Mutuality and Synthesis of Life and Fate: Shared Agency, Posthuman Perceptibility and Natural-Cultural Interwovenness in Richard Power’s The Overstory

Disclaimer: Der vorliegende Text ist eine überarbeitete Fassung einer studentischen Arbeit aus einem Seminar zum Thema “Literature and the Environment”. / The following text is an edited version of a term paper from a course about “Literature and the Environment”.

1. Introduction

2. Agency in the New Materialism and the Anthropocene

3. Ecocriticism and the Role of Literature

4. “A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still” – The Agency of Trees in The Overstory

5. Seeing the Unseen – The Role of Human Activism

6. A Posthuman Attempt of Reconciliation and Synthesis

7. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Eines ist auf jeden Fall gewiß: der Mensch ist nicht das älteste und auch nicht das konstanteste Problem, das sich dem menschlichen Wissen gestellt hat. […] Der Mensch ist eine Erfindung, deren junges Datum die Archäologie unseres Denkens ganz offen zeigt. Vielleicht auch das baldige Ende. Wenn diese Dispositionen verschwinden, so wie sie erschienen sind, wenn durch irgendein Ereignis, dessen Möglichkeit wir höchstens vorausahnen können, aber dessen Form oder Verheißung wir im Augenblick noch nicht kennen, diese Dispositionen ins Wanken gerieten, […] dann kann man sehr wohl wetten, daß der Mensch verschwindet wie am Meeresufer ein Gesicht im Sand.1

While Foucault in this quote approaches the idea of the “vanishing” of humans from an epistemological perspective, the posthuman notion vibrant amongst these lines can also be associated with developments that surround ecocritical thinking. Influenced by new materialist and sometimes post-kantian lines of thought, ecocriticism involves a critical examination and re-evaluation of the dualities between the categories of human and nonhuman, as well as between non-material and material properties and their mutual networks and interconnectedness in our world2. Following some of these ecocritical and new materialist ideas, this term paper will give an analysis of the 2018 novel The Overstory from Richard Powers, which offers an interesting reflection of the relation between these aforementioned dualities. In his story, Powers traces the lives of several individuals who become fundamentally influenced by nature in general, and by various kinds of trees in particular.

Throughout The Overstory, the characters’ changed view on life unveils their hidden connections and unites some of them together in activist activities focused on the protection of trees, where they are radically confronted with the seeming futility of their protest actions. The novel negotiates the differences between human and nonhuman agency, often resulting in grim or hopeless implications of the deficiency of human conception. Nonetheless, this paper will argue that valuable posthuman insights can be extracted from Powers’ text, leading to the view of an enhanced mutuality between nonhuman and human entities. First, there will be given a short theoretical introduction covering the implications of the Anthropocene and the new materialism and its renewed framework of agency. Building on that, the concept of ecocriticism and its application in arts and literature will be further described. After that, there will be a tripartite analysis, starting with an interpretation of the novel’s portrayal of the agency of nature and trees. Further, the role of human agency, perceptibility and activism in the midst of ecological crisis will be laid out, before both perspectives will be compared according to their mutuality and interdependency, in an attempt to withdraw a sense of reconciliation from Power’s novel. A short conclusion will sum up the results.


2. Agency in the New Materialism and the Anthropocene

As already touched upon in the introduction, movements of new materialism, similar to new conceptions of realism or speculative realism, often share a common aversion towards the primacy of kantian representationalism (meaning the idea that reality for the human subject is only ontologically relevant by its mediation through epistemic processes), and the disregard of the resulting subordination of “things-in-themselves”3. The idea of representational and ideational superiority in comparison to matter has also been present within the discourse of the linguistic turn4. In order to overcome this criticized poststructural “excess of epistemology”, new materialists turn to the agency and generative power of both human and nonhuman entities, and of matter itself5. This renewed focus on matter of the material turn has sparked academic interest in environmental philosophy, ecological humanities and also in literary ecocriticism6. Materiality in an environmental context functions as a mirror and determinant of the health of living beings through the ecological balances and imbalances of their environment, while also being concerned with how it is “embodied in human experience”6. Despite the linguistic distinctions of new materialism from classical Marxist (historical) materialism7, Lettow claims that taxonomies involving the inclusion of the sphere of the nonhuman can already be found in earlier works of critical materialist theoreticians8.

