Thinking Plant Animal Human: Encounters with Communities of Difference

Thinking Plant Animal Human: Encounters with Communities of Difference
David Wood

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2020
272 pp., illus. 18 b/w. Paper, $28.00
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0722-8.

Reviewed by
Gregory Tague
August 2020

David Wood’s Thinking Plant Animal Human is a rewarding book, deeply thoughtful and intellectually challenging. His stimulating writing evinces a real literary prose over a range of subject areas, from philosophy, art, literature, and the sciences. I hope I can do justice to this influential book, essays that remind me of the best work by Mary Oliver, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold. This book is so richly suggestive in a positive way that I might even have missed much on one reading. I will certainly come back to its pages, as I have also savored more than once the inimitable works of Annie Dillard, Lewis Thomas, and E.O. Wilson. Wood enlivens one’s critical imagination along convergent lines of thinking demonstrating how philosophy is work of investigation. He identifies himself in line with Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, among others, and this range of philosophical knowledge is evident. The book’s main title is a bit of deconstructive play without any punctuation: who does the thinking about whom, and note how human is placed after plants and animals. I could see this book used by students and scholars of phenomenological and ethical philosophy, animal studies, and environmental ethics, and recommend it highly for its lucid and playful prose and powerful insights about being human during a time of climate crisis.

Heidegger attempts displacement and decentering, asking, what and where is the place of humans? In terms of ideas and disciplines, where are we headed in an age that is witnessing revolutions in politics, science, and education? These essays, Wood says, are an attempt to keep the revolutionary fires burning, especially concerning the nonhuman and what might otherwise be called strange, like the suffering of plants. Wood proposes reflective thinking about plants and animals. He wants to question the nature of ethics itself and confronts plant, animal, and “man.” For example, and as Wood routinely reminds his readers, the word “animal” is not only vague but gives a human being license to kill. What is an animal? Is it a bird, insect, or a mammal? If a mammal, then the word-as-sign includes humans. Likewise, “man” sets up evaluative dichotomies: man/woman, man/nature. So Wood’s use of “man” is deliberate. He wants to examine and query encounters between the familiar and unfamiliar. Think, for instance, of a confrontation between human and animal worlds that can shift our perception of ethics and the nature of being human. Wood suggests that the human conquest of the planet, forcing a sixth extinction event, is beyond justification. In fact, he wonders if humans really are rational in light of so much deliberate destruction of the earth.

Is humanism suspect with its sense of privilege? At present, so-called human progress has hit a wall of “uncertainty” with the possibility of, via Foucault, erasure. Yet we’ve moved, supposedly, the values from enfranchised groups to disenfranchised individuals over the past few hundred years. Wood suggests we gravitate away from the notion of “man” and reconsider ourselves as just one of many species. The Anthropocene is not to be lauded; rather, it is to be recognized as the epitome of human-induced crises. Wood does acknowledge that the term human is generalized and, more specifically, might appropriately be identified as Western and corporate. He notes how many people seem to ignore the real, physical threats we’ve created to our health and to the lives of other species connected to our existence, like bees. More so, the threats we’ve engendered will become promises of destruction, as Wood seems to imply. No one person, and unfortunately no other species, is immune from the “displacements” we’ve set in motion. Part of the problem lies in how the human feeling of entitlement has eroded any sense of responsibility, Wood asserts.

There’s a cognitive disconnection between owning and caring for pets and eating animal flesh. Meat eating is, in some respects, a symbol of tribal masculinity. We impose our discursive power onto other animals with lethal force, invoking Derrida’s notion of human dominance over whatever is “not us.” Is this because we deny our vulnerability and evolutionary connection to other species, clear in some wild reactions to intimidations against race, gender, or nation? For example, some European countries and some groups in the United States deplore migrants; meantime, we are a migratory species and we’ve invaded the habitats of countless ecosystems. As Wood asks, what is a nation? He talks of respeciesification or a corrective to the tribal powers that divide. This herd mentality is one of the many ways we are, and are connected to, animals. In other words, not to twist his meaning, when one says “animal ethics” one refers to the obligations humans ought to have toward animals. Another reading of animal ethics considers the evolutionary roots of morality or what biologist Richard Alexander called the biology of moral systems. More than that, though, we’ve reached a point of what Wood calls “threshold thinking” as we face human extinction and the question of whether or not to bear children into a blighted, seemingly doomed future. As he suggests, we are a contingent species and not alone in an ivory tower.

