Pettman on Marder’s Plant-Thinking

This is one of the central claims of Plant-Thinking, and yet I had difficulty squaring it with my own (admittedly inexpert) knowledge of “actual” plants. No doubt vegetal life is in many ways “unity in flux.” But does that mean it is also always already a gift of “primordial generosity”? Consider just a few examples from the plant “kingdom”: poison ivy, toxic sap, stinging nettles, sharp thorns, poisonous spines. Some plants employ deceptive mimesis in order not to be eaten or colonized. Orchids punk wasps into thinking they’ve just had sex. Some even play dead. Others, like bracken, have themselves colonized entire valleys of Europe, thanks to their powerful cyanide-based toxins that can cause blindness and even cancer. Carnivorous plants, like the famous Venus flytrap, are not above kidnapping and murdering their meals. During the week when I was writing this, the BBC News Science page featured headlines such as “Perfumed Plant Lures in Mammals,” and “Plant Chemicals ‘Manipulate’ Ants.” Even when not being outright aggressive or duplicitous, some plants require a quid pro quo from their pollinating insects, or passive-aggressively trap them for the night, for the benefit of their selfish genes. Trees fight to the death for access to light. Acacias and rattans enlist ants to defend their sovereign territory. The mistletoe and dodder plant are downright vampiric.

No doubt Marder would object that this list of tyrannical flora is just so much “ontic” botany, overlaid with deceptive anthropomorphic narratives. Self-preservation, he might say, is not an evolutionary tenet, but a projection of human hubris. But given the many and varied ways in which plants protect their territory, or invade others’, the ontic/ontological disconnect may be so large as to be untenable. The Derridean “hospitality” which the author sees in all plant-being appears more like skewed rhodopsin in the eye of the beholder. Marder occasionally seems aware of his overreach, as when he writes, “Even if a plant (for instance, milkweed) produces toxins to ward off pests or insects, it does not, strictly speaking, do so to protect itself (or better yet, its ‘self’).” Why on earth not? The difference between an animal defending its territory, and a plant defending its territory, is never addressed. And while there is a certain decadent romance to a life-form which flourishes “only in ‘falling apart,’” this description surely doesn’t apply to the strangling fig tree, so named for its tenacious will-to-flower. To label all plant-life as inherently generous is to also imply that mice are “generous” to cats. In short, I would have liked to see more agon.

Don’t misunderstand me: Having myself been profoundly influenced by late 20th-century philosophical discussions of “inoperable/coming/unavowable communities” (Nancy, Agamben, Blanchot), I am highly sympathetic to “the principles of inherent divisibility and participation.” But the degree to which plants really do traverse “all other modes of living while preserving their differences” or give themselves “without reserve … free of any expectations of returns from the other” seems highly questionable, given the general economy of ecology, which includes cacti, nettles, and vegetal parasites of all kinds. I kept wishing there were more examples to support this particular argument, rather than the sheer weight of assertion, as if this facet of the vegetal world were generally understood to be the case. Our grids of identity are certainly complicated when we consider plants, but that doesn’t mean they are abolished. Indeed, the strongest critics of this Levinasian fancy would probably be the object-oriented ontologists, many of whom insist upon the withdrawn, monadic aspect of any given (individuated) entity. The organic commons here can look pretty hostile and dangerous when viewed in slow motion.

Dominic Pettman reviewed Plant-Thinking at the LA Review of Books

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One Response to Pettman on Marder’s Plant-Thinking

  1. Really excellent critique. Great read, thanks.

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