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.

‘Flight Ways’ by Thom van Dooren reviewed

Flight WaysBen Garlick and I were asked to review Thom van Dooren‘s lovely book, Flight ways: Life and loss at the edge of extinction, for Progress in Human Geography. Here’s the uncorrected, pre-proof text.


We live in an era of great loss. A growing number of creatures and species hover between life and oblivion, and if trends continue the world will soon grow quieter in their absence. Van Dooren situates his work in the ‘shadow’ of this period of great loss. Taking his cue from Donna Haraway and Deborah Bird Rose, he understands species as storied ‘life ways’ unfolding amid embodied, situated ‘ways of life’, rather than as natural kinds. Creatures, he argues, are less representatives of than participants in their species story. Flight Ways keeps one eye on deep, evolutionary time, and the other on the work of the living, whose labour holds together the long chains of intergenerational species being. Since species are knotted ways of life, it follows that extinction is not some singular event but the slow unravelling of a particular geographically assembled ecology, as the work and relationships necessary to continue the species become harder to sustain. This is established in chapter one, where we learn how consumer plastics floating in the Pacific garbage patch clog up albatross digestive systems. These plastics – along with DDT, PCBs and the toll of death levied by fishing by-catch – disrupt the vital work of rearing the next generation of birds. This is Flight Ways’ central thesis: extinction is far from an acute event (the asteroid sealing the fate of the dinosaurs); extinction is more often a drawn-out process, a ‘slow unravelling of intimately entangled ways of life’ (p. 12).

The book contains five extinction stories of varied length and depth. Each draws on field visits, natural history, ethology, and biophilosophy. We meet crows that mourn their partner’s passing with an ‘inconsolable moaning’ (p. 125). We meet Sydney’s urban penguins: little birds so faithful to their remembered breeding grounds that, stubbornly, they return each year to brave roads, dogs and concrete sprawl, even as their colony dwindles towards local extinction. The longest and (as the empirically richest) most successful chapter tells the story of North America’s whooping cranes. Van Dooren exposes the violence inherent in conservation efforts to ‘hold space open’ for this endangered species: the violence of imprinting, artificial insemination, the sacrifices made by conservationists, and the violence of birds reduced to sperm and egg factories. We see how acting to ‘dull the edge’ of extinction for some usually entails harm for others.

The author stresses that ‘flight ways’ do not denote a generalised, holistic web of life, but historically and geographically situated knots of relating. This comes through most forcefully in the chapter on vultures. India has lost 97% of its Gyps vultures, largely due to the vulture-toxic antibiotic (diclofenac) used in rural areas to prolong the productivity of cattle, which is ingested by scavengers feeding on the carcasses of dead animals. The resulting disease and increase in rabid dog populations is felt hardest by the poorest in society, who become drawn into ‘amplified patterns of death and suffering’ (p. 58). Not all are bound up equally with other species, and this chapter proposes that we might think politically about just who is most at risk when life ways begin to unravel.

Yet at the same time as being grounded in specific lives, Flight Ways – like much work in the environmental humanities and ecocriticism – often invokes an abstract, universal ‘we’: extinction ‘remakes us’ (p. 5); if ‘we’ learn more about nonhuman place-making it might provide more space for ‘species’ (p. 85); ‘our responsibility for a shared world’ (p. 147); crows can remind us that if ‘we’ mourn we do not so alone (p. 143). The ‘we’ here seems not to refer to a pre-existing human community, but to want to call into existence a new form of Anthropocene species being. While many geographers remain skeptical of invocations of the universal human for the way they efface political difference, there might yet be some use for a human ‘we’ that emerges out of an epoch defined by great loss.

But if so then there needs to be much greater clarity about how this community comes about and how it relates to particular knots of humans and other creatures. Is a new ‘we’ formed among all those who read Flight Ways or similar books? By those who are caught up in painful, unravelling ways of life? Are conservationists involved, or do they cleave to the old stories of wild Nature? Such questions require detailed empirical investigation as well as artful eco-writing; too much is hidden, we fear, by tacking quickly between particular human knottings and a universal ‘we’.

