THE EARTH BURNS HOT, but I’ve read the books.
The rapidly growing discourse of Anthropocene humanities challenges readers and thinkers to engage with a field in motion, in which new books, articles, and journals appear almost weekly. Rival ’cenes have been straining forward and puffing their chests. What we need from this seething cauldron of rival terms and points of view is not a discourse of mastery—one ’cene to rule them all—but a route into plurality. The Age of Anthropos invites introspection and political outrage, but the now-unavoidable ’cenic term also requires careful parsing. Faced with multiple narratives in multiple, overlapping discourses from the sciences to many kinds of humanities, all of which claim to describe our unstable environmental now, readers and scholars may be forgiven for a certain befuddled or baffled attitude. What are we meant to do with all this Anthropocene writing? To which question I proffer a #hashtag ready for bumper stickers and coffee cups: #pluralizetheanthropocene!
The pluralizing project emerges from an urgent need to renarrate the apocalyptic story in which Old Man Anthropos destroys the world. The material substrate of that narrative of doom seems perfectly accurate: the burning of fossil fuels has destabilized the earth system, with violent and unsettling consequences. Whether you call the unprecedented results “global warming,” the Anthropocene, the “sixth extinction,” or, in Bruno Latour’s now-preferred term, the “New Climactic Regime,” the contours of this disturbed world are legible in our cities, bodies, and systems of measurement. We need to take stock and situate ourselves amid disorder. Familiar responses to immensity and change, from religious awe to the Romantic sublime, seem inadequate or inappropriate to the task at hand. In a compelling aside in New Literary History, Latour laments the loss of “the feeling of the sublime” that since classical antiquity described the heights of literary meaning, but he also anticipates a renovation or replacement of such elevation: “What’s next? The successor of the sublime is under construction” (476). Rather than replace or remodel the Romantic superstructures we have inherited from the philosophical traditions of Kant and Burke and the literary forms of Milton and Shakespeare, it may be time to assemble something new, or at least newly dynamic. We must admit nonhuman disorder into the fold, as Latour and many others insist. But perhaps more importantly, we must also salvage amid our ruins the humane values of openness and sympathy. A plural Anthropocene seeks justice and embraces difference.
A pluralized Anthropocene proposes only partial orders. The pluralizing project refuses mastery and fantasies of wholeness in favor of a dynamic and disorderly system. An agglomeration of partial overlapping and sometimes conflicting perspectives replaces the singularity of capital-A Anthropos. We’re left with messy assemblages overflowing with human and nonhuman agents and structures. This plural hodgepodge recovers from classical linguistics the gender plurality that both the Greek anthropos and the Latin homo obscure; these words mean “Man” in a collective sense, but under patriarchy they have a tendency to refer only to males. Among the key positive values of a pluralized Anthropocene are a flexible approach to scale, a capacity for dynamic speculative range, the ability to respond to catastrophic change, and self-reflexive curiosity. These capabilities, as some readers will have already noted, are often grouped among the special habits or talents of humanist thinking. That’s good: we need the human and posthuman both. In what follows I aim to brew a rich combination of human and nonhuman flavors. To pluralize means to entangle and enter into: the Anthropocene that results from this process will be intimate and painful, resonating with stories from the human past and gesturing toward an uncertain future. To get to plurality we must break up the hard soil of the Anthropocene.
This project refuses any Anthropocene monoculture. On a basic level, that refusal includes rejecting the masculine and technocratic monopoly of the Anthropocene Working Group, which has recently settled on 1950 as its “Golden Spike” origin date, thus making the Anthropocene roughly synonymous with the Great Acceleration after World War II. Beyond Golden Spike–ism, however, I set pluralization against any rigid analysis of the Anthropocene as a purely physical phenomenon, from the works of scientific thinkers such as Paul Crutzen, Eugene Stoermer, and Jay Zalasiewicz, to activist Bill McKibben’s focus on the magic number 350, upon which he founded 350.org in 2008, with the number indicating the maximum allowable parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. McKibben and the scientists on whom he relies aren’t wrong about the history of carbon—they are painfully, brutally accurate—but their nostalgia for a time “before” blinds them to the presence of Anthropocene effects prior to industrialization. I instead proffer a composting model of anthropogenic climate change, in which human activities have been destroying and remaking nonhuman environments since the earliest uses of fire, with massively more destructive accumulations of carbon since the Industrial Revolution layering themselves on top of a preindustrial base. Human history in this model represents the accumulation and thickening of anthropogenic pressures as human populations expand in numbers and geographic range. Refusing monocultures requires that we entangle multiple historical Anthropocenes, intermingling scientific observations and cultural obsessions. We must refuse the antihistoricism of once-and-for-all origin stories and the anthropocentrism that can only make sense of human stories on human scales.
