Review of Michael Marder’s “For a Phytocentrism to Come”
December 2, 2014
Can Western critical theory decenter anthropos, the human? The formulation of the “Anthropocene” as a geological era suggests that human impact upon the planet cannot be ignored. Yet the Anthropocene simultaneously and ironically calls attention to the anthropocentrism of some human cultures that have contributed to global environmental crises and injustices. This tension between the need to recognize and the need to depart from theories that center the human (or more properly, a certain kind of human) is not new to ecocriticism. Philosophers and ecocritics have explored the impact of substituting a variety of prefixes to centrism in place of anthropo-: bio-, eco-, zoo-. In “For a Phytocentrism to Come,” Michael Marder uses plants to provide a new option.
Marder is the author of Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, and as he shares in this video seminar with The Multispecies Salon, the article “For a Phytocentrism to Come” is part of his work toward a sequel book project, titled Plant-Doing: The Ethics and Politics of Vegetal Life.
In “For a Phytocentrism to Come,” Marder argues that anthropos can and should be decentered, but biocentrism, ecocentrism, and zoocentrism cannot accomplish the task. (Marder does not directly take up theories of post-humanism here.) Critiquing both deep ecology and object-oriented ontology, he states that biocentrism and ecocentrism have been conflated, and that any general regard for the planet as a whole (or life, or Gaia) relies on a totalizing perspective that flattens difference. If everything is valued as the same, in other words, “the only plausible attitude value equality may elicit is one of nihilistic indifference.” The human is thus decentered by an abstraction rather than “the singular existences of plants, humans, animals, rivers, and mountains.” In contrast, Marder understands zoocentrism as placing particular value on certain kinds of creatures, sentient animals. But this value is granted based on a prioritization of humans, so “humans retain their status of a moral and ontological yardstick,” and no actual decentering takes place.
Rather than the Greek words of bios and zōe to describe life, Marder turns to phuton, the Greek word for plant. Citing Aristotle, he then links phuta to “nature” (phusis) and “growing things” (ta phuomena). If phytocentrism is to decenter the human by centering plants, plants cannot stand just for a category or part of life. Therefore, plants serve as a synecdoche for growing creatures and life as growth: “Phytocentrism is, inherently, a phuo-centrism and a physio-centrism—an orientation, through plants, toward growth and toward nature as a whole, conceived as the throng of creaturely growth.”
Marder’s point is that in phytocentrism, the center necessarily becomes indeterminate. Thus his project of decentering is about working through, displacing, removing, and even “estranging” the human so people are “no longer . . . able to recognize deficient versions of themselves in other kinds of creatures.”
Interestingly, to support this, Marder draws on some material, botanical insights into plants. For example, he writes that the “plant itself lacks a vital center, equivalent to the heart or the brain of an animal; although in our imaginary the root stands for something like the irreplaceable and essential origin of things, the truth of the matter is that it is not the sole source of vegetal life. Left in water, twigs detached from the mother plant can develop rootlets of their own, exhibiting incredible tenacity and plasticity.” (Plants reproduce themselves in a variety of ways. Consider the plant in the image, Kalanchoe pinnata, which is producing "new individuals along a leaf margin.")
In classical thought, it was the fact that plants grow that made them part of life and linked them to humans and other animals. Marder adds to this an emphasis on growth as shared—in plants as singular and in nature as a whole—which he calls “growing in common.” Phytocentrism affirms and encourages such “communities of growth.” Later in a section on ethical implications, he considers labor and more broadly metabolic exchange as part of growth, writing that “Phytocentrism is a trans-human, vegetally inflected, communism.”
Yet when reading this essay, I couldn’t help but reflect on the trope of growth in the language of contemporary capitalism. For example, my eye was drawn to phrases in Marder’s writing like “Capitalizing on the indeterminacy of vegetal life” and “the invisible debt we owe to plant life.” Marder addresses the topic of capitalism when he writes that “the growth of capital is inversely proportional to the flourishing fostered by phytocentrism.” This claim in the essay is made in context of a discussion about a phytocentric critique of genetically modified organisms; Marder suggests that the issue is not biotechnology itself but rather what biotechnology serves. In an evocative line, he suggests “the wellbeing of plant, animal, and human species is of one piece, inseparable from the how of their growth.” This makes more sense in the context of the video seminar, where Marder explains his view that capitalism parasitically appropriates and “mutilates” growth as a physical feature of plants and nature in order to idealize it and create value.
The section on ethics in this article gives only a short taste of what is—as the title indicates—“to come” in Marder’s longer work, and correspondingly, I found “Phytocentrism” accessible, engaging, and significant as a provocation and starting place for inquiry.
-Aubrey Streit Krug
Marder, Michael. “For a Phytocentrism to Come.” Environmental Philosophy 11.2 (Fall 2014): 237-252. doi: 10.5840/envirophil20145110