ALTHOUGH THIS BOOK uses a scholarly essay as its medium, it has been my ambition for a while now to try to outline a theoretical argument with media other than just words. In this case my photo film Exit Man offers an extension to my counterapocalyptic narrative. Exit Man uses my own photographs drawn from a kind of “local museum of the Anthropocene” I have been building for several years and supplements them with some archival images. It also features a voiceover reworked from the key threads of this book. The reasons for attempting this distributed mode of thinking that spills beyond the covers of the book or its digital file’s lines of code are multifold. Nicholas Mirzoeff has argued that the Anthropocene, stretching back at least 250 years to the early days of fossil-fuel excavation and burning, cannot be seen, and hence known, by us contemporary humans because of the vastness of time across which it occurs. “It can only be visualized,” singularly yet repeatedly. Such visualizations take the form of not only poetic mistiness in paintings such as Claude Monet’s 1873 Impression: Sun Rising, which Mirzoeff interprets in terms of coal smog, but also of postindustrial vistas showing depopulated landscapes in large-format art photographs by Andreas Gursky and Edward Burtynsky. Yet these visualizations embody and thus perpetuate the very same apocalyptic representational tropes. They show us what their authors want us to see and what we are capable of seeing, while also arguably obfuscating the most dramatic message of the Anthropocene narrative: the horror vacui, or the end of man and of everything else. In other words, they hide the fact that soon there will be nothing to see—and no one to see it. Thus, Anthropocene visuality ultimately has a pacifying effect. This is why we should first of all try to unsee the Anthropocene, suggests Mirzoeff, before we embark on anything else.
Arguably the Anthropocene presents us with a visual experience because it manifests itself to us humans through pollution-altered air, and hence light, and through the particulate matter that is reflected in this light. Yet the Anthropocence is not to be sensed only, or even primarily, on a visual level: we literally breathe it, day in, day out. The Anthropocene can therefore also be tasted, smelled, walked through, touched, and heard—as manifested in projects such as Tomás Saraceno’s Museo Aero Solar made from plastic bags melted into giant floating sculptures that require “a sensitivity to the elements, especially as they are influenced by the sun,” or DJ Spooky’s “acoustic portrait” of the melting ice at the bottom of our globe, Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica. We could thus go so far as to say that we already sense the Anthropocene before we can come to terms with it; this is the case even if we ignore or deny it.
Exploring some better ways of sensing the Anthropocene is precisely how many artists have responded to the concept. Going beyond the primary unconscious response of the body exposed to the elements, such artists have worked with ways of transforming our experience of the Anthropocene to produce a more engaging and more meaningful encounter beyond the “shock and awe” effect of the postindustrial sublime. Fabien Giraud and Ida Soulard have suggested that the incursion of the Anthropocene into the artistic domain has resulted in “the reevaluation of art’s relation to rationality.” For them, the force of the Anthropocene’s geological temporality, which can be grasped but not seen, sutures the established epistemological partitions so that “any clear distinction between what we can feel of the world’s movements and what we can know of them—any characteristically modern divides between the sensible and the intelligible—come to be fused and erased.” Significantly, Giraud and Soulard do not advocate relegating our encounters with issues of climate change and planetary transformation to an art “panic room” where we can only experience, and perhaps even take delight in, the horror of the planetary apocalypse. Instead they claim that “positioning ourselves within this turbulent landscape requires a taking hold, again, of epistemological questions.” We have here an intriguing proposal for an embedded and embodied experience of the Anthropocene, one coupled with the need to reflect on that experience and on the very structuring of the concepts through which it is presented to us. Even though, as argued earlier, the Anthropocene envelops all our senses, its presentations, often unfolding as part of the climate-change visualization agenda, are frequently picture based. The typical visual tropes of climate change and environmental disaster through which we are made to see the Anthropocene involve “a polar bear on a piece of melting ice, . . . an aerial image of an oil spill, . . . a factory spewing filth into the sky.”
Picking up the above injunction to see and sense better, I want to cast The End of Man as an invitation, issued to those embodied humans who still recognize themselves as such, to look around, take a deep breath, and set out to carve a new path between the familiar and the possible. The image-ideas gathered in this book, and also those that spill beyond it, are intended as stepping stones that can hopefully lead us toward traversing not just the human imperialism of the colonial era that Mirzoeff rightly appends to the Anthropocene but also the humanist imperialism of the Anthropocene era. In the latter, Man has succeeded in elevating himself above the complex planetary processes to (re)claim a godlike position: that of the maker and destroyer of worlds. Yet, as Cohen and Colebrook poignantly highlight: “The formation of a ‘we’ is generated from destruction and from the recognition of destruction: humanity as global anthropos comes into being with the Anthropocene, with the declaration that there is a unity to the species, and that this unity lies in its power to mark the planet.” Chipping away at the apocalyptic habit that is also the foundation of man’s always fictitious unity, The End of Man, together with its photofilmic component, Exit Man, aims to help us rethink and resense both the Anthropocene and ourselves as humans in and with the Anthropocene. It also hopes to make us see ourselves on the ground and hear a different—less stern, even if not less serious—story of our planet and its various species.
Watch the Exit Man film by scanning the QR code below or visiting this link: https://vimeo.com/203887003.