To construct a pluralized Anthropocene, multiple possible conceptions of this epoch must overlap, connect, and entangle in ways that may seem only partially legible. A posthuman network of human and nonhuman actors may be difficult to reconcile with humane desires for racial, sexual, and class-based justice—but no one said the Anthropocene was going to be easy. The essential technology for engaging plurality, however, is one we already have: stories. The pluralizing project, which I take to be the essential contribution that humanities scholars can make to Anthropocene discourse, entails recognizing the controlling function of narrative in human history. Stories facilitate our responses to Anthropocene forces. Narrative cultures create mechanisms and patterns that engage, manipulate, and cherish radical change. The historical wisdom of humanities scholarship can help pluralize and make legible the swirling cauldron of discourses that populate our environmental present.
The project will require some steps along the way.
Untranslating Old Man Anthropos
His name is a problem. It’s too male, too Greek, too monolithic. Contemporary theorists may argue that the Anthropocene is, counterintuitively, a nonanthropocentric moment, even, in Timothy Morton’s breathless phrase, that “‘Anthropocene’ is the first fully antianthropocentric concept.” But even with this jiu-jitsu, Old Man Anthropos takes up too much space, in the world, in critical theory, and as the cause of so much ecological devastation. Anthropos occupies the dominant and destructive positions: old, rich, male, presumptively white, brutally normative. Before we can make progress with the term, we need to unweave the forces hidden within the figure.
Treating Anthropos as a human figure can help conceptually escape from his tyranny. If he’s Man, he’s also merely human. He stands and stoops and falls and complains. The word anthropos conceals, behind its singularity, the myriad of associations we have with the idea of the human, including humanism and humane ethical behavior. A key interpretive step has recently been proposed by Phillip John Usher as “Untranslating the Anthropocene.” Usher’s philological project observes that the word Anthropocene has meaningful parallels with the exterior analytical position imagined by the cognate term anthropology. The subject position of the purportedly objective observer, whether a climate scientist or an anthropologist doing field work, encourages a dissociation between anthropos and the self. In Usher’s phrasing, “the very term ‘Anthropocene’ . . . sets up a certain relationship between little me, amateur or professional user of the term, and this other human over there” (60, italics in original). To separate the me who feels from the other who fouls the climate may salve our consciences, but that me needs its other. Usher’s further speculations link the anthropos to the sciences and to an externalized conception of Nature, while the Latin word homo exfoliates into human, the humanities, and eventually to Culture (62). That provisional separation, as with Latour’s famous description of modernity, turns out to be pure fantasy: “the word ‘Anthropocene,’” Usher concludes, “already calls out for the rebellious cat that is the humanist” (70). That nonhuman cat, linked in Usher’s analysis to both Montaigne’s and Derrida’s feline-inflected antiessentialisms, entangles humanist thinking with the Anthropocene in more-than-human figures and meanings. We don’t just need the Old Man tallying up his stock receipts and reading the newspaper. We also need his hungry cat, eyeing the frail human flesh and only temporarily mollified by the kibble that appears every morning in the bowl.
Human, Posthuman, Alien, Ocean
The posthuman charges into Anthropocene discourses brandishing a liberator’s torch, but this theoretical move risks losing contact with embodiment and human experience. One solution, or perhaps dis-solution, can be found in Astrida Neimanis’s “posthuman feminist phenomenology” and her focus on humans as “bodies of water.” Starting from the physical reality that water composes most of our bodies and most of our planet’s surface and biosphere, Neimanis develops a posthuman ethics that insists on responsibility for vulnerable bodies while also recognizing that water’s circulation and dissolution always exceeds bodily borders. She highlights the “paradox of bodies . . . that we are willing to defend [them] to the death, even as we know they are falling apart at the seams” (18). Her analysis mixes human and feminist calls for justice with posthuman decentering. In “negotiating” rather than attempting to solve this paradox, Neimanis opts to “stay with the trouble,” in Donna Haraway’s phrase. Human justice and posthuman disruption emerge entwined in her conception of embodied fluidity.
