Week 7 “Reading Tips”
Remember when I said about a month ago that “Anthropogenesis: Origins and Endings in the Anthropocene” by Kathryn Yusoff was the most challenging reading you would have this semester? Well, I might have lied. You can be the judge for yourself, but two of the four readings this week at least approach Yusoff. Maybe try starting with the Chakrabarty readings. It’s a nice short one in which he shares his personal journey to the realization that human and geological history cannot be treated as separate.
Now to the two challenging readings. Let’s start with Latour. If you don’t know who Bruno Latour is, then if nothing else by having read this you can claim to be familiar with perhaps the most important social theorist of the last 50 years. To help you through “Agency at the time of the Anthropocene,” I’ve annotated my copy of the reading. Click here to access it.
If you’re really struggling, at least focus on the text I’ve highlighted and do your best to grasp it. I know we’ve read and discussed previously the ideas of agency, the nature-society dichotomy, and so on. But Latour really moves beyond merely critiquing these old modernist conceptualizations to offer some useful, however challenging to understand, notions for a system of thought where subject-object dualism is abandoned:
Far from trying to “reconcile” or “combine” nature and society, the task, the crucial political task, is on the contrary to distribute agency as far and in as differentiated a way as possible — until, that is, we have thoroughly lost any relation between those two concepts of object and subject
As you muddle through Latour, try to pick up on his analysis of the following:
- how the Anthropocene problematizes subject-object dualism
- Earth as agent of our common geostory
- matter vs. materiality
- necessity vs. agency/freedom
- how science/scientific method falsely de-animates our animated world
- time flowing from past to present (scientific worldview)
- time flowing from future to present (geostory worldview)
- existence and meaning (e.g., “as long as agents act they have meaning”)
- how the distinction between inanimate/animate is also a distinction between necessity/liberty (and how this problematizes politics and makes us feel impotent in the face of ecological threats)
Ecological thought has suffered just as much from attempts to “recombine” the two artifacts of nature and society as from the older more violent history that forced the two realms — that of necessity and that of freedom — to bifurcate.
Phew. OK, now onto the other challenging reading: “The paradox of self-reference: sociological reflections on agency and intervention in the Anthropocene” by Florence Chiew. The version in the google drive folder is annotated just like the Latour reading. Like Latour, Chiew is trying to think through what it means to dissolve the subject-object dichotomy. She develops a critique of the problematic western notion of individual self before drawing on two systems theorists, Niklas Luhman and Gregory Bateson, to put forward an understanding of self as existing within, and deriving meaning from, the broader system from which it emerges.
From this perspective, the origin of the human is seen as “an ecological expression of Life writ large, what Bateson (1972/2000, 1) calls an ecological ‘conversation’.”
What does Chiew have to say about agency? If humans live life in ecological/geological entanglements, do we have agency? What kind of agency? Consider these two quotes:
The catch is this: how do we reconcile the contradiction in theorising the human as a part of the natural ecosystem yet seemingly also an independent force acting on and thereby altering ecosystemic processes?
With a critical eye on this paradox, the guiding question for us is this: what secures intervention or agency as human authored if the identity and the genesis of the ‘human’ is precisely what is at stake in determining the nature of life in the Anthropocene?
Finally, you have “Human Destiny in the Anthropocene” by Clive Hamilton. Much of this reading will sound familiar. I don’t think any of his “8 propositions” will be new to you.
One idea you might key in on, especially since Latour and Chiew both also mention it, is the question of how to “do” politics in the Anthropocene. According to Hamilton, previously “the law of progress allowed those who understood it to know the future; to be a political actor then meant working to bring about more quickly that which is inevitable.” Yet all of the readings this week question the temporally bound notions of cause and effect that the scientific worldview hold onto so tightly. If politics can no longer be a matter of merely challenging or confronting those who would get in the way of the inevitable march towards universal human enlightenment, then what is politics? As Hamilton writes:
In the Anthropocene, in addition to the past we seek to escape, now we have a future we want to avoid; we are squeezed from both ends, and any new emancipatory project must transcend the progressive categories of the past.
Is there an emancipatory project for the Anthropocene?
Week 6 Class Notes–Oct 10
Between the valuable time with spent with smudge studio discussing your art projects and the ensuing discussion about how best to present your creative work at the end of the semester, we did not get a chance to discuss any of the week’s readings directly. I would suggest reading the excellent reflections that were submitted here (some of which are excerpted below) to see how everyone engaged with the ideas of “molecular intimacy” and of museums as spaces for the exhibition of “anthropocene objects.”
“Our worlds, as they exist, are, in and of themselves dynamic museums.”
“I think it is more likely that conceptual art can do little more than further obfuscate an already abstract reality posed within our situation. The only thing that has ever created and sustained mass, collective activity has been practical and tireless organizing work.”
Excerpts from the week’s assigned readings
Below are some excerpts from the readings that I had intended to discuss in class if we had time. Below that you’ll see the notes I took during class on the excellent feedback Jamie and Liz of smudge studio offered on the project ideas you shared.
Notes from discussion with smudge studio
Here are links to two of the smudge projects that Liz and Jamie recommended looking at as examples of deep time and the experience of all ages (of time) as contemporary:
Aaron’s notes for our discussion on “exhibition” of final projects
- what form will it take? “art”, activism, writing, poetry, performance, sculpture, film, video, photography, sound etc. or a combination of them all or…?
- will it be individual, collaborative, group oriented?
- will the final showing be as a collective in a space? or in various places?
- what context will that space be? university (on campus), “alternative”, gallery, museum, home, public, online? – and what does the space say for the piece(s)?
- how will the “show” be packaged? what will the form of presentation be – what do you want to say individually and as a group (class)?
- what forms of promotion will you utilize and in what way? how will you get the message out?
- keep in mind scale (both conceptual and physical in relation to the amount of time for “completion”/presentation)
- will the project be a completed piece or a presentation of a much larger scale project (such as a drawing or series of drawings or digital renderings of a large scale sculptural idea, etc.)
- not to forget the power of the personal story/perspective/experience – a place” known”
- or start in territory unknown and through the project discover and share something new
Week 6 “Reading Tips”
Museums as Storytellers: Curating the Anthropocene
- “Molecular Intimacies” (Heather Davis, in Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary, pp. 205-211, 2016) [GDRIVE]
- “Theorising More-Than Human Collectives for Climate Change Action in Museums” (Fiona R. Cameron, L’internationale, Politics of Life and Death, posted Nov 17, 2015)
- “Climate Risks, Art, and Red Cross Action. Towards a Humanitarian Role for Museums?” (Pablo Suarez, L’internationale, Politics of Life and Death, posted Nov 17, 2015)
As I re-read this week’s articles I keep coming back to two questions: How can art and artists represent hyperobjects and are museums or other types of conventional art exhibitions (e.g., gallery shows) the most appropriate venues for displaying/disseminating such art?
First, what are hyperobjects? Timothy Morton coined the term in a book called The Ecological Thought and later elaborated on it in Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End Of The World. His idea was that in the age of ecological crisis human interventions in earth systems produce “objects” that exist at temporal and spatial scales that make them difficult to grasp in the way we grasp everyday objects (e.g., “smartphone” or “freedom”). There’s a brief but useful wikipedia entry on the idea here or read Morton’s “An Introduction to the idea of ‘hyperobjects’” (from which the quotes that follow are selected).
Here’s the gist: A hyperobject is an “object” like global warming that is so widely diffused through time and space that it lacks a certain concreteness and therefore is difficult to represent or to know how to respond to. For example, carbon molecules burned in particular places on Earth, over a 150 year period, accumulate in the atmosphere and manifest themselves now and well into the future through complex processes of climate disruption.
How am I to understand my relationship to something like global warming or my obligations to respond to it? For Morton, the concept of hyperobjects provides a helpful starting point: “the concept of hyperobjects gives us a single word to describe something on the tips of our tongues. It’s very difficult to talk about something you cannot see or touch, yet we are obliged to do so, since global warming affects us all.”
But there’s a funny thing about hyperobjects according to Morton: “On the one hand, we have all this incredible data about them. On the other hand, we can’t experience them directly. We’ve stumbled upon these huge things, like Han Solo and Princess Leia and the giant worm. So we need philosophy and art to help guide us, while the way we think about things gets upgraded.”
