Essay: Plants and Dilettantes (written while annoyed)

[The reader may remember this post, in which I went on a screed against writing like a jackass. This post takes a similar tone initially, but I hesitate to call it a “screed” because I start out being annoyed, but everything turns out ok in the end.]

One of the most frustrating things that I encounter in reading modern philosophy is statements of this type:

Philosophy since X has only thought of A, B, and C, and it has (illegitimately) only taken such-and-such form. Really, philosophy should be Y, etc. This is why everything is bad today, and no one wants to read philosophy.

Just about any contemporary philosophy/critical theory text (which also unhelpfully and maybe even patronizingly assumes the reader has read everything in the “Philosophy” section of the library since the Pre-Socratics, has an extensive knowledge of the punk-rock scene in New York, San Francisco, London, etc., or knows what “musique concrete” is.)

I’m being hyperbolic, of course. I’m also being uncharitable, but that is my privilege since this is a personal blog. Not all philosophers write like this (I have enough logic to know this, at least), and in many cases the people who do make such claims have good points. I do get bored and annoyed with the sometimes excessively “poetic” style of some contemporary philosophy, but an even bigger gripe is the sense that philosophers don’t read (or at least don’t write about) anything outside of their discipline.

However, I’ve just recently read a counter-example to (some of) these claims: The Life of Plans: A Metaphysics of Mixture by Emanuele Coccia, translated by Dylan J. Montanari. Coccia’s volume is fascinating for a few reasons, some more abstruse than others. I have a couple of intellectual habits that I’ve often found difficult to fit into philosophy: for one, I want to apply it. Yes, yes, metaphysics. What is it for, then? What does it do? Or convince people to do? How does it fit with the rest of the world? And, more specifically, the world of stuff? Another of my “bad” habits has to do with my dilettantism. I once used quotations from a detective novel set in North Korea to make a point in a paper on Derrida. The prof loved it, but he’s a Heidegger guy and willing to experiment. Of course, with Derrida you can get away with quite a lot, but I don’t often read much philosophy that makes use of sources too far from the 100s of the Dewey decimal system. I think that’s a shame.

Coccia does a few things that I find immensely refreshing. First of all, his analysis is grounded in actually knowing botany. He writes:

From the age of fourteen to the age of nineteen, I was a student in an agricultural high school in a small isolated town in the farmland of central Italy. I was there to learn a “real job”…Plants, with their needs and illnesses, were the privileged objects of all study that took place in this school. This daily and prolonged exposure to beings that were initially so far away from me left a permanent mark on my perspective on the world.

Coccia, The Life of Plants, xi.

Coccia’s studies obviously eventually diverged from a purely vegetarian (haha) diet, but this deep, specific education in a discipline involved with stuff, one that revolves around living, physical beings that, as Coccia makes clear, present some significant challenges to the way human beings often think of themselves and their world, nonetheless informs a book of philosophy that doesn’t just address itself to a lifeless ivory echo chamber.

Probably my favorite facet of Coccia’s writing is not in the body of the text, which is nonetheless quite interesting, but in the notes. The book doesn’t have a bibliography or works cited page, which annoys me, but it does include extensive endnotes. And they’re a gold mine for a dilettante like me.

In several notes Coccia offers readers suggestions for popular treatments of topics in botany, cosmology, and evolution, among other sciences. The notes are also replete with technical and specialized sources, of course, but the inclusion of less specialized materials demonstrates not only respect for the reader but also a refreshing sense that one can (and should) look to sources outside specialized writing in philosophy proper for material to incorporate into writings philosophical.

Coccia is clearly no dilettante, given his training in botany, but his inclusion of popular works in the sciences demonstrates, at least to my mind, an acknowledgment of the importance of the kind of edifying dilettantism one cultivates by reading works of popular science. I’ll explain.

Today, people go to universities to get degrees that will get them jobs. To be clear, this is not a bad thing in and of itself (nor is it new) – many lines of work require specialized and technical knowledge that one can much more easily gain in a formal setting than by going it alone. Universities have specialized equipment, libraries, and other resources that private individuals typically don’t have unless they have Jeff Bezos money. Western universities have their roots in the Catholic church (and, if Christopher I. Beckwith is right, ultimately in the vihara of the Buddhist world via Muslim madrasas). Clergy, lawyers, and doctors made up the entirety of university student bodies until fairly recently historically, and their courses of study were intended to prepare them for careers in these fields and in diplomacy, etc. However, the focus on utility in education tends to dissolve the more humanistic elements of education understood as a means of improving oneself. As universities become more and more like corporations, the sense that one is doing something more than jumping through a hoop on the way to a job fades into the background.

