The Anthropocene Considered as an Imaginative Environment
Like many others in the humanities, I have recently been thinking about the implications of the Anthropocene concept for our traditional objects and methods of research. This is a theme that came up a number of times in the imaginative environments panels over the last few days, and no doubt in other panels at this conference as well. The Anthropocene, as it is probably completely unnecessary to say before this audience, is the proposed name for the current geological epoch, distinguished by the extent and complexity of human influence on the once natural environment. It is the period when collective human action has acquired the scale of a global geological force—when Earth’s material and ecological systems are reshaped in historical time. The collapse this entails of long-standing and foundational distinctions between symbolic actions on the one hand and natural processes on the other has been seen to unsettle, in some fundamental although as yet unclear ways, our existing organisation of intellectual labour. And it also seems to demand new conceptual and narrative forms for interweaving the temporalities of human history with those of the planet. Historians—and I’m thinking here of such people as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Tom Griffiths, Libby Robin, many others could be added—historians have recognized in the Anthropocene a critical challenge to the historical imagination and to our sense of what it is to be an historical agent. For Chakrabarty, the fact of anthropogenic climate change is something that “defies historical understanding.” And yet he equally sees confronting this fact to be indispensable for any adequate historical account of the present. So the Anthropocene appears to position historical knowledge in an acute paradox. Our awareness that humanity as a species is responsible for this condition fractures our inherited forms of what it is to be a self-knowing subject, one capable of recognising history, in the Viconian phrase, to be something we have made.
The question I want to pursue here is somewhat different, and involves the slightly different sense of history that has emerged over the last two centuries or so from within the disciplines of philology and literary history. These are generally seen to have first appeared in recognisably modern disciplinary forms around the end of the eighteenth century: if one had to name foundational moment, one might well choose 1795, with the publication of F.A. Wolf’s Prolegomena to Homer. This dating means that literary history, as a modern discipline, is essentially coterminous with the Anthropocene, which is also generally dated to this period: 1784 is the somewhat symbolic date, the purported invention by Watt of the steam engine, put forward by Paul Crutzen, who first coined the term. This coincidence of dates is more than a coincidence: I will return to its meaning somewhat later. At this point, all I want to stress is the persistent thread in literary history which has attributed a specific historical temporality to its object, that is, literature. To put this crudely, the basic idea is that literary works of art exist in a time of their own, a time quite different to the temporality of their human authors and readers, or indeed of the historical societies in which those authors and readers dwell. The claim is often broadened to include artworks in general: it is a claim that follows from the Romantic construction of artworks as radically autonomous, and so as ontologically distinct from the human subjects who create and interpret them. Artworks exist in a time different from that of human experience. This is part of their power, their aura: they communicate an alien time, a mode of temporal experience that is radically exterior to human subjectivity.
Perhaps this claim may sound like high Romantic mysticism, or as the aesthetic ideology at its most ideological. But it is an idea that comes with a strong materialist pedigree. We can find it Karl Marx, for instance, when in the Grundrisse he considers the enduring aesthetic power of Homer. On the one hand, materialist literary history seeks to understand its object—Homer, in Marx’s case—in the historical terms of its moment of production, and also, in the somewhat expanded model offered by reception history, of its material networks of transmission down to the present. This, in effect, is the task of textual historicisation that was formalised and made rigorous in 1795 by Wolf. On strictly philological, textual grounds, Wolf famously challenged the idea that the Homeric poems were the work of a single inspired individual. Instead, he argued, the texts that have come down to us were assembled over centuries, drawing on quite various oral, illiterate sources. The apparently unified text is actually internally fractured, heterogeneous and multiple. And so the sense of authorship, and of authorial agency, spreads out and trickles down to arrive not at a single writer but at something closer to a cultural universe. No author is an island entire of itself. It is instead culture, language, or finally history, that writes.
Marx accedes to this death of the author at the hands of history when he presents the temporality of art to be an acute example—indeed, the prime example—of what he calls “the uneven development of material production,” in other words, of the conjuncture or coexistence in the same moment of nonsynchronous histories. To understand Greek art historically, Marx suggests, it must be interpreted as the reworking of Greek mythology, which forms its social material. And this mythology, in turn, belongs inextricably to Greece’s mode of production, its moment of social development, which Marx reads as involving the imaginary domination of nature. Marx interprets the Homeric poems here not as expressions of self-originating individual creativity, but rather as documents of their historical production. Greek art, understood historically, expresses a unified cultural and social relation to the natural world. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Marx’s moment of writing, such mythological concepts of Nature have been entirely exploded. Modernity, Marx writes “excludes all mythological, all mythologizing relations to nature; [and] therefore demands of the artist an imagination not dependent on mythology.” “What chance has Vulcan against Roberts and Co., Jupiter against the lightning-rod and Hermes against the Credit Mobilier?” he famously asks. Mythology is no match for modern technology. But the point of Marx’s historicisation of Greek art is not to tie it inseparably to its historical moment, and so to figure it as irredeemably historically moribund. Rather, his aim is to bring into focus and sharpen the contradiction of historical art’s transhistorical agency. If history truly had the last word, only antiquarian historians would ever bother reading the Iliad today. But despite the fact that Greek art entirely belongs to a vanished world, it still exerts an undeniable claim on the present. This is the double action or paradox of literary history, a paradox apparent even in the tension that exists between the two terms of its name, literary and history, each of which corresponds to its own peculiar sense of time. On the one hand, literary history seeks to locate even in the silences of a text the expressions of its generative historical matrix. And on the other, the further it pursues this task of historicisation, the more compelling become the countervailing claims of literature’s transhistorical dimension, of a communicative silence of another order, a silence able to leap centuries and even millennia, so that messages from antiquity can take on the utmost urgency in the present. This is the paradox of literary history, a paradox first formalised in the same moment as the onset of the Anthropocene, in the closing years of the eighteenth century; that is, when biopolitics was first structurally coupled with prehistoric hydrocarbons to generate the enduring social forms of modernity.
