Cultivation: Vegetal Lives, Global Systems and the Politics of Planting

18 + 19 March 2016

A conference organized by the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London

With support from the CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership and The Seed Box, an environmental humanities collaboratory funded by mistra and formas

Historically, cultivation has been practiced and conceived as both a form of nurturing and as a process in which nature is fundamentally interwoven with culture as part of a general or particular process of improvement. Cultivation is a bridge between the language specific to the study of plants and that of culture more broadly. As a term crossing between both of these, cultivation has also been a conduit for a multitude of colonial, imperialist and expansionist violences—be these material, psychic or epistemic. Legal and cultural archives reveal the centrality of cultivation in colonial ideologies, while dormant seeds bear witness to the histories of global trade and the darker side of capitalist progress—the classification, regulation and exploitation of native/non-native forms of “natural” life. At the same time, science also becomes a crucial cultivating force, drawing us to attend to and reflect on the world with an acuity that is far from imperious. Meanwhile, contemporary extractive capitalism and the ongoing colonisation of natural resources supplant and supress traditional modes of relating to nature and, more specifically, vegetal worlds. Overall then, to trace plants, is to enter into a “super-complex” situation.

How are we to account for the vegetal through science and culture? Recent advances in botany present us with highly interesting claims for plant sensing and intelligence and accounts of their communication and behaviour. Such claims are not made for plants having cognition or sentience, but call us to pay attention to the way plants make, inhabit and respond to the world at multiple scales. Systems-theoretical accounts of ecology and of vegetal life render such claims thickly productive of insight and knowledge. Other accounts, often in law, propose the rights of nature. Often, such questions refer us back to indigenous ontologies, cosmologies and animisms, to be considered alongside current culture-theoretical, philosophical and legal considerations of plants ranging across metaphysics and ontology. Indeed, if the study of biopolitics—or the politics of life itself—has in recent decades opened its borders to welcome the animal, where does this leave the philosophical, legal and moral standing of the plant; and in what pockets of critical thinking does humanism or even “speciesism” still reside?

How in turn do the complex histories of plants coincide with or travel through the politics of planting in our current form of global neoliberalism and neo-colonialism and via other histories? And how do biocolonialism, biopiracy, bioprospecting and patenting—with attendant anti-capitalist and alter-globalization struggles—demand that we redistribute notions of authorship, invention and agency amongst the human and the vegetal? What impact might such reconsiderations have for a politics of access to knowledge and the commons? In the context of global climate change, how are seed banks (“doomsday vaults”) entangled within broader geopolitics and conflict, and a colonial conception of time and value? And what of the temporalities of more-than-human, multi-species socialities? How might these be webbed and mapped? How to relay between global conditions, scientific apporaches and local, situated knowledges and lived experiences?

If (neo)colonial violence is often carried out against the earth, how might plants function as “silent witnesses”—or, perhaps better, as “bio-indicators”—to slow violence, both historical and contemporary; and what does this mean for the politics and practices of representation? What, here, is the role of the artist–researcher, or scientist, in “speaking for”, tracing or animating vegetal worlds, of translating silenced histories that themselves are woven and iterated through alternative perspectives on being-in-the-world and multi-species interactions? And, as in the case of the subaltern, how to navigate the “can’t-but-must” aporias of representing alterity, be this human or non-human?

This two-day conference will address such questions from multiple perspectives, including continental philosophy, postcolonial and decolonial studies, cultural theory, science and activism, as these interweave with ethnobotany, botany, ecocriticism, history, critical legal studies, anthropology and artistic and design practice.

Attendance free. No booking required.

[Please use the menu at top right for draft programme, speakers’ bios, and details of an accompanying PhD colloquium.]

Image: Elaine Gan, Oscillation and Invasion: Layered Temporalities of the Mekong (2016). Photos: Mekong delta 2011 by Wanda Acosta; rice seedlings (Oryza sativa) at IRRI Los Baños 2010 by Elaine Gan; Mekong water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) by Ted Center/USDA; giant Mekong catfish (Pangasianadon gigas) 2014 by Lynn Chan. CC BY-SC-NA.