on February 21, 2023
Published on January 17, 2023 Updated on January 17, 2023

Guest Lecture: Sarah Benharrech

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Plants as Machines, Beehives or Corals: Analogies in 18th-Century Plant Science

Sarah Benharrech is Associate Professor of French at the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, University of Maryland.  


Borrowing from the methodologies of literary analysis, cultural studies and the anthropology of nature, this presentation explores how empirical observations of trees’ asexual reproduction challenged long-established analogies in 18th-century naturalist texts.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Cartesian Mechanicism was the dominant explanatory system that reduced trees to machines. The image also inferred that each plant is an individual with a predictable development, a defined shape and a limited lifespan. Yet, gardeners knew empirically that trees are both singular and collective beings, because of their abilities to duplicate themselves through root sprouts, runners, etc., as well as because of their growth pattern, a process called “reiteration” whereby a tree is a collection of smaller trees. The machine model was thus deemed inadequate for conceptualizing plant growth and multiplication. French Enlightenment botanists sought alternatives and found new representations in social insects, polyps and corals that they deemed more consistent with their understanding of plants.
My presentation attempts to capture this epistemological shift from the machine paradigm to the vitalist image of collective animals. Using examples from gardening treatises, natural history compilations and fictions, I will reflect on how analogies shaped 18th-century plant science.

Biographical blurb:
Sarah Benharrech (Ph.D., Princeton University) specializes in Enlightenment Studies, Gender Studies, Plant Studies, and Ecocriticism.
Her first book, Marivaux et la science du caractère (Oxford, UK: The Voltaire Foundation, 2013), explored moral classifications in Early Enlightenment literature in relation to 18th-century debates on taxonomy in the natural sciences. She is working on her second book project, tentatively entitled The Dreams of Plants, where she is examining processes of acculturation of plants knowledge in 18th-century French fiction. Drawing from anthropology and the environmental humanities, her research questions early modern and early Enlightenment cosmologies as cultural mediations of vegetal alterity.

Date: 21st February 2023 from 12:30 to 14:00

The hybrid guest lecture is organised in person at the Auditorium of MIR in Neuville-sur-Oise and remotely on Zoom.

To attend the remote guest lecture, please connect to Zoom: https://cyu-fr.zoom.us/j/93808380481

Meeting ID: 938 0838 0481

The video will be online on the CY AS YouTube channel