This week, I attended the Anthropocene Feminism conference at the Center for 21st Century Studies in Milwaukee. There, I spoke as part of a hugely enjoyable all-female (!) geophilosophy panel with Jessi Lehman and Stephanie Wakefield (organised by Rory Rowan, Elizabeth Johnson and Harlan Morehouse). On this occasion, I decided not to put together a standard paper, but something that could be described as an experiment in lyrical prose. It discusses Simone Weil’s amor fati (love of the order of the world) and Hannah Arendt’s amor mundi (love of the world). I have uploaded it here. Comments appreciated!
I would also like to thank the conference organisers for facilitating conversations between academics from such a diverse range of subjects, and Lee Mackinnon (check out her blog ‘The Speculative Ceiling’ for Anthropocene themed short stories and poems) for invaluable comments on earlier drafts.
Call for submissions
“Coined by Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen at the inception of the 21st Century, the concept of the anthropocene postulates a new geological epoch defined by overwhelming human influence upon the earth beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century. The concept has since been picked up and expanded by other scientists, chiefly but not exclusively geologists and planetary ecologists. More recently the anthropocene has caught the imagination of humanists, artists, and social scientists for whom it has provided a powerful framework through which to account for and depict the impact of climate change in a variety of media forms and practices.
In many ways, however, the anthropocene is a strikingly resonant iteration of the problematic forcefully articulated in Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” which sees the human, nonhuman, culture, and nature as inextricably entangled, and warns that the consequences of attempts to dominate human and nonhuman nature can be at once devastatingly successful and productively perverse. Indeed, the concept of the anthropocene has arguably been implicit in feminism, critical theory, and queer theory for decades, a genealogy that is largely ignored, or worse, erased, by the masculine authority of science.
By the same token, while feminists have long argued that humans are dominating and destroying the earth, turning it into standing reserve, capital, or resource to devastating ends, it is also the case that this recent articulation of the anthropocene, even as it affirms those arguments in many ways, deprives feminism of some of the normative ground upon which such indictments are based. This tension has been anticipated in ecofeminism and feminist science studies, but now, in the 21st century, the articulation of a post-natural condition in the form of a new geological age demands rigorous and sustained attention to global, ahuman forces of ecological change as well as to local spaces of vulnerability and resistance.
To this end, C21’s conference on Anthropocene Feminism will consider the ways in which feminism has long been concerned with the anthropocene, and what current interest in the anthropocene might mean for feminism, in its evolving histories, theories, and practices. More to the point, the conference seeks to highlight both why we need an anthropocene feminism and why thinking the anthropocene must come from feminism. We begin with two sets of questions.
First, how has feminism anticipated the concept of the anthropocene, and what might it yet have to offer: how can feminism help us to historicize, challenge, or refine the concept of the anthropocene? What do new materialist feminism or ecofeminism (to name just two) add to (or detract from) current humanistic understandings of the anthropocene? What does feminism have to say to the claim that humans now act as a geological force in ways that are independent of or indifferent to social, cultural, or political will or intent?
Second, and equally important, is there (or should there be) an anthropocene feminism? Put differently, does the claim that we have entered a new epoch in which humans are a major geological force on the planet call for a reconceptualization of feminism? Does feminism require a new formulation specific to the age of the anthropocene, a new historical or period designation? How should feminism in an anthropogenic age take up an altered relation to—an increased attention to or concern for—the nonhuman world?
We seek proposals for critical, historical, and theoretical papers or creative presentations that address the questions posed by the concept of “anthropocene feminism.” We encourage participants to investigate and analyze the anticipation of this concept in feminism and other related theoretical paradigms and, in turn, to speculate upon its implications. We are also interested in work that pays attention to the place of the nonhuman in feminist theory and practice, in order to offer some suggestions about how the humanities, arts, and social sciences might best treat the anthropocene as we move forward in the 21st century.
