Plant Materiality: A review article

This was an article review I wrote for a course on “Material Culture Theory” in the beginning of 2019. I chose to review the article of Van der Veen because I found it a provocative piece with interesting and surprisingly accessible ideas. Plant materiality is a topic which I had never studied before. Throughout this critique I raise some first objections as to the extend that we can consider reproductive activity the sole and primary existential drive of plants. In some later essays I developed this objection a bit further using conviviality, symbiosis and other theories lent from the archaeological discipline. However, this was a minor issue that I underlined more due to my personal interest in exploring these ideas and less on a functional flaw in the thinking process of Professor Van der Veen.

Introduction

“The materiality of plants: plant–people entanglements” is the title of an article written by Marijke Van der Veen (2014), Professor of Archaeology at the University of Leicester. The article examines plant-people relations from the perspective of plants. Veen begins by considering whether plants have agency and proceeds with four different ways in which plantpeople co-dependent and entangled relations take form. The issues are examined from an archaeological point of view and a wide variety of sources and case studies are given to support each argument.

The key questions

Veen sets already from the introduction her primary objectives, as the understanding of the materiality of plants and the nature of their relationship with humans. These objectives are investigated by answering two questions: a) what do the plants want? b) in what ways do they interact and form relationships of mutual dependence and entanglement with humans?

The first question is investigated in the first part of the article. The second part is the lengthiest one and is divided in four parts under the titles of embodiment, investment, praxis and entanglement. Each of these looks into a different way in which plants relate with humans. Embodiment interrogates how consuming plants or plant substances affects humans. Investment examines the opposite relation, where humans leave a trace on the genetic code of plants. Praxis provides insight on how plant materiality may affect societies and the reverse. Entanglement presents an overview of the human-plant entanglement, tackling the main argument more holistically.

The wider context

The text is set within the broader context of archaeologists and anthropologists studying the concepts of materiality and entanglement or meshwork of relationships. These areas of interest signify alongside other theoretical concepts, a turn from the empirical positivist past of archaeological thought to an archaeology seeking to approach the past under different terms. In this new context, the natural and the cultural overlap, meddle, and interact in complex chaotic ways that challenge their stereotypical dichotomy.

Veen’s article confirms the meddling of the cultural and natural spheres by showcasing the degree to which humans and plants are mutually dependent. She also answers to the call for less anthropocentrism by revisiting history from the viewpoint of the plants. Veen’s approaches are in harmony with the spirit and needs of contemporary archaeological research.

The key theoretical concepts

Agency, materiality and entanglement are the central theoretical concepts of the text. Except for these key concepts, examples and observations are drawn from archaeobotany, and zooarchaeology to expand the idea of materiality and make a better case for the parts under the titles of embodiment and investment.

As already mentioned, the first part of the essay addresses the issue of whether plants have agency. Plants as parts of the environment have gradually received more and more attention by archaeologists. It was in Braudel’s long durée and archaeologies such as Binford’s processualism that the environment was initially granted some limited autonomy and influence over the cultural sphere. However, it was not until the impact of Latour’s theories (2014), postprocessualists like Hodder (2011), as well as material culture studies and ecological anthropology (see Ingold 2012) that non-humans were accepted by archaeologists as bearers of agency. This change led to understanding the environment as independent, active, and capable of engaging in entangled relations with humans.

Nevertheless, plants as independent constituents of the environment have not been addressed by archaeologists as holistically as the examined article did. Veen argued that certain plants since the agricultural revolution have “taken advantage” of humans by developing relations of co-dependence with them, in order to survive and effectively reproduce. The social and material results of this relationship can be studied only after accepting plants as actors. In that way, plant agency constitutes the basic principle upon which materiality and entanglement can expand.

Ingold (2007) has written that materiality is a commonly used term, but few can explain what it actually means. He further claimed, that many academics employ the term in ways that do not explore the materials’ properties and interactions with the world (Ingold 2007) contrary to his own proposed theoretical framework (Ingold 2012).
Ingold’s criticism most probably applies to texts that treat materiality, as defined by Gosden (1994, 82), as the “human relations with the world”. Instead and according to Knappet (2012), who attempted to categorize the most influential uses of materiality, Veen’s approach is classified as one, which is heavily influenced by the idea of vitality, seeking the independent properties of the material world (e.g. what do the plants want). In that view, the author shares the non-anthropocentric gaze of Bennett’s (2010) “Vibrant Matter”. Naturally, the article is not interested solely in plants but in the implications of their materiality and their relations with people, which leads to the next theoretical concept of the article, entanglement.

