Gregory Levine | A Tree and a Buddha: Imagining an Arboreal Humanities


What it "means to be human" has long depended on forests and trees. Levine makes this out-sized statement as an art historian interested in Buddhist visual culture. To which he adds that our arboreal-human relationship will remain essential as the livable earth and environmental health and justice are devastated by increasingly extreme climate events and feedback loops. Given this catastrophe, what's an art historian, indeed all of us, to do? This crisis may seem like a matter for the sciences and politics to work out. But the conundrum of "meaning"—past, present, and future—not to mention feeling, draws this catastrophe deeply into humanistic thought, representation, and creativity. These behaviors—and their unruly meaning-making—are neither walled off from nor ancillary to other forms of knowledge and action; we're not "made that way" as a species. Even so, "humanistic meaning," unfixed and unstable, may have come to a dead end in certain respects as it is plunged violently into the ecological reality of the biosphere we depend on and upon which certain human behaviors have inflicted grievous harm. It is for this and other reasons that we speak of posthumanisms and transhumanisms (something beyond), even as we find that they tussle over what it means to be human. And so, if forests and trees have long made meaning for/with us, and vice versa, and continue to do so, might we imagine an "arboreal humanism"? A way of plunging the exploration of meaning into a dialectic of trees (with affinity species and ecosystems), human history, narrative, visual and material cultures, and sensing and wondering about the human and nonhuman? What would this reveal to us, what would it demand? Is there an "art to it," and what does it allow us to imagine?

Related Reading

Long Strange Journey: On Modern Zen, Zen Art, and Other Predicaments (2017)

Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan Hardcover (2007)

Daitokuji: The Visual Cultures of a Zen Monastery Hardcover (2006)

About the Speaker

Professor and Chair (Fall 2020-) of the Department of History of Art at UC Berkeley, Greg Levine teaches the art and architecture of Japan, Buddhist visual culture, and eco art history. His current book project is, A Tree and A Buddha: Imagining Arboreal Humanism. A projected trilogy on global Buddhist visual cultures comprises Long Strange Journey: On Modern Zen, Zen Art, and Other Predicaments (2017); Buddha Heads: Fragments and Landscapes; and Other Buddhas: White Supremacy and Buddhist Visual Culture. The recipient of a Guggenheim and other fellowships, he is an editorial board member of Artibus Asiae and the Journal of Art Historiography. His courses introduce Buddhist temples and icons in Japan; global Buddhist visual cultures; eco art history; the "dark sides" of art (plunder, iconoclasm, and forgery); and the fragment in visual-material culture.

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The Harry Camp Memorial Fund was established in 1956 by friends and associates of Harry Camp. A prominent businessman and philanthropist in San Francisco, Camp was described as a "gentle and wise humanitarian." The fund brings outstanding speakers to Stanford for public lectures and promotes the study of "the concept of the dignity and the worth of the individual." The Camp Lectures are presented every other year.

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