Even in historic situations where one went to university to, for example, become a priest, the actual knowledge acquisition was supplemented by a sense that one was becoming a kind of person. A newly-minted Anglican priest with bad personal habits (or heterodox positions on the Trinity, like Isaac Newton) would not be likely to go very far in the institution, regardless of their mastery of the material taught.

Like capitalism, which dissolved feudal bonds (a good thing), but then set up new problems, the modern corporate university has largely dissolved the sense of molding or shaping particular kinds of people, all the “educating the whole student” stuff you see in their fliers notwithstanding. Universities no longer act in loco parentis, which is good, and in most cases public universities don’t make weird requirements of their students for purposes of moral control. On the other hand, this means that universities are slowly becoming further and further integrated into the general webwork of hyper-industrial capitalism, creating students who may know how to do a certain job (when they even know that), but that are otherwise disinterested in the world or learning more about it. Learning, which capital understands purely in terms of “efficient” utility, becomes something one invests in, but under the aegis of all capitalist investment: ROI. Without a strong value proposition and good possibility of return on one’s investment, learning becomes, at best, a kind of “hobby.” Or at least something one does not pursue with the kind of intensity that an iron-worker with a fourth grade education in the 1930s would have consumed offerings from the Everyman’s Library or Penguin. Since from within the mind of capital there is no possible incentive aside from capital accumulation, whatever kind of person is produced by universities must, first and foremost, be more or less completely “mapped” and set up for integration into capital’s net. Of course, being heavily indebted with neither real estate or financial instruments to show for it contributes to disciplining those whose mapping doesn’t stick.

Coccia’s book, for all its merits, falls victim (a bit) to the blindness to work outside of philosophy that I’ve been describing. He offers a variety of introductory texts on topics in botany, but part of the book’s argument is that philosophy has largely ignored plants, to its own detriment. I’m not in a position to adjudicate this claim, although Coccia makes good arguments. But here’s the thing. There are people considering and thinking about plants and the world. They’ve been doing it for years, but they haven’t been doing it in philosophy departments.

Examples off the top of my head: the works of Loren Eiseley, Michael Pollan, Merlin Sheldrake, Robin Wall Kimmerer and others (without mentioning similar work in fiction, documentary films, etc). Kimmerer works directly in botany, Sheldrake is a scholar of fungus, Eiseley was an anthropologist, and Pollan has written several best-selling books on human interactions with plants and food.

Now, the cynic might object: under capitalism, the only books that get picked up and published by prominent presses are books that fundamentally do not challenge the social order. While these books may be interesting, they can’t actually offer any meaningful change because they are so popular. I have two points in response to this.

First, making this claim does capitalism’s job for it. Like all other forms of social organization, capitalism presents itself as natural. Financial “survival of the fittest” and unethical dealing suddenly become acceptable when, before, usury, simony, and other rules of the game under capitalism were not just crimes but sins, transgressions against moral law. The stakes were much higher than a fine from the SEC. Again, the only incentive capital can see is maximizing profits and accumulating more capital – if you have to behave unethically or immorally to do that, then you can just go to a tent revival or Pentecostalist service, have a blissed-out ecstatic experience that you take to mean assurance of your salvation, and then get right back to “the grind.” Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do, and you have to think that it is natural and normal that this be the case. But here’s the thing: capital is myopic in this way. You, the person living in a hyper-industrial capitalist society, do not have to be. Capital is hegemonic and creeps its way into every nook and cranny of the world, but it doesn’t go all the way down.

Maybe it is the case that Michael Pollan’s books simply serve to reinforce and reproduce capitalist forms of life. But how can you know that if you don’t read them? How can you know that buried in the garbage, are valuable bits that could be used, repurposed, remixed, or argued against? For all you know, Pollan may be keenly aware of the limitations placed on him by the vicissitudes of the book marketplace. Maybe there was a truly trenchant critique of mono cropping in one of his books that an editor ordered cut out. Besides, since we all live under capitalism, Pollan has to make money somehow. He could do it in ways far more compromising than writing books about fruit.

