The critique of anthropocentrism demands a rethinking of human beings’ relationships with everything that surrounds them, both non-human animals and the rest of nature. Posthumanist theory is associated with interspecies ethnography and with Human Plant Studies, new areas of knowledge that explore the interrelationships amongst different species of all living beings, including plants.
This involves valuing plants not only for the benefit we derive from them, but in their own right. Viewing plants merely as res extensa in the Cartesian dualistic sense, without any intelligence or purpose of their own, is not the same as seeing them as autopoietic realities. These are two radically different visions: domination, as against understanding.
Just as non-human animals are attributed the status of persons, we are also now beginning to speak of plants as persons, a view that is already found in many non-Western cultures, especially those influenced by shamanism.
Today we know that plants are intelligent organisms and, as such, exhibit specific behaviours. Although plants do not have brains, they do have an emergent intelligence that includes the ability to learn, remember, communicate, make decisions essential for their survival, and even manipulate other species.
There are an increasing number of groups in our society that seek to promote a new relationship between humans and trees. Based on a clear post-humanist philosophy, they promote activities such as shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”, and workshops to learn to communicate with trees. Trees are spoken to and treated in a manner that is rather different to that of botanists who set out to classify them, hikers who seek their shade, or painters who set out to depict them. The tree that one addresses is not perceived as just one more species of plant, but as an individual, a reality that is often undermined or ignored.
There is a growing consciousness that humanism’s preoccupation with the human being has resulted in humans being seen in isolation from the rest of creation. Viewing human beings as autonomous individuals is very different to seeing them as members of multi-species communities. Posthumanism views human nature as consisting of an inter-species relationship (Tsing, 2012: 144).
A feature of the posthumanist critique of anthropocentrism is that it encourages a different type of relationship with everything around us, both non-human animals and nature in general. In addition to traditional fields of research, such as ethnobotany, posthumanist perspectives attempt to address the question of humans’ relationship with the plant world and to overcome zoocentric or anthropocentric limits to the idea that plants might have agency in their own right. These theoretical approaches provide ways to reflect on ourselves and how we understand our position in the world.
Human Plant Studies, a new discipline that studies plant-human interaction, incorporates emerging notions of plant subjectivity within the critical humanities (Ryan, 2015: 8). In this field, the intelligence of plants is recognized, and more importantly, plants’ links with humans are not viewed exclusively within a unidirectional dyadic subject-object relationship. This approach helps us to see humans as a member of the multi-species community and to subvert the nature-culture dichotomy we are still so attached to.
Only the instrumental value of the plant kingdom is generally given importance in our society. Plants provide us with food, medicine, materials, calm, oxygen, emotional comfort, and aesthetic pleasure, etc. This utilitarian vision is typical of an anthropocentric view of nature, the beliefs that situates human beings at the centre of creation and that everything is at our service. This is what has justified the savage exploitation of the planet and everything that belongs to it.
As Matthew Hall explains in his book Plants as persons: A Philosophical Botany (2011), viewing a non-human living being as a person does not simply mean endowing it with anthropomorphic human qualities that it does not actually possess. It is about seeing it as a living being, with its own perspectives and an ability to communicate (in its own way). The quality of personhood arises from its capacity for relationship, volition, and intentionality.
Plants have been marginalized in traditional philosophy and denied values such as autonomy, individualisation, self-identity, and originality (Marder, 2013: 55). The very use of the adjective “vegetative” when applied to human beings is fairly revealing: in colloquial language, to say that someone is in a vegetative state is to say that they have become almost completely passive and they only have the most basic of physiological functions.
The behaviour of plants makes it clear that they are intelligent (Mancuso and Viola, 2015). They communicate with each other and they can look ahead, learn, and remember. Their intelligence is different from that of humans, however, but perhaps it is time to stop seeing ourselves as the yardstick.
It is not that plants’ roots act as brains, as Charles Darwin ventured to suggest in 1880. Plants do not have brains; their intelligence is emergent. The idea of emergence refers to properties of a system that are not located specifically in its constituent parts.
Thus, for example, life itself is considered an emergent phenomenon, since it is a property that is not found in any of the different parts of which a living organism is composed. Apart from being intelligent, plants are also sentient, if we understand sentience to be the ability of any organism to enact changes in response to the environment (Myers, 2015: 47).
Although they do not have a hearing apparatus like humans, plants are sensitive to sounds and show phonotropic behaviour (Retallack, 1973). This means they can thrive with some types of music, but wither with others. Depending on their musical predilections, they grow closer to or further away from the source of sound. Humans use their legs to get closer to the object of desire; plants use growth (Myers, 2015: 14).
Electrodes placed next to the roots and leaves of the plant can pick up electromagnetic variations that are translated into a sonic flow by means of a specially designed device. This allows musicians such as Simone Vitale to accompany the “singing” of the plants with improvisations on his own instrument.
There have been discussions about the ethics related to the plant kingdom for a number of years. This has led to it being valued above and beyond what it might be worth for the survival of the human species. Plants have value in their own right. They are therefore considered to deserve respect as non-human persons. Seeing plants as persons is not a mere metaphor. Accepting this idea does not mean that we have to do without them altogether, as the plant world is directly or indirectly the basis of the food chain for the entire animal kingdom. But it does make it more difficult to succumb to the arbitrary and destructive behaviour to which we have become so accustomed.
There are now a number of groups that encourage human beings to relate and communicate with trees. Clearly rooted in post-humanist thinking, they promote activities and training to encourage us to transcend our habitual understanding of the plant kingdom in order to enable personal growth. People talk to plants, hug trees, and go into the depths of the forest in order to get as close as they can to them. Post-anthropocentric positioning, the decentralisation of agency, and the destabilisation of rigid boundaries between species are all key features of posthumanist thinking.
- Darwin, Charles, The power of movements in plants, London: John Murray, 1880
- Hall, Matthew, Plants as persons: A Philosophical Botany, Albany: Suny Press, 2011
- Mancuso, Stefano and Alessandra Viola, Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, Washington: Island Press, 2015
- Marder, M., Plant-thinking: A philosophy of vegetal life, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013
- Myers, Natasha, “Conversations on Plant Sensing: Notes from the Field”, NatureCulture 03, 2015, pp. 35-66
- Retallack, Dorothy, The Sound of Music and Plants, Santa Monica: DeVorss, 1973
- Ryan, John Charles, Posthuman Plants: Rethinking the Vegetal through Culture, Art, and Poetry, Champaign: Common Ground Publishing, 2015
- Tsing, Anna, “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species: For Donna Haraway”, Environmental Humanities 1/1, 2012, pp. 141–154