This brings us to this week’s readings which I hope you will use to contemplate your final art project for the course. If we think of the Anthropocene as a hyperobject, in what ways can art (and philosophy) help guide us in understanding it, our relationship to it, and how we should respond to it? In “Molecular Intimacies,” Heather Davis offers some examples of how artists are pushing the boundaries in their efforts to represent hyperobjects like molecular structures, and carbon cycles.” She asks the following important questions:
“If we understand our bodies as the temporary stability of a particular form of carbon that inevitably circulates, passing through other bodies, the earth, and the atmosphere, how might this shift our relation to climate change? How might we understand this particular moment as one not just of crisis, but as a point of connection, as a necessary call for a commonality of carbon?”
The second question–about whether museums are the best place to present or display art of the hyperobject–should be something you think about as you read a brief background on the origins of museums as institutions in the article by Fiona Cameron “Theorising More-Than Human Collectives for Climate Change Action in Museums.” Why do museums exist? What role do they play? If museums represent our world to us, we should ask what version of the world they are representing. What are the stories that they tell? Do they reproduce the nature-culture dichotomy that the Anthropocene calls into question? Are they constructed around other assumptions (e.g., about the self, individual freedom, or ways of knowing) that the Anthropocene problematizes? And, if so, what ways might art of hyperobjects be more effectively presented or displayed?
These are important questions as we begin to think about how the class, collectively, wants to share the final projects you will all be working on.
Week 5 Class Notes–Oct 3
I came into this week with some sparse notes on the importance of seeing art as a tool or strategy for addressing a “crisis of imagination” that prevents us from either grasping or communicating meaningfully about hyperobjects like global warming or phenomena like the Anthropocene that are defined on vast spatial and temporal scales.
If you look at the first page of notes below, you’ll see this point made in the quote from Weik von Mossner in “Storytelling in the Anthropocene.”
I also brought in some passages from Mary Oliver’s poetry partly to remind us that poetry is also an art form even if it may be rooted in/constrained by(?) language.
Then during our discussion with Woodbine (and the second page of notes, at least the purple ink in the margins, captures my notes from that discussion), I sketched out a few new ideas worth elaborating briefly here:
- We live in a world whose speed is driven by technologies that either embody, or are literally fueled by, carbon that was deposited deep in the earth’s crust over millions of years yet released over an infinitesimally small fraction of that time (i.e., the last 200 years). The speed is simply too great for our emotionality–which I would argue is the “extended phenotype” most crucial to the species-level sociality on which our success as a species rests–to keep up.It’s as if, as a species, we are the aboriginal elder that Gary Snyder famously describes in The Practice of the Wild. According to Snyder’s story, as Pintubi elder Jimmy Tjungurrayi accompanied Snyder in the back of a pickup heading west from Alice Springs into ancestral lands, “he began to speak very rapidly to me. He was talking about a mountain over there, telling me a story about some wallabies that came to that mountain in the dreamtime and got into some kind of mischief with some lizard girls. He had hardly finished that and he started in on another story about another hill over here and another story over there, I couldn’t keep up. I realized after about half an hour of this that these were tales to be told while walking, and that I was experiencing a speeded-up version of what might be leisurely told over several days of foot travel.”In the Anthropocene, we are Jimmy. Background rates of change are beginning to occur at such a pace that our stories–of weather patterns, seasons, species distributions, and our relation to it all–cannot adapt quickly enough to make sense of it all.
- Escape from the oppression of pre-Enlightenment feudalism, religious orthodoxy and authoritarianism to the pursuit of liberty, progress and tolerance through reason was made possible, in part, by the freeing of information and knowledge (and to a certain extent power) from the dense communal networks and traditional institutions of agrarian society.Despite new forms of exploitation introduced in industrializing societies, the anonymity of urbanization offered a sense of freedom not available in tightly integrated communal societies. Efforts to understand this shift and its implications–whether Durkheim’s organic and mechanical types of solidarity, Weber’s four types of rationality, or Tönnies’ observation of a shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft types of social relationships–shaped the origins of the discipline of sociology.Viewing the shift as fueled, at least partially, by the same releasing of millions of years of stored energy that produced the speeding up of social life described above in 1. raises an interesting challenge for making sense of the Anthropocene:How can we construct a future in which the speed of social life slows and the lost asset of human emotional capacity is rediscovered without relinquishing the freedoms afforded by the anonymity of the very urban density made possible by access to plentiful, cheap, energy dense and highly portable fossil fuels?