Second: If anyone hopes to find a way beyond capitalism and its depredations, they should celebrate the fact that anti-capitalist sentiment and critiques of capitalism – some of which do in fact get published by large presses – are becoming popular and, in the process, moving out of niche subcultures and into the suburbs. It is entirely possible that a book one could buy at a ridiculous markup in an airport bookstore with dramamine and some gum might articulate critiques of capitalism or offer alternatives or food for thought. But one might never know, because the title sounds like something one’s dyed-in-the-wool Hillary voter parents would like. Surely a book available in such a place couldn’t have anything to say to philosophy, Regina Philosophiae Gratia Deo.

I will admit that a book called something like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck (a real title), or The Flower Child Within: Psychodynamic Gardening against Attention Difficulties (fake, but plausible), does not appeal to me. I certainly wouldn’t pay for either title. But! I would consider checking out a copy from the library or borrowing a copy. (But definitely not going to certain websites in search of a pdf…) I would read it not to just gulp it down uncritically, but to actually engage with the world and what all the people that will also have to be on board with The Revolution are thinking.

And so, after rambling in the brambles, we return to Coccia and to the possibilities in popular science books. If there’s a point to all this, it’s that insofar as philosophy understands (or understood) itself as a universal discipline, a discipline for which no part of the world is completely foreign or inaccessible, one of the philosopher’s first jobs should be to learn as much as they can about that world, and actually try to do something with that knowledge. Even if that means being a dilettante. Some degree of specialization may not only be unavoidable but necessary in a world of incredible technical complexity. But it doesn’t mean one should pass up anything on the other shelves.

Spandrel: Plants want to grow


…I discovered some volunteers in the compost pile! They appear to be tomatoes, surely sprouted from some Roma or cherry tomatoes that I fed the pile some time ago.

volunteers in the compost pile (sometime at the beginning of May, 2022)

Volunteers interest me because they demonstrate something important: plants want to grow. Given even somewhat right conditions, plants will sprout and get to creating their own environment, reaching up to the sun and down into the earth at the same time.

In a way, the position of plants resembles the way Buddhist traditions understand humanity. Unlike the Abrahamic traditions in which humans represent a particular and special part of God’s creation, in Buddhist thought humans don’t differ ontologically or teleologically from other beings. Human life remains valuable, but, at least in the Mahayana tradition, differs only in degree from other forms of life rather than in kind. Hence the prevalence of vegetarianism in Mahayana schools. Humans, (in)famously, make their own environments. But only after plants have made one for us first.

But though humans don’t differ in kind from other beings, human life nonetheless remains precious because we are ideally suited to awakening to what the Buddha taught: that life is characterized by suffering. Humans are conscious and, therefore, aware of our suffering as such, but we are also relatively limited in our abilities to remove the possibility of suffering from our lives. By contrast, gods and other celestial beings “higher” than humans enjoy long lives devoid of suffering, but because their lives are completely carefree, it never (or rarely) occurs to them to try and figure out the problem of birth, death, and rebirth. In traditional accounts, this means that after death gods and celestial beings, having done nothing to expiate their bad karma or gain merit and insight, tend to be reborn “down,” as animals or humans.

Many cultures use trees as symbols connecting the worlds above and below, and for good reason: terrestrial plants are the reason any terrestrial animals exist, and, therefore, any intelligent life (on this planet). The bumper sticker that reads “Trees are the Answer” isn’t incorrect, just a bit limited in scope. Plants convert solar energy into sugars and turn solid rock into soil, making life possible for others – in a way, we humans (and other heterotrophs) have a parasitic relationship with the autotrophs that built the possibility of our world from bare rock and CO2. [Cue Agent Smith in the scene where Morpheus is chained up in The Matrix.]

The same volunteers, the end of May 2022

But parasitism isn’t exactly right. Humans are responsible, along with other factors, for the extinction of a great many plant species, but we also have something approaching a commensal or mutualist relationship with a significant number of others. But regardless of our relationships with them, humans can learn something from the plants around us: plants make worlds that suit them without thinking about it. We humans, parasites par excellence, can’t not think (I think?). But if we look to plants, who patiently make worlds day in and day out, sometimes suffering, often dying, we might catch a glimpse of a positive way of being, a way of being that makes worlds constantly, because it wants to…


Report from the Workshop: 05/22/21

Report: plants, writing, and knowing what happened to you.

