Erik Swyngedouw

The ‘Anthropocene’ is now commonly mobilized by geologists, Earth Systems scientists, and scholars from the humanities and social sciences as the name to denote the new geological era during which humans have arguably acquired planetary geo-physical agency. While recognizing a wide-ranging and often contentious debate (see e.g. Castree, 2014a,b,c; Hamilton, et al., 2015), I argue that the Anthropocene is a deeply depoliticizing notion that off-stages political possibilities. This off-staging unfolds through the creation of  ‘AnthropoScenes’, the mise-en-scene of a particular set of narratives that are by no means homogeneous, but which broadly share the effect of silencing certain voices and forms of acting (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016). The notion of the Anthropo(Obs)cene then, is a tactic to both attest to and undermine the performativity of the depoliticizing stories of ‘the Anthropocene’ (see Swyngedouw and Ernstson, 2018).

Earth Scientists, who coined the term ‘Anthropocene’, now overwhelmingly understand the earth as a complex, non-linear, and indeterminate system with multiple feedback loops and heterogeneous dynamics in which (some) human activities are an integral parts of these terraforming processes. The capitalist forms of combined and uneven physico-geo-social transformation are now generally recognized as key drivers of anthropogenic climate change and other deep-time socio-environmental transformations that gave the Anthropocene its name (Moore, 2016). Both human and non-human futures are irrevocably bound up in this intimate and intensifying metabolic — but highly contentious — symbiosis. The configuration of this relationship has now been elevated to the dignity of global public concern as deteriorating socio-ecological conditions might jeopardize the continuation of civilization as we know it.

Indeed, a global intellectual and professional technocracy has spurred a frantic search for a ‘smart’, ‘sustainable’, ‘resilient’, and/or ‘adaptive’ socio-ecological management and seeks out the socio-ecological qualities of eco-development, retrofitting, inclusive governance, the making of new inter-species eco-topes, geo-engineering, and technologically innovative – but fundamentally market-conforming – eco-design in the making of a ‘good’ Anthropocene. These techno-managerial dispositifs that search for eco-prophylactic remedies for the predicament we are in have entered the standard vocabulary of both governmental and private actors are presumably capable of saving both city and planet, while assuring that civilization-as we-know-it can continue for a little longer. Under the banner of radical techno-managerial restructuring, the focus is now squarely on how to ‘change’ so that nothing really has to change! 

A more-than-human ontology?

The proliferation of prophylactic socio-technical assemblages to make our socio-ecological metabolism ‘sustainable’ and ‘resilient’ coincided with the emergence of a radical ontological shift articulated around non-linearity, complexity, contingency, ‘risk’ and ‘uncertainty’. In addition, theorists from both the social sciences and the humanities mobilized these new earthly cosmologies to propose new materialist perspectives and more-than-human ontologies that point towards grasping earthly matters in more symmetrical human/non-human, if not post-human, constellations. This symmetrical relational ontology, variously referred to as more-than-human, post-human, or object-oriented ontology, fuels the possibility of formulating a new cosmology, a new and more symmetrical ordering of socio-natural relations (see, for example, Coole, et al., 2010; Morton, 2013; Harman, 2016). Nonetheless and despite its radical presumptions, we contend that these cosmologies also open up the specter, albeit by no means necessarily so, for deepening particular capitalist forms of human-nonhuman entanglements and can be corralled to sustain the possibility for a hyper-accelerationist eco-modernist vision and practice in which science, design, geo-engineering, terraforming technologies, and big capital join to save both earth and earthlings (Neyrat, 2016). In the process, the matter of ecology is fundamentally de-politicized.

The geo-sciences and, in particular, Earth System experts discern indeed in the advent of the Anthropocene the possibility, if not necessity, for a careful ‘adaptive’ and ‘resilient’ massaging of the totality of the Earth System. The recognition of the earth as an intricately intertwined, but indeterminate, socio-natural constellation opens up the possibility that the earth, with loving supervision, intelligent crafting, reflexive techno-natural nurturing and ethical manicuring, be terraformed in manners that may sustain deepening the eco-modernizing and eco-capitalist process. As Bruce Braun insisted in his dissection of the historiographies of the new materialisms, the parallel between non-deterministic geo-science, ‘resilience’ studies, and the varieties of new materialisms associated with a more-then-human ontology within neoliberalism are not difficult to discern. Indeed, in this staging of the ‘good’ Anthropocene, the new symmetrical relational ontology can function as a philosophical quilt for sustaining and advocating accelerationist hyper-modernizing manifestos (Neyrat, 2014). To save the world and ourselves, we need not less capitalism, but a deeper, a more intense and radically reflexive form, one that works to terraform earth in a mutually benign and ethically caring co-constitution. Covering up the multiple contradictions of capitalist eco-modernization, the apparently revolutionary new material ontologies offer new storylines, new symbolizations of the earth’s past and future that can be corralled to help perform the ideological groundwork required. In the next section, we shall show how this perspective enters the field of politics, the governing of things and people in common in troublingly de-politicizing manners.

