PAUL FLEMING: Well, welcome, everybody to our keynote speaker tonight. And it's really my great pleasure to introduce and welcome-- I think this is your first time at Cornell-- Jonathan Flatley here to Cornell. It's great to have you here. Thank you for making the trip.
Jonathan was hopefully going to be one of us this year for the year of repair, [CHUCKLES] was accepted. But unfortunately-- unfortunately-- we lost him. And we lost him to-- now I'm forgetting the university. [INAUDIBLE] Williams. So right now, Jonathan's currently at the Clark/Oakley Humanities Fellow at the Clark Institute at Williams College.
He's a Professor of English at Wayne State University. And he received his PhD from Duke University in their graduate program in literature in 1996.
In broad strokes, his research concerns collective emotion as it takes shape in aesthetic forms. And I think we can add political forms. So emotion and aesthetic forms, political forms. He's especially interested in the ways that art and literature can represent and produce political feelings, so affecting political feelings.
One sees this throughout his published works, and it's a pretty big body of work. His first book is Affective Mapping-- Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism from 2008, Harvard, followed by, which I love, Like Andy Warhol from Chicago, 2017.
He's the editor or co-editor of many, many volumes. And I'll just mention a few. One is Pop Out-- Queer Warhol, with Jennifer Doyle and Jose Esteban Muñoz, Disco, co-edited with Charles Kronengold, which was a special issue of Criticism-- A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts in 2008, and 1968, Decentered, co-edited with Robert Byrd, a special issue of the Southern Atlantic Quarterly in 2020.
Jonathan is in the process of finishing a book called Black Leninism-- How Revolutionary Counter-Moods Are Made. This a book about Black group formation, the moments when Black people come together as a group for whom collective action seems urgent, obvious, and vital, and when victory over the forces of white supremacy seem possible.
So it's really a book, less about theory and actually how activism takes-- how does activism actually take place. And something we were talking about at lunch. I'm very interested in that. I hope to bring Jonathan back to talk more about this because I think this is something we need to think-- stop theorizing and actually talk, how do we actually do activism? Which we've lost the thread of in the last 40 years. So it's something I'm very interested in.
Part of this, you also have to theorize it. So he's published many essays around this. Recent ones include "Picturing the World of the Communist Black International." Another essay, "Beaten but Unbeatable-- On Langston Hughes' Black Leninism." Another essay, "Lenin's Affect Theory."
Finally-- and this is why Jonathan is here. He's a very productive and multitasking guy. Part of his current research project was what he applied here, as well, at the Clark Institute.
He's looking at a project on trees and liking trees. That's going to be the focus of his talk today, about liking and being like trees. Jonathan, take it away. It's great to have you here.
JONATHAN FLATLEY: Hey, thanks so much, Paul. It's great to be here. It's been great to listen to you guys over the last couple days. I've learned so much. And there's a lot to think here about repair.
So whatever, congratulations to Paul and to you guys for these last two days of the conference. So what happens if I press this? I need to login to the-- I don't need an image right away. But I think I need to log into the thing.
WOMAN: I just might need to wake it up a little bit.
Yeah, very secure password.
Super, thanks. Although, I mean, it's a very primitive image situation I've got going on here. So this is just the table of contents for The Overstory. Should be about 40 minutes, I think.
Trees, it would seem, are universally liked. People like to look at them, to walk among them, and generally to live in places with more rather than fewer trees.
This liking, however, has so far been insufficient to stop the ongoing catastrophic destruction of forests around the world, an unceasing if varied and variable process that directly threatens the habitability of the planet for human and non-human animals. One might even suspect that the aesthetic enjoyment of trees reinforces or at least offers insufficient resistance to the general sense that trees are there for us, under human dominion, on reserve for our use.
And yet, if liking is the most basic kind of emotional openness to something, as I think it is, an elemental form of attraction entailing a readiness to pay attention to something and to be affected by it, then some kind of liking would be necessary for any kind of engagement with trees, including a collective one, capable of opposing deforestation on a mass scale. The question is, how does one move from liking trees to a political movement opposing deforestation?
Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory, published in 2018, takes up exactly this question, examining how people who are not really paying attention to the way trees are there, in the background, making weather, building atmosphere, feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count-- that's Powers-- how those people, who are liking but not really paying much attention, how they turn into people who are enthusiastically committed to opposing deforestation.
So this transformation, as he presents it, is not really a matter of political judgment. It's more like the Metamorphoses in Ovid when, at moments of danger or trauma, people turn into other things. And what people become as they become defenders of trees is something tree-like. As Powers observes, what we care for, we will grow to resemble.
So a brief word about liking. I know that liking might seem to be too weak a feeling to motivate an urgent politics. And I know that in the era of social media and online shopping, one might be skeptical about liking because our likes are used to produce data about our preferences that's then sold to advertisers and plugged into various algorithms designed to shape our behavior and moods.
But if liking is our entry point into affective engagement with the world as such and if, on the whole, I think it increases our power to affect and be affected, then in a moment such as our own, when alienation, depression, cynicism, and affective withdrawal present real problems for political engagement of any kind, it seems like we should be asking how to rejuvenate and de-instrumentalize, repair perhaps, our capacity for liking instead of somehow trying to like less. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once remarked that he thought we could like a lot more people than we do.
We resist liking as a kind of compensatory response to the impossibility of controlling how we're affected by all the objects and bodies we encounter, what Lauren Berlant recently called the inconvenience of other people, the inevitable familiar friction of being in relation. It's like agoraphobia, Phillips observes, the overcloseness of the world.
Its constant disruption and intrusion into our emotional lives-- I'm thinking also about Susan Buck-Morss, her famous essay about anesthetization in response to the shocks of modernity-- can produce an anesthetizing effect, the overcloseness of the world. And that's Berlant's phrase.
We withdraw. And we try to control by limiting the objects that we allow to affect us. One way to exert some control to limit our affectability is to decide in advance that I know what I like. And I like only X.
This affective strategy, often enough, comes to define our sense of self, especially our sense of sexual identity. I'm the kind of person who likes X. In order to preserve that sense of control and identity, we give in to this illusion that one knows what one wants, even though nobody really does.
Thus we fail to get many things that we would want if we let ourselves like them in the first place. Yet even if we decided to take an alternate approach, to let more things in, to more things than we do by letting go of that agoraphobic fear of being affected, it's still the case that one can't really decide to like something at the moment of encounter.
But one can prepare for liking. The trick, Gilles Deleuze suggests, is to actively seek for points of correspondence, to form the idea of what is common to the affecting body and the affected body.
In this task, we need to employ what Walter Benjamin called the mimetic faculty, our gift for seeing and producing similarity. This gift, as Benjamin puts it, a rudiment of the once powerful compulsion to become and behave mimetically, is stimulated by the correspondences and similarities we might observe in people's faces, in buildings, and plant forms or constellations in the sky.