Flight Ways parallels work in animal and more-than-human geographies (we say ‘parallels’ because the book doesn’t really engage with any of the rich geographic scholarship on nonhumans). This is unsurprising since the environmental humanities and covalent parts of geography both ply the winds of post-naturalism. Geographers will not be surprised by the book’s familiar conceptual arguments: overlapping circuits of care and violence, the entanglement of human and nonhuman lives, the idea that animals ‘story’ the earth. But the overlap shows the exciting potential for geographers working at the entangled fringes of the human to draw from the interdisciplinary project of environmental humanities, and vice versa.

Van Dooren writes appealing and uncluttered prose; we found Flight Ways both moving and profound. The book’s argument – that extinction is a slow unravelling of entangled lives – is compelling, novel, and important. Academic studies of the nonhuman too often get caught up by their own cleverness. Van Dooren, by contrast, has written a book that appeals to the heart as well as the mind and, we might hope, to the soul of the human to come.

Ben Garlick & Franklin Ginn, Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh


The Word for World is Forest

Ursula Le Guin is a goddess; her work, the antidote to dumb, techno-imperialist science fiction.

I’ve just finished The Word for World is Forest, published in 1976. While less well known than the sublime Left Hand of Darkness (1969) or the epic The Dispossessed (1974), it has all the characteristics that make her writing so compelling. Even if it suffers from two big flaws…


The setting: Earth, we learn, is a barren, treeless wasteland. Humans have set up a military-industrial colony on a vast ocean- and forest-covered world, which they have dubbed ‘New Tahiti’. (Yes, it’s a bit like James Cameron’s Avatar, but without body transfer, blue aliens, Sigorney Weaver, or those silly flying critters).

The colonists want the planet’s priceless trees; they have enslaved some of the indigenous humanoids to help them. Driven to desperation, the indigenous people eventually rise up and wage a guerrilla war.

The Word for World is Forest is one of Le Guin’s more allegorical works: the Vietnam parallels are obvious. In a lesser writer this would mean you could stuff the book in its pigeon hole and forget about it. Not so with Ursula! While allegorical, the commentary is not laboured. Le Guin’s work, while always of its time, usually transcends its time too.

Durburow-UKL-SigmaTauDelta2013_300x323Her prose is disarming: prosaic, yet moving; precise, yet ethereal. Her feminism is consistent, political, anti-essentialist – a far cry from Margaret Atwood’s more recent, compromised concoctions (more on that soon!). Thematically, Le Guin worries away at the prospects for trans-species friendship, for fleeting but real connection across a gulf of difference. In this book a friendship, at once insubstantial and capable of transcending death, emerges between the indigenous humanoid, Selver, and the human coloniser-scientist, Lyubov.

Lyubov is one of the colony’s ‘speshes’ (silly neologisms are one of the book’s forgivable of-its-era minor weaknesses), specialist scientists sent to learn about the indigenous people and their planet’s ecology. Lyubov is no detached, objective scientist however. He forms a friendship with his alien informant. He is aware of the political umbrella safeguarding his work space, and of his own meagre political capital. Alone, isolated amid military and company men, he breaks down in tears at a meeting where the future of the indigenous inhabitants is being debated.

Lyubov is an admirable scientist: meticulous, curious, polite, but also engaged, emotional, caring, angry and passionate. He shows science transcended the strictures of personal objectivity, willing to lay bare the ethical and personal investments required to make knowledge. He is the ‘good guy’ if you hadn’t guessed.

Lyubov explained to Selver why the humans had come. Selver, as far as he is able, recounts this explanation to his kin.

