Seasonal Allergies

Photograph by matt smith


 Michael Marder

May 6, 2016

It is no secret that, every spring since 1983, I have been suffering from seasonal allergies. I reflect on that condition in Through Vegetal Being, a book I co-authored with Luce Irigaray, to be released by Columbia University Press next month:

Just when the revival of spring happens and the plant world begins to bristle with its radiant colors, I find myself cut off from the outside, barely able to see, smell, taste, or breathe. A watery barrier arises between my sense organs and their corresponding objects, disrupting the transparent workings of intentionality. Our physical and spiritual alienation from plants is, in the end, one and the same as our alienation from the rest of the organic and inorganic universe.[i]

I am clearly not alone in this predicament, which isolates me from the world. According to the most conservative estimates, the numbers of pollen-induced “allergic rhinitis” sufferers hover between ten and thirty percent of the global population. The growing trend is accelerating in tandem with industrialization that not only relocates masses of people from the countryside to the terribly crowded and polluted cities but also effects a more profound, ontological, dislocation. It uproots us from the vegetal world to the point of making our bodies (as well as minds, senses, living rhythms) incompatible with those of plants.

To point this out and to attempt a philosophical rapprochement with the flora is not automatically to occupy some sort of a neo-Luddite, anti-modern position. In fact, modernity is a double-edged sword insofar as plant life is concerned. On the one hand, it physically and metaphysically separates us from a predominantly vegetal milieu. But, on the other hand, it allows plant to become plants! What do I mean? Simply the following: when our existence is so close to vegetation as to nearly merge with it, when the pace of human life is determined by sowing or harvesting, there is no plant as such. There are, certainly, different plants all around us, but they do not figure in conceptual representations until “the plant” (or, more abstractly and more fashionably still, “the vegetal”) is posed as a problem. Until, that is, we have nearly lost every connection to it. Differently expressed, modernity makes thinking with and of plants both possible and impossible.

The plant’s conceptual becoming, its rise to the subject and object of thought, is enabled by industrial modernity, which has also spearheaded a massive destruction of plants worldwide. More precisely, the question of plants (plants as questions: enigmatic, “agential,” uncanny) properly belongs in a postindustrial age, weary of industrial excesses and the damage they have inflicted on the natural environment. A rebellious response to the allergies thrust upon us by modernity and metaphysics, plant-thinking reacts — if only negatively — to the things it responds to even as it strains to listen to the plants themselves.

The conventional way to deal with seasonal allergies, however, is to take antihistaminic medicines. Temporarily blocking histamine receptors in our bodies, these pills induce a short-lived physiological amnesia, which corresponds to our general forgetting of plants whenever they do not cause any difficulties. Making the allergic body insensitive to its increased and misplaced sensitivity toward vegetation drowns the question of the plant that has cropped up in the most visceral manner imaginable.

The etymology of allergies (meaning “foreign work,” allos ergon) implies that whatever provokes them is viewed by the immune system as a foreign body and, above all, as a potentially harmful agent. Pollen allergies become more prevalent as plants, their lifecycles, and embodied thinking, grow foreign to us, so much so that our immune defenses mistake them for an enemy. Yet, it is a serious mistake with dire consequences to convert the other, the foreigner, into an enemy, be it in our physiological or political actualities. Extreme rightwing reactionary forces that are on the ascendant in Europe today, the indiscriminate rejection of desperate refugees, and pollen allergies follow the same logic in the tissues of body politic and of the living-breathing body. They put foreignness coded as a threat to work in order to consolidate a defense so aggressive that it inflicts harm on that which was to be defended in the first place.

Seasonal allergies are perspicuous examples of bodily ecosystems gone mad, in the sense in which, for Aldo Leopold, a natural ecosystem can lapse into madness once the balance of its elements is disrupted. Treating the symptoms won’t do here. The only effective antidote to our allergies to plants is reconsidering our relation toward them and, through them, toward the rest of our environment, obsessively sterilized, deadened, and made more propitious to the development of allergic reactions. In other words, we are yet to calibrate our distance to plants: neither to be absorbed into their world as though it were a green vortex nor to fight them as if they represented an existential threat to our bodies or social and political projects. Only then will it be possible to think non-allergically about and with plants.


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