The Noble Cabbage: Michael Marder’s “Plant-Thinking”

By Dominic PettmanJuly 28, 2013

Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life by Michael Marder

Triptych image: Antonio Adriano Puleo, "Untitled (41c)" 2013

“We ought still to be as close to the flowers, grasses, and butterflies as a child who does not yet reach very far above them. We older people, by contrast, have grown beyond them and have to stoop down to them; I think that the grasses hate us if we confess our love for them.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche

IN APRIL OF 2000, Michael Moore launched a campaign to help elect a ficus plant to the Congressional seat in New Jersey’s 11th District. The joke was that a ficus is more intelligent and dynamic than any of the highly partisan and corrupt official candidates. After reading Michael Marder’s new book Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life you may be convinced that plants are smarter than all of us. Theoretical work in the humanities has been branching out for several years now (if you’ll pardon the arborial pun), striving to go beyond the traditional human subject in order to account for other types of existence and experience, including animals and autonomous machines. A new field has emerged, loosely labeled “the posthumanities,” which attempts to fill in the millennia-long blind spots caused by our own narcissism. Such scholars are united in their efforts to expose or deconstruct ongoing “anthropocentrism.” The latest off-shoot of such thinking — known as Speculative Realism — goes so far as to consider objects like cameras, stones, pillows, cartoon characters, or electricity grids as “agents” in their own right.

It is interesting then that plants have, on the whole, been ignored in this intellectual rush to lobby on behalf of non-human existence. And while Marder’s book is not the first to broach the subject (Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s recent edited collection Animal, Vegetable, Mineral [2012] is of special note, as is Francis Hallé’s In Praise of Plants [2011]), it is possibly the most sustained study yet to emerge from the rather esoteric world of Continental philosophy. Marder wants to forge an encounter with vegetal life, all the while respecting the alien ontology of floral ways of being. For while a shrub may not consciously “experience” the world in which it grows, this does not, for Marder, mean that it is not thinking and doing in profound philosophical, and even ethical, ways.

Martin Heidegger famously created a hierarchy of Being when he stated that the stone has no world, the animal is poor in world, and the human is, at least potentially, world-making. This reboot of a very traditional Aristotelian ranking system has since become yet another source of Heideggerian infamy. Marder points out that plants are rarely spoken of in contemporary philosophy except as metaphors to bolster human activities and concerns (climbing the tree of knowledge, finding our ethnic roots, witnessing the blossoming of a debutante, sowing one’s wild oats, etc.). Let’s not forget, however, that we eat, drink, and smoke plants. We write on them, read with them, wear them, sleep on them, and live inside them. Vegetal life is an essential aspect of our own, intertwined in ways that we have taken for granted for many centuries: something to which Marder seems to take almost personal exception.

Plant-Thinking is a powerful and brilliant intervention in the wider posthumanist discussion, and will be a key reference point in the landscape for many years to come. Marder works hard to highlight the difference between mere observable botanical behavior (which, following Heidegger, he calls “ontic”) and the kind of a-subjective “experience” that any given plant may have (which he calls “ontological”). Of course, this is the paradoxical crux of any project that seeks to champion what Ian Bogost has recently called “alien phenomenology”: We will never truly know what it means to be a tree. But does that mean that we should, like Kant, relegate trees to the margins of our own discourses, treating them as mute and ambient things-in-themselves, with no stakes in the present or future? Or should we take up the challenge of somehow acknowledging and respecting the radical alterity in the heart of our own thinking, and perhaps even render it intelligible by some magical medium? “All we can hope for is to brush upon the edges of their being,” Marder says of plants, “which is altogether outer and exposed, and in so doing to grow past the fictitious shells of our identity and our existential ontology.”

And yet this soft brushing on the edges of plant-being is enough to inspire Marder to make all kinds of claims about plants that may appear somewhat extravagant to the average reader. If the very phrase “vegetal ethics” or “vegetal democracy” makes you snicker — or if the word “epistemophytology” makes your eyes glaze over — then this is not the book for you. The first review on Amazon, for instance, goes so far as to claim that this book can only be understood as a brilliant satirical hoax, and that Marder himself is the Alan Sokal of the 21st century. And yet, those more attuned to the history and vocabulary of posthumanist thinking will recognize many valuable ideas here, sincerely presented.

