Michael Marder


We live in an age when critiques of essentialism and theoretical positions priding themselves on being nonessentialist are the norm. The typical formula of the somewhat quixotic battles against this philosophical strawman (or straw-woman) is, “There is no X” (fill in the blank: animal, human, world…), with the positive proviso: “There are only Xs (animals, humans, worlds…).” In other words, the norm nowadays is to espouse one’s sincere desire to do away with essence as the product of normalization meant to bring into line every singular deviation from the impossible ideal. In place of a unified, static, and oppressive essence, we get the radical empiricism of scattered, mobile, if not nomadic, multiplicities strategically and temporarily assembled around a common term that has an air of nominalism about it. But is this alternative an improvement on what it rejects? And do we know what we are rebuffing when we tout our presumably revolutionary non- or anti-essentialism?

On the surface of it, essence signifies the being that is (est, es, ist, есть, asmi, ἐστί);[i] it says its “yes” (this English word, too, growing from the same semantic root) to being. Nonessentialists, then, are for or on the side of nonbeing, to which they assent, mouthing their “yes,” as though despite themselves, despite their “no” to essence. In effect, they are left with nothing on their hands, albeit a nothing that is not pure negativity and that, infinitely mutating, is but a negative imprint of essential being. The solution to the conundrum of essence is thus more complicated than a forthright negation: it is necessary to unravel essence from within, to discover the “no” inside its “yes,” which might as well turn out to be the very essence of essence.

That is where vegetality enters the fray: although, on par with humanity and animality, it proposes to name the essence of plants, every path toward the “green” comprehension it opens winds up in a gray area of essential nonessentiality. Let me direct the beams of theoretical spotlight onto three such paths, namely the spatial, temporal, and behavioral interpretations of vegetality. Even if, in one way or another, I have discussed all three in my previous philosophical explorations of plants, they will get a new lease on life in the gray glow of what I have just termed “essential nonessentiality.”

         Space. In its physiology, at the ontic level of its existence, a plant thrives by maximizing its exposure to the outside world. As I’ve noted in my Plant-Thinking, vegetal existence is essentially superficial,[ii] subverting or perverting in its essence the very logic of essence as a deep, permanently hidden, and inert core of appearances. Buried in the fruit, the kernel that has been a staple figuration of concealed essence, as in Hegel’s philosophy, is only provisionally withdrawn from sight, waiting for the flesh that surrounds it to rot, so that it could be exposed to the elements and nourished by decay, the plant reborn from it. Burrowing into the earth, the root can nonetheless develop from other plant parts that appear in the open and is, therefore, not as indispensable (essential in the sense of necessity, of the vegetal sine qua non) as we think. So, when essence is grafted onto the skin of appearances, when it becomes sensible to the point of tangibility, when physical superficies endlessly overlay other superficies rather than a profoundly metaphysical ultimate reality, then essential nonessentiality flourishes in a mode of existence that branches out and leafs into the isyes it addresses to the world.    

         Time. The temporal dimension of a self-subverting essence concerns history. Whereas, at the heights of metaphysics, historical fluctuations and upheavals held little significance because they left the ahistorical essence of the phenomenon unaffected, essential nonessentiality obeys the existential rule that the meaning of being is time. Time or, concretely speaking, existence itself elevated to the status of essence is the original alloy of becoming and being, which never attains any degree of purity. The being that is is a fleeting moment between the being that was and the being that will be. Each phase of a plant’s life sees it beholden to a vegetal heterotemporality, an expression I’ve coined to refer to the time of its other, be it seasonal alteration and alternation or the human agro-activity that tempers with such cycles, from the simple contraption of the hothouse to the introduction of the ripening gas C2H4 (Ethylene), now the most widely manufactured organic compound in the world. Temporally, plants are insofar as, without uttering anything, they say yes to the other through everything they do in an affirmation that precisely takes time to become effective. And the same holds for the concept of the plant as for the heterotemporal constitution of plants: there is indeed no ideal construct, from which the actual historical versions of planthood would deviate; however, this does not mean that we should give up on vegetality, understood as the sum total of deviations lacking a norm or as an infinite number of detours toward the other. Whatever we are collectively inflicting on plants at the current (and at any other) intersection of human and vegetal histories meddles directly with their essence. The commercial production of sterile seeds, for instance, not only robs plants of their reproductive potential but also consolidates vegetality as something sterile, radically finite (nonreproducible) in itself yet marshalled toward infinite growth, corresponding to the infinite (nonsatisfiable) demands of capital, to which vegetality is forced monotonously to say its yes.   

