Marder’s vegetal philosophy

Plants: we know them. Green stuff, just hanging out.

Not really. Though there are lots of places to read about plants’ full craziness, two recent books are really very good. One is Matthew Hall’s Plants as Person  (2011, SUNY Press). The other is Michael Marder’s Plant thinking: A philosophy of vegetal life (2013, New York: Columbia University Press). Hall’s book is the more accessible and the more predictable, though by no means lesser of the two. Marder’s is undoubtedly more ambitious, more original, more self-consciously clever: by turns one of the most irritating and one of the most head-bangingly brilliant books I’ve read this year.

Both are courageous attempts to think plants. They also both make much more sense read alongside the work of scientists like František Baluška and Stefano Mancuso (e.g. Plant-environment interactions; plant robots in space anyone?), key thinkers in the emerging plant intelligence paradigm. Or a short-cut via this essay in the New Yorker by the Michael Pollan.

Anyway, here follows some not-terribly-coherent-or-edited thoughts on Marder’s book. Cutting room floor sweepings from a book chapter………


Michael Marder proposes a far-reaching ‘vegetal philosophy’. Most of his readers will agree when Marder argues that ‘metaphysics and capitalist economy are in unmistakable collusion’: both, we are told, reduce plants to a meaningless mass – Aristotle and Riceland Foods Inc in unwitting nefarious alliance. Marder spins it that we humans have interposed ourselves between the plant and its environment, taking the place of the sun in the prospects for plant growth. (These humans remain unmarked by specificities of time or place in Marder’s book; the nadir arrived on p149 with the phrase ‘in African cultures’ – I threw the book down in disgust at such racist, sloppy, scholarship, but picked it up straightaway again as he is citing someone else/he’s a philosopher).

Marder argues that life is less developed in plants than other creatures, that plants are distinctly other with their own ways of being and that this is their message. Marder wants to reclaim plants from the realm of biology; he wants to ask not just what philosophy can do for plants, but also what plants can do for philosophy. Brilliant! He calls for a weakening of the self in line with the weakness of self in plants.


Life’s principle is still too weak in the plant, the soul of which is neither differentiated in its capacities nor separate enough from the exteriority of its environment. But what is weakness for metaphysics marshals a strength of its own, both in the sense of passive resistance it offers to the hegemonic thinking of identity and in the sense of its independence from the fiction of a strong unitary origin” (Marder 2013, 34).

The plant is radically open to its environment and lacks any interiority. In contrast to human and animal life, the plant does not ‘stand under the injunction … to cordon itself off from its surroundings, to negate its connection to a place’ (p69). This injunction to differentiate self from other is the basis for non-planty subjectivity. Such subjectivity begins (Marder channels some Levinas) from this cordoning off, and then proceeds to pull the energies of others to its own formation. Subjectivity involves imposing will on matter, changing matter and folding what lies beyond into the self (Marder channels some Deleuze/Grosz). Since indeed life is seen in this way, as underwritten by a will to power, an impersonal drive to enhance the self’s capacities and connections, as well as secure the means to subsist into the future, then, as Marder writes, plants have classically been seen as ‘weak’ for several reasons.

First, plants are not really unified, autonomous beings, but rather emergent entities made up of many parts. The unity of a plant is comprised of a ‘non-totalizing assemblage of multiplicities’ (p85), by which Marder means that bits can be removed without reducing the unified whole. A cutting can be taken, but the plant remains whole; roots can die, but the plant remains whole; leaves can be shed, but the plant remains whole. Moreover, the parts of a plant are not in hierarchy: there is no ‘brain’ or ‘head’ command and control centre; roots and shoots communicate in complex ways but neither is in charge (one of the current questions in plant science is therefore: what mechanisms enable the plant to operate as a whole organism?).

But how do plants know????

Second, plants lack any kind of interiority. They rely completely on others for their existence, endlessly vulnerable to the elements and to light. The role of light and elements remains external to the plant, but yet they remain utterly and irreducibly dependent on these external forces; external forces which remain completely disinterested in the plant. The plant fails to bend the energy and matter of others to its own will, in other words. ‘The plant’s self’, Marder writes, ‘bound to the universality of the elements and of light, is always external to itself’ (p89). Because they are sessile plants are embedded in their milieu, reliant on the other with only very limited capacities to shape their circumstances [though yes, plants are sessile they can move in reproducing or colonising bits of the earth if you look at it over a long time-scale (Angela was animated on this point)].