“He [Lyubov] said they had come from another place which is not the forest; the trees there are all cut down; it has a sun, not our sun, which is a star. All this, as you can see, wasn’t clear to me … It does not matter much. It is clear that they want our forest for themselves. They are twice our stature, they have weapons that outshoot ours by far, and firethrowers, and flying ships … They have left their roots behind them, perhaps, in this other forest from which they came, this forest with no trees.” (p56)

Like all the planet’s indigenous people, Selver hasn’t experienced violence until the human colonists arrive. Le Guin errs here: she gives the planet’s people no history or politics; they exist in a dream-state of innocent balance with their dark forests until the humans show up. It is borderline unforgivable, really: an anachronistic throwback to 1960s noble-indigenous-living-in-harmony type guff. This is Big Flaw No.1. Her other books don’t reproduce this mistake.

1st Edition cover - inexplicable since the indigenous people are described as simian and fur-covered (above), not green nymphs     276767

1st Edition (left) and later edition cover. The indigenous people are described as simian and fur-covered (right), not green nymphs (left)

Early in the book we learn that the arrogant military administrator, Davidson, raped and killed Selver’s wife. Davidson is very clearly the bad guy. Lyubov = good, Davidson = bad. This is Big Flaw No.2: in-your-face moral ciphers. The book reminded me of another forest-world fiction, Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon. The good/evil dynamic in this Le Guin novel really is alarmingly similar to the fight for Charlie Sheen’s tortured middle class soul between the evil Barnes and good soldier Elias.

The more I think about it the stronger the parallels. Did Stone read this book?

Lyubov vs. Davidson / Elias vs. Barnes

In Platoon, as Sheen flies away in the chopper he realises that evil Barnes and good Elias will forever wage war in his soul, and that he is a “child born of those two fathers”.

The outro in The Word for World is Forest has Selver reflecting that both Davidson and Lybov will haunt his world forever, even if the humans were to leave. For once one has learnt killing, one cannot forget it:

“’Sometimes a god comes,’ Selver said. ‘He brings a new way to do things, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death … There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.’”

The humans arrived and from them Selver’s kin learned violence, aggression and authority. Yet some hope – even if ultimately dwarfed by violence – lies in the trans-species friendship between Selver and Lyubov.

At once an anti-colonial polemic, a plea for respecting difference and a dirge for lost innocence, The Word for World is Forest might not be Le Guin’s best work. But that still puts it in the science fiction top 10. Because Le Guin is a goddess.

Zooland review

I’ve got a wee review of Irus Braverman’s Zooland: The Institution of Captivity over at the EPD Society & Space open site. Here’s the gist of it:

Braverman’s research really gets to the heart of the paradox that the institution of captivity is an expression of care, even if that care justifies death and suffering. The zoo’s love is the kind of perverse love that painlessly smashes an infant mammal’s brain with a steel rod and dissects its carcass for public spectacle in the name of a wider scientific conservation mission. Nowhere demonstrates how spaces of care and killing, life and death, overlap quite like the zoo.

Geoengineering: Earthmasters vs The Colony

What do the public intellectual Clive Hamilton’s best-selling Earthmasters (a scathing critique of geoengineering) and a run-of-the-mill film, The Colony, (released to absolutely no acclaim in 2013) have in common? I shall explain.’s argument is simple. The 400-year Enlightenment project of progress, which has relied on rational techno-science, having created climate change, now reaches its high point in geo-engineering: the deliberate modification of planetary systems.

Geo-engineering is the Promethean dream of scientists like Ken Caldeira and David Keith to ‘fix’ climate change. Instead of reigning in the reckless subjection of the planet to [a historically and geographically specific subgroup of] humanity’s ends, we enter into that appropriation more fully – to proclaim mastery of the planet. Earthmasters concludes gloomily that when the temperature racks up and climate change threatens not just the livelihoods of the poor, but also the shopping options of the rich, entrenched power will look to all means at its disposal to shore itself up. And that means geoengineering is depressingly likely.

The Colony’, meanwhile, is a mediocre post-apocalyptic flick. The northern hemisphere has been turned into something like Greenland. We are shown a claustrophobic world: a tunnel-dwelling group of survivors, barely holding on, their society slowly unravelling. The film serves up the requisite decay, mould, and light-flickering desperation, but its all a bit Budget Motel. Even filming in the defunct NORAD aeropsace defence  base in Ontario, Canada, doesn’t really help.

