Plant Morality vs. Plant Ethics

Photograph by Barney Moss


 Michael Marder

October 26, 2016

There is a significant, if half-erased, difference between morality and ethics. The former is comprised of a set of rules and norms for appropriate behavior; the latter is a way of life, a manner of existing. Morality is regulative and prescriptive; ethics is a living text that is neither prescriptive nor descriptive, for it cannot be scripted in advance at all.

When people look for the practical implications of plant-thinking, more often than not they want to distill from it clear and definitive guidelines for our behavior toward the flora. That is what the report on the dignity of plants prepared by the Swiss 2008 Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology tried to accomplish. I do not think that it’s inherently wrongheaded to frame the issue in terms of morality, problematizing gratuitous acts of violence, for instance, or the damage our diets inflict on plant communities cultivated as cash crops, on the environment, and on our very bodies. But I find a moral approach insufficient, by far: it tweaks parts of the systemic arrangement of human behavior without going to the heart of that arrangement in the phenomenological life-world that is not (is never) exclusively human. In other words, without consulting the ontology, the being of human beings and plants alike “vegetal morality” can quickly and easily degenerate to inane and self-righteous moralizing.

As a system of rules, any moral economy emulates and supplements scientific systems of classifications. The moment we project its future outlines, we realize that plant morality is not an exception: it categorizes what can and cannot be eaten in good conscience, where sentience begins and where it ends, what is and what is not respectable in plants… There is always some kind of calculus involved in considerations reliant upon the arrest and, indeed, the entombment of categorized beings within the more or less arbitrary limits of the categories. Morality is inconsistent with the flourishing of plants, or of humans for that matter, because vitality, the aliveness of life, is totally foreign to it.

Ethics, by contrast, is amoral, which is not the same thing as immoral. A way of life, a manner of existing, it is not a matter of application, commencing from immutable principles and proceeding toward their practical ramifications. In the case of plant ethics, two ways of life are at stake: the vegetal and the human. Between (the) two, it doesn’t have anything to do with rules and norms but with an existential intersection, a crossroads, at which each existence, instead of stifling or exterminating, supports the other. Efforts poured into an “ethics of sustainability” have been misplaced not only because such an ethics is going to accrete into a doctrine virtually indistinguishable from a moral one and not only because it lends itself to the advancement of economic interests. These efforts are futile because ethics is sustainability—the desire and the actions aimed, independently of prescription and description, at sustaining the world of the other. Whether as nourishment or as a source of breathable air, plants materially sustain countless worlds. For them to have an ethics, only the desire for the other would be missing, and philosophers ranging from Plato to Avicenna have already imputed even that existential feature to vegetal life.

Morality makes a violent and unjust social, economic, or political order barely tolerable and, therefore, livable to the extent that it either carves out small private niches where one can take refuge from the prevailing barbarity or yields generally valid pronouncements that are incredibly empty. Typically formal and ineffective, moral tenets make us feel good about ourselves while maintaining intact, if not strengthening, the status quo by giving a controlled outlet to our dissatisfaction with the prevailing state of affairs. Progressive moral codes may prescribe respect for plants but the notion will sound like a hollow word, an unattainable ideal at best and useless theoretical handwringing at worst. (Actually, “respect” is a perfect example of moral vacuity with regard to any recipient of that attitude.) For the most part, moral recommendations will be met with dismissive indifference; after all, they do not arise from the thick of existence but are thrust onto life from a feigned space outside it, as a series of abstract desiderata.

Whereas morality is a form of judgment that takes it upon itself to mold raw existence, ethics is a form (I’ve called it a “manner” or a “way”) inseparable from life itself. An ethics of plant life can only come about in the course of living—needless to say, living with plants. We cannot overestimate the importance of the preposition “with” in this context. Besides physical proximity to vegetal habitats and environments, it encodes the complicity of engagement, even in the otherwise unethical shape of instrumentalization that renders absolute the logic and exigencies of use, of making-useful. In fact, what is unethical is not instrumentalization per se but the denial that living on, or living thanks to, something or someone is by the same token living with it, her, or him.