The mimetic, in this sense, is not a category of representation but a relational practice or activity involving the production of an attention to ways of being alike as something experientially and conceptually distinct from being equal or identical. The like is not the same, as Jean-Luc Nancy put it.
And this is-- I'm borrowing from my book on Warhol here-- for Benjamin, it's by way of the mimetic faculty that we relate to and connect to the world. Without the capacity to perceive likenesses and be alike, there can be no liking.
In English, the connection between liking and being alike resonates through the word's history. In all its uses, the word originates in the Old and Middle English "lich," L-I-C-H, which meant "form or body." A body is like. And thus, as Bruce Smith observes, beneath all the modern uses of "like" is the fundamental idea of con-formity, of fitting something with the body or of fitting the body with that something.
Neither the prepositional "I'm like that" nor the transitive verb "I like that" seems to decisively predate the other. But their coexistence points to a moment in the past when it was obvious that liking and being alike were imminent to each other, when feelings of attraction toward an object that promised pleasure or enjoyment were understood to be essentially related to the imitation of or assimilation into that object.
As Stephanie Burt put it, what we like resembles something in us. There's something basically reciprocal in liking. Before people said "I like it," they said, "it likes me," to mean that this thing gives pleasure or enjoyment.
Like similarity itself, liking is mutual. Liking creates a zone of commonality. It's a way to be together with something.
So unlike love and more like the minor feelings, [INAUDIBLE] examines and ugly feelings, liking has not received much theoretical attention. And this short talk is not the place to remedy that beyond what I've just said.
It's worth observing, however, how frequently liking is disparaged as a weak, uninteresting, or degraded feeling, usually in contrast to love, as in a book that I otherwise like very much, Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida, where unlike love, liking is a half-desire, vague and irresponsible. More recently and more severely, the novelist Jonathan Franzen suggested that liking is for cowards.
It is commercial culture's substitute for loving. In opposition to this culture of liking, Franzen makes his case for actual love, which involves feeling bottomless empathy for another person, an identification with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own. Loving a specific person, he writes, requires that you surrender some of yourself, risking rejection, disappointment, and loss.
Whatever we think of Franzen's familiar, well-worn, even defensive love in the couple form, I think comparing liking and loving as if one were better than the other misses the point. They're feelings of distinct types operating at different scales with their own idioms and tendencies and modes of operation.
If liking is the most basic positive feeling, an introductory and affirmative openness, then there is, in any case, no avoiding it. However, each of these feelings do, as Franzen's attack suggests, have different ideological ramifications.
Even as liking's instrumentalization by social media might make it hard to discern, never mind value, liking as its own feeling, its apparent distance from romantic love at least means that it is not ideologically wrapped up with the nuclear family and the couple, those most persistent and effective of ideological state apparatuses.
As Stephanie Burt emphasizes, liking is transitional, liminal, open-ended. One can like just about anything for a short or a long time, repeatedly, a few times, once. It's open to variation. Its genres are not loves. And it's less caught up with a specific set of expectations about how things will progress or turn out.
Liking might lead somewhere, but it might not. This means, too, that liking is a lot less demanding than love. Phillips, for instance-- he's talking about how you could like more people than you do. He doesn't suggest we could love a lot more people than we do. Where it would be hard to fall in love with lots of people, liking lots of people is quite imaginable.
So since it does not tend toward the couple and is open-ended and repeatable, liking is also more appropriate to collective, communal situations. And for people who are like English professors or whatever, you might think of Whitman as one of the great likers.
And for communal situations-- and it's good also for the multiplication of connections, connections which might lead in surprising situations and directions. It's, thus, my proposition is an ideal feeling for the human relation to trees-- like trees.
The archive of texts preoccupied with an affective openness to trees, one involving a capacity to see oneself as tree-like, is larger than one might think. Remember Daphne or Philemon and Baucis in the Metamorphoses, or just a few of the many mythic tales involving people turning into trees.
Or think of Karl Marx's argument that he made in the newspaper in 1842 early in his career, that the poor have the right to collect dead wood in the forest, kind of gleaning, because like these fallen branches and twigs, they, too, have been cast aside. In the spiritual "We Shall Not Be Moved," the tree is an exemplar of immovable solidarity. "Like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved."
Moving to the visual arts, we might remember Cézanne's efforts to become a kind of medium for trees to speak through in order to express the particularity of their being in paint on canvas. By becoming attuned to tree being as part of the process of composition, Cézanne's not trying to make trees like people but instead is trying to find a way to be changed by trees.
In so doing, he's helping us to perceive, as John Ashbery put it, what the trees try to tell us we are. In Ashbery's early poem, "Some Trees," I think is one of the-- it's one of my favorite poems. But it's also a great tree poem.
Trees may speak to us of their own irreducibly entangled materiality. Or they may tell us that they are more like us than we think and could become more so. But they also tell us that our attachment to private property is killing them and that it'll kill us, too.
In the opening pages of The Overstory-- finally to The Overstory-- Richard Powers imagines the trees telling us that when we do not ignore them, our ways of imagining them are always amputations, excluding, as most paintings or drawings of trees do, or tree diagrams or logos, everything that is underground.
The challenge, Powers suggests-- I think this is true for the challenge for thinking about trees more generally-- the challenge is to find a way to represent trees without fatally misrecognizing them but at the same time without fetishizing their difference so much that a mimetic relationship with them appears impossible.
With its table of contents, the book announces that it means to present the tree as a model to be imitated. The novel's four parts are roots, trunk, crown, and seeds.
And once we start to read, we slowly realize that just as there are no separate trees in the forest, so, too, The Overstory does not focus on a single protagonist but a distributed, aggregate, collective one made up of nine persons, all of whom become entangled with trees and, by way of trees and like trees, with each other.
I'm kind of presuming a lot of people have read The Overstory. But I also know a lot of people haven't. I think people find it a difficult book to get into as a reading experience.
But the book starts, the root section starts with the story-- so I'm going to give you a sense of what's happening in book. It starts with a story of the Norwegian immigrant, Jorgen Hoel who meets his wife in the 1850s while partaking in the free banquets of chestnuts falling by the shovel full one evening in Brooklyn.
They move to Iowa, where he plants some of the chestnuts, one of which survives. Jorgen's son, fascinated by his brownie camera and a zoopraxiscope scope he bought his daughter, starts to photograph the tree once a month to see what tree existence looks like sped up to the rate of human desire.
Meanwhile, as this tree art project goes on, a fungal infection kills the rest of the chestnuts in North America. And one of the virtues of Powers's book is he brings in a lot of natural history and tree science.
