"Energizing Plant Studies: Dirty Hybridity and the Power of Assemblages" by Mark Horvath and Adam Lovasz
Mark Horvath is a philosopher and researcher based in Budapest, and he is the co-founder of the Absentology Research Group. He is also a Philosophy MA student at Eötvös Lóránd University. His research interests include postmodernity, virtual reality and digital life, philosophical pessimism and nihilism, philosophies of finitude, as well as Georges Bataille and Jean Baudrillard’s social theories. He published a collection of essays entitled Darkening Places (2017), co-authored several books with Adam Lovasz (see below), and opened exhibitions for a number of highly rated Hungarian artists. Email:
Adam Lovasz is a philosopher and researcher based in Budapest, co-founder of the Absentology Research Group and co-editor of Philosophical Views/Filozofski Pogledi, an international journal of philosophy. Adam is a doctoral student in Philosophy at Eötvös Lóránd University. His research interests include speculative realist and new realist ontologies, postphenomenology, Continental philosophy and philosophies of the body. He is especially interested in non-anthropocentric theories, such as Bruno Latour’s actor-network-theory. His publications include The System of Absentology in Ontological Philosophy (Cambridge Scholars, 2016) as well as books co-authored with Mark Horvath (see below). Email:
Their co-authored books include: The Isle of Lazaretto. Studies in Separation (Schism, 2016) and the first Hungarian monograph on the philosophy of Georges Bataille (Látomások a lefejezésről, Savaria University Press, 2017)
As a counterpoint to the anthropocentrism of modern social theories, recent paradigms in social and political theory, as well as ontological philosophy, have attempted to excise anthropocentrism from philosophical discourse. Relations are no longer thought of as consisting of solely human relations and dimensions and hold absolutely different potentials with regard to humans. Agency, as Bruno Latour emphasizes, is not a privilege of actualized actants in the world. Even imaginary entities are actants, although dragons almost certainly do not have as many allies as real, living creatures. (2005, 54) Changes in discursive practice require far more than a modification of the registers we use to measure biological life. In this sense it would be superficial to restrict the requisite change to one of mere figuration. We must go beyond representation to approach the actual reality of the world and the many actants operating upon the vista of the world. (115)
The weeds that grow upon leftover ruins dotting a blighted postindustrial landscape are absolutely other, their alterity cannot be reduced to any human presence. As a matter of fact, it is the absence of human activities and the ruination of representation that allows for their messy advent. To incorporate that which is radically other, we need far more than a mere modification of language. What is needed is a change in lifestyle, a complete reversal that gives space to heterogeneous, dirty flows of self-actualization. A social philosophy that would seek to ground us among these heterogeneous multiplicities must be a non-representational theory. (Thrift 2008) Through the incorporation – but not assimilation! – of the radically other, we may approach absolute difference in all its emptiness and growth. Actor-Network-Theory has contributed greatly to the expansion of the social scientific register. Take the following extract from a book dealing with the materiality of industrial ruins:
A hotch-potch of green blankets the outer grounds of ruins, gradually creeping into spaces where light and space permit growth, progressively blurring the distinctions between inside and outside. Fat Hen, dock, nettles, brambles, sorrel, horsetail, ferns, groundsel, chickweed, thistles, knotweed, ivy, the dense blanket of convolvulus leaves interspersed with its white trumpet flowers, and plantain and other grasses create this often dense mat of green, composed of varied shades, textures and shapes of leaves and stem. Rising above the undergrowth appear taller forms of vegetation: elder, willow and silver birch trees, hawthorn bushes and the much feared giant hogweed. The mantle of green is complemented by splashes of different colours: the purples, blues and pinks of the intrusive Himalayan balsam, forget-me-not, foxglove and willow herb, the crimson of poppies, the strong yellows of ragwort, dandelion, celandine, coltsfoot, buttercup, evening primrose and stray rape plants, the gleaming white of michaelmas daisy and cow parsley, as well as multi-coloured lupins. Inside the ruin and on its outer walls, mosses, lichens and liverworts start to cloak the building and shaggy caps, puffballs and less edible fungi nestling amongst undergrowth or on rotting wood also colonise the outside and interiors. These verdant scenes are supplemented by escapees from nearby domestic gardens and the remnants of ornamental shrubs and rose bushes which bordered the buildings of factories and were designed to please the eye of visitors and the office workers in adjacent offices. (Edensor 43)
Tim Edensor provides us with an exhaustive list of plants that colonize spaces left behind by humans who have made themselves absent. Yet the production and accumulation of such lists begs the question: is this not part of some strange mystification? Within the grid of presence, there are innumerable multiplicities at work, constantly producing, incessantly modifying their environments. Edensor disputes the idea that production can be somehow brought to a halt, for industrial sites, after falling into disuse, become subject to “ecological temporalities.” (44) But is this not in itself a mystification on Edensor’s part? Is industrial production itself not dependent upon “ecological temporality”? The very differentiation between nature and culture must itself be interrogated. Materialities and agencies, when they present themselves in any manner, are given in the mode or style of a grid, a field that is always already energetic. It matters not whether human infrastructures are materially present or absent, performativity is always already there. Something is always happening, a plant is always growing, expanding into its environs.
