LIKE MANY OLDER MEN, Anthropos has problems with his posture. He tells himself the important thing is to stand up straight. From his exalted height, he towers over his rivals and can see past the horizon. But over the years it has become harder to maintain that upright position. His back aches. He feels the weight of history pressing down on the arches of his feet. Sometimes he thinks things would get better if he were just able to move his body into a different position.
The surge in eco-critical scholarship on the Anthropocene in recent years can be analogized to different postures for Old Man Anthropos. It’s not easy at this point to place a substitute figure at the center of things; the ecological, cultural, and geophysical footprints the Old Man leaves in the sand aren’t going away. But it’s possible to conceive of postures beyond imperial erectness. Some of these positions even glimpse futures different from the bleak horizon Anthropos sees directly in front of his face.
Six postures provide a rough survey of the varied positions of ecotheory in the late twenty-teens. The most sinister vision sees Anthropos still Rising, looming over a future that’s painfully like the present, only more so. An alternative posture imagines the Old Man Stooping to notice other forms of life and kinship relations. Political theorists imagine Anthropos straining to break his Chains and pluralize democracy for a more-than-human world. A different vector of materialism imagines a position of Amazement before the vorticular patterns and complex forms that may yet disrupt our headlong rush into disaster. A more thoroughgoing critique emerges from the ecofeminist critical Mirror, which emphasizes that the Old Man’s masculinity always puts Nature and Woman on the same disadvantaged side. A more radical possibility takes the Old Man Unawares and finds new postures in Indigenous ideas and values. These half-dozen positions do not add up to a plan to resist Anthropos’s dominion. But in their plurality and internal contradictions, they gesture toward things that He can’t see.
When he stands tall, it’s bad news for the rest of us. But he makes an inviting target, with his eyes fixed forward. To many people, that massive body represents exploitation in its crudest form. Everything outside his body comprises material to be overseen, overcome, and processed. “Capitalism’s governing conceit,” writes Jason W. Moore, “is that it may do with Nature as it pleases, that Nature is external and may be coded, quantified, and rationalized to serve economic growth, social development, or some other higher goal.” The transforming task that upright Anthropos accomplishes is a particular vision: he sees the world as Nature, resource, or what Heidegger famously calls “standing-reserve.” As Moore transforms Marxist economic history into what he calls “world-ecology” (3, italics in original), he provides a clear narrative in which Anthropos devises the rapacious system called Capitalism and thereby fouls the world. In Moore’s reading, capitalist rupture begins not with the Industrial Revolution but several centuries earlier, with the global expansion of European economies and populations following the so-called Columbian Exchange that kicked off the catastrophes of ecological globalization. Expanding beyond its geographic boundaries enabled European cultures to operate through what Moore terms the strategy of “Cheap Nature,” which uses external resources, including slave labor as well as nonhuman abundance, to fuel geopolitical expansion. But the commanding vision Moore would have us rename Capitalocene does not confine itself to the merely economic. Instead, he argues that “at the heart of modernity’s co-production is the incessant reworking of the boundaries between the human and the extra-human” (17). Through repeated processes of “frontier-making” (66)—Moore notes the repetition of strategies in European expansion in Ireland, the Canaries, the Caribbean, the Americas, and the American West—elements of Nature are made Cheap and then exploited. As Moore puts it in a book coauthored with economist Raj Patel, “Cheap is a strategy, a practice, a violence that mobilizes all kinds of work—human and animal, biological and geological—with as little compensation as possible.” Cheap burns out from Anthropos’s keen eyes and reduces the world.
