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Vol. 19, No. 1, 2020
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N. Cyril Fischer is an academic and translator. He has edited and introduced the essay collection Portable Prose: The Novel and the Everyday (Lexington 2018) and currently is a postdoctoral fellow in the English department at the Freie Universität Berlin. He also serves as the translations editor for the Swiss publishing house Präsens Editionen.

“You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes.” This is the opening of The Secret Forest, an immensely successful contemporary non-fiction book on arboreal life by the botanist Patricia Westerford. Its central contention—that humans and trees are not as unlike as each other as one might think and that, therefore, the former should not be regarded as intrinsically superior to the latter—is as timely as it is scientifically controversial. For Westerford, the book’s success marks the vindicating ending to a painful tale of academic denigration, patronization, and exclusion. Half a decade prior, while completing her doctorate, Westerford came to the conclusion that trees exhibit a fundamentally human ability: they recognize their own kin and communicate with them in order to ensure their survival. Measuring the output of arboreal gases for her dissertation project, she finds that trees infected with parasites release gases to inform other trees of the same kind in the vicinity about the imminent danger. In other words, she finds that trees talk to each other. Mindful of the problem of suggesting too great a kinship between human and non-human beings within a scientific tradition defined by a (still) laudable aversion to any formulation of the pathetic fallacy, Westerford made sure that her research was published in a sober format: chemical measurements acquired with a gas chromatographer. Nothing but data. Without success. The implication of likeness between the human and non-human triggered a vicious reaction from the academic community, and her work was widely discredited by leading scholars in the field. Only much later, after Westerford lost her research position, fell into poverty, and came within a hair’s breadth of suicide, her findings were confirmed.

More studies, more measurements involving different kinds of trees in different regions, more and more data, all substantiated Westerford’s initial insight. While little doubt remains about the validity of her research, towards the end of her career she found that nothing had changed about her colleagues’ resistance to the suggestion that humans and trees are alike. In a keynote speech given at a climate-change conference, she diagnosed this reluctance as the result of an essentially warped way of looking at the world: “We scientists are taught never to look for ourselves in other species. So we make sure nothing looks like us.” This problem can be understood as the conscious rejection of one of the stranger evolutionary adaptations of the mind, with which Westerford once found herself confronted during a seed collection trip to the Amazonian rain forest.

At one point during the expedition, Westerford recalls, she and her Brazilian guides encountered a tree that left them all awestruck: “In knots and whorls, muscles arise from the smooth bole. It’s a person, a woman, her torso twisted, her arms lifting from her sides in finger branches.” The figure’s face is so human, so “round with alarm, stares so wildly,” she finds herself unable to hold its gaze. The guides try to explain the figure as the product of human interference and craftsmanship, but no knife or chisel marks can be found. Westerford offers a theory: “Pareidolia . . . the adaptation that makes people see people in all things.” It is a scientific explanation of a deeply unscientific impulse: to ascribe human qualities to an entity outside of oneself, and thereby to attribute a human-like subjectivity to an external entity. While this impulse is unscientific, as the vicious backlash against Westerford’s suggestion that trees “talk” to each other demonstrates, it will be deeply familiar to literary scholars, particularly those specializing in the novel. Instead of pareidolia, the impulse to recognize oneself in the other is more commonly discussed under the heading of sympathy—based on eighteenth-century philosophical work on ethics, most prominently Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, and its re-purposing for literary aesthetics by nineteenth-century novelists, such as George Eliot who maintained that “the extension of our sympathies” is the novel’s greatest quality.

Sympathy in the tradition of the novel, however, has one characteristic that makes it less attractive for scientists like Westerford: it traditionally is only aimed at humans, from the novels of George Eliot to those of David Foster Wallace, for whom fiction (still) is about “what it is to be human.” Sympathetic identification relies on the conviction that there is something shared about the human condition that can serve as the basis for intersubjective understanding. To put it differently, novelistic sympathy is a process of recognizing likeness in otherness. While novels have long restricted this otherness to the human realm, scientists have been extending it to other realms.

