“Everything is Breath”: Critical Plant Studies’ Metaphysics of Mixture

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In her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin W. Kimmerer contrasts two creation stories that are thoroughly incompatible. One starts with an all-powerful male creator calling the world and its vegetation and animals into existence through words, and forming the first human beings from clay; the other starts with Skywoman tumbling through the air with seeds in her fist from the Tree of Life growing in Skyworld. One ends with the condemnation of woman to give birth in “very severe” pains, with the cursing of the ground ordered to “produce thorns and thistles” as punishment for man who will eat his food only after “painful toil,” and the expulsion from the garden; the other ends in gratitude for the collective caring of the animals, with the creation of “a garden for the well-being of all.” One includes an original fall from grace whose burden will be passed down from generation to generation; the other acknowledges suffering without a trace of the burden of unearned guilt. One predicts death as a return to the dust from whence mankind was created; the other imagines death as becoming plant and fruit, as becoming gift, a rejoining the spirits of all ancestors, human and others, who surround the living in everything that is. The threat of one is the inexorability of a trajectory “from dust to dust” and the latter’s association, with Plato, of something so diffuse that it doesn’t merit a concept or idea; the promise of the other is an abiding relationship with all that is, the reciprocity of giving and gratitude, and the gladly assumed responsibility for the “inspirited” land.

Kimmerer comments:

Same species, same earth, different stories. Like Creation stories everywhere, cosmologies are a source of identity and orientation to the world. They tell us who we are. We are inevitably shaped by them no matter how distant they may be from our consciousness. One story leads to the generous embrace of the living world, the other to banishment. One woman is our ancestral gardener, a cocreator of the good green world that would be the home of her descendants. The other was an exile, just passing through an alien world on a rough road […].1All quotes: The Hebrew Bible, Book of Genesis, Ch. 3, New International Version; Kimmerer 7, 23, 33, 54, 159, 205, 254f, passim.

Cosmologies express collective imaginairies that have evolved over hundreds, even thousands of years. The Iroquois story recounted and rendered accessible by Kimmerer is one of countless creation stories that constitute an “important genre in many preliterate traditions” (Zolbrod 5). Kimmerer suggests that even though the Judeo-Christian creation story may have receded into the background of Western collective consciousness, it plays a role in the planet’s devastation. What strikes the reader in the story of Skywoman is the centrality of reciprocity, of relation, and, as the woman’s name indicates, the significance of the sky. While this might mean, on planet Earth, the atmosphere–the Earth’s sky is blue because of the surrounding atmosphere–the implications of the sky’s preponderance reach beyond the planetary into the cosmological. The “sky is not what is above. The sky is everywhere: it is the space and the reality of mixture and movement, the definite horizon starting from which everything has to draw itself” (Coccia 218-219) in order to breathe and live.

In order to continue to breathe, breathe in the long-term, the long-term, that is, as Barbara Kingsolver put it in one of her poems, “from a tree’s / way of thinking” (7), non-human kin’s “way of thinking” will need to play a role in humans’ self-understanding. Kyle Whyte underlines that it is not enough to respond with urgency to specific ecological crises (fires, flooding, etc.) alone, but, rather, “urgency must be aimed at addressing ecological and relational tipping points together”:

U.S. settler colonialism, for example, in a short period of time, inflicted displacement, drastic ecological changes, and lost or disrupted relationships with hundreds of species that indigenous peoples depended on through kinship ties for generations. These changes are more extreme than what many nonindigenous persons fear most about moving beyond 2 C. Most critically, they rendered us in situations in which we have few consensual, trustworthy, reciprocal, or accountability traditions with the societal institutions we have to deal with, whether corporations or nations. And relatives like plants, insects, water, and animals suffer greatly from the absence of such traditions in terms of their own coordination with humans.

The agency of the non-human underlined by Whyte is momentous, as their “own coordination with humans” would need to occur in a different time frame than the one imposed by capitalism (shorthand for the long history of extraction colonialism and its contemporary dead ends). According to Whyte, only the time-intensive “establishment of kinship” over generations will “make it possible, at some point in the future, to behave urgently when the need arises.”

