Phlox in Botanical Garden

Phlox in botanical garden_tif309
Permalink to this Image | Gallery of Rachel's Works

2 Essays

  1. socbuls says:

    Rachel Tanur’s image titled “Phlox in Botanical Garden” shows a densely packed area of small pink flowers with patches of green leaves and stems throughout, highlighted by a plaque containing scientific and descriptive text. Through a discourse analysis framed by the concept of representation, we can see that this text negotiates the viewer’s understanding of the flowers and, ultimately the image itself.
    The centrality and size of the text on the plaque foregrounds this section of the photograph above the others. The flowers in the top right corner are blurred and out of focus, while the images become clearer as the gaze shifts toward the bottom right. Interestingly, this is also the traditional way to read English text. Thus, even as the viewer is encouraged to see the flowers as a mass, the structure of the photograph prejudices the viewer to focus on the plaque and text and to read it in search of a focused image. Already, the photograph encourages us to interact with the image through the text.
    The question becomes whether the representations of the text “reflect the world as it is, mirroring it back to us through imitation or mimesis, or whether we construct the world and its meaning through representations that are abstract and not mimetic or imitative of physical form” (Sturken 19). The mass of pink flowers is represented scientifically, geographically, and numerically in the text. Perhaps the text and numbers on the plaque do not correspond to the flowers in the background. Yet, as a viewer, it is easy for me to trust that the text does mimetically correspond to the flowers, that my experience as viewer is being curated scientifically and without abstraction, especially since I can read the text.
    This trust can be examined through institutional discourse analysis. This method centers on how our viewing is curated, with “an insistence on the power relations articulated through these practices and institutions…visual images and visualities are articulations of institutional power” (Rose 225). The text has power; its scientific nature mitigates the typical trope of the “freeness” of nature because it implies that the flowers have been cultivated, curated, perhaps created, by the institution of a botanical garden. Our culture’s insistence of the use of rational thought means the viewer is taught to privilege the scientific observations of the text over the aesthetic observations that flowers might usually encourage. Furthermore, “deviation from the accepted institutional order is costly in some way, and the more highly institutionalized a particular social pattern becomes, the more costly such deviations are” (Phillips 637). Because of the institutional power of both the garden itself and its implied scientific nature, the viewer assumes the text is a direct and honest representation of the flowers because deviation from this social norm is not immediately sanctioned.
    This image is curated by the foregrounded text. Its curation for me is additionally framed by the fact that I know and understand more about the words than the flowers themselves, prejudicing me to look more at the text. This image is dominated by both the text and the presumed institutional power the text implies, even though the casual viewer has no clear promise that the text is a mimetic representation of the flowers.
    Works Cited
    Phillips, Nelson, et al. “Discourse and Institutions.” The Academy of Management Review, vol. 29, no. 4, 2004, pp. 635–652. JSTOR.
    Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. Sage Publications, 2016.
    Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford University Press, 2018.

  2. tracyb says:

    A thick cover of small, star-shaped flowers of vibrant magenta conceals a mound of needle-like leaves that hug the ground. This is Crackerjack Phlox, or Phlox douglasii, a perennial herb belonging to the family Polemoniaceae. We can, and often do, refer to its binomial nomenclature, a formal system that names living beings with a two-part label, both of which are dictated in Latin. Whether Crackerjack is planted and tended as the favorite ornament of a household flowerbed, as a practical ground cover, or as a specimen for botanical research, the sites in which we cultivate and label plants constitute a rich field for analyzing the diverse relationships between humans and flora.

    Here, Phlox is put to use in a botanic garden – an archive of living vegetation that is carefully categorized and monitored within tidy arrangements to be observed, noted, and admired by visitors. Its collection of names is inscribed into a placard that one sees almost as clearly as the vegetation itself. These labels find their origin in the project of Swedish-born Carol von Linnaeus, who produced a system that would index tens of thousands of plants, animals, and minerals, according to their sexual anatomy. His 18th century system became popular during a time when colonial powers were accumulating myriad botanical specimens, and the need to sort and catalog these arose. Anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss felt that, “…some initial order can be introduced into the universe by means of these groupings. Classifying, as opposed to not classifying, has value of its own, whatever form the classification may take” (1966).

    From a sociological perspective, the ways that we categorize plants tells us more about the people who ordered them as it does about the plants themselves. While Linnaeus’ system can be read as an effort to provide organization, the underlying conceptions of botanical lifeforms that gave rise to his taxonomy can also be examined; how were, and are, the names given to plants based on a particular understanding of the plant? That every form of life could be fit neatly into an established pattern may elucidate the notion of plants as one-dimensional objects to be standardized, universally indexed, and controlled.

    Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu wrote that “every established order tends to make its own entirely arbitrary system seem entirely natural,” (1977), and today we continue to link these taxonomic labels to plants as if they were given to plants by nature herself. But while particular categories of the plant are situated well in the minds of biologists, educational institutions and the public, questions about how humans render classificatory boundaries around botanical lifeforms, as well as the cultural and historical factors that shape these projects, loom large within the social sciences.

    How are plants conceived by human beings? Are they ornamental decorations? Food to provide nourishment? Medicines to heal illness? The raw material of pharmaceutical-grade compounds? Or beings in their own right, according to post-humanist scholars like Bruno Latour (1993) and Eduardo Kohn (2013)? How are botanical names devised, and who gets to decide? In light of biological classification, what other voices and ways of approaching plants is left behind?


    Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

    Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Latour, Bruno. 1993. Tr. Catherine Porter. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvester Wheatsheaf and the President Fellows of Harvard College.

    Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tr. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.