Karen Barad, in a 2003 article and her 2007 book, Meeting the Universe Halfway, has called for a radical reworking of commonsense concepts of causality. The soil is a medium, in which living forms manifest and disappear. Within this medium, rhizomatic assemblages exert their labor, making even seemingly uninhabitable places livable. The world is endowed with a “radical aliveness” that has too often been ignored by philosophy. (Barad 2007, 33) Through the style of its being, the plant opens a pathway into the grid, allowing it to distribute its seeds. Distribution presupposes the presence of a medium that is conducive to growth and proliferation. If anything characterizes plant life, it is dissemination and maximal distribution. As Jacques Derrida writes, “to lose one’s head, no longer to know where one’s head is, such is perhaps the effect of dissemination.” (20) If we are to arrive at a philosophical understanding of the radical aliveness of plants, then we too must learn to live in a headless manner. Perhaps it is their very headlessness that makes plants so fascinating and the object of such lively intellectual debates.
Ever since Peter Thompkins and Christopher Bird published their controversial bestseller, The Secret Life of Plants (1989), intellectual debate has raged over whether plants may be considered intelligent beings. In spite of the fact that subsequent research failed to confirm the empirical existence of anything resembling the “intelligent plant”, this hypothesis continues to divide the scientific community. (Pollan 2013) But why do we as intelligent animals cling to the hope that our own bizarrely advanced cognitive abilities are somehow replicated, in however imperfect a manner, by other organisms? For all intents and purposes, the global mastery of plants is a mindless one. (see Trewavas 2002) Dissemination does not require a mind. Rather, intelligence is a retroactive behavioral adaptation to changing circumstances. It is in this sense that we may speak of a mindless plant intelligence. Rhizomatic proliferation is predicated upon successful, albeit mindless selection of suitable environments. Plant intelligence is verifiable, but only retroactively. We are only ever able to gain access to dissemination once it has already succeeded: it is only once the weeds have overgrown our garden that we may call them intelligent, adaptive and responsive beings. “Dissemination”, notes Derrida, “interrupts the circulation that transforms into an origin what is actually an after-effect of meaning.” (21) Plant intelligence is an after-effect of mindless mastery, achieved at the expense of artificially cleansed surfaces and purified aesthetic preferences. We would like our garden to be neat and tidy, but weeds crop up, leading to a fatalistic acceptance of rhizomatic proliferation. A rhizome is that which is able to produce its own conditions of dissemination, while also being able to vanish from view.
Our theoretical challenge is to think performativity without restricting this ontological category to the performances of human bodies or narratives. Not only are plants mindless, they are, for the most part, non-narrative. We tell stories about the political disruptions caused by gene-modified seeds blown by the wind across borders and continents, but when all is said and done, such narratives are still merely collections of sentences and metaphors. “Performativity”, as Barad emphasizes, “is not an invitation to turn everything into words.” (2007, 133) Rather, an “agential-realist” approach to performativity would expand this concept to be more inclusive of nonhuman agency, giving “matter its due as an active participant in the world’s becoming, in its ongoing intra-activity.” (136)
Troublesome weeds, these plants-out-of-place are the source of constant bother, never failing to participate in our gardens and our imaginaries. (Edensor 46) It is not that multiplicity resides in some distant territory; quite the reverse, multiplicity is always here, enacting itself through various modes of transmission. No individuated body is required for successful dissemination. (Derrida 11) True, we give weeds various names and differentiate them according to various categories, but nevertheless they have a tendency to blend into a generalized “greenery”, a zone of indifferentiation characterized by lush coloration and lively deformation.