[Note: this post will consist of slightly more “confessional” material than I would usually publicize. Not baring my soul type stuff, but maybe “meditations” like Descartes (only without my converting to total rationalism).]

Earlier this week I received confirmation that when I injured my knee in March I not only completely tore my ACL, but also sprained my MCL and damaged two meniscuses. Cautionary tale not to get dancing-drunk at weddings, I guess. I appreciate now actually knowing the score rather than being caught between optimism and frustration, but knowing has also brought new problems.

M has several medical professionals in her family, and has passed my information on to them. One says that I might not need surgical repair, another seems to suggest that I definitely should have surgical repair. I await an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon to get more insight.

Here’s the confessional part: I hate doctors. Not the people themselves, or Medicine in general (this isn’t some anti-vaxx bullshit), but going to the office itself, sitting and waiting, getting weighed and measured and blood pressured, waiting again, getting poked, prodded, told to lose weight, asked questions I feel like I’m supposed to know the answer to but don’t, being expected to advocate for myself when all I want to do is get the fuck away from the linoleum and scrubs and standard-issue old magazines and bad landscapes on the wall. I’ve been working with a physical therapist for a few weeks now to get my knee stronger and I not only like her, but actively enjoy the sessions. And yet, the part of the building outside her office is The Doctor’s, and my heart is always nervously pounding when she comes out to greet me. Even my old therapist, whose practice was in an office building and looked distinctly unlike a medial clinic, made me nervous. (She was surprised to learn this since she wasn’t a psychiatrist. I said I couldn’t imagine anyone not being terrified.) About the only people I have a more severe allergy to than doctors are sports coaches, “motivational” people, and obnoxious businessman types.

Needless to say, the possibility of surgery, of entering the very Belly of the Beast (the hospital) does not have me feeling great. Knowing that needles will likely be involved makes things worse.

Why do I share this? For one thing, I have tried to see this as a way to do some desensitizing training. If I go to the doctor enough times without anything bad happening to me or anyone making me feel bad, maybe I’ll start feeling better about it. I don’t think anyone enjoys going to the doctor, but my aversion is so severe that, before covid, I hadn’t had a flu shot in nearly a decade. I recognize that, for some, this will seem horrible unethical, but it’s hard to express how much the thought of needles makes me afraid. My blood pressure skyrockets, I start shaking, I turn pale, and, in extremis, I start saying really, really nasty things.

I will probably be posting more about this topic as a way to try and deal with it. Maybe.

On a different, and more pleasant, note, M and I went to the botanical gardens this morning. I wasn’t able to walk all that much, but we enjoyed the flowers and the nice weather. I’ve mostly been planning my own garden since I can’t really do much physical work in the yard because of my knee. As we walked I got to thinking about taking cuttings and the ethics of taking cuttings.

I recently read an interesting book by Emanuele Caccione called The Life of Plants. I’m still processing my notes from that reading, and will eventually post a full-length review here, but I wanted to mention an interesting point that Caccione discusses: plants make their own environments.

Right now, our backyard is mostly sand and gravel. This is not uncommon in Albuquerque, where lawns are an expensive (and wasteful, I would argue) use of water. There are, of course, all kinds of plants that will grow here just fine without supplemental irrigation after establishing themselves, but figuring that out takes more effort than I think many people are used to. I’ve done a bit of planting and some putting about trying to shovel up gravel, but the bulk of the work will have to wait until my knee is better.

I got to thinking about taking cuttings because plants can be fickle. They don’t always do what their planters want them to do, regardless of what it says on the label. A good bet, then, is finding established plants around you and trying to propagate them individually, letting them make an environment that humans and other people can enjoy as well. Taking cuttings also makes me think of my reading and writing process. I read a book, mark good lines, and then “take cuttings” by writing the lines out on index cards and filing them. (I promised a fuller treatment of this practice in a previous post and, now, renew my promise to get it written. At some point.)

Aside from posts to this blog, I haven’t done much writing lately. With the semester now truly over and some more daylight hours available to me, I hope to get into a more consistent writing habit. I started working out a short story earlier this week that I think has legs. Of course, one benefit of surgery would be an excuse to sit and write all day as I recover. We’ll see.

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