These modern materialist approaches put special emphasis “on the concreteness of existential fields, with regard to both the bodily dimension” and the “non-binary epistemological object-subject structures”4. These insights have been influenced for example by developments of material feminism, which attempted to retrieve the body from the dimensions of discourse in order to be regarded from the material and ecological perspective of bodily experience9. As already mentioned, this attempted non-dualistic, non-binary materialist approach focuses foremost on a redistribution and reconceptualization of agency, taking into account “matter’s inherent creativity” and scrutinizing the idea of a necessary relation between human intentionality and agency.9. This notion of creativity changes the view on matter to being not a static and purely mechanistic entity but a “generative becoming”, as political theorist Jane Bennett puts it10. In her concept of vibrant matter and vital materialism, she scrutinizes such traditional concepts of agency, for example oversimplified beliefs of causality

[i]f one extents the time frame for the action beyond that of even an instant, billiard-ball causality falters. Alongside and inside singular human agents there exists a heterogeneous series of actants with partial, overlapping, and conflicting degrees of power and effectivity.11

In this vein of understanding the completeness of occurring agency as an interconnected network between human and nonhuman forces, Oppermann identifies posthumanism as a rich concept for new materialist endeavours (e.g. material feminism, eco-materialism, material ecocriticism) “to produce new epistemological configurations” and a “non-anthropocentric humanism”12. The Anthropocene is defined as the last three-hundred years during which humankind appeared as an actor on a planetary scale, by shaping the planet in significant and unprecedented ways13. The idea for the term as a description for a new geological era has first been proposed by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer in 2000 in the Global Change Newsletter and once again more detailed in 2002 in Nature Magazine14. Since the belief in an alleged passivity of nature has been destroyed, humankind sees itself in a position where it has to re-explore the limits of its own agency15. Similar to the new materialism, criticism of the Anthropocene is centred on the primacy of human agency on a global scale, but also on persisting beliefs in exploitative ecological behaviour, which falsely presupposes a mechanistic and repairable ecosystem with humans at its center16.


3. Ecocriticism and the Role of Literature

One major problem that emerges from the planetary-scale events the Anthropocene evoke is the difficulty of their representability17. Timothy Morton proposes the idea of hyperobjects in order to describe such massive things which are distributed in time and space relative to humans and which defy being easily overviewed and understood.18. The effect of such large-scale spatiotemporal events is that they escape being experienced and comprehended within the life-world of a single individual and therefore become “unreadable”18. Consequently, it is also the task of literature to find new ways to conceptualize these pressing issues in a conceivable way19. One important aspect in that regard is to find appropriate methods of “translative” scaling. The human-made climate crisis concerns systemic complexities between humans and their environment that caused such aforementioned disproportional and difficult-to-comprehend scaling effects20. “Shifting scales” is therefore a technique to cope with the complexities of reality in literature, meaning that global problems are either scaled down thematically, temporally and spatially to local, confined phenomena, or that local environmental issues are reflected upon from a global perspective that asks the big questions of humanity21.