So we get the story of the demise of the chestnut, this tree that-- I didn't know about this before reading this book-- that dominated the landscape and provided a tremendous amount of free food. It was a commons, the chestnut commons, a fate the Hoel chestnut escapes because of its isolation. It's far enough away that it doesn't get infected with this fungus.
As the photos accumulate-- it's the same photo every month-- they eventually become a flipbook in which tree movement and intent indeed becomes apparent. A few generations later, Nicholas Hoel becomes obsessed with these photographs, an arboreal aesthetic fascination that propels him to art school.
Over one winter holiday, he returns home to find his entire family dead, poisoned by the gas from portable heaters. Reeling from the discovery and drowning in pitch, he falls to the snow and looks up into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal.
For a moment, he's able to perceive the world and his loss from the perspective of the tree, which is itself writing this experience into its rings and praying over it, even as the arboreal time scale renders this event so insignificant, so transitory. This tree-like view allows him to see their kinship, as well. Like this chestnut, he is also alone. They are both now orphans.
So that opening-- I just sort of described that opening riff in a little more detail because it establishes a pattern that holds for the rest of the book, I think. A liking for trees aided by art or technology often reaches a peak of mimetic entanglement at a moment of trauma or loss.
Thus, for instance, Mimi Ma is changed by her father's suicide at the base of a mulberry tree in the family's backyard. Her father's family fortune had come from silk. He leaves a note with lines from the poet Wang Wei. "I know no good way to live. And I can't stop getting lost in my thoughts, my ancient forests."
Because Adam Appich's family plants a tree for each of their children in the backyard, he grows up believing in a magic link between the trees and the children they were planted for, leading him to-- this his Powers-- leading him to make himself into a maple-- familiar, frank, easy to identify, always ready to bleed sugar.
After his sister, for whom his father had planted an elm that dies of Dutch elm disease, after his sister disappears and is presumed to be murdered, his sense of the magic link deepens. The next set of characters, Dorothy and Ray, fall in love during a community theater performance of Macbeth, in which Ray, as Macduff, becomes an oak, an experience that makes him feel as if something slow, heavy, huge, and slow coming from outside is happening to him.
Dorothy is injured after crashing her car into trees. And they both later develop an attachment to the trees in their backyard, in part as a compensation for their inability to have children, something they both desperately want and in response to Ray's stroke, which leaves him unable to move or speak clearly.
We meet Douglas Pavlicek, recently orphaned, as he's about to participate in a Stanford prison experiment, where performing the role of prisoner leaves him traumatized, leading him to join the Army toward the end of the Vietnam War. He becomes attached to trees after his life is saved by a fig banyan that breaks his fall after his plane is shot down.
Neelay Mehta, also the son of immigrants who becomes fascinated by the branching involved in computer programming he learns from his father, is paralyzed after he falls out of a tree he climbed after getting into trouble at school. And Patricia Westerford, loosely based on Suzanne Simard, the dendrologist who discovered tree communication in the late '90s is an animist from childhood.
Like her father, an ag extension agent who dies in a car crash in her childhood, she knows that-- and this is Powers-- plants are willful and crafty and after something, just like people. She goes on to study botany, gets a PhD in forestry.
Her research discovers that trees communicate with each other. And she publishes this research. And after an initial positive response, she's harshly critiqued by some older male professors from Yale and University of Wisconsin and is driven out of the profession.
Ashamed and dejected, she considers suicide. But just as she's about to eat her meal of poisonous mushrooms-- this is Powers-- signals flood her muscles, finer than any words-- "not this. Come with. Fear nothing." And these words are rendered in italics as if-- it's as if the trees are talking to her.
She redevotes herself to learning about trees. And later, after her discredited work is confirmed by several other studies, she writes a bestselling book about trees that everyone else in the book reads.
Finally, college student Olivia Vandergriff also hears tree voices. After she accidentally electrocutes herself, dying for a couple of minutes, then coming back to life, she powerfully vaguely remembers that trees spoke to her while she was dead.
As the trunk section, where the roots come together, begins, the voices encourage her to set off on a mission to help the most wondrous products of life. And as she heads West to join up with environmental activists in Solace, California, she meets up with Nick after seeing a sign for his free tree art.
Nick is the guy who grew up on the farm with the chestnuts. Once there, they meet up with Mimi and Douglas, who both become radicalized through their own direct experiences with deforestation, and then Adam, who's now a PhD student researching environmental activism.
Together, they form an increasingly radical group of anti-logging activists. And their activism ends when Olivia dies in an explosion that occurs when they're setting fire to logging company facilities. They split up and disperse.
So, OK, Powers-- so brief sketch of how I see the sort of paradigm that Powers is working with here. He stages scenes in which trauma, loss, or danger prepare his characters, as in Ovid, for this mimetic openness that brings them closer to trees and to each other. How does this work?
Patty Westerford has a theory. For her, Ovid's stories are less about people turning into other things than they are about living things somehow re-absorbing, at the moment of greatest danger, the wildness inside people that never really went away.
So becoming a tree is not about turning into something completely foreign. And the agency is not completely in the one who is turning. Instead, these other living things somehow reabsorb the wildness in people, emphasis on the "re." As Thoreau put it, "Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mold myself?"
It is as if, at certain moments when we're in danger of losing hold of the world, when we're barely a self at all, we're less capable of repressing or disavowing our already-there vegetal wildness. Thus, allowing ourselves to be reabsorbed by the un-institutionalized wildness around us isn't a question of learning a new trick, but is rather a task of unlearning our ways of being individuals so we can go back to a vegetality that was always there.
And I just read Lauren Berlant's new book. I mean, Lauren there really makes the case that one way to be interested in trauma is the way that trauma can actually be an aid for unlearning. And Berlant really makes the argument that unlearning is key to any kind of political activism.
It's not so much about figuring something new out, but one of unlearning or stepping outside of the relations which are preventing us from doing things. So anyway, to encourage this unlearning, Powers reminds us that in any case, all life is turning into other things.
And this becomes a recurring phrase for him, this notion of turning into another thing. People are constantly turning into other things. Powers seeks to attune us to this basic principle of life as such to remind us that, in any case, we're not self-identical individuals, even if the schools, jobs, banks, laws, governments, and consumer experiences that structure our everyday life force us to act as if we are.
He reminds us that puberty, emmigration, illness, falling in love, injury, playing a role in a play or in a video game, reading a book, death itself, or coming together in solidarity to confront the police are all moments when humans become some other thing. So instead of making trees like people or using trees to explain something human, as so many tree metaphors do, Powers focuses on a liking that leads people to become like trees.
That's one way to avoid an appropriative amputation. But also, as Powers presents it, it's not primarily valuable as a tactic for saving trees, as readers might think or as the characters themselves do. Instead, it's the way to save humans.
