Panel 13: Non-Human Agency

Rethinking invasiveness: Manipulation of plant agency in the Anthropocene
Emma Lansdowne
Horticulturalist, M.A.
Royal Roads University

Feral filmmaking: Accidental animal videos as multispecies ethnographies
Dr. Sara Swain
Writer/independent researcher

Arboreal women and sexuated plants: Feral subjects in the work of Han Kang and Yayomi Kusama
Dr. Magdalena Zolkos
Institute for Social Justice
Australian Catholic University

Comments 10

  1. Kia Ora Koutou,

    It’s my pleasure to welcome you to this panel on nonhuman agency. Thanks to Emma, Sara and Magdalena for presenting us with three productive and provocative discussions of the potential of the non-human to challenge and complicate anthropocentric ways of being and doing. The get the discussion started, I’d like to ask you all about whether you think nonhuman agency might also be able to work alongside human agency, as well as thwarting or subverting it? Do you think that some of the aesthetic, ethical or political structures and systems that we are accustomed to thinking about as ‘human,’ might contain substantial nonhuman inputs and aspects that we often overlook?

    (As a side question, I’d also like to ask Emma and Magdalena what you think about plant consciousness as a limit of contemporary ecological thinking? A number of the most important and influential forms of ecological consciousness [like vegetarianism] rely upon the ability to draw a clear distinction between plants and other living organisms: what happens if that distinction becomes unstable?)

    I’d also encourage anyone who might have any other questions and responses to this panel to please feel free to jump in!


    1. Hi Nick, thank you, these are excellent and provocative questions. I think that you are absolutely right regarding the ‘vegetal thinking’ and ecological theorising – that is precisely why I find plants in philosophic and cultural texts so fascinating, because they do often function as destabilising figures. Specifically, in the text that I have analysed here, The Vegetarian, there is a troubling confluence between the protagonist’s aporetic desire to live a non-violent life (and to purge herself of violence) through vegan diet and the obsession with plant-becoming as a possible trajectory of madness. This is very provocative, too, at the level of what you aptly term “ecological consciousness” – in plant philosophy of Michael Marder, for instance, which I invoke at the beginning of the talk, plants are figures that have a kind of consciousness, which includes the complexity of their neurobiological processes, proclivities towards ‘societal’ co-existence with plant species, and (what Marder calls) the vegetal capacity for self-possession. But Han Kang in The Vegetarian is far less affirmative about any kind of vegetal consciousness (it is here, too, that the novel and plant philosophy part ways); in the novel, vegetal figurations are subversive and troubling interventions into the human world premised on its commitment to violence and its naturalisation.

  2. Hi Nick! I’d like to echo Magdalena and thank you for your questions. Regarding your first question, I think that there is potential there for non-human and human agency to work alongside one another, but I think it requires us, as humans, to step away from both our need to exert control over our environment and our desire for a predictable material world. I think that is why I was drawn to Andrew Pickering’s theory of “dances of agency,” which offers a more balanced approach to human-non-human interactions. Arguing that the filter of human exceptionalism through which we view the world impoverishes us in action and thought because it wrongly assumes that we always already know ourselves and the world, I read his theory as suggesting that we open ourselves to a more equitable framework in which non-human agency holds as much validity as our own.

    As a horticulturalist, I am particularly interested in the aesthetic structuring of landscape that informs the practice of gardening. While much gardening is, at its most basic, a manifestation of human control over the natural landscape, how might such a practice be altered by the insertion of non-human input, and what would that input look like? Anthropologist Natasha Myers from York University, Toronto, Canada, has done some interesting work on the aesthetics and politics of garden enclosures in terms of how people through gardening structure their relations with plants. She points to the practices of enumerable Indigenous artists, urban gardeners, activists and gardeners whose garden expressions demonstrate the potential for humans to “conspire” with plants. To Myers, such expressions are proof of a radical approach to gardening in which the notion that “we are of the plants” is a given. I think that such radical garden expressions could be a useful starting point for exploring the potential for non-human input in a politico-aesthetic practice such as gardening.

  3. (As a side question, I’d also like to ask Emma and Magdalena what you think about plant consciousness as a limit of contemporary ecological thinking? A number of the most important and influential forms of ecological consciousness [like vegetarianism] rely upon the ability to draw a clear distinction between plants and other living organisms: what happens if that distinction becomes unstable?)

