Claire Colebrook

It seems the only response to the vogue for Anthropocene thinking is ambivalence: yes, we are finally –perhaps – thinking beyond our own time and interests, but we are doing so by way of a parochial conception of the species (‘anthropos’), accompanied by a resurgence of seemingly counter-humanist rhetorics that are all too human. Calling the Anthropocene the ‘capitalocene’, to name just one gesture, restores earlier political narratives that explain human history by way of a trajectory of labour, and allows the goodness of the notion of the proper polity to remain in place.  The Anthropocene is not a simple invocation of ‘humanity’ or ‘the human,’ but an explanation of a now-universal predicament, generated by the historically, economically, culturally and politically singular mode of being of some humans.  The logic of the Anthropocene and its mode of universality is akin to that of the universal history of Anti-Oedipus: there is nothing necessary or inevitable about the history of capitalism and humanism, and yet once that history has taken place capitalism’s system of abstraction, exchange and axiomatics enables the comprehension of all previous social assemblages; all other social forms are now seen as different from capitalism to the extent to which they impeded radically deterritorialized exchange:

… it is correct to retrospectively understand all history in the light of capitalism, provided that the rules formulated by Marx are followed exactly.

First of all, universal history is the history of contingencies, and not the history of necessity. Ruptures and limits, and not continuity. For great accidents were necessary, and amazing encounters that could have happened elsewhere, or before, or might never have happened, in order for the flows to escape coding and, escaping, to nonetheless fashion a new machine bearing the determinations of the capitalist socius. …

…if we say that capitalism determines the conditions and the possibility of a universal history, this is true only insofar as capitalism has to deal essentially with its own limit, its own destruction—as Marx says, insofar as it is capable of self-criticism (at least to a certain point: the point where the limit appears, in the very movement that counteracts the tendency). In a word, universal history is not only retrospective, it is also contingent, singular, ironic, and critical (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 140).

Capitalism makes sense of its prehistory, enabling a universal and all-encompassing narrative that explains every other social form as its precursor.  One might say the same for Deleuze and Guattari’s mode of philosophy: its grasp of life in all its stratifications, all the ways in which it unfolds to infinity, takes place from a singular history of philosophy (from Greece to the present) that is then able to consider philosophy as such, and art as such as having a potentiality not limited to its Western or human form (1994).  This brings us to the heart of the inclusive disjunction of the Anthropocene.  It might seem as though commitment to the problem of the Anthropocene requires either that we abandon post-humanism and post-colonialism and accept a unity of the human (however retrospective), or we refuse the all-inclusive narrative and insist on attributing the force of the Anthropocene to some humans (the Capitalocene, the Corporatocene, the Plantationoscene).  Deleuze’s and Guattari’s philosophy insists both that we accept (at least) a 1000 plateaus, or all the different stratifications that make sense of the whole (including geology, semiology, military history, literary history, epigenetics, metallurgy, musicology and zoology), and that one of these strata – philosophy, emerging from a world of humans and capital – has the capacity to think stratification as such.   I would suggest that this is a fruitful way to think about the Anthropocene; it is not the narrative of all narratives that explains and justifies a series of other narratives (including Marxism, feminism and post-colonialism).  It is both yet one more way of understanding the whole existing alongside any others, and a way of organizing and subsuming all others.   One might imagine, in the manner of a counter-factual, another history of humanity that did not generate the resource-depleting and ecosystem-transforming practices to the degree of intensity that would yield geological inscription (and such forms of humanity did, and still do, exist).  However, once one has ‘arrived’ at a certain Anthropocene awareness, all those other modes of humanity not only appear to be proto-Anthropocene, but also caught up in its ultimate effect.  And yet, it is just this seemingly nuanced notion of the Anthropocene, and its subsequent qualifications that generates a hyper-humanism, along with a hyper-moral reterritorialization.  ‘We’ are now all human.