According to the posthumanist account, performativity must be understood “not as iterative citationality but as iterative intra-activity.” (Barad 2007, 184) Performativity is always messy and characterized by hybridity. What does Barad intend by “intra-activity”? In what sense may plants be considered to be “intra-active” agents? As Barad writes, intra-action “signifies the mutual constitution of entangled agencies.” (33) Agency is never an interaction in the strict sense, for various materialities and actants coexist within webs of causal co-determination. Plant-theory would be one possible mode of accounting for such causal entanglement.
Transmission needs, above all, nodes, as well as collections of surfaces in mutual contact with one another. In Kathryn Bigelow’s classic 1991 drama film Point Break, we find an intriguing rendition of entangled intra-activity. The FBI, intent upon catching a group of nature-loving surfers who engage in bank robberies to fund their otherwise nonmaterialist lifestyle – an interesting paradox in itself –, finally succeeds in tracing them to a beach outside of Los Angeles. Thanks to laboratory analysis of pollution molecules that have stained their hair, the surfers are successfully mapped and located, with tragic results for all parties. What this scene encapsulates is the original impurity of agency. There is never one single actant, but rather a series of heterogeneous actants, entangled and enchained to infinitely varied groups of other actants. The young surfers believe in a Romantic view of nature that holds it to be somehow more pure than urban life. Yet such Romanticism is ill-founded, for the sea is already impure, dirtied by a local chemical plant.
Plant theory needs to account for all forms of energetic agential intra-activity, including that of artificial plants. If we consider the etymology of the Latin verb, plantare, we may find some clues pointing toward the requisite semantic expansion. Plantare means “to put in the ground to grow.” (etymonline.com 2017) All things considered, the newer meanings of “plant” have not strayed very far from this original meaning. Most power- and chemical plants operate upon some ground. Similarly to organic plants, they utilize the air as medium, spreading their products into the atmosphere. And the goal of artificial plants, in the context of a market economy, is growth. Plants communicate, establishing dynamic and changing patterns of intra-activity and complex mutual causation with their environments. According to the theory of biocommunication, organic plants are capable of recoding their own genomes through selective communication with their surroundings. (see Witzany and František 2014)
Rhizomatic performativity is enacted through assemblages of enunciation. When Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote of “collective assemblages of enunciation”, they generated a concept that would baffle a whole generation of subsequent commentators and thinkers. (7) In hindsight, one need not see any mystery here. Enunciation is not some kind of Austinian speech-act. Rather, rhizomatic operativity disseminates itself through successful pick-up of ecological information. Plants must attain mastery of their surroundings while living unreflectively within networks and elements. Their being is an elemental one, a being-in-one with various chemical elements, compounds, and molecules. Assemblages of enunciation “function directly within machinic assemblages”, we are told. (ibid) In no sense may we differentiate signs and objects.
What Deleuze and Guattari are trying to say at this point is that meaning is always immanent to some manner of environment and some mode of being within the environment. To think like a plant, to theorize the rhizomatic, one must learn to think mindlessly. All parts of the world are in motion. Yet it is only through differentiation and modes of boundary-making that organisms are able to preserve their mechanisms and transmission pathways. According to the agential realist viewpoint, “agencies are only distinct in relation to their mutual entanglement; they don’t exist as individual elements.” (Barad 2007, 33) Assemblages of enunciation exist plugged into larger multiplicities, “one inside the other.” (Deleuze and Guattari 23) Hence, all enunciation is intra-active, in Barad’s sense of the word.