Topics we imagine proposals pursuing include but are not limited to:
- feminist genealogies of the anthropocene
- queer nature, queer ecologies, queer anthropocene
- new materialism
- quantum entanglements and agential realism
- feminism and dark ecologies
- environmental racism and transnational feminist approaches
- the anthropocene and the commons
- feminist science and science studies in the anthropocene
- anthropocene feminism after capitalism
- feminist reflections on environmental ethics and aesthetics in the anthropocene
- cyborg futures, geo-engineering, speculative ecologies
- feminism after the non-human turn
- feminist epistemologies
- feminism and climate, geo- and environmental sciences
- anthropocene utopianism/dystopianism and their antecedents
We invite contributions from theorists and practitioners of humanities, arts, and the social and natural sciences, or any others interested in the relation between feminism and the anthropocene.
Please send your abstract (up to 250 words) and a brief (1-page) CV by Friday, December 6 to Richard Grusin, Director, Center for 21st Century Studies, email@example.com.”
Image: Ellen Gallagher, ‘Abu Simbel’
Two types of invitations seem to be floating into my inbox with increasing frequency, for talks and exhibitions on the Anthropocene and Afrofuturism respectively. The latter was the subject of Union Black/The British Library’s Space Children, Kosmica’s ‘Astroculture’ event at the Arts Catalyst, Tate Modern’s Afrofuturism’s Others and the Photographers Gallery’s Afronauts by Cristina de Middel. Afrofuturism even cropped up at UCL’s interdisciplinary Cosmologies symposium as an example of a ‘dissident cosmology’. As discussed in a previous post, much Anthropocene themed art uses geology as a starting point to re-think the human as a geologic agent. Afrofuturism, by contrast, (re)imagines African (especially African diaspora) pasts and futures through flamboyant scifi and spiritual aesthetics. Canonical examples include the music Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, Nona Hendryx and Drexciya, the writing of Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson and Samuel Delaney, and the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rammellzee and Renée Cox.
Despite their apparent aesthetic differences and citational practices, there seems to be a dialogue between the two genres that goes beyond mere navigation between far pasts and futures. Looking at the common reference of the cosmic and its role as both origin and culturally marked space, the first part of the dialogue could be summed up as: who (or what) makes the future? Is it geologic or cosmic forces? Is it humans? And, if it is humans, what sorts of humans? Poor, rich, Black, White, male, female, straight, gay? Scientists or politicians? None of these assumed polarities? Here, Afrofuturism does not provide an answer, but possibilities. First of all, it confronts us with our expectations of ‘race’. As Lisa Yaszek writes:
‘[f]rom the ongoing war on terror to Hurricane Katrina, it seems that we are trapped in an historical moment when we can think about the future only in terms of disaster — and that disaster is almost always associated with the racial other.’
Or, in Anthropocene terms: rich White people cause disaster, poor Black people are its victims. While people in the ‘global North’ indeed have a disproportional share in furthering climate change, such framings have led to warnings about a potential resurgence of ‘old… tropes of racial capability’, as issued, for instance, by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Nigel Clark. Rather than trying to silence the debate, they call for an exploration of ‘the ‘primitivism’ inscribed in our bodies, psyches and cultures’. It is such inscriptions of primitivism that Afrofuturism plays with, not only regarding African cultures, but all cultures. The play with Egyptian origins and aesthetics by Sun Ra and Ellen Gallagher exemplifies the historical struggle over cultural legacies and the construction of ‘high culture’ and primitivism.
Image: Still from Sun Ra’s ‘Space is the Place’ film
Although often humorous in nature, the Egyptian imagery points to questions about whom this construction continues to serve and about how it can be rewritten. The origin of Afrofuturism in the ‘global North’ further contributes to the cultural challenge. As South African digital artist Tegan Bristow phrases it: ‘[u]nlike what it suggests, Afrofuturism has nothing to do with Africa, and everything to do with cyberculture in the West’. Seen from this angle, the origin as well as the necessity of the term ‘Afrofuturism’ underscore the fact that the ‘African’ and African diaspora have routinely been excluded from ‘modern’ and techno-futurist visions and set apart from the ‘mainstream’ (there is an excellent talk by Madhu Dubey on this topic here). Here I am reminded of Octavia Butler’s response (around 7 minutes in) to a White science fiction author who argued that there is no necessity for Black people to appear in their novels, because statements about the Other can be made through aliens. In an inversion of stereotypes, some Afrofuturist commentators highlight the ‘primitivism’ of a science that seeks to classify the ‘primitive’, pointing to mainstream science’s contribution to racism and genocide at various moments in history (examples can be found in Alondra Nelson’s book Body and Soul and in this catalogue on Ellen Gallagher).
