Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life (2016) by Jeffrey T. Nealon

Initially, Nealon sets out to untangle animal studies’ relation to Foucault’s term biopower (which is associated with the concerns and practices of human life). Foucault dates the turn towards an emphasis on biopower to the beginning of the nineteenth century (7). Nealon’s initial  hypothesis is that animals have become such ethically compelling figures recently because they are perceived as the excluded “others” within Foucault’s discourse on biopower (x).

Nealon must reject his initial hypothesis following his study of Foucault, who offers a different explanation for the intensified interest in animals in the biopolitical era: namely that animals, and their hidden lives and desires, are actually the privileged figures for understanding human life within the regime of biopower (x). This is because life in the biopolitical era is understood as animal-like: “evolving, appetite-driven, secret, discontinuous, mendacious (…) always on the prowl” (8), so that animals function not as our excluded “other” but as “very intense markers for our hidden, better, or former – perhaps more authentic – selves” (10). Rather, Foucault argues that what is left behind in this transition to the biopolitical era is the primary focus on plant life (x) in the historical movement from surface to depth that signals the decline of natural history (classification through organization by common visible traits) and the birth of biology (the science of life). As a science, biology seeks instead to discover the hidden animating principles of organisms (6). Thus, Foucault’s work shows that animality is “fully incorporated into biopower as the template for life itself” (7).

Consequently, Nealon turns to an examination of “the strange and consistent elision of plants within the voluminous work on life within contemporary theory and philosophy”, analysing, in particular, the work of Heidegger, Agamben and Derrida, all of whom re-read Aristotle (11). Contrasting the past few decades’ research into “plant intelligence” with Plato’s and Aristotle’s accounts of plants, which have survived uncontested within the Western philosophical tradition up until today, Nealon concludes that their picture of plant life is outmoded since:

plants do in fact communicate with other plants; they evidence both defensive and aggressive behaviour; they feign certain states to fool predators or attract pollinators; and of course plants do move, only at a much slower time scale than most animals; there is even research to suggest that plants feel pain, or at least respond decisively to extreme danger. (30)

Nealon further demonstrates how biopolitical theory has consistently sidestepped the issue of plant life (and how the issue is even met with hostility) and argues that the biopolitical present needs a concept of life as “the ecological territory that cuts across all strata of life” (107), a view inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic thinking. He further calls for a recognition that “everything that lives is provided with a vital principle” (like the Aristotelian notion of plant psukhe) so that “the great dividing line passes between the reign of the living and the non-living much more so than between plants, animals and man” (107). Thus, Nealon stresses that we all share the same territory for living; one that is in dire need of protection.

Lykke Guanio-Uluru, 08.10.2018.

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