German Studies Association Conference Seminar (September 29 ‐ October 2, 2016 in San Diego)
THE LITERARY LIFE OF PLANTS: AGENCY, LANGUAGES, AND POETICS OF THE VEGETAL
Joela Jacobs, University of Arizona (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Isabel Kranz, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (email@example.com)
When trees band together to kill a group of humans in Döblin’s Berge Meere und Giganten, it becomes apparent that plants have agency. Usually, they are reduced to the role of silent bystander, ornamental backdrop, or mere symbol. While posthumanism and environmental humanities have brought non-human agency into focus in recent years, they emphasize animals, landscapes, and ecosystems writ large. This seminar will focus on the conceptualization of plants, their agency, and their cultural/natural impact in German literature, thereby providing a basis for the emerging field of Literary Plant Studies.
For this purpose, we want to bring together scholars in German studies who work with a wide range of approaches from already established fields such as animal studies, environmental humanities, posthumanism, traditional philology, eco-criticism, language philosophy, cultural as well as queer and gender studies. Together, we want to map the topics, theories, and methods specific to Literary Plant Studies in the German context, in order to outline this burgeoning research field and determine its stakes and possibilities. In conversation with the few available texts in Critical Plant Studies (Marder, Nealon, Aloi), predominantly concerned with philosophy and art history, we seek to address questions of language and poetics.
When looking at theory, especially from Romanticism to today, plants emerge as intricately linked to central questions of literary studies. From Schlegel’s Blüthenstaub fragments to Derrida’s dissemination and Deleuze/Guattari’s rhizome, vegetal images condense poetic principles and general sign theories. Taking stock of the historical and cultural interrelations between philosophy of language, rhetoric and botany, we will investigate what renders plants particularly apt for this kind of theorizing.
Plants also figure prominently in gendered and eroticized constellations, from equating women and virginity with flowers and their breaking to the wearing of certain plants to signal sexual orientation. The cultural heritage of scientific discoveries – such as Linnaeus’ taxonomy based on plant reproduction or Mendel’s laws of inheritance in pea plants – looms large in literary texts that use plants to address concepts of sexuality, gender, but also race and ethnicity, and, by extension, morality and normativity.
When Goethe describes Ottilie’s pflanzenhafte Stummheit and Arno Schmidt presents the last female survivor of the apocalypse as pflanzenhaft willensarm, these fundamental questions of language and philosophy, agency and gender are jointly inflected by plants and opened up to new conclusions. Literary Plant Studies therefore provides not only a new perspective onto pertinent questions in our discipline, but also onto texts we thought we knew. Our corpus aims to include all sorts of plants in literature: iconic examples such as the Blaue Blume in Novalis and Goethe’s Urpflanze, less central appearances of plants like Effie Briest’s heliotrope and Stifter’s forests, and also texts on the margins of the canon from the likes of Marlen Haushofer and Oskar Panizza.
The conveners will ask each participant to pre-circulate a paper of 12-15 pages four weeks in advance of the seminar. Since Literary Plant Studies has yet to produce its foundational texts in German Studies, we will assign no additional readings. Rather, we will use the time before the seminar to begin compiling a shared bibliography with all participants (via email and Dropbox), and we will encourage everyone to submit papers that think broadly about the methodologies, the canon, and the stakes of this approach, in the hopes of producing a collection of foundational texts ourselves, which we plan to publish in a venue like Brill’s Critical Plant Studies series (ed. by Michael Marder).
As conveners, we will organize the submitted papers in thematic units for each seminar meeting, and while we will prepare discussion questions ourselves, we will also ask the participants to prepare a five-minute introduction to one assigned other paper in their session, which should sum up the main argument and present some questions. This way, we hope to engender a sustained engagement with each other’s work from the start and will spend the majority of the seminar’s time in discussion. We will moderate the conversation and make sure to provide additional avenues for exchange (shared meals, open lines of communication, transparent information flow, preparation and plans for the future), but we hope to foster mutual responsibility for productivity throughout the seminar.
Seminars meet for all three days of the conference during the first morning slot. In order to reach the goal of extended discussion, seminar organizers and participants are expected to participate in all three installments of the seminar.
Please apply directly on the GSA website (www.thegsa.org) by January 28th. You will need to be a member of the GSA for the current year and will be asked to submit a statement of purpose (no more than 1500 characters) and a mini-vita (no more than 1000 characters) in order to apply for this seminar, after logging into your member profile. Feel free to get in touch with the conveners if you have any questions.