All researchers see themselves as having curiosity: looking for answers to questions which present themselves almost of their own accord – for example with regards to man-made climate change; or to questions which are born as a researcher notices little things or because they have a prosperity for quirkiness. For the exhibition entitled “Eden? Plants between Science and Fiction”, Katharina Scheerer and her peers at the “Practices of Literature” Graduate School started wondering how plants are represented in science fiction literature – and are asking the big questions in a small object of research.
The “Eden? Plants between Science and Fiction” exhibition, grown out of the Corona pandemic, had its origins in Katharina Scheerer’s dissertation, for which she examined the beginnings of German science fiction literature around 1900. In the course of her research, Scheerer found that plants are a neglected but all the more fascinating motif in a large number of texts. “Aliens, other worlds and spaceships may be more popular,” she says, but then immediately counters by saying, “Whenever plants turn up as a motif, they are usually linked to contemporary discussions, for example involving climate-related catastrophes or colonialism.” Reason enough to look at the ramifications of these motifs and organise workshops with writers and researchers, in which the content covered ranged from literary studies to botany. As the title of the exhibition indicates: for the project team, plants are located somewhere between (natural) sciences and literature. However, to avoid the work remaining inside a closed environment, the idea arose within the team of presenting the results of their textual analysis to the public in the form of an exhibition.
Katharina Scheerer’s team consists of nine members of the Department of Philology – PhD students, master’s students and alumni – who have taken on a variety of tasks for the exhibition: academic research, exhibition management, finances and funding, scenography and PR work. The team received both intellectual and practical support from, among others, Dr. Eckhard Kluth, Münster University’s curator, Dr. Dennise Stephan Bauer, curator of the Botanical Garden, and a number of writers.
The object of study
The texts which the team examined for their plant content cover a period of more than 100 years, beginning around 1900. At that time, says Katharina Scheerer, science fiction was primarily a didactic tool for imparting knowledge relating to the natural sciences. Later – and this aspect dominates more nowadays – there arose so-called science fiction prototyping. This speciality within the genre not only deals with scientific issues under discussion, but thinks further, speculates, fantasises. This results in multi-faceted visions of what the future might entail – both good and bad. In the case of botanically loaded sci-fi literature, plants rebel against humans as their oppressors.
The team identified three categories of text: plants as part of a vision of paradise; plants as something horrific; or, in the third category, the difference between culture and nature, between humans and the rest of the world, dissolves and there ensues a dialogue between the species in which each side develops an understanding for the other. “These are the texts which are especially fascinating,” says Scheerer. “Humans take a step back and become part of a system which is infinitely bigger than they themselves, and this results in the emergence of solutions to current problems.” The large number of texts which the team has studied shows just how worthwhile it is to look at what might appear to be small objects of study. Alfred Döblin, Dietmar Dath, Christoph Dittert (co-author of the Perry Rhodan books), Sue Burke all elevate plants to the level of protagonists and equip these silent, immobile and supposedly unfeeling beings with language, movement and emotions. As a result, says Scheerer, the strange, alien element is removed from these photosynthesis-performing organisms (despite their ubiquitous nature). “Plants can live very well without us humans – but we can’t live without them,” she concludes.
Dissecting texts and setting down on paper the findings (taking in topoi, narrative perspective and stylistic devices in general, and communicative, murderous plants on distant planets in particular) is not so much an activity to be experienced together – more a solo undertaking. For the project group, however, the lack of illustrative exhibits was not a barrier but a spur to think beyond the boundaries of their own pile of books and familiarise themselves with details of project and exhibition management.
Put into practice
The result of what will soon be two years of voluntary work can be seen in the Orangerie of Münster University’s Botanical Garden from May 15 to 29 – in wooden cabins built specially for the exhibition. These serve as media displaying not only the excerpts from the novels, short stories and comics, but also the wall texts which locate the objects in the context of the exhibition. The aim is also to make the results accessible for visitors without a background in literary studies. With the exhibition, the team wants to make its contribution to academic communication, pointing out the relevance of literature to social life. In autumn 2022, the exhibition can also be seen at the University of Arizona, USA, in the wake of the close cooperation with Dr. Joela Jacobs there and due to Katharina Scheerer’s imminent research stay at that university.
The exhibition at a glance
The “Eden? Plants between Science and Fiction” exhibition can be seen in the Orangerie of Münster University’s Botanical Garden from May 15 to 29, from 10am to 7pm daily. The opening ceremony is takes place at 6pm on May 15. The programme includes a reading by the author Christoph Dittert (May 17, 6pm) and a lecture given by literary scholar Dr. Solvejg Nitzke from the Technical University of Dresden (May 19, 6pm). There will also be an awards ceremony at 6pm on May 24 to round off the Münster University Short Story Competition entitled “Green Tales”.
Author: André Bednarz
This article first appeared in the University newspaper "wissen|leben”, No. 3., 4 May 2022.