The Life of Plants Ania Soliman

A philosopher argues for the power of the flower.

The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture, by Emanuele Coccia, translated by Dylan J. Montanari, Polity, 167 pages, $22.95

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The word cosmology seems to be cropping up everywhere, especially in a spate of books and exhibitions devoted to early-twentieth-century Russian cosmism. But unlike Russian cosmism, which deliriously posited a technology-driven mass resurrection, with newly immortal humans colonizing outer space, the most recent writings on cosmology are more concerned with seeing humans from nonhuman perspectives.

Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia’s The Life of Plants asks us to consider ourselves as byproducts of a world made by plants. We live as if at the bottom of a sea of oxygen produced by leaves, he says. Long before the Anthropocene period, it was plants that radically altered the Earth—the oxygen they emitted was a catastrophe of “pollution,” followed by a mass extinction of organisms unable to breathe the new air. We are part of the biomass that thrived in this changed environment, a biomass that plants constantly remake from the energy of the sun. Even though we experience our bodies as discrete objects, breath constantly connects us to all other living objects through a shared atmosphere, which Coccia calls a space of mixture.

This philosophical refocus links Coccia’s text to other cosmologists that see the split between human technologies and nature as the result of a kind of false consciousness. Many reflect on non-Western traditions, such as The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2016). Its author, Yuk Hui, a philosopher from Hong Kong, looks at cosmology in Chinese philosophy, bringing up ideas of the Dao to counter the direction that European theories of technology are taking us.

Coccia’s text opens up the cosmological perspective from within Western thought. He bases his analysis on an education that was strangely perfect for this task—he attended an agricultural high school in Italy to study “plants, with their needs and illnesses” and went on from there to receive a doctorate in medieval philosophy in Florence. This unusual training allows him to combine scientific knowledge with a non-modern, analogical way of thinking in his approach to the natural world.

While premodern thought has been dismissed as irrational, Coccia seeks to redefine rationality itself. If we are accustomed to thinking of reason as something specifically human, in fact the highest human mental function, Coccia reveals to us its presence in the seed, the root, and the flower, making reason a “cosmic and natural faculty” rather than an epiphenomenon of the human brain.

Coccia views vegetative life not as an inert chemical dream from which we humans have woken up, but as the continuing basis of our ability to reason. The seed is a form of reason because, like the DNA it contains, it carries with it the potential for analysis and a plan of action. The root is a form of reason because it is analogous to the brain. Moving from Platonic, through the medieval, and then to contemporary ideas that guide research on plant intelligence, Coccia finally wants us to imagine roots providing networked subterranean communication, analogous to a nervous system. This allows the Earth to receive information about the cosmos—an image that echoes Daoist ideas of the planet as a living being.

More surprisingly, Coccia posits the flower as the most exemplary form of reason. Giving a strangely practical definition for someone with a philosophical bent, he describes reason as the ability to form matter. In this context the flower becomes an emblem of a side of reason that is neglected in modern rational thought: its role as attractor. The flower, which is able to communicate with “insects, dogs, humans,” represents a type of thought that invests “in the sphere of appearances . . . in order to put different beings in touch with one another.”

What follows is a plea for a new way of thinking that connects different disciplines of knowledge, a promiscuous thought, open to the world, universally inviting. Unlike Hui, Coccia practices this kind of thinking by fully inhabiting his material, rather than just talking about it with scholarly detachment—this makes the book a strangely freeing pleasure to read. He argues for the value of analogical thinking as a way to reach a “nonanatomical definition of the brain.” For him, “the brain is not a human organ, it is not an organ at all, but a feature of matter that holds knowledge.” Our minds are not an accident of evolution, and “the human world is not the exception in a nonhuman universe; our existence, our gestures, our culture, our language, our appearances are celestial.” 

Though this kind of speculation may seem quaint or irrelevant in response to the brutal exploitation of so-called natural resources, organized by minds conditioned by a deadlier materialism, the value of Coccia’s text lies in the way it opens up a space for collaboration. How do we maintain scientific perspective while incorporating other forms of thought? Coccia proposes a synthetic rather than analytic approach based on his definition of reason as a universal, cosmic force that causes things to be made

This made me rethink artificial intelligence as another form of reason becoming manifest in the biomass rather than just a mechanical extension of human language. Recent cosmological thinking asks us to imagine a world not built on human exceptionalism. As large quantities of language are being produced for machines, and as they begin to simulate the functions of life, we start to consider other types of subjectivity, like those of the plant or the thinking machine. We’ll need to (re)discover ways of talking to and about them—this may be important for our continued survival.

But: What about fruits? They are nowhere to be found in Coccia’s book. I’ve been casually obsessed with the idea of the fruit ever since a part-time fruitarian pointed out that they are the only objects specifically designed to be eaten, in the hope that the seeds they contain will be excreted in amenable locations. Even nuts, though inherently detachable from plants, have inalienable reproductive functions; eating nuts precludes the nuts from growing other nuts. And plants do not want to be eaten—something I experienced in a struggle with a basil plant that refused to grow large leaves after I consistently removed its biggest ones. It was as if the basil sensed what was coming and foiled me. 

But even if plants don’t want to be eaten, they constantly make objects for others to consume, and it seems strange that Coccia’s elegant and empathetic analysis omitted this fact. The fruit expresses the anticipatory generosity of the plant, which is what human existence, with its mad focus on maximizing profit regardless of consequences, lacks the most.

Ania Soliman is an artist who works with research-based drawing and narratives. Her current focus is on relationships between nature and technology constructed in different cultural systems. Her work has been shown at the Whitney Biennial, the Museum of Culture in Basel, the Istanbul Biennial, the Museum of Modern Art in Salzburg, and the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, among other venues. She is represented by Sfeir-Semler gallery in Hamburg and Beirut.

A philosopher argues for the power of the flower
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