Although such an exclusively relational ontology fails to account for the circumstance of hiddenness that undoubtedly characterizes some, perhaps all entities – what if all objects had a hidden aspect outside of all contact, would that not invalidate the new materialist assertion that only relations matter? asks Graham Harman, – new materialist approaches to nonhuman modes of existence have nevertheless opened up discourse to a consideration of alternative worldviews and radically speculative cosmologies. (see Harman 2016) One such innovative and important work has been Michael Marder’s Plant-Thinking (2013). In the context of this investigation, we must restrict our discussion to the main points of Marder’s book.
What is “plant-thinking”? In spite of appearances, Marder claims that to speak of “plant-thought” is not to engage in anthropomorphism. Rather, “the point is that plants are capable… of accessing, influencing, and being influenced by a world that does not overlap the human Lebenswelt.” (8) A plant may be considered a vital animism, a movement in pursuit of newer chemical elements amenable to incorporation. Often, as in the case of so-called “hyperaccumulating” plant species, plants are capable of absorbing “extraordinarily high amounts of heavy metals” without “suffering phytotoxic effects.” (Rascio and Flavia 170) Hyperaccumulators are fully capable of gaining nutrition from soils otherwise uninhabitable for humans or other, less hardy plants. Life itself has an agency that is independent of human presence. (Marder 8) Yet difference transcends the human/animal/plant divide, for plants are also radically distinct from one another.
According to Marder, plants inhabit their surroundings in a non-possessive manner. (8) This assertion is somewhat problematic, given that plants possess their own means of reproduction and accumulation. Hyperaccumulators must ceaselessly purify their chloroplasts through strategies of detoxification. (Rascio and Navari-Izzo 174) Possessiveness and non-possessiveness alike are extremes that hyperaccumulator plants cannot go to, for they must absorb chemicals from their surroundings while also ensuring that excess selenoaminoacids produced by this absorption are excised. Indeed, according to one viewpoint, the very “high metal concentrations in aerial tissues may function as a self-defence strategy” on the part of hyperaccumulating plants against pathogens and herbivores. (ibid) Defence against somebody else’s possessiveness demands a moderately possessive attitude with regard to chemicals amenable to absorption. Plant-thinking as a concept, it is true, incorporates a degree of symbiosis.
We may speak of plant-thinking in four senses according to Marder. First, this phrase refers to a “non-cognitive, non-ideational, and non-imagistic mode of thinking”, in other words, what we have summarized as a non-representational mode of thought or thinking without a mind. (Marder 10) Second, it also embraces human discourse about plants. Third, plant-thinking also refers to the effect of plants upon human thought and cognition. Finally, it may be understood as an ongoing symbiotic relation between the human and the vegetal.
Plant-thinking would be the abandonment of familiar terrains and an invitation to become plantlike, to experience what it is like to be a plant. Between human thought, summarized under the term “philosophy”, and plant-thinking, there is a correlation, an “uninterrupted connection.” (13) Rhizomatic intelligence would be a mode of being in the world that does not pursue an imperialist agenda of domination and reterritorialization of difference, a non-identity productive of heterogeneity. (41)
Always subtracted or bracketed, plants must be allowed to occupy their rightful place within our gardens and discourses alike. As opposed to identity, plant-thinking is a being-in-common that “starts with the explosion of identity.” (43) Subtracting the multiplicity of registers and the ontological circumstance of their mutual closure nevertheless threatens to mislead our research into the becomings of plantlife. Without some level of closure, openness cannot make its advent. To claim that “life itself is lived primarily in and as dispersion” is to run the risk of ignoring the various strange loops, self-referential enclosures and spirals that traverse assemblages of vegetal enunciation. (43) Plants would be supremely boring were they to be exclusively characterizable by openness. What makes a Venus flytrap so intriguing is its inner cavity, its duplicitousness and cunning. Openness brings death for the fly stuck within the plant’s ravenous mouth. It is through duplicity, partial closure and camouflage that the Venus flytrap is able to consume its prey. Marder exhorts his readers to “eat like a plant”:
To put it succinctly, if you wish to eat ethically, eat like a plant! Eating like a plant does not entail consuming only inorganic minerals but welcoming the other, forming a rhizome with it, and turning oneself into the passage for the other without violating or dominating it, without endeavoring to swallow up its very otherness in one’s corporeal and psychic interiority. (185)
