Vegetal Friendship

Photograph by Jean.


 Michael Marder

July 26, 2015

Let’s begin with the common understanding of friendship. We call “friends” those of our peers who tend to have interests and hobbies akin to ours, with whom we spend a portion of our spare time, attend cultural and social events, share a laugh or a moment of sadness. We can sneer, as Aristotle does in Nicomachean Ethics, at the instrumental motivations of people who initiate friendships as a means to some external end and brag that they’ve “got friends in high places”. Even more so today, the prevalent practice of networking tinges all social interactions with utility-maximizing objectives. One thing is nonetheless clear: a friend is someone who stands out from the undifferentiated mass of humanity (as well as from the semi-undifferentiated background of a social network), is individuated, and, in important respects, considered to be similar to ourselves. And what about the vast majority of people who are not our friends? Modern liberalism teaches us to treat them with general indifference and neutrality, so long as they are not perceived as a threat; other worldviews may deem whoever is not presently a friend to be a potential friend or, conversely, an enemy.

Taking as an axiom the assertion that friendship hinges on similarity: the more we identify with a creature, the greater the likelihood that we would befriend it. A non-human animal can be a friend, or a companion, provided that we recognize and respond to each other’s emotions, share time together (for instance, walking in a park), and so forth. The freedom and reciprocity of the animal’s response is, perhaps, dubious, and such doubts are significant, assuming that friendship is a freely chosen arrangement, as the very English word friend intimates through its association with free (both derive from the proto Indo-European root pri-, “to love”). Wild, undomesticated, and therefore freer animals spend but a fleeting moment with us, mostly gazing with curiosity, assessing whether we are threatening, a potential source of food, or simply irrelevant. When unprovoked, they tend to turn their backs on us and treat us as good old liberals do, leading us to the deduction that they do not wish to be our friends. But then, again, there is no freedom in instrumentally acquired human friendships, where necessity dictates the terms of a relationship, either. Is it so preposterous to think that the friends we use as means to a goal are our pets, or that we are theirs, depending on the way the imbalance of power plays itself out?

More interesting though is the question of whether a plant or a god could be a friend. Can we have friends in places so low that they partly dwell in the soil? Or so high — higher than high — that their abode is above this world? Such a possibility seems to undermine what we took to be the basis of friendship, namely similarity in a way of acting or living that permits friends to share their interests and time. How does one spend time with an eternal, atemporal being, like (a) god? Or with a creature whose time-scale and response is drastically different from and generally much slower than that of human consciousness?

Imagine that you sit for hours on end under a tree you like (say, an olive). In doing so, you do not necessarily participate in the temporality of that tree, unless, through a deliberately honed practice of meditation, you alter your own perception of time and slow it down enough to approximate that of the plant you are with. Be this as it may, friendship demands a minimum of synchronicity among friends who are “on the same page” if not in terms of their interests, then at least in terms of the form of their experience of time and place.  Friendship, in other words, is willingness to share a world (which is not the same thing as the environment or the universe) across unavoidable differences in perspective between the I and the other.

Despite some promising leads, we would hit an impasse, insofar as the thinking of vegetal friendship (and friendship in general) is concerned, should we continue treating the parties to this relation as monolithic. It is advisable to consult a lineage that extends from Freud to Schmitt and Derrida, all of whom, in one way or another, expose the myth of the subject’s inner psychic unity. Before addressing the issues involved in associations with external others, we should ask: Am I necessarily my own friend? Could I be an enemy to myself, harming or undercutting myself, if only unconsciously? All of us, after all, live out of sync with ourselves, desperately trying to create synergies between the time of the unconscious and the traditional-phenomenological flux of time-consciousness. At the extreme, when we grow indifferent to ourselves or become our worst enemies, we may lapse into a schizophrenic state that merely exacerbates these preexisting mental fissures and gaps. Seeing that things are so complex at the level of my own self-identification, to discover similarities with the other is to foreground a portion of our psychic life, of which we (and the other) approve. Internal and external asynchoricity remains in effect, these fragile bridges notwithstanding.