In all, Wood seems to recognize, however, the difference between humans and other creatures. I hesitate to say he claims uniqueness – he does not, but he does say we are “special.” The boundary between non-human and human is more blurry than that, in spite of our art, mathematics, and philosophy. Why? Simply because we evolved differently than a species, say, which does not need symbolic art but nevertheless has communication. If you’ve ever seen a gorilla give birth and her immediate reactions to her newborn baby – gentle cradling, eye contact, hugging, and kissing – how could we alone believe no other “animals” have stock in being-in-the world? Wood is correct, at any rate, to note how my very words indicate our almost unsettling ability to share in the lives, minds, and feelings of other beings. Wood maintains human specialness and how we are “more than animal.” He says any denial of that is misplaced. Perhaps he is correct, but then the skeptic in me questions this opinion. All species evolved to fill ecological niches. Although humans conquered the world with reason and symbolic behavior, that does not make them special, only different. I might be splitting a hair, and to his credit, Wood generates meditation on this puzzling subject and reminds me that his discussion is, in the end, more about the questions relating plant, animal, and human in threshold thinking.

Since ethics is about rights, should plants be included in the debate considering how some thinkers write about the “ethical neglect” of plants. As Wood says, is ethics about similarity or difference? For one, since classifiers include about three hundred thousand species as plants, there’s a “human construct” at work. Second, by their rarity, age, or nature, some plants are individuals. An ancient oak tree, for instance. Species differences, he implies, pose ethical borders and yet can instigate debate. How much like us is vegetation? They are alive, unlike, say, a computer. The idea is that we’ve turned plants into instruments without acknowledging or really seeing the essence of strangeness and familiarity in them. For Wood, rather than interpreting the situation along Biblical lines, where humans are permitted to dominate nature, there should be a relation. I seem to recall how in Milton’s Paradise Lost Eve regrets having to leave behind the foliage she has so devoutly attended. Plants, in many respects, eat and drink, and while they might not be, as Tom Regan would say, a subject of a life, they are subject to death if deprived of photosynthesis and respiration. Yet humans have coevolved with plants in ways that go beyond eating them for food, Wood reminds us, from building materials to writing materials, as well as medicines and hallucinogens, sedatives and stimulants.

Wood proposes that it would be more beneficial for humans to grasp their relational significance to objects in the world, e.g., trees, rather than accepting these other forms as disposable. This relationship, he says, is even true of how we are connected to light, heat, cold, and rainfall. He wants to let nature quiz us, what he calls a “reversal” we partake in to awaken our sensibilities beyond any philosophical disengagement. There’s “uncanny recognition,” for example, with a tree that “discloses” the world we inhabit. Invoking Husserl and Sartre, Wood asks if the tree is blossoming or struggling to survive. How do we perceive it? Has it become merely a vanishing element of one’s consciousness? Wood’s is not a philosophy of words about words; he deals with being human in a world of myriad like and different life forms. There’s a meeting of life, not separation. Trees are not in binary opposition to us but, according to Wood, the model “performers” across the surface of the earth, part above ground, part below, and always with other creatures. Throughout the book Wood returns to the notion of the uncanny – disturbing, troubling, strange – seen, too, in the human-tree matrix with life symbols of space, time, gender, and death.

