Essay: Care and the Green Thumb

WARNING: If you have no patience for elliptical style, riffs and digressions, or etymological wordplay, best skip this post.

Problematic: What does it mean to have a “green thumb?”

For Heidegger, one properly acts through the hand. (Do note the singular.) Insofar as humans (which are not all Dasein, and, at least for Dreyfus, vice versa) have hands, we properly act. The hand distinguishes the human from the non-human in acting.

Of course, an immediate objection arises: what about the great apes? Or Old and New World monkeys? What about elephants, whose trunks are at least as capable of handling finicky bits as a human’s fingers? As Derrida argues pretty convincingly in The Animal that Therefore I Am, Heidegger’s thinking privileges humans over other species, thus inadvertently continuing a tradition that places humans, if not at center stage, then at least at the top of the playbill. Any attempt to identify and designate a specific difference between human and any given animal fails, on Derrida’s account, not least because one could always find examples of individuals that are not human doing things that, supposedly, only humans can do. Of course, DNA sequencing makes this trick even easier. I have a lot more common with a pumpkin than one might initially suppose. (A fact which I rather like. Pumpkins, when planted as part of a Three Sisters bed, provide shade and keep the soil cool and moist for the beans and corn. I’ve always felt more comfortable with support/maintenance roles – a point I will return to below. Besides, pumpkins are kinda round and squat, much like myself.)

For the moment, I want to bracket concern with differentiating humans from animals. While I find Derrida’s contributions useful and important, it nonetheless remains obvious to me that, even if one cannot clearly and permanently distinguish humans from species that are not human (and that this lack of distinction bears ethical ramifications), differences nevertheless persist.

Rather than the hand, then, I would look to the thumb, the means by which one (a human and a Dasein, for the time being) grips, encircles, takes hold of. In German, a concept is a ,,Begriff,” reminiscent of “gripped.” One encircles with a concept, creates a barrier or boundary (or perhaps a membrane), a place to hold on – a grip. In Heidegger’s “A Triadic Conversation,” the character of the Scholar most clearly represents the power of the ,,Begriff,” of the concept as boundary.

[A brief riff, if the reader will indulge me. Humans act through the hand, but this does not apply to all humans. Even bracketing for the moment individuals with impairments or motor difficulties, at a much more basic level the hand does not represent our originary means of “handling” things in the world. How does a baby interact with the world? By putting things in her mouth. One often reads “human” to mean “adult human” (historically also “white,” “male,” and “free” or “property owner.” But how did those adults get to the point of using only their hands to interact, with the mouth relegated to food, drink, medicine, stimulants, and (sometimes) the mouths and genitals of others? The mouth takes in, and indiscriminately, until the hand mediates the encounter.]

The longest of Heidegger’s “conversations” (collected in Country Path Conversations edited and with an excellent introduction by Brett W. Davis) takes place on, you guessed it, a country path. Three conversants, a Guide, a Scholar, and a Scientist, take up again a conversation they had left off a year earlier. As the conversation carries on, the Guide seeks to convince the Scientist that, contrary to popular belief, one can describe science as an applied technology, rather than the other way around. The Scientist, a physicist and positivist, resists these ideas, remarking that the Guide’s words make him feel “groundless” or dizzy. For the Scientist, the Guide is LSD in the water. But not so with the Scholar.

As the conversation ambles on, the Scholar tries to find ways to identify and encircle the Guide’s words. Some statement reminds him of Leibniz, or Spinoza. Unlike the Scientist, whose disciplinary specificity and (necessary!) rigidity make him an easy window to smash, the Scholar has a much more flexible immune response. He enlarges the circle of a concept, broader and broader, until it can, potentially, fill all of space. The Scholar, one could say, has a much firmer “grip.”

The range of the Scholar’s ability to “grip” novelty into his existing handhold makes him (an assumption – we don’t actually know from the text) a tougher nut to crack for the Guide (whom I think one can safely say represents Heidegger more or less in earnest). To the Scholar, anything the Guide says can be identified with an existing concept and fit into an existing schema. Resemblance oozes subtly into identity.

