Why Plants and Animals?
Series co-editors Patrícia Vieira and Susan McHugh share their vision
With our new book series Plants and Animals: Interdisciplinary Approaches, we aim to grow connections between the emerging fields of critical plant studies and animal studies. Our editorial partnership represents a rare convergence of strengths in both areas, so we bring to the book series a keen sense of potentials for bridging them. In tandem with related fields like posthumanism and ecocriticism, the series is geared to enrich scientific knowledge by shining a spotlight on the connections across vegetal and animal life through studies grounded in the humanities. What can animal studies scholars learn from current plant research and vice versa? How do studies that encompass both plants and animals (and, potentially, other living and non-living forms of existence) enrich our understanding of our planet in all its diversity? Recognizing that a need for more equitable and harmonious forms of coexistence cuts across the most pressing social and environmental issues, Plants and Animals embraces both imaginative critique as well as creative problem solving in order to overcome obstacles to growing relations.
Until recently, plants and animals alike were studiously avoided as serious subjects for academic humanists. Worse, efforts to correct this mistake sometimes contributed to the further misperceptions of them as two mutually exclusive areas of interest for non-scientists. Critical plant studies, which has accelerated in the last decade, was initially posited as having been developed in opposition to the exponential growth in animal-centered research in the humanities since the end of the last century. Perceptions of the neglect of the vegetal in favour of the animate gained traction, particularly in studies that emphasized the western tradition. What is more, those seeking to define critical plant studies against animal studies scholarship characterized animal studies scholars as actively undermining interests in vegetal life. The heterogeneity of animal studies — a field variously known as human-animal studies, critical animal studies, or anthrozoology, and home to such diverse offshoots as vegan studies, literary animal studies, and cryptozoology — makes room for such criticisms. But the ever-growing multiplicity of voices espousing interests that bridge animal and plant studies also helps to erode claims that the barriers between them are insurmountable.
Intriguingly, few critical plant studies or animal studies researchers today appear to perceive each other as threats. If anything, the numbers of established animal studies scholars now also publishing in critical plant studies and vice versa are on the rise, meaning that any old sense of rivalry simply rings untrue. Instead, the disproportionately slow development of institutional support for humanistic studies of nonhuman life has emerged as one among many common causes, and a pressing reason for thinking that moves across academic silos, not to mention what/ why/ how different species converge in their literal referents. The stakes have never been higher.
Pushing traditional humanist thought beyond anthropocentrism, animal together with plant thinking is vital to solving the global problems of climate change and anthropogenic extinction. To support and develop the mutual growth of critical plant and animal studies, we want the series to publish scholarship that connects them more immediately, and ultimately to provide a framework that guides these nascent fields toward more purposeful interactions for years to come. The genuinely new knowledges that can emerge from crossover conversations need to be nurtured. Doing so entails not only dispelling the specters of schisms that may be holding back students and junior faculty from owning allegiances in both fields, but also providing them with encouragement to develop new pathways of research.
To be clear, we seek to learn from past mistakes, especially in order to create a robustly welcoming environment for equitable, inclusive, and diverse scholarship across plant and animal studies. It cannot be said often enough that the success of the “animal turn” in humanities and social sciences research can be credited to scholars reaching across disciplinary divides, particularly in the early days when nonhumans were considered scientific (again vs. humanistic) subjects. The strong feminist and queer-theoretical orientations of many early animal studies scholars had the significant benefit of rendering self-reflexive critique along the lines of feminist ecocriticism unnecessary. That said, the emergence only within the past few years of a robust body of animal studies scholarship that directly addresses the concerns of critical race and decolonial studies indicates how the field has been hampered in its inception by inattention to a broader range of social justice issues and contexts.
The over-representation of Anglophone and Euro-American scholars and projects is an ongoing issue in the academy, though one that the persistence of plants and animals across places and times can enable us to overcome. As editors, the global reach of our own different research networks — and those of our international editorial board — empowers our search for greater representation. The goal is a robust future for plant and animal studies research that will inspire action, ideally leading to meaningful socio-environmental changes for the benefit of all.
Critics should take note that the material history of writing alone makes the series a no-brainer. From ancient times, bark, bast, and vellum have been used as writing surfaces, inked in with ingredients like tree resin or gallnuts, animal bone or hide glue. Before the twentieth-century invention of synthetic adhesives, even books promoting animal rights contained remains of the proverbial horse sent to the glue factory. The detail in Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987) that enslaved protagonist Sethe is tasked with making the gallnut ink used by her white tormentor Schoolteacher likewise serves as a subtle reminder that the modern proliferation of writing materials has deep roots in the plantations of settler colonialism. That such details are not — or not yet — common knowledge, however, gives pause to consider how justice for those written out of the human fold can be advanced only by taking plants and animals seriously.
Non-human beings, including plants and animals, exist, like humans, in tight communities, where mutual exchanges are ongoing. Humanistic knowledge should embrace these complexities and avoid artificial compartmentalizations of different forms of life. With Plants and Animals, we want to encourage the creation of scholarship that overcomes such boundaries, which exist nowhere but as relics of hackneyed thought. Among many other vital connections, plants need animals, such as insects, to reproduce, and animals need plants to breathe. What better example is there than symbiotic relationships to illustrate the kinds of scholarly exchanges we wish to foster with our series?