Mark Bould: The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (2021)

With The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture, Mark Bould gives a new contribution to the study of the Anthropocene in literary, televised and cinematic fictions by providing a different perspective to some influential statements included in Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). Indeed, whereas the latter maintains that “most forms of art and literature” not only conceal but also avoid dealing with climate catastrophe, Bould posits that the “art and literature of our time is pregnant with catastrophe, with weather and water, wildness and weirdness” (p. 3).

After providing a brief outline of the history and the controversies around the term the Anthropocene, Bould compares it to the Freudian unconscious, as it seems to underlie every cultural production while remaining largely repressed. Within this perspective, the Anthropocene is not absent from artistic and literary texts, but it is unspoken and, therefore, the critic’s role is to identify the textual fractures which reveal its presence and make textual silences speak, as claimed by Pierre Macherey’s theory of literary production. Bould also evokes Fredric Jameson’s political unconscious (1981) and the related idea that the critic rewrites “a given text in terms of a particular interpretive master code”. Along these lines, The Anthropocene Unconscious embarks on a critical rewriting and rereading of a large raft of texts, to reveal their unspoken representation of climate crisis.

To structure his analysis, Bould begins his book with an introduction where he sets out the above-mentioned purpose of his work; then, he proceeds with five thematically bound chapters, and he wraps up his critical reading enterprise with a conclusion, which is circularly connected to the introduction in pointing to a wider socioeconomic agenda. In the final part, Bould posits that bringing up the Anthropocene unconscious in different texts and productions might appear useless compared to the existential threat represented by the current climate crisis, but if it is turned into a collective critical practice, it can instil a slow but pivotal cultural and behavioural change towards an unconditional care for the biosphere.

To get to this point, the book’s five chapters explore almost thirty-six titles across different time periods (from 1880s to present days), countries (the USA, Canada, the UK, France, Spain, Norway, Russia, and India), and media (literature, television and film). Bould’s analysis traverses different forms of high and popular culture and different examples of the so-called Anthropocene unconscious. In Chapter 1, he explores texts that contain various anthropogenically induced predators, such as zombies, and highlight human complicity in climate change. In Chapters 2 and 3, Bould presents different examples of mundane, middle-class fiction, which seems to be loyal to ordinary and every-day details, but which reveals the presence of the Anthropocene as a distortion of “ordinary, if still relatively privileged, lives” or as a refusal of its effects on land and different species. Chapter 4, instead, probes a series of genre fiction and arthouse cinema that not only are set in watery landscapes but that also presents different perspectives on progress, reframed by water. Chapter 5 finally analyses different representations of trees in various texts, and their role in displaying different types of the environmental uncanny, as well as in providing sustainable and alternative examples of existence.

Undoubtedly engaging and innovative in its perspective, Bould’s study should be read by both experts and laymen who acknowledge the importance of reflecting on the Anthropocene. However, readers might be disoriented by the lack of explanation of the reasons why the author has selected certain texts and productions and displayed them in an apparently unstructured way. Indeed, Bould’s analysis evidently defies any national compartmentalisation, chronological categorization and aesthetic distinction and it is guided only by theme-analogies that make his reasoning comparable to the non-linearity of either the unconscious or tree branches. The book efficaciously unravels the unspoken potentialities of the mundane novels in revealing much more than the limited norms and tastes of the bourgeois life, but it also touches on a hazardous terrain: claiming that every contemporary cultural and artistic production speaks about the current climate crisis might be conceived as an attempt to unnaturally see something even when it is not there. To conclude, we are not sure if the Anthropocene is the unconscious of every text, but this essay invites us to adopt a critical attitude towards those textual fractures that might reveal what type of human – non-human relationship is unconsciously portrayed in every work of high and popular art.

28.04.2023 by Monica Peluso, PhD Student from University of Bologna



Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981). London: Routledge, 2002.

Macherey, Pierre. A Theory of Literary Production. London: Verso Books, 2006.