The article is influenced by Hodder’s (2011) idea of entanglement, notably different to Latour’s Actor Network Theory (Harman, 2014). Hodder defined entanglement as “the sum of four types of relationships between humans and things: humans depend on things (HT), things depend on other things (TT), things depend on humans (TH), humans depend on humans (HH)” (Hodder 2011, 43-4). Veen addresses only two of these relationships (HT and TH), which is justified for an archaeologist studying plant materiality.

It should be also taken into consideration that the article, despite not being a political document, echoes ideas that can be traced back to ecological movements of the previous century. This can be attributed to the nature of the examined issue. Veen’s approach is social in that it discusses plants in relation to humans and acknowledges the existence of mutually benefiting relations. In that sense, she shares some basic ideas with social ecology (Biehl 1997, 31-57). Other concepts such as non-anthropocentrism can be also found in movements such as Naess’ (1973) deep ecology.

Discussion

The article is a piece of quality scientific work built on solid foundations. Veen makes a convincing case for each of her points, based on equally satisfying evidence. The first part of the text proves that plants’ primary objective is reproduction by presenting ways in which they have evolved different reproduction mechanisms. The four points of “you are what you eat”, “investment”, “praxis” and “entanglement”, include relevant information that tackle the subject from multiple points of interest and contribute towards a reasonable and convincing twofold argument: plants have agency; plants are involved in complex relationships of entanglement and mutual dependency with humans.

Especially interesting among others were the case studies of the synanthropes (weeds) as forms of life so closely entangled with humanity that they challenge the distinction between the cultural and the natural, as well as the idea of humans getting caught in a double bind depending on plants, which depend on humans, a relationship also described by Hodder (2011, 164) for human-thing relations.

Problematic, however is the part on “what the plants want” in that it could have been further developed. It is undisputable that reproduction is one of the primary purposes of plants, as Veen successfully illustrated. However, the article does not question whether plants have other primary objectives. For example, extending one’s life successfully to its furthest point could be suggested as another primary objective. This could be a question for further research and could potentially offer a different insight on the study of plant-human relations. In any case, this does not make Veen’s argument invalid or less relevant. It rather makes it richer by further asking whether plant-human relations are equally, except for mutually, benefiting for both parts.

The text is directed towards an academic audience with knowledge of the subject. This is evident by the use of subject-specific terminology and the overall academic writing style. However, there are plenty of examples which help illustrate complex concepts in accessible ways. It should also be noted that the author is aware of the contemporary academic discussions and makes an excellent use of contemporary bibliography, drawing sources from a range of fields, from archaeology to anthropology and from zooarchaeology to archaeobotany. This is one aspect of the interdisciplinary nature of the subject. The other is its potential to reach audiences from other disciplines apart from archaeology or anthropology.

Conclusion

It could be said that the implications of Veen’s article are important for archaeological theory as it sets a new ground on which plants can from now on be understood and situated in relation to the world. Important aspects of the article are on one hand its engagement with key theoretical concepts such as materiality and entanglement and on the other hand its interdisciplinary nature and convincing arguments. Overall, Veen’s article is both a timely and quality piece of work.

Bibliography

  • Bennett, J. 2010. Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things. Duke University Press: Durham, NC
  • Biehl, J. ed. 1997. The Murray Bookchin Reader. London: Cassel.
  • Gosden, C. 1994. Social Being and Time. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Harman, G. 2014. Entanglement and relation: A response to Bruno Latour and Ian Hodder. New Literary History, 45(1), 37-49,153. Available: http://ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.
  • Hodder, I. 2011. Human-thing entanglement: Towards an integrated archaeological perspective. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 17(1), 154-177, Available: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/stable/23011576
  • Ingold, T 2012. Towards an ecology of materials. Annual Review of Anthropology, 41, 427–42, doi: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-081309-145920
  • Ingold, T. 2007. Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues, 14(1), 1-16, doi:10.1017/S1380203807002127
  • Knappet, C. 2012. Materiality. In Hodder, I. ed. Archaeological Theory Today. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Naess, A. 1973. The shallow and the deep, long‐range ecology movement. A summary. Inquiry, 16:1-4, 95-100, doi: 10.1080/00201747308601682
  • Latour, B. 2014. Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene. New Literary History, 45(1), 1-18 doi:10.1353/nlh.2014.0003
  • Van der Veen, Marijke. 2014. The materiality of plants: plant–people entanglements. World Archaeology, 46(5), 799-812, doi: 10.1080/00438243.2014.953710

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