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.
Proust and Signs had originally been published in 1964 in the early stages of Deleuze’s creative transformations of structuralism, but, ten years later, there appeared a new edition with an entire second part now added—one that had been written in the midst of his Capitalism and Schizophrenia collaborations with Félix Guattari. Deleuze here appropriates Guattari’s concept of the transversal, attaches it to a model of plant pollination which he discerns in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and puts it to work to rebuild an account of ‘structural communication’ out of the ashes of his and Guattari’s attacks on orthodox structuralisms.
Deleuze begins from a few words uttered in the midst of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: ‘The male organ is separated by a partition from the female organ.’ Deleuze sees in both this passing claim and a number of others made by Proust an entire vegetal metaphysics that spirals out from the partitioning of the plant-sexes.
These partitioned sex-organs exist as ‘closed vessels’—that is, no matter how close they are situated to each other, they do not directly interact: they exist in a state of ‘proximity without communication’, as ‘noncommunicating fragments’. This, for Deleuze, is the key to such a vegetal metaphysics, i.e., ‘the coexistence of asymmetric and noncommunicating parts’. And it is to be opposed to any kind of unity, whether animal, organic or logical:
The metaphor of… the sealed vessels will assume its entire meaning only if we consider that the two sexes are both present and separate in the same individual: contiguous but partitioned and not communicating… Here the vegetal theme takes on its full significance, in opposition to a Logos-as-Organism: [such] hermaphroditism is not the property of a now-lost animal totality, but the actual partitioning of the two sexes in one and the same plant.
Plants are structured in a way that is ‘partitioned, fragmented, without anything lacking’.
It is here Deleuze brings out the theoretical stakes of this reconstruction of a Proustian vegetal metaphysics by appropriating Guattari’s notion of transversality. The ‘transversal dimension’ of plants names an aberrant indirect line of communication between partitioned, heterogeneous and noncommunicating sex-organs. And this transversal communication of the noncommunicating must occur by way of a third. Deleuze is clear, ‘The hermaphrodite requires a third party (the insect) so that the female part may be fertilized or the male part may fertilize.’ It is for this reason Deleuze speaks of ‘strange insects’, like the bumblebee that make possible communication between what cannot communicate, that ‘establishes transversals that cause us to leap from one [to the other]… without ever reducing the many to the One, without ever gathering up the multiple into a whole’.
These insects are strange, precisely because, in fulfilling their role as transversal, they escape the regime of animals and partake in a vegetal dynamic, i.e., they are no longer insects insofar as they take on a role in plant reproduction. Deleuze writes, ‘The bumblebee that constitutes the communication between flowers and loses its proper animal value becomes in relation to the latter merely a marginalised fragments, a disparate element in an apparatus of vegetal reproduction.’ This insect-become-transversal is the core of Deleuze’s interest in Proust’s vegetal metaphysics—and it even suggests to him a transversal aesthetics which structures Proust’s text, ‘leaping’ from one closed, heterogeneous sentence to another through the mediator of a third (the reader).
In general, though, this is a model derived from plants for how structures relate without relation, how a plurality of structures can resist being subsumed within any metastructure, and how one can account for genesis, production, even transformation between structures without falling into the categories of orthodox structuralism. What Deleuze here proposes is a non-Goethean plant-structuralism.