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.


Anthropocene origin tales: another

Animated along some life-seeking vector, a seed pod lands on a pile human of refuse. Refuse composed not of circuit boards; not a fridge mountain, nor an endless sea of biodegradable shopping bags, but a heap of bone and faeces. The seed pod has no ears, no vision, but nevertheless fits perfectly in its own world. Its world is made of warmth and cold, the regular play of light and dark, and quiet, thrifty labour. The seed sits; it works slowly.


 At the far edge of the rough settlement they pile the gall bladders, flesh-boiled skulls, unsavoury meats and the withered leaves. They throw whatever they no longer need in hollow dips dug in the ground. There they urinate and defecate. When one of these pits is filled they dig another.


 The seed visitor grows.


 The first garden was not Eden. The first garden was started by a lucky plant; a plant that accepted a generous gift of human shit. The first garden was an inter-kingdom exchange.


Have all along plants been cultivating us even as we cultivated them?


Gardening person
Gardening person

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.