The book, I think, tries to show us how this might happen, as each character in various ways becomes like a tree. Adam is imitating his maple. Nick is an orphan like the chestnut. After a stroke, Ray is mute and rooted to his spot.
But as he shows us how and why to be like trees, Powers also gives us a few specific, pointed moments of tree liking, descriptions that allow readers to see becoming tree-like as an expansively reparative practice. So for instance, when Nick is explaining to Olivia why his tree art is free, he says, trees give it all away, don't they?
Recalling Olivia's death by electricity that was also a rebirth as something else, Powers writes that the equation electrifies Olivia. Art and acorns, both profligate handouts that mostly go wrong.
With his art practice, Nick is imitating the inscrutable generosity of green things, a generosity that brings him together with Olivia and makes the affective atmosphere in which solidarity in action becomes compelling. Later, after they arrive in California and conduct a series of creative actions designed to halt logging operations, they occupy this giant ancient Redwood that they've named Mimas, where they stay 200 feet up for several months.
There's a windstorm one night. And sure that he'll die, clinging to the tree in terror, Nick receives instruction from Olivia. "Don't fight. Relax. Ride."
For the Redwood, Nick sees, the storm is nothing, one of hundreds of storms it's seen and survived. So imitating the tree, he surrenders to the rage of the wind, which becomes an ecstatic reabsorption into the wildness already there within them. Their shrieks, Powers writes, turn into asylum laughter. Long past the hour when his clenched fists would have given out, they whoop descant to the storm.
Powers presents the recovery of the mimetic capacity to perceive the world like a tree not only as the key to becoming the kind of person who actively opposes deforestation. It's also a powerfully and politically significant antidepressant, making it possible to be interested in oneself and the world again.
Powers illustrates this transformation in an episode toward the end of the book, when Mimi has become a therapist, whose method involves uninterrupted mutual looking. Powers describes one session where, after more than an hour of staring, something shifts in Mimi's patient.
Here's Powers. "Pinned in that look, she becomes something else, huge and fixed, swaying in the wind and pelted by rain.
The whole urgent calculus of need, what she has called her life, shrinks down to a pore on the underside of a leaf, way up, out on the tip of a wind-dipped branch, high up in the crown of a community too big for any glance to take in. And way down below, subterranean, in the humus, through the roots of humility, gifts flow." End of the Powers' quote.
Entranced in Mimi's gaze, this woman turns into a giant tree and, echoing the moment when Nick and Olivia join with Mimas and when Nick is under the chestnut, sees what the trees might try to tell us we are, a small part of a vast and deeply rooted collectivity. Thus she comes to see her current isolated self as one that is grieving the loss of a great, spoked, wild, woven-together place beyond replacing.
On her way out of Mimi's office, she's struggling to hold on to the arboreal being she became. Something sharp grazes her face, a purple-pink flowered tree. And the sight takes root in her, ramifying. And for a moment longer, she remembers her life has been as wild as a plum in spring.
This therapeutic moment involves an exit from subjectivity and from human time. In this, it is akin to aesthetic experience, or at least the one Adorno championed, which assimilates itself to the aesthetic object rather than subordinating it.
Such experiences-- and this is their value-- involve, as Adorno puts it, a liquidation of the eye, which, shaken, perceives its own limitedness and finitude. Or as Neelay, one of the characters, observes at one point, good stories should kill you a little.
They turn you into something you weren't. In The Overstory, becoming tree-like can be a form of self-estrangement, a defamiliarization of one's own emotional life in which one's desires, feelings, habits, and attachments come to seem weird, surprising, unusual, and thus capable of a new kind of recognition, interest, and analysis.
It's a temporary self-estrangement which resituates the self in a there, where, as Ursula K. Le Guin famously put it, the word for "world" is "forest." Being in that world, for Powers, means thinking of ourselves as in the forest and thus also as the forest. This not only changes how we see our individual lives and our relation to trees. It also awakens our capacity for collective formation, which, for Powers, may be-- in any way definitely is for me-- its most significant consequence.
Powers indicates the forest-like quality of the collective, traced out by his novel when he introduces the group qua group through a description of the Pando aspens in Utah, which Patty has come to see. They are outlandish, Patty thinks, these 50,000 baby trees that have all sprouted from a rhizome mass too old to date even to the nearest 100 millennia.
So the Pando aspens are this sort of clonal being that could be, like, a million years old. So she's out there. She's just like, whatever. She's just like, what?
So turning, as Powers sometimes does as with the chestnut or fig earlier to follow the story of the tree-- so there's then a whole riff on this aspen and how the trees reproduce clonally anyway. OK, so Powers then reflects on other aspens near and far, ones encountered by Mimi, Douglas, Nick, Neelay, Roy, and Dorothy. So this sort of metonymical encounter with the aspen then becomes this way for Powers to link all the characters together.
These people are nothing to Plant Patty-- Powers writes-- and yet-- that's her father's nickname for her-- and yet their lives have been long connected deep underground. This metonymic association of the proximal encounter with the aspens becomes a metaphor. They are, like the aspen, part of a common being.
Being as such, thus for Powers, sounding almost like Jean-Luc Nancy, means being many together. As Olivia observes, being alone is a contradiction, a fact especially apparent when one remembers one's kinship with trees.
As a great, joined, single, clonal creature that looks like a forest, the Pando aspens are a special case. Yet Patty's research shows that all forests are connected underground. And although forests are not single clonal creatures, when we consider how connected all the species are in the forest, how social trees are with each other and with other species, especially the mycorrhizal fungal networks that connect them and through which they share resources and communicate, then, as Patty concludes, in a forest, there aren't even separate species.
Everything in the forest is the forest. Forest being is irreducibly plural and ongoing. There are no separate individuals in a forest. And there are no separable events.
The point for Powers is to attune ourselves to this belonging and sharing in a group existence, one that's essential to being as such for humans and trees alike but that is too often disavowed or negated. Imitating trees is a way to accomplish this attunement, which is also an unlearning.
And this activist group, Nick, Douglas, Mimi, and Adam, is definitely attuned. Their political solidarity stems from their capacity to come together in the forest as the forest, something that Powers emphasizes throughout.
During one planning session, for instance, Powers writes that a thought joins them underground as thoughts so often do now. Years later, Adam wonders how he had it in him to use the word "we." But he's glad he did. Everything was "we" back then, a surrender to cooperative existence. No separate trees in a forest.
Emphasizing the connection between being like trees and aesthetic experience, Powers adds that the kinship of this group connected underground will work like an unfolding book. Robin Kimmerer, who just won the MacArthur, really makes the case also for the Anishinaabe understanding of the relationship between human and trees, in which they're kin. There's a chapter of her book which is on that kinship. And I think Powers is probably taking this idea from Kimmerer.
