Final Public Oral Exam: Elaine Ayers

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
January 25, 2019 - 1:00pm
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

Strange Beauty: Botanical Collecting, Preservation, and Display in the Nineteenth-Century Tropics


D. Graham Burnett, co-adviser
Erika Milam, co-adviser
Rachael DeLue
Daniela Bleichmar, University of Southern California


“STRANGE BEAUTY” uses a material culture approach to untangle the botanical dualities that, from the late- eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, produced a constructed image of East Indian rainforests, obscuring the oftentimes violent racialized, gendered, and sexualized work contained therein. The plants written into scientific and aesthetic descriptions of “tropical nature,” I argue, constructed a view of rainforests as extractable, collectible storehouses caught somewhere between fecundity and loss, between beauty and decay. I focus on four plants transformed from curious objects in the field to herbarium specimens in Britain and Europe bound up in debates over evolution and “normalcy” while speaking to the developing ideals and disillusionments of tropical nature. These objects confused reproductive boundaries, embodying the possibilities and perceived environmental dangers while challenging typical labor practices producing a collectible, useful, and containable nature.

Chapter One follows the most miniscule, mundane, of plants: Moss. Paradoxically figured as both “pure” in its seemingly invisible self-reproduction and salacious in its place in pornography, moss functioned as a preservative agent for more “valuable” plants. Simultaneously, botanists interested in moss on its own terms transformed this packing material into an object of microscopic inquiry. Next, I follow an orchid illustrated by a prolific female artist. Explicitly sexualized in their depictions, orchids challenged aesthetic representations, transforming the technical process of botanical illustration while contributing to a false construction of the tropics inevitably leading to affective dissonances among naturalists. Here, theories of color and artistic practice become central to the politics of botanical preservation and display. Chapter Three traces a carnivorous pitcher plant collected by a liminal figure working for the East India Company. The pitcher plant came to crystallize colonial fears of environmental pushback—the phallic, carnivorous plant challenged theories of order while provoking questions about colonial consumption. I end with the largest and rarest plant in the world—the corpse flower. That a flower could actively mimic animal behavior to attract pollinators upended the chain of floral being. Resistant to all forms of collection, preservation, and display, the corpse flower proved to be the ultimate form of tropical nature’s resistance to human intervention and control.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam in the History Graduate Student Lounge: 105 Dickinson Hall.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Area of Interest: 
Art History
Book History
British Studies
Colonialism & Post Colonialism
Cultural History
Digital History
Gender & Sexuality
Material Culture
Public History
Visual Culture
Pacific and Oceania
19th Century