This is not to say that one should blithely accept a single, guilty but now repentant ‘anthropos.’  Nor is it to suggest that one accepts the partial attribution of the Anthropocene to some humans, and then turns to those innocent humans (or another human potentiality) to offer an escape from the Anthropocene.  It is, rather, a way of thinking about intensifying the tendency of the Anthropocene, and to move from its re-territorialization (the creation of a unified humanity, even if only some were responsible), to a higher deterritorialization.  Just as one might, from the vantage point of late capitalism, write a universal history of the emergence of ‘our’ specific grasp of abstraction from this singular history, one might ask what other stratifications might be imagined, after the Anthropocene.

If I invoke stratigraphy in the title of this essay I do so in order to intensify the geological stratification that opens the thought of the Anthropocene.  From a geological perspective, stratigraphy allows humans in a certain time-frame to discern a broader and inhuman history beyond their ken.  One might say that doing so is an occurrence of deterritorialization: an aspect of the earth becomes a way of coding, reading and generating another temporality (beyond the human history of the earth).  This temporality, as given in the positing of the Anthropocene, is that of a species emerging and then altering the very conditions and scale through which it has come to exist and understand itself.  But rather than geological stratification and deterritorialization as the time and frame that makes sense of all others, one must resist the reterritorialization that would allow this stratification to co-opt all others.  Far from displacing ‘the human’ the geological stratigraphy of the Anthropocene has subsumed and restored earlier grand narratives, especially Marxism which has benefited from this regained human unity.  Other stratifications are possible: rather than humans reading the earth, recognising a history of capital and industry, and then dividing humanity according to those guilty of destruction of the earth as a living system opposed to the meek who shall inherit the earth, one might think of other planetary scales where organic life has no prima facie value.  Or, one might consider non-human minor modes of stratification: both those in which there is no sense of the human (societies thinking in terms of the relations among human and non-human persons, or societies of living forms that do not include humans).  When Deleuze’s writes of stratigraphy, it is not in reference to a single timescale of geology but a mode of reading that diverges into multiple and incompossible lines.  What lines of time does an image or perception unfold? (Deleuze 1989, 243-44).  Everything is stained with prior histories, potential accounts of emergence, layers that open multiple and mutually destructive futures.  If we read the earth in terms of geological strata, then we conclude that a species emerges, takes its toll on its own conditions of life, ends a certain mode of life, and then humanity comes to a close.    While the Anthropocene posits a single geological time read through the strata of the earth, there are Indigenous cultures that inscribe the space of the earth and its various dimensions within a milieu of non-human life (rivers that are the outcome, or depict the shape of, past battles between lizard spirits and bird spirits); even Ancient Greek myth placed this world and its human relations after the event of a battle of the Titans.

In this essay I would like to pursue the possibility of resisting both an uncritical zeal for the Anthropocene, and of an all-too-easy dismissal.  But rather than situate the problem between the Anthropocene and its possible others (the capitalocene, the corporatocene, the misanthropocene), I want to draw upon Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of inclusive disjunction (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 154); rather than an either/or forced choice, one might see any field as composed of contrary tendencies which, when stabilized or stratified, nevertheless see each strata with one side facing organization and another side opening out to deterritorialization (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 4).  To stratify is to mark out a difference, but also to be proximate with forces tending towards the collapse and proliferation of differences.  Rather than say that we must accept the judgment of the Anthropocene or choose some other scale or frame, it is possible to accept the stratigraphy of the Anthropocene and see it as existing with divergent and incompossible non-Anthropocene worlds.  Put more simply: it is the case that there is a species that calls itself ‘man’ and that discovers itself to be an agent of geological force; it is also the case that there is no such thing as ‘man,’ and that planet earth has sustained forms of life (human and non-human) that are not folded around a conception of universal humanity or species being. 

