“At the age of eight, I still dreamed of being granted plant status.”
– Henri Michaux, “Slices of Knowledge”
An Italian born philosopher Emanuele Coccia is particularly famous for his work The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture (2018). Coccia, who is coming to Finland to give a public lecture in September, wrote his doctoral thesis on the philosophy of Averroes and has since investigated topics such as the ontology of images and metamorphoses. When examining art, he makes use of the concept of a “philosophical laboratory”. Coccia is widely regarded as one of the foremost post-humanist philosophers, not least because of his engaging style of writing and his broad-minded speculative imagination.
In The Life of Plants, Coccia engages in an exercise in modern plant-centred natural philosophy. For Coccia, the atmosphere created by plants is the necessary condition of philosophy, and he regards the way in which plants combine spirit and matter, animate and inanimate, as the guiding light to a way of thinking that recognises the worth of the biosphere: “Just as a certain temperature, a certain light, and any new layout of natural elements can change the face of a place and determine its inhabitability, in the same way any philosophical event modifies the layout of the forms of knowledge and know-how of a given historical context so as to change radically its mode of existence”, says Coccia about the ethos of his thinking. Photosynthesis is the most powerful medium of the biosphere and the plants’ creative interpretation of the Sun. Only the plants know how to prepare a meal out of sunlight.
In the past few decades, the boundaries between human and animal cultures have repeatedly, and convincingly, been blurred by posthumanistic discourse, multidisciplinary environmental research, and breakthroughs in zoology. In particular, the idea of humans being the reason of nature, which is especially typical of North-Atlantic ways of thinking, and the consequent attempt to control the future start to look increasingly implausible. Those who belong to the planetary middle class are in many ways failed animals, but it is possible that they are even more unsuited to be plants, if one follows Coccia’s line of thought. The cultural periods of plants typically last for hundreds of thousands of years, whereas the capitalist civilisation, highly dependent on fossil fuels and loudly proclaiming to represent reason and pragmatism, will struggle to reach 200 years before its imminent self-destruction.
When reflecting upon Coccia’s philosophy, one is reminded of the fact that when one ignores plants as a topic of philosophy, one fails to be thankful of both the nutrition they provide and the other essential preconditions of life, such as oxygen and the different cyclical processes that maintain all life in the soil. Indeed, Coccia’s research prose reaches its most beautiful heights when it extols plants as the creators of the “atmosphere of thinking” and reminds the reader of the inability of humans to perform photosynthesis and to engage in a vitally sensible negotiation with the mineral kingdom. Coccia goes so far as to give plants credit for sexuality and eroticism – sexuality that “is no longer the morbid sphere of the infrarational, the site of murky and nebulous affects. It is the structure and ensemble of the encounters with the world that allow everything to let itself be touched by the other, to progress in its evolution, to reinvent itself, to become other in the body of resemblance. Sexuality is not a purely biological fact, an outburst [élan] of life qua life, but a movement of the cosmos in its totality.”
So, if one takes Coccia at his word, being a plant is metaphysically more fundamental than being an animal, and from the perspective of natural history, animals and humans are in fact specialised plants – although admittedly highly specialised. Most plants would thrive even better without humans, whereas humans cannot survive without plants even for a single day. It is symptomatic that in the rather biophobic Western thinking, the direction of this dependency has been turned on its head with systematic regularity, so that plants have been conceptualised as occupying a place that is barely above the inanimate world, and thus freely exploitable by human cultures. Coccia argues that this is particularly true for European-based thinking, which is characterised by “animalic racism.” As a counter-measure, Coccia tries to raise nature back on its feet, that is, on its roots and tendrils.
Coccia does not really discuss plants as scientific objects, but rather as a “form of immersion”. The “metaphysics of mixture”, on the other hand, means that both in the act and potential of breathing, the immersion of plants provides a seamless connection between spirit and matter. “Plants are the breath of all living beings, the world as breath. In turn, any breath is evidence of the fact that being in the world is, fundamentally, an experience of immersion. […] Any being is a being of the world [mondain] if it immersed in what immerses itself in it.”
Many of the claims in The Life of Plants are provocative from the perspective of natural science. Nevertheless, the grand claims are backed up with an impressive amount of botanical and natural philosophical literature as well as with Coccia’s own concrete experiences of working with plants. Furthermore, Coccia does not shy away from using ecstatically poetic forms of expression when he defends philosophy as a form of anarchistic primary production, whose rationality comes into bloom because of love: “[T]he only method [of philosophy] is an extremely intense love for knowledge, a wild, brute, indocile passion for knowledge in all its forms and in all its subjects. Philosophy is knowledge under the empire of Eros, the most undisciplined and rugged of all gods. It can never be a discipline.” In other words, the question is not about academic philosophy; however, it most certainly is about continuous art-related research.
In conclusion, Coccia’s philosophy constitutes a praise of questions that in their manifestations rise out of the non-human and a persistent lingering in their strangeness. If for Hegel the “spirit was a bone” in The Phenomenology of the Spirit, then for Coccia “reason is a flower” in The Life of Plants. This is what progress looks like in philosophy.
Text: Professor of Writing Antti Salminen, translation Turo Vartiainen