Moore’s vision of Anthropos-as-Capital emphasizes the thoroughness of a five-hundred-year exploitative run that may, in the early twenty-first century, have run out of new frontiers. His analysis links resource exploitation with slavery—he and Patel posit that modern slavery, as distinct from classical slavery, was born in Madeira with the first sugar plantations (History, 30)–as well as racial and gender discrimination. But as tightly interwoven and rapaciously efficient as the system has been over the past half-millennium, the current environmental crisis holds the seeds of its own destruction. In dialogue with other environmental theorists including Donna Haraway, Moore argues that “capitalism’s either/or organization of reality” into “Nature/Society” may be giving way to a recognition of “human organization as utterly, completely, and variably porous within the web of life.” Patel and Moore find hints of alternatives to European ecological exploitation in the dream of an anonymous Chichimec woman hanged by Spanish colonizers in Mexico in 1599 (History, 44–46). Moore locates the seeds of revolutionary change in “alternative valuations of food, climate, nature, and everything else” (Anthropocene or Capitalocene, 11). The conclusion of A History of the World, his collaboration with Patel, sings out with alliterative optimism: recognition leads to reparation, redistribution, reimagination, and finally a thoroughgoing “recreation” of work, leisure, and the human relationship with the nonhuman environment in a “reparation ecology” (202–12). In such a vision, Old Man Anthropos may still be standing, but his view no longer threatens.
The relatively sanguine conclusion at which Patel and Moore’s eco-history arrives glides past the more violent futures that many Marxist intellectuals see emerging out of Anthropocene capitalism. A helpful counterpoint to Moore’s world ecology appears in McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. Taking his inspiration from the Soviet radicals Alexander Bogdanov and Andrey Platonov, whose work he connects to American writers Donna Haraway and Kim Stanley Robinson, Wark asks critical theory to “change labor, by merging art and work; to change everyday life, by developing the collaborative life within the city and changing gender roles and norms; and to change affect, to create new structures of feeling” (35, italics in original). Wark reads Bogdanov’s Essays in Tektology (1912–17) as “science fiction in reverse”: “Bogdanov wrote for the Martians, and the Martians are us” (59). In returning his radical thinking to its roots in Soviet communism and social experiment, Wark champions what he calls “molecular” thinking: “For it is the molecular scale which corresponds best to the labor point of view” (219). Extending the point, he argues for a turn away from theoretical niceties toward material realities: “now perhaps what we need is a pungent dose of vulgarity” (220). Unlike Patel and Moore, who in essence ask our present civilization to see reason and stand down from its domineering perch, Wark offers the disorienting dream of “meta-utopia . . . not so much an imaginary solution to real problems as a real problematizing of how to navigate the differences between the imaginal that corresponds to each particular labor points of view” (225). Wark’s opening-into-difference rejects the capitalist present for an almost-unimaginable future. “We all know this civilization can’t last,” he quips. “Let’s make another” (225). The shape of that “other” remains opaque—but it’s certainly not the shapes Old Man Anthropos sees in the horizon he thinks of as his own.
Somewhere between Moore and Patel’s rational eco-Marxist analysis and Wark’s radical futurity Anthropos stands tall, weathering the storm, as least so far. It seems impossible that this posture can last.
What might Anthropos see if he looks down below his too-large feet? In today’s “disturbance-based ecologies,” the answer, if he’s lucky, will be mushrooms.
Anna Tsing’s eloquent and carefully antistructured book The Mushroom at the End of the World explores the late twentieth-century flourishing of the international trade in Matusutake mushrooms, which thrive in disturbed forests such as those in heavily logged rural Oregon and are beloved by connoisseurs in Japan. The mushrooms and the temporary cultures of harvest, sale, and transport that arise around them help her to “open our imagination” (19) to new transcultural and transpecies exchanges in the postmodern world. In arguing that “precarity . . . being vulnerable to others” (20) is “the condition of our time” (20), she celebrates “salvage accumulation” (63). Alongside her mushroom hunters, whose numbers include hill peoples displaced from Southeast Asia, loggers displaced by the collapse of an industry, hippies, and assorted other vagabonds, she discovers in the ruins of natural and industrial ecologies the seeds of new and fecund life. Dancing between large-scale and local histories with an anthropologist’s deft deferral to primary actors, she ends her book with a chapter called “Anti-ending” and admits that her argument “does not properly conclude” (378). Having opened by slyly insinuating that “unlike most scholarly books” she will offer “a riot of short chapters” (viii) rather than denser fare, she ends in a woodland ecology that is both material and metaphorical, circulating both mushrooms and ideas.
