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Speculative Vegetography.

Western metaphysics is accused of bypassing the life of plants, taking them for granted and as such, denying them freedom. With no apparent contradiction, most recreational substances, from alcohol to psychotropic drugs are derived from plants. We deny liberty to that which gives us the possibility of escape because the conditions on which our freedom rests cannot be free itself. If we were to accord plants the same autonomy, there is no control over what would fall into confusing, non-identitary chaos. Aesthetics at the service of the advertiser and bidder follows the same logic. Its streamlined service-industry artistry parallels the way plant life is managed. Groomed to be available on any occasion. Harvested and pruned into popping and ready-to-serve bouquets. But since plant life is anchored in the continuum of the living, hierarchy and teleology are dissolved in confluence and putrefaction. When geometrically ensconced between the mineral and the animal on an evolutionary rung, as in Aristotle’s Scala Naturae, the vegetal is a pantomime to being rather than a vital link in a sympoesis, the collective production of entities that supersedes teleological schemes. A verdant bedding in the cradle of humanity, usually nursing the dream of base matter evolving into the pure awareness of itself through the conscious agency of an emancipated mammal, like the process Carl Sagan refers to as the universe being aware of itself. But rather than making humans the privileged concern of a deterministic evolution, Perceptronium, a substance proposed by physicist Max Tegmark, defined as a state of matter capable of giving rise to subjectivity, spreads awareness in bold strokes, painted on the surface of heterogenous layers, like a neural net capable of associating patterns across the uninterrupted spectrum of mineral, vegetal, animal and ‘mental’ bodies. It is in this manner that the vectorial nature of awareness exemplified in the external reference of intentionality is akin to a plant’s lack of identity and disarming alterity. Thinking is in fact a vegetal movement and rather than being forged in the depth of bodies, glides on their multiple surfaces as if hovering over the Braille of phenomena. The spontaneity and resilience, adaptability and exuberance, the density, variety and structured integrity amidst chaotic profusion are a few of the countless ways plants have bestowed humans the abstract vocabulary of their intellection. Aesthetics like flora is revered for its manifest fruit but in both realms, the flower is only the visible crest of a cycle incomplete without its stages of growth and decay. The formal arrangement of sensible objects in many ways grafted on the decentralized, inter-passive connectivity of plants is founded on the hylomorphic permutability of form which humans never cease to overlay with false identitary demarcations.

Derrida slides the ontological entry and exit points of human existence to spectrality and survival with deconstruction, an anthem to the march of the living dead. The para-ocular and para-phallogocentric-Hegelian-Subject-of-History is the necessary curmudgeon ensuring no anthropomorphic enunciation can have the last word. The apotropaic critique nevertheless retains vestiges of sacrifice. The tree of life having been inverted into a dysbiotic crucifix, the self-immolation of the master towards the slave hands out the emancipating windflower that disseminates the corrective seeds of differance. Counter-intuitively as when a notion challenges the sedimental deposits of inurement, this loop ties the champions of science back to the obscurantist condition they sought to supplant. It is not fully taken into account that Descartes, father and namesake of the grid, spread the contagion of radical doubt only because he was an unquestioning religious man. Or that Pascal could anguish about the finitude of humankind in the face of the infinite without at its incept and facilitating order, the saving grace of god. The secular versions of their insights exert a wide influence as the overreliance on religion shifts to science. Against a backdrop of dogmatic barbarism, overtures to alterity become more admissible than self-sacrifice. Apologies are directed to the vegetal victims of a metaphysics that stock, lock and barrel, is the oppressive dominant order but is now falling apart at the seams, unraveling out of its own accord without much help from deconstructive discourse. The objectified have already pulled the carpet from underneath those still busy picturing the concealed wood planks and trap doors hiding hermeneutic elucidations. For the privileged subject of this metaphysics is but a dethroned object that has to negotiate with other objects. What humans have subjectified with the genus of plants has the effrontery of being indifferent to those who defend their unalienable freedom. It is a music that not without merit, falls on deaf ears when Heidegger, high priest of Being, confronts a face that is always turning the other cheek, a traction that has the right of way without insisting on it and an intentionality that is a derision of Dasein’s ready or present-to-handness. This indifference is no reason for omission for the apathy regarding the human plight is a life pact among the mineral, fungal, vegetal and animal continuum, of which we are inevitably a part, interconnected through breath, across species whose correspondences we emulate with our imagination. A flat ontology opens unto a theoretical landscape in which Deconstruction held an urgent appeal until deception in broad daylight became the norm. On the other hand, there is that which is invisible in full disclosure, because of inurement or lack of concern, that which skirts awareness unless advertised, remains collectively ignored in social calls and is deemed unknown lest talked about. The utter exteriority of plants characteristic of this passive-active domain is violently anarchic to humans, always there but occluded because cruel in its disregard of a self-same or protective membrane. Anima, if still maintaining a link to the inorganic in the spectrum that subsumes them, retains a confluence of interiority and exteriority and injects it in the being it assigns to ‘animals’, a supple topographic duality, not as radically multilateral and foreign as plants, thus with an instinct-brokered self that straddles organic interiority and environmental exteriority. It is with humans that the distinction hardens into a problematic. The demarcating wall erected between inside and outside falls into a chiasmic abyss, forever provoking the discord between reality and intent. Exteriority is cultivated to match a dislocated interiority, suturing the rift with the promise of an a-priori that falls after the fact. It is in this sense that humans are more transplants than animals, in other words alienated plants with an interiority that does not match their exterior.