I have, of course, a literary analogy for this phenomenon. In William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (probably his most interesting novel, in my opinion), the protagonist Cayce Pollard (about whom more in this post) travels from New York to London to Tokyo to Moscow, and each time finds herself playing a kind of game where, when faced with difference, she tries to fit it into an existing schema. Parts of London (which she calls the “mirror world”) are “really” like New York. Parts of Tokyo are “really” like London. Anyone who has traveled extensively, especially to big cities, will recognize this pattern of behavior, a pattern made increasingly understandable (if no more laudable) by the homogenization and leveling of global culture. For me, Shanghai “really” was just like Paris until I turned off the main thoroughfares and found myself firmly back in China again. But then I passed a Burger King, entered a Starbucks, and placed an order in English, at which point I could have found myself pretty much anywhere.

[I beg the reader’s indulgence for another riff. Starbucks, it seems to me, best represents the homogenized no-place subsuming cities large and small. I have visited Starbucks locations in several countries on three and a half continents, and each only stands out as a separate place in my mind because of its differential surrounding context. For example, I visited one in Shanghai located inside a huge multi-layer mall that I found garish and too bright. It looked just like all the “nice” malls I have ever visited, but something felt a bit “off,” like how UHT milk from a box doesn’t taste like fresh milk. Another Starbucks, in Mexico, I remember because the inside of the shop was too intensely air-conditioned, leaving the glass door to the outdoor seating area covered in a thick layer of condensation. It gets hot on the Yucatan Peninsula.

One might respond that McDonalds would serve as a better example of homogenization. I would not disagree. Initially I would say that McDonalds has more of a functional or even “low class” set of associations and homogenizes “from the ground up,” but that doesn’t exactly work since, for example in China, one can buy fast food from street vendors for much cheaper. McDonalds isn’t haute cuisine there, but it’s not a cheap source of fast and convenient calories. Again like Cayce Pollard, whose usual “allergy” to haute couture brands bothers her less in Tokyo than it does in London, context matters. Nonetheless, I think that Starbucks, which I associate with people tap-tapping away on MacBooks, better represents the digital and aesthetic homogenization of culture. Maybe a homogenization from the inside out, from the aspirational and downwardly mobile middle- and consuming classes that serve as insurance against overproduction. A smoothing of culture, as Byung-chul Han puts it in Saving Beauty. To put it a bit vaguely, a McDonalds anywhere feels like more of a “real place” to me than a Starbucks anywhere.]

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that making comparisons or finding similarities is some kind of problem in and of itself. You need some existing schema to apprehend a new idea, at least initially. Learning the grammar of your own native language makes learning a foreign one easier (or at least less totally baffling). The problem arises when all novelty is “fittable” into one’s schema ahead of time. We don’t live in a modular world, where pieces can go together in various ways, but are nonetheless standardized. This isn’t Legos. Heidegger’s Scientist needed his rigid positivism not only to actually conduct scientific research, but also to allow for the possibility of going beyond his scientism. Byung-chul Han writes (somewhere, I don’t have the citation right now) that knowledge differs from data in that knowledge is gained against resistance. The Scientist’s rigidity creates precisely such resistance. The Scholar’s erudition, on the other hand, more amorphous and loose than the Scientist’s, runs the risk of souring and overrunning the entire world. Like a gas, there’s nothing to push back against. Every Starbucks looks like all the other Starbucks, even if the layout and specifics differ slightly. If you’ve seen one Starbucks, you can probably literally imagine them all.

Speaking of Starbucks, where they wear green aprons, I now sense the approach of the point of this excursion, like a change in the wind. To return to the green thumb.

The thumb serves to grip, to encircle, to make concepted – ,,zu ‘Begriffte’ machen.” As we saw with Heidegger’s Scholar, this gripping broaches the possibility that, as Ecclesiastes would put it, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Everything strikes one simply as “like” something else. One cannot any longer imagine novelty so new that it passes through to trauma.

The green thumb, then, a subspecies of thumb as it were, “grips” and encircles. But now, we must ask: what does it encircle? How hard does it grip? Does the wrist remain loose and flexible, or taught, tight, under pressure? Do the muscles of the forearm suffice to accomplish the hand’s goal, or do you have to put your back into it and slip a disc? Does the grip involve all five fingers? Both hands? (Heidegger, to the best of my knowledge, does not ask or answer these questions. Part of his problem with typewriters has to do with one properly acting “through the hand.” Of course, as Don Ihde points out, this is a clear indication that Heidegger never learned to type with any proficiency.)