Marder’s undeniable strength lies in his deep understanding of the Western philosophical canon. Through virtuoso readings of key figures, especially Aristotle and Hegel, he guides us through philosophy’s most influential (and pernicious) discussions of plants, taking careful note of where the archive leads us down the garden path, and where certain dormant seeds are scattered for our own belated cultivation. Aristotle is rebuked for basically treating plants as “defective animals,” while Hegel is condemned for misreading profligate growth as an example of un-self-conscious “bad infinity.” Plant-Thinking, by contrast, begins by positing the “soul” of plants, understood in a secular or immanent sense pertaining to “the elusive life” of flora: “its precariousness, violability, and, at the same time, its astonishing tenacity, its capacity for survival.” The soul and the plant are intimately connected by virtue of “their [mutual] exclusion from the purview of respectable philosophical discourses in late modernity.” Since Aristotle, the book argues, plants have been considered in terms of lack or privation: they lack eyes, reason, speech, history, desires, etc. And yet, Marder emphasizes the overflowing exuberance of vegetal life, which only seems bereft of essential qualities when measured narrowly against our own. Plants have yet to be considered on their own terms, as a “fugal, fugitive mode of being.” And plant soul is, “something non-thingly within the thing, something that makes it alive and that does not quite fit into the fully substantialized, rigid, and concrete panorama of reality.” Moreover, there is an “elusive vitality” here which barely registered on the radar of Western metaphysics, fooling the rest of us into thinking of plants as meaningless and inert matter (and thus vulnerable to heedless and massive exploitation for our own purposes). As Marder rightly points out, plants frequently serve as synecdoche for Nature as a whole. Thus, to recognize the existence of something like a plant-soul might help us ambitious mammals with the urgent task of fostering “a drastically different comportment toward the environment, which will no longer be perceived as a collection of natural resources and raw materials managed, more or less efficiently, by human beings.”

Plants are such a seductive collective figure for Marder because their way of being-in-the-world is so radically different from the sovereign human approach, in which the self inhabits the foreground of existence, acting in instrumental and objective ways on a passive background of mere “things.” In contrast, he argues, plants draw no delusional and dangerous line between self and other. “Indifferent to the distinction between the inner and the outer, it [the plant] is literally locked in itself,” he writes, “but in such a way that it merges with the external environment, to which it is completely beholden. In other words, it is absolutely other to itself and, as such, transcends the relative and reciprocal distinction between sameness and otherness.”

Marder not only attempts to conceive of and communicate what we might call the ill-understood and under-appreciated plantness of plants, but also to hold the plant up as an aspirational role model, one which operates in stark contrast to our own self-centered activities. In this sense, Marder’s project stems (once again, the foundational vegetal legacy of our own models becomes explicit in such language) from the work of Derrida and Levinas, who challenged the more violent assumptions of metaphysics, especially those based on the assertion of autonomous possessive selfhood. Plants, in Marder’s book, are conscientious objectors — albeit unconscious ones — to the human illusion of identity itself. They are thus engaged in “passive resistance” to our rampant historical-nihilism (itself based on “the fiction of a strong unitary origin”). According to Marder, homo sapiens have been utterly incapable of registering “the constitutive vegetal otherness in ourselves,” despite the fact that “[e]ven in our highest endeavors, we remain sublimated plants.”

Before Aristotle’s dismissal of such a notion, Plato argued that plants are indeed desiring beings; a philosophical insight that Marder would like to resuscitate, specifically via the concept of “non-conscious intentionality.” “Plant life,” he writes, “expresses itself both by means of biochemical signaling and in an incessant, wild proliferation, a becoming-spatial and a becoming-literal of intentionality.” From such a perspective, we humans are, in some sense, (also) plants whenever we are hungry or thirsty. Indeed, “the plant is the most desiring being of all, precisely because it is the one most dependent on exteriority.” However — and this is key — “[t]he paradox is that the insatiability of nutritive desire coincides, in the plant, with the nonexistence of an autonomous self to which the other would be appropriated.” Contra Hegel, then, plants are ideal role models precisely because they refuse to congeal into a stable identity. They are “the passages, the outlets, or the media for the other,” and they “let the other pass through them without detracting from the other’s alterity.” In short, the plant, like a good Levinasian citizen of the world, has an “inherent respect for alterity.”

