Plants Know About Us, but we Don’t Know about Them Yet

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 16.06.2020

About the philosopher Michael Marder

Language is saturated with metaphors of plant life. They help when it comes to virtue and productivity (the fruits of labor and fruitful conversations, the roots of ancestors and the flower of society, men like oaks and girls in bloom), as well as inertia, inaction or non-compliance with the norms of active social life. Then, man either vegetates or worse, is a complete vegetable.

For the philosopher Michael Marder (1980), plant life is more than a material resource or a generous source of language clichés for the convenience of thinking. (Susan Sontag once said that imagination and metaphors facilitate our relationship with reality, reconcile with it. Having said as much, she immediately countered with – as if anyone deserves discounts in this relationship.)

Marder doesn’t look for an easy way, a simplified explanation nor a general illustration of the complexity of the world based on the cycle of plant life, yet he is not willing to discard these similarities entirely. Moreover, it is there, in his opinion, that alternative ways of thinking should be sought, contrary to formal logic and Western pragmatism, which turns everything into lifeless abstractions. Plants think and feel, yet it’s constant feeling and living thinking. In a sense, the "vegetables" are mostly ourselves, us people who wake up different senses or activate certain modes of thinking only under the influence of extreme stimulus or extraordinary conditions, while everyday life passes in passive unconsciousness and the safety of not thinking.

Marder defines thinking as “juggling with the extremes”, living in and with, their mutual contradiction, inside the proverbilal middle that formal logic usually excludes. "it’s 'either, or or’, and there’s no third option." With this definition, Heidegger's phrase that "science does not think" becomes understandable, as does Marder's hypothesis of thinking plants.

Nothing else in living nature performs this juggling as diligently and selflessly as plants that constantly balance different extremes. Therefore, they think. The most obvious example of this balancing act is, of course, the simultaneous life of plants above and below ground, driving roots into the nourishing darkness while at the same time, the foliage seeks light. If logic is defined by rigidity, then then the essence of plant thinking is sensual growth.

For comparison, Marder cites the concept of Western economic growth, an example of limited thinking, the essence of which is solely to increase value by exploiting and mining everything that can be deemed a resource or commodity. Plants, in turn, are the champions of sustainable growth, who feel and test the limits of the surrounding environment and are able to respond to them. They are in constant interaction with the environment, slowing down their growth when conditions are unfavorable or when reproduction has to begin, and quickly conquering new space when it opens up. (Therefore, the distinction between animals as "moving", and vegetation as "fixed" seems questionable to Marder. The assumed passivity of plants is also a defect in our perception and thinking.)

Thus, for plants, thinking is not an internal, isolated, subjective "self" privatized process, as it has been accepted, at least since Descartes, but a constant openness and interaction with the external environment, full of conversations, discussions and agreements with it. It goes hand in hand with the idea of thinking as the ability to interpret knowledge received from the environment. The tree that is stubbornly clinging on the edge of the cliff and the moss that’s taking over surfaces neglected by man, is an act of such interpretation. Therefore, such a life of a plant, in direct dialogue with the environment, can be considered reasonable.

No less obvious in this context is the resemblance of plants to the matrix-like branched nervous system of animals and to the neurons of the "thinking organ", the brain. Their morphology itself is plant-like, their development depends directly on the influences provided by the external environment, and the more branched they are, the greater the cognitive abilities they present. By this analogy, to completely localize private thinking or a glorified inner monologue, becomes completely impossible. If a distinction is needed, Marder recommends separating function and structure from each other.

For example, the presence of eyes and ears does not mean seeing and hearing, just as the "owner" of the brain is not always thinking. (A vivid example of this is abstract conceptualization, which is often associated with "real thinking," but which is not characteristic of most people, as opposed to sensory knowledge, which all living beings are capable of.) So all these functions are possible - and, according to Marder, plants are proof of this - even without the presence of the structures to which the functions are traditionally attributed.

It’s exactly these similar features, such as the presence of the nervous system, brain and sensory organs that has made it possible to recognize the intelligence of animals and to slightly expand the range of human empathy towards them. It’s this similarity that has traditionally been used by animal rights defenders to further their cause. In contrast, highly sensitive plants (biologists note at least 20 different environmental factors to which they respond) are still considered to be so extremely different and at the same time such a mundane life form that they are seldom even covered by the philosophically binding category of “other”.

“We take plants for granted, so that our practical lack of attention appropriately matches their marginalization within philosophical discourses. Curiously enough, the absolute familiarity of plants coincides with their sheer strangeness, the incapacity of humans to recognize elements of ourselves in the form of a vegetal being, and, hence, the uncanny—strangely familiar—nature of our relation to them.”

This is what Marder writes in his most famous book, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013), and focuses all of his research on noticing similarities that would overcome this abyss of misunderstanding. At the same time, he carefully bypasses the traps of anthropomorphism and animism.

He doesn’t need personification to see living, thinking beings in plants. (Although he devotes a large part of his book to an analysis of the concept of the soul in the works of Aristotle, Hegel, and Plotinus in particular. The poetry of Saint Hildergarde is what has inspired his lecture for the public programme of RIBOCA2 about the power of plants to heal the broken soul of the world.

Marder also sees notable and educational features of the plant kingdom in social life and political protests. Such was the case, for example, with the Occupy movement. Neoliberal intellectuals whispered that it was unable to define any reasonable demands. For Marder, on the other hand, it seemed more important to take the up the position of the mute (rather than of the loud marcher) and to subject oneself to exposure to external forces, or exactly how plants tend draw attention to themselves. It’s an intuitive grass roots tactic, not a command center-driven analytical strategy.

Equally situational and opportunistic (Marder says this with no judgmental overtones, in a purely biological sense), and comparable to plant nature rather than abstract ideals, is, in a sense, any political struggle that always depends on the context in which it takes place. The nature of plants is in our anamnesis, Marder reminds us, adding that they do not discriminate against those to whom their breath is given.

Michael Marder's lecture took place on June 18, 2020 as part of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art weekly Series of Talks and Conversations, which bring together outstanding thinkers, researchers, and writers from various fields.

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