Friday 6 June 2014

Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder on 'Meeting through the Vegetal World'

I had the distinct pleasure of attending an extremely interesting event last night, a joint lecture between Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder on the subject of 'plant-being,' 'plant thought,' 'the vegetal world' (as you prefer). They are working to produce a kind of eco-phenomenology of plants. Here's the blurb from last night's talk:
Climate change, resource-related conflict, pressures on food supplies, and the contamination of air and water continue to intensify, despite efforts to put environmental concerns on the political agenda. How can a more collaborative relationship with other living beings, including plants and animals, help ensure a sustainable future? Join two of the world’s leading philosophers for a public lecture on one of the most pressing problems of our age: how to develop a relational ethics through the natural world.
They were both charming and involving; both extremely prolific too (see Marder's website for his list of publications, all downloadable; Irigaray is famous enough that she needs no bibliographing, I'm sure).

During the Q&A at the end I commented that the picture of the plant world that Marder sketched out (Irigaray's contribution was less programmatic and more reflexive) seemed awfully pacific and genteel. There were lots of trees, grasses and shrubs of various sorts but none of the more ugly and violent kinds of plants. The venus fly trap of course springs to mind but also the nightmarish ophiocordyceps unilateralis  a fungus (okay, not technically a plant) that infects ants, takes over their bodies, compels them to move somewhere warm and humid before the ant dies and a stalk sprouts out of its head which releases more spores. Or, less grotesquely but still rather violently, the so-called 'strangler figs' that wrap themselves around trees, climbing towards the light, eventually crushing their hosts and leaving hollow plaits of ivy as the trunks rot away.

For that matter there was also (and this didn't occur to me to ask until this morning) a rather excessive emphasis on rooted plants such that we might find in a park or garden. Algae, by far the most important kind of photosynthesiser there ever was or ever will be, wasn't mentioned (or if it was I missed it).

I was very conscious in mentioning all of this (although I may have been unsuccessful in warding off this impression) that I wasn't trying to assert a masculine view of nature as blood and thunder, vicious competition  green in thorn and barb, we might say  over a feminised one of it as serene coexistence; however, I did get the impression that it is only a small fraction of the vegetal world that this philosophy is prepared to consider. For me, a philosophy of nature can't just pick and choose the nice bits (to do this is to treat science as a content provider rather than a constituent producer).

This is from a recent article published by both in the Guardian:
The plant world shows us in silence what faithfulness to life consists of. It also helps us to a new beginning, urging us to care for our breath, not only at a vital but also at a spiritual level. We must, in turn, care for it, opposing any sort of pollution that destroys both our world and that of plants. The interdependence to which we must pay the closest attention is that which exists between ourselves and the vegetal world. Often described as "the lungs of the planet", the woods that cover the earth offer us the gift of breathable air by releasing oxygen. But their capacity to renew the air polluted by industry has long reached its limit. If we lack the air necessary for a healthy life (or, indeed, for any kind of life), it is because we have filled it with chemicals and undercut the ability of plants to regenerate it. As we know, rapid deforestation combined with the massive burning of fossil fuels, which are largely the remnants of past plants, is an explosive recipe for an irreversible disaster.
It's all a bit too kumbaya for me, if I'm honest. I don't recall them using the word 'harmony' but it's altogether too much implied. Where's the danger? Where's the non-human agency? It is all about scolding humans for their nasty exploitations with no recognition of the fact that things themselves might strike back...

The more important point I was trying to make by reference to the ugly side of plants was that perhaps in order to revere the non-human world we also need to fear it. Irigaray said that she didn't understand my comment (translation was an issue and I was quite nervous as I tried to articulate myself so it may not be her fault!) but she did say that to fear plants is to fear life itself. For her that is clearly a terrible, horrible thing. But I can't accept that. Yoda had it wrong: 'fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate...'. Fear is an important part of human existence. We can fear well and fear badly. We should fear the right things.

I didn't think that my comments would be received well and they weren't especially (although Marder was very gracious and accepted that it went to the heart of the matter). There's no place for fear, for violence or for that kind of negativity in these sorts of philosophies of nature. They are pick-and-mixes of the pluriverse that simply ignore the nastier sides of things. (Although, I must add another caveat and say that someone told me last night that Marder's book mentions poisonous plants; I will have to read it before I can really make any really bold claims in this regard.)

Marder doesn't believe that plants are capable of 'violence.' His reason for this is Hegelian: plants are, he says, incapable of self-negation. Now, I'm not altogether sure what that means (doubtless my fault) but my impression is that plants cannot do otherwise; immobile, they simply are (being immobile, he added, they cannot be territorial – something else I don't agree with). Devoid of animalistic intentionality they provide us with a model for being ourselves, otherwise, without the exploitative relation with other things that is brought on (this was also made clear in the Q&A) not by capitalism as such but by the specific relation towards logos inaugurated by the Greeks (capitalism being simply the latest product of this mode of thought).

Marder insisted that he didn't want to give a pacific picture of the plant world  it isn't that plants don't do damage to other things but that this isn't violence per se. Plants can be neither pacific nor violent, they just are. I don't think that this is a very good definition of violence. Moreover, I am of the Darwinian opinion that intentionality precedes awareness; all life is intentional because all life is goal-oriented, even if the only goal is survival and procreation.