But he adds that this kinship will work like an unfolding book. Both are self-estranging, killing us a little. Both re-situate us into a collective mode of being. This is why, as Adam remarks at one point, arguments don't change minds. The only thing that can do that is a good story.
But the novel's unfolding is not optimistic regarding the possibilities of political activism or of fundamental changes in the economy, which is presented as essential for avoiding catastrophe. "No to the suicide economy" is one of their slogans, which the book does not picture or propose in any way beyond the activist efforts that fail.
Olivia dies. Everyone separates and settles into their own lives. Two of them are arrested. I think Powers wants his unfolding book to attune us not to a concrete set of political actions but instead to the mimetic capacities that would be necessary for any catastrophe avoiding reparative political economic transformations to occur.
In a sense, the establishment of this "we," even or especially because it fails to achieve its goals, is the chief event described in the book. Could such a "we" be as vast and distributed as the world's forests?
If earlier in the book the reader might think that this is a book about people trying to save trees by becoming like them, we come to realize instead, as I suggested, that it is a book about trees trying to save us by inveigling us into imitating them. In jail, after being arrested for the tree sit, Nick dreams of the trees laughing at them. Save us? What a human thing to do. Humans are the beings that need saving, not them-- us.
At the end of the book, Powers returns us again to Ovid, telling us how to get help. Quoting Patty's fictional new book within the book, The New Metamorphoses, "what we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us when we are no longer."
By way of conclusion and to introduce a hopefully productive comparative element-- and this discussion is brief-- I want to point to another effort to show us how trees seem to be trying to help humans by soliciting and stimulating our mimetic faculties.
And that is Zoe Leonard's series of photographs "Tree + Fence" from 1998, which brings together trees that have attracted her attention because they all have failed to fit into the space where they had been planted. They've been variously and singularly deformed by the fences confining them.
The project started with a tree outside her apartment that had grown up and around a fence. And I think that's that one. She'd been living there for 18 years. But her everyday modes of perception had been newly attuned to the complexity of her environment because she had just spent a year and a half living alone in a small village on the Yukon River in Alaska.
This prepared her to be, as she puts it, amazed at how, over time, the tree had absorbed the fence into its body. She then started to notice other trees that had grown through fences and gates, pushing the metal aside, or others that had warped and bent to the pressure of the steel.
This affective openness to trees, this liking, quickly became, for Leonard, a mimetic absorption. As she put it, I immediately identify with the tree.
Leonard's photos straightforwardly document how, as she puts it, these trees grew in spite of their enclosures, bursting out of them or absorbing them. Fences, as we know, along with walls and hedges are the chief infrastructure of enclosure, that foundational act which turned the commons into private property.
As Powers remarks at one point in the novel, wealth needs fences. So in Tree and Fence, as in Powers, there's a basic antagonism between trees and private property, to which the trees respond with two strategies, absorption and bursting out.
Looking at these photos, we notice that the trees are surprisingly plastic, fluid even in their ability to move around the barriers posed by the fence. We see the evidence of tree movement, slow but fluid, flexible but strong.
As Neelay remarked in looking at a photograph of a temple that had collapsed under the weight of a banyan tree growing on and through it, something slow and purposeful wants to turn every human building into soil. Given enough time, the tree wins.
But then, these trees are also scarred, damaged perhaps, we don't know, in ways that threaten their capacity to flourish. Just as the rings of a tree are witnesses to traumatic events such as dramatic weather shifts, here, too, they are recording their encounter with the fence. In this regard, the photos are melancholy, too, marking the loss of a free, unenclosed life.
Brought together by Leonard, these trees make a group, one constituted not by mycorrhizal networks or by clonal being as in The Overstory, but by their shared confrontation with enclosure, one that's deformed each of them in completely singular but also similar ways. We might say that they are misfitting together.
And becoming similar to each other through their distinct ways of surviving damage, they make an open-ended collectivity of marked or stigmatized oddities. And as viewers of these images, we conjoin this group of singular similars since we, too, can be similar with each other and with these trees in our shared failures to fit into our identities and by way of the damage we have suffered through our repeated, constant, and ongoing confrontations with the regimes of private property, one that demands that we turn our labor into something we can sell.
If, as Marx and Engels propose in The Manifesto, communism is the abolition of private property-- by which they mean of course not personal possessions but that property which demands to grow by consuming ever more labor and raw material-- then perhaps we can see in the shared opposition to private property an arboreal communism, not revolutionary exactly but inexorable all the same.
When we imagine the multiplication of these moments of absorption and bursting out that Leonard documents, it's easy to see how Powers imagines the eventual victory of trees over human infrastructures and economic growth. Humans need trees. But the trees do not need us.
The Overstory is not an optimistic book. But Powers places whatever hope he has in the thought that the trees will outlive humans and the Earth will return to the vast forest that is its default state. And that is why the only hope for humans is to remember how to be like trees and to live in the forest as the forest. That's it. Thanks.
PAUL FLEMING: Thank you, Jonathan. That was great. Open for questions, comments. Anything? [INAUDIBLE]
JONATHAN FLATLEY: You can go.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, thank you for that talk. That was really, really fascinating. One thing I'm sort of curious about is I noticed these motifs. I guess I wonder to what extent how reading and textuality kind of fit into the process of liking trees.
Because I mean, I'm noticing that in the novel, you have a character who writes a book about trees that everybody reads. You yourself are working out of a very specifically literary archive. And the least revelatory observation imaginable is that books are made out of trees. Do you see textuality and reading as fitting into the kind of process of liking that you're describing?
JONATHAN FLATLEY: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I was sort of trying to suggest that in that little riff I was talking about Adorno or whatever. But if you go back to The Republic, Plato's Republic, you know, why are the poets banned? They're banned because when you read a poem, you become the thing you're reading about.
And so I mean, in that sense-- in Plato, even though he bans the poets or whatever, I think he has a strong account of the transformative power of reading, of the experience of reading as one that turns you into something else. I mean, I think Powers is trying to-- he's trying to think through that, right?
And he's trying to write a book that reminds us about that so that we don't disavow it, right? He's trying to get us to remember the value of the self-liquidating aspect of aesthetic experience, one that I think he-- Adorno thinks but I think that Powers also thinks can help us to unlearn individuality, right?
I mean, I think undergirding this is a sense-- and it is why I cited Jean-Luc Nancy, or whatever, that the problem isn't that we're all given individuals and then we need to figure out how to come together. The problem is, rather, that we're fundamentally together. We're all-- being is plural. You can't be a human without other human beings.
And the problem thus is just to unlearn individuality, right? To remove that sense of our separateness, which will allow us to return to this default state, which I think he's thinking is like the forest. So there's a case here about the kind of essential similarity of human being and tree being, which they're both fundamentally collective. And reading is a way to remind us of that.
AUDIENCE: Got you.