Third, even though plants resemble humans by existing in webs of body, place and narrative memory, their time is that of the other. Their time is made up of their actual growth out of the possibilities presented to them for growth. The past is inscribed in plant tissue and morphology, and they can ‘remember’ – continuing to react to past stimuli – in ways not yet fully understood. But plant time is the time of the other: the seasons, the diurnal rhythm of sun and cloud. Plants live in cycles of growth and decay determined by forces external to themselves; thus they do not have a time of their own. More, plants do not – like subjects with a will to power for enhancing themselves – struggle against this repetition, but inhabit it fully. Plant temporality is the outcome of ‘the absence of identity that forces it to obey the law and the time of the undifferentiated other’ (p105). Others like goats:


Plants, then, are traditionally seen as weak in life. Marder’s philosophy is to turn this own its head and argue that the plant is indeed weak, but that instead of thinking that this makes them inferior, we should instead marvel at their powerlessness and ‘primordial generosity’. If plants lack any interiority or self, then they enjoy true freedom. Yes! Neither passive nor active, in responding to forces beyond them, they express an intention without intelligence or goal. Not having a telos or a self to perpetuate should not be seen as a lack, but rather as part of the plant’s gift to the earth, a gift that makes life on earth possible on a large scale. The way plants tend to light, to nutrients, to other plants in an intentional but unconscious way, Marder suggests, is their particular ‘sagacity’ (p12). The plant can shake up our ideas of self, by weakening our idea of the self’s boundaries, by showing life lived post-relationally without boundaries: plants offer a different metaphysics of being from which we should learn. What critique needs, Marder concludes, is not ‘a more powerful criticism, but an infinite loosening up, a weakening of the self’s boundaries, commensurate with the powerlessness (Ohnmacht) of the plants themselves’ (p150).

Ultimately, while compelling, Marder’s work teaches us more about what Levinas, Aristotle and Michael Marder think of plants than about plants themselves. I know he’s a philosopher, not an empiricist (Jim), but I couldn’t get Haraway’s critique of Derrida’s failure to be curious about his cat out of my head. Why is Marder not curious about the diversity of plant morphology and life ways? He lumps them all together as a green, planty, mass:  the plant kingdom reduced to the model of a deciduous tree! Parasites, epiphtyes, insectivorous, sea-dwelling, evergreen – none of these and their particular ways of converting external energies and materials to perpetuating their own particular forms of plant subjectivity are mentioned.

Marder also draws on very selectively on the new plant biology, which indicates that plants do perhaps have rudimentary ways of distinguishing self/non-self (their roots especially), and ways of transacting nutrients between individuals – if so some of his claims would need to be modified. He also ignores the long-running intertwining of plant and human life. The history of wheat, for example, shows how plant and certain poltico-economic collectives have mutually calibrated through the last 11,000 years.

Finally, following from the way he eschews the worldliness of plants, Marder’s critique of human/plant politics is both odd-verging-on-naïve and rather opaque. Marder argues that capitalism has inserted humans in the place of what is ‘other’ to plants – namely sun and all the other material ingredients for growth: ‘Standing in for the other, in which the plant’s being accomplishes itself without reflectively returning to itself, capital eclipses the sun and power the the nutrients contained in the earth’ (p102). He seems to prefer autonomous plants growing in classic wilderness over their domesticated kin. He argues against genetic modification and plant breeding for no clearly articulated reason. Elsewhere, in “Is It Ethical to Eat Plants?” he’s written that we can eat plants, but that we should minimize violence, harm and death. This sounds just like an extended Peter Singer position: in which case, why the detour?

Now, if I understand him correctly (not sure I really do), and plants do have an irreducible openness and primordial generosity, then really what is the case to oppose their use for human needs? Without a self to be appropriated, what is to be appropriated? Surely it then becomes all about us humans and what we do – thus ‘we’ have to become more like plants – but we can’t, argh! we’re move-y…  The prescription seems to be that we shouldn’t mistake plant’s generosity for an eternal reserve that can never be depleted, but should attend to the plant and leave it to its autonomous interaction with the natural environment. Again this doesn’t make sense as there is no plant, only plants, and no natural environments left! One can only conclude he’s left this for other people to think through properly.


