Michael Marder: Resist Like a Plant! On the Vegetable Life of Political Movements

Michael Marder

In the most recent issue of Peace Studies Journal, Michael Marder, author of the forthcoming Plant Thinking: Toward a Philosophy of Vegetative Life, examines the recent Occupy movements and its possible connections to vegetal life. Arguing that the politics of the Occupy movement is the politics of space, Marder suggests that the movement conforms to the unique ontology of plants and “point toward the possibility of a plant-human republic emerging from it.”

Marder writes:

The politics of space, privileging the sedentary component of bodies largely exposed to the elements (tents are a poor protection from rain and cold) and gaining increasing visibility thanks to this exposure, is, I would argue, one we have learned from vegetal life. Standing for non-violence par excellence, the plant has been identified in the history of Western thought with a living icon of peace, a non-oppositional being, wholly included in the place wherein it grows, to the point of merging with the milieu….

A common-sense objection to this thesis will accentuate the unsurpassable limits to the mimetic capacity of human beings, the capacity arguably definitive of their very humanness. After all, dissimilar to plants, we are able to choose our place and, subsequently, to dwell by making the place our own, which is something the Occupy protesters have done in a self-conscious and highly creative fashion. The plant’s relation to its milieu is, precisely, non-appropriative; it does not possess its world, even though it may indirectly effect certain changes in its environment. Humans cannot literally become plants. Purely vegetal beings do not protest, do not set themselves against anything, do not negate—symbolically or otherwise—what is. But if we act as though we were them, following a useful theoretical and practical fiction grounded in the vegetal heritage of the human, we would need to follow a non-possessive, non-appropriative way of being, resonating, at once, with the conclusions of botany and with the image of post-metaphysical ethical subjectivity. We would, consequently, repudiate the ideal of sovereign and decisive action, directed by a rational, conscious or self-conscious, individual or collective subject and, instead, nurture the horizontally and an-archically growing grassroots that crop up wherever protest tents are pitched in the shadow of skyscrapers.

Marder concludes the article by arguing:

Given the rapprochement of the current political events and plant ontology, it would not be far-fetched to think of the Occupy movement as the possible prolegomenon to a liberation that would exceed its human scope, experimenting, among other things, with a respectful approach to plants and permitting us to imagine the outlines of what I would like to term “a vegetal-human republic,” the stuff out of which philosophy as the history of the future is made. It is noteworthy that on November 8, 2011, Occupy Wall Street hosted “Guerrilla Gardening,” a group whose goal it is to occupy “ill-used land to support the communities and ecosystems to which that land rightfully belongs.” As this short description makes obvious, Guerrilla Gardening does not subscribe to a total instrumentalization of plants in the name of subsistence agriculture and self-sufficiency. It aims, instead, to restitute to the vegetal members of ecosystems, as much as to human communities, their right to exist, to grow, and to flourish. Skeptics will doubt the possibility of a peaceful coexistence there where some members of an ecosystem devour the others. But, for those who interpret existence existentially, in terms of its possibilities and processes rather than objective outcomes, the difference in attitude will make all the difference. When human beings grow along with plants, accompany their growth, acknowledge and respect their ontological possibilities (including but not limited to the possibility of becoming a source of nourishment) and rights, then we no longer consume vegetal beings as though they were nothing but storehouses of caloric energy, sources of biofuel or heating, fabrics not yet woven, construction materials not yet chopped down, blank supports for writing and printing… To resist like plants, on a common front, which does not amount to a confrontation, we would need to learn from them, to be and to live with them, to let something of them flourish in us.

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