What can animals tell us about “art,” asks Wood. He talks, for instance, about the sand crabs of Bangladesh who, like the tigers and people, will lose up to twenty-five percent of land to encroaching sea water because of climate change. These crabs create exquisite patterns in the sand. Are they artists? In asking that question Wood realizes we might be setting up false structures and dichotomies. We say animals, even apes, don’t make art because they can’t attribute meaning to it. Our definition of “meaning” might be different, abstract, than that of the bower bird or singing gibbon. I see he wants to fuse “adaptability into instinct.” I was particularly interested in his art discussion in light of my own work, Art and Adaptability (2018). For Wood, it’s less about concepts (ascribed to humans) and more to the variable and creative, irreducible process capacities of many animals. Humans privilege intention in art making, but designs in nature are the result of small efforts totaling a net effect.

There is intention in those minor movements which cause the finished product. Like the sand crab, or any other artful creature, we occupy space and time, and in that dwelling, says Wood, we engage our bodies in deliberate acts. This comes down to a discussion of Heidegger’s “as such.” The beach is part of the sand crab’s feeding habitat just as fields are places of work to an Iowa farmer. Thus, it matters not if the sand crab or the Iowa farmer doesn’t precisely perceive the geography of space in terms of a dwelling “as such” but as an intimate place of work. The sand crab is no less impoverished of sensation on its beach than the Iowa farmer in her field. I agree with Wood’s suggestion that much action in the animal world is an outcome of judgment and not simply an instinctual response. I tried to establish that line of thinking in An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood (2020). Some distinctions between human and animal are often forced.

Like natural selection, artificial selection is a process of weeding out disadvantageous traits. What about art, asks Wood? To what degree can an artist exclude, and should animals be left out of art? Wood, himself an earth artist as well as a philosopher, re-maps and reimagines Robert Smithson’s 1969 Yucatan mirror art to include non-human creatures in writing and photographs. The problem Wood tackles is whether art is real or abstract. Is art, like his mirrors and photography at the Mayan ruins, an intrusion? His chapter on the “absent animal” deals with art of land, horizons, peripheries, backgrounds, dislocations, and history. Is art a reflective interruption of life or vice versa? Art is an eruption of life, some might say. The chapter is a meditation on the relations of human art and animal life in a shared landscape.

Wood likes cats and they populate his book. Domestication, according to Wood, has not eliminated their “otherness” or uniqueness, independence, contradictions, and affection. We’ve bred cats, from at least Egyptian times, says Wood, to enforce borders: cats patrol our home territory to stave off intruders like mice, rats, and snakes. Have we thus violated a balance in nature? Or have cats willingly become part of our space? Wood ponders such questions in light of Rudyard Kipling, Michel de Montaigne, Charles Baudelaire, Lewis Carroll, and T. S. Eliot. Cats are part of the iconography of human art. In this essay, Wood is able to use one of his favorite words to characterize cats: uncanny. In some ways, animals like cats demand that we interrogate how we inhabit our own spaces.

In thinking with cats, how we understand ourselves is lined up with our contemplation of animals in light of the violence of carnivory. Cats are obligate meat eaters, after all. We somehow disengage (animals as pets) but engage in genocide (the meat industry) while occupying our own ignorance (environmental catastrophe because of wide scale industrial farming of meat and dairy). Meditating on Derrida, Sartre, and Levinas, Wood considers the inter-subjectivity of gazing from human to animal. Who is the other; where is the freedom; what is the subject? Brushing alongside Thomas Nagel’s famous question about what it’s like to be a bat, Wood asks what it means in the gaze stance to be you. For Levinas, there’s still a great chain of being as he questions the position of animal faces in, as he suggests, an unethical life. Who appropriates whom? Wood seems to interrupt this perversion, fortunately, siding with Derrida who sees the cat addressing him and Sartre’s ascription of some ethical status to animals. Wood is ultra-sensitive to language and notes how the word “animal” is our human injustice to many individuals of many species, a violent thrust of nameless otherness against them, according to Derrida.

