Ecofetishism: Fuckin’ with Plants

Ashley Chang explores ecofetishism through the works of LA based performance artists Genevieve Belleveau and Themba Alleyne.

Timothy Morton’s  now-iconic ecological thought—the idea that “all beings are interconnected” in a vast “mesh”—entails some thing he describes as “radical intimacy.”[i] According to his vision of the mesh, humans are in constant proximity with the enigmatic figure of the “strange stranger,” which really refers to anyone and anything. [ii] Coming in many shapes and sizes, “from the bacteria in our gut to birds slick with oil to displaced victims of a hurricane,” strange strangers are everywhere, uncanny, unpredictable, and ultimately unknowable: “the more intimately we know them, the stranger they become.”[iii] His idea of the strange stranger is an ontological statement on the kinds of beings that exist and the messiness of their relations to one another in the mesh. It is also an epistemological statement on the limits of knowledge, for the strange stranger, however familiar, fundamentally resists our knowing—for every apparent certainty it extends, it generates infinite uncertainties. Morton’s tripartite formulation of the mesh, the strange stranger, and radical intimacy is primarily descriptive: we are always already intimate with the strange strangers that make up the mesh, and once we recognise this state of affairs, he says, “we have a basis for reimagining democracy” such that humans and nonhumans are recognised as political subjects.[iv] But beyond acknowledging the extant intimacies and even “erotics” of life in the mesh, recognising its intrinsic queerness and “vast profusion of gender and sex performances”, and declaring what the ecological thought thinks,  Morton deliberately leaves open the question of how to enact the ecological act.[v] The ecological thought, he says, “doesn’t tell you what to do, exactly, but it opens your mind so you can think clearly about what to do.”[vi] It leaves praxis up to us.

Where Morton offers a philosophical framework for thinking through the intimate entanglement of all things “in our age of ecological panic,” Los Angeles performance artists Genevieve Belleveau and Themba Alleyne pursue cross-species intimacy through a burgeoning sexual practice they call ecofetishism, which blends ecofeminist sensibilities with the arrangements of power and idioms of pleasure conventional to kink.[vii] Collaborators as well as romantic partners, Belleveau and Alleyne use the frameworks of bondage/discipline (B/D), dominance/submission (D/S), and sadomasochism (S/M) to examine how certain environments (i.e. gardens rather than dungeons), materials (i.e. flowers and leaves rather than leather and metal), players (i.e. humans and plants rather than humans and toys), and partnerships (i.e. ones based on growth rather than shame) permit sexual and ecological relationships that expand the loci of power beyond the frame of the human. Their project Sacred Sadism is a series of performance-based investigations into exploratory forms of kink that not only incorporate plants but also take healing and therapy as their primary objectives. Sacred Sadism, they suggest, encourages explicitly compassionate expressions of power in a sexual practice sometimes understood as cruel or callous.

Ecofetishism blends ecofeminist sensibilities with the arrangements of power and idioms of pleasure conventional to kink.

Encompassing a wide range of activities and apparatuses, from sensation and impact play to sexual objectification, and from vacuum bed compressions to role-playing, sometimes before audiences and sometimes in private, their work uses alternative forms of BDSM to explore the interconnections and interactions between humans and plants. As a form of BDSM, ecofetishism brings questions of power to the fore. But it also uniquely clarifies some of the specific ethical challenges of interspecies engagement in ways that move beyond Morton’s open-ended theorising. For Belleveau and Alleyne, as for many practitioners of kink, BDSM requires clear communication, continuous negotiations of consent, and contractually arbitrated roles and boundaries, each of which presumes the agency and autonomy of all parties as absolute prerequisites for intimacy. Plants, however, fall outside traditional formulations of both agency and autonomy—how could a plant ever say yes, let alone utter a safe word? By looking at several of the works included in their Sacred Sadism project, this essay explores how Belleveau and Alleyne’s experiments in plant-based kink reveal the limits of intimacy across species lines and offer practical approaches to navigating those thresholds.

Ιmage by Genevieve Belleveau.