The inhabitants of the Colony eat lots of rabbits. Tragically, the bunny population is declining, which leads to the film’s one decent line:

“You know you’re screwed when even the rabbits won’t fuck”.

They have sketchy communication with other outposts, but their survival is threatened by the common cold: in Arctic Earth, the smallest sniffle is a killer. The real threat, though, is Mason, the hotheaded upstart. He wants to shoot people at the first sign of a runny nose: frogmarched outside, your brains shot out, staining the snow. Other group members hanker for a more civilised response. Anyone with an infection is put into quarantine. But if they don’t get better after a few days, then it’s a “long walk” into the icy wilderness.

What has the Colony to do with geoengineering? Well amid the snow are giant skeletal ruins, funnels pointed skyward – “weather-modification towers” built before the freeze.

the-colony06The grunts that inhabit the bunker world don’t know what went wrong: “The truth is, one day it started to snow and it never stopped”. These machines started, recorded history stopped; all else, after, is mere survival. This is to my knowledge the first Hollywood film to use geoengineering to frame its disaster.

The film then takes a serious nose-dive, switching genre to survival horror. A badly choreographed fight with a rampaging horde of posthuman mutants, crazed for blood. Yawn.

The stakes in this fight are thus: the Colony’s scientist has a hypothesis that, if the weather modification schemes can be turned back on, she can reverse the global freeze. But only if our manly hero can safely defend her from the rampaging mutant crazies!

No spoilers here. In fact, how about an anti-spoiler: Probably don’t bother watching the film.

So what do Clive Hamilton’s critique of geoengineering, Earthmasters, and The Colony have in common? The answer: Enlightenment techno-science and progress is both the cause of, and the only hope of redemption from, apocalypse.

In The Colony, the weather machines that snuffed out civilisation with a snowy apocalypse turn out, in fact, to be the only way to save life once more. The heroine tells us that We just need to work out how to turn them back on, but in reverse… We have nothing left, in the snowy cold, but a reflexive grasping back at the wonders of science. Of course they don’t really don’t know if it’ll work – the dwindling band of survivors returns to the weather controls more out of hope than self-belief.

Hamilton, too ultimately has nothing to offer but a belief in Enlightenment rationality. This may seem a perverse claim, given that his book indicts the hubris of the geoengineers. But he wants his scientific cake and to eat it. He dislikes the part of climate science that gives us geoengineering; he likes the part that gives us climate scenarios and models of future environmental change (a bit glibly he calls the good scientists the Soterians, after the Greek goddess of safety/deliverance, in contrast to the Promethean geo-engineers). But these are two sides of the same project. Hamilton hopes that our rationalism, informed by proper climate science can prevail.  Science for Hamilton appears at once as a secular authority to ground his political claims AND as a great evil about to embark on a ridiculous gamble with earth systems. Science, for Hamilton, is to be used for political ends: it cannot be political itself.

That said, Clive Hamilton’s book is the best popular overview of geoengineering you’ll find. The Colony is rubbish. Not so similar after all.

An archive of the earth: The Paper Road, by Erik Mueggler

The Paper RoadHow often does a scholarly book really move you? At your desk, reading, how often does your throat go lumpy with rising emotion? This book, The Paper Road, flows with so much empathy, melancholy, anger, admiration, disgust, longing, and wonder: I have never read anything quite like it. It is a supreme work, full of critical fidelity to a place, its people and their archival traces. The author, Erik Mueggler, writes so deftly it makes you want to weep.

The Paper Road opens with a provocation.