    As to your second question, Nick, plant consciousness certainly does disrupt the clear distinction that we prefer to draw between plants and other living organisms; but to a certain degree, we have seen a similar disruption coming out of animal studies, in which new understandings of animal consciousness has bred a new field of research exploring the resulting complexities of animal rights and ethics. In terms of vegetarianism, the problem as ever is that practically speaking, we as humans need to eat something. Your question reminded me of a fun scene in the classic rom-com Notting Hill:

    But more seriously, perhaps the notion of plant consciousness might lead to discussions of ethical farming in which the focus becomes the rights of the plants-as-crops rather than the more wholesale (though equally important) issue of environmental protection. I see such discussions as potentially very fruitful; at the very least, they could open the way for a more equitable, less anthropocentric relationship between humans and the plants they consume or of which they make use in countless other ways. So, I suppose my answer is that I do not see plant consciousness as a limit to contemporary ecological thinking; rather, it should be thought of as an opportunity to enhance such thinking.


    Thank you for the interesting presentation! I was left a bit confused, though. As I understood, it made a two-category distinction between invasive/migrated species and native species. However, the ‘invasive species’ term is usually reserved for a narrow subset of non-native species, namely those that reproduce and spread really quickly and reduce the opportunities of ‘native’ species to flourish and continue existence in their niches. Most non-native species are not invasive.

    I agree that the present militaristic terminology is highly problematic. Scientists also have a responsibility to consider their word choices when communicating their findings. (A point captured nicely by Brendon Larson in ‘Metaphors for environmental sustainability: redefining our relationship with nature’.) I also agree that plants, and perhaps even species or populations, have some agential capacities needing moral consideration.

    Yet I think that the narrow subset of migrant species, those human-introduced ‘newcomers’ that spread very quickly and do threaten the biodiversity in their new habitats, is a serious one and needs restrictive activities. I cannot see that the agency of plants (or fauna) should lead to the acceptance of reduced biodiversity because humans accidentally and purposefully introduce species to new environments where they may lack competitors. Human activities create a situation of ‘unfair competition’ when a species like kudzu is introduced to a new environment.

    I think that the questions of belonging in biosphere should be approached more sensitively than with dichotomies like “natives vs. unwanted others”. Different degrees of ‘nativity’ should be acknowledged and it should be kept in mind that only some newcomer species turn out to be harmful for the biodiversity and ‘native’ species. But when they do, and these biodiversity-degrading newcomers have been introduced by humans, I consider it is a human obligation for biodiversity protection to restrict the biodiversity degradation effect caused by the newcomer. We must respect agential capacities of plant species but also the agential capacities of those existing unique ecosystem and their diversity.

  5. Kia ora koutou,

    Thanks everyone for a great panel! Emma and Madgalena, I thought your presentations, in different ways, raised some really good critical questions regarding the ways plant agency is recognised (or not) by anthropocentric conceptions of ontology and cognition. Sara I really liked your identification of the accidental animal videos. In your discussion of situating this media within a recognition of the constitutive role animals have on human social polities, I was wondering if you were familiar with Jodi Dean’s work on selfies as a form of digital commons? Her argument is that the public utilise an infrastructure owned by a private elite to create common and public forms of relational expression. Given the predominance of animals in meme and gif culture, I was thinking that the animal videos might also constitute a significant dimension of the commons Dean explores and offer the potential to examine the anthropocentric basis for media studies.

    Ngaa mihi,

    1. Nick, thanks so much for your response. As to your question about agency, I think it’s important to consider how we are defining agency. I gravitate towards Karen Barad’s definition of agency which is not something that an entity has, it is not a property or a quality, it is neither “granted” to an entity nor can we presume automatically that all entities “hold” agency. She sees it as something that is performed or enacted, and not just singularly, but always together because it is an activity that creates real conditions of possibility for the transformation and reconfiguration of relationships and boundaries. In that way it echoes, Pickering’s “dance of agency” which Emma mobilizes. We only seem to notice it or acknowledge it when there is a confrontation that makes it legible to us—but its been happening below our perceptual threshold for some time. Agency is a kind of exertion of force, always in relation to some other force, the effects which may or may not be immediately apparent. So yes, I think it’s possible for humans and non-humans to both enact agency at the same time, it is another word for negotiation at the site of encounter.

  6. Holly, thanks so much for bringing Jodi Dean to my attention. I am familiar with her work on communicative capitalism, but wasn’t really aware of her discussion of selfies. I’ve been looking into it, and I really like how she frames selfies as an important cultural form that contributes to a visual commons which has significant political potential. I think her argument can be really useful to my work, and provides another way to show how humans and animals are brought together by the digital, and create a sense of shared culture. Thanks so much for alerting me to this exciting parallel!

  7. Emma and Magdalena, I really enjoyed your presentations and I really like the embrace of recalcitrance and unruliness as ways of enacting agency and undermining humans and their structures of control.

