Into the Woods, Karl Marx’s 200th B-Day, RIP Moishe Postone

This Week: The Secret Life of Trees — with Richard Powers and Diana Beresford Kroeger. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Mary McGrath: It was Tree Week on Open Source, and what a treat it was. We arranged to have Chris interview Richard Powers at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain (thanks to my old hockey buddy Pam Thompson) after a brief tour by director Ned Friedman who helped get us tree woke.

Richard touched us all. His tells a powerful story about how working on this novel and immersing himself in the world of trees for several years changed his life:

And it was it was this moment under the redwoods, I mean if you’ve ever walked in a redwood forest it’s tough not to feel that these are immense cathedrals of nature that are operating on a different time frame. Literally being up there and breathing that air and finding away another way into the woods back into time was really in a sense a rescue from the world that Silicon Valley had made for me and that was shutting me down. So in that sense falling in love with trees was a life changer; it gave it gave me a passion again; it gave me a sense of meaning lying outside of myself, an aspiration to discover something that I had walked past for 55 years in relative blindness and now a chance to take seriously other frames of time, other skills, other desires, other agencies, other ways of life and to think there is there is another mission for us here.

The mission, as Plant Patty, one of the characters in Richard’s novel The Overstory instructs, is to see the world from the perspective of trees, and to connect to them and to a world that doesn’t derive meaning from human experience. Almost hard to imagine.

The delightful tree hugger and tree sage Diana Beresford-Kroeger described how to do it — forest bathing she calls it.

Diana will change your perspective, and she’ll make you wonder how we managed to morph the world into the one we’re living in now, where we’re destroying the very thing that can save us . If every person in the world plants a tree each year for six years, Diana says, we’d reverse climate change.

Her film, The Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees, is a stunner. Write to us and we’ll give you the key to unlock it. The website includes a tree app — shazam for trees.

So, what is the single best thing a person can do for tomorrow’s world?

Marx at 200

Zach Goldhammer: May 5th will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. A laundry list of post-2008 crises and political upheavals have made Marx’s ideas—formally verboten in mainstream American conversation—increasingly relevant. Little magazines and no-longer-so-little political movements have helped to reinterpret Marxist theory and practice for a new, rising generation of Americans—particularly those born after the fall of the Soviet Union but still living with the consequences of the United States’ Cold War hangover. The transformation has not gone unnoticed outside the U.S., either: a recent article in Le Monde profiled Marx’s “come-back aux Etats-Unis” and the sudden renewal of Marxism in the “pays du maccarthysme.”

For the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, the modern relevance of the anniversary seems self-evident given the economic as well as the technological transformations of the 21st century. In a new introduction to the Communist Manifesto,”Varoufakis writes:

Anyone reading the manifesto today will be surprised to discover a picture of a world much like our own, teetering fearfully on the edge of technological innovation. In the manifesto’s time, it was the steam engine that posed the greatest challenge to the rhythms and routines of feudal life. The peasantry were swept into the cogs and wheels of this machinery and a new class of masters, the factory owners and the merchants, usurped the landed gentry’s control over society. Now, it is artificial intelligence and automation that loom as disruptive threats, promising to sweep away “all fixed, fast-frozen relations”. “Constantly revolutionising … instruments of production,” the manifesto proclaims, transform “the whole relations of society”, bringing about “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”.

This has also been an implicit theme in our own recent shows on Amazon, Facebook, and the modern regime of so-called “surveillance capitalism”. Not surprisingly, the tech writer and friend-of-the-show Ben Tarnoff, like Varoufakis, recognizes Marx’s relevance in this new digital sphere of domination. You can watch Ben’s recent contribution to the Goethe Institut’s bicentennial commemoration of Marx below:

Despite the various movements and figures pushing Marx into the present, the most recent biographies—Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (2014) and Gareth Stedman Jones Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (2016)—have mostly kept Marx rooted firmly in the milieu of 19th century Europe. Yet as Louis Menand has warily argued in the New Yorker, it’s still a somewhat Sisyphean task to try and contain Marx in the historical past:

You can put Marx back into the nineteenth century, but you can’t keep him there. He wasted a ridiculous amount of his time feuding with rivals and putting out sectarian brush fires, and he did not even come close to completing the work he intended as his magnum opus, “Capital.” But, for better or for worse, it just is not the case that his thought is obsolete. He saw that modern free-market economies, left to their own devices, produce gross inequalities, and he transformed a mode of analysis that goes all the way back to Socrates — turning concepts that we think we understand and take for granted inside out — into a resource for grasping the social and economic conditions of our own lives.

Unfortunately, America also lost one of its leading interpreters of Marx just months before the bicentennial anniversary. Moishe Postone—a beloved professor at the University of Chicago and author of Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theorydied on March 19th. You can still watch one of his final public lectures in Vienna on the use and abuse of Marxist ideas here:

We’re tentatively considering a program on Marx in the 21st century for next week. If you have ideas or guest suggestions for the program, send us a note:

Coming Soon: Lisa Halliday

MM: We loved Lisa Halliday’s novel, Asymmetry, which is getting incredible reviews. Lisa lives in Milan and was in town this week to do a reading at the Harvard Book Store. Chris did a wonderful interview with her we’ll be posting soon.

That’s it for this week; a short newsie because we’re in the woods looking at trees and catching a few of the Boston Indie Film Fest flicks.

Til next time,

The OS Forest Rangers



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An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.