Radical Botany

13 Apr 24

The botanical sciences that developed in the 17th and 18th century were a project for the ordering, visualizing, labeling and categorizing of life. There was an established assumption of landscape and plants as static, passive, inactive matter. 

In Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction, Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari trace the histories of vegetal life and the projects, writings and approaches that have emerged to question this assumed passivity. They state that 'plants are not just objects of manipulation but participants in the effort to imagine new worlds and to envision new futures.' [1]

They talk about how ‘vegetal bodies become a kind of experimental laboratory’ to explore ‘ways to think through matter and how matter relates to matter.’ [2]

‘The experience of plants as not only objects of study, contemplation and classification but as livings beings with all their quirks and stubbornness, is perhaps a familiar one for both scientists and gardeners, who regularly come up against the unwillingness of plants to fit into the categories and spaces they make for them, even as they work to mold them into particular shapes and meanings.’

Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabar, Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction


Libertine botany emerged during the 17th century to intervene with the transformation of plants into passive objects of classification. Instead it proposed an ‘interpretation of plants as key figures in challenging the definition and boundaries of life and living nature, to develop an alternative understanding of both’. [3] This new perception of vegetal life was driven by the writings of Guy de La Brosse (1586–1641) and Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–1655). La Brosse explores the presence of sensation, emotions, as well as sleeping and waking states in plants, and talks about them as percipient, desiring and moving beings.

Cyrano de Bergerac describes imaginary encounters with fantastic extraterrestrial plants, to ‘unearth the experience of thinking in plants’. In a sense he was working within a form of 17th century vegetal science fiction. Instead of prioritising intellect, his exploration of environments and speculative plants ‘highlights ingenious ways in which we might imaginatively encounter what remains beyond our direct apprehension’. [4]

‘the quavering Clubs of these divine Musicians are so universal, that every Leaf of the Forest seems to have borrowed the Tongue and shape of a Nightingale’

Cyrano de Bergerac A Voyage to the Moon (1687)

17th century botanists found their openings to the cosmos through plants which became a way to mediate the animatedness of matter, including the human body. In Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Bennett also challenges ‘the idea of matter as passive stuff, as raw, brute, or inert’ and the ‘habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings).'

[1] Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabar, Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction
[2] Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabar, Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction
[3] Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabar, Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction
[4] Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabar, Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction