The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness

by Michael Marder and Anaïs Tondeur

We entrust readers with thirty fragments of reflections, meditations, recollections, and images — one for each year that has passed since the explosion that rocked and destroyed a part of the Chernobyl nuclear power station in April 1986. The aesthetic visions, thoughts, and experiences that have made their way into this book hover in a grey region between the singular and self-enclosed, on the one hand, and the generally applicable and universal, on the other. Through words and images, we wish to contribute our humble share to a collaborative grappling with the event of Chernobyl. Unthinkable and unrepresentable as it is, we insist on the need to reflect upon, signify, and symbolize it, taking stock of the consciousness it fragmented and, perhaps, cultivating another, more environmentally attuned way of living.

The Chernobyl Herbarium is stunning. Taking ‘plants as their guides’, Michael Marder and Anaïs Tondeur cast us into the ‘exploded consciousness’ resulting from Chernobyl in this arresting collection that pairs philosophical meditations with imprints of radioactive plant specimens. Radiant, dazzling, disturbing, The Chernobyl Herbarium is utterly indispensable for anyone considering cataclysmic yet imperceptible events, the singularity of vegetal life, or the trans-species solidarities of exposure.”
Stacy Alaimo, University of Texas at Arlington – author of Exposed: Politics and Pleasure in Posthuman Times and Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self.
“Both personal and of general public interest, Michael Marder’s 30 fragments on the aftermath of Chernobyl, and in the wake of Fukushima and climate change, confront us with the burning question: what permitted us to believe we could go on to harness nuclear power, this most unnatural of powers? As imperceptible even by us, for Marder radioactivity “explodes consciousness”: it reduces our perceptual abilities to that of plants. But this need not be seen as a merely negative event, for it harbors the chance to recognize that we share with vegetal being a vulnerability as living bodies defined by physical extension. Can we thus learn from the plants that grow, despite everything, in Chernobyl’s and Fukushima’s radioactive exclusion zones? Drawing on his previous ‘plant thinking’ and the vegetal photograms by artist Anaïs Tondeur, Marder hopes to show that as long as our techno-capitalist civilization seeks to master nature without a goal beyond further mastery, Chernobyl will not have been worked through.”
Matthias Fritsch, Concordia University – author of The Promise of Memory: History And Politics in Marx, Benjamin, And Derrida.
“Welcome these blossoming photograms exposed to the flashbulb of intertwingled planetary mutation. Tune in and turn on with these crackling plant transductions of Chernobyl’s ongoing signal, verbed and reverbed with Marder’s exhalations of word. Behold Tondeur’s exalted haptic photosynthesis! Adore the nimbus of radioactive bioluminescence that avoids your avoidance! Let there be plant light.”
Rich Doyle, Penn State University – author of Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noosphere.
“Thirty scintillating fragments of an exploded consciousness, one for each year since Chernobyl. Textual vignettes juxtaposed with delicate images of irradiated plants. This delightful yet troubling book bears ghostly witness to living-on after disaster.”
David Wood, Vanderbilt University – author of Time After Time.
“In this beautiful book, Michael Marder and Anaïs Tondeur reflect deeply on the hyperobject that is the nuclear radiation from Chernobyl through the device of the herbarium, miniature ecosystems that botanists used in the Victorian period. Under the fragile traveling glass of paper and pixels, Marder and Tondeur host tendrils of prose and cellulose. It’s a stroke of genius to have miniaturized something so vast and demonic—we don’t even know how to dream any of this yet (it’s called ecological awareness), and as Marder observes here, just upgrading our aesthetics to cope with the trauma of this awareness is a key unfinished project.”
Timothy Morton, Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English, Rice University – author of Realist Magic.
“Michael Marder is a rare philosopher who can write alongside an artwork. Perhaps it is his experience of suffering radiation in the sea side town of Anapa in 1986 that acts as fulcrum for his poetic fragments accompanying the plant photograms (light-writing) of French artist Anaïs Tondeur. This book is part personal essay, part history, part post-modern fragment and part lament for the tragic victims of Chernobyl. The sorrowful voice of the plant philosopher dovetails with the generative hope of Tondeur’s plant photographs that rise up from the ashes of the Chernobyl disaster. As Marder says, Tondeur’s herbarium is a steady glow, where the plants are left to speak by spatially expressing themselves out of the radioactive earth.”
Prudence Gibson – author of Janet Laurence: The Pharmacy of Plants

Author Bios

Michael Marder is IKERBASQUE Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. An author of seven books and over 100 articles, he is a specialist in phenomenology, political thought, and environmental philosophy. His most recent monographs include The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (2014), Pyropolitics: When the World Is Ablaze (2015), and Dust (2016) and, with Luce Irigaray, Through Vegetal Being (2017). For more information on his work consult his webpage http://michaelmarder.org

Anaïs Tondeur is a visual artist. She works and lives in Paris. She has been commissioned to work as an artist in residence with the scientists from the Natural History Museum as well as Pierre and Marie Curie University, Sorbonne, Paris in 2015 and at the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, Paris in 2015, Hydrodynamics Laboratory (LadHyx) at Ecole Polytechnique, National Centre for Scientific Research, France (2013-2015). She is currently undertaking a research on urban soils with anthropologists, geographers and ecologists as part of Chamarande’s lab curated by COAL (Coalition for Art and Sustainable Development). Her work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions shown nationally and internationally. GV Art, London represents Anaïs’s work. Anaïs graduated from a M.A. in Mixed-Media at the Royal College of Art in London in 2010 after completing a Bachelor (Hons) Textiles at Central Saint Martins College in London in 2008. See more of her work at http://www.anais-tondeur.com/.