Suzanne Simard, currently a professor of Forest and Conservation Science at the University of British Columbia, champions the concepts of “mother trees” and “forest wisdom” within the scientific context. Comparable to Westerford’s early work, Simard’s research has found that trees trade water, carbon, and nutrients by means of underground fungal networks. In such networks, the oldest trees are connected to more trees than any others and are capable of identifying their kin and privilege them in the nutrient exchange. In other words, these trees mother their offspring. In a recent interview, Simard explains her controversial choice of vocabulary. Her terms represent a conscious effort to go beyond the neutral language of science in order to acknowledge aspects of forest life that such language cannot accommodate. Simard finds that only a more human(istic) rhetoric allows people to “understand deeper, more viscerally, what’s going on in these living creatures, species that are not just these inanimate objects . . . we as human beings can relate to this better. If we can relate to it, then we’re going to care about it more. If we care about it more, then we’re going to do a better job of stewarding our landscapes.” Simard’s argument closely resembles that of George Eliot about the ability of great novelists to bring readers “into that attention to what is apart from themselves,” with the marked difference that she extends sympathy to non-human beings. This creates an ironic situation in which science adopts features of literature at a time when literature seems to be moving on from it since sympathetic identification has increasingly been challenged as both an aesthetic and moral strategy by novelists in the twentieth century.

In the past few decades, novelists have gone through great lengths to demonstrate in what ways the novel exhausts its potential to bridge intersubjective divides, or how the very attempt to use novelistic form to reach across to the other often results in an exercise of power, the execution of a will-to-sympathy—to put others in your shoes rather than the other way around. In the twenty-first century, novelists have been dealing with the ramification of this critique, struggling to reconcile the knowledge of the novel’s limitations with the desire to write fiction, and to prove that fiction and imaginative projection (still) matters. In pursuit of the same project in the late nineties, Jonathan Franzen put it more bluntly: Why bother? Contemporary fiction’s answer is the pursuit of alternative forms of conceiving of otherness than sympathy, comparable to that of scientists like Westerford who seek new ways of understanding the natural world that is sympathetic yet also not based on the idea of a shared human nature. Pareidolia offers such a hermeneutic strategy that might come to define the intersection of novelistic and scientific practice in a time in which the only solution to the demise of the planet might be a new way of understanding the radical alterity of the non-human.

Pareidolia represents the underside of sympathy. It is involuntary and requires no mental effort and it can by definition only apply to non-human entities (there is little limit to which entities can be the subject of pareidolia as #iseefaces demonstrates). Unlike sympathy, the pareidolic imagination does not locate likeness in otherness, but ramifies otherness through an initial apprehension of likeness. This quality is what salvages pareidolia for scientific purposes, as the figure in the rain forest indicates. It both cautions humanity not to create a future in which, as Westerford imagines the Virgin Mary saying, “you can see nothing but yourself, everywhere you look,” and never to recognize human traits in other species, as she argues in her keynote address. The figure in the tree exteriorizes the human impulse to impose itself on the world; yet, it also has the potential to shock people into the realization that the distinction between the human and the natural, to which we have been habituated by various socio-cultural media including the sympathetic novel, is no longer viable. Unlike Simard, who adopts the sympathetic approach of the novel, Westerford exhibits a greater reluctance to borrow from literary aesthetics and instead settles on pareidolia. Interestingly, Simard is a real and esteemed scientist, while Westerford exists only as one of nine protagonists of Richard Powers’ eco-novel The Overstory, published last year. If this seems surprising, one should consider that sympathy bears a certain affinity to science since it essentially is a data-driven form of understanding.