While literature has, of course, dealt with the human-nature relation long before the Anthropocene, reflections on ecological processes, climatological changes and irreversible damage to the environment have continuously gained traction in recent years20. The ecocritical tradition began in the late 20th century and quickly branched out from literary ecocriticism to other disciplines, media and art forms, and knowledge cultures of the emerging environmental humanities22. Zapf sees the potential of this approach in helping the humanities reclaim their much-needed societal role at a time of neoliberal economic utilitarianism22. He identifies three waves of ecocritical thinking: The first introduced it in the early 1990s, and positioned itself against a “presumed worldlessness” of the paradigm of poststructuralism23. It endorsed the concept of nature as wilderness, was based on environmental activism, and prioritized environmental writing as “truthful representation” of the extratextual world and generally preferred nonfictional nature writing over fictional texts23. A second wave emerged around the turn of the 21st century and adapted insights from cultural studies and constructivist versions of discourse analysis to ecocriticism24. Furthermore, the view on wilderness was complemented by a broader concept of nature and the environment to include urban ecologies. The third wave Zapf describes then began in the first decade of the 21st century, where “boundaries of national literature were transcended” towards an internationally relative and comparative framework”; critical theory was included into ecocritical work and the activist strand became even stronger24. Also, attention was directed to themes like lifestyles and environmental justice, while alliances with various fields of studies like postcolonialism, material feminism, queer studies and science studies were formed. Lastly, as already mentioned above, a novel emphasis was put on the concept of materiality, anthropocentric reflection and the ecological challenges on a global scale24.

Building on the new materialist notion of third wave developments of ecocriticism, some approaches also combine the aspect of discursive narratology and matter. Material ecocriticism25 claims that “matter is endowed with creative expressions, manifesting as storied matter”26. Conceptualizations like this include both, the notion of matter as text, and the idea of text as matter, meaning the twofold embeddedness of culture “entrenched in a system of material relationships of creation, production and consumption”, as well as the materiality of text, meaning the knowledge of a society in its relation to other ecological spheres27. Viewing culture as such a distinct but interrelated ecosystem has been discussed by Zapf and Finke with their term of “cultural ecology”28. The term attempts to adapt ecocriticism in a way to explore the “co-evolutionary interrelation” of cultural and natural ecosystems, their mutual interactivities and influences and their “autopoetic self-organization”29. In this view, literature exercises a material and civilizing function, “as the ecological and ethical site of constant creative renewal of language, perception, communication, and imagination”30. The mutuality between natural and cultural ecologies that has been explored in the previous chapters will serve as the main framework for the following analysis.


4. “A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still” – The Agency of Trees in The Overstory

In The Overstory, the sphere of nature and its relation to humans is mainly established through the multifarious portrayal of trees. This can already be witnessed in the allegory that was chosen to organize the chapter structure and the plot throughout the novel: The initial chapter is called “Roots” and is followed by eight relatively short introductory chapters written from the human main character’s perspective. The chapter following these introductions called “Trunk” represents the largest one of the novel, similar to a strong and wide trunk of an actual tree that grows out of and is supported by its roots. The second to last chapter, which is titled “Crown”, makes up the second largest one of the novel and coincides with a temporary climax of the plot, which is the tragic death of Olivia during a nocturnal arson attack by the tree activist group31. Like seeds that drop from trees to regrow, the identically named final chapter mirrors a steady tonal fall and denouement that, conclusively, represents the starting point for the creation of something new. Considering the urging topics the novel portrays (the alienation of the human and nonhuman, imminent threats to the ecosystems) and the occasionally activist language that is used for that sake, these seeds can be regarded as a call for further engagement with the text, either through intertextual production or merely by having these thoughts “planted” in the head of the reader. By this very structure of the novel and its attributed role to nature, which literally stabilizes and frames the plot, one can already discern the interwovenness of cultural and natural entities and their mutual importance in The Overstory.

Besides the structure of the novel, several more techniques are used to emphasize the role and significance of trees in the story. For instance, the descriptions of deep time32 Keeping in mind the developments and hurdles of the Anthropocene, Irvine argues that the challenge of the Anthropocene is “to find ways of understanding the interrelationships between human and geological temporalities” (Irvine 170). events are used to talk about the specific kind of agency ascribed to trees. This can for example be seen in the depiction of the chestnut tree from the chapter about Nicholas Hoel and his family. “A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still” – this turns out as true when Nicholas’ ancestor accidently discovers the seeds in his pockets that he collected back in Brooklyn, and plants them much later in Iowa. Immediately, human time is contrasted with geological, seemingly superior timescales: “By the time war comes again to the infant country, the five trunks have surpassed the one who planted them”33. Years pass and only one tree remains: “Yet this tree has a secret tucked into the thin, living cylinder beneath its bark. Its cells obey an ancient formula: Keep still. Wait”34. This underlines the reoccurring theme of nature as the great endurer whose complex ecosystems will prevail after all.

