Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Vindication of the Rights of Vegetables, or, Plant Theory and Planted Theory

I am about a third of the way through Jeffrey T. Nealon's Plant Theory: Biopower & Vegetable Life, and considering it just came in the mail yesterday evening, that is a good sign for the book. This is not a review of his book (see the only a third part), but so far it is engaging and well-written. If you are interested in biopolitical studies, you almost certainly should read it. While this is not a review of Nealon's book, it is another in the almost never ending blog posts about the relationship between animal ethics and plant ethics. Now, most of my views are in this post (and wow, I need to learn to write a second part in multi-part posts), and I don't plan to be recovering most of that ground. However, I want to use this post to think about some of the concerns that comes from critical animal scholars about plant theory. It is probably unfair to do this with the arrival of Nealon's book, because (1) I haven't finished reading it yet, and (2) nothing I am saying is specific to his book. However, his claims to think plant theory and animal studies together and closer than it has before is provocative, and this is what it provokes.

One of the things that is hard to engage with, in Nealon's book, is how open he is that the inspiration came from being at the MLA and trying to decide how animals had become "the next big thing" in theory. And he shortly follows that up by accusing animal scholars of a "refusal to consider vegetable life within its biopolitical frame seems to function as a subset of an old practice: trying to close the barn door of ethical consideration right after your chosen group has gotten out of the cold of historical neglect" (xii). These remarks speak rather directly to the suspicions people within critical animal studies might have towards plant theory. The first suspicion is that plant theory, or critical plant studies or what have you, is operating somewhat like Thomas Taylor's Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, which sought to undermine Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (I talk about Taylor briefly, and include his amazing closing paragraph, in this old post on plants). The goal of Taylor's track was satire, which he sought to achieve by extending some of Wollstonecraft's logic to other animals. It matters little if he was accidentally correct on this point, his goal was to help neither brutes nor women, but simply to undermine the moral authority of Wollstonecraft's argument. Almost every popular news story that has taken seriously plants as active forces have immediately framed them as attacks on vegetarians and vegans, even though it makes no real sense. Michael Pollan's work is regularly cited in plant theory circles, and he is well-known for his work to argue against vegans and vegetarians (and also for getting his science really, really wrong). We are all familiar with people like Barbara Kingsolver, arguing in her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that her harvesting her favorite plants was the same as killing hens. Maybe even worse, because plants are innocent. So there exists a fear that even if plant theorists are sincere, they will be utilized to undermine normative claims about our ethical relationships toward other animals. Because of course they will be. If you do this work, you know they already have been.
This relates to the second problem, which is the way in which plant theory sometimes frames animal studies as this theory event, as the next big thing. For those of us working on animal studies for a while, a very weird thing happened in it becoming a thing. Let me relate a story that I know I have told several times before. Sometime in grad school, during the 2006-2007 academic year, I was talking to a fellow student who asked me what my research was on. When I replied, "animals," she laughed. She honestly assumed that was not a serious project. Years later I would run into her (now around 2013), and she asked me what I had written my dissertation on. When I reminded her, "animals," she went, "Oh that is so trendy and red hot. That was a smart move." It remains to be seen if it was a smart career move, but it certainly was not seen that way when I started. Animal studies got taken seriously, more or less overnight, due partially to the English translation of Jacques Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am, and the publication of Donna Haraway's When Species Meet (these works came out with within 6 months of each other). Of course there was a lot of other stuff being published, and nor is it really a foundational moment. Ecofeminism had been doing a lot of this work years earlier, but had become heavily discredited within academic circles (see Greta Gaard's Ecofeminism Revisited, as well as the intro to Adams and Gruen's recent excellent volume on Ecofeminism). But between the giants of Derrida and Haraway, suddenly, animal studies was recognized. And in some corners concerns about animals went from being dismissed because they were boutique concerns to being able to be dismissed because they were trendy. So when Nealon, in a clause directly before the quotation above about closing barn doors, writes "debates about ethical vegetarianism aside," it is hard not to feel he has missed the point of animal studies. Ethical vegetarianism and veganism, as well as advocacy for the liberation of animals, are the normative core in much of the work of animal studies. Of course, this isn't true for all animal studies. Michael Lundblad has advanced the idea of "animality studies." He explains:
But the phrase “animal studies” strikes me as too limiting, too easily mistaken for a unified call for universal advocacy for actual animals. I want to make a distinction between critical attention to how we think about “real” animals and various forms of advocacy for treating nonhuman animals better. I want to associate animal studies even further with that advocacy, with work explicitly concerned about the living conditions of nonhuman animals. Conversely, I want to argue for “animality studies” as a way to describe work that expresses no explicit interest in advocacy for various nonhuman animals, even though it shares an interest in how we think about “real” animals. Animality studies can prioritize questions of human politics, for example, in relation to how we have thought about human and nonhuman animality at various historical and cultural moments. Increased attention to the history of animality and related discourses can lead to new in- sights in fields such as the history of sexuality, as London’s texts will help me illustrate below. To the extent that this kind of methodology resists engaging with concern for nonhuman animals, it could be seen as “speciesist.” But I want to open up a space for new critical work that might have different priorities, without an imperative to claim the advocacy for non-human animals that runs through much of the recent work in animal studies.
I want to be clear that I don't think there is anything wrong with animality studies. I think a lot of us who advocate for animals still move back and forth a lot between such advocacy and animality studies. What has been interesting about much of what is going by the label of plant theory, is that most of it is not really in the form of advocacy for plants. Following the distinction by Lundblad, perhaps we can randomly say there is a difference between planting theory, which should have some sort of plant focused core, and planted theory, which uses plants to fundamentally understand and change the human world. So if we look at the growing body of books we can call plant theory (here I am thinking of Elaine Miller's The Vegetative Soul, Michael Marder's Plant-Thinking and his The Philosopher's Plant, Matthew Hall's Plants as Persons, Eduardo Kohn's How Forests Think, and now Nealon's Plant Theory), the only one that is obviously primarily planting theory is Hall's book (though there is some in Marder's Plant-Thinking, and I am not finished with Plant Theory). In other words, most of plant theory is, so far, planted. And again, I think there are important things going in most of those books. Nealon's work still feels fairly central if you care about biopolitical studies. What I am having trouble with is imagining the dialogue between animal studies and planted theory. The stakes of the projects are too different. Indeed the tensions between planted theory and animal studies might turn out to be a false family resemblance, when in reality we are doing very different things. We need more planting theory if we are going to figure out how to ethically and politically relate to plants and animals. These are not easy questions, but they increasingly seem like important ones, and perhaps painfully timely ones. Here is to new seeds and future plantings.