Assuming one were to take Marder at his word, would this entail that we must “eat like a Venus flytrap”? This thought is truly treacherous, for such an ethical imperative would demand duplicity and a complete disrespect for the intelligence of the various insects trapped within our bowels. According to one hypothesis, the evolution of carnivorous plants is a side-effect of various defence strategies employed by these organic machines to alleviate the burden of cell-death. (Bemm 816) Hence the development of meat eating in such plants would seem to be a direct result of increased energy needs. Rhizomatic agents too must accumulate excess energy if they are to alleviate immanent dissipative tendencies. The Venus flytrap memorizes how often an insect has touched it, preventing false alarms and allowing the plant to conserve as much energy as is needed to ensure a successful entrapment of its prey. (Bemm 812) The Venus flytrap is an electric machine that operates via biochemicoelectric signals transmitted through its sensory surfaces. (Volkov 139-145) Plants as such may be reconceptualized as cunning machines, distinguishing between complex signals arriving from the direction of their environments. Signals hurtling through transmission wires and cellular cables send information as to the movements of prey, activating motor cell potentials, ultimately locking in the unfortunate insect. A material vitalism must integrate plants not as passive, tolerant or nonviolent entities, but cunning machines spreading their mindless mastery across the face of entire planets. Marder rightly points out that for too long, the phrase „to vegetate” has been perceived negatively, “linked to the passivity or inactivity of animals or human beings.” (Marder 20) Vegetal life, in its empirical and sensual reality, is full of life and movement. Vegetation is inherently animated with “the fullness and exuberance of life, vigor, and brimming energy.” (ibid) Activity, in the context of a material vitalism, must be understood as being none other than the pervasiveness of movement within a multiplicity of worlds. Rhizomes, in as much as they rearrange their surroundings, are energetic machineries of vegetal power, contributing to the ceaseless reordering of relations, contexts and aspects. All subspecies coincide within the flow of energetic releasement.
Material analysis reveals that positive realist ontology must take account not only of the unamendability and resistance of nonhuman actants, but also what Maurizio Ferraris has called the “affirmativity” of existents. (Ferraris 17-8) Animals have no special privilege with regards to energy preservation and storage: plants to capture a wide variety of materials, recombining molecules into nourishment. (Marder 25) Plant-thinking, according to Marder’s view, would constitute a non-capitalist and non-accumulative mode of being. Capitalist economic rationality is predisposed to treating plants as sources of energy rather than ends in themselves. (55) But how ontologically grounded is this opposition?
Nothing militates against viewing plants as being animated by the same forces of accumulation as other lifeforms. Accumulation, in and of itself, is no more than the process of life’s complexification. It is neither unnatural nor perverted, and it is most certainly not far removed from the lives of plants. Vegetal beings are among the planet’s most efficient accumulators. Some plants are even known to accumulate up to 10-10000 times more nitrogen than other rival species. (van der Ent et.al. 320) Equality does not seem to pertain to plant-being. Accumulation is a characteristic that may be ascertained upon chemical inspection of leaves.
Nevertheless, Marder makes an important point when he asserts that “plant-thinking (…) cannot but rely on material signification that bypasses conscious intentionality.” (Marder 75) Yet for all his talk of post-intentionality, Marder’s focus remains blurred by his preontological commitments. A great amount of cognitive selectivity is required for one to view plants as constituting a sufficient political model for an emancipative politics grounded upon nonviolence and equality. The vegetal is emancipative, but solely according to the mode of duplicity and cruelty. Positive realist ontology, in other words, need not presuppose a positive, optimistic micropolitics.
Multiplicities can only make their chaotic advent once singularity has been crossed out: “the principal root has aborted, or its tip has been destroyed; an immediate, indefinite multiplicity of secondary roots grafts onto it and undergoes a flourishing development.” (Deleuze and Guattari 5) A thousand molecular micropolitical agents emerge and flourish, realizing their potentialities, actuating their presence within an abandoned, forgotten former garden. Without mechanical structures of oppression and human presence, weeds disseminate themselves, enunciating their presence as plants-out-of-place. These chaoid enunciations presuppose the cruel demise of the oppressor: not every root has a place within the place of multiple becomings. Subterranean stems burst through the concrete. Plants have an innate tendency to “seek out the cracks.” (Edensor 4) Through the cracked and broken surfaces of our abandoned lifeworlds, they seek an entry into presence. Such entry (or should we call it reentry?) presupposes a temporality that is differs completely from human time.