Similarly, the Anthropocene discourse practices inversion as a strategy to unsettle visions of modernity and to search for new models of human agency. Although scientists have not been able to agree on a potential beginning for the proposed new era, the industrial revolution and its heavy reliance on fossil fuel consumption remains a strong contender. When it comes to our (primitive?) dependency on these energy sources, scientists and social scientists have started to re-examine preconceived notions of cause and effect: are fossil fuels shaping human society and not the other way round? (Yusoff, Moore, Roddier) What kind of agency do humans have to affect social and environmental change? Are new strategies in order? Again, such debates, draw on arguments about our current interpretation of ‘modernity’: what kind of ‘rationality’ should modernity (and ‘modern science’) follow? Do ‘subaltern modernities’ reflect a more accurate vision of modernity? Can humans see themselves as a ‘species’?
Turning back to Afrofuturism, sociologist and writer Alondra Nelson suggests that it represents more than a critique of modernity – it is about ‘aspirations for modernity’. Rather than dwelling on the negative, it ‘enables thought about a lineage of work that propels future other work’ that co-shapes the future. It is occupied with the ‘living future’ (to use Barbara Adam & Chris Groves’s term), the potential for different futures inherent in the present. One trajectory that Afrofuturism pursues is a reshuffling of difference. According to Nelson, popular interest in genetics and the potential discovery of links to previously unknown, geographically distributed ancestors, is, despite its focus on physical difference, already unsettling and reshaping identities, both at the micro and macrolevel (audio here).
Ellen Gallagher, ‘IGBT’
In this context, an important question was asked at the Tate Modern, in conjunction with artist Ellen Gallagher’s AxMe exhibition: who can be an Afrofuturist? Entitled, ‘Afrofuturism’s Others’, the organisers, panellists and audience explored whether Afrofuturists could be anything other than African American. In discussing the work of Kara Walker, Lili Reynaud Dewar, Larissa Sansour, Mehreen Murtaza, Jean Genet, Ellen Gallagher and others, the case was made that Afrofuturism contemplates an absence of racial and geographical boundaries. In particular, the speakers considered the problematic, but also potentially productive relation between racialization, as turning certain humans into part of the ‘productive landscape’, and ‘species being’, which is also a materialisation, but one that can go either way in terms of dealing with difference (the work of Sylvia Wynter was mentioned). The works discussed included examples of deliberate and accidental solidarities: art and music that referenced ‘Afrofuturists’ or became interpreted as ‘Afrofuturist’ on the basis of aesthetic (mis)interpretation (curator and co-organiser Zoe Whitley described a humorous encounter where she misread a painted black figure as signifying ‘Black’).
