IN A 2008 ESSAY TITLED “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit, an accomplished writer, recounts her encounter at a party in Aspen with “an imposing man who’d made a lot of money.” Having just published a book on time, space, and technology in the work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, Solnit responded to the man’s query about her writing career with an attempt to describe her latest project, only to be interrupted and told that another “very important book” on the subject had come out recently, and that he had read about it in the New York Times Book Review. Her friend’s multiple interjections that it was actually Solnit’s book the man was talking about were consistently ignored—until he eventually took it in, “went ashen,” and then “began holding forth again.” “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about,” concludes Solnit. “Some men.” The essay struck a nerve with many readers and with women readers in particular because it captured, knowingly and poignantly, the ongoing gendering of dominant epistemologies.
While I am wary of scoring points too easily by essentializing the political argument by pinning it to its author’s gender identity—indeed, I would much rather quote Barack Obama than Sarah Palin on healthcare, Alain Juppé than Marine Le Pen on immigration, and Jeremy Corbyn than Theresa May on austerity—Solnit’s intimations seem regrettably pertinent when it comes to the shaping of the Anthropocene narrative and the way it has been transmitted in both scholarly and mainstream literature. This is why I have decided to adapt her tongue-in-cheek phrase as a frame for approaching the Anthropocene story here. Interestingly, its central protagonist, Anthropocene Man, arrives on stage already lacking. Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook ponder whether this Man isn’t perhaps just “an effect of its own delusions of self-erasure.” They then go on to suggest, “Humanity comes into being, late in the day, when it declares itself to no longer exist, and when it looks wistfully, in an all too human way, at a world without humans. The human is an effect of a declaration of non-being: ‘I do not exist; therefore I am.’” The story about the end of man has actually been used thus to aggrandize Man as both subject and species, covering the foundational emptiness at its center as well as obscuring the very gesture of Man’s erection as man. Kathryn Yusoff argues that “the Anthropocene has made man an end and origin in himself,” in the process excluding or even impeding “the apprehension of important forms of differentiation and genealogical critique that might be useful in forestalling the continuation of the very conditions that produced this threshold moment.” It is thus not so much the actual gender of the storytellers that troubles me about the Anthropocene narrative but rather the gendered mode and tenor of this narrative, with its messianic-apocalyptic undertones and its masculinist-solutionist ambitions.
As a result, the apocalyptic narrative of the Anthropocene also has an ontological dimension: it brings forth a temporarily wounded yet ultimately redeemed Man who can conquer time and space by rising above the geological mess he has created. The gender undertones of this new kind of planetary messianism reverberate through various articulations of the new epoch. When the Anthropocene Group, a subset of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, first convened in Berlin in 2014 to discuss whether the intensification of human activity deserved to be identified with a new term, “of the 29 scientists the working group listed on its website as members at the time of the meeting, only one was a woman.” This state of events prompted the Guardian journalist Kate Raworth to suggest: “Just call it the Manthropocene.” Again, it is not so much the number of men informing “us” about the Anthropocene—a situation that reflects first of all the structural gender “bias” of the sciences as such—that is of primary concern to me but rather the gendering of the Anthropocene debate coupled with its key authors’ blindness to their own discursive tropes and points of reference, not to mention the sources drawn on and the authors cited.
And thus men explain the Anthropocene to me: I am thinking here of not just the members of the Stratigraphy committee, led by Jan Zalasiewicz, but also other scientists, science writers, culture managers, and humanities scholars. Stephen Emmott, head of Microsoft’s computational science research and author of the book Ten Billion, has declared “an unprecedented planetary emergency”; Bernd M. Scherer, Director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, which ran a two-year Anthropocene project, has announced, “We have reached a Tipping Point”; while postcolonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has claimed that “what scientists have said about climate change challenges not only the ideas about the human that usually sustain the discipline of history but also the analytic strategies that postcolonial and post-imperial historians have deployed in the last two decades in response to the post-war scenario of decolonization and globalization.” The latter is particularly telling because, in the disciplinary conjuncture that has been at the forefront of challenging the normative gendering and racialization of the human subject, the return to the human as the agent of history has ushered back in many previously contested concepts and units of analysis—science, objectivity, nature, environment, crisis—with the sexless yet so-very-gendered Man being elevated back to the center point of both investigation and action. And thus, as Colebrook highlights, “After years of theory that contested every naturalization of what was ultimately historical and political, ‘man’ has returned.” Chakrabarty and others seem to be telling us that there is no time for textualist language games and other humanities pastimes anymore because “scientists,” telling it like it is, have issued us with a more urgent task: we have to save the world and ourselves in it. The Anthropocene narrative therefore carries with it an injunction issued to “humanity as such” to move forward quickly and urgently while there is still time. Significantly, Cohen and Colebrook point out that the narrative of humans as a destructive species has not only generated the imperative to survive—“If ‘we’ discover ourselves to be an agent of destruction, then ‘we’ must re-form, re-group and live on”—it has also produced what they term a “hyper-humanism,” which I would like to rename here as Project Man 2.0.