« Preconference : Seminar

Vegetal Ecocriticism: The Question of "The Plant"

Joni Adamson
Associate Professor of English and Environmental Humanities
Senior Research Scholar at the Global Institute of Sustainability
Program Faculty in Human and Social Dimension
Arizona State University

Cate Sandilands
Professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies
York University, Toronto.

Seminar description:

This seminar is designed to consider the intersections between the emerging field of "critical plant studies" and ecocritical trajectories concerning floral, botanical, arboreal, fungal, and other vegetal discourses about the relations between humans and plants. Although ecocritical scholars have long since paid excellent respect to literature's varied renderings of flowers, shrubs, trees, mushrooms, and other broadly botanical agents in humananimal lives (especially in species-conscious renderings of forests, fields, gardens, parks, and other places of human/plant interaction), recent works in cultural geography, science studies, object-oriented ontology, multispecies ethnography, philosophy, ethnobotany, and other fields have raised especially acute questions about the ways in which plant agencies are included (or not) in social ecological imaginings of places, ethics, politics, and poetics. As critical animal studies and animal rights scholars/activists have effectively worried constitutive boundaries between human beings and other animals, plant studies scholars have questioned the similarly political line between plants and animals: plants communicate, move, decide, transform, and transgress in ways that are sometimes uncomfortably "like" animals (including humans), and sometimes so completely Other to animality that conventional metaphysical principles are radically denaturalized. Biosemioticians are reconsidering Darwin's hypothesis about plants having something like a "root-brain," and are asking whether or not plants have "minimal cognition." Might some species even be regarded as "planimals" or "zooplantae"? Do trees, as Juan Carolos Galeano's documentary about Amazonian people and plants suggests, have "mothers"?

Questions that participants may want to consider include:

  • What are the implications of this reconsideration for understandings of vegetality in the context of the "anthropological machine" of human exceptionalism?
  • Do we need a "plant ethics" that responds to vegetal instrumentalization in an allied manner to the ways animal ethics has responded to the animal-industrial complex?
  • How do emerging perspectives on plant memory and communication accord with/make use of and/or complicate other ecocritical and literary accounts of plant/human interactions?
  • How are plants rendered as biopolitical subjects in (for example) agricultural and conservationist desires, and how can literature respond to these relations?
  • How do Amerindian understandings of "multinaturalism" expand our understandings of contemporary coalitional politics advocating justice understood outside the limits of "human rights"?
  • How are vegetal lives involved, representationally and materially, in the acts of reading and writing?

This seminar, then, asks participants to consider the ways in which plants – individually, specifically, ecosystemically, industrially, etc. – are not only objects of ecoliterary reflection, but are also active participants and material presences in the worlds that botanical literature produces, and in the understandings of vegetality that emerge into popular culture and philosophy from these interactions. From The Day of the Triffids and Avatar, to John Muir's Calypso borealis and Emily Dickinson's roses, we invite 7-10 page papers that consider the particular qualities of vegetable/human relations – aesthetic, chemical, mychorrizal, colonial and postcolonial, feminist, urban, invasive, cultivated, forested, industrial and otherwise – as they are reflected and challenged in literary texts, and as they push our understanding of vegetality in increasingly complex interdisciplinary philosophical, political and scientific directions. These papers will be shared before the pre-conference seminar, and our meeting will involve and extend our discussions based on participants' essays and readings.

Suggested resources:

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 2012. "Smarty Plants: Uncovering the Secret World of Plant Behaviour," The Nature of Things.

Castro, Eduardo Batalha Viveiros de. 2004. "Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies." Common Knowledge 10.3: 463-484.

---. 1998. "Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4.3: 469–488.

Cloke, Paul and Owain Jones. 2004. "Turning in the Graveyard: Trees and the Hybrid Geographies of Dwelling, Monitoring and Resistance in a Bristol Cemetery," Cultural Geographies 11: 313-341.

---. 2003. "Grounding Ethical Mindfulness for/in Nature: Trees in their Places." Ethics, Place and Environment 6:3, 195-213.

Garzón, Paco Calvo and Fred Keijzer. 2011. "Adaptive Behavior, Root-brains, and Minimal Cognition." Adaptive Behavior 19.3: 155-171.

Giovannetti, Manuela et al. 2006. "At the Root of the Wood Wide Web: Self Recognition andNon-Self Incompatibility in Mycorrhizal Networks." Plant Signaling and Behavior 1.1: 1–5.

Kosek, Jake. 2006. Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico. Duke University Press.

Mabey, Richard. 2010. Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants. New York: HarperCollins.

Marder, Michael. 2012. "Plant Intentionality and the Phenomenological Framework of Plant Intelligence," Plant Signaling and Behaviour 7:11, available online at http://www.landesbioscience.com/journals/psb/article/21954/?show_full_text=true&

---. 2011. "Vegetal Anti-metaphysics: Learning from Plants," Continental Philosophy Review 44:4, 469-489.

Pierce, Sidney. K., et. al. 2009. "Chlorophyll: A Synthesis by an Animal using Transferred Algal Nuclear Genes." Symbiosis 49:121-131.

Pollan, Michael. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World. New York: Random House.

The Trees Have a Mother: Amazonian Cosmologies, Folktales, and Mystery. Dirs. Valliere Richard Auzenne and Juan Carlos Galeano. Florida State University Film School. 2008. Galeano's documentary is available, in its entirety, free of charge, at Films on Demand, http://digital.films.com/play/WNHAND.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2012. "Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species." Environmental Humanities 1. Available at http://environmentalhumanities.org/archives/vol1.

---. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (especially chapter 5, "A History of Weediness," pp. 175-204).

Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth and Climate Change. World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. 22 April 2010. Web. September 17, 2010.

Seminar leaders:

Joni Adamson is Associate Professor of English and Environmental Humanities in the School of Letters and Sciences, Senior Research Scholar at the Global Institute of Sustainability, and Program Faculty in Human and Social Dimensions at Arizona State University. Her current research and teaching focuses on environmental literatures and films illustrating "perspectival multinaturalism," a concept that expands understandings of human relationship with sentient others at multiple scales, from the fungal to the "superorganism," as that process has been explained by Jesper Hoffmeyer. She is interested in how biologic and semiotic studies of plant "mothers" contribute to better understanding of current cosmopolitical organizing around climate change and the "rights of mother earth."

Cate Sandilands is a Professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto. Her research and teaching sit at the intersections of environmental literatures and histories with social, political, cultural, and biological theory, especially as these intersections pertain to: 1) the role of environmental literatures and criticism in the formation and contestation of environmental public cultures; 2) the intersections of environmental and ecological thought and practice with queer, feminist and lgbtq politics; and, most recently, 3) the specific and specied role of plants (and human social and political practices in relation to plants) in the organization and cross-species negotiation of everyday experiences of places, landscapes, and habitats.