Sentience and Sensibility: A Selective History of Plant-Human Perceptions
It is night-time, and Juliet contemplates taking the drug that will send her into a death-like sleep and subsequent entombment. She is reminded of the mythical mandrake (Mandragora sp.), a plant said to emit a shriek fatal to humans if uprooted. The origins of the myth, which can be traced back at least as far as biblical times, lie not only in the extreme toxicity of the plant, but equally in the zoomorphic form of the mandrake root.
Thinking about Sex with Plants
Plant bodies have always been entangled with human ones. Following the discovery of sexual reproduction in plants in the late seventeenth century, this entanglement becomes eroticized in new ways, as plants are used as models for understanding human reproduction and vice versa.* The Linnaean sexual system of classifying plants, the object of lively debate throughout the eighteenth century, is a particularly well-known and influential instance of such crossover, according to which plants are described as entering into marriages and acting as “husbands” or “wives.” Toward the end of the century, Erasmus Darwin will double down on the Linnaean metaphors, with luxuriant and sometimes unsettling results, in his 1791 work of scientific poetry, The Botanic Garden.
The Morphological Genealogy of Structuralism
The Reference to Naturalism
The second part of Chapter 11 of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ De Près et de Loin (“On Sensible Qualities”) offers a host of very illuminating remarks on the way in which he understood the epistemology of structuralism and its position in the history of ideas. To Didier Eribon’s question concerning the central concept of transformation (“Who did you take it from? From the logicians?”), Lévi-Strauss responds as follows:
The “Hidden Law” of Structuralism
On 5 January 1960, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss delivered his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France. It was this event that established structuralism in the French academia as a force to be reckoned with. Lévi-Strauss used it to address a charge levelled against the structuralist method: the charge that it was static and ahistorical. He asserts repeatedly that ‘structures’ need not be rigid but should, rather, be seen as continuously evolving. Lévi-Strauss argues that the link between ‘structure’ and ‘transformation’ had already been recognised by Goethe, whom he quotes:
Goethe, Thoreau and Vegetal Life
Goethean Morphology: A Generative-Explorative Approach to Nature’s Technique
In his “Studies for a Physiology of Plants”, Goethe singles out the main problem faced by naturalists interested in phenomenon of growth and development in nature, i.e researchers trying to uncover the hidden laws driving the morphogenesis of natural products: “If I look at the created object, inquire into its creation, and follow this process back as far as I can, I will find a series of steps. Since these are not actually seen together before me, I must visualize them in my memory so that they form a certain ideal whole”. The genetic processes responsible for the growth and transformation of natural products are not given as such in the empiria, or as Goethe would have it, the observer never sees “the pure phenomenon with his own eyes”. To solve this problem, Goethe finds himself compelled to turn to another mode of visualization, that he calls “anschauende Urteilskraft” [judgment through intuitive perception]. The exercise of this faculty, I argue, is conditioned by the mediation of a series of devices that enables to visualize morphological transformations linked to plant-growth phenomena.
Is There a Flower Riot in my Brain? Agnes Arber and Goethean Science
In her introduction to her fantastic but sadly neglected 1946 translation of Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants, Agnes Arber suggests that rather than seeing these botanical adventures as an aside or an artifact of Goethe’s speculative fancies, they are evidence of him being “a great biologist who overstepped the bounds of science.” Arber who was herself a botanist, historian of botany, and philosopher of biology saw in Goethe an intellectual track parallel to her own: a pursuit of the life sciences in which the many forms of living things reside within the one and that the perception of this many-in-one could only be seen with the mind’s eye.
Cosmic Foliage, Astral Photoenergy and ‘Plant-People’
Nature is abundantly fruitful, bristling with development, brimful of verdancy and fertility. In Goethe’s 1790 Metamorphosis of Plants, we are treated to this view.
But given the beliefs of the time, all this progress was going somewhere. Organic evolution was invariably considered thoroughly progressive. An escalator, with the rational human on top.
Deleuze and Guattari on the Rhizome: One or Many Plants?
What does it mean to take plants as the model for thinking? Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the figures I want to focus on in this short piece, talk about a ‘vegetal image of thought’. In fact, Deleuze and Guattari do not so much offer a vegetal image of thought, but a vegetal taxonomy of thought that draws distinctions between trees, plants with fascicular root systems, and rhizomes. Now, Deleuze and Guattari are unusual here, since often, when philosophers are talking about plants, they are understanding them as a particular case of life in general. Even Goethe understood his Metamorphosis of Plants as a special case of a more general project of morphology.
Deleuze, Plant Sex and ‘the Third’
The intersection between botany and structuralism is not a particularly obvious site of philosophical reflection and yet it has become a celebrated one. A direct route passes from Goethe’s botanic concept of metamorphosis to Levi-Strauss’ description of structural transformations—and, for this reason, the classic structuralisms of post-War France are indebted, in part, to Goethe’s views on plants. What I want to consider below, however, is a heterodox alternative to the plant-Goethe-transformation-structuralism nexus—a philosophical use of plants to develop a post-structuralist account of structure that breaks with Levi-Strauss in a number of ways. And this can be found in the second edition of Gilles Deleuze’s Proust and Signs.
Kierkegaard’s Plants: The Problem of a Heritage
Think of a brilliant physiologist (those mere butcher-apprentices who think they can explain everything with a knife and with a microscope are an abomination to me)—what does he do? First and foremost he grants that every transition is a leap, that he cannot explain how a consciousness comes into existence or how a consciousness of the environment becomes self-consciousness or God-consciousness; in short, he admits the qualitative dialectic. Consequently he admits categorically that he really cannot explain anything. But what does he do then? He skeletonizes, he dissects, he pierces with knives as far in as he can, in order to show—that he cannot! If someone knew that even though he picked every leaf from the flower, separated the fibers of the stem, and observed every part microscopically, and still could not explain what is constitutive in plants [det Constituerende i Planten]—why does he do it then?