My personal sense is that the answer will require a very careful consideration of scale when it comes to new forms of social organizations: neither too small or too large (in terms of space), too slow or too fast (in terms of speed of social life); nor too dense or diffuse (in terms of social networks).
If you look in the righthand margin on the first page of notes below, you’ll see an idea I jotted down regarding the ways in which a society’s scale of social organization, and subsequently its impact, might be limited when its source of energy is sun power (or daily solar income) as opposed to the burning of fossils stored over many thousands of millennia.
Week 5 “Reading Tips”
Storytelling in/about the Anthropocene: Art and Aesthetics
- “Making the Geologic Now: Introduction” (Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse, in Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life, Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse, eds., Punctum Books, 2012)
- “Imagining Geological Agency: Storytelling in the Anthropocene” (Alexa Weik von Mossner, in Whose Anthropocene? Revisiting Dipepsh Chakrabarty’s “Four Theses,” Robert Emmett and Thomas Lekan, eds., RCC Perspectives, 2016/2) [PDF]
- Anthropocenic Poetics: Ethics and Aesthetics in a New Geological Age (Sabine Wilke, in “Anthropocene: Exploring the Future of the Age of Humans,” Helmuth Trischler, ed., RCC Perspectives 2013, no. 3, 67–74) [GDRIVE]
This week’s readings are perfectly timed with our discussion, critique, and analysis of each other’s “object art” creations. The authors are artists and designers exploring the implications of the Anthropocene for their work and the newly realized potential for art and design to inform the broader cultural response to the Anthropocene.
You can see the kinds of questions prompted by such an exploration in the first reading, “Making the Geologic Now: Introduction,” from Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse’s book Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life, when they ask:
“… what might happen, what might become thinkable and possible, if we humans were to collectively take up the geologic as our instructive co-designer–as our partner in designing thoughts, objects, systems, and experiences?”
As you read this chapter, make note of other questions the authors ask. Jamie Kruse will be leading the “Amulets for the Anthropocene” workshop on Oct. 9, and both Jamie and Liz will be with us on Monday, Oct. 10 during class.
You can save yourself some time, if you like, by skipping the section titled “Making the Geologic Now: Intentions, Motivations, Provocations” in which they introduce the rest of the book. But you might want to “flip through” the rest of this digital book to see the type of work the artists represented are doing and how they are engaging questions of the Anthropocene through their work.
In the second reading, “Imagining Geological Agency: Storytelling in the Anthropocene,” Alexa Weik von Mossner argues that the Anthropocene “poses a challenge to storytelling and to the ways in which we engage with narratives that try to give us a sense of what it means when biological agents become geological agents” and that the scale of human impact on the planet results in a “crisis of the imagination.” Try to understand what the author means here as well as how she she’s storytelling adapting to these challenges.
The final reading, “Anthropocenic Poetics: Ethics and Aesthetics in a New Geological Age” by Sabine Wilke, employs gender and race and postcolonial studies perspectives to call into question dominant assumptions about objects needing to conform to the human mind in order to become products of human cognition. This is the trickiest part of the reading as Wilke references Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and other thinkers whose ideas can be tough to grasp. Do your best.
If it helps, come back to this question: Are there alternative ways of embodiment in nature that are not based on the visual gaze? Here Wilke is wondering how we might move beyond the “predominant mode of relating to nature and the environment in Western culture, i.e., the culture of looking.” In other words, if visual interaction is limited what other ways might we learn to acknowledge and experience our embodiment of our physical surroundings? How might artists, storytellers or others trigger rediscovery of these alternative ways of knowing ourselves as interconnected, profoundly intertwined with the entirety of the nonhuman world?
