Monday, March 05, 2012

The Chaff Which the Wind Driveth Away

I've been reading philosophy and ecology papers, trying to get ahead of my students on the fly with courses I took over mid-semester. Since my personal flight from academia, I have kept up on ecology literature, but philosophy, not so much. I'd be in better shape if the topic were "biology and the literary imagination," or "aesthetics of natural history," or "nature, prose, and poetry." In fact, I'm sneaking in all the Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson I can manage, on the grounds that they are much cited in environmental ethics texts.

Thus, Prairiemary's recent blog post, Meanings of Vegetal Life fit right in with my current reading lists. Mary's introduced me to Deleuze and Guattari in the past, although I can't claim to understand postmodernism enough to explain it in my own words. In this blog post, she reprints a call for manuscripts on "Critical Plant Studies: Philosophy, Literature, Culture."

The goal of the Critical Plant Studies, a new book series at Rodopi Press, is to initiate an interdisciplinary dialogue, whereby philosophy and literature would learn from each other to think about, imagine, and describe, vegetal life with critical awareness, conceptual rigor, and ethical sensitivity....Ethically stated, the aim of the book series is to encourage an incremental shift of cultural attitudes from a purely instrumental to a respectful approach to vegetal beings.

I suspected this overlaps with environmental ethics topics I've been reading about, but I really couldn't imagine how, so I tracked down what I could find by the book series editor, Michael Marder. He has a 2012 publication in Peace Studies Journal entitled Resist Like a Plant: On the Vegetal Life of Political Movements. Here's the abstract:

This brief article is an initial attempt at conceptualizing the idea of political movement not on the basis of the traditional animal model but, rather, following the lessons drawn from vegetal life. I argue that the spatial politics of the Occupy movement largely conforms to the unique ontology of plants and point toward the possibility of a plant-human republic emerging from it.

This is where I run into trouble with modern philosophers. How is this anything more than a search for a metaphor? And isn't this already an ancient trope? Here are King David's botanical similes from Psalm 1, verses 3 and 4:

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

This famous simile has moved into politics, from spiritual to protest song: Just like a tree that's planted by the water./ I shall not be moved. Perhaps I can use this to justify shifting the course emphasis from ethical theory to literature. The whole Deleuze and Guattari: Concept of the Rhizome seems to me to rest on an inartful metaphor. I think a "stolon" would better represent lateral, multidirectional movement of ideas.

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