Kathleen M. Burns F'21

Kathleen M. Burns
Doctoral Candidate
English
Duke University

Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships 2021
Doctoral Candidate
English
Duke University
Vegetal Forms: How Plants Cultivate Life in Literature and Science

“Vegetal Forms” unearths how plants cultivate cosmologies: the storied and material histories people tell to make sense of the world. Beginning with microscopy in the early nineteenth century and ending with geoengineering in the twenty-first, the project advances an alternative history of modern science in which plants are central to biological configurations of life and the human. Plant animacy—how alive, intelligent or active plants are understood to be—underwrites political discourses of who acts and who is acted upon and, ultimately, who can claim the category of humanity. From Charles Darwin’s “Insectivorous Plants” (1875) to Wanuri Kahiu’s “Pumzi” (2009), narratives of plants operate in systems of cultivation—plantations, greenhouses, gardens, and laboratories—to naturalize, or cultivate, the rights of living beings. Drawing upon a cultural studies methodology, “Vegetal Forms” relies upon uncanny plants to defamiliarize deep-rooted assumptions about what it means to be alive and to be human.