Week 4 Class Notes–Sept 26
If you look at the notes below, you’ll see how scattered my thinking was during class discussion. In reflecting on the discussion, I realized that it was the wide-ranging depth and quality of ideas expressed in the reading reflections (many of which are now posted to the Davies Forum blog), that caused me to throw out the window the discussion prompts I had prepared.
I’ve since reconsidered what I had prepared and enhanced it a bit in light of the reflections and our class discussion. Look first at the notes from class directly below…
- Where does the future come from? Is it predetermined and we simply enter into it? Does it already exist in the present (and, if so, how do we alter the present so as to reveal a different future)?
- How do we make sense of the paradox of the certainty that the future is coming and the uncertainty of what it holds? Noor’s translation of the Arabic word for future–“to face,” “to meet,” or “to receive”–suggests interesting possibilities.
- If sociology is the practice of “making the familiar strange,” what would be the practice of “making the strange familiar?” And, if the Anthropocene promises to be a strange and unfamiliar place, how can we nurture such a practice?
“Anticipating the future we will someday meet may very well determine how it looks when it arrives.” (Noor)
“…our later consciousness is born from our present practice, not from our present planning” (Angelina)
- Are these contradictory? If not, how do you reconcile them?
- Is it dangerous to think of the future as something that we can shape? Does this perpetuate our desire to apply our intelligence toward the end of controlling nature and/or other forces that might make the future unpredictable/undesirable?
- What would it look like to “let the future unfold?” Would this passive approach run the risk of allowing undesirable features of the present–like inequalities and injustices–to be reproduced?
As promised, here’s a bit of a follow-up on “moral imagination.” Thought to have first been introduced by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, here are a couple of definitions:
“an enduring source of inspiration that elevates us to first principles as it guides us upwards towards virtue and wisdom and redemption.” (Russell Kirk, “The Moral Imagination“)
“An intuitive ability to perceive ethical truths and abiding law in the midst of chaotic experience, the moral imagination should be an aspiration to a proper ordering of the soul and, consequently, of the commonwealth.” (Jonathon Jones, “Defining ‘Moral Imagination’“)
In digging up these definitions I realized that the there is a lot more backstory and depth to how this concept is used, especially in philosophy and theology. I’m working on a blog post that will unpack all of this more thoroughly. For now, here’s the gist of the point I was trying to make in class:
I was thinking a bit more in sociological terms where moral imagination might be understood as the ability for the self to reflect on experiences, evaluate their moral outcomes, and then anticipate the possible moral implications of future action. In other words, we can hold an idea of what is good then draw from past experiences where actions produced (or failed to produce) the desirable outcome in order to make decisions about future actions. These actions can range, for example, from what to eat or where to buy our food, to a career choice, or even choices we might make in designing and constructing a building. The utilization of technology, which I described in class as matter reorganized through the application of energy in order to extend the human reach, adds to the variety of options available to us for producing desired outcomes.
The question I was raising in class with respect to technology has to do with how moral imagination develops. Face-to-face interactions often entail emotional responses, even if very subtle, that inform us about the impacts of our actions on others. That is to say, if our notions of what is “good” require being in “right” relationship with others, then emotional cues provide essential information regarding our efforts to create and maintain such relationships.
The word ‘technology’ comes from techne (craftsmanship, craft, or practical application of art) and logos (order and knowledge; or, for Aristotle, argument from reason, “speech that proves or seems to prove“). When technological reach extends too far–whether spatially, temporally, or in other ways–it bypasses the immediate feedback acquired through direct social interaction (or even human-nonhuman interaction). In this case, the technology becomes an intervention into matter that produces order and knowledge detached from essential relationships the maintenance of which are vital to the nurturing and application of a moral imagination. So the tool itself represents a certain organization of knowledge that shapes our ideas of what is possible, and depending on its reach our use of the tool also has the potential to order the future in ways that produce certain types of consciousness which foreclose alternative futures.
This description from David Rothenberg in Hand’s End: Technology and the Limits of Nature neatly illustrates my point: “…each tool brings with it an imposition of ideas. The merger of techne and logos is the logic of action, the order of art. It shows how our dreams are constrained by what we are able to do.”