Image: Mehreen Murtaza, ‘Divine Invasion’
Here, a second trajectory seems to emerge that asks not only ‘what is ‘afro’, but ‘what could the ‘afro’ be and do?’ This takes us to the ‘Africa is (not) a country’ awareness campaign (example blog here). As many African Americans point out, the slavery system often deprived them of more detailed knowledge about their ancestry other than ‘African’. At the same time, the ‘African’ has acquired meaning for the community and is increasingly also tied to particular political imaginations. During my visit to Detroit, I found that African American activists were talking about promoting an ‘African model’ of community and of reshaped institutions against the ‘White corporate’ model. At a film screening of Branwen Okpako’s ‘The Education of Auma Obama’ at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, African visions of trajectories for modernity again came up, prompted by Auma Obama’s discussion (in the film) with Kenyan students about the kind of lifestyles they are hoping to pursue. Obama asked her students to consider what premise notions of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ are based on. Development of/towards what? Industrial farming, increased levels of consumption, loss of community? Why could certain ‘African’ models of living not hold the key to human development? Seen through the lens of Afrofuturism, one could say that if the ‘afro’ can be shaped into something coherent, this move does not necessarily imply a wish to do away with nuances and differences. Instead, it could be read as a productively employed and reframed cliché that critiques a privileged socio-economic model. Its future trajectory could indeed transcend its current context. The question here might be phrased as: can established categories be rejected by getting contemporary ‘non-Others’ to adopt the model that is normally deemed ‘other’?
Image: from Cristina de Middel, ‘Afronauts’
The corresponding Anthropocene question might be put as ‘what could the ‘geo’’ be and do? The logic seems to be that if the human can be a geologic force, how else is human life geophysical – and how could this perspective lead to a more constructive reframing of politics and the social? Especially since, thanks to climate change, the stability of the ‘meteorological White middle class’ (as a recent German TV satire described Europe) might become seriously unsettled… So far, quite a few proposals have tried to put human politics into perspective: we might do all these politics for economic power – but at the end of the day, when oil is used up, the water is polluted and the temperature is up, our role as a geologic force might be unsatisfactorily short. Shouldn’t humans work more in cooperation in the face of geophysical processes that will carry on without consideration of human needs? It is interesting to note that some of the most interesting proposals have again been excluded from the ‘mainstream’ and have been consigned to the area of ‘post-colonial ecologies’. I am thinking here especially of French-Caribbean discussions of geopoetics (Maximin, Glissant, Condé etc). Conversely, scholars from post-colonial studies, such as DeLoughrey and Handley, have criticised that ‘Westerners’ are in search of ‘Other’ models to bring a much needed conceptual injection. This debate raises questions about the conditions under which dialogue should take place.
For me, visiting Ellen Gallagher’s exhibition at the Tate Modern (on view until 1 September 2013) synthesized the dialogue between Anthropocene and Afrofuturism even more intensely (enter the ‘Afrocene’?). Walking through the different rooms, I was struck by what I experienced as a ‘hypermaterialisation’ of layers and layers of material and meaning. Many art critics have commented on her relationship with the material, for example, Gallagher’s wish to ‘maintain the ‘vulnerability’ of her materials and their forms’ (Shiff), her use of African American wigs as a conduit to the supernatural (de Zegher), but few manage to capture the intensity of an entire retrospective. Robin Kelly comes the closest: he describes his encounter with Ellen Gallagher’s work as ‘confounding’.
‘To confound is not simply to confuse, but to surprise or perplex by challenging received wisdom. It also means to mix up or fail to discern differences between things.’
I don’t think any term could be more accurate. To me, Gallagher’s shifts between meanings of medicine and wig adverts, ‘high’ and ‘low’ art/culture references, ‘nature’ (I especially loved the title ‘Double Natural’) and ‘blackness’, marine creatures, minstrel imagery, ambiguous organic shapes and political pamphlets rendered tangible the multiple ways in which people are being materialised and enlisted as part of social and economic production: overworked and stuck in a job you cannot get out of? Pop a pill. More ‘organic’ than society’s ideal? Neighbours throwing bombs into your house? Buy a wig. Keep calm and carry on. The sheer ridiculousness of the enterprise as well as our complicity in it becomes apparent. Does Gallagher suggest any way out? It seemed to me that she was perhaps implying that the path towards more productive forms of materialisation may lie not only in realising the ridiculousness, but to start from it. Geology and politics? Ridiculous! Africans in space? Ridiculous! A more equal global society? Ridiculous! Or is it?