PAUL FLEMING: [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: I was going to tell you that I loved the talk. But I think it might be more respectful to say that I liked it a lot--
--a whole lot. And it provoked a lot of questions for me. I guess the one that I'm teasing out in my mind as I listen to you is a question about the dangers of absorption in politics of solidarity. I guess I feel like you're getting us there by way of the trees, that there's always this fear with radical politics, politics of groups that will somehow not just work together but lose something in that process.
It will be homogenized. Or as Foucault I think experienced and was frustrated about with the Communist Party of the 1950s, everybody has to be a straight man [CHUCKLES] to be in the party, right? And I feel like the trees somehow get us to this place where you both have the separation and the individuation of species or of individual bodies and also a possibility of absorption.
So I just wondered-- I also was thinking about something I struggle with a lot in environmental humanities and also environmental activism, which is like, don't impose yourself on the otherness of nature, right? And I'm not sure how not to do that. And so I just feel like that word "absorption" is calling up a lot of things about the ethics and the politics of environmentalism.
JONATHAN FLATLEY: Yeah, fantastic question and one that I've also thought a lot about, too. So the first thing to say is this is why I like the concept of being alike, right?
I'm thinking about that as stepping aside from the same different binary. So a collectivity that's based on similarity is one in which singularity can come into being precisely in relation to other similars, right? So it's not about incommensurability. But it's also not about identity. It's not about being the same as everybody else.
And this is basically Jean-Luc Nancy's argument in The Inoperative Community and Being Singular Plural. But I think Paolo Virno also talks-- anyway, so this is one idea about how collectives form, which also, I think, corresponds to my own experiences in activist collectives like ACT UP or, more recently in the summer of 2020, the protests against George Floyd.
Solidarity in both of those instances did not require being the same. And maybe as a sort of corollary, it also didn't require subordinating oneself to some transcendental idea, which is the idea of community that Nancy is arguing against in The Inoperative Community.
He's like, community is-- like the nation. The idea of becoming a member of a nation is about subordinating yourself to this sort of transcendent idea of how great America is or whatever, that then promotes this or allows for this sort of sacrifice.
All of that said, I think Powers is not good about-- to get back to the thing that Paul was suggesting-- like how a successful collective that could successfully oppose deforestation would actually form. How would that actually-- I mean, it's still a kind of bookish approach. And I don't think he's really thought about activism actually.
JONATHAN FLATLEY: And I think his presentation of the activism in the book is a bit naive. And he knows more-- but I think he's thought quite a lot-- about arboreal being.
And again, it's sort of, if you're like a tree, that's also a way to get out of this. Either we're appropriating the tree, like a family tree, or we're diagramming sentences, or that they branch or whatever.
But it's also not, the tree is something so completely separate that the best we can do, we should just try to respect the tree in its selfness and not try-- he's not saying that either. We already have a relation to the tree. How do we think about that relation? What can that relation become?
PAUL FLEMING: [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: So as a follow-up to-- thank you for your talk. I'm really interested in the answer you just gave. So in the interest of where Powers's fault is, for lack of a better word-- because I was interested in learning more about this-- for lack of a better word, the faults, the crevices, in that, in the notion that you're supposing of trees-- and I really like what you do with it. And I'm often [INAUDIBLE].
PAUL FLEMING: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: It sounds like, you just said, he didn't really think about activism and [INAUDIBLE] thought about trees. And then [INAUDIBLE] all forests are created equal in the novel.
And the reason why I ask this question is like, is there a forest that is not-- because we focus on the sense of the forest as being a model of relation, like collective being, being as a collective. But would that include this forest as just planted there for purposes of exploitation.
JONATHAN FLATLEY: That's not a forest. That's a plantation.
AUDIENCE: Is that in the novel? Or is that you defining it?
JONATHAN FLATLEY: That's in the novel. But that's also just true, or whatever. Or that's just a thing. A forest has not been planted. A forest has not been planted. What a forest is-- so trees that have been planted-- I mean, this is the leading cause of the erosion of existing forests now is the planting of plantations. Palm oil is the big-- palm trees for palm oil is the big issue there.
So for Powers, as for anybody who does work on forests, that would not be-- people wouldn't think of those as forests. And I think it's plantations. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: And what about the difference between tropical forests and other kinds of forests? And that's one of the things that was in the back of my mind in the question of, are all forests created equal? Or are they always situated in a particular place in the relationship and they offer a model that is based on the model that it springs? So I'm thinking of the Amazon. I'm Brazilian.
JONATHAN FLATLEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
AUDIENCE: So I'm thinking of the Amazon and its diversity in contrast to other kinds of forests.
JONATHAN FLATLEY: I think Powers actually-- I think Powers spent, like, five years just reading everything he could find about trees. I mean, this is kind of his mode. He's like a research novelist, you know? It's like he sort of gets into something. And in that sense, he's academic or whatever, right?
There's a whole section about the Brazilian rainforest in there. I hope I wasn't saying, and I don't think Powers is saying that all forests are equal. [CHUCKLES] But maybe all forests are similar.
And I think for Patty Westerford, who's based on Suzanne Simard, that part of what constitutes a forest is, it's not necessarily cooperation. Although there's a lot of cooperation. But it's just a kind of radical interdependence.
It's a complex system in which everything depends on everything else, including the dead wood in the forest. And I mean, there's a lot of-- which you may know-- there's a lot of excellent work on the Amazon, this book by anthropologist Eduardo Kohn, called How Forests Think.
I mean, everybody knows this book. But I think that is actually very much in sympathy with what Powers is doing in The Overstory, because that is a book about how the forest-- it's not individual trees that are thinking in the sense of processing information about their environment and developing responses to that.
It's the forest as a whole forms in complex ways in relation to-- I mean, one thing he talks about is the rivers, the rivers and the streams. So there's this whole complicated-- so he's like, look, you can think about the forest as this-- it's not equal. It's not homogeneous.
It's precisely differentiated as a way of processing and producing an environment. So yeah, I don't know if that answers your question, but yeah.
PAUL FLEMING: Go ahead.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for your talk. So as I was listening to you, I actually have a resistance to this idea of liking. And I would like to know what you think about my thoughts on it.
For two reasons. The first one is that it seems to me paradoxical that on the one hand, you are trying to sort of de-individualized the individual or go away from a certain enlightenment idea of the individual. But on the other end of it, it seems to me that similarity of likeness is very anthropocentric, or remains very anthropocentric in its impetus.
And also, that it is conditioned on individuals having gotten to the point of having that affective openness to the trees. But what about people who don't, right? And so a movement or a political environmental movement that would save the trees or contribute to the trees' sustainability, to me, should not hinge only on people who are capable of seeing that relationality with the trees.
