Thinking about Sex with Plants
Plant bodies have always been entangled with human ones. Following the discovery of sexual reproduction in plants in the late seventeenth century, this entanglement becomes eroticized in new ways, as plants are used as models for understanding human reproduction and vice versa.* The Linnaean sexual system of classifying plants, the object of lively debate throughout the eighteenth century, is a particularly well-known and influential instance of such crossover, according to which plants are described as entering into marriages and acting as “husbands” or “wives.” Toward the end of the century, Erasmus Darwin will double down on the Linnaean metaphors, with luxuriant and sometimes unsettling results, in his 1791 work of scientific poetry, The Botanic Garden. These and other examples posit human sexual dimorphism as a means for understanding a vegetal sexuality that often resists this kind of anthropomorphic imperative, requiring ever-more inventive modes of poetic speculation, as in Darwin’s poem, to get the fit between human and plant “right.” But the plant-human analogy can easily be inverted, at least in theory. Plant sexuality, in both its flagrant and its reticent dimensions, also serves during this time as an impetus for contemplating new possibilities that might be made available to humans in both their erotic and their reproductive lives. The comparison between humans and plants works not only to project human norms onto plant bodies but to generate speculation around how human sexuality might be organized, managed, and experienced differently.
These speculations emerge in the context of a European-wide fascination for botany, a source of enthusiasm and intellectual interest for men and women alike. (Botanist Francis Hallé writes movingly in his 1999 book In Praise of Plants about the ways in which modern western science mostly leaves the plant behind; perhaps it is only recently, in the shadow of climate crisis, that a more general fascination and appreciation for botanical modes of knowledge and cultivation is once again taking hold.) While the plant only rarely serves as a model for thinking about sex these days—although this situation, too, may be changing—plants are strikingly present in different kinds of Enlightenment conversations around the origins of life and reproduction. The plant-human analogy shapes many eighteenth-century discussions of human reproductive biology, in part because plant reproductive mechanisms are easier to see and observe. Plant life was also used as an ostensibly decorous means for teaching women and girls about sex.
Vegetal sexuality puts in uneasy conjunction the ordinary and the strange. The hydraulics, cloning, and interspecial combinations involved in plant reproduction appear from a human perspective at once deeply weird (not to mention technologically advanced) and mere parts of the landscape, unworthy of notice. As Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle writes about the willow (l’orme) in the Histoire de l’Académie des Sciences, in a passage that reappears in the Encyclopédie in the entry entitled “the fecundity of the willow” (written by the chevalier Louis de Jaucourt): “a marvel available to everyone to see, & and that observation has for a long time neglected . . . is the fecundity of plants, not only the natural fecundity of plants left to themselves, but, even more, the artificial fecundity achieved through cutting and pruning several of their parts; this artificial fecundity is in the end only natural: because ultimately the art of the gardener never gives to plants that which they did not already have.”* The willow is a “champion cloner,” to use a contemporary term, whose means of reproduction continue to amaze human observers even today.* In his account, Fontenelle stresses how plants are both marvelous and common—“available to everyone to see,” even if not everyone looks. In vegetal reproductive life, nature collaborates with artifice to make possible a luxurious, almost other-worldly growth. The willow thus serves as an example of the potential inherent in the natural world to absorb and incorporate human techniques for cultivating or shaping it, to make new technologies possible, not as a supplement to nature but as an expression of nature’s strange power and energy. In his description, Fontenelle invokes a ménage à trois that includes the gardener, the plant, and nature itself. Could the willow’s enhanced fecundity also become a model for humans?
Vegetal reproductive strategies such as those of the willow oblige those who observe and study plants to stretch and reshape their ideas about sex. A portal is opened here toward a world in which plants allow for a general rearticulation of the relationship of gender to acts of reproduction and to sexual desire. Denis Diderot, the co-editor of the Encyclopédie in which Fontenelle’s reflection would eventually appear, explores this line of thought in his 1769 materialist dialogue, D’Alembert’s Dream. One of the participants in the dialogue, Julie de Lespinasse, refers to “human polyps” in her recounting of the sleeping philosopher d’Alembert’s dream visions:
Perhaps on Jupiter or Saturn there are human polyps! The males split up to make a new batch of males, and similarly with the females . . . . To think of men splitting up into an infinite number of little men the size of atoms, small enough to fold up in a sheet of paper like insects’ eggs. They would spin their cocoons, which would take a certain time to pass through the chrysalis stage, then break out of the cocoon and escape as butterflies. Why, you could make a whole human society or at least populate a whole province with the pieces of one individual.*
The images here are animal—Lespinasse refers to the particles of humans as hommes animalcules and then explicitly compares the atom-men to butterflies—but the logic of reproduction they invoke is originally vegetal, as was the case with the famous example of Trembley’s polyp from which Diderot draws inspiration. (Trembley’s polyp appeared to be a plant in its capacity for regeneration from its parts, but seemed to be an animal in its motility.) With Diderot’s human polyps, sexual difference becomes a matter of pure form. “Male” and “female” here do not require one another to reproduce, but instead proliferate asexually as bits of matter (or atoms), so that one human might become an infinite number of atomic human particles. Later on, the doctor Bordeu, with whom Lespinasse is conversing in the dialogue, will suggest that the origins of human life are themselves vegetal. “That’s why it was essential to strip away all the complexity of your present physical constitution,” he says to her, “in order to get back momentarily to the time when you were nothing but a soft, fibrous, shapeless, wormlike substance, more comparable to the bulb or root of a plant than to an animal.”* Bordeu here displaces the much more conventional comparison of the woman to a flower in order to emphasize the continuity between plant and animal beginnings.
Diderot’s examples of the special energies of vegetal life are for the most part playful and somewhat elliptical. But plants play a direct role in other, much more explicit eighteenth-century efforts to envision more powerful and more pleasurable modes of human reproduction, as in Vincent Miller’s brief satirical text entitled The Man-Plant, or Scheme for Improving and Increasing the British Breed (1751), which styles itself as a ludic response to Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s L’Homme-plante (or Man-A-Plant) (1748). Miller imagines transplanting human embryos into artificial uteri and growing them in hothouses, thereby lessening the suffering of women, heightening their pleasure in sex, and enhancing the fertility of the British race. Miller’s plant-wombs tap into an extraordinary and inhuman force that may be put to work to expand and enrich human happiness, but only for the British “breed.” In Miller’s hothouses, vegetalized human bodies are both exploited—cultivated like plants—and productively deployed in the service of empire. Plant-humans represent at once the limit of human life and the transformation of human society into a more “modern,” efficient, and productive version of itself.
In all of these instances, plants suggest something about human origins as well as human futures, then, knitting together the formlessness of our beginnings with the shapes of barely imagined technologies to come. The return today to the plant as a vector of human social reform and, not to put too fine a point on it, regeneration, needs to be in conversation with this longer history of deploying plants as the avatars of what we now call assisted reproduction—a history that coincides with the advent of modern capitalism, where plants begin to appear as an exemplary form of biopolitical life. The turn to plants as a way of making sense of and reimagining human bonds with one another is emphatically not new (nor is it necessarily utopian!). Instead, the conjunction between critiques of human sexual norms and theories of vegetal life is already present in and crucial to the eighteenth century. These critiques are not only anthropomorphic, suggesting that plants reflect what people ought to want or do; they also muster the specific capacities of plants to craft a vision of modernity as a time in which humans “Follow the plants”*!