This is just my luck: I am writing/researching for an article on the Anthropocene that looks at the work of the Négritude movement, and – bang! – two conferences, one on each of the topics, arrive at once, unfortunately on the same day! Incidentally, they also share the same (affordable!) price tag… Here are the invitations for both conferences, in case some of you would like to go to either of them:
Confirmed speakers include: Professors Richard and Sally Price (College of William and Mary, Virginia), Charles Forsdick (Liverpool), Roger Little (Trinity College, Dublin), Romuald Fonkoua (Sorbonne, Paris).
Advance Registration required by 17 June 2013.
More information here.
Conference 2, entitled ‘Society in the Anthropocene’, is taking place at the University of Bristol on 24 and 25 June 2013.
The draft programme can be downloaded here.
Postscript: Recordings of the Bristol conference can be found here.
Looking forward to next week’s Association of American Geographers conference in Los Angeles.
I will now be speaking in two sessions at the AAG, as I have just been added to a roundtable discussion on the Anthropocene with Nigel Clark (Lancaster), Andrea Nightingale (Edinburgh), Noel Castree (Manchester), Luke Bergman (Washington) and Keith Woodward (Wisconsin-Madison).
This year, there is also a mobile app for the conference, which can be downloaded here.
Couldn’t help but post this: the geologic gone pop! And here are some informed comments courtesy of the Scientific American blog…
Image source: Michael C.C. Lin from the forthcoming book Architecture in the Anthropocene: Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, edited by Etienne Turpin (Hong Kong: MAP Office/MAP Books Publishers, 2013)
Next year, I will be participating in an AAG session entitled ‘Re-evaluating the Anthropocene, Resituating ‘Anthropos” (session abstract posted below). The session is organised by Harlan Morehouse (University of Minnesota) and Elizabeth Johnson (University of Wisconsin). Am very much looking forward to the discussions! Here is my presentation abstract:
We are the World: Ideologies and material representations
For the majority of social theorists, human relations with materiality, the world and the cosmos have been connected to fear and alienation, and to the instrumentalisation of these sentiments to gain political influence. At any moment in history, representations of materiality have been used politically to deny aspects of human/world relations and to undermine productive responses. Current examples include the denial of anthropogenic climate change and, conversely, calls for the abolition of democracy, deemed ‘unable to deal’ with the consequences of future planetary transformations, in favour of more authoritarian structures.
The work of authors such as Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin and Simone Weil acknowledges the importance of thinking at and beyond the planetary scale to counter the instrumentalisation of alienation and the construction of ‘preferred realities’. For these authors, identification with the world and the cosmos has nothing to do with escapism or ‘materialising’ humans, but with warding oneself against being reduced to passive matter by ideologies that deny certain material relations through idealised constructions. For Weil, for instance, to identify with the universe means to cultivate a preoccupation not with tangible materialism, but with an intangible one, focused on thoughts and ‘the perpetual exchange of matter’, in which humans take part.
Bringing together past and present writing on materiality, this paper seeks to highlight the significance of representing human-world relations for constructions of political agency and to propose early and mid-twentieth century conceptualisations of ‘great reality’ as one potential pathway for thinking the human as a geological political agent.
Call for Papers: Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (Los Angeles, April 9-13, 2013)
Re-evaluating the Anthropocene, Resituating ‘Anthropos’
In 2000, Crutzen and Stoermer gave name to a new geological epoch. The “Anthropocene” demarked a post-Holocene present and future in which human activity was understood to be the dominant agent of change in the global environment (2000). Understandably, such a sweeping claim has been viewed unfavorably within critical geographical and environmental scholarship, generating arguments that Crutzen and Stoermer’s concept only offers a new, albeit negative, story of human’s mastery of the earth’s processes. Nigel Clark (2011), for example, has suggested that the term neglects the presence – and force – of terrestrial processes that exist independently from human relationships. Similar criticisms have emerged from the substantial and diverse literature on more-than-human geographies, which aim to dislodge anthropocentrism by granting nonhuman actors and processes more prominent positions in everyday events as well as the meaning and experience of social, political, and historical change (cf. Latour 2004, Serres 2010, Bennett 2011, Badmington 2000, Braun and Whatmore 2010, Castree et al. 2004).