The idea of trees as a constant actor in the history of earth is also highlighted several times by anecdotes that widen up the temporal frame of the current narration, which concern for example a Spanish queen hiding under a chestnut tree from a storm35, the Indian prince Siddhartha who sat under a tree to ponder what life wanted from him36, or a pollen-coated wasp that pollinates a fig that led to the growth of a fig tree that saved the life of Douglas Pavlicek three-hundred years later37. Conclusively, at the end of the “Nicholas Hoel” chapter, when Nicholas returns to the family house and finds all of his relatives killed by a gas leak, his demise is juxtaposed with the temporality of the old chestnut tree, which outlives the human tragedy: “All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by branches that wave their semaphores against the bluest of Midwestern winter skies”38. Joining a group of Douglas-fir planters, the character of Douglas realizes how human exploitation of nature disregards the deep time developments behind it: “Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible”39. He therefore also points to the difficulties of representing the historicity and non-immediate processes nonhuman agency. On examining a clearing of cut-down aspens and checking their age, the dendrologist Patricia Westerford emphasizes on their underground interwovenness and unseen temporality:

The oldest downed trees are about eighty years. She smiles at the number, so comical, for these fifty thousand baby trees all around her have spouted from a rhizome mass too old to date even to the nearest hundred millennia. Underground, the eighty-year-old trunks are a hundred thousand, if they’re a day. She wouldn’t be surprised if this great, joined, single clonal creature that looks like a forest has been around for the better part of a million years.40

Another instance can be found when Nicholas and Olivia climb up the giant redwood tree Mimas and observe its signs of longevity: “Black soot marks run up the trunk, the scars of fires that burned long before there was an America”41. These discussion of natural time scales are sometimes contrasted with cultural and human concepts, for example when Mimi Ma contemplates the “illegal grab of mixed conifers that have been growing for centuries before the idea of ownership came to these parts”42, or when Patricia ponders the aspen’s ability to migrate through their underground network, without human seeding: “Life will not answer to reason. And meaning is too young a thing to have much power over it”43. Passages dealing with the condensation of time and with abrupt dramaturgical skips within the narration are sometimes used as further devices to identify larger units of time – especially geological time and such that extends the everyday human perception of immediacy – as an actor that tends not to be in particular favor of individual people’s life. Instances of this can be found when the death of the firstborn of Jørgen Hoel is described in a very abridged way44, when Adam’s sister Leigh goes missing45, or when Patricia’s father dies in a car accident46. In all of these examples, tragic human incidents are described in a sudden, abrupt style which radically disrupts the current narration.

Another repeating technique used to depict the agency of trees in The Overstory is drawing attention to their network structures. Linda Hess identifies a distinct aesthetic that emerges from the portrayal of networks, which “re-envision human relations to the non-human in the age of climate change on a different scale”, and which demands from its readers to take a less anthropocentric perspective on the world in which “plants, not people, may be the possessors and professors of significant knowledge”47. Through this network aesthetics, nature in its myriad connections among humans and trees is rendered “grievable”48. One moment of awe for these arboreal networks that comes up fairly early in the novel occurs right after the accident of Neelay, which leaves him permanently paralyzed. Lying on the ground and starring up to the oak he fell from, Neelay, who is heavily socialized by a technocratic view on the world, recognizes the complexity of the tree’s inner ecosystem:

The trunk turns into stacks of spreading metropolis, networks of conjoined cells pulsing with energy and liquid sun, water rising through long thin reeds, rings of them banded together into pipes that draw dissolved minerals up through the narrowing tunnels of transparent twit and out through their waving tips while sun-made sustenance drops down in tubes just inside them49.

