Decolonizing Botany: From the Herbarium to the Plantarium

Keynote address by Banu Subramaniam

Thursday, May 13, 1:30 pm (UTC+2)

I draw on recent scholarship in the biological sciences, queer ecology, indigenous ecology, anti-colonial, postcolonial and feminist STS, and critical race theory to show how the foundational language, terminology, and theories of modern Botany remain grounded in the violence of its colonial pasts. While much of our literature on colonialism, slavery, and indentured servitude remain exclusively focused on the “human,” our understanding of the ideologies of the plantation can be enhanced by understanding the complex biologies of plants and animals that shaped these agricultural labor practices. The transnational circulations of the global plantation centrally included circulations of science, and technology and where humans went, their flora and fauna quickly followed. The science(s) of gender, race, class and sexuality were shaped by these global circulations. By tracking their shared histories, we develop more robust naturecultural histories of the past, as well as recover lost histories of more liberatory and sustainable models of planetarity, now critical for anti-colonial and de-colonial projects as we face new naturecultural realities due to climate change. Indeed, I argue, feminist science studies is well poised to explicate what we mean by intersectionality itself since science has been central to “scientizing” human differences as natural, biological, essential and innate. In short, feminist and queer theories need feminist science and technology studies.

Banu Subramaniam is Professor and Chair of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Armherst. Originally trained as an evolutionary biologist and plant scientist at the University of Madras and Duke University, Subramaniam’s pioneering research in Feminist Science Studies has made her a leader in the field. Her work explores the philosophy, history, and culture of the natural sciences and medicine as they relate to gender, race, ethnicity, and caste. She is the author of Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism (2019), which focuses on how science and religion have become interwoven in emergent nationalist politics and novel conceptions of modernity in India, and of Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity (2014), the winner of the Ludwik Fleck Prize 2016. She is co-editor of Feminist Science Studies: A New Generation (2001), and MEAT! A Transnational Analysis (forthcoming).  Her latest research rethinks the field and practice of botany in relation to histories of colonialism and xenophobia and explores the wide travels of scientific theories, ideas, and concepts as they relate to migration and invasive species.

Image courtesy Banu Subramaniam