Zhao Chengzhang
Zhao Chengzhang, The Paper Road p2, from Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh

“It was 1925. He had been at this since 1906. He walked: he gathered plants; he memorized attributes – numbers of petals, shapes of leaves, types of hairs and scales on brackets and leaves – and he thought about where he might find species he did not yet know. He learned strings of place names from travellers, listened to their stories, puzzled out new routes. He slept in inns, in village courtyards, on goatskins laid on the ground. He hired many parties of others from his village to make repeated excursions of days or months. And all this walking, searching, and gathering found its way into piles of paper: names on paper, lists, notes, maps, diaries, letters, accounts and photographs on paper and, in particular, specimens and seeds folded into paper. For him, this region was made of earth and his experience of the earth. But it was also a thing made of paper, a thing just as real.” (p3)

The provocation is that Mueggler calls this man, Zhao Chengzhang, ‘likely the most prolific Western botanic explorer of the early twentieth century’’ (8). Zhao and his assistants from the Naxi village of Nvlvk’ö, in Yunnan, collected and despatched tens of thousands of specimens of plants to the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, the Arnold Arboretum and elsewhere.

Mueggler calls Zhao ‘western’ to at once highlight the erasure of the non-Western from botanical science and at the same time signal the deep, but yet fraught and tense, bond between the man and his employer/patron, Scottish botanist George Forrest. Both these men shared a lust not just for knowing plants, but for turning the diffuse and prolific flora of Yunnan into an equally prolific, if more orderly, series of paper traces.

The Paper Road is a thematic account of life, land and archive in south-west China in the first half of the twentieth century, centred on two botanists but involving many others. The first is Forrest, “an excellent, industrious and steady” man (according to his patron, Isaac Bailey Balfour of the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh); the second is the altogether more flamboyant Austrian-American Joseph Rock, who became obsessed with making a great book out of the earth.

The Paper Road is not overtly biographical, focusing instead on relationships, particularly of the two generations of Naxi explorers to which both botanists were allied, as well as to the earth and its filth, mountains and flora. But yet it is biographical, attuning us to the ways that these relationships brought the earth into social being, and helping us get to know quite intimately Forrest and Rock.

Part One stages a series of fleeting encounters between two archival regimes. The first, the imperial botanic archive, is well known – precise, obsessive, scientific, taking specimens of the earth’s diversity and making them travel to centres of botanical calculation in the West.  The second is one of ritual and memory: the Dongba cult, a pictographic set of codified rituals, performances performed in Naxi culture, and unique in Sino-Tibetan languages; Zhao’s men sang old songs as they travelled, re-experiencing old routes of travel. Both are “regimes of walking, seeing, writing, voicing, remembering, and gathering the earth” (p119).

Joseph Rock camping it up. The archive lists ‘photographer unknown’. The photographer was Zhao Zhongdian, whom Rock trained.

Where Forrest took succour from dreams of social climbing and domestic life back home in Scotland, Joseph Rock had no such fallback. Rock’s life was triangulated between “timid rigidity” of his guiding formulae: the opposition between filth (“it is difficult to show just how central mucus was to Rock’s diaries” p164) and purity, his ever-present racial hierarchies; and his capacity to take gambles with extreme courage. Despite flashes of excessive sympathy, Rock had more intimate relations with the earth than with fellow humans: for Rock, “names of places and plants were bits of the earth he could hold onto; they were stepping stones through that fluid outpouring of revulsion and disgust which was so often his experience of the world” (p234).

The Paper Road deserves a wide readership (to quote Felix Driver). It is profoundly about travel, landscape, bodies, affect, text, colonial (in)intimacy, knowledge and yearning for a place on the earth. The breadth of research and love that has gone into this book is, as the blurb on the back cover says, absolutely breathtaking.

But somewhere in my reading of this book, the text transformed into something even more than a great book. As it unfolded paper traces of life, movement and care back out into the world once more the book began to hover – quite magically – between archive and experience: moving me deeply and unforgettably.

Some recent sf: eco and otherwise

I have finished reading Reamde, Neal Stephenson’s latest door-stopper.