What is unethical, then, is thinking and behaving as though the instrumentalizing agents are not affected (i.e., are not, in turn, instrumentalized) by their own conduct.  We labor under the illusion that we are capable of isolating and protecting ourselves from the violent consequences of our actions, however minimal and necessary for our survival. But, if living “on” plants is unavoidable, so is living with them, including those instances when we make use of them. Plant ethics does not demand that humans stop using plants and vegetal products for our purposes; ironically, such a demand would have been unethical were it to try and expunge, once again, the “with”-character of living. Nor does it ask that our goals be weighed against those of plants, leaving the calculations of the sort to theoretical exercises in morality. Aware that we are fated to live on plants, an adherent to plant ethics would insist that we are equally destined to live with them, transforming that fate into a destiny. Can we somewhat abstrusely define ethics as a place where fate becomes destiny?

Few eyebrows will be raised in response to the admission that we live with plants, for instance, when contemplating a field of sunflowers, from which we are at a considerable (aesthetic) distance despite standing in its midst. But that is not what I have in mind.  Plant ethics hones our awareness that in decapitating a sunflower, removing its seeds, and pressing them to obtain oil, we are still living with it. Or dying with it, which might not be all that different from leading a finite life.

That is where the gap between ethics and morality becomes unbridgeable. As they weigh the interests of plants and humans against one other, moral theorists cover over the “with” that binds these dissimilar ontological styles of existence. In doing so, they replicate the effects of the economic system they purportedly oppose. Plant ethics, however, exposes the “with” and upends the economic, social, and political orders detached from existence. Totally unruly, it is disruption, on the one hand, and the conversion of fate into destiny, on the other. Like it or not, morality may be utilitarian through and through as it relies on intricate calculations to minimize suffering, while implicitly providing a justification for residual misery and anguish. (That is, precisely, what Dostoyevsky found so abhorrent about utilitarianism!) Ethics does not let the victims doubly overwritten by economic and moral ideologies to drift quietly into to the night; instead, ethically, we suffer with them, even if their lives are “only” vegetal.

Perhaps my definition of ethics is becoming less abstruse. Interpreted further it means that to live ethically, to live with others, is to forge out of their and our fates a common destiny. Prior to our intent or consent, we always do just that, namely add our individual fates to a common destiny. But the choice remains: do we industrialize the deaths of animals, plants, and ineludibly our own or do we accept living-dying with the other? Be this other as inconspicuous and ephemeral as a sunflower…

L’Écriture Végétale

Photograph by Ben Mitchell


 Michael Marder

October 10, 2016

If it is indeed the case that plant-thinking drastically changes how we view both plants and ourselves (in relation to them, each to her- or himself, and to each other), then a qualitatively new mode of writing is sorely needed so as to express such seismic shifts of perspective. For my part, I have not tried deliberately to cultivate a writing style that, in the footsteps of last century’s experiments by philosophers including Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray with l’écriture féminine (“feminine writing”), I would like to term l’écriture végétale (“vegetal writing”). But the absence of a deliberate plan did not mean that the seeds of vegetal writing remained dormant and have not germinated in something recognizable only in retrospect. In effect, the unconscious manner in which this non-project unfolded was probably more faithful to plants than all the painstaking attempts to emulate their growth in conscious, self-conscious, and representation-bound human thought.

The rapid extension of my initial project from Plant-Thinking (2013) took me by surprise. I often joke that my philosophy of vegetal life itself grew like a plant, tending in all directions at once: toward the sciences and the arts, ethics and politics, intellectual biography and autobiography. There is more than a grain of truth in this statement. The content, form, and method of plant-thinking cannot be easily parsed out into its independent components, its how, where, and when influencing the what. Its life and its text are as much about the milieu and the context as they are about whatever is conveyed by means of the formal expression all too swiftly inserted into a venerable lineage of “critical” and “academic” discourses.