Plants enact what Marder, following Derrida, calls a non-teleological “proto-writing.” (Marder 115) Vegetal hyperaccumulation has no goal apart from further dissemination. Every process of dissemination demands a preliminary sequestration and integration of external resources. Hyperaccumulators can “sequester” metals, even from soils with low concentrations of metals. (van der Ent et.al. 321)
We cannot ignore the energetic component of hyperaccumulation. Plants, as accumulatory rhizomorphic machines, are at once producers and consumers of energy. Marder’s attempt to conceptualize plant-thinking falls short because it refuses to take into consideration the oppositional elements of vegetal being. According to his summary, plant-thinking is “an essentialism-free way of thinking that is fluid, receptive, dispersed, nonoppositional, non-representational, immanent, and material-practical.” (Marder 152) We must ask: is this really an accurate, realistic rendition of vegetal being? Hyperaccumulators, for instance, are known to develop in metal-contaminated soils featuring “very high selection pressures.” (Krämer 518) Selectivity, especially in inhospitable environments, serves as an evolutionary catalyst. Plant-being is hence anything but unconditionally receptive or dispersed. Very often, hyperaccumulator plant species may be found concentrated in the most polluted soils. One may argue that such a specific example fails to refute Marder’s point, given that most plants do seemingly adhere to the list of attributes supplied above. Selectivity, as in the instance of sequestration of soil metals by hypertolerant plants, also serves to make the plant foul-tasting, and hence unpalatable to herbivores. (Krämer 520) Immunity is a dimension that seems to elude Marder’s line of thought. Is it really justified to speak of receptivity without also speaking of the multiple methods of exclusion required to maintain such limited openness? No organism is capable of completely opening itself up to the environment.
Multiplicity grows, but only by following its concretions can we hope to understand the alterity of collective rhizomatic assemblages, hoping, in the process, to thematize the specificity of vegetal being. Every dissemination is a “re-folding”, as Derrida points out. (25) Such re-folding demands a theoretical outlook that frees itself of all anthropomorphic categories. Nonhuman dimensions demand a mode of thought whose epistemological stance varies according to the metal content of the theoretical soil it happens to find itself thrust into. Seeds insinuate themselves into a wide variety of ecologies, and no single environment has a monopoly upon meaning. Even when we consider plants to be meaningful, independent entities, it is still we, as thinkers, who are enacting this theoretical innovation. Furthermore, autonomy or equality are, ultimately, anthropomorphic categories trapped within a register inaccessible to real plants, preoccupied as they are with their own, sovereign modes of self-actualization. All living forms share a certain capacity for multiplication, but the precise measure of their reproductive success varies greatly. Some species fail altogether, leading to a gradual extinction of their clades. Every sort of power, every form of actualization must be accounted for within the context of a truly all-encompassing positive realist ontology, including selectivity. Any ontology that fails to account for selection, exclusion and closure remains imbalanced and at risk of falling into serious errors. Ultimately, selectivity is unavoidable; indeed, philosophy itself has a tendency to sift through empirical data and select data that is suitable for its own normative ends. Vegetal existence nevertheless deserves much more than what some one-sided hermeneutics is capable of delivering. Multiplicities are rhizomatic and refuse to be reduced to any single manifestation. Cultural work on plants has made important headways, opening up discourse to radically nonhuman potentials. (Stark 180)
Hannah Stark characterizes the normative goal of plant studies in the following manner: “critical plant studies constitutes the destabilization of the category of the human and its hierarchical relation to other forms of being.” (181) While the non-hierarchical slant of plant and animal studies has been refreshing, one can easily be forgiven for feeling that all this talk of non-hierarchical modes of being often tends to obscure the very real inequalities that plague actual, real living objects. Vegetal-being is anything but equal. Some plants adapt to their polluted surroundings and succeed in becoming-hyperaccumulative, while others fail and wither away. Even upon the leaves of the same plant, say in the case of a Noccaea caerulescens, “the hyperaccumulated elements may not be distributed evenly.” (Callahan et.al. 2343)
