Vegetal Forms: How Plants Cultivate Life in Literature and Science

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Burns, Kathleen Megan

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The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” My book project, Vegetal Forms: How Plants Cultivate Life in Literature and Science, shows how the universe is made of both stories and atoms by revealing the production of scientific knowledge as a storied practice through which new compositions of life, literary and otherwise, are brought into being. A site of narrative contestation, scientific stories of plant animacy, I argue, negotiate the parameters of how science defines life—of how alive, intelligent, and political subjects are understood to be. Beginning with microscopy in the early nineteenth century and ending with geoengineering in the twenty-first, Vegetal Forms spans time periods, geographic borders, and cultural media to show how scientific imaginaries of plants are foundational to the stories that articulate our deepest beliefs about the world: our cosmologies.

Vegetal Forms offers a counter-narrative to prevailing histories of science, which position the human against the animal. In contrast, I chart a genealogy of modern science with plants at its center: plants mediate the rights assigned to biological beings. From Charles Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants (1875) to Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama (2018), my research shows how the language of plants circulates in literature, science, and art to produce biological understandings of life and the human. Combining literary and cultural analyses, I focus on sites where scientific research and systems of plant cultivation converge—plantations, greenhouses, gardens, and seedbanks—to demonstrate how material and discursive regimes of plant domestication produce and police categories of the human. Whether it is invasive Kudzu vines that spurred racialized nativism in the southern U.S. or nineteenth-century British botany that cast women as delicate flowers, plants naturalize biological constructions of race and gender. Ignoring the vegetal world in human histories, then, does not just shortchange plants, it erases histories of human oppression.

Vegetal Forms shows how plant cultivation generates a relational ethics of dwelling, which in turn gives material form to our beliefs about ‘the human’ and its environment. Recent years have witnessed a “nonhuman turn” in cultural studies: a multidisciplinary method through which scholars in the environmental humanities challenge anthropocentrism in humanistic methodologies. I build on but also depart from this approach in my contention that plants trouble not just anthropocentrism, but also the meaning of the anthropos itself. Western regimes of plant-people cultivation including settler colonialism, for example, produce the Western liberal subject in the image of what Sylvia Wynter calls ‘Man.’ Whereas a dominant plant studies narrative suggests Western thought has largely overlooked plants, I turn to nineteenth- and twentieth-century science to show how plants have been and remain central to the emergence of humanity’s racial and gendered hierarchies. Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s historical ordering of science through epistemes, each of my chapters focuses on moments of epistemological change in conventional understandings of life.

Vegetal Forms begins with the rise of modern science and the emergence of a new order that saw life shift at the turn of the nineteenth century from an object of representation to an animating force. Advances in nineteenth-century microscopy generated a new visual regime (ch.1), engendering modes of reading vegetal animacy on a geological scale and imbuing microscopic plants with a terraforming power that rivaled empires. The allure of the vegetal grips Charles Darwin’s understudied late works on plants (ch.2), which detail a plant sensitivity that upends the experimental greenhouse and forces naturalists like Darwin to develop new ways of visualizing plant behavior that include diagrams drawn by the plants themselves. Troubling the boundaries of imperial authority and scientific authorship, Darwin’s unruly plants tap into a larger scientific regime of vegetal domestication, a process linked to subduing—or, “cultivating”—human and vegetal populations alike. In an effort to thwart narratives of eugenics bent on controlling human procreation through studies of plant breeding, early twentieth-century African American and women writers like Zora Neale Hurston (ch.3.) draw upon the queering power of plant plasticity—plants’ ability to propagate through asexual, networked, or hermaphroditic means—to upend assumptions of reproduction based on gender and racial difference, creating genealogies of the U.S. that go beyond the plantation. Grappling with the afterlife of plantation-based environmental inequities, contemporary Black artists like Wanuri Kahiu and Indigenous scientists like Robin Wall Kimmerer (ch.4).








English literature, Environmental studies, Animacy, Cultivation, Horticulture, Life, Plants, Vegetal



Burns, Kathleen Megan (2022). Vegetal Forms: How Plants Cultivate Life in Literature and Science. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.