Member Services

Modernist Plant Aesthetics

The pages of modernist literary works abound with leaves, plants, and flowers. These plants are more than mere appearances; indeed, their presence often facilitates connections between characters and their ecosystems, prompt questions of human agency, and anticipate questions of ecological sustainability in an era of industrial development. This plant life is sensuous, for example, in Felix’s first glimpse of Robin Vote in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936), Robin is “surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and cut flowers.” The “jungle” that surrounds her creeps onto her body, as “her flesh was the texture of plant life.” Modernism’s plant life also invokes questions of ethics and shared earthliness: “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” in Dylan Thomas’s eponymous poem (1934) famously connects the (human) speaker to a shared mortality. Septimus Smith, in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) imagines a web-like connection to the ecosystems of London: “leaves were alive, trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibers with his own body,” a connection which prompts him to realize that “men must not cut down trees.” In a similar vein, Patrick Kavanagh considers the violence done to wild, weedy plant life through farming when he writes in The Great Hunger (1942) that “Nobody will ever know how much tortured poetry the/ pulled weeds on the ridge wrote/ Before they withered in the July sun.” Taking this ecological imposition to its full conclusion, the central crisis in Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame (1957) is that plant seeds have failed to sprout.
The questions and possibilities raised by plant life and death in literary modernism compellingly anticipate the stakes of contemporary critical plant studies. Here, scholars including Michael Marder, Jeffrey Nealon, Catriona Sandilands, Timothy Morton, and Luce Irigaray (among others) have turned to plants in order to critique Enlightenment tenets of the “great chain of being” as well as the exploitation and instrumentalization of biota; to explore the difficulty of language in expressing or translating nonhuman communication, especially through symbolism and metaphor; and question passivity as a form of activity or agency. Most important in these discussions is the exhortation to move beyond the focus on individual plants (and their genetic makeup) in laboratory settings, and to consider plants in their ecosystems. Moreover, critical plant studies attempts to foreground “plantness:” what do plants say about themselves? This panel aims to bring together modernist literature (as well as visual, musical or performative works) and plant studies to highlight the ways in which this movement is in step with contemporary environmental humanities and science, but also its proleptic concern with anthropogenic climate change, and nonhuman modes of affiliation and expression.
This panel will explore (but is not limited to) these questions or concerns: different modes of nonhuman animacy/agency; vegetation as form; plant symbolism; botany, biochemistry and taxonomy; plant-based folk-knowledge, medicine, and spirituality; depictions of agricultural space and/or labor; biosemiotics and plant communication; the aesthetic and sensorial worlds of plants.


Conference Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States
Conference Starts: November 08, 2018
Conference Ends: November 11, 2018

CFP Submission Deadline: April 07, 2018

For more information, contact: Caitlin McIntyre

Back to Main Index