David Thurfjell: Granskogsfolk. Hur naturen blev svenskarans religion (2020)

Nature in general, and the woods in particular, are essential to Swedish society and culture. In fact, trees and forests are so crucial to the modern, primarily secular Swedes and their self-image that this type of natural landscape could be regarded as a national religion in contemporary Sweden. This is the central thesis presented by David Thurfjell (professor in religious studies) in Granskogsfolk. Hur naturen blev svenskarans religion (“People of the spruce woods. How nature became a religion to the Swedes”)

Thurfjell asks why rural landscapes such as the pine woods appear to be the sphere most Swedes choose when seeking places for existential reflection, what these spiritual experiences are like, and how this orientation toward the rural parts of society has become so widespread among the modern Swedes.

To answer these questions, Thurfjell turns to two types of sources. To find out how the Swedes of today think of and experience nature, he has interviewed 72 of the hikers he has met while strolling in the forests surrounding Stockholm. These contemporary reflections are contextualized through a comprehensive cultural-historical analysis. Based on a variety of historical, religious, philosophical, and psychological studies, as well as examples from the Swedish literary canon, Thurfjell presents the Swedes’ relationship with nature throughout history. This journey begins in the mythical landscapes of Norse society, pass through the conflicting ideas of the holy as something beyond, but also within, the material world during the Christian era, continues to the secular instrumentalization of nature in the industrial period, and ends up in the existential paradoxes of the Anthropocene. Even though much of this narrative is familiar, at least to readers interested in images and stories about Scandinavian nature, Thurfjell’s spiritual history of Sweden demonstrates the critical insight that nature is indeed a crucial part of what we conceive of as culture.

From the perspective of literary studies, it is interesting to note that the many quotes from well-known Swedish poems, novels, and songs included in Thurfjell’s argument reflect a remarkably richer and more nuanced way of expressing the profound and significant experience of connection between human beings and their natural surroundings, compared to the urban “new age”- discourse influencing many of his informants. The poem from which Thurfjell has borrowed the title, Granskogsfolk, is a telling example of how precise, but uncomplicated all the same, literary language can be:

Vi uppsöker gläntornas ljus

och bor till en del i städer

där vi får för oss

att vi är oss själva.

Ändå är vi vad vi är

Ett granskogsfolk

(From Tuvor (1973) by Harry Martinsson)

However, those (of us) who hoped the title Granskogsfolk referred to a religious history connected to trees or spruces particularly will be disappointed due to the general scope of Thurfjell’s examination. As Thurfjell admits himself, the words “nature,” “landscape,” “forest,” and “spruce woods” are used synonymously. Nevertheless, there are some passages where connections to trees as such, and even certain species, are given particular attention.

Oe such example is a section on “Kärleken till träd” (The love of trees), where the author discusses a tendency among his informants to establish friendly relations with trees. Several of them report conversations with trees, and one expresses that she looks upon trees as persons “with a real personality” (p. 43). Thurfjell enriches these testimonies with parallel examples in texts by canonized Swedish authors such as Artur Lundkvist and Sara Lidman.

A section on the powerful Swedish timber industry reveals a far more problematic perspective on trees. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, vast parts of the Swedish woods were treated with the same pesticides used as chemical weapons in the Vietnam War. The long list of “unwanted” plants mentioned in the marketing campaign for these products (including common species such as birch, hazel, and willow) effectively explains why monoculture is one of the most significant threats to biodiversity in Scandinavian forests today. 

Thus, even though Granskogsfolk does not contribute much new knowledge, neither about the spiritual history of Swedes or their relation to spruce, it is a well-written reminder that the natural landscapes we walk through, read about, and dream of are central to what it means to be a human being.

04.05.2022 by Beatrice G. Reed, Post doc. Western Norway University of Applied Sciences

Suzanne Simard: Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (2021)

Suzanne Simard, a Canadian, is one of the most influential forest ecologists of the past thirty years. Her discoveries about the mycorrhizal network connecting the root systems of forests, for which she coined the term the “wood wide web,” have inspired several popular science books, including Peter Wohlleben’s well-known The Hidden Life of Trees. She was also the inspiration for a character in Richard Powers’ arboreal novel The Overstory (2018). Rob Nixon (2021) speculates that her discoveries about the interconnected nature of forests have been so resonant because, in the face of the climate crisis, many people are ready to let go of individualistic and competitive notions of self and meaning, and are seeking new ways of imagining and embodying community. The intricately enlaced roots of forests provide precisely this.