Equality is too abstract a category to accurately portray the dimensions of vegetal ontology. Among the leaves of Noccaea caerulescens, there is a chaotically contingent hierarchy. Radical difference demands degrees of impure alterity, otherwise the rhizomorphic assemblage would not be able to disseminate and push its pressure outwards. Resolving itself into the world, the Noccaea caerulescens specimen enacts a heterogeneous self-alteration. While the nitrogen is distributed in a more or less homogeneous manner, the cadmium contained by the leaves is completely heterogeneous, bearing no sign of any normality or rule. (2340) Hierarchy among the leaves need not mean an absence of contingency. Quite the obverse: radical chaos entails an absence of any and all presuppositions. Vegetal existence is an active, albeit differentiated redistribution of metals within the chloroplasts. There is a “more or less” that “disjoins” dissemination, transforming the open flow into a differentiated, hierarchically chaotic redistribution. No single leaf contains exactly as much accumulated metals as the other. Scientists, as of yet, are unable to discern any pattern pertaining to the cadmium distributions observed within Noccaea caerulescens leaves. Causality is a mystery, a near-infinite variation of singularities.
If ethics has a place within realist philosophy, then it must start from a profound and unconditional acceptance of heterogeneity. Marder claims that we have an ethical obligation toward plants, because of their finitude and vulnerability. (Marder 187) Some animal rights activists, on the other hand, have rejected wholly Marder’s ethical imperative. (Stark 182) But what of the metals and energies absorbed by hyperaccumulator plant species? Who shall protect the rights of minerals to be left alone within the soil? Hannah Stark offers a posthumanist critique of Marder’s position, highlighting that ultimately the focus of Plant-Thinking “is very much on the human systems of meaning and value that re-thinking plants could effect.” (Stark 184) The world of plants is a world not wholly accessible to human scientific or ethical endeavors. All we can hope for is to “brush upon their edges.” (Marder 13) Such a brushing would nevertheless leave the energetic train tracks enabling plant life to flourish, buried underneath various layers of ethico-political semantics, without bringing us closer to the reality of nonhuman beings.
To truly understand dissemination is to experiment with vegetal existence, freed from enslavement to noematic or phenomenal levels of reality. The only ground of plant-thinking can be the non-conscious process of self-alternation. Becoming is nothing if not a struggle for existence. Affirmation is the materiality of strange logic and incomprehensible re-distribution across chloroplastic surfaces. “Dissemination opens up a snag”, not only in writing, as Derrida would have it, but also in ontology, ethics and politics. (26) Working itself outwards, the plant must select from the soil, rejecting unassimilable minerals in its quest for survival and redistribution. Resolution is the pressure pushing Noccaea caerulescens to distribute cadmium molecules amongst its leaves. Actants have a tendency to project their causalities into new, accessible flows of origination. Each element of the rhizome “ceaselessly varies and alters its distance in relation to the others.” (Deleuze and Guattari 30) A rhizome is a ceaselessly pulsating cloud of elements, gravitating around an exemplary specimen.
Micropolitics involves a projection of agential stratification, expanding into a hospitable medium. All manner of bodies, including vegetal ones, perform themselves within mediums, and are, by consequence, iterative repetitive displays, detected and detecting conglomerations of unconscious intentionalities. (Barad 2007, 152-3) Hyperaccumulator plant physiology has identified the presence of complex “detoxification machinery” within such species. (Mohan et.al. 1418-1432) Iteration demands a machinery whose variability and responsiveness ensures the detoxification of the organism. In the case of hyperaccumulator plants, otherness is contained within a concrete, empirically verifiable and ontologically significant fact: whereas humans currently lack the ability to detoxify themselves through molecular processes of purification, certain plant species are fully capable of this feat. Detoxification machineries represent higher dimensions of operativity, and any future post-phenomenology must adapt to this nonhuman circularity, if it is to truly arrive at an understanding of the nonhuman.