A different cosmology might seem impossible, given how “inevitably shaped” (Kimmerer) most people in Western countries (and elsewhere) are by the dominant one, especially given the responsibility of one for the attempt to eradicate the others. Chloe Ahmann and Alison Kenner emphasize the need for “diagnostic work” to assess the “environmental devastation,” but they also vow to follow “Black and Indigenous studies scholars who have flagged the problems of overemphasizing damage;” and thus to “begin with the mess but not end there”: “We think the time has come for a shift in attention from the sluggish, gasping body to breath itself: a lively force” (418, 422).

This is also the starting point for Emanuele Coccia’s book, The Life of Plants: “Breath is, quite simply, the first name of being in the world” (135). In the footsteps of scholars dedicated to critical plant studies,2Stefano Mancuso, Heather Sullivan, Anna Lowenhaupt, Monica Gagliano, Matthew Hall, Patrícia Vieira, Michael Marder, and others. Coccia replaces the centrality of psukhē (“soul”) which Aristotle took to be “the principle (archē) of all living beings” (Thacker 13) with pneuma, “breath.” As Eugene Thacker has shown, the difficulty Aristotle’s De anima tries in vain to overcome is that his

concept of psukhē must perform contradictory functions—it must account for life without itself being life, and yet it cannot be separate from life. It must be at once external and internal to life. […] [T]his internal split is not simply a split between an abstract Idea and its attendant, accidental characteristics. There is no universal model or mold called psukhē, which then takes on derivative forms as it is incarnated in the world. (14-15)

Coccia acknowledges Aristotle’s centrality for the thinking of life in general, and the life of plants in particular. Before any other philosophy, Aristotelianism “took into account the liminal position of plants, describing them as a universal principle of animation and ensoulment [psychisme]” (32f). Moreover, Aristotle is “very clear” that human beings’

circulatory systems are plantlike—they ‘correspond to the roots of plants’ insofar as they spread the psukhē of growth and nutrition throughout the animal organism. In short, for Aristotle we are not only rational animals; we are also walking plants. (Nealon 36)3Nealon quotes Aristotle’s De Anima.

The unsurmountable contradiction in the concept of psukhē of being both inside and outside inspires the topography of plants and thus of breath described by Marder, Coccia, and others. A second insurmountable contradiction accompanies it, that of humans as walking plants. Thus, if “Aristotle’s De anima codifies much of what Western thinking has to say about ‘life’” (Nealon 36), it also provides an excellent example of the ways in which ‘Western thinking’ carries within it, as Jacques Derrida didn’t tire of showing, its own deconstruction. Aristotle’s “principle through which ‘life belongs to all living things,’” including plants, was upheld throughout the ages until the advent of Cartesian modernity. While the latter, so Coccia’s critique,

has reduced the soul [l’esprit] to its anthropomorphic shadow, plants were considered for centuries the paradigmatic form of reason’s existence, of a soul whose exercise is self-fashioning. The measure of this association resided in the seed. In the seed, vegetative life demonstrates its whole rationality: the production of a certain reality takes place starting from a formal model that is without error. (39-40)

In this quote, the translator’s choice of rendering “esprit” (which would be closer to “pneuma”) with “soul” (which would be closer to psukhē) provides philological evidence for the difficulty to clearly separate the two, and a glimpse into the “mixture” that is at the book’s heart. Coccia understands today’s philosopher’s responsibility to reconsider the question of life and of the world through the universality of shared breath, thereby refuting the metaphysical assumption of breath as spirit (ruoch, pneumo, spiritus) inhabiting a higher ontological order than matter, and consequently the claim of animal superiority over plants. Inspired by the Stoics’ concept of “total mixture,” Coccia’s proposal of a “metaphysics of mixture” (108) generates a plethora of adjustments particularly responsive to a world in ecological crisis. The first of these adjustments is the realization that “the world is not a place; it is a state of immersion of each thing in all other things” (163).