Finding the Mother Tree is an autobiography that puts Simard’s scientific discoveries in the context of her life and family history. Her attitudes towards trees are an intriguing mix of the pragmatic, the scientific, the intuitive, and the mystical. Born into a family that has been logging for generations, Simard is at ease with the fact that humans use trees to build livelihoods. She explains that as a child she chewed the rich humus of the forest floor, a trait for which her siblings never teased her. She writes: “I can’t tell if my blood is in the trees or if the trees are in my blood” (Simard 2021, p. 25). As a young female ecologist in the male-dominated forestry industry, Simard is eager to prove herself as competent and trustworthy as “one of the boys,” but she is disturbed by the devastation caused by clear-cut plantations, and troubled by the fact that the roots of newly-planted saplings seem reluctant to connect with the earth.

The book is fascinating for a number of reasons: the insights into mid to late-twentieth-century logging culture, the descriptions of the mycorrhizal fungi that attach to roots of trees and assist the exchange of nutrients, and the accounts of Simard’s detailed and decades-long experiments that demonstrated the integral role the mycorrhizal fungi plays in sustaining communities of multi-species forests, in direct contrast to the assumptions of the logging industry that “competing” species should be removed. The book also addresses the issue of gender. In addition to describing the challenges Simard faced in establishing herself in—and questioning the foundations of—a male-dominated industry, the book reflects on Simard’s relationship with her mother and her own two daughters, including her decision to spend significant stretches of time away from them as they grow up, in order to devote herself to her research on forests.

The “mother tree” of the title refers to the enormous, ancient trees of the forest whose roots support the development of the saplings and the younger trees around them. Simard discovers that old and young trees communicate with chemical signals passed through fungal networks—similar in many ways to the neural pathways in our own brains. She writes: “the old trees nurture the young ones and provide them food and water just as we do with our own children” (Simard 2021, p. 5). Simard decides to call these trees “mother trees” despite the fact that that they aren’t exactly female because the word “mother” speaks to her own experiences of care and nurture: “The hubs were Mother Trees. Well, mother and father trees, since each Douglas-fir has male pollen cones and female seed cones. But … it felt like mothering to me” (Simard 2021, p. 228). In 2013, Simard gave a talk on Mother Trees to a group of fourteen-year-olds. It was posted on YouTube, and was successful enough that she was invited onto TED Talks’ main stage two years later. She writes: “I struggled with anthropomorphisms that I knew would be criticized by scientists, but I chose to use terms such as ‘mother’ and ‘her’ and ‘children’ anyway to help the kids understand the concepts” (Simard 2021, p. 274). Her choice to anthropomorphize the trees contributed to the popular dissemination of her research and struck a chord with viewers and readers around the world.

17.01.2022 by Melanie Duckworth, Associate Professor, Østfold University College, Norway.

Thor Hanson: The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History

In The Triumph of Seeds, conservation biologist Thor Hanson guides the reader through a fascinating exploration of the evolution of different types of seeds, from spores to coffee beans. Taking Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as his point of departure, he argues that “natural selection, like commerce, rewards a good product” (xxiii); a mechanism which ensures that successful evolutionary adaptations become the norm.

Hanson combines his biological expertise with a genuine enthusiasm for the subject of seed evolution, allowing the reader to discover the multifaceted organisms that seeds are, as well as how deeply they are entwined with human lives: “We live in a world of seeds. From our morning coffee and bagel to the cotton in our clothes and the cup of cocoa we might drink before bed, seeds surround us all day long” (xxiv). Hanson’s accessible style makes his expertise available to the reader, who may find him or herself similarly enthused by the intricate mechanisms of seed evolution and survival.

The book is subdivided into five sections, each focusing on a different quality pertaining to seeds: Seeds Nourish, Seeds Unite, Seeds Endure, Seeds Defend, and Seeds Travel. In each section a few species of plant are discussed more in depth, to exemplify the overarching quality. Under “Seeds Nourish” for instance, Hanson discusses grasses, several of which are significant food crops, and links them to early human civilisations.

