interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by TAKASHI HOMMA, NURSERY, 2017
OLIVIER ZAHM — In your book La Vie des Plantes: Une Metaphysique du Mélange (The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Melange), you begin with the observation that plants have been neglected in the history of ideas. How did you come to that realization?
EMANUELE COCCIA — When I was young, I was sent to a high school for agriculture. For years, I had to study botany, chemistry, and plant life in general. Since my philosophical interests were well established by then, I had already realized that our knowledge of plants was at a much lower level than our knowledge of animals. The problem with botany is that it’s essentially based on concepts drawn from animal life. Its methodology is built entirely on the animal – life point of view.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What you’re saying, then, is that biology is zoocentric.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. And our neglect and ignorance of plants are far deeper on the philosophical side. Ever since Darwin, even while acknowledging that man is an animal, a biological species, we’ve continued to divide knowledge into the humanities and the natural sciences, when in fact that division makes no sense. At the very least, we should consider the humanities to be part of biology and zoology, and the natural sciences to be spiritual sciences, because man is an animal.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And somewhere in that division between the humanities and the natural sciences, plants have been forgotten.
EMANUELE COCCIA — There are psychological reasons as well. It’s probably easier to identify with an animal than with a plant. Ecological debates start with the assumption that we absolutely must save the animals because we’re doing them violence, but we give little thought, or much less thought, to what happens in the vegetal world.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You analyze every aspect of plants — leaves, roots, flowers — and you extrapolate the notion that plants serve to link together all other forms of life; they’re the link between animals, men, the earth, the sky.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. Plants embody life’s continuity, not its separation into distinct realms. First of all, plants produce continuity insofar as they’re the agents that produce the physical atmosphere — oxygen — within which all higher animal life is possible. In fact, they’re the necessary condition for that existence. It’s plants that have rendered animal life possible and have transformed the planet into a planet full of life and forms and living matter.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Thanks to photosynthesis, they transform solar energy into oxygen.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Exactly. The interesting thing is, the transformation of the atmosphere into an oxygenated atmosphere was a byproduct of plant metabolism. In fact, the primary function of photosynthesis is not the production of oxygen but the storage of solar energy in mass. The byproduct of that process is the production of oxygen.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And that stored energy is also what delivers energy to an animal that eats plants.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. In addition to producing oxygen, plants produce life in a second way. They’re the sole living beings that can exploit the primary source of energy available on earth, which is sunshine. Without the mediation of plants, animals would never have attained their numbers or their
level of complexity because plants are what transform all that energy reaching the earth and allow for its storage as living matter, as biomass. No other form of life is capable of instantly transforming solar energy into mass.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You go so far as to say that, in this relation between plants and other living beings, plants are the principle of a universal psyche, of the universal sharing of life.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. It’s a very old idea. For a very long time — up until the 19th century, when we forgot about it — there was a whole tradition, beginning with the Stoics and exploding in the Renaissance, according to which the paradigm for the essence of reason was the plant, and specifically the seed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The essence of reason is the seed?
EMANUELE COCCIA — The idea is that reason is not the awareness of something but the capacity to transform, or fashion, the world. The example par excellence of a rational event is when an artisan takes a piece of matter and makes something of it, gives it a form or a function. That is rationality par excellence. If we adopt this perfectly reasonable point of view, then the seed is a force able to draw forth incredible forms from matter. But at that point, reason is no longer just a human or animal faculty; it’s a cosmic force.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Hence the idea of a universal psyche?
EMANUELE COCCIA — Absolutely. A force that permeates the universe and to which we owe the continual and perpetual youth of forms.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And when exactly did we forget this vision of reason?
EMANUELE COCCIA — It happened in the modern age, when we sought to reduce reason to a purely human force. As a result, we reduced rationality or mind to something spiritual or psychological, and thus belonging strictly to man. Even today’s genetics is a way to conceive of rationality on the material level, because a gene is nothing but a code, and thus an extremely rational structure, which allows for the production, from matter, of incredibly complex forms of life. In a way, genetics is nothing but the latest version of a pre-modern tradition that had tried to align reason and matter, mind and matter, reason and the seed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So your examination of the life of plants is also a rereading of science.
