Phytocommunicability and Cross-Species Sociality


Phytocommunicability and Cross-Species Sociality

Ethnos Special Issue

by Becky Schulthies

What vegetal modalities and botanic intertwinings situate cross-species communications and collectivities, and for whom? Plants have been a part of social science research for much of the last century. In anthropology, plants served primarily as a medium for analyzing human sociality and health; ethnoscience classification systems and human cognitive processes; ethnobotany and medical discoveries; paleoethnobotany research on the significance of cultivated plant remains in archeology; and certainly as metaphors, tropes, and representational frames for descriptions of human practices and ways of being. Social scientists have also evoked and assumed plants in debates about nature, ecologies, and the environment. Significantly, they make guest appearances in lush ethnographic descriptions of locales, livelihoods, repasts, rituals and practices, but as backdrops to the actions and logics of humans. Their ubiquitous presence and seemingly sessile silence, invisibility, anosmia, and backgrounding has been one of the key posts of twentieth century social and economic theory, despite voices arguing otherwise. Fortunately, a host of scholars have been working with plants to rethink our understandings of culture, communication, economic exchange, intelligence, agency, sociality, thought, race, selves, morality, and meaning.

This special issue, emerging from a conference organized at Rutgers University in 2017, poses and explores some issues of cross-species communication, and more specifically the ideologies and practices framing understandings of plant-human-other interactions. Building on the concept of biocommunicability (Briggs and Hallin 2016), the authors in this volume grapple with phytocommunicability: the ways communicative ideologies about plants and humans shape who can produce knowledge, who is visible as a knowledge producer and interlocutor, how kinds of knowledge circulate or stall, who should receive it, and the intended outcomes. How might we theorize phytocommunicability: various reflexive models of knowledge about sociality, interaction, and communication that motivate all kinds of research, consumption, conservation, revolution, healing, and defense projects? Communicability includes assumptions about interactions, participants, statuses, channels, spatial-temporal scales, and frames that shape moment-to-moment contact and public discourses.

A Moroccan example can explain phytocommunicability in action. One day in May 2016 I accompanied a Fassi housewife, Meriem, to an open-air fruit and vegetable market. There she encountered a plant she understood as a medicinal herb as it was placed next to another healing herb she was familiar with. After asking the name, لكحيلة kouhayla (Lavandula multifida, Egyptian or fernleaf lavender), she purchased it as she had heard about the plant's therapeutic effects for kidneys and diabetes, a condition she was concerned about given her family's medical history. After finely chopping the leaves, she cooked and consumed them in a flatbread. The next morning Meriem asked me if I felt hot that night from the kouhayla. She had been warm all night, and attributed it to the herb. I sensed she did not like that plant's medicinal "heat", since she didn't eat the rest of the flatbread with the kouhayla in it, but rather let it dry out, crumbled it, and spread it for the birds to enjoy on the rooftop.

At first glance, Meriem's herbal healing model seems a classic instance of Galenic and Ibn Sina humoral-influenced medicine, with its communicative model: signs from the body are read as imbalances in the system. Yet, as Savage-Smith has argued, even though Arab-Islamic medicinal philosophy was heavily indebted to Greek humoral theory, in therapeutic practice the humors didn't seem to be as important as heat and cold (2013: 89, see also Amster 2012). In other words, some quality (bitterness, heat-generation, sweetness) of a partitioned plant (root vegetable, fresh-cut stems and leaves) pointed to its healing/balancing work. Meriem felt the heat radiate from her digestive system a few hours after ingesting the minced plant leaves. She still situated her health analysis within a biomedical framework of genetically pre-disposed diabetes, yet she drew kouhayla's potential for healing heat into her calculus of bodily care. Kouhalya communicated its powerful medicinal strength through Meriem's bodily experience and selection of kouhayla's heat propensity as a medicinal plant. Among the many things that could have contributed to her feeling overwarm during the night, Meriem read the medicinal plant as the only rational cause. She saw its chemical imprint as too strong for her body, and excluded it from her plant relationality patterns. Pluralist and partial phytocommunicability models shaped Moroccan research, therapeutic, political and economic engagements with plants.

