Michael Marder talks to BOMB Magazine

The Philosopher's Plant

This week our featured book is The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, by Michael Marder, with drawings by Mathilde Roussel. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from an interview BOMB Magazine conducted with Michael Marder and artist Heidi Norton. We were only able to excerpt sections from Marder’s responses here, but be sure to head over to the BOMB Magazine website to read the interview in its entirety!

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Philosopher’s Plant!

Monica Westin: I’d like to ask more about plants as a formal problem in each of your work. Michael, is there a way in which using an alternative hybrid form of writing about plants and philosophy is a deliberate choice to rethink plants as subjects, as living beings? Could there exist, whether or not you’re doing it here, a sort of “new writing” that can speak about plants better than those that we have? (I’m thinking about Irigaray’s famous work on women’s writing.) And Heidi, in describing that moment when you knew that plants were going to be central materials for you, you listed their formal properties: their adaptability, their strength, their simplicity. Can you say more about how they have posed formal issues to in your practice?

Michael Marder: Indeed, plant-thinking had to free itself from a purely theoretical approach to plants in order to explore the intersecting trajectories of living, growing beings, both human and vegetal. Some of these changes happened as I was working on The Philosopher’s Plant, where I re-narrate the history of Western philosophy through plants. In that book, each of the twelve thinkers I discuss, from Greek antiquity to the twenty-first century, is represented by a tree, flower, cereal, and so on, which was in one way or another featured in her or his thought. Each chapter begins with a biographical anecdote that puts plants on the center-stage and continues in a more theoretical key, explaining the key concepts and notions of that philosopher through vegetal processes, images, and metaphors. The idea is that plants play a much more important role in the formation of our thinking, “personality,” and life story than we realize.

In terms of Western thought, this is far from an innocuous observation, as it goes against one of the fundamental tenets of metaphysics, namely that being is unchangeable, non-generated, eternal, or, in a word, not at all plant-like. As I note in the introduction,

The history of what ideally does not grow, namely metaphysics, is told here from the perspective of what grows, including the very plants that have surreptitiously germinated within this history.

For me, then, it was a logical next step to rethink some aspects of my autobiography in the same light.

In the meanwhile, in the course of our correspondence, Luce Irigaray suggested that we co-author a book where our theoretical and lived experiences of the plant world would serve as a basis for an encounter—with plants themselves, with the readers, and with each other. From the start, we have been aware of the challenges of such a project, some of which you have alluded to in your questions. First, an experience with plants is hardly communicable. In any event, it is very difficult to render in words. That is why we deemed it necessary to invent an alternative form of writing about plants, which is still a work in progress. The more ways of approaching plants one admits into one’s thinking and writing, the better. In combination, philosophy, art, literature, and science can hope to touch upon something of vegetal being. So, I am pleased to be doing this interview together with Heidi!

Second, plants themselves do not speak, of course, even though we can theorize the language—or better, the languages of plants— that have to do with their biochemical communication, spatial expression, etc. In this sense, the parallel with women’s writing falters, because women have been historically silenced, in contrast to the absolute silence of plants. Still, sexual difference is quite significant for the joint endeavor we have undertaken. Just as we can fully become human not in isolation but by sharing our differences, so we can encounter—perhaps for the first time—the world of plants and, through it, the rest of nature only provided that we do so together.

MW: I’d like to know more about each of your current understanding of, or strongest ideas about, plant ethics. Can you condense such a philosophy to a paragraph or maxim?

MM: It is very difficult to talk about plant ethics in general or in the abstract, first of all because such an ethics demands extreme attention to the singularity of its subjects. I make this especially clear in the small essay titled “Is It Ethical to Eat Plants?” that I contributed to a special issue of the journal Parallax last year. For me, plant ethics is not a set of general precepts or guidelines, as those fall within the purview of morality. Rather, it is rooted in respect for each species or each plant, which is renewed and experienced differently in our encounters with them. If I were pressed to say something general on the subject, I would stress the fact that, like plants, animals and humans are “growing beings.” Plant ethics would be an ethics of growth, animated by the desire to promote vegetal, cross-species, and cross-kingdoms communities, to let them thrive on their own accord, and to affirm life throbbing in the shared trajectories of plant, animal, and human flourishing. So, it would have be an ethics of the singular (infra-personal) existence and of the universal (supra-personal) conjunction of growing beings.

Heidi Norton: What is the difference between concepts of nature and ecology for you, and where does the plant fit into these places? What is a utopia according to a plant?

MM: It’s curious that we say nature and ecology in two different languages, even though both words are, of course, in English. Nature is derived from the Latin natura which, essentially, means “birth.” The Greek word—phusis—that it translates to is richer than that. Phusis is everything that springs up into existence, the total movement of growth, in which plants, animals, humans, and perhaps even mineral formations participate after their own fashion. What is at stake both in phusis and in natura is the question of beginnings, of origination, and a relation to the origin. As for ecology, here we have two words combined into one, again going back to Greek. Eco-logy refers to the logos of the oikos, or the inner articulation (you could say, the inherent reason or “logic”) of the dwelling place. In this case, the stress shifts from the question of origins to that of how things work, how they develop in and of themselves. When we let our dwelling place, the environment, take care of itself, how does it organize itself?Since living beings are finite, so is their growth, which, at a certain point, gives place to decay, or, as often happens in the vegetal world, coexists with decay in the same plant (a branch of a tree can be decaying while the rest is thriving; the fallen leaves and fruits decay around the trunk, providing the roots with further mineral nourishment, and so on).

“What is a utopia according to a plant?” This is a very difficult question, and I will not pretend that I can give a satisfactory response to it, least of all “according to a plant.” All I can do is offer a very preliminary reflection.

At first blush, utopia and vegetal life are absolutely incompatible. Plants are living beings rooted in the earth; utopia is a kind of non-existent place. So, we seem to dream up our utopias in moments when we are least plant-like, that is, least attached to the places where we live or move between. At the same time, my philosophy of vegetal life has been sometimes accused of containing utopian elements, such as the peaceful coexistence of different forms of growth, for instance. This idea is utopian only if we continue to deny the vegetal heritage of our existence and adopt a purely animalistic notion of human nature as oppositional, where homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man) and where we find ourselves in a “dog eat dog” world. As for the plants themselves, I think that their utopian moment is that of throwing their seeds or pollen to the wind or to the wings of insects. They entrust their future to chance, moving their potential offspring (more crudely put, their “genetic material”) elsewhere. Perhaps plants dream up their elsewhere in this throw of the dice. But here I must stop because it is impossible to speculate any further on this theme, without disrespecting the way the world appears (or doesn’t appear) solely from their unique living perspective.

Read the interview in its entirety here.

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