Everything that breathes does so because of plants: “It is through them and with their help that our planet produces its atmosphere and makes breath possible for the beings that cover its outer skin. The life of plants is a cosmogony in action, the constant genesis of our cosmos” (Coccia 33f). Plants, in Michael Marder’s formulation, generate the cosmos through the articulation of “water, air, fire, and earth”:

they are rooted not only in the earth but in all four elements, including the heat and light of the sun, the atmosphere that they enrich with oxygen, and the moisture they require for their flourishing. Plants are the first living bridges between the elements that, thanks to them, become livable for animals and humans. (120)

Thus, for Coccia, the “exploration of vegetal life” should lead to a “cosmology” which he considers “the only form of philosophy that can be considered legitimate” (53). As Timothy Morton observes, “nobody likes it […] when you mention the environment,” because when you do,

you bring it into the foreground. In other words, it stops being the environment. It stops being That Thing Over There that surrounds and sustains us. When you think about where your waste goes, your world starts to shrink. This is the basic message of criticism that speaks up for environmental justice […]. (10)

Similarly, the dependency of all life on breathability (one of the “teaching of plants” [Kimmerer]), causes one’s world and cosmos to shrink, even become intimate, at the same time as thinking about breath with plant philosophers causes one’s world to also expand cosmically. In the “immanence of breath, the world appears to be something closer and extremely different from what we imagined. It is the unseen face that plants allow us to contemplate” (Coccia 174). As soon as breath is traced to what makes it possible, the “topological hierarchy” of “the environment over the living, of the world over life, of space over the subject” (34f) is destroyed, causing a non-hierarchical topology to emerge:

When there is life, the container is located in the contained (and is thus contained by it); and vice versa. The paradigm of this mutual overlap is what the ancients called ‘breath’ (pneuma). To breathe means to be immersed in a medium that penetrates us with the same intensity as we penetrate it. (35)

A “metaphysics of mixture” considers that far from being “poor of world” (weltarm) or even “world-less” (weltlos),4As Heidegger said of animals and stones — plants aren’t mentioned. plants generated the world, “even though the status of this making is quite different from that of any other activity of living beings.” The world is, “above all, everything the plants could make of it” (Coccia 53) As a consequence,

plants let us see the most radical form of being in the world: they adhere to it completely […]. Far from being passive, they exercise on the world, which we all experience through the simple act of being, the most intense influence with the richest consequences, and this on a global, not a local scale. They change the world, not just their environment or their ecological niche. To think of plants means to think of a being in the world that is immediately cosmogonic. (89f)

According to Marder, plants “actively articulate organic and inorganic facets of their milieu, form ecosystems and microclimates, influence the atmosphere, and transform the places of their growth into receptacles for other kinds of life” (120). Marder’s use of the verb “articulate” indicates a specific “language” that for him includes intentionality and the ability to respond. The debate over whether plants’ code and signaling is tantamount to language has gained momentum over the last decade with researchers, for example, documenting plants’ ability to deceive.5See Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan, Patrícia Vieira, eds., The Language of Plants. But whereas animal and plant lures “are straightforward, the human being is unique in being capable of a special kind of lure […] which involves deceiving by pretending to deceive” (Thomas 104). The debate about language notwithstanding, the climate emergency proves that “[t]he intricate weave, or ecology, of narratives that make up modern human culture and identities is very narrowly anthropocentric and steeped in human exceptionalism to the extent that the values and dramas of nonhuman stories are marginalized or trivialized” (Jones 395). In a reflection resonant with Skywoman’s creation story, Marder writes that plants’

self-affirmation is, simultaneously, the affirmation of their others, be they the classical elements, animals, or humans. And, just as sound is extraneous to the functioning of their language, so their intentionality need not connote a purposeful extension of hospitality to the other. Rather, vegetal hospitality is one and the same with the very heteronomous being of plants. (121)

Plants, therefore, are “the real mediators” (Coccia 53). They “live both above and below ground, joining Skyworld to the earth. Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away” (Kimmerer 9). Their cosmogonic work is a potentially unending gift: their production of an atmosphere that renders animal life possible. It is also an unending receiving: “There is no Earth that is not intrinsically tied to the Sun, there is no Sun that is not in the course of making possible the superficial and profound animation of the Earth” (Coccia 215f).