These perspectives have been instrumental in shaping critical responses to Crutzen and Stoermer’s hyperbolic claims. However, recent work in philosophy and the humanities invites an alternative reading of the “Anthropocene,” one that that is more sympathetic to these critiques and that does not elevate or reinscribe humanity as the principal agent of global environmental change, but rather situates it as one force in a field of material processes (Morton 2012). Further, such a reading would recognize unique states of affairs that signal the “collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” (Chakrabarty 2009) – a sentiment paralleling the suggestion that the Anthropocene announces a shift from the human as biological entity to that of humanity as a geological agent. In these sessions we wish to revisit the idea of the Anthropocene in order to work towards a politics capable of responding to the epistemological and ontological challenges posed by 21st century environmental uncertainty. In spite of its originary hyperbole, the idea of the Anthropocene nevertheless compels us to rethink life amongst the myriad and strange mixtures of social, natural, and socio-natural processes, and in doing so come to terms with materialities that far outstrip the relative inconsequentiality of a human experience of space and time. Or, to echo Morton, it inspires us to ‘think big, and maybe even bigger than that’ (2010). Framing questions include, but are not limited to:
• How does the introduction of global, geological humanity as a singular subject challenge, complement, and/or modify discourses of critical environmental thought?
• If we identify the ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene with something as ‘massively distributed in space and time’ (Morton 2010), what limitations do we (as individuals) experience? And what are the implications for considering issues of environmental ethics, responsibility, and politics?
• In what ways does the meaning of “human” change in the movement between biological and geological agency?
• How might critical environmental thought acknowledge the crucial role independent terrestrial processes play in the constitution and experience of material realities while acknowledging humanity’s capacity to shape the earth at multiple scales and in numerous ways?
In light of the above, the organizers of this session welcome novel socio-ecological perspectives that critically reflect on the idea of the Anthropocene, examining its impacts on 21st century environmental thought and politics. Please send inquiries / abstracts of no more than 250 words to Harlan Morehouse (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Elizabeth Johnson (email@example.com) by October 5th 2012.
Badmington, N. (2000). Posthumanism. New York, Palgrave.
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Braun, B. and S. Whatmore (2010). “The Stuff of Politics: An Introduction.” Political Matter. Minneapolis, MN: U. of Minnesota Press.
Castree, N., C. Nash, et al. (2004). “Mapping posthumanism: an exchange.” Environment and Planning A 36: 1341-1363.
Chakrabarty, D. (2009). “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35(Winter): 197-222.
Clark, N. (2011). Inhuman nature : sociable life on a dynamic planet. Los Angeles ; London, SAGE.
Crutzen, P.J. and Stoermer, E.F. (2000). “The Anthropocene.” IGBP Newsletter 41(17): 17- 18.
Latour, B. (2004). Politics of Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morton, T. (2012). “On Entering the Anthropocene.” A lecture at the Environmental Humanities Symposium, University of New South Wales, August 23, 2012. Available at http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/2012/08/on-entering-anthropocene-mp3.html
Morton, T. (2010). The ecological thought. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Serres, M. (2010). Biogea. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Press.
This year, there has been an explosion of Anthropocene themed events: academic conferences, design shows and particularly art exhibitions, it seems. And there are more in the making: The Deutsches Museum in Munich is preparing the exhibition ‘Anthropocene – Nature and Technology in the Age of Humans’, the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute has announced a symposium entitled ‘Society in the Anthropocene’ and publishing giant Elsevier is launching an ‘Anthropocene’ journal in 2013.
What is the Anthropocene? The Anthropocene is not a fixed geological epoch as yet, but rather a proposal for one. Coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer and popularised by Nobel-Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen, the term translates as ‘The Age of Man’ or ‘The Age of Humans’. It basically implies that humans have come to dominate geo-physical activity on Earth and are affecting phenomena such as the planet’s climate at an unprecedented level. So far, scientists have not been able to agree on a date when the Anthropocene is supposed to have started: with the industrial revolution and its emission/population spike – or with the invention and proliferation of agriculture? I am not sure what exactly was submitted to the Geological Society in London in 2008, but whatever it was, the verdict is still out. In any case, the concept is increasingly gaining traction in popular discourse.