This is one of the central claims of Plant-Thinking, and yet I had difficulty squaring it with my own (admittedly inexpert) knowledge of “actual” plants. No doubt vegetal life is in many ways “unity in flux.” But does that mean it is also always already a gift of “primordial generosity”? Consider just a few examples from the plant “kingdom”: poison ivy, toxic sap, stinging nettles, sharp thorns, poisonous spines. Some plants employ deceptive mimesis in order not to be eaten or colonized. Orchids punk wasps into thinking they’ve just had sex. Some even play dead. Others, like bracken, have themselves colonized entire valleys of Europe, thanks to their powerful cyanide-based toxins that can cause blindness and even cancer. Carnivorous plants, like the famous Venus flytrap, are not above kidnapping and murdering their meals. During the week when I was writing this, the BBC News Science page featured headlines such as “Perfumed Plant Lures in Mammals,” and “Plant Chemicals ‘Manipulate’ Ants.” Even when not being outright aggressive or duplicitous, some plants require a quid pro quo from their pollinating insects, or passive-aggressively trap them for the night, for the benefit of their selfish genes. Trees fight to the death for access to light. Acacias and rattans enlist ants to defend their sovereign territory. The mistletoe and dodder plant are downright vampiric.

No doubt Marder would object that this list of tyrannical flora is just so much “ontic” botany, overlaid with deceptive anthropomorphic narratives. Self-preservation, he might say, is not an evolutionary tenet, but a projection of human hubris. But given the many and varied ways in which plants protect their territory, or invade others’, the ontic/ontological disconnect may be so large as to be untenable. The Derridean “hospitality” which the author sees in all plant-being appears more like skewed rhodopsin in the eye of the beholder. Marder occasionally seems aware of his overreach, as when he writes, “Even if a plant (for instance, milkweed) produces toxins to ward off pests or insects, it does not, strictly speaking, do so to protect itself (or better yet, its ‘self’).” Why on earth not? The difference between an animal defending its territory, and a plant defending its territory, is never addressed. And while there is a certain decadent romance to a life-form which flourishes “only in ‘falling apart,’” this description surely doesn’t apply to the strangling fig tree, so named for its tenacious will-to-flower. To label all plant-life as inherently generous is to also imply that mice are “generous” to cats. In short, I would have liked to see more agon.

Don’t misunderstand me: Having myself been profoundly influenced by late 20th-century philosophical discussions of “inoperable/coming/unavowable communities” (Nancy, Agamben, Blanchot), I am highly sympathetic to “the principles of inherent divisibility and participation.” But the degree to which plants really do traverse “all other modes of living while preserving their differences” or give themselves “without reserve ... free of any expectations of returns from the other” seems highly questionable, given the general economy of ecology, which includes cacti, nettles, and vegetal parasites of all kinds. I kept wishing there were more examples to support this particular argument, rather than the sheer weight of assertion, as if this facet of the vegetal world were generally understood to be the case. Our grids of identity are certainly complicated when we consider plants, but that doesn’t mean they are abolished. Indeed, the strongest critics of this Levinasian fancy would probably be the object-oriented ontologists, many of whom insist upon the withdrawn, monadic aspect of any given (individuated) entity. The organic commons here can look pretty hostile and dangerous when viewed in slow motion.

In Marder’s second chapter, entitled “The Body of the Plant,” he notes the close historical collusion between Western metaphysics and capitalism, arguing that “loss of plant varieties and biodiversity is a symptom of a much more profound trend — the practical implementation of the metaphysics of the One.” Going back to Plato’s description of the human as a creature with aerial roots extending into the sky, Marder insists that such a foundational metaphor gets things upside down, and leads to an uprooting of the human from earthly concerns. Consciousness and spirit are henceforth associated with the light of the heavens, and measured by their distance from the dirt, no matter how nourishing or life-sustaining in actuality. Marder’s “vegetal anti-metaphysics” tries to counter-balance this originary mistake by claiming that “the plant materially articulates and expresses the beings that surround it; it lets beings be and, from the middle place of growth, performs the kind of dis-closure of the world in all its interconnectedness that Heidegger attributes to human Dasein.” Plants are to be applauded for their “non-objectification of the real” which precludes any possibility of domination, or even self-assertion (since, as we have seen, there is no “self” to assert).

