Do plants work? Reflections on the relevance of the concept of non-human labour in the vegetal world

Authors: Marion Ernwein*, University of Oxford
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Environment, Social Theory
Keywords: plant geography, vegetal geography, political ecology, non-human labour, more-than-human geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 6:20 PM
Room: Bacchus, Sheraton, 8th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


As part of a growing dissatisfaction with more-than-human geography’s ‘romance of matter’ (Braun 2008), a body of literature has recently emerged that discusses the ways in which the lively capacities and potentialities of more-than-human entities have come to be valued in late capitalism. Alongside the concepts of lively commodities (Collard and Dempsey 2013) and encounter value (Haraway 2008), this literature mobilises those of non-human work (Porcher 2015) and labour (Barua 2017).
Whilst this literature is successfully shedding light on neoliberal capitalism’s entanglement with the temporalities, materialities and potentialities of life itself (Cooper 2015), its anthropozoocentric character prevents it from accounting for the role of vegetal life in capitalist production and value accumulation.
In the face of recent (and still isolated) calls for a better consideration of the labour performed by plants in the production and/or maintenance of urban space (Perkins 2007; Ernwein and Tollis 2017), this paper examines the conceptual framings of the question of non-human work and labour and their relevance for the vegetal realm. It contrasts neo-Marxist accounts of non-human labour with more intersubjective understandings of non-human work, and questions their relevance for the analysis of the contribution of the differential capacities of plant bodies (Atchison and Head 2015; Head et al. 2015) to processes of value creation and capital accumulation. The paper more broadly argues for the necessity to conceptualise more clearly the work that plants do to understand the transformations of the division of labour as it becomes not only more-than-human but also more-than-animal.

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