Essays in Romanticism

Sensitive Plants and Senseless Weeds: Plants, Consciousness, and Elizabeth Kent

Essays in Romanticism (2020), 27, (2), 115–133.

Abstract

When a team of researchers in 2018 found that plants exposed to anesthesia appeared to lose consciousness, the press reported that plants might have a consciousness to lose. The ensuing debate revealed a gap between scientific and literary approaches to human and nonhuman consciousness that this article traces back to the botanical writing of the Romantic period. These concerns, I argue, are central to Elizabeth Kent’s Flora Domestica (1823) and Sylvan Sketches (1825), both botanical works that double as literary anthologies in order to expose a productive gap between literary and scientific knowledge. In a time when the distinction between science and poetry could frequently blur, Kent’s works navigate these boundaries with particular attention to the kinds of relationships each entails. In so doing, I argue, she advances an ethics of care attuned to consciousnesses beyond our understanding, rooted in the contested borderland between scientific and poetic knowledge.

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Walker, Leila