Though it recalls elements of Dionysus’s Hellenistic pansexualism and the transcendentalism of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, ecofetishism is a somewhat young concept in the history of sex. The term “ecofetish” appears in a 2010 issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly, though literary scholar Alexandra Nutter Smith uses it there to describe the fetishisation of green products in women’s magazines rather than to describe a set of sexual acts.[viii] Departing from Smith’s analysis of consumer marketing, Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle have used “ecofetish” in a more unequivocally erotic register: in their “Ecosex Lexicon,” a list of 70 frisky words marrying concepts from sexology and ecology, Stephens and Sprinkle list “ecofetish” alongside such unapologetic exuberances as “vegisexual”, “ecojaculating”, and “pollenamorous.”[ix] However, their lexicon serves primarily as a playful invitation to imagine a broad range of ecosexual experiences, stopping short of elaborating exactly what “treedonism”, “environmentally frisky”, and “compostgasm” might mean in practice.[x]

Belleveau began to engage in ecofetishism in 2013. Under an expanded version of Sacred Sadism—which now includes a line of hand-crafted fetish toys, or what they call “functional art objects”, combining impact play tools with highly realistic plant replicas made of rubber, silicone, or plastic (anal plugs sprouting orchids and succulents, floggers of aloe and gayfeather, paddles carved from recycled redwood and walnut)—Belleveau and Alleyne were the first to develop an ecofetishist practice in keeping with the techniques and protocols of BDSM. Their version of ecofetishism as an erotic activity builds self-consciously on the work of Stephens and Sprinkle: Alleyne reimagines nature not as “mother” but as “lover”; Belleveau describes having had a “sensual relationship with nature” since childhood; and both express the kind of respect and affection for nonhuman nature that Stephens and Sprinkle outline in their “Ecosex Manifesto.”[xi] But whereas Stephens and Sprinkle encourage making love with the earth as a corrective to more prevalent and pervasive acts of environmental violence, Belleveau and Alleyne pursue a form of environmentalism that has less to do with embracing the earth—spiritually, sensuously, politically—and more to do with using the techniques of BDSM to analyse the mechanics of power that have facilitated ecological destruction. Taking BDSM as a tool for seriously engaging ecological issues, their work interrogates how power is assigned and exchanged, particularly across species lines.

Themba and Genevieve of Sacred Sadism, photographed by Katie Miller.

For Belleveau and Alleyne, ecofetishist negotiations of power start from the minimum assumption that plants are agents. Just as humans act upon plants, Belleveau says, “plants are just as actively persuading us to do what they need as well.”[xii] Influenced by Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye-View of the World —which rejects divisions between subject and object along species lines, asking questions like “Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it?”[xiii]—Alleyne describes the relationship between humans and plants as a symbiotic and co-evolutionary partnership, one in which cultivation goes both ways.[xiv]Although the power dynamic between people and plants is often unbalanced, and to violent effect, it’s simply false, according to Belleveau and Alleyne, that plants play no role in determining the course of an interaction. People mow the lawn in response to the growth of the grass; people develop pharmaceutical remedies against the allergens in nuts and pollens; and, as Alleyne observes, people sow, harvest, and compost in response to “the way a certain plant looks or how its flowers smell.”[xv] Both artists underscore the impact of nonhuman exigencies and exertions on human-nonhuman relationships, adopting verbs normally reserved for people as they do so: the plants persuade, the plants cultivate. Nonhumans are agents, they maintain, laying the groundwork for an erotic partnership based on the possibility of joint collaboration.

Their thinking about plant agency resonates with contemporary theories like new materialism. Philosopher Jane Bennett, for example, argues that all forms of matter—whether organic or inorganic, sentient or inert, living or dead, human or nonhuman—actively affect other forms of matter. In Vibrant Matter, Bennett examines “thing-power”, a quality of vitality, aliveness, and independence that, she says, all entities possess.[xvi] According to her theory of the vitality or vibrancy of matter, humans and nonhumans are constantly collaborating in the production of everyday reality; the electrical power grid, for example, enlists the participation of “electrons, trees, wind, fire, electromagnetic fields,” as well as humans and their various “social, legal, linguistic” systems.[xvii] In order to recognise the often-unrecognised thing-power of nonhumans, she deploys a kind of strategic anthropomorphism, arguing that its bias for human forms of meaning and meaning-making actually functions as a fertile gateway toward more radical conceptual shifts: “We at first may see only a world in our own image, but what appears next is a swarm of ‘talented’ and vibrant materialities.”[xviii] If Bennett offers a way of thinking about plants as agents, Belleveau and Alleyne imagine what it might actually look like for a plant to exert its agency.