    Agriculture is in many ways an assertion of human control over the landscape, but another way to look at it is non-human control over humans! Gardening is incredibly difficult work. For me the worst part of it was always weeding. Growing up in Newfoundland we were cursed with a plant called “Morning Glory,” a beautiful vine (of all things!) that wraps around other plants and chokes them to death. They are impossible to contend with and involve constant vigilance. I would spend hours weeding every day. At this point, I wondered who is controlling who? (and at the same time, I saw the weed as the invasive species when in fact it was “naturally” occurring in my garden while the potato plants or the basil plants were the ones being introduced). Agriculture requires so much time, energy, labour, and resources, because plants, insects, weather, geological shifts are constantly growing and changing and happening and working against us, threatening to undo all of our designs. Sometimes I think it is not a matter of how things are, but a matter of perspective.

    Emma, the notion of plant consciousness (as well as animal consciousness, or non-human consciousness in general) is so exciting, but I am also concerned about where it fits in relation to ethics. I’m wondering if you think consciousness is a necessary alibi for “rights” and are rights a necessary condition for ethical treatment? To make decisions about who or what deserves certain treatment based on who or what has consciousness or appears to meet our definitions of “intelligent” seems to me just another way to reinstate anthropocentric hierarchies related to protecting human property and human values. Should consciousness really be a deciding factor in our treatment of non-humans?

    Magdalena, I think the relationship with meat eating and patriarchy is a provocative one, and there are a lot of resonances there (I’m reminded of Carol Clover’s work for example). The Vegetarian seems like such a bold novel! I’m curious to read it. During your presentation I was thinking about a few things. For one, Yeong-hye’s insistence on non-violence as also a way of being active and not passive. I’m conflicted about this. I haven’t read the novel but I am definitely conflicted about vegetarianism—I was vegetarian for nearly 20 years but have been wavering on that recently. I’m a little unsettled by the moral puritanism of it, and I wondered if Yeong-hye’s self-erasure and self-harm is possibly a little ostentatious and avoidant? I am of the mind that violence and consumption are not the worst things that happen to a living thing; all of us will die some day, perhaps by violent ends, and then we will be consumed by non-humans carnivores (blowflies, bacteria, maybe polar bears!). It strikes me that there is nothing inherently wrong, immoral, or unethical about the process itself. At issue is how killing or consumption are carried out.

    And I do think this is where an acknowledgement of consciousness comes into play (going back to Emma’s presentation), because it may encourage us to be more respectful and accommodating in our relations to the entities we engage with. But at the same time I don’t think it should be the reason why we don’t eat non-humans. To do so is another way of avoiding the messy uncomfortable realities of what it means to be in the world, more specifically to be human in the world. The truth that there is no clean getaway, no taking refuge by starving, becoming a tree, taking on and inhabiting the position of “innocent” others, or killing ourselves. This is where I wonder if there isn’t some self-indulgent pageantry coming in (or perhaps it is a statement about the lack of apparent options in this scenario). An act of resistance and refusal becomes once again about the human making a show of itself and not about animals and being accountable in our interactions with them. And at the end of the day, when we don’t feed ourselves, we starve our organs. We are being violent to our bodies and to all the microbes in our bodies that require nutrition. It’s violence and harm all the way down. We are even born in violence, with the painful separation from our mothers. There is no way to sidestep this unless we are naive and feign ignorance and hide our heads in the sand.

    I understand that the relations between unequal parties can be degrading and exploitative, but at some point I wonder if in emphasizing the power of men over women, and human over animal we are not undermining the potential for women, and animals (an unseemly comparison only if we maintain the chain of being) to be capable of something more besides either participating in or refusing to participate in systems that exploit them. During your talk, I couldn’t help but think of Catherine MacKinnon’s argument that all heterosexual sex was degrading because penetration is itself an inherently violent and degrading act that devalues women. Or Laura Mulvey’s insistence that women’s visibility ultimately diminishes them because objectification is intrinsically degrading (which John Berger also says about looking at images of animals). The only option for women is to not engage in intercourse or hide from view (or refuse to eat meat). I think this overstates human power over animals, men’s power over women, and men’s ability to disempower women with a simple thrust of their hips or turn of their gaze. Meanwhile women (and animals) are denied any possibility of participating in the world according to their own prerogative in ways that don’t degrade or eliminate them. There seem to be no other options. Are there other options? That’s the big question I guess! Anyway, these are just some thoughts.

    Thanks so much for a great panel, it was really compelling and clearly it got me thinking quite a lot 🙂

    1. Sara, thank you for your thought-provoking responses. I must say that I agree with your comments about the challenges of gardening and how it drives you to wonder who, in fact, is controlling who in such a scenario. I have definitely felt that way myself before, and I think this kind of change in perspective is healthy! I also found your questioning of consciousness and intelligence as a condition for rights and/or ethical treatment to be extremely helpful in challenging the perspective of my work. I had not considered that I was framing consciousness and intelligence in such a way, and I agree that such an approach runs the risk of falling into the same trap of human decisions upholding an anthropocentric hierarchy. I look forward to exploring this dilemma further in my research!

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