Enough of that for now. Stay tuned for a blog post where I unpack these ideas further.
The Shifting Frontier
I’ll leave you with a nicely made “trailer” for a video series on environmental ethics. I like how it raises questions about what future generations will be like (what their tastes and preferences will be, if they will even be like us at all, etc.) as a way of problematizing what good or right is today.
Week 4 “Reading Tips”
This week’s theme is “Anthropocene as stories from/about the future.” The idea is not necessarily to imagine a future, but to imagine what our present looks like from the future. In other words, how will those in the future “make sense of the anthropocene” as they look back to this period in history?
The first four readings are all attempts by authors to place themselves at some point in the future and, in doing so, make some comment about the present (or about the period of time between the present and the point in the future from which they’ve chosen to write). What do these very divergent approaches say about our present? Are these attempts to look back at the present from the future useful? How or how not?
Finally, in “Anthropocene, Catastrophism and Green Political Theory,” Luc Semal creates a 2×2 table describing four different hypotheses about the Anthropocene in terms of its possible duration (long vs short) and its possible ending (a brief convergence between human and Earth histories vs a “definitive or enduring convergence”). Spend some time on this table and try to grasp not just what the differences are among the four cells, but what the possible implications are for each of the four outcomes or “endings.”
Week 3 Class Notes–Sept 19
Here’s the outline I started class with (and some notes I added during discussion):
The next image has a thought I wrote down during our break (and later shared before beginning Aaron’s “Navigating the Anthropocene” presentation/performance). At the bottom are more notes from our discussion (including some great dialogue around what freedom might mean in the future, at what scale freedom can be observed, and freedom as dynamic as opposed to static):
A couple of pages of highlighted excerpts from the week’s readings:
And finally, although we didn’t get to discuss all of them, some excerpts from reading reflections:
Kiara: I’d like to highlight the equation she recognizes as representative of human impact. She notes another writer, saying that Human Impact (“I) equals Population Affluence times Technological Advances. I think this is extremely important to highlight from a sociological perspective as we need to recognize that the Anthropocene is a direct result of the actions of the Affluent- namely the Western world i.e. Us. I noticed in our first class that when discussing “our” collective impact on the environment and the causation of the Anthropocene, the “us” that kept being referred to was not the human species, but a much smaller subgroup: the Affluent, those in power, which leads me to my next point.
I feel that this week, more so than the previous week, we’ve begun to shift and recognize the intersectionality of social and environmental implications of the Anthropocene. While I hadn’t even considered the idea that the two could be so closely linked when I first learned of the Anthropocene, it now seems so intuitive.
Nicolas: I understand that setting the correct time is important towards realizing a proper definition that holds its merit against criticism and further developing analytical perspectives, however I personally see it as irrelevant semantics for a necessary truth.
The idea that we would one day travel and explore outside the boundaries of our own solar system phrases this potentially catastrophic moment in our own history as a mere speed bump within our own evolution.
Matt: The point I’m trying to make is that we cannot make impactful immediate changes right now, let alone the next 100 years, but we can start the healing process rather than furthering the damage by first changing what needs to be changed individually and then teaching future generations what has happened and how it can be fixed.
Cameron: if placing a specific date or time on the moment that this epoch commenced is a factor which drives those to participate in the project of ending the domination of nature by human as well as human by human – then by all means, let us say that this epoch has commenced in the immediate.
Audrey: what scares me about the Anthropocene becoming a term/idea/motion that “we” embrace is that it may push forward the notion that through technology “humans” have the ability to make “their” hegemony sustainable…it seems like alarming people with the Anthropocene might make the focus on the environmental crisis too narrow, and it might be used as a strategy to divert attention from the social injustices that are so fundamentally intertwined with the destruction of our planet and that are in my eyes the primary issue we should deal with -especially if intending to include all people under the category of human.
Katie: Wishfully thinking, global leaders and voices can utilize the Anthropocene as a positive force and an opportunity for innovation and creativity, for de-industrialization For the sustainable environmental management that lies ahead, there needs to be a prioritization of “welcoming limitations” and/or engaging in our freedoms in moderation.
