The human body is akin to a heliographic plate, reflecting and absorbing sunlight, which transforms us at a cellular level every day. Nicéphore Niépce, the French inventor of photography, wrote to Louis Daguerre in 1829, “In the process of composing and decomposing, light acts chemically on our bodies. It is absorbed, it combines with them and communicates new properties to them.” In 1945, 116 years later, when the first nuclear bomb was detonated, humanity added another source of luminescence that would similarly affect our bodies. It was light like no one had ever seen before, and onlookers found their vocabularies severely tested when they attempted to describe it. The deputy commander of the Manhattan Project, Thomas Farrell, notes, “The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. . . . It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately.” Seventy-one years after that first nuclear test, a group of geologists assembled at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, and declared that the planet had entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Stratigraphers point to the geological evidence left by nuclear radiation on earth to support the Anthropocene thesis. The Anthropocene acknowledges these new stratigraphic signatures—the presence of the indelible textuality of particulate matter, vaporous gases, and radionuclides—that we have etched onto the planetary body. Increasingly scientists find that such stratigraphic signatures have corresponding somatic inscriptions as well. The Anthropocene, according to some suggestions, properly begins in the 1950s, its genealogy illuminated by the unnatural “golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue” light of a nuclear detonation. The nuclearization of the planet is a good reason to expand our understanding of the human body as a heliographic plate. We are, as Elizabeth DeLoughrey so poignantly writes, “creatures constituted by radiation, solar and otherwise.” The same is true of the planet.
Sunlight takes only about eight minutes to reach the earth; its gifts of light and life are bestowed to us from the past. As we teeter on the precipice ushered in by global climate change, when our changing ecologies violently shape us from without, and as we hesitate at this juncture of the Anthropocene, where microparticles and subatomic detritus shape us from within, how might we imagine a future which simultaneously acknowledges its indebtedness to such past luminescence as well as its debris-saturated present? Godhuli (), a Bengali word, is a remarkable portmanteau. It refers to the time of day we might otherwise call twilight in English. However, it resonates with an ethics of place and a metaphysics of possibility in a way that the English word does not. Like twilight, when the sun is below the horizon and sunlight is refracted through the atmosphere, godhuli also refers to the fleeting moments that immediately follow sunset. But unlike twilight, godhuli’s refracted light is located terrestrially, on an earthly plane rather than in the atmosphere. This is because, in Bengali, go refers to cows, dhuli to dust. Godhuli is thus the time of day when cows, with their hooves kicking up dust, return from pasture to their nightly refuge. The time of the day is so named because of the unique color caused by the conditions of light and dust. This word commingles light and dust, but also, importantly, color and texture. It is a word pigmented by the iron particulates and the burnt sienna of sunbaked Indian soil. Godhuli speaks of the rusty orange dust emanating from the earth as it responds to the hooves of cows seeking shelter. In sum, godhuli is more than its parts. In it, space and time, light and dust converge.
Dust may not initially seem like an obvious subject for philosophy or poetry. Its matter-of-factness and its ubiquitous presence in our lives seemingly robs it of any special notice. But the banal is often worthy of further deliberation. When dust appears as a motif in literature, it does so predominantly in negative terms: as matter that hinders and disorients. In Heat and Dust, Ruth Pawar Jhabvala’s 1975 novel, dust obscures not only sight but also one’s ability to think: “Dust storms have started blowing all day, all night. Hot winds whistle columns of dust out of the desert into the town; the air is choked with dust and so are all one’s senses.” In James Joyce’s “Eveline,” dust is a metonymic signifier of the repetitive meaningless acts which add to the ennui that pervades Dublin, a colonized city: “Home! She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from.” Yet for all the reasons that make dust signify boredom and obscurity, without it, life as we have all come to understand it would cease to exist. This fact is not lost on Alfred Russel Wallace, the nineteenth-century naturalist and anthropologist who wrote poetically about dust. In 1898, Wallace noted that, like dirt, dust is seen as “matter in the wrong place.” But he argues that it is dust that makes the sky appear blue and avoids a “perpetual glare” of sunshine that might otherwise erode earthly life. “Without dust the sky would appear absolutely black, and the stars would be visible even at noonday. The sky itself would therefore give us no light. We should have bright glaring sunlight or intensely dark shadows, with hardly any half-tones.” Nephology, the branch of meteorology that studies clouds, confirms that we would also not have clouds without dust; water droplets need particulate matter to cling on to as they condense to form clouds. It naturally follows that there would be no rain without dust. In this manner, the universal logic of harmonious coexistence of antonymic entities is brought to fruition: rain could not occur without that which it washes away.
