Sam Kriss, Flat-Earthers Have a Wild New Theory About Forests – The AtlanticSEP 9, 2016
What it means to believe that “real” trees no longer exist.
Something tremendous is happening; over the last few weeks, without too many of its globe-headed detractors noticing, a surprisingly vast community on the tattered fringes of intellectual orthodoxy is in turmoil. A bizarre new theory has turned the flat earth upside down. The flat earth is still flat, but now it’s dotted with tiny imitations of the truly enormous trees that once covered the continents, and which in our deforested age we can hardly even remember.
Against both the panpsychicism of hippie ecology, the bleary-eyed invocations of some dismally all-encompassing Mother Earth, and the pedantic materialism of most sciences as they’re actually practiced, ‘No Forests on Flat Earth’ proposes a kind of hylothanatism, a pessimism for our own weary age: this world was once alive, everything was once beautifully connected, but not any more. This earth has been dead for millennia; what we think of as progress is just the rot spreading through the cadaver of the world.
There are mythic assonances here—beyond the familiar world-trees of Norse cosmogony, the notion of a world built on a corpse has always fascinated people; Babylonian mythology, for instance, has the entire universe butchered out of the body of Tiamat, the primordial mother. Its mode of argument—‘this thing looks like this other thing, therefore they’re the same thing’—is also familiar. In The Order of Things, Foucault describes the medieval episteme: “It was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them.” The world was configured as one single text, a great chain of being explicable to those who knew how to read the signs. Bestiaries would record not just the physical characteristics of various animals, but their symbolic attributes. If a plant resembled a part of the human body, it could be used to treat its diseases; the map of the cosmos is also a map of the human body, and the pattern of the stars is also a horticultural manual. Foucault quotes Crollius: “Just as each herb or plant is a terrestrial star looking up at the sky, so also each star is a celestial plant in spiritual form, which differs from the terrestrial plants in matter alone.”
Foucault himself has a very ‘No Forests’ sadness for the loss of this world of interlinking resemblances in the 16th century, lamenting that “there is nothing now that still recalls even the memory of that being. Nothing, except perhaps literature.” The experience of modernity is one of a lost unity, and with an emerging capitalism came a world no longer required to be explicable, only fungible. But this lost world is not just something that falls away with modernity—as Freud points out, the formation of the conscious mind is similar: the ego is a “precipitate of lost objects.”