Patricia, who was educated by her father in the 1950s about these complexities and who later comes to study the yet undiscovered properties of trees, is confronted very early on with the connectivity of trees, which her father compares to human sociality: “We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree”50. This insight is further strengthened by the research she conducts as an adult: “There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest”51; “[t]ogether, they form vast trading networks of goods, services, and information…”52. This acknowledging of network processes that occur at an underground level and which signify a specific kind of agency unseen by the superficial eyes of humanity, culminates in the attribution of consciousness:((Another instance of this: “Link enough trees together, and a forest grows awareness” (Powers 2019, 567).)) “Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention”53. This realization of a self-sustaining and mutually supportive underground ecosystem expands also to the subject of seemingly dead trees, which turn out to be essential for the vitality of a forest, as Patricia discovers during her research54.

The agency of trees is at times also depicted through personified actions drawing from a humanlike set of capabilities. This includes for example mentioning of the “generosity” of trees55, the description of them humming56, being busy57, eating58, and even possessing a memory59. Additionally, attention is paid to the variety and biodiversity of trees, most prominently by their manifold references throughout the novel: “The several hundred kinds of hawthorn laugh at the single name they’re forced to share”60. This quote, which contrasts the actual complexity of nature with the human epistemology of it, paves the way for the next chapter, in which the involvement of human realization of and activism for trees and nature will be further discussed.


5. Seeing the Unseen – The Role of Human Activism

“Out in the yard, all around the house, the things they’ve planted in years gone by are making significance, making meaning, as easily as they make sugar and wood from nothing, from air, and sun, and rain. But the humans hear nothing”61. This description of the lawn of Ray and Dorothy lawn and their inability to acknowledge its ecosystems is central to the portrayal of the cultural-natural divide that is depicted in The Overstory. As the story follows its “roots” – the human protagonists introduced in the first few chapters – they all have decisive encounters with various trees which fundamentally alter their mindsets towards, and their bodily experience with their environment. This altered attitude is expressed by a certain capability to perceive the agency of nature as it is described in the former chapter. When Mimi’s father shows her the ancient Chinese scroll, she imagines herself, her own past, present and future in terms of “concentric circles with herself at the core and the present floating outwards along the outermost rum”, in other words, via a metaphor symbolizing the aging of trees62. Although her activist days are still ahead of her at that point, this temporal description borrowed from arboreal development already indicates an adapted perceptive mindset that integrates both human and nonhuman concepts to explore new representative frames. Young Adam, who develops an interest for the exploration of nature, which he then loses and rediscovers, is making use of the allegoric dichotomy between people who can “sense” nature and people who cannot: “But both [his brother and the tree planted for him] live, which only proves Adam that life is trying to say something no one hears”63. This is repeated when he seems to be the only of his siblings who realizes that the leaves of his sister Leigh’s elm are turning yellow: “The other kids have stopped looking”64. Similarly, young Patricia cannot understand why her classmates are blind towards the difference between a black walnut and a white ash65.