Image by Sacred Sadism

Belleveau and Alleyne have explored the capacity for nonhumans to actively participate in sexual games in two particular role-play scenarios, both of which cast the plant as a dominant and the human as a submissive. In one scenario, Belleveau explains, a human submissive consents to taking “a naked walk through a thicket of brambles, a bare-legged run through sharp, long grass, or a rough-and-tumble climb up steep rocks smattered with cactuses.”[xix] During the session, the human accrues welts, scratches, and stings as a result of her “mindfully masochistic” contact with various plants and their “natural defense mechanisms.”[xx] Here, the plants are not made to do anything but what they are already outfitted to do; they lacerate, they chafe, they stick, and the human responds in kind, with winces, grimaces, and yelps. In another scenario, one human tops and another bottoms. The dominant human leads her submissive through an outdoor environment, subjecting him to a “scratchy, scrapey, pokey” terrain where plants, as in the first scene, dominate him.[xxi]

In both cases, Belleveau and Alleyne try to engage with the plants as collaborators rather than as instruments or backdrops for human pleasure. Their role-plays suggest that the plants’ physical features indicate at least a readiness—if not a consensual willingness—to play. The plants seem to have shown up to the session with the proper equipment: spikes, thorns, and stingers. Yet this line of reasoning doesn’t quite guarantee consent. The fact that people have erogenous zones, for example, certainly does not mean that they are automatically consenting. Is a rosebush or a succulent much different from a person in this regard? The plants certainly provided no verbal assent to having a human skirt along their edges, trailing hair and sweat, if not blood and skin. But, then again, is it a false equivalency to draw parallels between humans and plants? Might it be misguided to define consent in the same way for creatures that are quite distinct? Over the course of millennia, plants have developed protective characteristics in response to the sometimes predictable—and sometimes unpredictable—movements of other organisms. Perhaps, then, to some extent, plants are built to weather the elements: gales and landslides, birds and badgers, so why not also, from time to time, an ecofetishist? Still, even if the plant is solicited as a player—rather than merely as a play tool along the lines of pinwheels, prods, and clamps—in both role-play scenarios, the plant’s pleasure is neither sought nor necessarily satisfied. What would plant pleasure even look like? And how would we know? While these scenes demonstrate that humans and plants might be able to determine the course of a play session together, they show, too, that kink across species lines is by no means a straightforward ethical proposition.

Belleveau and Alleyne try to engage with the plants as collaborators rather than as instruments or backdrops for human pleasure.

Because ecofetishism requires a consensual exchange of erotic power between players, the inability for plants to consent in terms legible to humans becomes, in Sacred Sadism, a limiting factor for the kinds of acts that can occur in sexual encounters between species. The gap in understanding is simply too vast to permit play beyond Belleveau and Alleyne’s already-fraught scenarios between submissive humans and dominant plants. After all, plants exist independently of human systems of meaning and language, and the experiential dimensions of their existence—their thoughts, feelings, and desires—are largely incomprehensible to us. As Belleveau says, plants “have an existence and logic I cannot hope to understand.”[xxii] Alleyne agrees: though plants can communicate with one another through the mycelial network—a system the BBC has called “an internet of fungus”—their sensory and linguistic orders remain opaque.[xxiii]

Because plants cannot provide affirmative consent—the bedrock and backbone of kink—the majority of Belleveau and Alleyne’s explorations with Sacred Sadism actually abstain from pursuing intimacy with actual plants as active partners, tending instead to explore forms of sexual objectification and fetishisation where submissive human partners are asked to shed their humanness, becoming plants or plant accessories. This approach focuses less on plants’ agential capabilities and more on humans’ psychosexual experiences. Belleveau and Alleyne’s human floral bouquets feature humans as living armature for flower arrangements, enacting a version of fornophilia that casts humans as furniture for plants rather than for people: they swap out ottomans, armchairs, and coffee tables for vases, trellises, and aquafoam bricks. The human does not become a flower; he becomes integral support for a floral display. His body partially eclipsed by stems, leaves, and petals, he becomes lesser than the flowers he serves. As Belleveau explains, he becomes “nothing but a passive object of admiration;” he sits absolutely still, as if in bondage, “a beautiful component of a much larger arrangement.”[xxiv]

