Jeffrey Nealon’s Latest: Read it and Reap
Read this book if you are interested in plant life, animal life, being human, philosophy, critical theory, political theory, environmental science and studies, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari . . . the past, present, or future . . . but especially if you’re not particularly interested in any of the above and bored with “life.” In all seriousness, Plant Theory may be a cure for intellectual malaise, as well as seasonal allergies (read Primary season). Though this is certainly an academic book written for humanities scholars and philosophically-minded non-academics, its relevance is far ranging. It could be adopted as an entree into biology, ecology, critical theory, ethics, and empirical research for graduate students in various fields (including action research). I might also assert that Plant Theory should be required reading for seasoned scholars invested in the first dozen topics listed above, though this advice may be misleading because it’s also a book that scholarly audiences will enjoy.
Jeffrey Nealon, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English and Philosophy at Penn State, once a kind of prodigy and then “indy,” crossover rock star, will be more widely recognized as a world-class intellect in the expanded territory of this new book. This is Nealon’s fifth monograph and will surely appeal to fans of his earlier “Big Theory” publications. Nealon’s relatively modest public intellectual presence, to date, is partly a testament to his ethos as a serious theorist and his earnest, career-long engagement with a living, critical-theoretical canon. This is not an opportunistic book, but a timely and fortuitous (for us) masterwork from a responsible and hard-working meta-theorist, and truly exceptional writer.
Plant Theory illustrates that animal studies, while it has drawn attention to the abject status of non-human animals has also reinforced a Modern paradigm of the human as noble animal, and illusions of the self-sovereignty of animals in general. Because animals arrive in often cute and typically mobile packages (to paraphrase for a general audience and oversimplify Nealon’s argument), we tend to think of them as independent and fun-loving, and thus worthy of our consideration and protection. (The social media have confirmed “they know how to party.”) And while this inclusion of non-human animals in our clique is certainly a step in the right direction, identification with animals also blinds us to our own ecological co-emergence, co-dependence, and co-experience. In other words “being animal” without sufficient reflection on our non-animal non-origins reinforces our illusion of autonomy. If Elsa was “born free,” as some of us learned at a young age, then surely we too are free, autonomous, sovereign.
Cue Nealon’s vegetable entourage. Plants, so obviously dependent on soil, air, sun, water, and minerals, remind us that we too rely, categorically, on these elements, and are also dependent on plants, the only real “producers” at the party. When corporations like Monsanto “own” plants as intellectually property, they own our food supply . . . and they own us. We become pesticide-tainted, genetically-modified, and spray-painted produce, planted, cultivated, and harvested by transnational corporations uninterested and unconvinced by our sense of autonomy. This may still be consumer capitalism, but we are not at the top of the food chain by dint of being human.
Nealon is not another naïve critic of big agriculture, big pharma, or transnational consumer capitalism, however. His focus throughout is on theoretical biopolitics. Resuscitating Foucualt, qua Foucault, he reminds us that change is not as simple as the next social revolution. (Certainly not how we imagine it.) A radical redistribution of power, as Nealon points out, undermines traditional modes of speaking to power. Decentralized, agile, irreverent, rhizomatic power is not only impossible to locate but reigns us in through the play of potential rather than limitation. The media, institutional, and (sometimes) political embrace of alterity (a kind of group hug), not only blinds us to increasing local and global injustices, but recruits us in a ubiquitous quasi-ethical performance. (Quasi grass-fed, process-verified, cage-free, vegetarian, and vegan . . . we are not so much free, as anxious and angry at ourselves for leaving the reusable bags in the trunk again, as if this were an ethical act.) Nevertheless, as Derrida, Foucault, and Judith Butler (marginal here, but not elsewhere in Nealon’s corpus ) have argued and illustrated, even decentralized power can be redirected, iterated with a difference. Academics are still not quite sure how this is accomplished for practical purposes (obviously), but “diagnostic” studies like Jeffrey Nealon’s may be a big phototropic move in the right direction.
Beginning to understand and appreciate plant life helps us to understand animal life in ecological context, and the ecology of life in general. Plant Theory alternatively charms and embarrasses us out of the illusion that life is contained within charismatic, tedious, mobile, and even deeply-rooted single organisms. Indeed Nealon, like his sage friend Richard Doyle, is involved in the general project of redefining life, for ethical as well as intellectual purposes. As we begin to chronicle the decline of our own species, it seems we may be ripe for reflecting on our legacy. Though life after human being may not be literate in a sense that we can appreciate, it will surely read our collective will and inherit our degraded estate.
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