Becoming-plant entails a transcendence of human limitations that “undermines the stability of the subject.” (Stark 188) But which subject is more stable, we ask, the human animal, vulnerable to arsenic poisoning, or the self-purifying hyperaccumulator plant, fitted with molecular detoxifying machines? Further on, Deleuze and Guattari remark that to become one with becoming itself is to be “like grass: one has made the world, everybody/everything, into a becoming, because one has made a necessarily communicating world, because one has suppressed in oneself everything that prevents us from slipping between things and growing in the midst of things.” (280) But is this complete becoming not, in itself, a form of suppression? The usage of the phrase “suppressed in oneself” is telling, for it implies that one must suppress one’s own individuality in order to blend in with the supposed anonymity of grass. Such a process is akin to what Harman has called “undermining”, the reduction of general categories (i.e. the “human”) into smaller components. (Harman 8-9) The humanities and science in general have a tendency to either undermine or overmine phenomena, either privileging the molecular or the molar, small or large entities, without considering the ambiguities such intellectual gestures are prone to generate. (Harman 10) A strictly relational ontology that incessantly seeks to undermine the human fails to take into account the radical givenness of difference. Undermining and overmining both tend to become fairly boring after a while, degenerating into the hobby of non-conformist intellectuals unable to grasp the actual ambiguity and causal irreducibility of real objects. Subversion has its limits.
Plant theorists may jostle to produce ever more “critical” theorizations, but all this has fairly little impact upon the energy-processing and production of real, actual, operating plants. When Jane Bennett characterizes the electrical power grid as “a material cluster of charged parts that have (…) affiliated, remaining in sufficient proximity and coordination to function as a (flowing) system”, she gives a definition that pays heed to ontological difference while also taking account of communicative flows and energetic transmissions. (Bennett 2005, 446) Furthermore, there is nothing within her definition that would preclude its usage in relation to plants, be they vegetal or inorganic. Indeed, assemblages necessitate „a notion of agency that crosses the human-nonhuman divide.” (ibid) Actants are never equal, for some are so brief in life as to constitute “forces” rather than objects. (447)
In her landmark article on the North American blackout of 2001, Bennett strives to lay the groundwork for a realist ontology that simultaneously integrates the many differences in both causal effectiveness and size among actants, while also accounting for the communicative flows that intersect the various levels, territories and categories inhering within assemblages. The world, as conceptualized in Bennett’s vitalist materialism, “is figured as neither mechanistic nor teleological, but rather as alive with movement and with a certain power of expression.” (447) Like the many thousands of molecular machines encountered by Neo in The Matrix: Revolutions, the various sites of agency coalesce into a speaking configuration. Rather than some solid, grounded infrastructure, Bennett characterizes the electrical grid as “a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood.” (448) The world, as conceptualized by Bennett’s vital materialism, is a volatile mix of countless actants. Should we not view “organic” plants also as volatile, energized mixes? The very phrase “organic” becomes ambiguous, for, as we have seen, some plant species are specifically adapted to processing relatively large amounts of heavy metals.
In conclusion, we would give a broad outline of our discussion, and refocus upon the ontological question: what does it mean to “be” a plant? As we have seen, the mode of being peculiar to plants is a hybrid and energetic mode of existence. Plant-being inherently ties in with broader issues of energy production and dissipation, as well as unequal distributions of energy across the biome. Marder’s focus on the positive aspects of plant-being, however, tends to obscure the fact that some plants are just as ravenous as human beings in their consumption of other creatures. No form of being may be understood without taking into account negative aspects and moments. Energy cannot be imagined without forms of consumption, spillage and pollution. In this sense, plant-being is revealed as far more unstable and problematic than at we would assume at first glance. Plants themselves are complex assemblages, replete with inner forces that threaten to overflow into social space in the form of uncontrollable weeds. As Harman makes clear, expanding the gambit of social theory means, above all else, avoiding the double temptation of “undermining” and “overmining.” Instead of reductionism, what we need is a hybrid theory capable of integrating the various complicated modalities inhabiting the multiplicity of worlds.
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