What Are Humans? And Who Are Plants?


 Michael Marder


Human being today is more of a mystery than ever before. Not because there is still much to be discovered about our genetic, physiological, social, and even psychological makeup, but, rather, because “the human” has been reduced to these and similar objective determinations. The information we collect about the functional and physical aspects of our genome or about the processes of decision-making condensed in algorithmic formulas cannot help us figure out who we are. In fact, exclusive reliance on such research may even hinder our quest for a self-definition by burying the meaning and interpretation of the human under a pile of pre-delineated answers, backed by empirical data and impervious to the questioning impulse.

A preliminary step toward quitting the impasse is reframing the question itself. Instead of “What is human being?” we should ask “Who is human being?”—a query better suited to the task of self-knowing. For twentieth-century German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Helmuth Plessner, as well as for the existentialist tradition in France, the human is, precisely, a being who can put itself in question and who, inquiring “Who am I?”, does not quite arrive at a final answer. The risk inherent in the existentialist stance, however, is getting lost in the depths of individuality and wandering in the labyrinths of an identity that verges on an abstract ideality, detached from what we a little misguidedly call “nature”.

In my own philosophical investigations, I have been attentive to the non-human or other-than-human context, wherein our defining question is situated. In particular, I have focused on the vegetal world as the site of our primordial repression, of the desire to assert our independence from and, indeed, our opposition to everything to do with plant life. Whatever we associate with the human seems to be contrary to plants: the latter are firmly rooted in the ground, while we become more and more uprooted; the latter are exposed to the world thanks to the extension of their leaves, while we retreat into ourselves and separate ourselves from our surroundings; the latter are in tune with the changing seasons, while we have rendered time itself a homogeneous and undifferentiated continuum…

Psychoanalytically speaking, such resistance, such obstinate insistence on a difference between the (human) I and its other is a symptom of repression. If one repeats “I am not a plant”—but, say, a rational or political animal, as Aristotle puts it—in response to the question “Who am I?”, then the reiteration indicates that there are certain unresolved issues in one’s relation to plants. (I am thinking of the paradigm case Freud cites in his essay on negation, the case of a patient who insists about a woman in his dream, “This is not my mother,” leading the analyst to surmise that it is the unconscious representation of the mother.) Contrary to this cultural tendency that has been ongoing in the West for the last two millennia and a half, I have proposed that we are strange kinds of plants that have forgotten, or even cut themselves off from, their terrestrial roots. In our approach to the world and in our thinking, we remain vegetal without knowing it, whereas every reminder of this belonging is met with suspicion, incredulity, and ridicule.  

Let me give you a few examples of what I mean by the repressed vegetal heritage of human being. Of course, I am not referring to the genetic compositions of plants and specimens of Homo sapiens, but to our shared exposure to the surroundings, and above all to the atmosphere. No matter how much we aim to segregate ourselves from the others—whether human or not, organic entities or inorganic elements—we are unable to do so and, like plants, are exposed to the world. In its very interiority, concentrated in the lungs, our breathing is open to the exteriority of air, turning us inside out. Even more tellingly, the skin that envelops our bodies is, for the most part imperceptibly to us, an organ of breathing confined to the superficies, much like the leaves of a maple tree. At the same time, we neither betray the question “Who am I?” nor reduce the human to a “what” when plants enter the fray; rather, as the example of exposure and breathing demonstrates, we make our guiding query more concrete by translating it into “How am I?” and replying, preliminarily: exposed, in the world, plant-like…

Another instance of the neglected vegetal dimension of our lives is apparent in the model of sociality prevalent today, namely the network. Networks are dispersed assemblages that branch out in various directions in the absence of an authoritative command center. In this, they are analogous to the being of plants that are equally decentralized, that grow through a replication of existing organs such as branches (modular development), and that are comprised of semi-autonomous parts. Having left behind the model of an organic collectivity, which, from Hobbes’s Leviathan to twentieth-century totalitarianisms, replicated animal anatomy and physiology, we have, without realizing it, embraced a politics and sociality inspired by plant processes. The future beyond the horizon of a state or of an all-powerful community, which claims its members for itself as if they were the organs of an animal organism—that future is vegetal.