A green thumb means its holder (its haver? its bethumbéd?) can keep plants growing and alive. Many people described as having “green thumbs” can, of course, tell others in explicit terms how to care for plants, but their ability nonetheless continues to strike others as peculiar and impressive. And even they themselves cannot exhaustively describe their own capability. Why? Because “having a green thumb” does not mean “knowing all about plants and being able to express that knowledge systematically and precisely in symbolic form.” To those poor souls who always kill their succulents, the “green thumb” is magic , something almost preternatural of which they despair of learning. But this is a mistake.

The meaning of a “green thumb” really comes down to this: a particular way in which the green thumb “grips” the world. It is not a way of knowing in the sense of exhaustively and systematically articulating symbols through recall, but rather a way of comportment, a mode or key of being.

Consider an analogy with your native language. We say that one “knows” one’s native language, but we really mean something more like one lives one’s native language. (To put it in Heidegger’s terms, “language speaks us.”) Aside from sometimes struggling to find the right word, or occasional stumbles, one does not need to remember anything to speak one’s native language. Don’t believe me? Spend six months working diligently but not too intensely on Duolingo (any totally unfamiliar language will do), then take a trip to a place where that language is the native language of most of the population. If possible, try to avoid big cities where you are more likely to encounter others who can translate for you.

What will happen? Well, Duolingo works pretty well, so you’ll get up to speed on basic terms and meeting basic needs quickly enough. But beyond that, you will find yourself thrown for a loop. You will find, in your stumbling attempts to navigate the world and interact with others, hat how you communicate with others plays a significant role in forming both who you are to others and to yourself. The most difficult (and intimidating) part of learning a new language is the plummeting feeling of having to learn how to be yourself again.

A green thumb – or an eye for photographic composition, or an ear for musical composition, or a good arm in baseball – works the same way. One doesn’t “have” a green thumb or “know” a green thumb. One is a green thumb. That is, the green thumb serves as a descriptor of a mode of being in the world, one that cannot be exhaustively expressed because it does not come after the one doing the being – it is the being.

Another analogy might help. I do not know how to surf. If I accompany a surfer to the beach and we both look out onto the ocean, she and I will see different things. Not “literally” (at least assuming we have similar levels of visual acuity, etc.), but rather in the sense that the surfer will be able to tell if it’s a good day for surfing, and I won’t. She might be able to explain some of how she knows this, but not all of it. And, unless my being already exists in some sense “adjacently” to the being of a surfer, I may not even understand the things she is able to explain. However, if I begin learning to surf, if I practice surfing, if I become a surfer, then maybe someday she and I will be able to once again walk onto the beach and both see whether the waves are good that day or not.

The green thumb works the same way. One has to learn how to be such that one has a green thumb. While this learning must incorporate explicit symbolic knowledge to some degree, the real work, the real learning, and the real change in being comes from the doing, and from the becoming.

The green thumb, as a thumb, grips, it creates and holds concepts of the world. But the green thumb differs from, for example, the Scholar’s pre-configured means of expanding his grip, precisely because plants are not symbols. The mimosa tree in my front yard is, if the conditions are within a certain range, gonna mimosa. Period. I can help it along, shelter it, take care of it, feed it and water it, but fundamentally, the plant is doing its own thing. The green thumb “grips” the plant, but it can never do so completely, simply because the plant does not allow itself to be fully symbolized. It is outside of the human in a significant sense, and even an exhaustive knowledge of horticulture does not preclude the possibility of plants dying for what appears to be no reason. For all that one’s symbolic knowledge of plants can expand and expand, it eventually founders on the brute reality that the plant is not up to you.

And here we see the most salient facet of the green thumb. Insofar as it does “grip,” conceptualize, and encircle, it does so in the knowledge that this is only ever a kind of loose grip, a conceptualization that may prove useful in some cases, but ultimately fails to fully encircle its charge. It is a grip of care, the careful grip with which one holds a child’s hand while crossing the street. This is not a grip one can learn except existentially. By doing. And in so doing, by changing not just what one knows, but who one is.

Create your website with
Get started