans, in turn, are and have memories, such that the difference between being and having overlaps with the distinction between the unconscious and conscious lives of the mind. Lest we forget, we too are a memory of another evolutionary pattern, whereby the quantitative success of our kind portends a catastrophic failure for its entire ecosystem, which has now turned global. And, by the looks of it, we are on a sure path to becoming a distant memory in the annals of natural history, while unfortunately dragging along with us countless plant and animal species.


[1] Szechyńska-Hebda, Magdalena, et al. “Evidence for light wavelength-specific photoelectrophysiological signaling and memory of excess light episodes in Arabidopsis.” Plant Cell, 22(7), 2010, pp. 2201-18.

Plants and Knowledge: A Conversation

Photograph by imageartifacts

a conversation between

 Michael Marder, Mari van Stokkum, and Christiaan Roodenburg

August 9, 2016


Mari van Stokkum & Christiaan Roodenburg: In your book Plant-Thinking (2013) you discuss a passage from Plato’s Phaedrus. Phaedrus and Socrates are conversing outside in nature, and Phaedrus is wondering why Socrates almost never leaves the city walls. Socrates answers that “the country places and the trees won’t teach me anything, as the people in the city do.” In fact, the only reason why Socrates has left the city walls is because Phaedrus has brought a book with him, and this is what sparked Socrates’ curiosity. Do you think that this passage reveals something that is very characteristic of the European philosophical tradition?

Michael Marder: In a sense, this represents an essential problem of philosophy: the didactic or pedagogic problem of exactly who or what we can learn from. As I have been arguing in much of my recent writing, we should ask, first, what it means to learn from non-human beings, and then become apprentices in these non-human knowledges and wisdoms, one of which is what I call, in Plant-Thinking, “the wisdom of plants”.

Now, the worry implicit in Phaedrus is not only “What is philosophy?” but also “Where can or should philosophy be performed?” I’d say that, in that Platonic dialogue, the countryside is presumed from the get-go to be an inappropriate setting for such pursuits, even though much of the conversation takes place there. We should not be taken so far from the polis, Socrates protests. Philosophy should not happen in the countryside. It should unfold inside city walls, and serve the purpose of the city, the common good, which is the highest good philosophy can aspire to. The question of whether philosophy can be, in good conscience, practiced outside the city is also the question of whether it can come into existence for the sake of something outside our political conception of the good; whether it can be for the sake of non-human existence…

MS & CR: So where and for what should philosophy take place then, if not only in and for the city?

MM: In our contemporary situation of the global environmental crisis there is no higher calling for philosophy than to put itself into the service of a still-more-universal good than the good of the city. This would be an attempt—perhaps, a last-ditch attempt—to preserve the planet with all of its living beings. But what is still missing for such an endeavor to take off the ground is another kind of pedagogy, which, paraphrasing Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” I would like to term “pedagogy of the extinct” (or the nearly extinct, for that matter). We can discern its negative outlines from certain classical texts, such as those by Plato. You can see how, beginning to read Phaedrus in a different light, we immediately transition from dismissing the countryside a “mere” natural setting or “mere” scenery for the dialogue to thinking of it as the place where philosophy legitimately happens or fails to happen. Where also means for what or for whom. Who is listening to me there where…? And who am I listening to? Socrates is very quick to brush off the suggestion that we can learn from non-human beings, but I want to keep returning to it over and over again.

Philosophy is literally the love of wisdom (philia and sophia). If you define wisdom not only in anthropocentric (human-related) terms but much more broadly, including for instance the wisdom of plants, then the love of wisdom would be the love of non-human modes of knowing as well. At issue, then, are not only certain physical boundaries, the places where philosophy is circulating or can circulate, but also the boundaries of philosophy itself, and of the object of its love or affection. Remember that all Socratic dialogues are erotic in a sense; Socrates is in hot pursuit of his love-object. In this case it is both knowledge embodied in the books, as you mentioned, but also Phaedrus himself. Socrates is being seduced by Phaedrus. He is following him, and it’s a double seduction: he is being seduced by the script that Phaedrus is holding and by Phaedrus himself into a presumably illegitimate place for thinking. The place of fields, streams, and groves; of nymphs and spirits. But what does it mean to love the wisdom of non-human beings? Patricia Vieira and I broach this question, in relation to plants, though the notion of ‘phytophilia’. To put it succinctly, phytophilia is not just another conception of loving someone or something else, but a meditation on the meaning of philosophy and on the boundaries of philosophy as the love of wisdom.

MS & CR: In what way could an apprenticeship of a non-human entity be different from conducting a scientific study of plants, merely aimed at achieving technological innovation or expanding our encyclopedic knowledge?

MM: Your question is actually very phenomenological. The apprenticeship that I have pointed out, this exhortation to learn from plants or from non-human beings more generally, would avoid imposing any preconceived or prefabricated framework onto these beings. In other words, the plants would not be the objects of knowledge, regardless of which scientific system you’re talking about. Whatever the subject matter or particular science, it is always the study not of a subject but of an object (and unfortunately even contemporary psychology falls prey to this model of scientificity that eviscerates it). The point would be to allow plants to keep their subjectivity, to be subjects, and to follow their subjectivity, perhaps by modeling some of our own human ways of being-in-the-world on certain features of this vegetal subjectivity, or, at the very least, recognizing that the vegetal has been there all along, in us, in the intimacy of our human existence. So the main difference as I see it is as follows: allowing whatever or whoever you learn from their own degree of separation as kinds of subjects in a world, as center-points in a world of their own, as opposed to appropriating and slotting them into a premade matrix that we have in our heads and assigning them a place within an already existing system of knowledge.

MS & CR: But extending our notion of subjectivity to other beings such as plants could also be regarded as a purely intellectual move. Do you also conceive of it in a more practical manner? Throughout our daily lives, we do not only appropriate plants intellectually, but also literally and physically. You seem to have very practical aims with your plant-philosophy as well: not just appropriating the plants, but giving them…I’m not sure if ‘rights’ is the appropriate term, but giving them another type of role within this community or city that we inhabit.

MM: Yes, you are absolutely right. To my mind there is no substantial difference between what we usually label ‘ethical’ and ‘epistemological’ issues. If we think about conceptual knowledge, a concept can be regarded as an ideal way of grasping something. A concept in German is a Begriff – this word already includes the ‘grasping’. When you grasp something conceptually, you intend to leave no remainder of that which is grasped; you wish to take it for yourself as a whole. When you include plants within the purview of a concept, you do not leave any breathing space for them, and so you can justify any use of plants for human purposes. This is what I have in mind when I talk about a complete instrumentalization. There are always very clear connections between the ideal conceptual grasp of something or someone, and the practical grasp of instrumentalization, that is, the extreme use that does not leave any independence to the entity being used. But there exists an irreducible remainder, something that cannot be grasped. And not just in plants—in anything and anyone: humans, animals, and also inanimate things.