Marder seems to eschew relational ties and mutually intertwined histories in favour of recognising and widening the gulf between planty and human earthlings. Recognising the plant as being ‘weak in life’ should lead to deeper and more entangled relations and not, as Marder wants, to withdraw and leave plants alone.

Ok, I’ll stop the grumbling! The central thesis of Marder’s work – that plant are subjects much more radically open to flows of energy and matter than animals – is convincing and radical. It meshes well with the new plant biology paradigm; plants are subjects with their own breed of intelligence and a complex semiotic life. We also now realise that much of what happens in a plant’s life is happening in a virtual sphere, beyond our senses’ capacities to track or apprehend directly. But we no longer have the luxury of what Marder would like us to do: to pull back, to retreat, and to let plants alone to live autonomous, independent lives. They may be different to us animals, but across that gulf our fates nonetheless entwine.


Teaching in the Environmental Humanities – workshop

Teaching in the Environmental Humanities – workshop

On Tuesday 16th December the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network will host the first in a series of workshops on key areas of academic practice within the Environmental Humanities.

Teaching in the Environmental Humanities

16th December 2014, 12.30-5.00pm
50 George Square, University of Edinburgh


  • Richard Kerridge (School of Humanities and Cultural Industries, Bath Spa University). Author of Cold Blood (2014); Writing the Environment (1998)
  • Francoise Wemelsfelder (Animal and Veterinary Sciences Group, Scotland’s Rural College)
  • Peter Higgins (Outdoor & Environmental Education, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh)

As the sense of ecological crisis builds, a new field of interdisciplinary enquiry has developed in the form of the Environmental Humanities. This half-day workshop, the first in a series organised by the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network, will address the issues faced by teachers in this new field, including the competing demands of diverse bodies of knowledge, both theoretical and practical, and the ethical contradiction between the need for urgent action and the need for spaces of reflection. In doing so it will bring together academic teachers and practitioners from literary studies, animal studies, and outdoor education, to reflect on what constitutes effective and innovative teaching in the Environmental Humanities.

The workshop will feature a keynote from Richard Kerridge, followed by responses from our two other speakers, all of which will form the basis for group discussion. The workshop is free to attend (lunch included) but spaces are limited: anyone wishing to attend should book a place via event brite.

Future workshops in 2015 will look at other areas of key academic practice in the environmental humanities:

  • Writing in the Environmental Humanities
  • Creating in the Environmental Humanities
  • Collaborating in the Environmental Humanities

For more information, keep an eye on the EEHN webpage. To join the network mailing list, please email

Lego Earth / Planet Laboratory


Lego - HGRG away dayAt our Geography Away Day yesterday we made lego diaromas of our research. This is the Earth / Planet Lab. Black core at the bottom, then brown crust, green/blue biosphere, light blue sky, up to the starry night-sky, with cosmic darkness as the backdrop. In the foreground, experimenting on not the Earth, but on their vision of the planet (itself on a pedestal), we have two figures: one with her hand hovering on the green button (go!) the other, cowboy clad, on a platform operating a giant something-or-other pointed at North America. The black pipeline at the rear reaches from the core to the sky – I couldn’t decide what it was.

“Grabbing Green” Special Issue

This new special issue of Human Geography Grabbing “Green”: Markets, Environmental Governance and the Materialization of Natural Capital looks interesting.

Over the past two decades, the incorporation of market logics into environment and conservation policy has led to a reconceptualization of “nature.” Resulting constructs like ecosystem services and biodiversity derivatives, as well as finance mechanisms like Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, species banking, and carbon trading, offer new avenues for accumulation and set the context for new enclosures. As these practices have become more apparent, geographers have been at the forefront of interdisciplinary research that has highlighted the effects of “green grabs”—in which ‘‘green credentials’‘ are used to justify expropriation of land and resources—in specific locales. While case studies have begun to reveal the social and ecological marginalization associated with green grabs and the implementation of market mechanisms in particular sites, less attention has been paid to the systemic dimensions and “logics” mobilizing these projects. Yet, the emergence of these constructs reflects a larger transformation in international environmental governance—one in which the discourse of global ecology has accommodated an ontology of natural capital, culminating in the production of what is taking shape as “The Green Economy.” The Green Economy is not a natural or coincidental development, but is contingent upon, and coordinated by, actors drawn together around familiar and emergent institutions of environmental governance. Indeed, the terrain for green grabbing is increasingly cultivated through relationships among international environmental policy institutions, organizations, activists, academics, and transnational capitalist and managerial classes.