An important collaborator with and influence on Tsing’s scholarship, her Santa Cruz colleague Donna Haraway provides perhaps the clearest feminist redirection of the macho pieties of Anthropocene thinking. Haraway, in her latest volume, Staying with the Trouble, offers her own Chthulucene as alternative and insists on the slogan “Make Kin, not Babies!” With the acerbic wit that has defined her writing since “A Cyborg Manifesto” first appeared in 1984, Haraway rejects the doom language of Anthropocene theorizing in favor of an entangled, multispecies view. She also rejects “posthuman” as label and theoretical position, wanting to be down in the dirt rather than up in airy metaphors. In a recent conversation with Cary Wolfe, she proposes two rival etymological chains for the term human. “Too many” understandings of the terms, she argues, “go to homo—which is the ‘bad’ direction,” but it’s also possible to value the “‘human’ that goes to humus, which is the ‘good’ direction.” In the contrast between “soil” and “the phallic ‘man’” (261) she generates another slogan: “Not Posthumanist But Compost” (262), with the final word ambiguously hovering between being a noun—to be a composted thing—and an imperative verb—to compost all things together in order to make something new. In both meanings, Haraway’s compost requires intimate and self-changing mixtures. We don’t end up the same being that we were when we started.
When he’s standing tall, Anthropos can’t see the mushrooms and composting reaches him only as a faint acrid smell. In order to see these things, he must stop, stoop, and pay attention.
Anthropos in Chains
Perhaps the most famous utopian image of the political discourses of the ecotheoretical turn has been Bruno Latour’s “Parliament of Things,” which redefines “the continuity of the collective” so that humans and nonhumans alike gain representation in a messy democratic conclave: “Let one of the representatives talk, for instance about the ozone hole, another represent the Monsanto chemical industry, a third the workers of the same chemical industry, another the voters of New Hampshire, a fifth the meteorology of the polar regions . . .” The fantasy of a world that speaks for itself, in all its messy pluralities, would become the spine of Latour’s Actor-Network Theory and an animating force in his ongoing work on environmental politics in the present. Latour now claims to prefer the three-part term “New Climatic Regime” over the omnipresent Anthropocene, but he also implies that responding to the new-ness (i.e., the ’cene-ness) of our present will require all the resources of the humanities, social sciences, and other fields. To craft a new metalanguage, Latour rejects abstract formulations such as “modernity,” the Anthropocene, and even “globalization,” in order to find in the material conditions of “Gaia” a structure that accommodates complexity and what Latour calls (adapting the language of Isabelle Stengers) “sensitivity.” In rejecting “the two great unifying principles—Nature and the Human—[as] more and more implausible” (Facing Gaia, 142), Latour turns into a deeper complexity that his Parliament of Things had initially proposed. “Once the Globe has been destroyed,” he writes, “it has space and time enough so that history can start up again” (Facing Gaia, 145). Even more recently Latour names his preferred new impulse “Terrestrial.” The shapes of the new earth history may include not just the babblings of an impossibly polylingual Parliament but also sensitivities to wonder that occupy the carved-out space of the literary sublime.
As Latour’s speculations have grown increasingly baroque, other thinkers have taken up the task of rationalizing his structures. The most persuasive political account of how democracy might adapt to the posthuman and post-Nature circumstances of the Anthropocene comes in American legal scholar Jedediah Purdy’s After Nature: A Politics of the Anthropocene. Seeking what he calls a “Walden for the Anthropocene” (147–52), Purdy argues that our era of climate disruptions “radicalizes eco-awareness into a fully democratic politics of nature” (206). This effort encounters a series of problems: skepticism, particularly in relation to technical expertise (268–69), utopianism in regard to democratic openness (269–70), and the frustrations inherent in “bridging . . . the present state of things with the idea of a democratic Anthropocene” (270). Like Latour, Purdy finds inspiration in environmental art and literary culture; he hopes to “make the imaginative literature of an Anthropocene democracy serve as a productive fiction” (270). Bringing the theoretical speculations of Latour and the posthuman materialism of Jane Bennett in touch with political realities, including the oversized role of money in twenty-first century American politics (271), Purdy seeks to reconcile the egalitarian aims of humanism with a posthuman expansion of the franchise in order to create “a democracy open to the strange intuitions of post-humanism: intuitions of ethical affinity with other species, of the moral importance of landscapes and climates, of the permeable line between humans and the rest of the living world” (282). This “democracy open to post-human encounters” (288) asks that the Anthropocene disrupt our politics as well as our environments.
