For the Love of Plants

Photograph by Michael Marder.

by Michael Marder

MAY 20, 2015

Most people assume that I am elaborating a philosophy of vegetal life out of an intense love of plants. A year and a half ago, I did co-author with Patrícia Vieira an article titled “Writing Phytophilia: Philosophers and Poets as Lovers of Plants.”[1] In that text I did not address the question of my personal motivation, choosing to focus, instead, on the curious case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Readers will have to wait a little longer (more precisely until early 2016) to glean some of the answers from a quasi-autobiographical book, Through Vegetal Being, which I wrote with Luce Irigaray.[2] For now, I would like to register in writing my amazement with the nearly automatic association between the topic one thinks through — however passionately — and the feeling of love. Do we necessarily fall in love with the objects of our inquiries? Is it thanks to this affect that what we think about can turn the tables and start interrogating us?

The very word philosophy, as you probably know, alludes to love (philia) directed toward wisdom (sophia). Note that the philosopher’s love is not a particular attachment to this or that thing, but to all of wisdom (Heidegger used to say “to being as such and as a whole”). In other words, this strange affection is supposed to be just because it does not privilege a single being at the expense, and to the exclusion, of all the others. Now, plants are, unlike wisdom or being, not universal, and therefore the love showered upon them would be a deprivation in relation to other elements of the environment, notably animals. That, at least, has been the gist of certain criticisms I have received in the footsteps of my efforts to develop an ethics of vegetal life.

I will return to the issue of universality and exclusion in just a moment. A prior question is one I have already formulated: is it inevitable that we love whatever we think about or “work” on? The case of John Maynard Keynes comes to mind in this regard. One of the twentieth century’s most important economists, he was an aesthete, a literature and fine art aficionado who deemed purely economic pursuits ignoble. It is also hard to believe that Holocaust historians adulate the subject of their investigations or that cancer researchers adore the disease that they study. This would suggest that, often, what draws our scholarly attention are the “sore spots,” that is to say, troublesome topics and traumatic concerns, which neither leave us coldly indifferent nor spark the flame of love. If they verge on an obsession, these sensitive areas may not just draw us toward themselves but devour us, a bit like black holes. In them, through them, we are claimed by the essential — by the demand for justice. Hence, one would not need to experience “green love” (or to turn into a “tree hugger,” though there is nothing wrong with that) to be attracted to a way of thinking about and with vegetation. To become preoccupied with plants, it would be sufficient to heed the call of justice that has not yet been rendered to them.

At the same time, we ought to broaden our conception of love from the financially inflected “affective investment” into something or someone to a striving, an attraction, at once physical and psychic. In ancient and medieval thought, love was not really (at any rate, not primarily) an emotion; it was a force that compelled a stone to move toward the earth, a plant to sunlight, or a human soul to the Good. Refreshingly, the evacuation of the emotional component from love brings this phenomenon closer to plants. It follows, in fact, that plants are the most loving of existents, in that they strive everywhere: to sunlight as well as to moisture, to the dark of the earth and to swift airflows. The universal striving of philosophy to being “as such and as a whole” (without exception, without any detail reckoned uninteresting) is an idealized replay of vegetal love in all its physicality. So what if, in our attraction to plants, we do not confine ourselves to one type of being but, on the contrary, extend ourselves to countless organic and inorganic worlds through the elemental intersection, where they grow? What if a plant is as close as one can get to something like the universality of life or of nature?

In the past, I’ve written a thing or two on vegetal love. I have, nevertheless, neglected to take my observations to a very simple conclusion: plants expose themselves to the outside, and their exposure is erotic well before the evolution of flowers with their unique version of sexuality. The contiguity they establish with the soil, moisture, and solar energy is their lived practice of a caress — an elemental caress at that. What is erotic if not being-in-the-world as handing the body (plant, animal, human) over to exteriority? I know that this suggestion sounds provocative. Yet, it is a necessary counterweight to the image of plants as colonizers, conquering space and spreading their “selfish genes” over it. The same fact of an exuberant vegetal proliferation may be interpreted in two (or more) drastically dissimilar ways: as an aggressive act of conquest or as an act of love, of an immense and virtually limitless attraction to the outside. Both of these hermeneutical options are symptomatic of the projection by human speakers onto plants, implicitly treated as screens for our self-image. Colonizers are more likely to see in the green environs estranged replicas of themselves, while those open to the world are prone to perceiving such openness in others, and not only in human others at that. A little exaggeration of the loving component in plant behavior will do no harm in light of the long history of their demonization: the Amazon, for instance, was described as a “green desert” under the Brazilian dictatorship, and the jungle was portrayed as “green hell” in James Whale’s eponymous film rom 1940.

That said, not everything depends on the frame of mind in which we find ourselves. Plants are not blank surfaces for the figuration of our fantasies. They have their own preferences for specific neighbor species; attract particular insects; and favor sunnier or shadier spots, in keeping with their variety. Their attraction to exteriority is not made of one cloth, expressing as it does precise choices grounded in evolutionary adaptive decisions. Love is discrimination, even when its effects are universal.

Is philosophy’s love of being as such and as a whole also attracted to non-being, to pure nothingness? Does the love of wisdom incorporate stupidity (which is not the same as not-knowing, as Socrates never tired of professing)? Attraction unfolds within certain limits; otherwise, love’s tending toward … would be gradually distended until it flips into its opposite, indifference. A commitment to universality does not mean thinking and loving all that is in equal measure or on equal footing. The only viable way toward the universal passes through a singularity. For me, plants are these “singular universals,” wholes in parts and parts in wholes. In a word, de-limitations. Loving them, we love the love of all that is.

[1] Patrícia Vieira & Michael Marder, “Writing Phytophilia: Philosophers and Poets as Lovers of Plants,” Frame: A Journal of Literary Studies, 26(2), November 2013, pp. 39-55.

[2] Luce Irigaray & Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being (New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming in 2016).

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