While driving through the country, Douglas is confronted with the repercussions of deforestation and pays for a flight over the land to see the havoc from above: “It looks like the shaved flank of a sick beast being readied for surgery. Everywhere, in all directions. If the view were televised, cutting would stop tomorrow”66. It is the bird-eye perspective from the plane which functions for Douglas as a representative frame that enhances the sensorial capabilities and holistic understandings of large-scale ecosystems. The difficulty of conceivability is repeatedly mentioned, sometimes under a more irreconcilable impression: “If his brain were a slightly different thing, the problem might be easy. If he himself grew differently, he might be able to see […] And still, he’s illiterate”67. At times nature also seems to deliberately keep silent68 and stop talking to the protagonists, for instance when Neelay seeks inspiration from the trees in the Stanford quad: “Tonight the trees are tight-lipped, refusing to tell him anything”69. But there are also instances that can almost be read as conversations between nature and humans. At the beginning of the “Crown” chapter, a camping man who is able to receive the expressions of nature is described: “The man in the tent lies bathed in signals hundreds of millions of years older than his crude senses. And still he can read them”70. Nature then “replies” to the worries of the man about the world “turning into a new thing” through the arrival of humans, which now leads to unprecedented changes71. Through the way italics are used in this short passage in order to signify and distinguish between utterances made by nature and by the man, one can extract a certain sense of reciprocal comprehension from this exchange. When Dorothy is taking care of Ray after he had a stroke, they both begin to learn about the nonhuman life that has grown in their yard over the years by reading about trees and recounting the story of the world from their perspective. Having been an avid reader for her whole life, Dorothy first starts to interpret the nature in front of their house via a literary perspective: “She remembers now why she never had the patience for nature. No drama, no development, no colliding hopes and fears. Branching, tangled, messy plots. And she could never keep the characters straight”72.

The fundamental change in perceiving nature that is portrayed throughout the novel is inextricably connected with the field of activism. Mimi, Adam, Olivia, Nicholas and Douglas all end up being part of a tree activism group that conducts several more or less extreme actions and which disperses after Olivia’s death. But other characters are also embedded in the activist narratives. One example for this are the successful and influential books of Patricia in which she writes about her scientific findings, and which appear at a later points in the narrative of other characters. As Patricia’s agent says: “You make them [trees] come alive”73. The programmatic language the group of activist makes use of is portrayed within the textuality of the novel as stylistically highlighted in capital letters, mirroring in a way the intradiegetic slogans: “YOU CAN’T CLEARCUT YOUR WAY TO HEAVEN […] THIS STATE SUPPORTS TIMBER: TIMBER SUPPORTS THIS STATE”74. When the actions of the group become more dangerous and they start to realize that their arson attacks have been more successful than years of their previous pacifist work, they philosophize over the necessary means for achieving their goals and once again reflect on the aspect of human responsibility: “What wouldn’t a person do, to help the most wondrous products of four billion years of creation?”75. That issue leads to a final attempt of finding reconciliation for the natural-cultural divide that is depicted in The Overstory, and to the role of humanism within this debate.


6. A Posthuman Attempt of Reconciliation and Synthesis

The notion of a synthesis of natural and cultural properties can maybe be seen most prominently in the example of the changing relationship to art of Nicolas Hoel. This begins with the photography project his ancestor John Hoel initiates and passes on to his descendants. Every month someone of the Hoel family takes a picture of the remaining chestnut tree in front of the house, resulting in a flip-book depicting its growth. The composition of this project creates a demarcation between the two spheres of human culture and nature: “The farm is to Frank Jr.’s back, each time he opens the lens. The photos hide everything […] The generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photo’s frame”76. When Olivia coincidentally meets Nicholas, who is just about to give away the art he has been working on over the last years for free, he decides to accompany her in her journey to join tree activists and buries his pieces in an unfilled hole he had dug as a child77. This can be interpreted as a turning point of his life; disappointed by the cultural world, he ends his connection with it by literally burying it to become one with nature, as he, metaphorically speaking, attempts to do over the following years. Only very much later, after Olivia’s tragic death and the following breakup of the group, he once again visits the Hoel property in order to dig up his artworks and the flip-book: “He wonders again what he could have been thinking, leaving it here. Travel light, they thought. Bury the art. Digging it up later would be its own performance piece”78. As Nicholas mentions, this whole procedure of art creation, burying and excavation can be seen as a mutual project that includes both human and nonhuman agency. After having gone through all the ups and downs in his activist years, Nicholas rediscovers the cultural world and accepts its equal importance and relation to his life. This whole sideplot can be interpreted as an approach to dissolve the binary dualisms that have been in charge of the cultural-natural discourse, and to accept the synthesis of both spheres and the necessity for humans to acknowledge this.