Instead of mapping a phytocommunicability model to a given geographic context, the articles in this volume explore the partial, multiple, overlapping and seemingly contradictory phytocommunicability models emerging in everyday interactions on multiple scales. What variations in "planthropology" (ways of being human informed by our relations to plants, see Myers 2015) might we encounter when we explore models of phytocommunicability, such as occur in U.S. laboratories and Brazilian shaman-guided dreams (Goldstein, this special issue), Warao housing development and epidemiological projects in Venezuela (Briggs, this special issue), Canadian Cree mining-disturbed berry patches (Baker, this special issue), urban waste amidst Tunisia's political revolution (Darwish, this special issue), ancient Chinese recipes (Hsu, this special issue), and through allelopathic wall-hangings on Peruvian urban dwellings (Kawa, this special issue)?

Contributors address several themes based on ethnographic work in indigenous/settler contexts of capitalist Canada (Baker) and extractive socialist Venezuela (Briggs); transnational botanical networks navigating between the U.S., Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Europe (Goldstein); Pan-Amazonian house gardens of Brazil and Peru (Kawa); anciently transmitted Chinese recipes (Hsu); and the scents of Tunisia's Jasmine revolution (Darwish). How might plant signaling shape human sociality, and human signaling shape plant perception? In what ways and contexts might some communicability models become privileged over others and for what ends?

In all these articles, plants operate as semiotic agents: they teach and trick (Briggs), deter and attract (Kawa), listen and move (Baker), reveal and unfold truths (Goldstein), enliven and heal (Hsu), protect and connect (Darwish) across being/species boundaries. Yet in each article, they could both reproduce and challenge the boundedness of communicability models, communicating entities, and modalities. They trace how plant signals (chemical, mechanical, visual) recognized by plant science eclipse, complement, or become engulfed in the modalities engaged by Warao wisidatu healers, yarokotarotu herbalists, moyotu canoe-makers, construction managers, epidemiologists, doctors (Briggs), Huni Kuĩ and Yanomami shamans and U.S. laboratory workers (Goldstein), sakâwiyiniwak elders, environmental impact administrators (Baker), Chinese herbalists, Australian aboriginal women, English doctors (Hsu), Tunisian protestors, Muslim citizens (Darwish), and urban residents of Iquitos Peru and Borba Brazil seeking to ward off unwanted presences (Kawa).

Articles in this special issue take seriously the reciprocal and responsible relations that can exist between plants and other beings. They encourage us to investigate and reimagine the phytocommunicability assumptions evoked, elided, enforced and erased in all kinds of plant-human-and-other-being interactions and world-building.

Contributions in the Ethnos special issue:

Schulthies, Becky. 2020. Phytocommunicability and Cross-Species Sociality. Ethnos, 1-8

Briggs, Charles L. 2020. From Progressive Extractivism to Phyto-Socialism: Trees, Bodies, and Discrepant Phytocommunicabilities in a Mysterious Epidemic. Ethnos, 1-21

Goldstein, Ruth. 2020. Ayahuasca and Arabidopsis: The Philosopher Plant and the Scientist's Specimen. Ethnos, 1-28

Kawa, Nicholas C. 2020. Plants that Keep the Bad Vibes Away: Boundary Maintenance and Phyto-Communicability in Urban Amazonia. Ethnos, 1-17

Baker, Janelle Marie. 2020. Do berries listen? Berries as indicators, ancestors, and agents in Canada's oil sands region. Ethnos, 1-22

Hsu, Elisabeth. The Healing Green, Cultural Synaesthesia and Triangular Comparativism. Ethnos, 1-14

Darwish, Siad. 2020. Flowers in Uncertain Times: Waste, Islam, and the Scent of Revolution in Tunisia. Ethnos, 1-22


Amster, E. 2012. Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco 1877-1956. Austin TX: University of Texas Press. Briggs, C. and Hallin, D. 2016. Making health public: how news coverage is remaking media, medicine, and contemporary life. New York: Routledge. Myers, N. 2015. Conversations on Plant Sensing: Notes from the Field. NatureCulture 3:35-66. Savage-Smith, E. 2013. "Were the Four Humours Fundamental to Medieval Islamic Medical Practice?" In: P. Horden and E. Hsu, eds. The Body in Balance: Humoral Medicines in Practice. New York: Berghahn Books.