Beyond its paean to dust, to “half-tones” of light and its acknowledgment of the passing of time, godhuli conjures up a number of expansive associations in its original language. In the literary and musical works of Rabindranath Tagore, it is often a metonym for a romantic or pensive mood. In Tagore’s song “Aji Godhuli Lagone” (Today at the godhuli hour), the speaker awaits the arrival of his beloved, but he feels as if the forests and the earth itself know much more about his beloved and her thoughts than he does. The natural world conspires and rejoices in its secret knowledge; it seems that all the speaker can do is repeat his faith in the beloved’s imminent arrival, which forms the refrain of the song’s lyric. Godhuli, in Tagore’s writing, is as much a temporal setting as it is a cultural indicator of the romanticism and nostalgia begotten of the captivating iridescence of a tropical twilight. But it is also more than that. Tagore’s lyric articulates through the registers of dust and light an understanding of temporality that doubles as potentiality. Marking time using the word godhuli underlines a notion of futurity as embedded potential in the present. The contemporary is energized as a moment of capacious possibilities in which Tagore’s speaker’s beloved may arrive.
In Hindu scriptures, godhuli also opens up a portal of potential and demands human participation and action. In this way, reframing twilight through this word recognizes the capacity of words from cultures we do not call our own to readjust our place in the world. In the broader scheme of things, loanwords are remarkable tools to rethink our present. What better time to multiply our vocabularies than in this godhuli hour of the planet, at this very moment when we have just recognized that we reside within a geological column (correctly, but also ominously) named after our species?
That language shapes our perceptive capacities has been a matter of deliberation for some time. It seems that language determines something as basic as our conceptualization of physical phenomena, like light. German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe challenged Isaac Newton’s understanding of the color spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) on the basis of Greek perception of color. It would seem that to see the shade of blue that the Greeks saw, we also need to understand their aesthetics of color. Historian Maria Michela Sassi notes that Goethe claimed “that light is the most simple and homogeneous substance, and the variety of colors arise at the edges where dark and light meet. Goethe set the Greeks’ approach to color against Newton’s for their having caught the subjective side of color perception.” Sassi concludes that Goethe was right in challenging the “mathematical abstractions of Newton’s optics.” To see the world through Greek eyes, it is imperative to understand the Greek theory of color, without which we fail to recognize the importance of light and brightness in their “chromatic vision,” and we cannot understand the “mobility and fluidity of their chromatic vocabulary.”
Sassi’s work is a timely reminder to revise our understanding and perception of the world, which is increasingly mediated by the monochromatic world of a “universal” language such as English. It reminds us what Frantz Fanon wrote in 1952: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” While learning languages such as English or French offered colonized peoples of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a passport into the imperial cultures of the West, such learning also increasingly distanced them from the vocabularies that allowed subjective and culturally relevant interpretations of their environments. Loanwords like godhuli offer a perceptive vantage point in the Anthropocene by allowing us to reconceptualize our planetary refuge and to rethink our contemporary moment as a time that demands such imaginative acts. If our aesthetic experience and chromatic perception of color may be culturally modulated, then our understanding of our place and time in the world may similarly depend on the languages we use—thus godhuli and its unique prism of light and dust.
Granular and particulate matter, like dust, have a special bearing on the Anthropocene. This is not simply because microscopic structures like atomic subparticles and microplastics haunt our everyday lives and bodies but also because the particulate allows us to understand the origins of human dominance over the planet. The beginning of the Holocene, approximately twelve thousand years ago, closely corresponds to what paleontologists call the Neolithic demographic transition (NDT). This was a time when our Neolithic ancestors moved from foraging and hunting to agriculture. By doing so, they unwittingly initiated a process that resulted in the first sharp increase in the world’s population, which in turn began to alter existing planetary systems. The NDT marks the originating moment of a trajectory that ultimately leads us to the Anthropocene, to a time when humans recognize themselves as, to use historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s phrase, not simply actors of history but agents of geology, transforming and altering (this time knowingly) fundamental planetary processes. The NDT does not “cause” the Anthropocene, to be sure; however, it speaks to us through a vocabulary of the granular and the particulate—that is, through seeds, kernels of concentrated potential, which made possible the unfolding of our history. Interestingly, through its visual economy of domesticated cattle, the human history of settled agriculture is encoded in the word godhuli. Godhuli’s charisma relies on the dust (particulate matter) kicked up by the hooves of domesticated cattle, drivers of preindustrial agriculture. The word echoes a civilizational shift of which we are all inheritors.
The Anthropocene is a site of inherent contradictions. For example, the Age of Human names a species and its time on earth, but it also implicitly denotes that this epoch will come to a close at a future stage. It thus evokes the possible extinction of the human species and encodes a critique of human overreach even as it names an entire geological epoch after the human species. This contradiction should steer us to acknowledge the contemplative, imaginative, and empathetic paucities of our species. Some of these limitations may be the product of our neurological makeup but are definitively a result of the great inequalities built into the late modern, late capitalist systems that define our lived reality. The seemingly impossible task of living a life outside of the capitalist system of interminable economic growth and production, consumption, and refuse radically skews our perception of the present, foreclosing a meaningful relationship with the deep past and the near future. In this temporal scheme, the past is something to be surmounted rather than negotiated, and the habitability of the future is never in question. Indeed, capitalist worldviews often project the future as already within reach. Consider, for example, the language that car manufacturers use to peddle their products. The tagline for the Audi RSQ will suffice here: “Tomorrow has arrived today.” Such temporalities are at odds with the kind of planetary future that is being shaped by anthropogenic climate change.