“[A]s soon as ethics sheds its humanist camouflage,” Marder writes, “the human subject will join plant life in a self-expropriating journey toward the other.” Once again, we hear a strong echo of Levinas. But measuring any and all beings by their capacity for “self-expropriation,” and then using this prioritization of the Other as the only true criterion of ethics, is a problematic approach in the contemporary moment. By now, this modus operandi has become itself a kind of abstract mantra, which does not map on to matters “on the ground” in any consistently legible way. The infinite hospitality of any given individual is a lovely idea, and perhaps even an asymptotic ideal. But it is also a notion that floats so far above the political fray that it paradoxically leaves actual ethical encounters up to others. It is a philosophical dead end, which — even before the thorny question of application — functions more as the flipside of a coin stamped with the stern features of Ayn Rand. Marder’s unqualified celebration of plants reminds me of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romantic notions about tribal peoples of the Southern seas, who live harmoniously with and within nature, and from whom we moderns must learn pre-lapsarian lessons. (“The noble cabbage,” anyone?)

Which is not to deny that there is much of value in Plant-Thinking for any reader interested in passionate arguments carefully designed to help us detox from our own humanist arrogance. The chapter which attempts to account for the time of plants — their specific hetero-temporality — brilliantly guides the reader through the various seasonal rhythms of vegetal life, which unfolds within the continuity of nourishment and the discontinuity of germination. Agro-business is figured here as the commodification of the plant’s other-directed time and radical passivity, a blithe betrayal of the headless heeding of pure potential: “the plant, with its non-conscious affirmation of repetition, prefigures the affirmative movement of the Nietzschean eternal return, with its acceptance of the perpetual recommencement of life.” In a particularly deft series of pages, Marder takes Deleuze and Guattari to task for valorizing roots, grasses, and rhizomes while dismissing trees as arborial structures that seduce humans into hierarchical thinking. The two deterritorializing Frenchmen “forget that the leaf is not an organ of a larger whole and that it is far from being a derivation from the original stem–root structure.” Thus their own injunction to “Follow the plants!” should logically include trees as well.

Indeed, Marder is at his best when allowing his own organic prose to breathe, rather than getting entangled with the rather tortuous vocabulary of post-structuralist thought. For every dense thicket in search of a machete, there is an elegant observation: “Whereas humans remember whatever has phenomenally appeared in the light, plants keep the memory of light itself.” Or “In the desert, void of plants, the earth and the sky are therefore disarticulated, ceasing to be themselves. Today’s intensifying desertification of the earth signals the earth’s, as well as the sky’s, un-becoming.” Given these literary flourishes, I wonder why thinkers in registers other than orthodox philosophy were left out of the picture. Surely a side-glance at literary writers such as Whitman or Thoreau might have suggested an alternative narrative to the absolute neglect of vegetal life that Marder sees everywhere in the Western tradition.

Indeed, I found the most compelling and persuasive chapter to be the one on “The Wisdom of Plants,” which builds on Nietzsche’s belief in the sagacity of flora. For Marder, “plant-being and plant-thinking are the same,” and since “life and consciousness are subsets of invention or creative activity, the non-conscious life of plants is a kind of ‘thinking before thinking,’ an inventiveness independent from instinctual adaptation and from formal intelligence alike.” This section’s key concept of “non-conscious intentionality” overlaps with the recent work of Steven Shaviro and Ben Woodard, who have both discussed the remarkable case of slime molds, which seem to “remember” previously taken pathways, without any memory cells with which to accomplish such navigations. Here we seem to have a case of “non-intentional thought.” But Marder does not engage with this alternative perspective. Nor does he really consider the vast world of the fungi, which are a completely distinct kingdom from that of plants, but which form complex assemblages with them, to the extent that scientists have recently claimed that trees use fungi as a communication system to warn neighbors of aphid attacks, not unlike an organic internet. (If a tree falls in the forest, it seems, the other trees will soon hear about it.)

In the epilogue, Marder finally addresses the giant pumpkin in the room: the question of how to eat ethically, if even vegans are obliged to face the fact that “the loss of a single plant is tantamount to the passing of an entire world.” “Plant-thinking does not oppose the use of fruit, roots, and leaves for human nourishment,” this final section claims:

Rather, what it objects to is the total and indiscriminate approach to plants as materials for human consumption within the deplorable framework of the commodified production of vegetal life … [I]nstead of “What can I eat?” we should inquire, “How am I to eat ethically?” To put it succinctly, if you wish to eat ethically, eat like a plant!