Human history is marked or marred, depending on one’s politics, by our attitudes toward animals. How far back does this go? When we were “animals” (with the religious revelation that we are no longer), was our attitude toward other species so dominant? As Wood, via Derrida, suggests, how anyone or any group sees animals depends on context, which, unlike one’s character, can shift.  Are you an industrial farmer? A “sport” hunter? A grocer? A butcher? An office worker? Differences tend to be less biological and more cultural. If we say we value life, and if protein is so easily obtainable from plant-based foods, then why do we eat meat? Wood seems to say the answer is that humans have a need to exert, continually, their sovereignty over animals. Sure, but we can’t make such a blanket statement given the number of vegans, vegetarians, and animal rights activists.

Following this line of thought, Plato’s allegory of the cave is relevant today, Wood reminds us. Instead of living in the light of truth, we live in shadows. For example, most of us don’t clearly see what we’re doing to the animal world or to the environment we all share. This leads Wood to participate with Nietzsche and Heidegger who question the privilege of humans. For Heidegger, Wood returns to the “as such” question of animals. Are humans more “open” to the world than, say, a lizard on a rock? Unlike Heidegger, Wood does not believe animals live in a “poverty of world” but actively participate in the world as such, sometimes like artists at play. Cats could be a prime example. Animals have access to the world we don’t (anymore). While the truth about animals should be obvious by observing them, humans, says Wood, tend to scaffold anthropocentric structures around and ideas about animals. Drawing from Derrida’s notion of animot, or animal as merely a word and not as a life, human language is violent appropriation of other creatures where they become “meat.” We humans can’t pretend that species diversity does not matter; we cannot ignore the mass extinction caused mostly by us.

There’s a long religious (e.g., St. Francis), philosophical (e.g., Bentham), and literary (e.g., Thoreau) tradition about animal liberation, but it’s truly a subculture. At this juncture, of climate change and mass destruction of biodiversity, the populous silence about animals, says Wood, only enables human domination over them. In and of themselves animals are not silent; but we often don’t hear or listen to them. Human language seems to have created a rift between us and other species, especially how we parley language to our advantage, not theirs. In spite of the philosophers, I don’t think language matters. Species evolved differently to fill certain ecological niches and, anyway, they indeed communicate with conspecifics and even other animals. In some respects, humans are enslaved by language, seemingly not able to think or act without it.

Is human morality equivalent to self-interest, considering how we treat others, women, minorities, those disenfranchised, the environment, and especially animals? Are there limits to human representation in how animals, for the most part, have no place at the table of democracy? In fact, can a human legitimately represent and give true voice to a horse, a bee, a cow, or an ape? Yes, in the good work of the Nonhuman Rights Project. Children and those who are severely intellectually compromised have such voice, because they are part of the privileged human club. In other words, Wood says, human attitudes about animals need to change. He cites these statistics. Sixty-nine billion dollars was spent on pets in the United Stated during 2017, while five hundred thousand animals were being killed each hour for someone’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. How, then, can there be a voiced democracy of animals if we continue to enslave and abuse them? It’s precisely this bad attitude that’s leading to the so-called massive sixth extinction. Wood notes how animals can speak in literature, visual art, television shows, song, and film, but that seems of little import. Their symbolic representation over time has been abundant, but they are the subjects of their own real, lived lives and not artworks for our dinner plates.

Our minds are dependent on our bodies, and our bodies exist in an interdependent relationship with other humans and non-humans. As Wood points out, we can separate ourselves from what some (Heidegger) erroneously refer to as the beast of nature. Do our achievements in art, architecture, engineering, and music make us human? We can’t be disembodied. Consider truly great athletes. Are only humans capable, according to Heidegger, of forming a world? Don’t apes do that with their dependent offspring, groups, and communities among trees? In this regard Wood makes a distinction between vulgar and enlightened anthropomorphism. Is this a claim of human specialness? He does say humans are “uniquely gifted.” Yet Wood acknowledges Nietzsche’s assertion that the human must be overcome in an endless process. At any rate, Wood’s call is to place responsibility for extinctions and global warming squarely on human shoulders. As he intimates, humans could will their own extinction.