Response to Paul Yachnin

Edward M. Test


     1. In Paul Yachnin's well-informed and thoughtful reflections upon my essay about the development of a botanical public in the sixteenth century, he rightly connects my analysis of plants and herbal texts to the Actor-Network Theory of Bruno Latour, further pointing out that my essay "does not say as much as [it] might about why it makes sense to call this network of people, plants, and texts a public." In response, I would like to discuss Latour's theory a bit further in order to clarify how the associations created through the botanical network forms a public.

     2. The botanical network that I outline in my essay links both humans (botanists, merchants, sailors, Amerindians, etc.) and non-humans (plants, seeds, herbals, gardens, etc.) together into a system of cross-cultural exchange that leads -- I argue -- to the development of empirical science and the formal study of botany. From this linked system, or network, the botanical public arises. In Bruno Latour's Actor-Network Theory non-human objects employ just as much agency as the humans; they are both "actors," or "entities that do things," writes Latour. At its most basic level, we define a public as a group of "individuals" engaged in a similar action, but through the application of Latour's Network theory the "individual" becomes an "actor." Thus, we can redefine the public as a group of "actors" engaged in a similar action. In the case of the botanical network, plants are actors and through the intermediary of the herbal text they "communicate" to a wider group of people interested in botany. It is through the movement of plants and the circulation of printed herbals describing those plants that the botanical public forms. Importantly, if you remove any of the actors -- the plants, humans, or herbal texts -- from the equation there would no longer be a public.

     3. In regards to my essay, Yachnin further notes, "in relation to this idea of the social agency of things, Test contributes an emphasis on movement." The movement, or the associations made between actors in a network is the key: "the distinction between humans and non-humans," Latour writes, is "less interesting than the complete chain along which competences and actions are distributed." This chain, or the associations formed between humans and plants through the media of the herbal text is what leads to the creation of the early modern botanical public.


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