Why am I interested in this? First of all, most geographers are keeping an eye on the debate, because that’s their job: to keep up with what’s going on with our planet and how we (or other creatures) might deal with this information (e.g. migrate, change government, die out, adopt a new philosophy or life-style, change breeding patterns, do geo-engineering etc). But within this interest, there are obviously different areas that geographers are looking at. As I also teach in art and design, I am particularly invested in how artists and designers are engaging with the Anthropocene. Again, there is a huge diversity of creative projects. Some are more commercially orientated, in that they seek to take advantage of the potential new requirements of a new epoch. Others are more theoretical, for instance, redirection of architectural interest towards a double bind of land and form. And still others are overtly political, in trying to prompt a rethinking and remaking of current ways of living. (Will the frame of the Anthropocene help in this endeavour?)
What interests me most, at the moment, is the navigation between two areas: the geo-political, by which I mean the future of global politics and their response to planetary changes, and what at many events has been called the ‘geo-poetic’: ways of relaying the vast spatio-temporalities implicit in thinking geologically. When artists and other people produce Anthropocene-themed work, these areas often intersect, with varying emphases. It appears to be very much the same scenario as with, for instance, exhibitions on new technologies or environmental issues which fall into the category of ‘invisible risk’: artwork, computer games or other media trying to make tangible the scales we cannot experience (whether this is the atomic or the global scale), the causalities and consequences we cannot grasp (how do pesticides end up in Antarctic penguins? How come we cannot prove that leukemia cases near nuclear powerstations are causally related?) or the future trajectories we could help shape (e.g. the difficulty of taking action for far future intergenerational justice).
Indeed, a theme that unites the majority of Anthropocene art and design based events is the capacity of these fields to ‘sensitise’ their audiences to their new role as a geological actant. As the artists from Smudge Studio put it, through their exhibitions they wished to make people aware that ‘geologic time is not composed of us – we are composed of it’. Many other examples were described in symposia such as ‘The Geologic Turn’ (organised by Etienne Turpin at the University of Michigan) or ‘The Geological Turn’ (organised by artist Gabo Guzzo with London’s Banner Repeater Gallery). These ranged from rocks as an object of scientific, philosophical and popular interest (e.g. Jane Hutton, D Graham Burnett, Edward Eigen), confetti cannons in which ‘each piece of paper matched to the colours of the brightest explosions in the universe’ (Katie Paterson’s 100 Billion Suns), the exponential curve as the new cultural meme (Seth Denizen) to the interactive creation of new representative diagrams for our era (Gabo Guzzo).
The question that poses itself for me could be phrased as: ‘what happens after all this sensitisation?’ From my previous work, I have inherited the following tension: on the one hand, I have become extremely cynical about the ability of creative practice/affective methods to facilitate change/action/re-thinking by itself. Other things around it have to happen. In my work on public engagement with nanotechnology, I found that no matter now much creative practice you embed, if the channels that recognise or can process the outcomes of these creative engagements are not in place, nothing much at all happens (and what these creative practices represent to the audiences involved, of course, plays another role, but that is the subject for another post/article). On the other hand, it can be argued that ‘poetic interventions’ can help gather people round an issue – and these people can then put on pressure so that these channels are put into place. Working with this tension, I am trying to think about ways that artists, designers, social scientists can productively engage with it, especially when called on to put together ‘official’ public engagements.