In a pedagogical move, he compares seeds to “babies” that usually come packed with their own “lunch”, and manages to make the specificities of plant biology accessible to a lay audience:

In terms of lunch, most seeds use a nutritious product of pollination called endosperm, but various other tissues will do the job, including perisperm (yucca, coffee), hypocotyl (Brazil nut), or the megagametophyte preferred by conifers. Orchids don’t pack a lunch at all – their seeds simply pilfer the food they need from the fungi found in the soil. (Hanson 17)

Noting how all seeds share the common goal of “protecting, dispersing and feeding baby plants” he goes on to demonstrate how “the food in seeds gets eaten by a lot more things than baby plants” (ibid) – and not least by humans. In this rich volume, Hanson also discusses the survival strategies of seeds, seed banks, and seed longevity in relation to climate change. Thus, his book certainly provides food for thought.

30.12.2021 by Lykke Guanio-Uluru, Professor, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, Bergen

Michael Marder: The philosopher’s plant. An intellectual herbarium (2014)

First, I must warn anyone thinking that this report will help them gain easy access to the book. I am in fact tempted to consider this more of a report on my reading of the book than a report on the book.

The first time I saw the title of Michael Marder’s book I was immediately fascinated because it made me curious about the link between two areas that have attracted me ever since I was a student. As a student in upper secondary school, I studied botany and part of the course was devoted to the collecting of 100 plants to complete a herbarium following certain predetermined criteria, such as it having a minimum of 20 species of moss (bryophytes). I loved that work, that is, I loved to walk in the woods, meadows, and moorlands, and to search for, study, compare, and speculate about species. The process of pressing and conserving was less interesting because I always felt that the plant was left alone on the paper, deprived of its context or natural environment. As a university student I studied the history of philosophy and specialized in aesthetics. Well, I was young and knew little about how to read the many companion texts that listed philosophers and explained their world views or their ways of turning the world into a system of thought. I remember that due to the monotonous style of the textbook authors, the various philosophers and systems almost merged into one and the same. Although Marder’s text manages to engage me as a reader in many ways, it still runs the risk of turning an exciting idea into an intellectual exercise following a standardized set-up.

Although, as Marder states, plants in philosophy are “consigned to a grey area between dead stones and living animals” (p. 210), the idea of the book is beautiful: Marder has walked the woods, meadows, and moorlands of philosophy and philosophers to study the role of plants in their texts and thinking. Or, as proclaimed in the prologue, “this book lifts the curtain on the significance of plants to the making (and growth) of thought” (p. xiv). To mention one telling example of how this works, I would like to mention Marder’s reading of Hegel and of how his philosophy of dialectics may be found in a passage about grapes: “In the transition from grapes to wine, nature is dialectically transformed into culture” (p. 153).

In addition to Hegel’s grapes, the vegetal life Marder has found in the philosophers’ texts is rich and promising, comprising the plane tree (Plato), wheat (Aristotle), the “great plant” (Plotinus), pears (Augustine), celery (Avicenna), the palm tree (Maimonides), blades of grass (Leibniz), the tulip (Kant), the apple tree (Heidegger), sunflowers (Derrida), and the water lily (Irigaray). Interestingly, the last one is the only female philosopher in Marder’s herbarium. This said, she is perhaps the most precious one if I understand him correctly. It seems to me that in Irigaray’s plant thinking Marder finds that “[e]verything Western philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have discarded and devalued about plants is lovingly retrieved, reassessed, and cultivated” (p. 219).

The structure of the book is classic: one chapter is dedicated to each philosopher (and plant), and presented in historical order according to the time of the philosopher’s work. The opening of each chapter is characterized by the intention to connect the reader of the book with the key plant, text, or botanical setting of the philosopher. In my opinion, these passages are decisive in connecting and engaging the reader with the rest of the chapter.

So, what did I find in Marder’s herbarium, which plants, thoughts, or linguistic descriptions attracted me the most? An overall observation I made was how long lived and deep rooted a rather limited mindset about plants is in our conceptions of everyday life and values. Like the powerful metaphor and observable facts about seeds, growth, and potential, or the fascinating trope about stealing (forbidden) fruit (see the chapter on Augustine’s pears). By reading Marder I think I have learned that plants often represent a challenge to a philosopher’s main system of thought and hence have either been forced to fit in (usually at a lower stage in some sort of hierarchy) or been relegated to an out-of-place or system-external position, appropriate for saying something crucial about the world that cannot be said based on the fundamental principle of thoughts – such as in the case of Kant’s tulip, which Marder summarizes in the following way:

