Germanic Studies and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation conference | Networks of Plants and Language of Resonance in Science and Literature / Netzwerke der Pflanzen und Sprache der Resonanz in Wissenschaft und Literatur
Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sydney present a bilingual interdisciplinary conference
Networks of Plants and Language of Resonance in Science and Literature / Netzwerke der Pflanzen und Sprache der Resonanz in Wissenschaft und Literatur
16–18 March 2023
The University of Sydney
(hybrid event – online and in-person)
Sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation
We need “a grammar of animacy,” Robert Macfarlane writes in his international bestseller Underland: A Deep Time Journey (2019), citing the renowned Indigenous environmental biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer. The common vocabulary of botany has well-established categorisations and taxonomies, but access to the living and the interconnectedness of the non-human world is strained at the deeper level of grammar and syntax. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer explains that in the Potawatomi language it is always clear whether words refer to something animate or inanimate (70 percent of words are verbs as opposed to about 30 percent in English).
While talking and magical trees have been an established topos in cultural history since antiquity, a controversial debate on the communicative ability of plants has developed in biology, botany and forest ecology in recent decades, crystallising in ideas of a “Secret Life of Plants” (Tompkins/Bird 1973), the “Wood Wide Web” (Simard 1997) or a “Language of Plants” (Gagliano 2017). At issue is whether plants can be said to have a consciousness, intelligence, and/or intention, given that they respond to their environment, possess electrical conductivity and engage in a “chemical dialogue” with each other through terpenes and terpenoids (Mancuso/Viola 2015). While some use galvanometers to measure simple electro-technical signals, others communicate the “Secret Life of Trees” (Wohlleben 2015) to a broad public in an anthropomorphising language. Still others try to make the trees ‘speak’ through sensors in forest laboratories such as TreeWatchNet by measuring their daily growth and sap flow as media-technical hybrids; in this way, trees as subjects become ‘narrators’ (Schneider 2018).
These controversial approaches represent a starting point for the conference which aims to take a mediating path, focusing on the disturbed resonance relationship of humans with the vegetal networks. Drawing on the work of sociologist Hartmut Rosa, ‘resonance’ can be understood as a relationship of mutual response, whereby a subject is affected by the world (in this case the plants) by perceiving them in their otherness and strangeness. This can be linked to the current discussion on a New Nature Writing (Lilley 2017), in which the work on a “language of resonance” (Malkmus 2020) plays a central role. Deep attention in the perception of nature allows us to experience worldly connections beyond the human (Goldstein 2019). The focus is thus less on the question of an intelligence or sensuality of plants but an on opening of the human senses to the multifaceted signs of nature in order to listen, read, understand and make them accessible in the medium of human language. Such a language of resonance can be developed on a wide variety of levels, be it in (narrative) scientific prose, be it in nature writing, in speculative poetics or in an experimental forest laboratory.
The three-day interdisciplinary conference will bring together established and young researchers from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and cultural studies to discuss their relations to the plant world and explore the facets of a language of resonance without disciplinary barriers. This will provide an important link to unlocking a ‘grammar of the living’. For a deeper understanding of the new role of humans in today’s Anthropocenic constellation, where nature and culture can no longer be separated (Haraway 2003; Dürbeck 2018), the challenge is to mediate the multiple interconnections and affective relations, and to find effective ways of communicating ecological plant knowledge in diverse communities.
Please note that this conference will include presentations and discussions conducted in German. Where a speaker presents in German, an English-language abstract has been provided in the bilingual booklet.
On Saturday 18 February, Ruth Geiersberger will be presenting the performance “Das Blatt…in der Luft hängend, völlig mühelos…” (“The leaf…floating in the air, effortlessly…”).
Call for papers have closed.
Registration (online only – free)
RSVPs to participate in Zoom conference required. Please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This event is made possible thanks to a grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and organised by the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sydney.
Banner image: © Gabriele Dürbeck