- Green ShadeLoser Vegetables in Plant Theory
The language of flowers, and of plant life in general, is so deeply rooted in our idiom for talking about thinking that we may not even notice when we make a bad botanical pun. We leaf through anthologies; we plant gardens of letters with flowery rhetoric; dendrites in our neurons, we think in trees on a cellular level. Phytological vocabulary has been flourishing in Western thought since the Greeks, for whom to read meant to gather, as one would gather flowers, and to grow meant to grow like a plant.1
Perhaps in part because of their unremarkable ubiquity, the thoughtless ways in which we use them as static backdrops or flowery ornaments in our mental landscape, plants seem to offer little to warrant serious ethical attention. Indeed, plants don’t seem to do much at all. As Jeffrey T. Nealon notes in Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life, it is animals—in particular, charismatic animals—that (who?) have recently earned the sympathy of a growing number of theorists for having been left out of our conception of meaningful life. Taking a cue from influential texts like Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign and Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, recent [End Page 161] thinking in the humanities has sought to close the gap between animals and humans in the Western imagination, sometimes as a humbling reminder of our limits, sometimes in hopes that reversing the reputation damage done by humanist thought might save animals from even rougher treatment in the slaughterhouse.
In a methodological echo of the contingent nature of plant pollination,2 Nealon has come to plant studies by happy accident. As he explains in his preface, the seeds of the present study were planted during a perusal of a recent mla conference program, which featured a surprising number of panels devoted to animal studies (one of them including, to Nealon’s parenthetical bemusement, a paper on narwhals), and watered with, according to the acknowledgments, a “bourbon-fueled” conversation with academic pals (pt, xvii). Nealon’s genealogy of Plant Theory continues with his rereading The Order of Things as part of an investigation into how animal studies might pick up where Foucault left off. There, he reports finding that the Foucauldian conceptualization of biopower in fact already includes animality, if not animals per se, at its very heart: “with the emergence of the human sciences and the birth of biopower, the animal is not excluded or forgotten but quite the opposite: animality is the dominant apparatus for investigating both what life is and what life does” (pt, 8). What did fall to the margins of what counted as “life,” in Foucault’s account, was the vegetable kingdom. And there the idea of Plant Theory really began to blossom: could it be, Nealon wondered, that plants, not animals, are the abjected “other” of Western philosophical thought? And what might theories of biopolitics gain by considering the lilies of the emerging field of plant studies?
Thus Nealon embarks on his quest to reconsider the question of life “from the ground up” (pt, xv). To this end, Plant Theory takes readers on an ecotour through variously dense thickets of theory from Aristotle to Agamben. The book opens with a pointedly raised eyebrow in a preface titled “Plant Theory?” with an implied emphasis on the question mark: if readers think narwhals are absurd objects of critical study, just wait until they hear about switchgrass, among other heretofore overlooked botanical species. Nealon’s tone of mock-outrage lets those readers know they wouldn’t be alone in their incredulity; plant studies have been met with alarm from leading voices in the [End Page 162] animal studies community, who protest that ignoring the “differences between different forms of life—sunflowers versus bonobos” (pt, xi, quoting Cary Wolfe) risks losing the ethical ground animal studies has gained, and that taking seriously the theories that plants feel pain will leave even vegans with no ethical choice but to starve. And this...