Belleveau and Alleyne’s “florifications”, by contrast, feature humans as flowers. These vacuum bed compressions laminate the submissive partner between latex sheets like a flower gently pressed between the pages of a book. Belleveau describes these sessions as meditative rituals akin to “spa treatments.”[xxv] She positions her submissive with utmost care; she lavishes him with beautiful floral clippings; she adores him utterly. He is not a human decorated with an intricate array of flowers; rather, he becomes one flower among many. Here, the feeling of becoming-flower appears to be less about sinking into the speculative headspace of a flower and more about releasing the responsibilities of being-human. Participants have described the experience as “alien”, likening it to a “sensory deprivation float tank”, or “being submerged in water”.[xxvi] As the dominant, Belleveau creates the conditions for her submissive to achieve a kind of “subspace”, an emotional and psychological state of trance sometimes induced in BDSM scenarios. Journalist S. Nicole Lane describes subspace as a feeling of “floating or flying”, or of feeling “drunk or high”.[xxvii] Vulnerable but safe and secure in the dominant’s care, the submissive is invited to let go. “For me,” Lane says, “I am completely unable to speak and move. I’m inaudible, feral. Afterwards, I often weep because of the amount of energy and euphoria I experience.”[xxviii] Florification allows participants to experience this heightened discharge of human subjectivity, to experience, if not flowerhood, then at least a temporary estrangement from personhood.

Belleveau and Alleyne explore another version of florification in role-play scenarios that replace the dynamics of “master and slave” with “gardener and plant.” Occurring exclusively between two human players, this scenario leaves actual plants outside the scope of play. Here, plants are not enlisted as collaborators. Instead, they are imagined as characters to be enacted, possessing consciousness, agency, and autonomy, but submissive to the human gardener, who takes care of her precious plant, encouraging it to germinate, to sprout, to bloom, and perhaps to yield fruit. As the submissive player within the scenario, the plant actually possesses final authority, empowered, as in conventional BDSM scenes, to put an end to the game at any point through the use of a safe word. For as long as play is in session, the gardener tends to the plant’s blossoming instead of to its humiliation, breaking from traditional forms of play oriented around the submissive’s debasement. The person playing the plant might partake in erotic feelings of shame, perhaps in the slippage from human to nonhuman, but the pursuit of shame does not necessarily get at the full range or rush of what’s involved in playing the plant—there is room for beauty, for growth, for basking in the sun. While the process of cultivation might involve trimming and pruning, every moment of pain is couched within a broader narrative of nurturance. As Belleveau explains, the gardener/plant scenario comes with “built-in care and aftercare”—often the frame for BDSM sessions rather than the substance—making explicit the compassion and tenderness necessary for ethical domination.[xxix] “Topping comes with enormous responsibility towards the bottom’s safety, both physically and emotionally,” Belleveau says, and this role-play demonstrates a form of topping that is openly “loving and kind.”[xxx] The model of domination and submission on offer here not only dodge thorny issues of nonhuman consent by exclusively involving human partners; it also explores visibly affectionate expressions of power that deviate from standard BDSM practices, making space for alternative approaches to kink. Beyond the bedroom, the scenario offers ways of rethinking real-life human-plant relationships in broader ecological terms. This role-play asks humans to expand their frame of empathy beyond the familiar domain of the human: how might role-playing as plants make humans more attuned to the particular life-worlds that plants occupy, especially when those life-worlds are dominated by human actors? The scenario also invites us to imagine what it might be like to grant actual plants the power to call for a cease and desist: in other words, what if people treated plants as true submissives, that is, as fully entitled to end the game with a safe word when deforestation, groundwater pollution, or acid rain became too much? Belleveau and Alleyne demonstrate what the frameworks of kink, which foreground the limits of pain as well as power, have to offer to ongoing conversations in environmental politics.