The De-politicized Politics of the Anthropocene as Immuno-biopolitical Fantasy

As suggested above, some Anthroposcenic narratives provide for an apparently immunological prophylactic against the threat of a hitherto presumably irredeemably external and revengeful nature. In what ways can the mainstreaming of critical and radical new ontologies whose explicit objective was and is the unsettling of modernist cosmologies be understood? Roberto Esposito’s analysis of bio-political governmentality, enhanced by Fréderic Neyrat’s psychoanalytical interpretation, may begin to shed some light on this (Esposito, 2008; 2011; Neyrat, 2010). Esposito’s main claim expands on Michel Foucault’s notion of biopolitical governmentality as the quintessential form of modern liberal state governance by demonstrating how this biopolitical frame today is increasingly sutured by an immunological drive, a mission to seal off objects of government (the population) from possibly harmful intruders and recalcitrant or destabilizing outsiders that threaten the bio-happiness, if not sheer survival, of the population, and guarantees that life can continue to be lived. Immuno-biopolitics are clearly at work, for example, in hegemonic Western practices around immigration, health, or international terrorism. Is it not also the case that many of the sustainability, ‘resilience’, ‘smart’ technologies and adaptive eco-managerial policies and practices are precisely aimed at re-enforcing the immunological prowess of the immune system of the body politic against recalcitrant, if not threatening, outsiders (like CO2, waste, bacteria, refugees, viruses, Jihadi’s, ozone, financial crises, and the like) so that life as we know it can continue?

Alain Brossat (2003) calls this a fantasy of immunitary democracy. This is a dangerous fantasy, as the immunitary logic entails nothing else than the destruction of community, of politics. Necessarily, this immunitary logic creates the continuous production of the exposed and the exiled (the non-immunized – the dying ones) as the flipside of the immunized body, and leads to de-politicization. As Roberto Esposito argues further, the immunological biopolitical dispositif turns indeed into a thanatopolitics, of who should live or die; it turns into making life and making die (Mbembe, 2003). In the excessive acting of the immunological drive, the dispositif turns against that what it should protect. It becomes self-destructive in a process of auto-immunization. The construction of eco-bubbles and ‘sustainable’ enclaves for the privileged produces simultaneously the unprotected exiles and deepening socio-ecological destruction elsewhere. This is eco-gentrification elevated to new heights. In other words, the mechanisms that permit to make and secure life in some places end up threatening its very continuation elsewhere, at all geographical scales. This infernal dialectic, Neyrat argues, is predicated upon re-doubling the fantasy of absolute immunization, that is the fantasy that despite the fact we (the immunized) know very well we shall die, we act and organize things as if life will go on forever (Neyrat and Johnson, 2014). The symmetrical human-non-human ontology on which the Anthropo(Obs)cene rests, promises to cut through the unbearable deadlock between immuno- and thanato-politics without really having to alter the trajectory of socio-ecological change. It is the process that makes sure that we can go on living without staring the Real of eventual (ex-)termination in the eye. It is the hysterical position that guarantees that death remains obscure and distant, an obscene impossibility.

Re-centering the political

While the controversies over the Anthropocene are mobilized in all manner of ways, suggesting indeed a politicization of the stuff of things, the ‘political’ cannot and should not be grounded on the eventual truth of the Anthropocene. There is no code, injunction, ontology in the Anthropocenic narratives that can or should found a new political or politicizing ecology. The ultimate de-politicizing gesture resides precisely in letting the naming of a geo-social epoch and a contingent ‘truth’ of nature decide our politics, thereby disavowing that the ‘our’ or ‘the human’ does not exist. It is yet again a failing attempt to found a new politics on a contested truth of nature. What is required, is to assume fully the trauma that the decision is ours and ours only to make.

It is indeed surprising that post-foundational political thought is rarely articulated with more-than-human ontologies of the stuff of matter. Indeed, the post-foundational intellectual landscape that brought into conversation complexity theory and the new materialisms, and claims to open up radical new possibilities is symptomatically silent of the post-foundational political thought that emerged alongside and in a comparable context. Jacques Rancière, for example, understands the political as the interruptive staging of equality by the ‘part of no-part’ (Rancière 1998). The political appears when those that are not counted within the count of the situation (the excluded, the mute, the exposed, and exiled) make themselves heard and seen – that is, perceptible and countable – in staging equality. For these thinkers, the political emerges symptomatically as an immanent practice of appearance – as Hannah Arendt would put it, or an event in Alain Badiou’s terminology (Badiou, 2007), that interrupts a given relational configuration on constellation. This performative perspective of politics needs no grounding in any current or historical order or logic, based on say nature, the non-human, ecology, race, class, abilities, or gender. The political is a public aesthetic affair understood as the ability to disrupt, disturb, and reconfigure what is perceptible, sensible, and countable (Rancière 2004).

Indeed, a wide range of political theorists, despite their often radically opposing views, share this search for renewing political thought in a post-foundational ontological landscape characterized by inconsistency, radical heterogeneity and incalculable immanence. Alain Badiou, for example, insists that the attempts to re-found political philosophically is in fact an integral part of what he diagnoses as a pervasive processes of depoliticization. For him, ‘ecology is the new opium of the masses’ (Badiou 2007). A re-emergence of the political, he insists, resides in fidelity, manifested in militant acting, to egalitarian political events that might open a political truth procedure. Turning a politically progressive event into a political truth procedure requires the emergence of political subjects that maintain a fidelity to the inaugural egalitarian event, aspire to its generalization and coming into being through sustained actions and militant organization. It is a fidelity to the practical possibility of the coming community, but without ultimate ontological guarantee in history, theory, technology, nature, ecology, the Party, or the State. Yet it is one that slowly and relentlessly carves out a new socio-physical and socio-ecological reality, often in the face of the most formidable repression and violence. This requires sustained action, painstaking organization, and the lengthy process of radical egalitarian transformation. Above all, it necessitates embracing the trauma of freedom and abandoning the fear of failing as failing we shall; more-than-human unpredictable and uncaring behavior guarantees that.

Originally published in  AntipodeEditorial Collective (eds.) (2019).  Keywords in Radical Geography: Antipode at 50, J.Wiley, London, pp. 253-258

New Book: Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities


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