Neimanis’s hydrofeminist approach enables the values of humanism to seep into the embodied complexity of the posthuman. The water that makes up most of our bodies comprises an internal other-ness, an alien substrate from and through which human selves connect to more-than-human environments. While valuing the posthuman gambit that unlocks the prison door of anthropocentrism, Neimanis insists “on our own situatedness as bodies that are also still human” (26, italics in original). To be human and ocean, self and alien, speaking subject and dynamic fluid, entails imagining across boundaries and into plural figurations. Neimanis takes inspiration from poststructural feminist thinkers such as Elizabeth Grosz and Stacy Alaimo as well as the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and the hydrophilic radicalism of Luce Irigaray’s Marine Lover (of Friedrich Nietzsche). Seeking “intimacy” rather than “mastery” (112), Neimanis combines oppositional forces so that fluid bodies assume particular potency in an Anthropocene context. Attention to the complexities of local “bodies of water” operates as “an antidote to Anthropocene water” (171) as globalizing totality. Turning to the project of “learn[ing] to swim” (26) as a figure for encountering inhuman environmental complexity with merely human bodies, Neimanis challenges Anthropocene thinkers to juxtapose intimate human scales with world-sized ecological disasters.
Wages of Catastrophe
The crucial techniques for naming and isolating the Anthropocene have come from the geological sciences, as these discourses have since the nineteenth century developed a language and analytic framework to narrate the deep history of the earth. According to English professor Jeremy Davies, the crucial insight that engendered the Anthropocene was the rise of “neocatastrophism” as a geological paradigm over the past forty years. In his brilliant study The Birth of the Anthropocene, Davies makes a deceptively simple claim: “the idea of the Anthropocene should be seen as another product of that neocatastrophist turn” (9). The seeming simplicity of the turn to catastrophes rather than gradualism in earth history, however, belies the radical implications of the shift. Well-established environmental concepts such as “sustainability” become untenable in a neocatastrophist context; in place of sustainability Davies enjoins us to be concerned “above all with environmental injustice and with fostering ecological pluralism and complexity” (6). Geologic time becomes not just anti-anthropocentrically vast but also dynamic, full of ruptures and unexpected turns. This Anthropocene requires not technical fixes but learning to “live within the crisis” (194). In this disorienting space, human structures remain fragile but also deeply needed.
Davies makes a series of claims that flow from understanding the Anthropocene as an extension of neocatastrophist geological thinking (108–11). In placing catastrophe at the center of his model, he eschews a vast family of “green” eco-values such as the balance of nature. His Anthropocene isn’t a broken harmony but a consequence of human-fueled accelerants driving forward a system that was never reliably stable to start. He asks that we radically de-center the human while also refusing any dualism that would separate humans from “nature.” He sees human societies, not “Anthropos” as such, as crucial environmental actors. He argues that the “politically salient issue” is less the possible state of the planet at some future time but our current “time of transition into the Anthropocene” (110). Finally, he argues that the essential response to that transition must be not technical or philosophical but fundamentally political. In this last sense, Davies emphasizes what he sees as the true novelty of the new epoch: not questions of blame for human-driven climate disruptions but stark physical markers, including atmospheric carbon at “levels not seen for three million years” (110). The materiality of the Anthropocene turns out to be its most powerful feature.
The term catastrophe emerges from classical dramaturgy, as an English professor like Davies recognizes. A dramatic catastrophe describes the final turn (strophi) down or away from (kato-) the main action; it’s the last plot twist before resolution. In the deep time of the neocatastrophic, however, no final resolution waits; each radical turn represents both destruction and possibly a new beginning, but in an utterly unfamiliar context. As ecotheorist Timothy Morton remarks, the most catastrophic era in the fossil record may be the Great Oxygenation Event that occurred between two and three billion years ago and wiped out almost all anaerobic life (Dark Ecology, 70). Geological eras, Morton observes, are “nested catastrophes” (70) that also represent, playing further on the Greek etymology, “a twist . . . in the already twisted spatiotemporal fabric of an existing catastrophe” (71). Following either Morton’s theoretical dazzle or Davies’s icy clarity, we arrive in an Anthropocene that is no longer about deferring catastrophes but about enduring them, and building structures to address injustice as we do so.