So that's the first one. The second one also is that I want to think a little bit about your politics of citation because the genealogy that you're sort of asking us to think with you through is Jean-Luc Nancy, Benjamin, Barthes, all of these people. But to me, if we are thinking the relationship of trees to humans, the primary thinkers of this relationship is actually Indigenous people.
Native Americans, African cosmologies have thought this relationship in a lot deeper ways and for a long, long, long time. And you did mention Kimmerer. But it kind of seemed as a footnote.
And so I would like to know if you take these Indigenous perspectives as having epistemological authority, real authority, not just being a footnote, how would it change the way you think about this relationship between trees and humans, because what they're telling us is that, in fact, on an evolutionary scale, our relationship to trees is ontological. We are co-constitutive. And we have real kinship.
It's not just a metaphor. It's not just a similarity. And that also frees us from having to see trees as ourselves or us as trees for us to be able to recognize their-- or to militate for their preservation. So I'm very curious to know what you think of that.
PAUL FLEMING: Yeah, yeah, those are fantastic questions. And thanks for the challenge and the provocation. I'll answer the second one first. Yeah, I-- you're right. And Mary Siisip Geniusz is an Anishinaabe ethnobotanist, who wrote a book called Plants Have So Much To Teach Us, All We Have To Do Is Ask.
And that was, like, the second book that I read on tree stuff. And it totally shaped my thinking in a basic way. And her whole thing-- I mean, it's a completely different cosmology, right? I mean, it's a completely different-- in which humans are the most dependent creatures.
First, there's the Earth. And then there's plants. And then there's nonhuman animals. And then there's humans, right? Humans need all three others. But it's sort of in descending order of dependence on other things.
And so all of the stories and lessons about plants that she collects in this book, which is also really interesting generically-- because she focuses on individual recipes or lessons about how particular plants can help us and then sort of tells us the stories that are surrounding those particular plants that have been passed down in the oral tradition, which she traces back, like, 15 generations or something.
But this book was published, like, 10 years ago or something. So yes, I could have and I should have cited that in this paper. And in that sense, this doesn't represent my thinking or the trajectory of my thinking.
That said, I think that Powers is trying also to create a way of thinking that is in correspondence. I think it's Kimmerer that he's read. And I think it's relatively successful in doing that in creating that correspondence, one in which human being and tree being is essentially related, that it's a form of-- there's a form of kinship there.
So anyway, so that's the second part. The first part, I mean, with liking, I guess, is liking anthropocentric? I mean, I don't know if it is. I mean, that's a good question.
I mean, for Benjamin, certainly the mimetic faculty is not only a human faculty. And it's mimetic practices in plants and animals that he's interested in.
And in the examples he gives, it's about humans imitating non-human mimetic practices. So as I'm thinking about it anyway, I'm thinking of being like not as a necessarily human practice.
As for liking, I mean, I'm just approaching liking as the most basic level of affective openness to something. It's what always has to come first, right?
In order to be affected by something, you need to first pay attention to it, be willing to pay attention to it, make that initial turn. It's like you're on the subway. And it's like you look at somebody instead of somebody else. Or are you going to eat the apple or the banana, right?
I mean, I feel like we make these-- we like one thing instead of liking something else just kind of constantly in everyday life. So I'm just trying to pay more attention to that kind of filter in which we decide not to like a whole range of things as a way of blocking things out.
And so I mean, I'm proposing myself, but I'm also proposing that Powers is sort of trying to get us to think about how we could like more as a response to a current situation in which many feel alienated or it's difficult to emotionally connect with the world. So I don't know, that's my--
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
PAUL FLEMING: Kevin. Kevin.
AUDIENCE: Oh. Oh, thanks. Thank you for the talk, which I thought was just really beautifully delivered. I guess a question about a certain uneasiness with the way in which you talk about nature as a model of interdependency because I can't help but feel that, at least the way that you present the Powers novel with such a close conceptual proximity to a form of primitive communism, which instinctually I kind of clam up at--
--because the idea that it's convenient to pick trees as a model of the fact of interdependency as if nature isn't conflictual. And it seems like a convenient way of bypassing the Lenin problem of, but politics is about organizing past conflict.
And it sometimes feels as if the using of nature as a convenient-- because we already are like trees, just kind of wishes away the actual prob-- like, collectives are not spontaneously formed. We work and we labor to sustain them.
And I can't help but feel that the reason that primitive communism gets such a bad rap on the left is because it tries to avoid the very problem that is supposed to be at the heart of the leftist collective politics, which is how do you make new common objects for us to love that did not pre-exist our common bonds? And in this way, are we not just doing the same thing that the primitive communist tradition always did and that always failed at, which was to not answer the problem of organizing a commons that didn't pre-exist our organizing it?
JONATHAN FLATLEY: Yeah, man. I mean, I'm a Leninist. So--
--I'm with you on that. I guess I don't see the two projects as contradictory in the same way that you're suggesting. I think that, as Lenin argued over and over again-- and this was his practice-- organizing is about attunement. What did he do every day? He talks to workers, right?
You can't organize workers unless you know what they're worried about, unless you know what they're anxious about, unless you know what they're-- in other words, there's a preliminary moment which involves a kind of emotional openness and awareness. And the thing that distinguished Lenin from a lot of the other activists and communists that he was working with is they didn't like workers, right?
The workers were-- they smelled bad. And they were hard to deal with. They were rude, or whatever. Lenin was passionately committed to spending his entire day listening to worker concerns.
So I feel like what Powers can attune us to is how to approach that initial moment of attunement, of forming a "we." You can't organize a collective until you are aware of a collective or that-- so I think that this is where Powers is sort of not-- essentially that the organizing that happens here is this one character, Olivia, a charismatic leader basically. It's the model of a charismatic leader.
[SIGHS] That's not a very satisfying-- it's not that it's not satisfying. It's just that I think that isn't how it happens. So I think you're right.
But I guess as I'm thinking about it, I think that what Powers is talking about-- and I don't think he would ever use-- I mean, he certainly delineates the ways in which the regime of private property and the existence of forests are contradictory, or can't go together. But I don't think he's really thought about communism.
So I don't think-- or I don't want to be thinking or I don't want to be proposing that this is some sort of primitive communism. It's more a kind of awareness, an openness to unlearning our sense of ourselves as isolated individuals and entering into a different mode of collective being, which I think is a mode that Lenin himself practiced and was the condition of possibility for his organizing work. But you don't agree. No, no, you, Kevin. Yeah, no, I'm just reading your facial expressions.
PAUL FLEMING: Want to respond, Kevin?
AUDIENCE: Well, just, it connects to what Iman just mentioned, too, though. But so much of organizing is also teaching people to put skin in the game for people who aren't like you. And so I think that's a one-sided picture of what Lenin's up to.
So much of what he was trying to do is like, you don't even know these people. And I'm asking you to stand on the picket for them anyway. And solidarity will fail if you make it contingent on the clear identification of likeness because only later will we share a common like. But now, you must be willing to put skin in the game for the common like that is not here yet.