         Activity. Growing is the activity of plants that seems to retrieve the old model of essence. While we can subtract virtually every one of their features, taking growth away would do away with plants. It is the aspect of their existence that is irreducible, absolute, essential, and fundamental to what they are. Upon a closer look, we spot various fissures in the recovered façade of vegetal essence. Growth fills in the metaphysical gap between being and doing: what a plant does passes seamlessly into what it is and vice versa. Vegetation vegetates; plant behavior derives from the morphological changes, initiated by biochemical cues, hormonal stimuli, genetic or epigenetic expressions in response to environmental conditions, predation, or proximity of other plants. To our ear, the verb “to vegetate” sounds hopelessly passive, yet it is thanks to this association that the second crack in the behavioral façade of vegetality comes to light: besides erasing the difference between being and doing, the essential nonessentiality of growth invalidates the distinction between activity and passivity. Although the Latin vegēre means “to excite” and connotes vigor, virility, and strength, vegetating has acquired the opposite sense of dullness and idleness, later on re-projected onto plants and coloring their image that predominates in the popular imagination. Probably because vegetal doing is often so subtle, so firmly anchored in metamorphosis that requires a relatively long time to be accomplished, it is mistaken for nondoing, for inactivity. As a result, X and not-X mingle in vegetality, jointly constituting plant essence. Something of this formal logical contradiction reverberates in the claim to and of growth, a signature activity of plants that, at the same time, characterizes the whole of what we know as nature. That is another fissure, the third for those who are counting: the most essential property of plants is also what is most common to all living beings; the growth proper to them is entirely improper; that which is theirs is at the same time not theirs. non solum vegēt et vegent sed verum vegēo, vegēs, vegēmus—not only does it vegetate (or excite) and not only do they vegetate, but also I vegetate, you vegetate, we vegetate (or excite).   

 The spatial, temporal, and behavioral “glitches” in vegetality—the glitches that, far from accidental, are built into its “program”—amount to the internal displacement of plant essence, which is the paradigm case of the internal displacement of essence proper, of the essence of essence. It feels rather hollow to assert, in formal philosophical terms and together with the Hegel of Philosophy of Nature, that vegetal identity is its nonidentity and that a fair bit of necessary confusion between the same and the other permeates plant world. More vividly than that, we can consider how the vegetal is is a yes to the other so vehement as to hand plant essence over to the other—to another essence or to the other of essence, a nonessence. In divesting itself of “autonomous” being that would stand over and against other kinds of being on the one hand and nonbeing on the other, in de-essentializing itself, vegetality is all the more faithful to the essence of essence, in that it gathers together as petals in a bud the different sense of the *es-. It is this ontological generosity that allows it nonviolently to sup-plant being “as such” (i.e., essential being).

I have devoted many pages of my theoretical writings to the plant/nature synecdoche, a vegetal part representing the whole it participates in. The activity of vegetality inverts this relation, prompting the question: What if the plant were not in the first instance a synecdoche of nature? What if it were nature “itself,” before its formalization into an abstract totality of organic and inorganic beings, or the “sum total of appearances” as Kant puts it? Could it be the case that all natural entities were initially understood as vegetal—above all growing, as well as decaying and capable of self-reproduction? In addition to plants, animals, and humans (with the later addition of fungi and microorganisms), the vegetality of nature would then encompass the rising-growing and the setting-decaying sun, waxing and waning lunar phases, volcanic formations and the swell of mountains commemorating them, the metal ores thought of as plant-like in alchemy, and so forth. Still, it will be pointed out, a big difference exists between claiming that all of nature is vegetal and arguing that the essence of essence, or being “as such,” is vegetality. How to bridge these levels of analysis, if that’s what they are?