From the gloomy perspective of the political landscapes of Europe and North America in 2019, it’s hard to see how we get to Purdy’s Anthropocene democracy or to the more dizzying channels of Latour’s Gaia-inflected polities. Anthropos today, to borrow Rousseau’s famous Enlightenment formulation, appears everywhere in chains. But Latour’s insight about the hollowness of “the modern,” which he conceived after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (We Have Never Been, 8–10), emphasizes that our current transition into the Anthropocene is less a choice that a rupture with a fantasized version of our own past. “We scarcely have much choice,” he observes, “It is up to us to change our ways of changing” (145). To free Anthropos, we must lean into dynamism. It may be frightening, and it certainly will be disorienting. But futures beckon, beyond the constricted realms of back-facing nostalgia.
No ecotheorist has generated more heat and wonder than the voluminous Timothy Morton, author of six major books of ecotheory in the past decade. Morton’s churning productivity and occasional repetition of his central theoretical moves has earned him some hostile reviews, but his insight into how ecological thinking implicates humanity in the more-than-human environment remains influential. While he claims to reject the poetic sublime that was the poetic mode of Percy Shelley, the poet on whom Morton cut his academic teeth, to some extent his cornucopia of neologisms—hyperobjects, dark ecology, the strange stranger, agrologistics, the Severing, et cetera—might productively be imagined as redeploying the Romantic sublime in nonanthropocentric fashion. A recent ringing pronouncement claims that “Anthropocene is one of the first truly anti-anthropocentric concepts because via thinking the Anthropocene, we get to see the concept of ‘species’ as it really is—species as a subscendent hyperobject, brittle and inconsistent.” In his most recent book, he has argued that the preferred term for general use should be “mass extinction,” which gets to the point more forcefully than “global warming” or “climate change.” The restless energy of such flashy coinages signals Morton’s desire, which is not inconsistent with the revolutionary poetics of his one-time master Shelley, to “keeping the future open” (Humankind, 153) even as doom gets pronounced at every turn. In the climate change–ruptured present in which “the basic mode of ecological awareness is anxiety,” art becomes a formula for “grief-work.” Morton’s tragic intensity testifies to his post-Romantic restlessness and ambition. He wants, since we cannot make Anthropos sit still, to make him sing.
From the point of view of the stooping mushroom pickers and kin makers Tsing and Haraway, Morton’s neo-sublime ecothinking appears excessive, or at least overly masculine in its eagerness to be always visible. Within premodern literary ecostudies, a compelling alternative discourse of vorticular entanglement has emerged through the collaboration of medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and early modernist Lowell Duckert. In editing together and separately four collections—a special issue of the journal Postmedieval and a trilogy of ecotheoretical books—Cohen and Duckert have historicized and pluralized Anthropos’s wonderment. When Cohen claims that “catastrophe is entanglement,” he rewires the human relationship with forces in our nonhuman environment that do us hurt. Both ecocritics turn toward difficulty with eager and imaginative desire. Their shared obsession with vortexes structures their investigation of matter and metaphor. “The Shape of the Elements is a vortex” (20) they emphasize in Elemental Ecocriticism. In the moving and also briefly still center of the storm, they conspire forward into the Anthropocene.
The project these two critics have jointly assembled emerges in its greatest power when it gives itself away. Inverting Morton’s sometimes manic efforts to roll all aspects of “the ecological thought” into a single vibrant package, Cohen and Duckert invite other creators, human and nonhuman, into community. In the introduction to Prismatic Ecology, Cohen emphasizes that “the Mississippi [river] is an earth artist, but its projects take so long to execute that humans have a difficult time discerning their genius” (xix). The brown sinuous flows of the river underlie the pluralization of green thinking that emerges in Prismatic Ecology and continues through the collaborations with Duckert. In the four classical elements, these two authors discover ways to reinvent catastrophic entanglement: “Catastrophe is a kind of ‘forward-thinking’ in search of more capacious futures, a drama of unidentifiable genre, a tragicomedy that picks up where the ‘comedy of survival’ left off.” Bringing together Love and Strife, the two principles that for the classical philosopher Empedocles control relations among the elements, these critics recast opposition and struggle as collaboration and (in a term Duckert adapts from Latour) “composition.” “Empedocles wrote of pervasive disordering force,” they recall, “only to move to an emphasis on that which binds.” In Cohen and Duckert’s example, it’s the moving that matters, the constant shifting of perspectives and ceding centrality to other voices.