EMANUELE COCCIA — And an attempt to bring together once more the history of science, philosophy, and art, which we study differently today but which in the past was never split up. We should re-educate our view of the past and of the present, and realize that science and art are not so very contrary.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you deal with art, in fact, you use plants as a starting point for your thinking on forms. You say that “plants have no hands with which to manipulate the world, and yet it would be difficult to find defter agents for the construction of forms.” Do you see plants as faceless, handless artistic agents?
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes, absolutely. The old idea I was just talking about, where the seed is a form of rationality, was also the idea of the universal artist or the cosmic artist. This rational force corresponds to the force of matter itself and does not pass through thought or mediation. Matter itself seeks, invents, produces its forms of life and rationality simultaneously. And the force that allows this was often called artistic force. In Greek, there is only one word for art, technique, and reason.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We can look at that from any angle. And hence, perhaps, the power of plants as decorative forces in the Middle Ages or in Islamic art and all the way up to Art Deco.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Actually, plants embody the aesthetic idea of a vitality of form. Life’s ability to produce its own forms. Inversely, this illustrates that forms are nothing but living beings and that art is nothing but the sphere in which forms come to life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Art is not a mere symbolic derivative of human activity?
EMANUELE COCCIA — Exactly. It’s a force for changing the world. Every major work of art is an object that suddenly, magically manages to change the forms around it. Indeed, we could adopt this perspective to take a fresh look at the history of art, at art’s forms, which are so powerful that they have brought other forms to life. Fashion is exactly that. Painting and sculpture are exactly that. A form that will no longer be contained by the simple object in which it has been captured and that suddenly explodes and spreads all over the place. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, they used a vegetal metaphor to designate this force — the force peculiar to plants, which seems totally anonymous and bound to no specific individual.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, because plants contradict the idea of individualism.
EMANUELE COCCIA — From the genetic perspective, big trees, for instance, are often beings with genetically distinct parts: the old parts and the recent parts. It’s an interesting paradox. These trees are beings in which different genetic identities can coexist.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They’re schizophrenic.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes, right — genetically schizophrenic. But, even from a purely formal perspective, you can cut certain plants into little pieces and replant the pieces, and they’ll reproduce. Are these really individuals?
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the sexuality of plants isn’t individuated, either.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Unlike any given animal, plants never really stop growing. At some point, animals will stop, and it’s at that time that they become capable of reproduction. Whereas with plants, there is no opposition between reproduction and growth. As a result, plants must produce their own sex organs every season for reproduction. The flower is a sex organ and totally ephemeral. Plants construct their sex organs, then let them fall off. A simple tree, for instance, will construct thousands of sex organs in a season. It has sex with all those organs, but afterward lets them fall off. A plant is an organic being that is always cobbling together its own body to do what it wants to do. It has to produce a sex organ, new leaves, and so forth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you say a flower is a sex organ — pollen also needs to be disseminated to other flowers. So plants need wind, too, as well as other animals.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. With animals, sex normally takes place between two individuals of the same species. Whereas with plants, sex is a cosmic event. It makes use of other animals, bees, or, as you were saying, meteorological agents, like rain and wind. It’s a beautiful thing that to have sex, plants need more than two individuals. They need a whole world.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In a sense, it’s true of human beings as well: they need a bed, emotions, and so on.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. Human beings need an atmosphere, music, and maybe alcohol. It’s true. We forget that sex isn’t just penetration but an arrangement of factors as well.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve written a lovely passage on the theme of breath. What is the link between plants and breath?
