By Astrid Møller-Olsen
A monster plant is a sinister thing, it thwarts knowledge and reverses the rules – you don’t eat it, it eats you; despite its roots, it moves about. A monster plant is monstrous because it behaves like a human; in it, we see the worst sides of ourselves: our greed, lust, violence. Or so it used to be…
But in our age of human-made climate change and environmental unpredictability, the so-called Anthropocene, plants have morphed from the radical (pun intended) ‘Other’ who can destroy us, to the one who might save us. Significant botanical others are not confined to the pages of Nature writing – vegetal characters are not only a subject for science fiction but walk abroad in a variety of literary contexts.
What can we learn from these unruly creatures? Can being curios about what it means to be a plant help us understand what being human might come to mean in the future? (Already there is an imbalance in this question – estimates calculate that this planet is home to nearly 400.000 plant species – clearly, being a plant is a lot of things).
Can thinking and writing with the green ink of botanical organisms help us reimagine the individual in an entangled world where no one is an island, where every body crawling on the ripples of the planet is itself a landscape for other, smaller beings? What can plants tell us about the ways in which we know –the shape and the form of knowledge? Might writing in green ink change the meaning of that writing all together?
In my project “Green Ink,” I am inspired by the monster as a figure that devours the organised realm of definable concepts and boundaries and excretes a fragmented, yet strangely interlinked, world view. I combine theories of the monstrous with critical plants studies’ insistence on the vegetal perspective in an impossible, but productive, attempt to bypass the patterns of prejudice inherent in the human mind.
I examine human-vegetal interactions and interrelationships, dissect plant-like humans and humanoid plants, as well as explore the completely new fictional species that populate contemporary Sinophone writing. Such monsters are rooted in both local and global traditions, they participate in a variety of discourses from genre fiction to ecocriticism, and they disrupt and outgrow every tradition, discourse, and genre they inhabit.
In the study of literature, plants have traditionally been categorised as either poetic metaphors or providers of exotic or romantic backdrops for narrative action. Although this strictly aesthetic perspective may have been adequate in the past, the contemporary global changes to the environment –and the consequent renewed literary interest in botanical and natural structure and modes of being- –demand a more nuanced and theoretically informed approach. Fortunately, such work is emerging from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives such as critical plant studies, monster theory, feminist posthumanism, and science fiction studies.
In 2013, a group of American literary scholars published the pioneering anthology Literary Plant Studies introducing Rodopi’s Critical Plant Studies Series, the aim of which was 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” (Marder). The volume, edited by Randy Laist, first cast the green light on plant characters and plant narrators in (primarily Anglophone) literature from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park over Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. In 2017, The Language of Plants edited by Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan and Patrícia Vieira further explored “a biocentric form of literary criticism” that would “seriously regard the lives of plants in relation to humankind in terms that would look beyond the purely symbolic or ‘correlative’ dimension of the vegetal” (xii) from an interdisciplinary angle, and in 2020 Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari published their joint monograph Radical Botany, adding a Franco-American perspective to the discussion.
Parallel with these endeavours in botanical literary criticism and philosophy, the study of botanical monsters in horror fiction constitutes another important strand in the project of critical engagement with literary plants. In this growing subfield, researchers find that horror plants naturally tick many of the monstrous boxes described by Jeffrey J. Cohen in his influential text “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” from 1996. Horror plants seek Frankensteinian revenge for the ill we have done their home planet, they portray deviant sexualities, indulging in excessive auto- or multi-partner reproduction, and they inhabit the limits of knowing as their way of perceiving the world will always illude us despite the best efforts of critical plants studies.
Monster plants fracture the logic of human mastery over nature and expose the Anthropocene as an “epistemological crime-scene stained with erasures of plant consciousness” (Bishop 2018, 7). By blending vegetal, human, and animal characteristics, they force us to abandon the hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being that situates plants at the bottom of a ladder that rises through various “lesser” animals to human beings at the top (Miller 2012, 466). As a subgenre, plant horror “marks humans’ dread of the ‘wildness’ of vegetal nature – its untameability, its pointless excess, its uncontrollable growth,” and function as an unwelcome memento mori reminding us that “while humans may occasionally become food for predatory animals, we all, whether buried in the ground or scattered on the earth, become sustenance for plants” (Keetley 2016, 1).
Inspired and informed by this corpus of literary plant research, my project looks at vegetal-anthropomorph characters that have come out of the closet of horror as a genre and as a type. Such characters can still usefully be approaches as monsters because, even without the horror, they retain an ability to complicate preconceptions and probe what it means to be human, to be plant, or just to be. Some of my monsters are still vengeful, on behalf of the planet or against the imperialism of taxonomy. Some are benevolent, seeking to reintegrate humankind into the natural world we believe to have abandoned. Some are just beings, going about their business, nurturing plants, and falling in love with humans, or the other way round.
Astrid Møller-Olsen is international postdoctoral research fellow at Lund University (Sweden) posted at University of Stavanger (Norway) and the University of Oxford (UK), in a position funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has a background in both comparative literature and Chinese studies and has published on fictional dictionaries, urban forms of narrative memory, and sensory approaches to the study of literature. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism.
Check out also her podcast series on Sinophone fiction.
Bishop, Katherine E. (2018). “’When ‘tis Night, Death is Green’: Vegetal Time in Nineteenth-Century Econoir.” Green Letters 22, no. 1: 7-19. DOI: 10.1080/14688417.2017.1413990
Cohen, Jeffrey J. (1996). “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gagliano, Monica; John C. Ryan; Patrícia Vieira (2017). “Introduction.” The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Laist, Randy (2013). “Introduction.” Plants and Literature: Essays in Critical Plant Studies. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Marder, Michael (n/d). “Critical Plant Studies.” Brill.com, https://brill.com/view/serial/CPST. Accessed 9 Aug. 2019.
Meeker, Natania and Antónia Szabari (2020). Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction. New York: Fordham University Press.
Miller, T.S. (2012). “Lives of the Monster Plants: The Revenge of the Vegetable in the Age of Animal Studies.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 23, no.3: 460–479.
Keetley, Dawn (2016). “Introduction: Six Theses on Plant Horror; or, Why Are Plants Horrifying?” Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film, edited by Dawn Keetley and Angela Tenga. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.