In an era of humanist biopower it’s not animality that gets left behind, but plants.
A few years ago at the annual Modern Language Association conference, it seemed to me that an inordinate number of panels were dedicated to discussions of animal life in literature, culture, and theory. In 2009 a special cluster in the MLA’s flagship journal, PMLA, heralded the official arrival of animal studies in the literary humanities, and a torrent of books and articles has ensued. Going forward, it looks as if strong interest in animals among humanities scholars will continue, as there are a number of established book series and journals now dedicated to the topic. And while I like animals as much as the next person, the Foucauldian in me became preoccupied with trying to figure out how animality had somehow become the “next big thing” in the world of humanities theory and criticism.
The theoretical discourse surrounding animal lives emerged on the scaffolding of the Big Theory era’s master thinkers—Jacques Derrida; Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari; and, most obviously, Foucault, whose work has been key in coming to grips with biopower (how various practices and concepts of “life”—gender, race, etc.—became central for power and knowledge in the modern and postmodern era).
Foucault argues that it’s not animality that gets left behind in an era of biopower, but plant life.
So on the heels of my earlier work on Foucault, I set out to do a kind of genealogy of animal studies in the humanities, tracing its emergence out of the Big Theory era of the 1980s and 1990s. I specifically began by looking to untangle animal studies’ relations to the triumph of biopower starting from the plausible hypothesis that animal studies’ ascendency would turn out to be a natural outgrowth of the Foucauldian critique of biopower, a way for the humanities to begin undermining its myopic focus on human life as the only form of life worth the name.
Foucault in fact provides a very different explanation for intensified interest in animals within the biopolitical era: biopolitics remains invested in animals not because animals constitute our “others” but because animality provides the subtending notion of subjective desire that gives rise to biopower in the first place. More intriguingly, Foucault argues that it’s not animality that gets left behind in an era of biopower, but plant life.
The plant, it became clear, rather than the animal, functions as that form of life forgotten and abjected within a dominant regime of humanist biopower. Several times Derrida and Heidegger (not to mention Agamben) bump up against the question of vegetable life within their extensive work on humans and animals, but just as quickly and decisively, they each continue to elide the question of vegetable life, to remain focused on humans and animals. Even more surprising than the elision of plant life in recent biopolitical theory, however, was the amount of outright hostility toward thinking about vegetable life that I found within animal studies itself—a dismissive sense of skepticism about plants’ claims to the hard-fought ethical gains of animal studies. The vitriolic fare to be found in comment lines under numerous recent newspaper stories, magazine features, and blog posts concerning the growing scientific consensus around “plant intelligence” bears further testimony to this hostility.
Over the past few years, there has emerged an especially vigorous popular critical literature dedicated to translating the emergent hard-sciences findings concerning “plant intelligence.” Extended feature pieces by Oliver Sacks in the New York Review of Books and Michael Pollan in The New Yorker, books like Daniel Chamovitz’s What a Plant Knows are part of a chorus summing up this research confirming that “plants do indeed have senses.” To quote from Chamovitz:
Plants are acutely aware of the world around them. They are aware of their visual environment; they differentiate between red, blue, far-red, and UV lights and respond accordingly. They are aware of aromas surrounding them and respond to minute quantities of volatile compounds wafting in the air. Plants know when they are being touched and can distinguish different touches. They are aware of gravity: they can change their shapes to ensure that roots grow up and roots grow down. And plants are aware of their past: they remember past infection and the conditions they’ve weathered and then modify their current physiology based on those memories…. What we must see is that on a broad level we share biology not only with chimps and dogs but also with begonias and sequoias.
It may seem banal to point it out, but within all the discussion of biopolitics and posthumanism, there seems a lot more discussion on the “politics” end of biopolitics than there is rumination on the “bio” part of the story. Perhaps the political questions—animal rights, climate change, mass extinctions—are simply too pressing to allow the luxury of much time to think through and critique the constituent parts of biopower. But it’s just that kind of slowing down that interests me here and why I return to the high theory of Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari in this urgent era of ecological disaster: because I think we need to rethink these questions, about life, from the ground up.
Plants, one might say in a kind of cryptic shorthand, are quickly becoming the new animals. And more power to them. But what (if anything) changes in our present humanities debates about animal studies and biopower if we take vegetable life into account or if we take plants to be a linchpin for thinking about biopolitics?
In the end, discourses of contemporary biopolitics may just need a little water and sunlight, and we likewise need to do some turning of the theoretical soil in which the biopolitics debate originally grew—Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari. Going forward, the biopolitics debate will need to take into account an even more robust notion of what constitutes “life” beyond the human.
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From Aristotle to Agamben: how philosophy is changing its tune on animal life.