The Semiotics of Plant-Human Sociality: Phytocommunicability across disciplines

February 24, 2017

Rutgers University Inn and Conference Center, Meeting Room B
178 Ryders Ln, New Brunswick, NJ 08901

What vegetal modalities and botanic bindings situate multi-species communications and collectivities, and for whom? There are many contemporary efforts to include other species within the field of American anthropology’s biosociality (Rabinow 1996, Ingold and Palsson 2013), and to expand cultural anthropology beyond the human (Haraway 1991, Kohn 2013). Despite the nominal inclusion of plant species within multi-species anthropology (Kirksey and Helmriech 2010), they have often been eclipsed by analyses of inter-animal semiotics.

Recent scientific fascinations with plant lives, coined “the plant turn” (Myers 2015), have refocused Euro-American scholarly attention to plant-human relationality. This concomitantly raises the issue of plant-animal communication, the ideologies and practices framing human understandings of multi-species interactions. How might we theorize phytocommunicability: various models of knowledge about plant-animal sociality that motivate all kinds of research, consumption, and conservation projects (c.f. Briggs and Hallin 2007). In Europe and parts of the U.S., biosemiotics (Emmeche and Kull 2011) and plant intelligence (Mancuso and Viola 2013) have been important theoretical strands of phytocommunicability. In Amazonia, we see shaman-mediated perspectivism as another plant-human-spirit-animal frame (Viveiros de Castro 2004). Elsewhere, humoral influenced relationality motivates plant-based health projects (Penrendon and Hsu 2013).

What variations in “planthropology” (Myers 2015) might we encounter when we synthesize/translate other epistemological and ontological models of phytocommunicability? This conference will seek to dialogue semiotic and environmental perspectives from anthropology, science communication, and plant sciences with their theoretical syncarps and prop roots in effort to illuminate plant-human communities and their interactions.

Attendance is free and open, though we request that you register here.

If you have questions about the conference, please contact Marian Thorpe at

Sponsored by Rutgers University Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of Anthropology

Conference Program

9:00-9:15   Introduction and Welcome

Becky Schulthies, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University

Richard Schroeder, Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences

9:15-10:30  Panel Presentations

Charles L. Briggs, University of California-Berkeley
Of Trees, Bats, and Viruses: Diseased Communicabilities and the Implosion of Species

Becky Schulthies, Rutgers University
Herbalists, Housewives, and a Semiotic Calculus of Plant-Human Healing

Janelle Baker, McGill University
Do Berries Listen? Berries as indicators, ancestors, and medicines in Canada’s oil sands region

Ruth Goldstein, Harvard College Fellow
From Ayahuasca to Arabidopsis thaliana: Communicating Human-Plant Interactions

10:30-11:00  Coffee break

11:00-12:30  Panel Presentations

Elisabeth Hsu, Oxford University
The phono-aesthetics of qing

Paul Kockelman, Yale University
The Secret Heliotropism of Flowers

Mary Nucci, Rutgers University
The love and hate of weeds: An interdisciplinary analysis of opinions in media, metaphors and biological facts

Lena Struwe, Rutgers University
The love and hate of dandelions: The hybridization of symbolism and botany in contemporary society

12:30-2:00  Lunch break

2:00-3:00  Panel Presentations

Siad Darwish, Rutgers University
The Mechmoum, Tunisia’s Jasmine Nosegay: A Multi-sensory Charm in the Context of a Garbage Crisis

Nicholas Kawa, Ohio State University
“Plants that Keep the Bad Vibes Away (& Other Stories of Ecosemiotic Interplay in the Urban Amazon)”

Natasha Myers, York University
Between Sense, Sensation, and Sentience: Vegetalizing the Human Sensorium to Meet Plant Worlds

3:00-3:30  Coffee break

3:30-5:00  Roundtable discussion on themes