Slavery as Culture, or Anthropos Self-Domesticated
The spiraling disasters that Davies and Morton extract from the geological record point toward political imperatives. One of Morton’s recent books, Humankind, wears its utopianism in its subtitle: Solidarity with Nonhuman People. Davies’s goal of “ecological pluralism” (Birth, 208) and “keeping most of that remaining carbon in the ground” (207) are less abstract, but they also rely on political persuasion and other human cultural habits. Taking a long view, however, suggests that the structures that accompany civilization, including both agriculture and its cognate “culture,” may not be up to the task. James Scott, in his recent book Against the Grain, reads current analysis of the archeological record to suggest that the earliest human states were not only physical disasters—hunter-gathers fed themselves better, did not suffer diseases of crowding, and enjoyed more leisure time than the first farmers—but the states that arose with the agricultural revolution could only grow through coercive means. The key innovation, after the prehistoric technique of manipulating fire, was the “domus effect,” which causes domesticated animals to develop different traits from their wild kin. Domestication would also be applied to humans as agricultural settlement expanded; “self-domestication” (83) would narrow human capacities and funnel their labors into agricultural monocultures. The practice of state formation did not invent human slavery, as far as the record shows, but early states did innovate, in Scott’s phrase, “large-scale societies based systematically on coerced, captive human labor” (180). Or, more succinctly: “No slavery, no state” (156). To this self-domestication all modern states, democratic or not, are heirs. Building antislavery states turns out to mean building something new in human history.
Slavery states built the culture and eventually the industries that drove the Anthropocene. But anthropogenic climate change did not march in precise lockstep with the slaveholder. Developing (although not citing) the controversial “early Anthropocene” thesis of paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman, Scott makes the case for a “thin Anthropocene” traceable back to the earliest employment of fire by prehistoric hominids 400,000 years ago, substantially before the appearance of homo sapiens (19). Scott’s distinction between “thin” but accumulating climate disruptions decipherable in distant prehistory and a “thick” postindustrial Anthropocene datable through radioactive fallout after 1945 substitutes a continuous variety for the either-or debates of Golden Spike–ing. The thin–thick continuum opens up a plural way to conceive of the long history of anthropogenic climate change, which accompanies aggressive hominids throughout their history, and the global shock we now call the Anthropocene, which points specifically at the massive hockey-stick expansion of carbon emissions after industrialization. Anthropocene theorists should seek inside that fissure a plurality of engagements and entanglements, not all of which need be only catastrophic.
Reading in and against the Anthropocene
What I’m proposing, modestly, amounts to a pluralized sense of reading under Anthropocene conditions. Here I take my cue from the valuable work of ecocritics Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor, for whose innovative collection Anthropocene Reading I am pleased to have written an ambivalent essay about the 1610 Anthropocene that represents my own farewell to Golden Spike–ing. Giving to the stratigraphic signatures made legible by earth-systems scientists the deconstructive treatment familiar to post-Derridean generations of literary scholars, Menely and Taylor discover new possibilities: “the species that reads itself in the stone might yet be brought into a new degree of self-awareness as a species and, out of that recognition, weave new democracies and inclusive economies, conjoined to resilient ecologies” (21). Plural reading practices help imagine plural responses to ecological dynamism. The project Menely and Taylor imagine remains easier to conceive than to practice. Pluralizing confuses things we once thought we understood. None of the simple narratives I have introduced here—not Scott’s deep history of slave states nor Usher’s “untranslating” nor Neimanis’s hydro-phenomenology—can easily reach the daunting scale of those utopian tasks. Into plural futures we have little to offer besides reading itself, “an invariably polyglot, salvage practice” (13) that enables a partial and painful awareness of how it feels to live among physical changes unstoppably underway. “We read because we are terrified” (20), Menely and Taylor emphasize. Out of terror and interpretation we seek not a singular solution but a plural weave of possibilities. We seek justice and the alleviation of suffering, but not through assimilation of all thoughts and efforts into the capacious unity of the Borg. Differences can be painful and disruptive but plurality—in thinking and living, in ecosystems and politics—is worth striving for. Breaking up the Anthropocene will let different things come into view.
Some possible pluralities follow in these pages.