When I suggest that a key to thinking about who is human being today is to be found in the repressed vegetal facets of our lives, I do not intend to diminish the radical indeterminacy and disquietude provoked by the existentialist worry, “Who am I?” To say that something of the plant underlies human cogitation, our being in world, and socio-political organization is to affirm the ineliminable obscurity at the heart of “the human”: our ultimate (but also primary) non-transparency to ourselves, codified in psychoanalysis under the umbrella term of the unconscious. There are, then, two kinds of mystery, enveloping our attempts at self-knowledge: the first arising from the illusion that everything about the human can be objectively determined and scientifically measured; the second emanating from our respect for the non-transparency, the vegetal-unconscious underside, constitutive of what or who we are. The decision is yours. What sort of mystery will you choose?

5 thoughts on “What Are Humans? And Who Are Plants?”

  1. And vegetation is eaten by cows, goats and sheep. Stick to Leviathan. War and organized violence can’t be worse than just vegetating.

  2. I’ve done a fair bit od reading and otherwise investigating shamanic practices, and a lot of them address these questions quite matter-of-factly. Of course, there’s great variation from culture to culture, but as an example some tribes from Amazon regions consider plants to be not only wise teachers, but in many ways human analogues. Anthropoligist Jeremy Narby has written about his early challenges in trying to understand how these indigenous peoples–“primitive” as they are regarded by Western cultures–learned to combine two specific plants out of billions of potential possibilities to produce the entheogenic brew ayahuasca; their answer was simply “the plants told us.” He didn’t understand for some time that their explanation was meant literally because he never viewed vegetal beings as beings–only as objects. Most people who have experienced ayahuasca, no matter their prior conceptions of plants, come away understanding they these creatures not only possess intelligence and consciousness, they also communicate, sometimes imparting insights that are so complex they feel “more real than reality” and difficult to process.

    One book I read, an interview with a shaman, discussed the shamanic cultures’ views that plants are human, jaguars are human, snakes are human–that all living creatures to themselves are “human” in the sense that they, in their worlds, are the center of those worlds and certainly the most sophisticated and perfect creations. They are human in the true sense of which we speak of humanity, and everything else is “other,” alienated by virtue of being less relatable. But to the shaman discussing this, every living being has the same essence and is essentislly human, just in different forms. He believes that shamans exist among all these beings, from insects to birds to plants, and that many of these shamans are true shape shifters because they can communicate through the illusory barriers that make us think we are divided.

    Here’s a more Western viewpoint, a notion I have after having read about shamanism and having experienced ayahuasca for myself: if we believe in evolution, which we have sound reason to believe in, then why do we not acknowlege that plants have been on this Earth and therefore have had eons longer to evolve than we have had? We “know” that we are “higher” beings than plants–because we move more readily, we communicate with utterances and drawn symbols. One could look at our communications as limited: if there were such a thing as telepathy, then language would be wholly unnecessary for communication with no misunderstanding. More and more science shows that plants communicate via chemical signals, and even with remote plants via “fungal Internets.” We say that plants cannot be conscious because they don’t have brains or nerves. They evolved in a different direction than ours, and to believe that an organism would have to have anatomy similar to our very specific anatomy in order to possess or access consciousness is, to me, so limited a range of thought that it reveals how naive and primitive we still are, tethering every understanding of every other thing or concept to our own physical bodies–the perfect reference when you believe you are the perfect creation. Meanwhile, plants have been on this planet far longer than we have and have had far longer to evolve. They may appear simple to us, but they may be far more sophisticated and intelligent than we will ever understand. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

    • Just discovered this site and am loving it. Thanks to David Michael Conner for making the exact comments I would have made if he hadn’t already. Also check out Kenny Ausubel of Bioneers. According to Kenny, plants can see us. They have receptor cells all over them that are identical to receptor cells in the human retina and research has shown that they can see when we wear different colour clothing.

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