Sympathy in the traditional novel relies on the provision of details on which the sympathetic imagination can seize, and it is not a coincidence that the nineteenth century, in which sympathy became the central feature of the novelistic imagination, generally is characterized by an obsession with information collection. The age didn’t just witness the rapacious accumulation of knowledge in the imperial centres of Europe; it also witnessed the frustration of processing an ever-growing corpus of information. The first alphabetical catalogue of the library at the British Museum was published in seven octavo volumes between 1813 and 1819. The influx of new books in the next thirty years alone was so immense that the handwritten additions to these volumes required an additional sixty-seven folio volumes. By 1850 the (still) chronically incomplete catalogue had visitors constantly complaining. The means of dealing with an incessant influx of information had not yet been devised. The novel promised such a means of structuring relevant information in such a way as to allow readers to imaginatively re-construct the inner lives of other people. The advent of big data and the ever-increasing number of means for storing and managing new data volumes did not produce a solution to this problem, but primarily highlighted the limitations of what data-based understanding. A brief look at one of the most common everyday experiences with smart data-based understanding, the algorithm behind Netflix and Spotify suggestions, will demonstrate the problem that has led contemporary fiction to seek other ways of understanding than sympathy.

Netflix and Spotify employ methods of pattern recognition that primarily rely on the user’s preferences and those of people who consume the same films and music as them. In my case, they are at times so eerily accurate that I cannot help but feeling understood by them, which itself triggers a sympathetic impulse to discern a human consciousness behind the math. This feeling, however, usually is as short-lived as it is limited, not simply because the machines that drive these processes (still) need to be improved, but because they can only work from the assumption that my behaviour is a total representation of myself. The immanent problem of pattern-recognition is that there is no outside. Whatever lies beyond the data set that provides the basis for analysis is non-existent. It might seem obvious that Netflix or Spotify cannot learn about my preferences for films and music not offered by them, but this is a point that has greater implications. Even among the things on offer, our consumer histories frustrate the pattern. The algorithm cannot account for the things we consume for the sake of someone else, for example. The things we only watch or listen to because others prefer them (dinner party playlists adjusted to suit everyone, films watched to indulge friends and lovers, etc). It is true that pattern recognition is sophisticated enough to identify aberrations from the norm and to isolate them as such, but that doesn’t go to the core of the problem. Let me give you a personal example.

I don’t particularly like gory films, nor have I watched a lot of Italian movies or films featuring witches. How would an algorithm know that I am fond of Suspiria? Some of my guilty pleasures are camp movies featuring killer sharks (Deep Blue Sea) or surrealistic humans (the Real Housewives series). Unlike Italian avant-garde horror, I usually try to conceal these preferences from the world and my streaming services by watching them somewhere else. Thankfully, no algorithm can (yet) account for the influence my social anxiety and misguided sense of self-worth has on my movie selection (I also once started watching Inland Empire and let it play in its entirety on its own after I had lost in order to maintain my perfect viewing record with David Lynch movies). Of course, algorithms are not set up to fully understand humans, nor to explain them, but their working serves as an important example of how one can think about sympathy and the way humans apperceive other (human and non-human) beings. It demonstrates that they are (still) inadequate in capturing what is most human about people—in my case, my anxieties, insecurities, and my immense pettiness. The obvious retort would be to suggest that the only reason an algorithm could not capture these aspects of myself is exactly because the relevant data was not provided, but that is to suggest that otherness can be reduced to pure knowledge, which is as utopian a thought as it is dystopian. Its ethos is sympathetic as it presumes the possibility of converting otherness to likeness through data, the idea being that with enough information anything can be rendered comprehensible. In this perspective, it makes sense that Simard is drawn to sympathetic identification and the idea that otherness can be decoded as an underlying likeness, while Westerford/Powers are drawn to the apprehension of the full complexity of otherness through an initial shock of self-recognition: to make people stop to consider the complexity of a tree as an organism through the apparition of a human figure in the bark instead of having them pass by without noting the environmental background so easily taken for granted. This is in fact how Powers initially had the idea for the novel when he came across a giant redwood tree during a teaching stint at Stanford that led him to the realize that he had been blind to “these amazing creatures.” Creature is the operative word here since it both implies likeness and otherness. And while it was the sheer size of the tree that made him think about trees in a different fashion (rather than a figure in the bark), he transfers this effect to the ambivalent pareidolic imagination in the novel, admonishing readers not to ultimately identify with the natural world, but to seek a deeper understanding of otherness through the initial admission of likeness, or the pareidolic rather than the sympathetic imagination.