EMANUELE COCCIA — Our link with plants goes beyond agriculture or gardening or long walks in the countryside.Every time we breathe, in fact, we come into close or distant contact with plants. We feed on their detritus, on what they expel — on their shit, so to speak, which is oxygen. This banal
event is the basis of all existence. Respiration is an act through which we immerse ourselves in the world and allow the world to immerse itself in us — the world of plants. It’s an astonishing dynamic in which the container becomes the content and vice versa.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So oxygen isn’t just a vital need, but also our link with plants, as if we breathed plants.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. Before we ever start eating, moving, or speaking, we live off their life. Indeed, animal life is always thelife of other living beings. Whereas plants are the sole autotrophs: they don’t need other living beings to survive and find nourishment. They live off sunshine, carbon
dioxide, and water. Animals, on the other hand, live by absorbing the life of others, by feeding off it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Plants don’t feed on other plants. Aside from carnivorous plants, which constitute an exception. They’re like the black sheep of the plant world.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes, but that exception goes to show that life is a process of reciprocal cannibalism. Life is always feeding off itself, and no living being can survive without feeding on, consuming, and cannibalizing other living beings.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Except for plants.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. But, although they eat no other living beings, plants are nonetheless themselves eaten by other living beings. They don’t escape the cannibalistic system, whose law of life is that life feeds on itself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You speak next of leaves and roots. You analyze the life of plants in two respects: underground and in the sky. You make us aware that plants maintain the link between earth and sky, from root to leaf.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Well, plants are the only living beings to live simultaneously in two contrary environments: underground and in the air. In the case of amphibious animals, we speak of living beings that can pass from one milieu to the other, in succession. Whereas any plant lives simultaneously in two different milieus, which are structured around completely different forces. The aerial part, for example, has an anti-gravitational tropism, whereas the underground part reinforces gravity because it goes downward, toward the center of the earth, to seek out water and minerals.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do plants establish a cosmic link between earth and sky?
EMANUELE COCCIA — Plants are double. They’re aerial and subterranean. They’re amphibious. They’re the mediating agent between earth and sky. And the link in question is, of course, photosynthesis: plants’ ability to transform solar energy into biomass, into living matter. Life on earth is possible thanks exclusively to that energy source on earth, which is also the chief energy source on earth. We always forget that the foundation of our existence is extraterrestrial: it comes from the sun! The foundation of all life on earth is that extraterrestrial star. Plants are the beings that terrestrialize the sun. They convey sunshine on earth. They render that extraterrestrial force terrestrial, and thus establish a link between extraterrestrial space and the earth. This is something that we manage to do with solar panels, but plants do it with their own bodies, and their own
aesthetics, their own forms.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And then there’s oil, which is also decomposed plants — and is yet another kind of energy.
EMANUELE COCCIA — If you give it some thought, all kinds of things come from plants. What you drink, your coffee or tea, is a vegetal psychotropic. We unwittingly have all kinds of more or less esoteric knowledge about the vegetal soul.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To wrap things up, could you say a word about your theory of flowers, which is the loveliest part of your book? Flowers, you say, are the sexuality of plants.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. The funny thing is, we use flowers as gifts. It’s as if we were giving people sex organs. There’s a whole philosophical tradition, now forgotten, that recognizes flowers as the rationality of plants or the paradigm par excellence of reason. It’s a very interesting theory because the flower is what produces the seed, and the flower is therefore even more fundamental than the seed to the idea of reason. If we agree to consider the flower as reason’s form of existence par excellence, we realize that reason is a force that can actually modify forms. Reason, then, is not reproduction of the same but the force that allows for the infinite variation of forms.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It is also extreme seduction.
EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. It’s a force of seduction and variation. The flower is the force that allows for the attraction of things or provides for their encounter. Because the flower is the attractor. It’s a magnetic force — and not only with respect to other individuals of the same species. It’s a universally magnetic force. So that is what reason is. It’s the force behind the variation of forms and the force that attracts beings, that attracts different forms, to the same place. It’s the force that constitutes a world out of these different individuals, different forms, and so on. Camille Henrot did an exhibition of bouquets in the Japanese tradition — ikebana — titled “Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers?”
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