The Meaning of (Vegetal) Life

Authors: Anna Lawrence*, University of Cambridge
Topics: Cultural Geography, Environment, Animal Geographies
Keywords: vegetal geographies, critical plant studies, biopolitics, multispecies ethics, phytomorphism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Harding, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Vegetal life has consistently occupied a marginal space in western philosophy. The extension of ‘bios’ in animal geography to non-human animals has typically been predicated on sentience, a value based on human resemblance. What happens, then, when we invert this tradition and take the plant as the most basic form of politically legible life? Thinking life from the plant up forces us into relation with Life in all its possible guises. In taking this approach into ethnographic work, the problem becomes how might we come face-to-face with a plant? If, for Levinas, all (un)ethical interactions occur through the medium of the ‘face’, how might we think through a vegetal ethic of care? Here, I approach Marder’s concept of the ‘absolute otherness’ of plants critically, arguing that we should instead approach plants from a position of similarity, in practice and through language. Words can provide the openings through which species can flow. In attending to cross-species linguistic slippages as proposed by Hartigan – words like ‘native’, ‘cultivation’, ‘invasive’ – it becomes possible to ‘vegetalise’ human concepts such as ‘consciousness’, ‘culture’, ‘intelligence’, enabling us to theorise life from the plant up. In practice, this can be done through a series of ‘phytomorphisms’: recognising Them in Us rather than Us in Them. Grounded in a pondering of the political potential of the urban weed as a teacher of the cultivation of life, I explore the radical rethinking of biopolitics demanded by the inclusion of plants in its remit. Thinking Plant is Thinking Life.

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