Another example of how pareidolia can frame an intersubjective encounter can be found in Jessie Greengrass ‘s debut novel Sight, also published last year. The novel deals with the narrator and protagonist’s coming to terms with being a mother, and thinking about her relationships with her own mother and grandmother. Following her mother’s death, the narrator makes daily visits to a library in London and haphazardly reads through the shelves in the hope of finding a way out of grief through the form of recognition novel reading has taught her: “I had been reduced to nothing, and now I sought amongst so many books a way to understand myself by analogy, a pattern recognised in other lives which might be drawn across my own to give it shape and, given shape, to give it impetus, direction.” This is the kind of pattern recognition an algorithm could potentially perform if we fed enough data into it. The narrator does find instances of life stories that help her think about her own life – all of them drawn from non-fiction, such as the biographies of Wilhelm Röntgen, who discovered X-rays, and Anna Freud, daughter of the inventor of psychoanalysis – but in one of the most incisive moments of her life, she finds herself confronted with the inability to find a comparison anywhere. When she sees an ultrasound image of her daughter for the first time, she is struck by its strangeness, its non-humanness. It almost seems to alienate her from herself, to the extent that in an effort to understand what is happening to her, and what it is going to happen, she pins the first ultrasound image of her daughter next to a clipping from an article featuring a photograph of the planet surface of Titan, one of Jupiter’s moons above her desk:

Looking at both of them, side by side or separately, I felt the same: a kind of plunging incomprehension, an absolute inability to make sense. These two things – a view of the ground in the outer solar system and a picture of the inside of my own body, of the entity that had taken root there to build itself cell by cell towards an articulated experience of grass in sunshine or the smell of violets – exists beyond the boundaries of my constructed world, the navigable realm of named things, and into that shadowy distance which was still unmade, which had neither colour nor warmth but only spectrum and could not be spoken of except through simile (to say ‘it is like this other thing’ and feel the point has not been made) and I could not incorporate them: they would be neither magnified nor reduced and nor could they be imagined beyond these representations of them which were themselves little more than metaphor.

This passage captures the contradictory impulses at work in the act of apprehending otherness, comparable to the juxtaposition of disbelief and acceptance of the humanness of figure in the tree in The Overstory. Too much will-to-sympathy, too much pareidolia, leads to falsification. When the narrator wonders why she finds that the images of Titan make for a better comparison with her child than images of Mars and “those three-dimensional images of babies in utero,” she concludes that it is because the latter have been smoothed out to resemble the pre-existing patterns of our imagination. These images suffer from a surfeit of quality, they resemble too much “the images of things that are familiar: a stretch of January field, unploughed; a doll. Their strangeness has been made unrecognizable by the sharpness of their edges and although what they depict is as far from the familiar as before, they have been brought by the exactitude of these analogies within the confines of the real.” As in Powers, the pareidolic impulse becomes destructive when it is carried too far. Instead of sharpening one’s awareness of otherness in the world through a glimpsed similarity that hints at unknown and unknowable depths, it simply overwrites it. Titan offers a balancing weight. It functions as a reminder of our own imaginative insufficiencies.

Contemporary novels admonish us that radical alterity is something we must not just recognize, but labour to maintain. They remind us that holding on to otherness is more important now than ever since quantification and the possibility of dealing with ever larger data sets will continually chip away at otherness and move us closer to the dream of singular understanding. Many things can be understood through quantification; radical alterity (still) can’t. The more data we have, the more patterns we establish, the more aberrations we will find that lead us away from singular understanding towards the apprehension of an infinitude of singularities. With more information, we would become more ensconced in our pasts, our futures laid out according to preconceived patterns. We would become beings most untimely, as Nietzsche feared, not so much learning from the past, but being paralyzed by it. The novel has a reason for celebrating its shortcoming in this regard because this is might be its mission in the twenty-first century: not just to prove that understanding otherness is a never-ending endeavor, but that what we seek to understand might have to be even more radical other than we have imagined until now. And that’s why one should still bother.


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