This year I’m planning to head into the weeds, to think through some of the growing body of theoretical ideas and scholarship on plants. The phrase “in the weeds” suggests the experience of being overwhelmed with tasks or overtaken by details. In the weeds is off the clear path of knowledge or control. Whether or not such a location is seen as productive probably depends on what you define a weed as, and where, and why.
Weeds are conventionally called plants out of place; in English, they’re plants humans label as culturally or economically undesirable. More scientifically, weedy species—plants, animals, or others—are those that grow in a variety of environments, especially disturbed environments, spreading and reproducing quickly.
In Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, Michael Marder uses the metaphor of weeds to theorize the location of plants within philosophy: “Plants are the weeds of metaphysics: devalued, unwanted in its carefully cultivated garden, yet growing in-between the classical categories of the thing, the animal, and the human (for the place of the weed, much like that of existence itself, is precisely in-between) and quietly gaining the upper hand over that which is cherished, tamed, and ‘useful’” (90). These proliferating weeds cross and complicate categories rather than clarify them.
Marder’s metaphor is also teasingly, materially real. He adds, “Weeds will outlive metaphysics—of this we may be absolutely certain” (90). Because of their abilities to adaptively survive, plants like giant ragweed have even become known as “superweeds.”
The physical fertility, flexibility, and productivity of weeds and weedy species (not to mention their increasing discursive presence) seem especially important to consider in relationship to theories of biopower and biopolitics. Perhaps weeds can help us explore what is meant by the “bio” in these two terms, which can be used to trace shifting practices of Western (European-American) government and sexuality. The ongoing settler colonial project in North America should also be taken into account, since weeds have been variously understood as pioneer species and also as the enemies of pioneer farmers. Which human groups have labeled which other human groups and which other creatures as weeds, and to what effect?
Economics, ecology, and ethics all interact in cultural and scientific concepts of weeds. Meanwhile, actual weeds tend to grow on the edges, in changed and changing places. Many writers and thinkers are working in these places, too, and I look forward to learning from them and joining them here on Watershed.