Marx here is reworking Romantic ideas about the paradoxical ontology of the artwork. These ideas tend to be fairly complex, as well as being multiple, contradictory and heteroclite. Aesthetics, as recent theorists have reminded us, is a contested site of dissensus, not a unified field of agreed principles. So I am simplifying rather drastically here in identifying an underlying thread that informs these models of the artwork. Simplifying, then: from about the 1790s, perhaps a little earlier, primarily in Germany and Britain, but elsewhere too, artworks start to be understood as incorporating two nonsynchronous orders of time, historical and nonhistorical. This fractured or doubled temporal construction was a function of the mediating ontological position artworks were thought to occupy, midway between natural appearances on the one hand and human symbolic actions on the other. Hegel summarized this line of thought as follows: art “dissolve[s] and reduce[s] to unity the…opposition and contradiction between the abstractly self-concentrated spirit [i.e. subjectivity] and nature… Art is the middle term between purely objective indigent existence and purely inner ideas.” This split or mediating ontological construction of the artwork, as a fraught synthesis of human and non-human orders of existence, was something of a commonplace in German aesthetic thought basically from Kant on. For Kant, the apprehension of an artwork as beautiful requires us to view it as if it were natural—as found, not made. Meanwhile, the apprehension of natural beauty for Kant requires us to view nature as if it were an art object—as made, not found. It should be clear how the basic act of Kantian aesthetic experience—the judgement “this is beautiful”—is underwritten by a circular and unstable categorial movement that cycles ceaselessly from human technics to natural appearances and back again. In the early 1800s, whether or not the stress fell on the moment of synthesis or on the doubleness, the disjunction, of these two sides, this dual constitution of the artwork, neither wholly assimilable to human systems of meaning nor ever seamlessly continuous with the natural world, was understood to be the reason for art’s ontological specificity, its absolute autonomy—and so for all the well-known properties thought to issue from that autonomy: the artwork’s infinite interpretability, for example; its exteriority to all human purposes or structures of interest; its transhistorical mode of address—the idea, that is, that the communicative horizon of the artwork is radically universal, figuring a total human commonality still to come
If we apply these aesthetic categories to the Anthropocene, or if we consider conversely how the Anthropocene might require us to transform and rethink the aesthetic categories at hand, then I think we find a striking and strikingly uncanny fit or resonance between this Romantic model of the artwork and our contemporary Anthropocene condition. Both present the impossible task of holding human and nonhuman temporalities together in the same thought. Both suspend or erase the distinction between symbolic actions and natural appearances, the distinction that is also the condition of their intelligibility. Both impel the speculative construction of a newly universal horizon, an implied sense of the human species as a totalised collective agent. So perhaps we might think, in an speculative spirit, of the Anthropocene world as something like a planetary artwork, insofar as it is a world that we have made, or re-made, without design, without purpose or intention, a world we have made without ever quite meaning to make it, but which demands to be seen as intelligible or meaningful precisely in virtue of that absence of intended meaning. Or perhaps I should say, rather than the Anthropocene world, it is the Anthropocene globe that resembles an artwork, for some of the very reasons why on Monday Warwick Anderson wanted to reject the globe and the global as the measure of our contemporaneity. To cite again the passage cited by Anderson, in which Derrida explains his preference for the French word mondialisation—worldification—to the English “globalization”: “it is because the concept of world gestures towards a history, it has a memory that distinguishes it from that of the globe, of the universe, of earth… For the world begins by designating, and tends to remain, in an Abrahamic tradition… a particular space-time, a certain oriented history of human brotherhood.” If we take the Anthropocene seriously, it seems to me, then it is precisely the nonhuman nonhistorical time of the planet, of the globe, that needs to be addressed and retained in its discontinuous collapse into the timescales of historical narrative and human fraternity. And this is one critical advantage of thinking of the Anthropocene globe as an artwork. The Anthropocene concept is sometimes criticised in ecophilosophy and ecocriticism as some kind of acme or extreme of anthropocentrism—as a fantasy of “anthropocentric techno-narcissism,” to borrow a phrase Axel Gelfert cited yesterday. But if the globe has become something like an artwork, then this would not involve its total anthropofication, but quite the opposite, for there is nothing so inhuman, so alien, for aesthetic theory at least, as the work of art. When once asked why he didn’t paint from nature, Jackson Pollock famously responded: “I am nature!” In the Anthropocene, everyone, universally, today, would be justified in saying the same thing, if in a melancholic, rather than a triumphant, tone. We are all artists now. This is our imaginative environment. And, after two centuries of modern art, we should know that, just because it is ugly, just because it is grotesque and shameful, does not mean that it is closed to aesthetic experience.