A new lexicon for the Anthropocene calls for a worldview that corrects our skewed perception of time. For this we need an alternative history to locate ourselves in the present, and we similarly need an alternative vocabulary to imagine the present as embedded futurity. “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past,” thinks Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses. This conception of time imagines the present as being imbued with the weight of the past and envisions it as an architect of the future. In this regard, the kind of secular and aesthetic interpretations of godhuli that I have been charting above finds meaningful resonances in the term’s religious heritage. It should not be surprising that the allure of godhuli’s optics, the slant of light rays traveling through dust that it translates into language, makes it a particularly auspicious time in Hinduism. Between the glare of the midday sun and the darkness of a rural night, godhuli, for Hindus, presents a window of opportunity for karya (work, action, or ceremonies, such as weddings). It offers a moment of opportunity to be made use of in the face of astrological hurdles and planetary maleficence. In Hinduism, godhuli thus offers a moment of hope, a way out when no other paths seem passable. At a time when we name the Anthropocene and recognize the potentiality of our threshold, our civilizational godhuli hour, a time for action and illumination, not least of which should be the recognition, as Nietzsche would have it, of our false idols. Godhuli enlivens the threshold on which life depends. Its call for a temporality that is determined by the “half-tones” conjured up by dust acknowledges at once the “sweet spot,” the “Goldilocks zone” (terms used by scientists to denote the unique position of our planet in the solar system), in which the orbital path of earth is mapped. In the Anthropocene, godhuli energizes the recognition of the telluric origins of human history. The identification of the harmony between the particulate and the planetary is a necessary condition for meaningful life in theAnthropocene
Robert MacFarlane describes his book Landmarks as “a word hoard of the astonishing lexis for landscape.” McFarlane’s book is a stupendous meditation on the power of language to reassert our relationship with our environment. He writes, “We need now, urgently, a Counter Desecration Phrasebook that would comprehend the world—a glossary of enchantment for the whole earth, which would allow nature to talk back, and helped us to listen.” If the first nuclear detonation immediately called to mind the paucity of language to represent a reality as awe-inspiring as the mushroom cloud, then the Anthropocene similarly asks us to fashion a new language and expand our vocabulary to bear the weight of our contemporary moment. Often that might mean traveling beyond the monochromatic worlds of our mother tongues and in turn enriching our conceptual capacities to imagine, comprehend, and empathize not only with distant spaces but also with distant times. We inhabit an unprecedented threshold moment in the history of our species, and we need words that reveal that sense of in-betweenness. Godhuli illuminates that fact.
In the end, what is most enticing about this word, godhuli, is that it captures the luminescence that underwrites our physical existence on this planet. Like the cattle traversing an Indian field, it reasserts our relationship with and need for a place of refuge. Donna Haraway notes that “our job is to make the Anthropocene as short/thin as possible and to cultivate with each other in every way imaginable epochs to come that can replenish refuge. Right now, the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge.” It is little wonder that at the heart of Haraway’s observation is a call for an act of imagination. A loanword such as godhuli allows us an opportunity to make conceptual leaps, to take long views of history, and to better orient ourselves in this new geological epoch. Godhuli is not simply a paean to dust or a romantic fetishization of a chromatic wonder. It also reminds us of the planetary nature of our place of refuge and underlines the fact that we inhabit a time that demands imaginative labor to sustain that sense of homeliness.
Another Path: Nakaiy
1. Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 19.
3. Ever since the first nuclear tests carried out in the United States, medical practitioners have studied resulting changes in the human body—for example, in the chemical composition of bone structures. One of the earliest of such studies was on concentrations of strontium-90 in baby teeth. It was carried out in St. Louis in 1959. See “Teeth to Measure Fall-Out,” New York Times, March 19, 1959, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1959/03/19/89163843.html?zoom=14.85&pageNumber=67.
4. Elizabeth DeLoughrey, “Radiation Ecologies and the Wars of Light,” Modern Fiction Studies 55, no. 3 (2009): 468.
5. Ruth Pawar Jhabvala, Heat and Dust (London: Hachette, 2011).
6. James Joyce, “Eveline,” in Dubliners (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 25.
7. Alfred Russel Wallace, The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and Its Failures (Toronto: George Morang, 1898), 69.
8. Wallace, Wonderful Century, 81.
9. Rabindranath Tagore, “Aji Godhuli Lagone,” Swarabitan 58: n.p. The song was originally written in 1937.
10. A geological column is a system of classification for the layers of rocks and fossils that form the earth’s crust.
12. Sassi, “Sea Was Never Blue.”
13. Cited by Bill Ashcroft, Postcolonial Transformation (London: Routledge, 2013), 57.
14. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 206.
15. See, for example, Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011); Jason Moore, “Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times: Accumulation and Crisis in the Capitalist World-Ecology,” Journal of World-Systems Analysis 17, no. 1 (2011): 108–47.
16. AdForum, Audi, “I, Robot 2,” https://www.adforum.com/creative-work/ad/player/52190/i-robot-2/audi.
17. James Joyce, Ulysses, Gabler edition (1922; reprint, London: Random House, 1986), 153.
19. Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 160.