To end this series on the work of Giovanni Aloi and others in critical plant studies, I want to cover a lot of ground. So far, I’ve gravitated toward art and literature, but philosophy is very much a part of this field as well. This is an area with which I am less familiar, though I have read a few books on the topic that I found interesting, including Matthew Hall’s (2011) Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. I always enter a piece of writing by a philosopher with a bit of hesitancy: am I going to be able to understand it? In this case, I was soon put at ease. Hall’s argument is clearly laid out and makes sense. He explores perceptions of plants within different world views. In the West, plants are seen as passive resources, while in Hindu texts, for example, plants are presented as fully sentient beings. A multiplicity of views means that there are multiple ways of considering plant being, including as “persons,” which Hall defines as autonomous, perceptive, and intelligent beings, deserving of respect as other-than-human persons (p. 14).
I should note, that by “intelligent” here, Hall means able to change behavior based on incoming information, something that plants do despite their lack of a central nervous system. This deficiency is seen by some as precluding intelligence and consequently personhood. I am not qualified to pass judgment on any of this, however I think raising such questions is important. Thinking about plants in different ways leads to seeing in different ways and to questioning assumptions and perceptions. It’s easy to consider plants as inactive, particularly in a herbarium which is essentially a plant morgue; not a lot of singing and dancing going on in the aisles. However, the plant on a sheet entails so much more than just a set of characteristics to be noted and measured; it represents a “relational” being connected to many other beings, including ourselves, in a myriad of ways.
Still another philosophical perspective on what such relations involve is described by Emanuele Coccia (2019) in The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture. Coccia questions not cultural assumptions as Hall does, but rather looks to the biology of plants to understand how we relate to them at the most basic level, that of breath. He writes: “Plants are the breath of all living beings, the world as breath. In turn, any breath is evidence of the fact that being in the world is, fundamentally, an experience of immersion. To breathe means to be plunged into a medium that penetrates us in the same way and with the same intensity as we penetrate it” (p. 53). That is definitely a profound yet fundamental way of thinking about our connections with plants. While Hall looks at plants as they relate to human culture, Coccia looks at how living things share resources and the space in which they exist. It is very interesting that the same organisms can generate such different worldviews and makes me think that I might need to investigate philosophy a little further in order to get a better perspective on plants, and life in general.
I’ll end this ramble into viewpoints on plants that are outside my comfort zone by returning to where I began this series of posts (1,2,3) with Giovanni Aloi who seems to explore so many facets of the plant world. He is the co-founder and editor of Antennae, a quarterly online journal that is open access. I mentioned it in an earlier post, but it deserves attention here, because just as Hall and Coccia have expanded my view of the plant world, Antennae has done the same, in very different ways, for the living world in general. Some Antennae issues such as Number 17 (Why Look at Plants?) and then Numbers 51-53 (Vegetal Entanglements) focus on plants. These are definitely worth spending some time with. They are all visually stunning, which is not surprising since Antennae is “The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.”
As an art critic and a plant studies expert, Aloi knows where to look for wonderful work by contemporary artists, including a couple of photographers who are exploring issues around seed collections. But there are also articles on historical works such as Mary Delany’s (Number 51) 18th-century paper cutouts of plants and Gherardo Cibo’s (Number 51) 16th-century botanical illustrations set against landscapes, a novel twist for the time. There are also articles giving attention to indigenous knowledge of plants and indigenous ways of honoring them. Even if you don’t read every word of an issue, you will be richly rewarded by the images which are not only visually stunning but thought-provoking. All issues are free and available in PDF format that is easy to view and to download for future reference. What more could you ask of publication that, even in issues that are not devoted solely to plants, usually have some fascinating articles on them. In any case, keep an eye on Giovanni Aloi if you want to expand your view of what plants are all about.
Coccia, E. (2019). The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture (D. J. Montanari, Trans.). Cambridge: Polity.
Hall, M. (2011). Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.