«A beautiful flower may be too weak to take on the entire system of thought, which has slotted it within the structure of aesthetic judgement and harnessed it to the demands of      purposiveness without purpose. Of one thing we can be nonetheless sure: it does not              succumb to the sinister influence of idealization that performs a magical disappearing act, causing everything singular, imperfect, and concrete to dissolve in the mist of indifferent    abstraction.» (pp. 150-151)

It is both easy and tempting to pick or cut out passages from Marder’s text and press and conserve them in other contexts, or to graft them with other words to see if new meanings will unfold. In particular, I find the chapter on Derrida’s sunflower to be such a meadow of pickable paragraphs, of passages worth lifting out of context to continue to reflect upon or bear in mind. One such cutting is the following reminder, which I find applies to Derrida’s philosophical practice, to Marder’s book, and to academic works to come:

«Our virtual intellectual herbarium is itself a supplement to the real gardens, fields, and forests where plants grow. But the supplement in deconstruction always comes first, before what it supplements. It is on the basis of the prevailing idea of the plant and its significance (or insignificance) on the scale of beings that the so-called natural resources are managed and agriculture is organized on the industrial model. To change these practices we would first need to alter the supplementary notion of the plant.» (p. 198)

Finally, and perhaps only as a footnote, I would like to mention that I sometimes find it a little hard to distinguish Marder’s own thoughts and ideas about plants and philosophy from his free continuation, or rewriting, of each philosopher’s thinking. But perhaps this is how an organic plant-oriented text works; others’ texts and thoughts grow into or are sown in new texts and thoughts, and this is perhaps how it will continue to function, since “[p]hilosophy is (…) like a plant that metamorphoses as it grows” (p. 167).

10.10.2021 by Nina Goga, Professor, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, Bergen

Rob Nixon: Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011)

Nixon’s concept of slow violence is inspired by Johan Galtung’s idea of structural violence, a form of violence not attributable to a single individual, but rather to social inequalities of power (Galtung 1969). Slow violence likewise denotes “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (Nixon 2011, 2).

One of Nixon’s illustrative examples is the 1984 disaster at the Union Carbide factory in the Indian city of Bhopal. As toxic gas leaked out, thousands were killed, and the pollution will continue to affect the inhabitants for decades. How many people have ultimately been killed or injured, and how can one prove who is responsible for the death of a given individual? Answers to these questions will be delayed and contested: “Maintaining a media focus on slow violence poses acute challenges, not only because it is spectacle deficient, but also because the fallout’s impact may range from the cellular to the transnational and […] may stretch beyond the horizon of imaginable time” (p. 47). Hence, one of Nixon’s main issues is the problem of understanding and staying attentive to ecological drama, as it is often unspectacular in aesthetic terms.

Slow violence, then, disproportionately affects the poor of the global south, those lacking the means to leave areas suffering the consequences of toxic pollution. As it hardly fits into narrative templates, slow violence also eludes memory and activist consciousness. The global poor therefore seem to be “dispensable citizens,” dispossessed of natural resources by multinational corporations, and forced to suffer the direst consequences of ecological damage. Thus, Nixon’s book integrates a postcolonial social justice perspective with ecological and ecocritical thinking. As such, his analysis is one of the most influential examples of what might be called global or cosmopolitical ecocriticism (Marland 2013).

The bulk of Slow Violence consists of contextual and close readings of “writer-activists” who “share a desire to give human definition to such outsourced suffering” while demonstrating “a desire to give life and dimension to the strategies–oppositional, affirmative, and yes, often desperate and fractured–that emerge from those who bear the brunt of the planet’s ecological crises” (p. 22–23). By studying novels and essays by authors such as Indra Sinha, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Arundhati Roy, Nixon shows how texts can make slow violence perceptible, while also prolonging the attention given to events that are not typically identified as dramatic or spectacular.

Nixon’s book attempts to couple the questions and methods of literary studies with arguably the most pressing global problem of our age. Slow Violence provides a provocative framework for thinking about ecological narratability and the issue of attention in climate change activism.


Works Cited

Galtung, Johan. 1969. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research, 6 (3), 167–191.