What Sacred Sadism ultimately makes clear are the gaps in human understandings of power. Belleveau and Alleyne’s commitment to human erotic experiences not only acknowledge the incommensurability of human and nonhuman modes of communication, but also emphasises the need for humans to attend closely to the mechanisms of power, in circumstances that move across species lines, and in ways that explore alternative scripts of domination and submission. “Rather than positing that there is a relationship with the earth that I believe we should be cultivating from a sexual or romantic point of view,” Belleveau says, “I feel we have more immediate work we need to do with one another, in the human world, to continue to evolve our ideas of love, consent, partnership, punishment.”[xxxi] The framework of kink allows Belleveau and Alleyne to examine these operations of power with both care and rigour, as BDSM can only take place at the small scale of the interpersonal. It is their hope that, by creating avenues for working through power in close quarters with other people, ecofetishism might make a positive contribution to environmental ethics by heightening “our understanding of power exchange with the natural world and our surroundings.”[xxxii] Their work takes up what scholars Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson identify as the critical project of “queer ecology”—“challenging hetero-ecologies from the perspective of non-normative sexual and gender positions”—by expanding the possibilities of intimacy, and the articulations of power, beyond the frame of the human.[xxxiii] As Belleveau and Alleyne do so, they nonetheless remain firmly grounded in the domain of the human, demonstrating the importance of levying anthropocentrism in the process of moving past it.

 

References

Alaimo, Stacy. Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Belleveau, Genevieve, and Themba Alleyne. “A Conversation with Genevieve and Themba of Sacred Sadism, Fetishizing the Aesthetics of Nature.” Interview by Mackenzie Peck. MATH Magazine, May 13, 2018. https://math-mag.com/theafterglow/2018/5/11/a-conversation-with-sacred-sadism.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Fleming, Nic. “Plants talk to each other through an internet of fungus.” BBC, November 11, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-internet.

Harman, Graham. Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Peru: Open Court Publishing Company, 2005.

Lane, S. Nicole. “BDSM Subspace Explained By Someone Who Has Personally Experienced It.” HelloFlo, September 6, 2017. http://helloflo.com/what-is-subspace/.

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Pollan, Michael.The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye-View of the World. New York: Random House, 2002.

Smith, Alexandra Nutter. “The Ecofetish: Green Consumerism in Women’s Magazines.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 38, no. 3/4 (2010): 66-83. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20799365.

Stephens, Elizabeth, and Annie Sprinkle. “Ecosex Lexicon.” SexEcology. http://sexecology.org/research-writing/ecosex-lexicon.


End Notes

[i] Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 8, 94.

[ii] Morton, The Ecological Thought, 14.

[iii] Morton, The Ecological Thought, 14, 49-50.

[iv] Morton, The Ecological Thought, 80.

[v] Morton, The Ecological Thought, 85, 127.

[vi] Morton, The Ecological Thought, 125.

[vii] Morton, The Ecological Thought, 50.

[viii] Alexandra NutterSmith, “The Ecofetish: Green Consumerism in Women’s Magazines,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 38, no. 3/4 (2010): 66-83, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20799365.

[ix] Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, “Ecosex Lexicon,” SexEcology, http://sexecology.org/research-writing/ecosex-lexicon.

[x] Stephens and Sprinkle, “Ecosex Lexicon.”

[xi] Genevieve Belleveau and Themba Alleyne, “A Conversation with Genevieve and Themba of Sacred Sadism, Fetishizing the Aesthetics of Nature,” interview by Mackenzie PeckMATH Magazine, May 13, 2018, https://math-mag.com/theafterglow/2018/5/11/a-conversation-with-sacred-sadism.

[xii] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 19, 2018.

[xiii] Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye-View of the World (New York: Random House, 2002), xv.

[xiv] Themba Alleyne, email to author, September 24, 2018.

[xv] Themba Alleyne, email to author, September 20, 2018.

[xvi] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 24.

[xvii] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 24.

[xviii] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 99.

[xix] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 20, 2018.

[xx] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 20, 2018.

[xxi] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 20, 2018.

[xxii] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 19, 2018.

[xxiii] Nic Fleming, “Plants talk to each other through an internet of fungus,” BBC, November 11, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-internet.

[xxiv] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 19, 2018.

[xxv] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 19, 2018.

[xxvi] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 20, 2018.

[xxvii] S. Nicole Lane, “BDSM Subspace Explained By Someone Who Has Personally Experienced It,” HelloFlo, September 6, 2017, http://helloflo.com/what-is-subspace/.

[xxviii] Lane, “BDSM Subspace Explained By Someone Who Has Personally Experienced It.”

[xxix] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 19, 2018.

[xxx] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 19, 2018.

[xxxi] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 19, 2018.

[xxxii] Genevieve Belleveau, email to author, September 19, 2018.

[xxxiii] Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 22.

 

Ashley Chang is a theater producer and dramaturg in New York City, as well as a Doctor of Fine Arts candidate at Yale School of Drama.

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