When I was a kid I remember reading through Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories for Late at Night and stumbling on Roald Dahl’s short story, “The Sound Machine”. The plot follows Klausner, a man obsessed with sound, who invents a sound machine that can pick up the screams of plants. As a budding rationalist I experienced disbelief but was nonetheless affected when Klausner snipped a flower and his machine recorded a distinct shriek arising from the plant.
I would later discover in graduate school that Dahl’s story was most likely a playful innovation within a long tradition of imagining objects as subjects that hearkened back to the 18th-century “cult of sensibility”. In fact imagining that flowers have pain is much less ambitious than these earlier precedents–some depicting circulating commodities such as British coins as having secret inner lives that only a novelist could capture.
The difference between a shrieking plant and an adventurous coin, however, is that there’s an emerging consensus within the scientific community that Roald Dahl’s Klausner wasn’t too far from the mark, that plants might indeed experience pain that we’re just now figuring out how to record.
Jeffrey T. Nealon’s Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life attempts to do justice to this development in the biological sciences by updating biopolitical theory–the same theory that currently underpins animal studies. Where animal studies rocked the world of “identity theory,” showing that various forms of disability studies, queer studies, feminism, etc., took it for granted that human rights were the only form of life deserving serious consideration, Nealon shows that Peter Singer and his disciples didn’t push their critique far enough; that perhaps the real “abjected other,” the loneliest minority, might be plant communities.
Plant Theory opens by gesturing towards advances in modern science in an attempt to convince the reader that our theorization of “life” is outdated. Nealon suggests that, since “recent research has uncovered that plants evidence active, purposeful, future-oriented movement and exhibit both competitive and defensive behavior … [and] also have a certain kind of language” (12), and these are the same characteristics that embolden animal studies to advocate for certain rights, it would seem that they should also be concerned about the health of plants. But Nealon doesn’t push his case that far. He does tease the reader with provocative questions such as, “if plants become recognized as an ethically compelling figure for life … what’s left for us to choose if we decide no longer to kill plants for humans to survive? … What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent, if the salad bar can no longer function as an ethical refuge from the rest of the menu at the steakhouse?” (27). Yet towards the end of Plant Theory he backs away from the language of rights altogether and simply suggests that his goal is to simply to problematize the field, to raise questions about our assumptions concerning what constitutes “life” and “health”.
The remaining arc of the book (somewhat sporadically) follows Western civilization’s assumptions regarding “vegetable souls” from Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s Parts of Animals to 20th-Century Continental Philosophy. For me, the standout chapter here was Nealon’s reading of Aristotle in the section, “The Power of Soul”. He shows that Aristotle’s hierarchy of life, from the passive vegetable souls to active humans as rational animals, is sutured by the latter’s “stomachal sac” as a higher substitute for soil. Our digestive system suggests that we remain tied to the lowest rung of life; it’s as though we carry the earth within us; and in that sense humans can be considered “walking plants” (36). This ancient kernel of the human-as-vegetal provides a key concept for Nealon. He returns to this Aristotelian figure of the “walking plant” in his penultimate chapter on Deleuzeguattarian rhizomatics.
Even though Nealon strings together Aristotle and Heidegger in the way he organizes the book, the focus more or less shifts from ancient Aristotelian conceptions of what “life” entails to Heideggerian-Derridean constructions. Heidegger and Derrida are a pair for Nealon because they both assume (with some subtle qualification) that the main badge of a “living being” is that it has a distinct “world”. His critique here is that, even though Derrida replaces classical identity with event-emergence, he remains faithful to the way that Heidegger’s reserves life for organisms that have a “world”. Hagglünd’s commentary on Derrida helps clarify the case for Nealon: “everything in time is surviving, but not everything is alive … [and] only a living being cares about maintaining itself across an interval of time” (qtd. on p.57).
In the final sections of Plant Theory, Nealon moves forward by suggesting that this reservation fails to do justice to the Deleuzeguattarian rhizomatic “swarms of molecular emergence,” which force us to think beyond individuated worlds and distinct organisms. The main take-away from Nealon’s reading of Deleuze/Guattari is that, if boundary of life extends beyond the human-animal dyad of earlier assumptions, then in some cases it might make sense to speak of plants as actually having lives.
Some plants (as distinct organisms or as molecular swarms) do maintain themselves “across an interval of time,” as well as show other evidence of life such as pain and language, and thus should not be discounted from political discourse. But that’s not Nealon’s main concern. Rather than extending the language of rights to (some) plants, which would probably set up an untenable ethical situation for modern consumers, he wants to shift the conversation from principles and rights to “what doing does” and “how the mesh of life is altered by x or y practice, rather than securing the best theoretical or epistemological ground for our political actions” (114).
This “what doing does” ethic backs away from the salad bar scenario. The point isn’t whether someone should decide whether or not to eat a certain category of food, but rather how their consumer practices contribute to the emergence of a new ecology. Nealon is suggesting that it’s never going to be clear in advance what kinds of foods consumers should eliminate from their diet because “life” (in the biopolitical sense) doesn’t work that way. This is his attempt to un-ground animal studies.
It’s with this pivot towards a non-grounded ethic that I think Nealon may fall a little short. Here he hews a little too closely to Deleuzeguattarian philosophy. Rather than shift the biopolitical conversation towards a nebulous “what doing does” (which can hardly ever be determined in a straightforward manner), the critical project executed so well by Plant Theory might be better served by a Nietzschean attempt at purposeful self-grounding. Beyond Good and Evil famously shows how it’s possible to both undermine all previously grounding attempts while still grounding future endeavors. It’s a matter of purposeful construction–setting new limits in order to create a new and better world.
Until then I’m going to experiment with whether it’s possible to eat rocks.