Banu Subramaniam


18 October 2022

Historians of science have amply demonstrated that the natural sciences were shaped by the history of colonialism. In this talk, Banu Subramaniam discusses her recent work on the entangled histories of colonialism and the field of botany. Drawing on the site of the herbarium sheet, she explores the possibilities of decolonising botany. Subramaniam develops and lays out counter-colonial methodologies and argues that we need to move to a different imagination of the sciences—interdisciplinary and adisciplinary sciences—if we are serious about reckoning with colonial histories in science.

Subramaniam draws on fields as disparate as queer studies, Indigenous studies, and the biological sciences to explore the labyrinthine history of how colonialism transformed rich and complex plant worlds into biological knowledge. Botany of Empire demonstrates how botany’s foundational theories and practices were shaped and fortified in the aid of colonial rule and its extractive ambitions. We see how colonizers obliterated plant time’s deep history to create a reductionist system that imposed a Latin-based naming system, drew on the imagined sex lives of European elites to explain plant sexuality, and discussed foreign plants like foreign humans. Subramaniam then pivots to imagining a more inclusive and capacious field of botany untethered and decentered from its origins in histories of racism, slavery, and colonialism. This vision harnesses the power of feminist and scientific thought to chart a course for more socially just practices of experimental biology.

A reckoning and a manifesto, Botany of Empire provides experts and general readers alike with a roadmap for transforming the colonial foundations of plant science.

Banu Subramaniam is Luella LaMer Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Wellesley College. Trained as a plant evolutionary biologist, Subramaniam engages the feminist studies of science in the practices of experimental biology. Her newest work is Botany of Empire: Plant Worlds and the Scientific Legacies of Colonialism (University of Washington Press, 2024). Her previous books include Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism (University of Washington Press, 2019) won the 2020 Michelle Kendrick Memorial Book Prize from the Society for Literature, Science & the Arts. The book focuses on how science and religion have become interwoven in emergent nationalist politics and novel conceptions of modernity in India. The book weaves together techno-poetic myths and storytelling with imminent critique of scientific discourses to undo rigid notions of identity and belonging. Her previous book, Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity (University of Illinois Press, 2014), was winner of the Ludwik Fleck Prize 2016 for an outstanding book across the breadth of science and technology studies. She is co-editor of Feminist Science Studies: A New Generation (Routledge, 2001) that put Feminist Science Studies on the map. Her recent edited volume with Duke University Press, MEAT! A Transnational Analysis—coedited with Sushmita Chatterjee, looks at human/animal/plant relations and at the production and consumption of meat (and its alternatives) from the vantage of a wide range of interdisciplinary scholars working at the intersections of the sciences and the humanities. 


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