Thursday, March 5, 2015


Recently I read Michael Marder's Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. I liked it well enough. It offers an erudite reading and counter-reading to "the plant" within the metaphysical tradition (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, etc.) as well as within the post-metaphysical, phenomenological tradition (Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, etc.) of Western philosophy. In some ways, Marder is doing for plants what Judith Butler did for gender: problematizing, vexing, troubling the category in an attempt to unmoor our own thinking so as to be better able to think otherwise than our inherited, heretofore thought has allowed.

Marder traces the deconstruction of plant-thinking across five metrics, which serve as the focus of each of the five chapters: plant-soul, plant-body, plant-time, plant-freedom, and plant-wisdom. He shows how philosophy's understanding of plants is ambivalent at best, at once both praising plant-being while denigrating it and relegating it to the background of thought. The plant, however, can be rethought in light of phenomenological research: as an identity ("the plant," for example) unconcerned with identity as such (essence), plants shows themselves as nonselves, nonidentities. In other words, the identity of a plant is predicated upon its difference from itself, so much so that "self" necessarily unravels as thought by (and by way of) plant-thinking. The plant is always other than mere or pure plant. The plant always already manifest as multiple dispersions across the matrix of plantness.

One way to think through this: How are we to number the plant? By counting its leaves? Its blooms? Its seeds? The tendrils of its roots? Its offshoots? Is this "plant" singular; that is, do all these parts comprise one single plant? Or is its root or root system "the same as" its many leaves? Here we see how plant ontology (the being of a plant, the fact that a plant is) disrupts our basic counting system, one of the simplest scientific impositions of the human mind on the natural world. If we can't even count plants, then what does that say about the limits of our own thinking when facing nature?

My critique of Marder's work is not wholeheartedly positive, however. While the content and structure are superb, I find his methodology a bit wonky. For example, he lists three methodological routes for his research: hermeneutical phenomenology, deconstruction, and weak thought. He relies much more on the first two methods; weak thought registers more as an afterthought. Also, Marder seems to be unnecessarily critical of phenomenology as a methodology at the beginning, offering deconstruction as some sort of corrective. Deconstruction, though, is phenomenological, albeit it in a different register. Nevertheless, deconstruction is not altogether separable from phenomenology. I simply do not understand the division Marder suggests.

I also do not understand the already-mentioned scornful or skeptical view of phenomenology, which to me seems to precisely be the most operative methodology for such a project, even more so than the hermeneutics of the history of philosophy that takes up much of the book. I wonder what a phenomenological account of plant-thinking would be had he not relied so heavily on textual analysis. I wonder what plant-thinking would look like if it weren't so mediated by philosophical texts, which seem to serve as examples of "what philosophers get wrong," and instead focused much more on the plants themselves.

Finally, I find it reckless, careless, and plain brutish to refer to Friedrich Nietzsche as a nihilist. Anyone who has read Nietzsche carefully knows that Nietzsche does not advocate nihilism. Indeed, he spent most of his career railing against the various forms of nihilism he saw throughout European, as well as global, society: religion, slave morality, scientism, academia, abstract thought, idealism, etc. Everyone's assignment: read Nietzsche. And then read Nietzsche again. Also, read Marder's book, because it is a remarkable advance toward plant-thinking and plant-being, restoring the very ground beneath our feet.

Marder also has a recent post entitled "In (Philosophical) Defense of Trees" on The Philosopher's Plant at the Los Angeles Review of Books that you might find interesting. It is much more of a general interest text than his book, which is written more for the professional academic philosopher and for those of us philosophers outside of academia.

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