In plants, the distinction between self and other, presupposed in any contemplation of friendship, is still thornier than in human subjectivity. Scientists (e.g., UC Davis’s Richard Karban) study what they call “kin recognition” in plants — a biochemical detection and interpretation of certain specimens as “the same” and “the other”. Depending on the identity of their neighbors, the behavior of plants changes: the roots are more extensive and dense in proximity to “strangers” than to “relatives”. While kin recognition has largely to do with something like family ties, there are also instances of compatibility or incompatibility between various species. Every gardener knows that some seedlings should be never be planted next to each other (for instance, peas and fennel), whereas others are “companion plants” (for example, tomato and calendula, which actually repels tomato worms). It is also a matter of general consensus that plants are very good at creating alliances with particular insects, whom they summon to spread their pollen (bees, butterflies, etc.) or to repel attacking herbivores. As Consuelo de Moraes, Mark Mescher, and James Tumlinson note in Nature: “Plants respond to insect herbivory by synthesizing and releasing complex blends of volatile compounds, which provide important host-location cues for insects that are natural enemies of herbivores.”[1]

In light of this multifaceted evidence, the conclusion that plants too have their friends and enemies, labeled without further ado “natural,” is appealing. But a nagging suspicion lingers on: Aren’t scientists, too, projecting human groupings onto the plant world? This is not to say that friendship and enmity are wholly inapplicable to the flora; what I mean, rather, is that we will not advance one iota in establishing how these concepts apply to other living beings, unless we account their subjectivities.

I’ve already said that the topic of subjectivity is even thornier in plants than in humans, because the boundaries between the vegetal self and its other are incredibly porous. If a human subject is legion, then its vegetal counterpart is a legion of legions, comprised of self-replicating parts that can often subsist outside the provisional whole they comprise. Sometimes, various vegetal parts can be relatively indifferent to each other. At other times, a hermaphroditic plant may activate the genetic mechanisms of “self-incompatibility” (SI) that block self-pollination. Most often, however, vegetal parts are highly sociable and symbiotic, participating on equal terms, as nearly autonomous friends, in a community that makes up a plant or in plant communities that comprise a still greater botanical society. Mutatis mutandis, in vegetal friendship, the multiplicity that I am (psychically, spiritually, physically) reaches out to the multiplicity that a plant is — a situation that is not all that different from friendship between two or more human beings. Given the complexities of my own friendship or enmity with myself, redoubled by analogous intricacies on the part of my friend, there will always be counterforces that pull us apart, away from each other and from ourselves, that is to say, from the predominant tendency of the innumerable forces that constitute us.

My friend, Brianne Donaldson, suggests that “vegetal friendship” can refer at the same time to friendship with vegetation and friendship marked by vegetal qualities. The inherent ambiguity of the expression she points out is extremely helpful: as soon as we contemplate the scenario of a friendship with plants, we are reminded that all friendships are vegetal, no matter who they are forged with, to the extent that they involve a resonance of multiplicities comprising the subjectivities of friends. Cicero had a premonition of this difficulty, writing in his treatise on friendship: “For the essence of friendship being that two minds become as one, how can that ever take place if the mind of each of the separate parties to it is not single and uniform, but variable, changeable, and complex?”[2] Or, to reformulate in our terms: What is similitude between two, neither of whom is the same as herself or himself? How can friends grow together, if each undergoes metamorphoses and grows, plant-like, never being the same as before? Their growing-with, in the absence of a guaranteed common ground, would be a promising avenue for thinking about and practicing vegetal friendship.

[1] Consuelo de Moraes, Mark Mescher, & James Tumlinson, “Caterpillar-induced nocturnal plant volatiles repel conspecific females”, Nature, 410, March 2001, pp. 577-580.

[2] Cicero, Two Essays: On Old Age and on Friendship (London & New York: Macmillan, 1903), p. 199.

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