Skip to main content
ERCC Conference Inventing the Human
Conference 2023: 'Inventing the Human' - University of Melbourne & Online
Times are shown in your local time zone GMT

Conversation 5 - Entanglements (02): Humans, plants, and animals



11:30 am

29 November 2023

Arts West, Room 553

Session Programme

This paper explores images of plant life in the history of western philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to Nietzsche and Dostoevsky in pursuit of the question of what we can learn about the nature of the human being and its place in the world from plants and the way they are rooted in earth. Over the last half-century many voices identify our disconnection from the earth with the centrality of technological progress, capitalist production, industrialization and globalization that are essential to our modern self-understanding and way of life. What was supposed to be the root of human distinction has ended up uprooting us. Is this because we have a distorted view of what it means to be rooted in the first place, and our dependency on the rootedness of plant life? This paper draws on contemporary plant studies  to interrogate western plant imaginaries in view of developing an idea of human life as deeply embedded in both earthly and planetary life. 
Plato’s depiction of the human as the ‘heavenly plant’ has had a profound impact on Western thought. Portraying humans as ‘creatures rooted in heaven,’ determined by their upright bodies and suspended heads and ideally comported towards anamnesis, Plato not only initiated a longstanding tradition of interpreting vertical posture as the defining human characteristic but highlighted the prescriptive powers of morphological description, revealing how morphology can decisively shape understandings of what the human was, is, and should be. 

Despite the success of historicism and Darwinism in bringing the human ‘back to earth,’ the foundational elements of the heavenly plant hypothesis have persisted into Western modernity. Vertical posture continues to play a pivotal role in influential accounts of anthropogenesis, serving as a canvas upon which numerous aesthetic, intellectual, political, and ethical ideals can be inscribed and interpreted.

This paper examines Johann Gottfried von Herder’s adaptation of the ‘heavenly plant’ hypothesis against this background. It seeks to unravel the underlying ‘morphologics’ at play in Herder’s line of analogical reasoning, where the Platonic hypothesis is adapted within a historicist framework to position the human as at once a summation of existing natural forms, and as a ‘middle’ link on the path to future natural formations. Herder, it argues, demonstrates a keen understanding of the full explanatory and prescriptive power of morphological reasoning, and affords us an expansive view of how claims at once abstract and intuitive, transcendental and historical, can be read into and out of human form.
Suzanne Nalbantian has noted how a “remembering human subject” is recognisable throughout Western literary history. The connection between human memory and human identity was cemented in the long eighteenth century, with John Locke suggesting that “personal identity” depends on how far “any intelligent being can repeat the idea of any past action with the same consciousness it had of it at first.” The emphasis on “personal” memory highlights an increasing attention to the experience of the individual human subject. This “remembering human subject” is also frequently characterised by a forgetfulness of animal experience. In the case of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the ‘re-membering’ human subject is notably distinguished by his anthropocentric forgetfulness. While it is Victor Frankenstein who literally re-members the bodies of both human and non-human animals into not quite human form, it is the creature himself who remembers these animals through his own consciousness. A conflict between Victor’s forgetfulness and the creature’s remembering thus forms a central tension of the novel. Indeed, close scrutiny of Shelley’s corpus reveals an almost ever-present dialectic between forgotten and remembered animals. Throughout her writing, human society often appears to be premised on an apparently necessary and inevitable forgetting of animal experience. Unbidden memories of animals serve as crucial interruptive moments, briefly disrupting social frameworks and narrative trajectories. 
This dialectic between memory and forgetfulness reaches a critical juncture in Shelley’s future-oriented novel, The Last Man. Highlighting how recent cognitive research has noted a deep connection between thinking about the future and thinking about the past, Alan Richardson points out that a recognition of the “close alliance between memory and imagination” was a “key element” of eighteenth-century thought. The Last Man is a prophesy about the future narrated in the past tense. As the human population is destroyed by an unnamed plague, animal memories continuously interrupt the narrative, briefly surfacing only to be forgotten again shortly afterwards. This ensures a constant reassessment of different pathways, with the novel’s prophetic quality allowing for the possibility of alternative futures. By describing a future prophesy as if it has already happened, Shelley literalises the connection between memory and imagination, making the line between them difficult to decipher. Sarah Eron has noted how eighteenth-century novelists examine how memory can be used to both “change our stories of the past” and “change present circumstances.” In The Last Man, Shelley also uses memory to change the future. Using Frankenstein and The Last Man as case studies, this paper considers anxieties about the role of memory in the construction of human identity, exploring how animal memories can disrupt narratives in order to indicate alternative ways forward.