Week 3 “Reading Tips”
This week’s theme is “Anthropocene: How names and stories reveal and conceal” and as such the readings emphasize the importance of how we name and define the Anthropocene.
In “On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature,” Eileen Crist focuses on a specific Anthropocene discourse which she says sees management of earth systems through technology as our destiny, that puts “ecological doom-and-gloom to rest” and that embraces “a more positive attitude about our prospects on a humanized planet. The rest of her article is a critique of this discourse adding up eventually to the expression of the following concern: “the Anthropocene discourse perpetuates the concealment that the human takeover is (by now) an unexamined choice, one which human beings have it within both our power and our nature to rescind if only we focused our creative, critical gaze upon it.”
When you finish this article, you should be able to explain in what ways the Anthropocene discourse that Crist describes “conceals” the choice we have before us. What is the choice between? What are some of the other names that might point us towards a choice other than the “unexamined choice” to which the Anthropocene discourse adheres?
- “Anthropocene: What’s in a Name?” (Ian Angus, Ecosocialist Notebook blog of Climate & Capitalism, an ecosocialist journal)
- “Against the Anthropocene” (Daniel Hartley, Salvage, Aug 31, 2015)
To really get these two readings you should investigate the authors and the publications in which the readings appear. What is their theoretical and/or political perspective? How does this perspective shape their orientation to the concept of the Anthropocene.
In Dan Hartley’s “Against the Anthropocene,” there is an important passage that captures the gist of his perspective and that you should attempt to understand the meaning of:
…the battle against the capitalist production of climate change must be waged at several levels simultaneously: of course, we must attack self-evidently ‘ecological’ phenomena such as new oil pipelines, deforestation, fracking, and such like, but – and this is crucial – we must also attack those elements of capitalist civilization which appear to have no immediate relation to ecology, but which are in fact internal conditions of its possibility: violence against women both literal and symbolic, the structural obscurity of domestic labour, institutional racism, and so on. For, at its outer limit, ecological struggle is nothing but the struggle for universal emancipation.
- “Scaling the Anthropocene: How the stories we tell matter” (Siri Veland and Amanda H. Lynch, Geoforum, Volume 72, June 2016, Pages 1–5) [GDRIVE]
If you’ve gotten this far in my “reading tips,” congratulations! That means you’re the beneficiary of my suggestion to read Veland and Lynch’s “Scaling the Anthropocene” first. It is another long read, but much of it is rehashing debates and discussions about possible start points for the Anthropocene. But there is one important difference. As you skim this discussion, try to pick up on their use of the words “story” and “storylines.” How do they suggest that each possible Anthropocene starting point presents a different storyline? And what do they mean that “storylines so far presented rest on the assumption that there can be a unified grand narrative of human-environment relations recorded in an appropriately defined anthropogenic stratal layer?”
Finally, there’s an interesting broader question that this reading brings up: What will mark the end of the Anthropocene epoch and when will it occur? If the Anthropocene marks the final and decisive intervention of humans into geological forces and Earth system processes, and we choose a geological strata accordingly, then what would a future strata look like that represents evidence of the end of the Anthropocene and beginning of another epoch?
Week 2 Class Notes–Sept 12
Here’s the outline we started class with…
- Housekeeping–reflections, projects, questions about syllabus
- Taking a step back–the environment, climate change, etc. What’s your take? Why does the Anthropocene debate matter?
- Sit spot/Change exercise–Sitting outside for ten minutes observe the change around you
- Knowledge inventory–what do you know about the Anthropocene? Definitions, issues, debates, concerns, problems
- Knowledge gap exercise–think about the topics, issues, processes, ideas or concepts that you feel like you wish you knew or that you sort of know but don’t understand fully enough to grasp some of the arguments being made in the readings. Try to make a list of these with a brief note next to each item that explains why you think it is an important knowledge gap that needs to be filled.
- Aaron’s prompt: “Please bring 15 small (hand-held size) objects to class on September 19th. These objects need to be (almost) identical. For example: 15 rolls of thread could be either all the same color (identical) or different colors (almost identical: they are the same material, size, shape, form – but are different colors). Aaron’s introduction and the full prompts are in the Google Drive Readings folder in a sub-folder titled “Additional Resources.”