In spite of the Western sidelining of plants’ world as immersion, communities of color have been plunged into the latter in deadly ways: In the US, for example, “People of Color Breathe More Unhealthy Air from Nearly All Polluting Sources,” as the Scientific American titled a recent article, summarizing the findings of a growing body of data and a new study thus: “Systemic Racism is in the Air” (Lloyd). Sefanit Habtom and Megan Scribe recall “that conspire translates from Latin to mean ‘to breathe together’” and thus calls for “relationships we imagine might take the shape of co-conspirators” to oppose

settler atmospherics: the supposedly natural violence found in settler colonialism and anti-blackness. Settler atmospherics might include the gas and chemicals that were used to break up Standing Rock […], the asphyxiation of Eric Garner and George Floyd, and the respiratory impacts of COVID-19 that are felt most significantly in […] communities [of color].6They reference K. Simmons, “Settler Atmospherics,” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 20, 2017, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/settler-atmospherics

Philosophy, as cosmology, would need to foreground the urgency of shared breath, and conspire with climate and environmental justice activists in the realization that “nothing can separate itself from the fate of the rest, and everything lets itself be traversed by the world and therefore can traverse it” (Coccia 167).

“To intermingle within breath” has, thus, countless ethical implications: “to breathe is to let oneself be penetrated by the world in order to make, from the world, something that is also made from our breath. Everything breathes and everything is breath because all things interpenetrate.” (168) They interpenetrate because of plants’ “perpetual devotion to the sky” (220), breathtakingly captured in a poem by Barbara Kingsolver, “How to Fly (in Ten Thousand Easy Lessons)”:

Behold your body as water
and mineral worth, the selfsame
water that soon (from a tree’s
way of thinking, soon) will be
lifted through the elevator hearts
of a forest, returned to the sun
in a leaf-eyed gaze. And the rest!
All wordless leavings, the perfect
bonewhite ash of you: light
as snowflakes, falling on updrafts
toward the unbodied breath of a bird.

Behold your elements reassembled
as pieces of sky, ascending
without regret, for you’ve been lucky
enough. Fallen for the last time into
a slump, the wrong crowd, love.
You’ve made the best deal.
You summitted the mountain
or you didn’t. Anything left undone
you can slip like a cloth bag of marbles
into the hands of a child
who will be none the wiser.

Imagine your joy on rising.
Repeat as necessary.

Works Cited

  • Ahmann, Chloe, and Alison Kenner. “Breathing Late Industrialism.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, vol. 6, 2020.
  • Coccia, Emanuele. Life of Plants. A Metaphysics of Mixture. Translated by D. Montanari, Polity Press, 2019.
  • Habtom, Sefanit, and Megan Scribe. “To Breathe Together: Co-Conspirators for Decolonial Futures.” Yellowhead Institute, June 2, 2020, https://yellowheadinstitute.org/2020/06/02/to-breathe-together/
  • Jones, Owain, et al. “Everyday Ecocide, Toxic Dwelling, and the Inability to Mourn: A Response to Geographies of Extinction.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 12, no. 1. May 2020.
  • Kimmerer, Robin W. Braiding Sweetgrass. Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions 2020.
  • Kingsolver, Barbara. How to Fly (in Ten Thousand Easy Lessons): Poetry. Harper Collins, 2020.
  • Lloyd, Robin. “People of Color Breathe More Unhealthy Air from Nearly All Polluting Sources.” Scientific American, April 2021, scientificamerican.com/article/people-of-color-breathe-more-unhealthy-air-from-nearly-all-polluting-sources
  • Marder, Michael. “To Hear Plants Speak.” The Language of Plants. Science, Philosophy, Literature, edited by Monica Gagliano et al., University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature. Rethinking environmental aesthetics. Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Nealon, Jeffrey. Plant Theory. Biopower and Vegetable Life. Stanford University Press, 2016.
  • Thacker, Eugene. After Life. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Thomas, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Rutgers 1996
  • Whyte, Kyle. “Too Late for Indigenous Climate Justice: Ecological and Relational Tipping Points.” WIREs Climate Change, vol. 11, issue 1, 2019. Wiley’s Online Library, https://doi-org.calarts.idm.oclc.org/10.1002/wcc.60311:e603
  • Zolbrod, Paul. Diné bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story. University of New Mexico Press, 1984.
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