Marland, Pippa. 2013. “Ecocriticism.” Literature Compass, 10/11, 846–868.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press.


05.08.2019 by Per Esben Myren-Svelstad, Associate professor, NTNU in Trondheim

Our Children and Other Animals – Childhood and Pethood

Two recent texts—Our Children and Other Animals and Childhood and Pethoodoffer new insights on the question of children and animals in society, culture, and literature. As my discussion below suggests, Childhood and Pethood expands on the social theoretical foundation established in Our Children and Other Animals.

In Our Children and Other Animals, Cole and Stewart argue that children and animals occupy a shared position of oppression in human societies. Children and animals are widely treated as similar to but not quite human—a norm that is reinforced by cultural and legal practices throughout the world. Cole and Stewart show how human children gradually learn to instrumentalize the animal other as they grow up: indeed, subjugating the animal other, the authors suggest, is the key mechanism by which not-quite-human children become fully human and adult. Cole and Stewart examine how powerful institutions, including education and the media, introduce and reinforce the child’s process of learning to objectify animals. Movies, video games, and schools present animals as cute but ultimately disposable: animals’ value lies in their usefulness (in narrative, in meat, etc.), not in their subjectivity. Cole and Stewart conclude their book by showing how recent vegan children’s books offer a counter narrative to the dominant practices of animal subjugation in human societies and in human cultural production, thus providing an alternative model for human-animal relations for both children and adults.

Childhood and Pethood is (to my knowledge) the first collection of scholarly essays that theorizes the relationship between children and animals in culture and literature. The book opens with two brief and thought provoking prefaces, one by Monica Flegel, the other by Kenneth Kidd. Flegel suggests that childhood and pethood acquired a similar status in the 19th century, as children and animals came to be seen as “sentimental investments.” Though Flegel’s position aligns with that of Cole and Stewart in that she acknowledges children and animals share a subjugated social position, she pushes this line of thinking by asking whether “dependency” (a state that describes both children and pets) must necessarily “[entail] a lesser status” (xvii). Kidd points out that while childhood studies and related fields have promoted children’s agency, they have largely done so in a tradition of humanism—and “human exceptionalism”—to the detriment of nonhuman animals. In their introduction to the text, Anna Feuerstein and Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo suggest the shared status of children and pets can be a source of creative and political potential: “The ways in which children and pets interact with each other provide productive avenues for exploring not only interspecies kinship relations but also how disenfranchised subjects can negotiate their marginalization, create new affective economies, and engage in unexpected forms of growth” (2).

Childhood and Pethood is divided into three sections. The first section, “Family, Language, and Nationhood,” contains five essays that examine children and pets in context of national borders, language, and identity and includes the essay, “Adoption, Custody, and Protection: The Childhood of Pets as a Critique of Legal Classification,” in which the author, James Gillett, suggests pets occupy a position between the animal and the child. The second section, “Literature for Children and Adults,” contains six essays. Zoe Jaques’s essay, “Pullman, Pets, and Posthuman Animals: The Dæmon-child of His Dark Materials” shows how Philip Pullman’s popular series illustrates the violence of the process by which children are socialized to objectify animals. Kelly Hübben’s essay shows how three popular Little Golden Books train child readers both to be socialized (by adults) and to socialize the animal other. In her essay “Oh God, Give Me Horses!”, Amalya Layla Ashman argues that “pony fiction” books allow their protagonists (and their female readers) to temporarily escape the pressures of “boys and fashion” via a relationship with the horse. The book’s final section, “Music and Visual Culture,” offers four essays that explore how race, species, and childhood are variously implicated in music, painting, and other forms of art. These essays point to how blackness, animality, and childhood are valued in so far as they remain cute and tame; where they show signs of aggression and wildness, they become a threat to white, adult “civilization.”


16.11.2018 by Ida Moen Johnson, PhD candidate in the Dept. of Scandinavian at UC Berkeleyby



Matthew Cole, and Kate Stewart. Our Children and Other Animals: The Cultural Construction of Human-Animal Relations in Childhood. Taylor and Francis, 2014.

Anna Feuerstein, and Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo. Childhood and Pethood in Literature and Culture: New Perspectives in Childhood Studies and Animal Studies. Taylor and Francis, 2017.

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.