I started with a theoretical exploration of the place of plants in metaphysics and of the role they could play in a postmetaphysical transition. From there, I embarked on a journey through the fields, groves, forests, and gardens of philosophy, seeking guidance for an alternative reading of the tradition (and of certain philosophical biographies) from the vegetation that proliferated in the canon’s blind spots. The results of this exercise are gathered in The Philosopher’s Plant (2014). Soon thereafter, together with Luce Irigaray, I delved into a collaborative auto-hetero-phyto-bio-graphy, the sharing of a life or of lives among the co-authors, the readers, and plants themselves. Thus Through Vegetal Being (2016) was born. Another collaborative attempt (this time with Anaïs Tondeur) sifted through autobiographic, aesthetic, historical, and phytological prisms also came to fruition this year in The Chernobyl Herbarium. And, finally, the collection Grafts appeared, as I say in the preface to that book, “in the in-between space where previously unimagined forms of thinking eventually come to life” thanks to the interventions, interactions, interpretations and interviews focused on the thinking of—about but also proper to—plants.

A definite pattern comes through here, in this path I have briefly sketched out: moving from the universal to the singular and, in an immediate reflux, back again from a more or less solitary work to thinking with and growing with others, human or not. But a loose pattern is not the same thing as a method—itself a way, which is universally prescribed or at least universalizable and is therefore valid to the extent that it lends itself to being trodden by many feet over and over again. If I am correct in teasing out from my itinerary a tendency toward the singular that intersects with but is not dissolved in the universal, then the path I have taken thus far is an anti-method, which, on its own terms, prohibits any following-after, though you are absolutely free to let the above prohibition fall on deaf ears. In the ambiguous interplay of its singular and universal moments, in its exemplary non-exemplariness, I discern the outlines of l’écriture végétale that replicates the singular universality of the plants themselves. While plants are parts of the natural world (understood in the Greek sense of phusis: overall growth, emergence, coming-to-appearance, or coming-out-of-itself), they embody, in all their singularity, the universality of nature. While l’écriture végétale departs from and circles back to the vegetal, it sweeps the entire world into its midst, not sparing us either.

I am not going to dwell at length on the convergences and divergences between l’écriture féminine and l’écriture végétale. Such a comparison deserves much more care and attention than I can give it here. One thing ought to be mentioned, however: both kinds of writing invite misinterpretation based on what amounts to the seduction of the category. It is assumed that the feminine or the vegetal are categories like any other, that is to say, discrete kinds or immaterial boxes within which women and plants respectively belong. Yet, nothing is further from the truth. Not only do vegetal and feminine ontologies embrace unfathomably more than the ontic realities of plants and women, but they are, in themselves, plastic enough to accommodate their other (the human, the masculine…) who has traditionally denigrated and abused them. In their singularity, l’écriture féminine and l’écriture végétale gesture toward universality.

But why direct our attention to writing? Could it be that this medium most effectively challenges and subverts the silence, to which western logos once submitted the feminine and the vegetal alike, and often the one as the other? Note that I am not saying (or writing—and that is not a minor nuance) that the experimental modes of expression discussed here break the silence imposed on certain living beings as a curse or a prison. Instead, these modes of expression dispense with the deafening noise of logos and put their hopes in the voice-less supplement of speech, namely writing, which, according to Jacques Derrida, comes first, preceding that which it supplements. Slipping below the incessant “talk-show” (I hear this term with a literal, as well as a phenomenological, ear) that speech is or has become, l’écriture féminine and l’écriture végétale touch upon something of arche-writing, the practice of tracing and inscribing inseparable from existence as such. That they do so is testimony to the fact that neither of them is easily categorizable, and so is not detainable within the empirical confines of a writing style, let alone of identity politics everywhere seeking the “voices” of those who seem to represent previously oppressed groups.

L’écriture végétale is further distinguished by two imperfectly overlapping frames, their edges unaligned with one another. On the one hand—the writing or archi-writing of plants and of the vegetal aspect in creatures normally not categorized as plants; on the other—the writing about vegetal archi-writing, retracing its traces, or letting these traces come to the fore, finally liberated from a long history of their erasure. The gap between the two frames is far from a debilitating condition; it opens the breathing space that guarantees some measure of autonomy to plants, even as it foments our intimate relation to them. Supplemented by plant-writing (and the supplement always comes first!), plant-thinking operates within the enabling limits of this double framing that de-termines it without imposing the suffocating closure of categorial thought.