Martin Heidegger offers a clue with his suggestion that, in ancient Greece, nature (phusis) as a burgeoning, blossoming, overall movement of growth was the name, or the misnomer, for being. “What does the word phusis say?” Heidegger asks. His response: “It says what emerges from itself (for example, the emergence, the blossoming, of a rose), the unfolding that opens itself up, the coming-into-appearance in such unfolding, and holding itself and persisting in appearance—in short, the emerging-abiding sway. […] This emerging and standing-out-in-itself-from-itself may not be taken as just one process among others that we observe in beings. Phusis is Being itself, by virtue of which beings first become and remain observable.”[iii] There is no “emerging-abiding sway” of phusis without vegetality, without a journey through every stage of plant germination, growth, blossoming, and finite self-preservation through reproduction. The nature of nature, the essence of essence, is a yes-sence, saluting and affirming vegetal being, which is, for its part, the saluting affirmation of the other. It is the spatiotemporal ecstasy of a seed that, uncontainable in itself, spills out or dehisces and germinates, impatient to be, to exist; of a leaf that unfolds and presents itself to light and to sight (touch, smell, and taste); of a flower that leaves the bud behind and blossoms forth welcoming bees and butterflies and its own wilting and decay. The standing-out-in-itself-from-itself essential to the active stillness of phusis reiterates plant growth and presages existence, a one-word condensation of this standing-out.

Emerging, forming, growing right before our eyes is the defundamental ontology of vegetality, the anarchic principle of plant being that deletes itself from every representation, from every world-picture so as to give room to being as such, with neither a beginning nor a clearly established hierarchical order nor a single guiding directive. None of this, however, goes to the vegetal, semantic, or conceptual root of essence, where the articulation of the copula, the is, resides.

A tautology: essence is. Or, is it (a tautology)? The is leads whatever precedes it (conventionally, the grammatical subject) outside and beyond itself, mediating between it and the predicate. Even in the case of a predicate identical to the subject, even in the case of nothing following it, as in the statement “essence is,” where the is implicitly articulates essence with being, in and as which it is. Led outside and beyond itself, the subject replicates the activity of nature that stands out in itself from itself. The copula is a conductor to the beyond, the initiator of a relation. It shares this role with plants that articulate the classical elements of water, the earth, solar fire, and air, previously indifferent toward (and, hence, unrelated to) one another. And, like the plant that stands in for the whole of nature, the copula is a grammatical form of the verb “to be,” conjugated in the present tense third person singular, that betokens verbal being as such. Discursively, plant being is being; vegetality is the is: finite in space, time, type of activity, and designation, it is infinitely malleable and immanently self-transcendent in its “emerging-abiding sway.”

It follows that the fullness of essence or of being is not the all-embracing totality Emmanuel Levinas has made it out to be, but the overflow of a singularity that unfolds toward the other and, in this unfolding, subtracts itself from the relations it makes possible, leaving in its wake the roominess wherein the articulated terms can subsist. The copula—this link forged from a specific variation on the verb “to be”—and the plant—this particular living being—do not conquer and dominate the rest of the grammatical and biological forms they welcome by saying their “yes,” by serving as passageways between diverse elements: subject and predicate, earth and sky. They are, rather, the figures of the essence beyond essence, a “beyond” that is perhaps what is most essential to essence.

Now, essence beyond essence, or “essential nonessentiality,” is existence, the standing outside itself in itself of being. Instead of a static edifice, being is non-self-coincidence: growing, becoming, vegetal. In medieval thought, only in God as ens perfectissimum (the most perfect being) were essence and existence one and the same. The coincidence of the two presupposed, in turn, a prior separation between the stable and the unstable, atemporal and temporal being, overcome nowhere else but in the exceptionality of divine essence-existence. Vegetality demonstrates this coalescence in a manner different from that of divinity: it shows that essence is already existence, its “in-itself” primordially twisted into “outside-itself” and, therefore, into “for-the-other.” It reveals the existentiality of essence, translated not only into a yes-sence but also into an ex-sence, the outwardness, exteriority, extending or tending toward the other. And, because vegetality is both proper to plants and shared with other kinds of beings, it extends this growing extension beyond itself all the way to essence and existence “as such.” Conversely, to segregate essence from other essences and from existence, to close it off by blocking its “beyond,” is to uproot the plant in it, which is what the metaphysical tradition in the West has been doing for centuries. In any event, essence will be de-essentialized. The question is: How? Will it be subject to external negation at the hands of antiessentialists? Will it negate itself in affirming its absolute independence? Or, will it come to its end (not to be conflated with termination) in the acceptance of its existential bent, in and through vegetality that brings essence to itself by putting it face-to-face with the other?

[i] Essence is derived from *es-, the Proto-Indo-European root for “to be.”

[ii] Cf. Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 80ff.

[iii] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 15.

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