A couple key quotes from the week’s readings that I intended to use to stimulate discussion:
“For some, the Anthropocene debates seem irrelevant: does it matter where in the past geologists decide to place a golden spike, when such urgent questions remain about our future? But the liveliness of the discussion reflects the explanatory promise of the Anthropocene concept: it is a debate over what kind of story can and should be told about human impact on the planet.”
“The Anthropocene is, at base, a political strategy, notwithstanding its scientific verifiability; its intent is not simply to carve humanity’s name upon the stratigraphic map, but to raise awareness of the negative planetary impact of certain activities, with the intent of altering or mitigating them.”
(from Dana Luciano’s “The Inhuman Anthropocene“)
On the self and self-concept
We spent a fair amount of time discussing the self. Here’s a quote I read from After Sustainability: Denial, Hope, Retrieval (by John Foster):
…humans, as nothing more than the natural creatures they are, are constituted as ‘selves’ by (essentially) the reflexivity of their model of consciousness. As a primate species they have had the brain size, the dispositional armory, the linguistic potential and the environmental luck to evolve a form of consciousness that can include awareness not just of these external or internal stimuli, but of its own process of awareness of these stimuli.
In discussing the self I introduced the following diagram for thinking about the self in the Anthropocene (i.e., a time when humans have supposedly become a geological force thus transgressing the perceived separation of humans and nature.
This came up in the context of our discussion of the outdoor exercise observing change. We perceive change from the relatively stable viewpoint of the self (however narrowly or broadly the self might be defined), and the self’s stability resides in the relatively slow rate of change happening around us (whether in earth or social systems).
The question I am interested in is “What happens to the self when the background systems from which it derives its stability become unstable and begin to change at rates that challenge the self’s ability to adapt?”
If the Anthropocene is defined by the collision of these systems, and their subsequent melding together produces unprecedented instability and rates of change, will we need to discover new foundations for anchoring stable selves? What examples exist from cultures or civilizations whose worldviews conceive of the self differently?
Here are some additional notes I took during class based on our discussion:
Finally, here are a bunch of copied and pasted excerpts from the week’s readings and from your own reflections. Looking them over might give you insight into some of the themes and ideas that I found particularly important:
Week 1 Class Notes–Aug 29
Here’s the outline I started class with…
Below (and downloadable as single PDF here) are the notes I came into class with, handwritten notes made during class, and post-class explications (purple arrows and text).
Here are a few follow-ups to things that came up in class:
The Copernican Revolution
I mistakenly attributed the heliocentric theory to Galileo when it was, in fact, Copernicus who first hypothesized that the earth orbited the sun (it was Galileo who later proved Copernicus correct). They discredited Ptolemy’s belief that the sun orbited the earth.
Paul Ekman is the most well-known researcher to look at the universality of emotions. He identified anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise as universal emotions by showing subjects from various cultures images of facial expressions and asking them to identify what the person was feeling (contempt was a seventh emotion but less universal than the others). You can take a variation of the test here. You might also be interested in the short video below in which Ekman describes the centrality of emotions to human relationships, including an interesting reference to how relationships with a past and intended or hoped for future are the ones we invest the most emotional energy in.
Final bit on emotions…What I was calling self-reflexive emotions (guilt, shame, embarrassment, and pride) are more commonly called “self-conscious” emotions. I’m not sure why sympathy (Sympathy (a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier and empathy (a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being are not considered among the self-conscious emotions. Regardless, I believe that sympathy, and especially empathy (and not just for other humans but also non-humans) will be vital to our future in the Anthropocene.
Chickens and the Anthropocene
When I mentioned the great coincidence that on our very first day of class the International Geological Union’s Anthropocene Working Group was presenting its recommendations to the IGU regarding designating the Anthropocene as our current epoch, I made a cryptic reference to a connection between domesticated chickens and a Golden Spike. Put briefly, the AWG suggests investigation into a wide range of possible markers, including the domestic chicken given that it is the world’s most common bird and is fossilized in landfills and waste heaps around the world.
For the full report on the AWG’s recommendations, read this nice summary: The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age (The Guardian, Aug. 29, 2016).