The material roots of photography are steeped in a cycle where the capture of light is combined with a chemical process to produce its object. From the early daguerreotypes to glossy polaroids, ambient light could alter its appearance, it could be torn or burned, surrendering memory to ash. In biochemical parlance, photosynthesis could not pull it on its own, that is without chemosynthesis. But the camera, more often likened to a firearm for its ability to shoot, can be speculated upon as a plant which, enthralled by the gymnastics of capturing light, trades its roots for more of its visible predicate. An overreliance on the ocular phenomenon has the dual demand of being ever more instrumental in emulating sunlight while warding off the threat of a blinding sun. Both increase the contrast, in turn purged to bounce light back into the shadows, introjecting visibility in the heart of darkness the way blasting brightness in underexposed areas underscores the wide appeal of HDR images. The predominant commercial aesthetic is to tease a billion shiny stars out of the darkest night, to incrust shadows with a minutia of detail for the sake of an unhindered visibility at once eye wash and eye candy. If it is to emulate what the naked retina perceives in the first place and perhaps exceed it, photographic technique is poised to recreate the “natural” with savvy know-how. Expectedly, the excellence of the result influences back the perceiving eye and constitutes a naturalizing code to be embraced or fought as another deception. From its inception, photography fell under the banners of both art and science even while a long debate raged between its mimetic, representational role and its mechanistic expression. It can be said that the former’s cult of likeness and reproduction qualifies it as idealistic in regard to current notions of the real whereas the latter’s objective manipulations of the medium, ensconced in its causation and indexicality, make a stronger claim for unmediated reality. Reversals notwithstanding, the two persuasions share a human perspective that comes full circle in its inability to breach the true nature of objects. Conceding that both fact and fiction are relative interpretations, the commercialism that favors representation had to catch up with that other tradition that treated the camera as the sensorial scanner of a reality independent of intentionality. The lineage of Walter Benjamin’s “optical unconscious”, through Barthe’s “punctum” and Rosalind Krauss’s indexicality of the photographic document, inspired by the pragmatic semiology of C.S. Pierce and the fulminations of Duchamp and Man ray against mimetic art, are all subsumed and integrated in an augmented representation facilitated by action cameras making full mechanistic use of causation to appropriate objective reality. Daguerre may have dropped his photo sensitive plates in the mud, instigating the possible event of a different exposure but no matter, it is the lens that will be subject to ever more polishing. Visuality is haunted by the sensorium of which it the leading representative. In countermeasure, the haptic turn of photography reiterates or simply appropriates the faculty of touch through the scanning of phenomena now relegated to bots whose technical mastery not only eliminates the guesswork on the best exposure but makes decisions on the subject matter. All the while, simulated advertisements take on a designed oneiric quality, replacing the inconsistency of common dreams. Photography’s deracination is proportional to its phototropic obsession which forces a photosynthesis without the spoils of the soil. The graphic ancestry that was part of the courtship of light, preserved in photography’s etymology, is the old horse lagging behind the cart which now touts its new object, arrived at haptically, by scanning the surface of the earth with crawlers and drones, an epiphyte independent of context, smooth as a simulation.

