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Becoming Still

Antónia Szabari & Natania Meeker
15 min read
5 Apr 2020

This essay is part of The Corona Essays

At this moment, humans all over the world have joined to embrace immobility - to stay at home and shelter in an effort to avoid becoming vectors for a virus. In restricting the movement that normally animates our daily lives, we are in a sense being asked to accept a more vegetal mode of being, to become plant-like insofar as we remain in a fixed place. At the same time, the ability to respond to this call is in itself a privilege, dependent not just on having a safe place to inhabit but on the ongoing activity (and increased precarity) of many other human lives.

Pre-COVID-19, the burgeoning field of critical plant studies often saw vegetality as a new paradigm for ethical becoming - a kind of solidarity with other vulnerable life forms and, potentially, a source of radical and potentially joyful openness to uncertain futures. However, the immobility we are experiencing right now shows that the condition of becoming more plant-like can be more akin to a horror movie than to a utopian existence. In fact, presumed affinities between humans and plants may themselves be symptoms of human presumption. Plants can and do thrive in the absence of human life, as humans recede from the picture or otherwise remove themselves from the scene. Vegetal life is obviously indifferent to our survival. The pastoral scenes of verdant bucolic beauty, the greening of the urban landscape once the smog lifts and vegetation begins to spread, can be as apocalyptic as they are agreeable to behold (at least from a distance).
Antonia Szabrezi Natania Meeker
Botanical Inquiry #19 Restricted Storage Area © Daniel Shipp
The current pandemic is a crisis for neoliberal capitalism as well as for individuals. One that exposes a new place for vegetal and other nonhuman beings. Can human life eventually flourish in this place as well? In our shared state of immobility, could plants provide us with a model for political struggle or mobilization without our resorting to threadbare motifs of cultivated gardens? It is difficult for us to even conceptualize political change without resorting to tropes of movement. We need a shift in both political theory and poetic language in order to see human immobility as something other than mere survival and to understand vegetality as something other than “bare life.”Plant studies have focused on modes of ontological critique that allow us to see plants as vibrantly alive. But it is less clear how such an emphasis on other life forms might enable humans to navigate, much less emerge from, the crisis we are facing today. How do we make the transition from the realm of ontological critique into a scene of political struggle without actually moving? In this moment we can see some of the limitations of critical approaches that rightly reject anthropocentric models of analysis but do not make space for new ways of imagining or enacting or simply living as a human community. Recognizing the agency of non-humans does not necessarily result in a better life for humans; it could just as easily result in the terrifying realization of our collective vulnerability.As humans, we are currently inhabiting a crisis that is still unfurling, one that brings with it changing temporalities and shifting experiences of scale. The act of staying home is remarkable as a decidedly non-performative, banal and largely invisible gesture - both individualized and widespread. Paradoxically, our immobility does not mark a withdrawal from society but rather a care for others (including strangers), an apparent retreat that reworks the patterns of domesticity even as it enacts a massive shift in our economies. In this moment we see both the power of collective (in)action and the profound fragility of our institutions. Where long-term planning is impossible, the future remains uncomfortably open. There is horror in our plant-like vitality. Might there be potential for new entanglements there too?

About Antónia Szabari & Natania Meeker

Antónia Szabari and Natania Meeker co-wrote the book, ‘Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction’, excavating a tradition in which plants participate in the effort to imagine new worlds and envision new futures. According to both professors, the recognition of the liveliness and animation of plants has mobilized speculative creation in both fiction, film, and art.