How does this collaborative exfoliation speak to Anthropos’s changing postures? While Morton, in my view, maintains a neo-Romantic urgency that perhaps he draws from Shelley’s revolutionary verse, Cohen and Duckert produce an Anthropos who neither rages nor roars. Their project, as they write in Veer Ecology, is to “render snug habitations strange, opening them to a world agentic and wide” (11). Like modern ergonomic desk chairs that encourage movement and position-shifting throughout the workday, their Anthropos changes postures. At one point, he may have enjoyed the promise of the rainbow. But soon fire drives him out toward roiling waters, and those directions also veer into newness in their most recent collaboration. To make Anthropos plural, he must remain just a bit on edge, not always comfortable, never still.
Anthropos in the Mirror
When Anthropos looks in the mirror, he sees, if he’s paying attention, a woman’s face. Centuries of patriarchal conceptions of “Man” and “Nature” have labored to obscure the place of gender in environmental thinking, but attending to ecofeminist voices can help correct mono-masculinity. In opposition to every macho mountain man like John Muir, a feminist ocean poet like Rachel Carson raises her face into view. Like Tiresias, Old Man Anthropos spans both genders.
Ecofeminism sometimes articulates itself as critique of patriarchal assumptions. In the phrase of New Media scholar Joanna Zylinska, the core mandate for human thinking in the Anthropocene is to “tell better stories.” Stacy Alaimo concurs with the queer-inflected admonition that “the Anthropocene is no time to set things straight.” Ecofeminism requires Anthropos to change postures, to move and respond to what Alaimo elsewhere calls the “profound shift in subjectivity” occasioned by recognizing the permeability of bodies and environments. Living amid the cultural toxicity of patriarchy and the material toxicity of late capitalism invites twenty-first-century human subjects to embrace what Richard Grusin, editor of the book Anthropocene Feminism, calls an “ethic of disruption.” In a utopian spirit, Grusin imagines his multivoiced collection as an “assembling of small-scale systems or the claiming of responsibility for all human and nonhuman actants toward a goal of mutual thriving” (xi). For Anthropos and for ecological thinking in the Anthropocene, such a variety of voices generates important pressures and desires. No one wants to return to monolithic “Man” in conflict with equally colossal “Nature.” Anthropocene feminism opens doors to the multitude of perspectives that can replace these monuments. No strands within Anthropocene thinking turn more directly into plurality than feminist discourses.
At the core of theoretical ecofeminism, and also at the core of many discourses of twenty-first-century environmentalist thinking, sits the ambiguous figure of the human. Rosi Braidotti stakes out the clearest critical position when she writes, “feminism is not a humanism” (Anthropocene Feminism, 21). Moving into radical “species egalitarianism” (32), Braidotti imagines the benefits that flow from rejecting old-fashioned ideas of human centrality: “We may yet overcome anthropocentrism by becoming anthropomorphic bodies without organs that are still finding out what they are capable of becoming” (35). Adapting Delueze and Guattari as well as Jane Bennett’s call for “strategic anthropomorphism,” Braidotti joins figures such as Cary Wolfe to push the posthumanist edge of ecotheory. By contrast, ethicist Zylinska emphasizes the “strategic role of the concept of the human in any kind of ethical project worth its salt” (61). The suggestive concept of “ecotone war” currently being developed by Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr, implies that environmental conflict—their ur-example is the material struggle between land and sea—models political conflicts yet to come. They see resistance to gender inequality and capitalist exploitation as “conjoined struggles” (166), thus suggesting that the gender identity of Old Man Anthropos must be exploded, rather than contained or even bifurcated. On the subject of the humanity of Man, it seems, ecofeminist thinking remains unsettled.