Book-ended by Aristotle and Kant, the categories of the vegetal and aesthetic are both marginalized into a static substance, stripped of autonomy and henceforth subordinated by the modern individual become consumer hegemon. The Aristo-Kantian vegetal-aesthetic complex bequeathed it all the underpinnings of a service industry to eliminate any potential insurgence, forcing art like plants into an ornamental role, proudly assumed and even desired. Such imposed servitude is accompanied by the overreliance of the subject on the dynamic agent with which it identifies. Appropriating the growth of plants and the protean power of the aesthetic to strike new associations, the individual assumes a stable vantage from which it imports the semantic transport of metaphor as change, in calculable doses, reversing the latter’s capacity for metamorphosis to parasitically enrich itself. In sustaining the avid consumption of the ready-made fantasy, anti-biotic prescriptions keep it stock-piled and range from umbrella solutions to shock and awe tactics, all the while advancing reductive generalizations. Yet it is a known fact that the wholesale imposition of homogenizing methods on microbial multiplicities or populations has the adverse effect of triggering pathogens, in counter response to their insistence and inverse proportion to their leveling activity. The recourse to excessive sanitary measures has the counter effect of causing variety to collapse, fomenting microbial threats in closed environments such as hospitals in the same way as inevitable insurgencies vie against a predominant order. Dominance is an inverted dependency and its exacerbated aspect is addiction. Drugs, the vegetal world’s flowers of evil and the abject, the aesthetic wrench that rips beauty from its complacency, wield their venom laced tentacles. The mutualistic breath obstructed by the habits of the twenty-first century cultural addict, corrodes as it insufflates those who cannot exist without it.

A leaf is to a plant what a plant is to the vegetal layer that yields the atmosphere. Not surprisingly a synecdoche of nature when it represents 99.7% of the planet’s biomass. Plants are the living proof of overwhelming simultaneity. For each of their manifest aspects is an invisible contingent not readily accessible to the senses. A tentacular brain that burrows deep into the soil, pushing towards the earth’s molten core while its other end reaches out to the sun. Their synchronous geotropism and heliotropism weaves the belt of life that stretches between the elements of astral bodies. Simultaneously chthonic and aerial, hylomorphic and amphibious, a plant is as drenched in visibility and climatic ambience as it is steeped in the secrecy of mycorrhizal negotiations with mineral life. For so much beauty that is not meant to be seen is expressed in the ancient pneuma that stiches species together through breath, semi-consciously with humans and thus belonging to an aesthetic realm, when the latter is understood to engage the simultaneity of the negative space of presence. More than meets the eye is a hand at work, drawing the outline of a vegetal aesthetics that brings reversibility to obdurate determinations and their antinomies.


Speculative Vegetography begins in response to the work of Michael Marder, particularly Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life in which he outlines the three methodologies of his inquiry: phenomenological hermeneutics, deconstruction and weak thought. However, referring to what has been called a “plant turn”, Emanuele Coccia remarks in a footnote that “With a few exceptions, this literature insists on finding the truth about plants in purely philosophical or anthropological research, without having any truck with contemporary botanical thought which, on the contrary, has produced remarkable masterpieces in the philosophy of nature” (The life of plants. Prologue. Footnote 1.) Among many of them is Stephano Mancuso. See YouTube: Are plants conscious? - Stefano Mancuso - TEDxGranViaSalon ( on their 99.7% presence in the biomass, their movements, alternate sense organs, autonomy, memory and awareness. Also notable are Francis Halle numerous works - from his tropical forest canopy expedition studies to his exquisite botanical drawings - which hold an anti-Aristotelian stance on the evolution and teleology of plant life. At the crossroad of theory and research, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the end of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins is an enduring classic with a political ethics of sustainability.

For an outline of the mechanistic tradition of photography and its relationship to Object Oriented Ontology, see Hugh McCabe. Photography and the Nonhuman.

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