When a fly trap dissolves an insect alive it isn't 'aware' of that insect in the way that an entity with a central nervous system is, of course, but I'm not sure why that matters. What difference does it make that the plant cannot uproot and move off, or retreat from a conflict with its tail between its legs? The plant destroys the insect, making it a means to its own ends. In this way, although it seems like Marder goes far too far in talking about 'plant thought' and so on, I think he doesn't go nearly far enough.

Plants in this phenomenological ontology of Irigaray-Marder aren't fully agential in the Latourian sense. Consequently they lack the capacity to demand our reverence; they cannot stoke fear in us; they cannot endanger us; they cannot unnerve us; and, consequently, they are entirely dependent upon our good will towards them. The vector of our moral obligation towards our green others always begins with the active, cognising human; the plants, however essential to our oxygen-hungry being they are acknowledged to be, cannot make demands on us, cannot really perturb us because they simply are  and their simple unindividuated thereness is what, for these authors, makes 'plant thinking' a model (or at least a partial model) for our own modes of thought.

I think it's quite the contrary: we need to be threatened by the non-human world again. People revere in large part that which they fear (when I said that at the lecture someone towards the front audibly snorted with derision  I feel I was not amongst like-minded people!). People used to fear nature  many still do who live in less homogenised, emaciated ecosystems than ours in the towns and cities (and the biochemically annihilated farmlands) of the Western world. That fear is proper, it's necessary. It's all very well insisting that we must recognise our extreme indebtedness to our plants others, etc, etc. but by itself this is still idealism. Humans neither revere nor respect just out of the kindness of their hearts nor through the workings of their rationality. Nothing is a simple as that.

This event was very thought provoking and I'm sticking my neck out since I've only read a tiny bit of the oeuvres of either of these extremely impressive intellectuals. However, this is not a naturphilosophie that I think I can get on board with. It actually, despite many explicit and very assertive insistences to the contrary, reproduces the modernist attitude towards non-human things because it makes humans the root of every vector of moral evaluation. Plants are there and they do stuff but they are at our mercy; they are prostrate before us; we are to be scoldingly reproached for our exploitation but human supremacy is to be presupposed and baked into the settlement. This isn't a break with whatever modes of thought the Greeks loaded on us; it's more of the same, differently nuanced.

I prefer what Latour calls an ethos of 'Optimism': all entities evaluate means and ends; it is as impossible to make the whole world a means for us, as per the modernist dream of progress (because immutable, eternal Nature doesn't exist and that attitude therefore leads to environmental catastrophe); however, it is equally impossible to make all the world our ends (we have to eat, breathe, etc.). The moral imperative is, first, to introduce a moment of hesitation in action where we are uncertain of how means and ends are distributed; second, it is to perpetually renew the search for the Optimum, for the best distribution of means and ends for a collective. This philosophy necessary requires political decision (in the literal sense of de-scission, cutting off). This is cosmopolitics (or geopolitics, if you prefer). It has nothing to do with harmony but rather spheres of influence; exploitation isn't a dirty word, we just have to know our limits and the limits of the world around us.

This brings me to Gaia (largely a vegetal entity though emphatically one not in a 'vegetal state'!), the whole point of which is that she is fiercely dangerous to us. She is a danger in the proper etymological sense (from Old French dangier 'power, power to harm, mastery, authority, control'). She is 'sovereign,' according to Latour.

Marder has a paper on Carl Schmitt ('The Elemental Regimes of Carl Schmitt') that I'm looking forward to reading. I'll conclude this over-long ramble with a quote from Latour discussing Schmitt. I think it's pertinent:
The great virtue of dangerous and reactionary thinkers like Schmitt is to force us to make a choice much starker than that of so many wishy-washy ecologists still swayed by unremitting hope. Schmitt’s choice is terribly clear: either you agree to tell foes from friends, and then you engage in politics, sharply defining the borderlines of real enough wars — ‘wars about what the world is made of’ —; or you shy away from waging wars and having enemies, but then you do away with politics [...] (105).
From living plant-like to living dangerously – there's a world of difference between these programmes.

[Update (07/06/14):

I received an email from Michael Marder which politely informed me that I'd gotten the wrong end of the stick about a couple of things!:
1. I never said that plants are immobile. Their being-in-place precludes locomotion, but not other kinds of movement, as I discuss everywhere in my writings. (In fact, even a certain long-distance locomotion is possible for plant seeds and pollen, as I always note.) 
2. Plant-Thinking is in large part dedicated to an exploration of the plant's intentionality. You will notice this as soon as you open the book, but especially if you reach Ch. 5 on The Wisdom of Plants.
On the first point, I meant 'immobile' in the sense of locomotion; in the sense that animals are not immobile but plants are—that is a fair point of clarification.

Second, I do need to read more of his books. The tagline of this blog 'In which I form strong opinions about things I don't know enough about' was never more appropriate!

This is a very interesting naturphilosophie and I encourage others to take it up. Hopefully one day I can give it the critique it deserves—i.e. an informed one!]