New College Plant Encounters Workshop Report, by Carla Hustak

The Plant Encounters Workshop was a project affiliated with New College and Professor Michelle Murphy’s Technoscience Research Unit. This workshop was animated by an inquiry into interdisciplinary approaches to encountering plants as nonhuman others that problematize our ontologies, politics, methodologies, and narrative frameworks.

Two key questions inspired this workshop:

  1. What analytical strategies can be employed to encounter plants?
  2. How can these modes of encounter chart new ethical, political, social, intellectual and/or aesthetic directions for reorienting ourselves to becomings with the world?

Scholars from science studies, cinema studies, visual art, English literature, history, anthropology, sociology, and geography presented their work on plant encounters and discussed how plant bodies offered promising new directions for scholarly analysis. Through this workshop, the plant body emerged as a productive site for opening new lines of enquiry into a number of themes such as temporalities, virtuality, sexual politics, feminist theory, colonialism, multispecies ethics, and food economies.

The workshop took place May 2nd to May 3rd 2011:

The first day of the workshop was primarily devoted to exploring questions of ecology:

In the morning session, scholars addressed the topic of “Plotting Encounters: Navigating Exchanges with Plants.” This theme offered a provocative lens for exploring the similar and divergent strands of papers on the plant as a site for reimagining maps, colonial politics, food economies, and bodily immersion in environments.

Alan Bewell’s “Alien Introductions: Colonial Encounters with Weeds” examined eighteenth-century British travellers’ romantic encounters with plants that were mediated by both religious and scientific sensibilities.

Harriet Friedmann’s “The Columbian Transplantation: Colonial Reconstructions of Agronomies and Foodways” offered an interesting complement to Alan Bewell’s paper by discussing a contemporary and economic channel of plant-human relationality and incorporation. Friedmann’s paper considered cartographies in the context of culinary skills, crop management, global capitalism, and ecology. While Bewell looked to the colonial, affective, historical, and literary dimensions of human-plant encounters, Friedmann looked to the digestive, economic, and agricultural mediation of space.

Shiho Satsuka’s “Eating Others Well: Plants, Fungi, and Multispecies Politics in Japan” ended the session. It turned the group’s attention to the ethical and political questions of knowledge-production and embodied encounters with the matsutake mushroom. Satsuka’s paper added another layer of complexity to the morning’s discussions of how plant-human relations provoke questions of ethical engagements with the world.

In the second conference session on May 2nd, through the theme of “Floral Worlds: Botanical Romances and Vegetable Aesthetics,” workshop participants focused on plant-human relations, primarily flowers, in reconfiguring human socialities, the politics of botanical science, and trajectories of feminist theory and methodologies. In this session, the theme of rethinking the shaping of worlds through the flower as a radically differentiated other provoked considerations of how worlds are shaped by the intersections of politics, science, and ethics. Significantly, the floral body emerged as an productive site for opening a critical enquiry into fin-de-siecle sexual politics, gendered romanticism, and promising feminist trajectories.

Alison Syme’s paper, “La Vie En Rose” explored how flowers and insects in fin-de-siecle visual representations offered an important lens for queer sexuality. Syme showed how the floral body and insect pollination provided an entry point into probing worlds of non-normative sexuality and gender roles.

Deidre Lynch’s “Nature’s Space Is Not Staged: Greenhouses and Flowery Theatres in Early Romanticism” introduced the staging of nature which elaborated on Syme’s indication of tensions in the ‘naturalization’ of sexuality in the nexus of plant, insects, and human hybridized bodies. Lynch focused on the poetry of William Cowper to engage with the themes of constructions of space and nature.

Ann Shteir’s “Women and the Cultural History of Botany” concluded the session – an examination of mythologies of the goddess Flora, the gendering of botanical science, history, and the trajectories of feminist thought. Shteir’s paper critically turned the attention of scholars to methodological issues of the use of ‘plant analytics’ and what such analytics mean for a feminist informed historical analysis of botany. Shteir’s work added a significant reflective dimension to themes of how the shaping of floral worlds are embodied, ethical, and political projects.

The second day of the workshop focused on ontological questions of plant-human encounters at the micro-site of the dynamic shaping, permeability, and contestation of ontological boundaries. In doing so, scholars who presented their work on this day shifted from the macro-perspective of shaping worlds and tracking global circuits towards investigating plant-human bodily intimacies.

In the first session on “Technologies of Capture and Escape: Plants That Capture and Capturing Plants,” Natasha Myers, James Cahill, and Heather Cruickshank provoked critical reflections on mediating encounters across difference.

James Cahill’s paper on “The Film Language of Flowers” considered the distinctive technological medium of film and flowers in motion as an opportunity for a critical re-examination of the category of ‘essence.’

Natasha Myers’s “Sensing Botanical Sensoria” offered a provocative analysis of laboratory practices such as the technique of transduction as ways for grasping lively human-plant entanglements.

Heather Cruickshank’s “Anti-Vegetarian Vegetables: Encountering Venus Fly-Traps As Plants That Eat” built on the theme of technologies of capture by suggesting the plant body itself as such a material technology.

Throughout the session, the lens of technologies and strategies to further human-plant relations provided a new frame for exploring the questions and concerns that animate social justice projects of thinking across difference, building connections, and strategies for forming egalitarian communities.

In the final session of the workshop, Andrew Schuldt’s “Sowing New Seeds: A Collaboration with Honey Crisp Apples” and Carla Hustak’s “‘New Creations of Value’: Luther Burbank’s Intimate Partnerships with Plants in Affective Experimental Gardens, 1880-1920” intensified the theme of ontologies and mediating encounters by turning attention to the plant-human bodily intimacies. These papers explored the session’s theme of by highlighting material connectivities of plant and human bodies through market logics, agricultural policies, scientific breeding, and eugenic logics entangling plant sex and human sex. In doing so, this session looked to plant-human intimacies as a site for bringing together the questions of ontology and ecology, and provoked questions of the relationships across New College’s programs on human biology, environmental health, critical area studies, women and gender studies, religion, and paradigms and archetypes.

At the roundtable discussion that ended the second day of the workshop, scholars had the opportunity to reflect on what we gained from sharing our questions, insights, and methodological approaches to encountering plants. Scholars responded positively to the interdisciplinary connections generated by the workshop in showing the diversity of work on plants and similarities in questions and interests animating ways of thinking with plants. In the roundtable, scholars discussed the issues of framing new narratives, the politics animating scholarly inquiry into plants, and the place of our recent turn to plants within longer trajectories of rethinking ‘nature’, ecological relations, and knowledge-production. In the roundtable discussion, some scholars expressed interest in pursuing the connections created by the workshop in the form of a group, network, or future workshops. Some plans are presently under way to seek a potential publisher for an edited volume of the papers presented at the workshop.