Another shifting context that appears productive for ecofeminists is the shift from the purely terrestrial to mixed land-and-sea perspectives. Clover and Spahr examine strikes in California port cities during the brief “Occupy” heyday in 2011 as revealing the land–sea rift. Alaimo argues for “dwelling in the dissolve” in which aqueous environments threaten fictions of bodily solidarity. The “loss of sovereignty” of dissolution amounts, in her terms, to “an invitation to intersubjectivity or trans-subjectivity and even . . . to a posthumanist or counterhumanist sense of self as opening out unto the larger material world and being penetrated by all sorts of substances and material agencies that may or may not be captured” (Exposed, 4). Relatedly, Astrida Neimanis treats the human body as a form of membrane: “This membrane is not a discursive barrier, but an interval of passage: solid enough to differentiate, but permeable enough to facilitate exchange.” In broader cultural and philosophical context, Karin Amimoto Ingersoll has presented a “seascape epistemology,” which is “not a knowledge of the sea . . . [but] a knowledge about the ocean and the wind as an interconnected system that allows for successful navigation.” Her focus on intentional movement—navigation—through saltwater spaces connects her surfing perspective to the global navigational techniques of Polynesian mariners and European chart makers. For all these writers, turning away from green terrestrial pastoralism toward blue oceanic dynamism enables a new perspective on the Anthropocene. The turn from the solid ground of modernity’s petro-expansion to the global currents of oceanic immersion may represent a productive conceptual seascape in which to imagine Anthropocene futures.
This archive of postures and methods is not as plural as I wish it could be. The challenge of pluralizing is that it’s never quite enough: further changes always beckon. I can imagine postures for urban ecologies, queer ecologies, terraqueous strains, and cyborg assemblages. Even more enticing are the postures that I cannot imagine, those that take the Old Man Unawares. Probably the biggest gap in my own expertise lies in non-Western and Indigenous environmental thinking. These ideas present important challenges to the singularity of the Old Man’s current postures. Professor and activist Kyle Whyte argues that “Anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is an intensification of environmental changes imposed on Indigenous people through colonialism.” Whyte claims that Indigenous thinking and scholarship provides an essential counterdiscourse to pluralize our ideas about humans and their nonhuman surroundings. These ideas cannot fail to expand our postures and visions.
In some cases, mainstream scholars have begun to bring the Unaware into familiar discourses. One recent scholarly example appears in philosopher Jonathan Lear’s 2006 book, Radical Hope, which unfolds the story of Plenty Coups, the nineteenth-century Native American Crow leader who guided his people to accept the end of their traditional way of life. Plenty Coups’s dilemma—“How ought we to live with this possibility of collapse?” (9)—resonates with the dire pronouncements of environmental doomsayers in the Anthropocene. In Lear’s reading, Plenty Coups shows that it’s possible to reframe breakdown as futurity. “We must do what we can,” Lear ventriloquizes the Crow leader, “to open our imagination up to a radically different set of future possibilities” (93). Plenty Coups’s vision of the Crow people enduring without mobility, wealth, or war parallels our diminished prospects in the age of climate change.
Lear’s analysis of the dilemma of Plenty Coups sits uneasily alongside Whyte’s present-day environmental activism in the service of indigenous climate justice. To respond to Indigenous thinking may require a deeper reckoning with activism as well as an expanded critical imagination. As I continue to learn about Indigenous responses to the Anthropocene, I anticipate finding more, and more challenging, postures into which Old Man Anthropos must bend his body.
What happens if we put all the postures together?
There’s no simple pattern Anthropos can master. Stooping after Rising captures a pleasing symmetry, but the political Chains in which Anthropos finds himself inhibit further movement. He can’t find his rhythm. At times Amazed by the wideness of his world, he finds in the Mirror a gendered plurality that even oceanic depths and remote deserts have not revealed to him. To a large extent he remains Unaware. He wants to put all the steps together, to build new alliances through these plural postures and to expand his repertoire to new wanderings and fresh pastures. History and materiality together produce so many constraints. Can he do it?
Dance, Old Man! Dance!