5th ASLE-ASEAN Ecocritical Conference

Posthuman Southeast Asia

23-25 November 2023

Plenary - Keynote Presentation 2

Day 2 - 24 November 2023

8:30 - 10:00 @ E4-PD1 (Zoom ID: 91958004384)

Cultivating Vegetal Wisdom: Prospects for Posthuman Plant Studies in Southeast Asia

John C. Ryan

As agents of food, medicine, material, pleasure, inspiration, solace, and wisdom, plants are vital to human societies around the world. In the present era of biodiversity decline, however, the future of botanical life is precarious. The situation is especially acute in Southeast Asia, a botanically complex region that is home to fifty-thousand plant species and four global biodiversity hotspots. While the number of scientifically documented taxa continues to increase, the region’s flora as a whole remains threatened by climatic instabilities, land use changes, and habitat loss including high rates of deforestation. Consequently, many Southeast Asian plants could become extinct before being taxonomically described.

This ecological urgency offers a basis for examining possibilities for the growth of transdisciplinary plant studies in Southeast Asia. As a posthuman intervention, plant studies responds to these exigencies by emphasising the social, cultural, and environmental significance of plants, botanical communities, and human-flora relations. Intertwining the epistemologies of the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, the field aims to elucidate the lives of plants, their interactions with other life forms, and their interconnections with humankind. Plant studies approaches vegetal life as communicative and sentient, evoked by Indonesian poet Taufiq Ismail through the figure of “the pained and silent song of a branch.”

This presentation will provide a synopsis of developments in transdisciplinary plant studies from a posthuman perspective, distinguishing the field from critical plant studies, human-plant studies,plant humanities, plant geography, ethnobotany, and economic botany. Through the analysis of literary and cultural texts, plant studies aims to articulate ideas of memory, temporality, corporeality, creativity, and conviviality in the vegetal world. In doing so, the field develops a variety of theories and methodologies such as phytocriticism, phytopoetics, phytosemiotics, and plant ethnography. Opportunities for cultivating plant studies pedagogy and research in Southeast Asia reflect the region’s diversity of plants and human-flora traditions. Partnerships between academic, government, and conservation sectors would engender dialogue between plant studies and the well-established domains of agriculture, engineering, law, and ethics.

John Charles Ryan (PhD) holds adjunct appointments at Southern Cross University and Notre Dame University in Australia as well as Susquehanna University in the US. His research focuses on Southeast Asian ecocriticism, the environmental humanities, ecopoetics, and critical plant studies. His publications include Environment, Media and Popular Culture in Southeast Asia (co-edited, Springer 2022), Introduction to the Environmental Humanities (co-authored, Routledge 2021), The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence (co-edited, Synergetic 2021), Plants in Contemporary Poetry: Ecocriticism and the Botanical Imagination (Routledge 2018), and The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, and Literature (co-edited, U. Minnesota Press 2017). His poetry collection, Seeing Trees: A Poetic Arboretum (Pinyon 2020), explores the idea of consciousness in plants. For more information, see www.johncharlesryan.com.