Rather than just looking at the interactions between art, politics and theory today, I am also guided in this endeavour by looking at theory-art relations at the turn of the last millennium, where people were wrestling with a change of world view brought on by a move from classical to non-classical physics and the transition from imperialist regimes to (democratic/totalitarian) nation states. At this time, the early and mid-20th-century, an explosion of creativity occurred, which also tried to bring into dialogue the geo-poetic and geo-political. The unifying theme of this time appears to have been the ‘inhuman’ of both matter and human interactions (I have started to explain this in my article ‘Negotiating the Inhuman: Bakhtin, Materiality and the Instrumentalisation of Climate Change, forthcoming in Theory, Culture and Society in March 2013), addressed by authors such as Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin and Simone Weil – and artists in all fields, from music to painting (Artaud, Brecht, Meyerhold, Schoenberg, Auden, Dali, Duchamp…). Often, close links existed between artists and theorists. Here, the question for me is: what can we learn from these past experiments? What can we learn as artists, theorists, public engagement practitioners?
I will post regular updates on the project, including relevant events and calls for submissions. Comments or e-mails are, as always, appreciated.
For people who liked the Terra Infirma workshop and/or the Geologic Turn symposium, here are two days of presentations and discussions at Lancaster University:
Political Geology: Stratigraphies of Power 21 June 2012, 11am – 5pm
(In)determinate Subjects: Indeterminacy & Justice 22 June 2012, 10am – 6pm
The events are described as follows:
Political Geology: Stratigraphies of Power
‘With what language can we describe the politics of the Earth? ‘Geopolitics’ should be the name of that language; yet the geopolitical lexicon is strangely lacking in any reference to the Earth System, to its structures and resistances, its deep time and its sudden upheavals. In recent decades, social and political theory has undertaken a number of biological turns, giving rise for example to political ecology, ecological economics and theories of biopolitics. But, despite Deleuze and Guattari’s exploration of ‘geophilosophy’, there has been no comparable geological turn – no concerted inquiry into the ways that the geophysical, as much as the biological, conditions what politics is and can be. However, debates about the Anthropocene seem to mark a growing recognition of humankind as a geological force. At the same time, unregenerate seismic, volcanic, atmospheric and other geomorphological forces attest to the limits of the human, yet also propel and incite human agency.
This workshop will explore the possibilities for a political vocabulary that can articulate the geophysical dimensions of politics and the political dimensions of the geophysical.’
Speakers will include:
Nigel Clark (Open University), Deborah Dixon (Aberystwyth University), Stuart Elden (Durham University), Myra Hird (Queen’s University, Canada), Arun Saldanha (University of Minnesota), Bronislaw Szerszynski (Lancaster University) and Kathryn Yusoff (Lancaster University).
Cost for attending (including lunch): £20; £10 for students or Lancaster staff.
This workshop is organised by the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change and the Lancaster Environment Centre. To book a place, or for more information, go to
http://bit.ly/politicalgeology or contact Bronislaw Szerszynski (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(In)determinate Subjects: Indeterminacy & Justice
‘Increasing attention has been given to exploring how to account for entities that are both between time and between natures, such as subject/objects, forms of biotic, technoscientific and inhuman life. This conversation will ask: In what ways can indeterminate entities be observed within (and in excess of) the material/practical conditions of their emergence? How do these conditions create different kinds of responsibility(and new vocabularies which trouble and expand the contours of ‘responsibility’) which we may not have yet anticipated? How can we imagine alternative forms of accounting which apprehend ontological and temporal conditions of precarity and justice? By exploring these and further questions we hope the conversation will help us explore alternative forms of experimentality and human – inhuman configurations which may take new account of indeterminacy and move us towards a more enduring postrelational politics.’
Speakers include: Myra Hird (Queens), Rebecca Ellis (Lancaster University), Claire Waterton (Lancaster University), Nigel Clark (Open University), Natasha Myers (York University) Elizabeth Barron (Harvard University), Filippo Bertoni (University of Amsterdam), Hayder Al-Mohammad (University of Southampton), Arun Saldanha (University of Minnesota), Kathryn Yusoff (Lancaster University) with Celia Roberts (Lancaster University), Maureen McNeil (Lancaster University), and Lucy Suchman (Lancaster University).
To reserve a place contact email@example.com