Ultimately, this logic leads to a rather unsatisfying locavore and/or food co-op argument: “we enter into a rhizomatic relation with it [the vegetal other] when we eat locally grown fruit and vegetables, heeding the wisdom of the plant, whose ‘reach cannot exceed its grasp.’” Such an ethos is, it must be said, often the privilege of the urban upper middle class: a slim, largely North/Western, minority who can afford to procure “organic” and genetically unmodified sustenance. Of course this doesn’t mean we should surrender to the convenient rhetorical mandate of “Feed the World!” when pushed by cynical multinationals. But it also means we have to factor in more real-world issues pertaining to geography, politics, and economics. Philosophy, when pure and uncut, makes an important contribution to our more general ways of thinking and doing — but only up to a point. And it is at this point where it must defer to its disciplinary others, including the so-called hard sciences. (One of Marder’s footnotes mentions that a sequel is in the works, entitled Plant-Doing, which may go a long way to addressing some of the issues already mentioned, in terms of what we might call a “radicle politics.” Indeed, the author’s official title — Ikerbasque Research Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country — makes me think he is one of the most well-placed people to take on such an ambitious task.)

A few more quibbles. I kept wondering how Marder’s narrative might be nuanced, even challenged, by including a figure as important to the legacy of plant-thinking as Epicurus. After all, this ancient philosopher inspired a host of Garden Schools across the Mediterranean, which mindfully tied thinking and ethical pleasures to the cultivation of diverse forms of flora. I would also like to know how an engagement with the much more recent thought of Bruno Latour could have productively complicated things, given Latour’s belief that “[i]n order to enroll animals, plants, proteins in the emerging collective, one must first endow them with the social characteristics necessary for their integration.” Moreover, there is a particularly notable absence of women’s voices in the book itself. While this is a common criticism in the field — and while it is inevitable that one will encounter a majority of Dead White Men when discussing the lamentable legacies of Western metaphysics — not one female writer is mentioned in the body of the book (with the exception of a single line from Luce Irigaray). A handful of other female theorists are relegated to off-stage citations in the footnotes: hardly a good example for a book which explicitly seeks to “liberate sexual difference from its confinement to a binary opposition of the two sexes and breathe new life into the phenomena of dispersed, perverse, and non-productive sexualities.” One hopes and trusts that this will be addressed in the sequel as well, where the apple may fall a bit further from the canonical tree.

Nonetheless, Marder’s book heralds an impressive and singular new voice, prompting a slew of new questions around different ontologies and shared ecologies. It succeeds in expanding the circle in which, to gesture to Donna Haraway, species meet. Marder’s work brings out the profound pathos underwriting a generation that has more experience growing digital carrots and apples in Farmville than cultivating actual fruits and vegetables. The sheer number of couch potatoes and human YouTubers cannot be underestimated, and I hope this author’s subsequent work also considers the relationship between technology and vegetal life. (This book is, of course, printed on dead plants, and I wonder if the author considered an ebook-only option. Then again, ebooks are predicated on the vegetal energy required to power the internet itself…)

“Plants are the weeds of metaphysics,” Marder writes, “devalued, unwanted in its carefully cultivated garden, yet growing in-between the classical categories of the thing, the animal, and the human.” The time is ripe to cultivate such anti-weeds with care. In the final analysis, Marder certainly succeeds in transforming the current spring here in the Northern hemisphere into a far stranger and more interesting season than it was last year, at least to my eyes. I have a new appreciation for our vegetal cousins, and no longer quietly resent the potted plants in my apartment for monopolizing the precious light in my living-room window. Indeed, I am longer concerned that they don’t pay rent for such a privilege, since my lungs would have little to inhale without them and their siblings. Nor do I giggle with such anthropocentric smugness when I recall the insult from the great cult film Withnail and I, that vegetables are superior representatives of the plant kingdom, given that flowers are “mere prostitutes for the bees.”

LARB Contributor

Dominic Pettman is chair of the culture and media program at Eugene Lang College, and professor of liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. His books include Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines (2011) and Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology (2013).


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