Reaching this insight, though, takes time and honest reconsideration, as is mentioned in the very beginning of the novel: “A good answer must be reinvented many times, from scratch”60. This processual notion of ever-changing adaptability and reconsideration is clearly extractable from the portrayal of the cultural-natural divide, and with it the urgency to find an answer more fit to our present situation. When Patricia realizes that her first scientific findings of trees are not accepted in the current academic environment, she tries to find peace with this by embracing the inevitability of life and death, the fading of people and thoughts, which, eventually, will bring change: “She’s sure these men who run the field will have to fall, next year or the year after. And up from the downed trunks of their beliefs will spring79 rich new undergrowth”80. The novel embraces the reconciliation between human and nonhuman properties, highlighting also the role of storytelling in bringing both together: “The best argument in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story”81. In the end, the novel describes the emergence of some “invisible learners” (most probably referring to big data and machine learning), who are described as more observant and receptive than humans82: “The Earth has become again the deepest, finest game, and the learners just its latest players”83. With the arrival of these invisible learners at the end of the novel, a posthuman element is introduced that can be interpreted in more than one way. After the alleged “failure” of the plans of the activists, these more-than-human ‘learners’ and their enhanced capabilities to see and interpret the diverse networks between human and nonhuman elements can be considered those exact entities fit to fight the pitfalls of the Anthropocene and its representability. Humanity alone, in this view, seems to have been incapable of solving these problems, and it also seems to be fading due to that.

But despite this grim view, one can also extract a sense of hopefulness for humanism from the ending: “Now they [the algorithms of Neelay’s game programming company] only learn what life wants from humans. It’s a big question, to be sure. Too big for people alone. But people aren’t alone, and they never have been”84. Humanism may undergo changes during its course to a heightened acknowledgement of interconnected co-existence with the nonhuman. But such posthuman conceptualizations can be more than just technological-mechanistic answers, and they will set out from what is worth saving and sustaining from the developments humanism has already been through. In the end, the lasting effect of the activist mindset is reflected in an altered sensorial attitude towards nature, which can be observed in the characters of Douglas, who is able to imagine and vividly dream of trees despite being imprisoned, and in the character of Mimi, who is sitting in a park, reflecting on the past events: “Messages hum from out of the bark she leans against. Chemical semaphores home in over the air. Currents rise from the soil-gripping roots, relayed over great distances through fungal synapses linked up in a network the size of the planet. The signals say: A good answer is worth reinventing from scratch, again and again”85.


7. Conclusion

This paper discussed how The Overstory by Richard Powers implements new materialist frameworks and modern conceptualizations of agency as interwoven networks of cultural and natural, as well as of human and nonhuman actors. The philosophical background of these current debates and their affiliation with the Anthropocene and (literary) ecocriticism paved the way for the subsequent analysis of the novel. The tripartite analysis focused on the portrayal of the agency of trees, the human reaction to this agency and the attempt to find a reconciling perspective for a mutual coexistence. Several narrative techniques were described which serve to emphasize trees as protagonists on their own; for example, the arboreal structure of the novel, the element of acting through deep time effects, their interconnectedness and their enumerated variousness. The human reaction to this nonhuman agency is largely driven by an activist undertone, which is sometimes more explicit and sometimes more implicit; the human characters all share one or more moments of an “awakening experience” which leads them to re-conceptualize their behavior and sensorial capabilities towards nature. The notion of activism is driven by the protagonist’s abilities to sense and interpret the entangled signals of nature, which distinguishes them from those who do not see or acknowledge the conception of a shared environment of human and nonhuman entities. Conclusively, one can discern an element of posthuman hope from the realization that “[p]eople and trees are in this together”86. Despite an undeterminably evolving humanism, the newly found embodied experience of the natural-cultural environment the protagonist develop throughout the story can serve as an anchor point, even for a world in which humans (or at least their current epistemological conception) disappear “wie am Meeresufer ein Gesicht im Sand”1.



