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Reviewed by:
  • Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life by Jeffrey T. Nealon
  • John McGowan
Jeffrey T. Nealon. Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2016. 168pp.

Please discard any preconceptions concerning what a book called Plant Theory is about. I guarantee that Jeffrey Nealon’s deeply thoughtful and strongly felt meditation on the meaning of “life” will surprise you on every page. For starters, Nealon is not interested in upping the ethical stakes, at least not in the direction of calling out vegans for slaughtering all those vegetables. “An untainted moral high ground is impossible when it comes to thinking about meshes of life,” he declares (117). We should not hope to find, or direct our theoretical moves toward discerning, “a secure object to protect against all comers” (115). Rather, the difficult task is to come to terms with the fact that ground is always shifting beneath our feet. “[H]ow [do] you make discriminations in a flat field of immanence or multiplicity: how do you decide anything in a field bereft of a subtending ground, a ‘God’ or a ‘real’ or an ‘outside’?” (117).

Nealon hardly offers a direct—or immediately actionable—answer to that question. But his book does make clear that the prevailing ethos of a loyalty to “life,” a defense of its “rights” wherever they appear, is not a very satisfactory solution. It is not just that there is no innocence available, no “untainted moral high ground” from which one would always and only act in ways that promote life. More importantly—and this is the theoretical work his book does—the life-affirming position misunderstands what life is, how it [End Page 571] unfolds and sustains itself. Through careful readings of Foucault, Aristotle, Heidegger, Derrida, and Deleuze/Guattari, Nealon offers an alternative way to understand life, one better suited to positioning ourselves in the “political territory of judgment” (117) in which we must respond to the exigencies of these “dark ecological times” (118-19).

The key to this alternative vision is to move away from thinking of life as something possessed by individual organisms. (It might help to imagine Nealon’s critique as consonant with C. B. Macpherson’s classic work on possessive individualism.) The trouble with animal rights work is that it still focuses on the individual, on an entity that needs to be respected, nurtured, protected. Foucault has taught us to understand that such entities are established through discursive practices and afford power sites of intervention. Thus, there is no primal thing called “life” that possesses an unimpeachable claim on our care. It is exactly the burden of Foucault’s meditations on “biopower” to consider how the category of life was (and is) deployed to enable certain operations of power. The turn to plants in Nealon, then, is motivated in part by the desire to escape the protectionist, rights-focused, notion of life-bearing creatures. Blades of grass hardly figure as individual organisms in our imagination of them; we might spend vast amounts of time nurturing the lawn, but don’t lavish that kind of attention on any particular blade. Yet our discourse does not deny that grass is alive.

Instead, as Nealon traces through his discussions of Aristotle, Heidegger, and Derrida, the tradition finds it necessary to distinguish between the kind of life plants possess and the life inherent in “higher forms.” Although Nealon doesn’t quite phrase it this way, a crucial difference is that plants don’t act; their immobility—and thus their subjection to the environmental conditions of their settled location—establishes their essential passivity. (Recent studies, as Nealon reminds us, have dramatically undermined this traditional notion of vegetative passivity.) The notion of the Anthropocene, we might say, still operates within this framework of humans as the (most) active life form. Action, of course, requires an agent, so we are firmly situated within the individualistic bias that Nealon wants to question.

To some extent, Nealon works to expand passivity throughout all life. “Derridean ‘unconditional hospitality’…is not something we ‘decide’ to extend or not: ontological openness to the future (and to death) in fact structures the field of Derridean life…. I can contract Ebola or SARS because...


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pp. 571-573
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