This is Ella Baker. This is a long leftist organizing tradition that doesn't make likeness the precondition of solidarity. In fact, we define solidarity as the opposite of based on a likeness.
JONATHAN FLATLEY: I guess it depends on how you're conceiving likeness. I guess I would put it differently. And I would say that solidarity is about being able to perceive a likeness with somebody who you thought was completely different from you. Likeness not identity, right?
That similarity could be whatever. You and I are in the same-- we're in this room together. That's a way of thinking about our similarity.
I mean, I'm a member of the Union and at Wayne State, where I work, which is a large public university. And there are lots of people in that union who are-- like voted for Trump or whatever.
There's not necessarily any kind of political similarity there. But we're both being exploited by our employer. And at the moment where we come together to talk about the vacation practice or how they're going to make us work even if there's a snow day because then we can Zoom in or whatever, just negotiating about our wages, how much of a raise are we going to get this year, that's a moment where that one moment of likeness-- I guess what I'm saying is the perception of likeness-- and this is Benjamin's emphasis, too, the point is is that it's a cross difference.
It's that you can perceive some element of likeness across the difference and that that's the condition of possibility for any kind of relationality. So I guess I think-- and in Ella Baker Du Bois, I mean, I feel like it's about finding a way to think about the possibility of relationality across difference, which is, I mean-- anyway, maybe it's a bad idea, and I'm just totally wrong. But anyway, I'm trying to--
I'm trying to come up with a concept that can get us out of the same versus the different binary, which I think produces a lot of-- gets us into dead-ends. Maybe this is a bad effort to get us out of the-- but I'm just saying that it might-- I feel like my effort is in common with what you're talking about even if I don't pull it off.
PAUL FLEMING: Let's go.
AUDIENCE: OK, so I got a question about likeness, too, well, two questions. One which is I'm curious about who Powers's political subject is, because from your explanation of the book and from my resistance to not reading this book even though it's been on my radar for a really long time-- and part of that is because I actively feel I am not the subject that Powers is imagining.
I am not the subject whose interests are going to be served by the politics of this book. That's one thing. I think I should read it. That's a different story. I've gifted this to people.
But the other thing that I wanted to push against, this is not about likeness as morphology. But this is about likeness as the only way to engage with something. And this is an example from-- I'm sorry, everybody. I'm subjecting you to Victorian studies.
But Victorian studies are really-- there's a change in the field. And there was a special issue that came out call "Undisciplining Victorian Studies." And one of the articles by Nasser Mufti is called "Hating Victorian Studies Properly." And there's something that-- it's a great article. Everyone should read that. But what that article is doing is looking at a tradition of pan-Africanist thinkers who hate Victorianism and hate Victorian England but are doing it through this intimacy with Victorian literature primarily in the 20th century.
And I think there's something there about the relation being created through hatred and not in a-- I think sometimes when we think, oh, when we relate to something through hatred, the impulse is to destroy the thing that we hate. It's this annihilating, violent sort of relation.
But I do think that when we have complex political-- when we are [INAUDIBLE] political being in complex political spaces, sometimes hating something is the appropriate relation to have. And so I'm not denying the fact that likeness seems like engagement. But I do want to sit with the idea that hating something properly is maybe we should think about that. What does that mean for relationality?
JONATHAN FLATLEY: Yeah, I have an essay that's about to come out about hating the police. I hate the police. Everybody hates the police. The police are to be hated.
I agree. But I guess, I'm-- this is not the essay on hating. This is the essay on liking. I think these are all important political forms. But also part of what I was arguing about in hating the police is that that was a feeling that was formed and came into great power in the summer of 2020.
And it was a feeling that I shared in common with all these other people. And that part of the power of hating the police was the fact that I was not hating the police by myself, which is to say that hating the police was what brought me into relation. It's what made me like all the other people who are out on the street with me.
So I guess I don't see it as an either/or. It's not like you can only have one feeling, which I think is what you're saying, as well. It's not like you can only have one feeling or that there's-- I mean, obviously, whatever, this is just an essay where I'm trying to make a case for the usefulness of thinking about this feeling, which, as is indicated here, people don't like.
People don't like liking.
So I don't know. I mean, I'm aware that people resist. Anyway, but yeah, so I'm with you on the usefulness of hatred. But I think hatred can also be a form of liking at the same time. It's just you're not-- it's a way of liking something else that you're not hating.
PAUL FLEMING: One last question, and then we'll wrap it up.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, I read the first three chapters of The Overstory. So this is with that knowledge plus what you presented to us.
But to me, when I read those first few chapters, the characters-- the way I read the characters was that they were presented as more sensitive than particularly the siblings or the family members that are around them. And that's what gave them the capacity to almost like too much or overly like the trees that are in their lives and in their spaces.
So I'm not sure if there is a question here. But what that me reading it? Did you read that into it, also? And what do you do with that, how his presentation of them as being-- to me, they were like these overly sensitive, not necessarily in a bad way, but overly sensitive characters that gave them the capacity to like so much and have this affinity to trees? And does that maybe complicate the analogy that you're making here? And it could also be that--
JONATHAN FLATLEY: Yeah, yeah. That could be.
JONATHAN FLATLEY: I don't know if I would say-- I mean, yeah, no, it's like these are people who's mimetic faculties are well developed, yes. But I think for each of them, the crucial moment is a traumatic event, which Powers presents as self-rupturing, right? And so I feel like that's the moment when the entanglement with trees happens. It's around a trauma.
So I think it's maybe both things. I mean, another book that affected me a lot recently is this-- I was telling Paul this-- book by Sarah Shulman, Let The Record Show. It's the oral history of ACT UP based on all these interviews that she did with the members of ACT UP in New York. And one of the things she just notes at the beginning is one of the interesting things about ACT UP is it was a group-- there was a coalition there that hadn't existed before.
And it was lesbians and gay men. And the lesbian feminists who had been active in earlier waves of feminist activism really taught all the gay men in ACT UP how to protest, like what that looked like.
And she makes the point that the gay men were open to learning from women, which they otherwise might not have been because they were desperate and traumatized by the fact that everyone was dying around them. And she just makes the point that when people are in that kind of intense danger, they're open to being transfor-- they're open to unlearning things and to being transformed in a way that they might not otherwise be. And so I think Powers is working with a similar understanding.
PAUL FLEMING: Thank you, Jonathan.
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This is an essay about liking trees. It argues that liking (as distinct from love) is a feeling capable of motivating collective opposition to the ongoing, catastrophic destruction of forests around the world. It makes that case through an examination of two distinct projects: Powers’s novel 'The Overstory' and Leonard’s photographs of trees that have grown into, around, or through fences.