Stephenson’s books are usually like the third season of Battlestar Galactica: silly, epic, genius, immersive, and addictive. Although his breakthrough 1992 book, Snow Crash, is usually seen as a seminal cyberpunk novel (it coined the use of ‘avatar’, for example) – it isn’t. Stephenson was always too erudite to be a proper cyberpunk believer, though he played its conventions well: libertarian capitalism cross-fertilised by post-human, urban Darwinism, and an anti-materialist disdain for the flesh.

ReamdeWhich is why it was so great to see Stephenson out to play in Reamde. He makes William Gibson’s prolific recent output look like throwback chaff (Gibson’s books seem to be populated by the same boring archetypes – Case by a million other names).

I won’t even begin to summarise the crazy plot. One central character, Richard Forthrast, has made $ billions through an MMOG, T’Rain. Central to the success of T’Rain is that players can make real money in its imaginary world. Forthrast makes gem and $-farming not just legal, but part of the game’s lore and life. T’Rain even comes replete with a crazy temple where in-game riches get whooshed into the sky as offering to the ‘gods’/paypal accounts.

“Video games were a more addictive drug than any chemical, as he had just proven by spending ten years playing them. Now he had come to discover that they were also a sort of currency exchange scheme.” p34

To cut 1050 densely typeset pages short, the message is: ultimately, virtual reality doesn’t help when Jihadists invade North America. When that happens you need guns, lots of guns: preferably described in salacious, pornographic detail. Although amusingly, both the Jihadists and Forthrast’s survivalist relatives (or, as the Russian Sokolov wryly dubs them, the ‘American Taliban’) get armed up at Walmart. (In fact, the whole plot arc was quite like Anathem, his brilliant previous novel, in which a cadre of bookish monks morph into space-swimming, martial arts experts, before dishing out some hurt to the alien baddies, waxing philosophical even as they capture the bridge of spaceship).

Anyway, it was nice to see some online shenanigans divested of the usual sf hyper-libertarian, ‘wouldn’t-it-be-great-if-we-could-all-like-download-our-brains’ ideological façade. Reamde, the biggest ever MMOG (bigger than World of Warcraft…) is about $$$.

Reamde is worlds apart from Peter F Hamilton’s latest book, which I also just finished. Hamilton is best known for his Night’s Dawn trilogy, which while awesome also polluted the science fiction genre with all the worst hallmarks of fantasy: over-sexed teenage-brained protaganists, pneumatic air-brushed female characters, derivative plots and bad writing. (There must be an equation somewhere in which you can plot the quality of the sf inversely to the number of zero-g sex scenes). Still, Hamilton’s books are a guilty pleasure.

The bloated Great North Road has lots of silliness to commend it. Newcastle (the upon-tyne version) has become a pan-galactic hub for bioil, which flows in via some gateway-thingie from the planet St Libra. St Libra, luckily, has no sentient life to colonise, just lots of spiky but virginous green. And its of course the only place where the spice melange bioil can be manufactured, distorting free market forces and shoring up a nasty oligarchy of cloned corporate uber-barons.

What happens when you mix Avatar, Call of Duty, and ‘Survivor 10: The Amazon Heats Up’?

There is a truly dreadful ‘police investigatory’ side-plot, but the main ‘story’ is revealed slowly. Giving it all away, the plants of St Libra turn out to be a gestalt consciousness. For narrative purposes the gestalt is embodied by a wood-skinned, dagger-fingered villain who goes around gutting, eviscerating and generally behaving un-hospitably. Tssk, pesky native.

It turns out that this ‘being’ knows how to defeat the real villain, the trans-dimensional Zanth who threaten not just the galactic economy, but the survival of humanity (the Zanth? Seriously?). So a bargain is struck: St Libra is turned into a wilderness park, humans learn how to make bioil on a terraformed planet instead: deal done. There probably is some tortuous eco-message in here about that which we recklessly exploit being the only thing that can save us, but after 1085 pages of sexist drivel I couldn’t be bothered to think about it.

As a palate cleanser I’ve looked out some good old feminist sf to read: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Sheri Tepper’s Grass.