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Zapf, Hubert. “Introduction.” Handbook of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, edited by Hubert Zapf, De Gruyter, 2016, pp. 1–18.

  1. Foucault 462 [] []
  2. Lettow, 2; Oppermann, “Rethinking” 36 []
  3. Lettow 2 []
  4. Iovino 52 [] []
  5. Lettow 2; Oppermann, “Posthuman” 273 []
  6. Iovino 51 [] []
  7. Gernot Böhme, for example, who argues for an “ecological aesthetics” that counters alienation from nature by articulating a new understanding of the human body, draws on materialist theories by Marcuse and Bloch that already considered nature’s potential subjectivity (Böhme 129). []
  8. Lettow 13f []
  9. Iovino 53 [] []
  10. Benett, qtd. in Iovino 53 []
  11. Bennett 32-33 []
  12. “Posthuman” 274 []
  13. Dürbeck and Nesselhauf 7f []
  14. Dürbeck and Nesselhauf 8 []
  15. Hüpkes 169 []
  16. Hüpkes 170 []
  17. Hüpkes 172 []
  18. Hüpkes 173 [] []
  19. Hüpkes 174 []
  20. Dürback and Nesselhauf 16 [] []
  21. Dürback and Nesselhauf 17 []
  22. Zapf 1 [] []
  23. Zapf 5 [] []
  24. Zapf 6 [] [] []
  25. Oppermann adapts this material ecocriticism by adding a posthuman perspective, which reflects on the intertwined experiences of emerging properties of natural and cultural systems in order to build “novel forms of post-anthropocentric discourses” (“Posthuman” 286). []
  26. Oppermann, “Posthuman” 274 []
  27. Iovino 61 []
  28. Iovino 62 []
  29. Zapf 4 []
  30. Iovino 63 []
  31. Powers 440 []
  32. The concept of deep time is often attributed to the Scottish naturalist James Hutton and describes the “recognition of the vastness of earth’s geological history” (Irvine 162). []
  33. Powers 8 []
  34. Powers 10 []
  35. Powers 11 []
  36. Powers 231 []
  37. Powers 101 []
  38. Powers 28 []
  39. Powers 112 []
  40. Powers 165 []
  41. Powers 326 []
  42. Powers 301 []
  43. Powers 167 []
  44. Powers 7 []
  45. Powers 69 []
  46. Powers 148 []
  47. Powers 190 []
  48. Hess 190-192 []
  49. Powers 128 []
  50. Powers 144 []
  51. Powers 179 []
  52. Powers 272 []
  53. Powers 355 []
  54. Powers 169-170 []
  55. Powers 11; 156 []
  56. Powers 317 []
  57. Powers 273 []
  58. Powers 366 []
  59. 528; 194; 200 []
  60. Powers 3 [] []
  61. Powers 209 []
  62. Powers 42 []
  63. Powers 62 []
  64. Powers 65 []
  65. Powers 143 []
  66. Powers 110 []
  67. Powers 193 []
  68. A similar instance can be found when Patricia is about to kill herself after her first studies had been rejected by the academic sphere: “She listens to the forest, to the chatter that has always sustained her. But all she can hear is the deafening wisdom of crowds” (Powers 2019, 160). []
  69. Powers 244 []
  70. Powers 443 []
  71. Powers 444 []
  72. Powers 524-525 []
  73. Powers 280 []
  74. Powers 357 []
  75. Powers 431 []
  76. Powers 18-19 []
  77. Powers 251 []
  78. Powers 510 []
  79. A very similar remark can be found when Ray and Dorothy begin to reconceptualize their yard: “Everything they thought their backyard was is wrong, and it takes some time to grow new beliefs to replace the ones that fall” (Powers 2019, 553). []
  80. Powers 153 []
  81. Powers 420 []
  82. Powers 595 []
  83. Powers 600 []
  84. Powers 608 []
  85. Powers 621-622 []
  86. Powers 423 []

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