This special issue of Human Geography brings together papers that draw on a range of theoretical perspectives to investigate the systemic dimensions and logics mobilizing green grabs and the creation of new market mechanisms. In inverting the title – “grabbing green” instead of the more conventional green grabs – we explore how “the environment” is being used instrumentally by various actors to extend the potential for capital accumulation under the auspices of “being green.” Using a diversity of empirical material that spans local to global scales, the papers reveal the formation of the social relations and metrics that markets require to function. They identify the “frictions” that inhibit the production of these social relations, and they link particular cases to the scalar configurations of power that mobilize and give them shape.

Latour on Gaia

Bruno Latour is giving the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh next February – “Facing Gaia: A new enquiry into Natural Religion”. He’ll be giving a series of six lectures, which sound intriguing. Here, for example, is his abstract for lecture five, War of the Worlds: Humans Against Earthlings:

In the absence of any Providence to settle matters of concern — and thus of nature, its barely disguised substitute — no peaceful resolution of Gaian conflicts can be expected. The recognition of a state of war and the designation of enmity is indispensable if a state of diplomacy is later to be reached. Under the pressure of so many apocalyptic injunctions, what is a Gaian political theology?

This sounds like an awesome way to end February.

Sage journal coup

I’ve just read here that the Editors and entire Editorial board of Organisation & Environment, a well-respected critical environment studies journal, resigned last week in protest against Sage, the journal’s publisher.

I have no more than dipped into it on the odd occasion, but as I understand it O&E brought eco-socialism, environmental sociology and critique to the study of environmental degradation. From March 2013, however, the journal will focus exclusively on ‘sustainability opportunities and challenges’. Sage apparently took advantage of a scheduled hand-over of editorial responsibilities to present this ‘new direction’ as a fait accompli to the existing editors.

Although the journal was chugging along nicely, by all accounts it was difficult for Sage to bundle with its other business, management and sustainability publications, focused as they are on processes like ecosystem services, efficient corporate exploitation of environmental ‘resources’, and so on. The new approach is fundamentally at odds with O&E’s hitherto critical stance, in that it presumes ecological modernisation and liberal democratic capitalism are the solutions, not the problem.

Sage has of course behaved disgracefully. It has interfered in editorial autonomy and made a mockery of academic freedom. It has abused its wage-free labourers. The parlous state of academic publishing is well known: with aggressive out-sourcing of proofing and type-setting, free labour from academics, low overheads and a RAE/REF-driven growth market, profit margins have soared to the region of 30-40% (this and more on the takeover at Monthly Review). Barely a day goes by that you don’t see another rant about the nefarious Elsevier on various listservs. So in a sense it is not that surprising that a large for-profit publishing house has chosen to forsake a journal that was more often than not critical of business-is-usual environmentalism.

But the new editors would seem to have behaved as disgracefully as Sage. They have staked out their plans for the first ‘re-booted’ issue of the journal which pays no respect to what has gone before. They seem to want to airbrush this ugly takeover by vomiting the word ‘sustainability’ all over the screen: no less than 41 times in 900 words. They have invited:

“Sustainability management, policy, and related social science researchers” to submit pieces “about their ‘sustainability-in-transition’ ideas and to think, feel, and write ‘outside the box’”.

This is just depressing. Thinking outside the box? Do we have to ‘unpack’ the box first, too? Is the box solutions-oriented? And you could have a field day deconstructing their invitation to ‘feel’ outside the box. The new editors seem to have abandoned actual thinking for management-speak / policy-jamming. No, worse: an absurd parody of decade-old management-speak gibberish.

I can see these trends at my own Institution, where ‘problem-based research’, always couched in the same anodyne language of challenges and opportunities, squeezes out disciplinary and critical knowledges. This is the language of EC funding, of the UK’s research councils, of the obsession with impact, and the demand that academia must contribute solutions to ‘real world’ challenges (as opposed to academic challenges which must presumably belong to the surreal, hyperreal or unreal world).

I’m not against sustainability and sound environmental policies. Yes, let’s have those; the more and the sooner the better. I just don’t think academia should be organised around shallow technical concepts like sustainability. What should be the exception – academics collaborating and innovating with business and policy-makers – is fast becoming the expectation.