Deleuze was critical of arguments that were structured by the logic of ‘on the one hand…. on the other hand,’ or that distributed judgment according in terms of more or less agreement.  Such a mode of thinking, he argued, was ‘thermodynamic’ – as though questions could be resolved by establishing a golden mean, accepting the concepts we are given and negotiating the pros and cons (Deleuze 1994, 225).   The reverse of such an equalization and homogenization (where we accept the terms of a single plane and then negotiate its limits and violence), is a fractured judgment maintaining the full force of incompossible worlds (that not only have multiple strata, but that stratify differently).  Each unfolding of the world bears its own coherence, but may be utterly incoherent and impossible in relation to the other (Deleuze 1993, 67).  One can affirm that history and life have proceeded in such a way that there is now one globe, one humanity and no escape from species-thinking; and also affirm that ‘the human’ is but one fragment of a world that is composed of different modes of existence, including human and non-human persons, and timescales that map neither onto the deep time of the Anthropocene, nor the time-frame of the history of humanity, nor of philosophy as it understands itself.  (Deleuze’s own work may seem to privilege the trajectory of Western philosophy finally arriving at the capacity to release itself from the delusions of a privileged plane of transcendence, finally becoming one again with the world, immanence and pure perception; and yet, his work is one of the few attempts to define truth not as relative within a single plane of man or culture, but as true for every different unfolding of the world: not the relativism of truth, but truth of the relative [Deleuze 1993, 61].)  This embrace of incompossibility is a way of finding a path beyond bad conscience; incompossibility is not quite the opposite of ‘either/or’ logic, but its multiplication: humanity is doomed, and there is no such thing as humanity, and we must insist on the inescapable unity of the humanity, and we must destroy any illusion of unity, and we must bid a happy farewell to this hapless species, and we must resist all notions of ‘game over,’ and refuse the exisgency of saving ‘ourselves’ at all costs.  All of these imperatives – if accepted – have a way of composing the whole, but all are accompanied by other stratifications.  Rather, then, than thinking of tipping points, stark choices and wake up calls, we might question the implicit ‘we’ of the Anthropocene (a ‘we’ that is at its most forceful precisely when it refuses any simple ‘anthropos’ and aims to inflect ‘the’ Anthropocene with smaller-scale but still compatible and human narratives, such as the story of capitalism.)

What the Anthropocene seems to have imposed upon us is one mode, temporality and logic of stratigraphy, where the deep time of the earth’s discernible layers becomes the privileged scale for other times and spaces.  (We might affirm that ‘other’ cultures have the same insights, but all truths assemble on one plane, the plane of the earth read geologically, with each strata indicating a before and after.) But there is another way to think stratigraphically that does not accept the plane of thought as it is so constituted; one might think beyond the plane of a universal human history where the final realization of our species being includes us in a global polity whether we like it or not. Are we really thinking if we accept the value of a concept (such as ‘the Anthropocene,’ or ‘the human’) and then qualify all the ways in which either the concept or our attempts to respond to it will fall short?  Rather than accept the globe and its stratifications as the strata that explain all others, one might say – following A Thousand Plateaus – that events should be considered stratigraphically, as creating thresholds that tend in contrary directions; concepts, events, and encounters create multiple tendencies that unfold various worlds, some of which are not readable in terms of the the other.  This is not to say that everything is relative; it is to say that the complexity of concepts requires acute analysis and that a concept’s contrary tendencies should be intuited precisely rather than distributed into degrees of more and lessI would therefore suggest that one of the ways in which we might think fruitfully about the Anthropocene is by first rejecting the moral axiology it has seemed to prompt, where one is compelled to be either for the Anthropocene’s trumping of all other scales and worlds, or against its reiterated and unthinking use of the global ‘anthropos.’ One should not be compelled into the distribution and compromises of this (still too blunt) concept of the Anthropocene. 

One might refer to this logic of distribution (especially in its most refined deconstructive mode) as one of necessary impossibility or the double bind.  Without – say – some concept of humanity in general, or even the Anthropocene, one would not be able to negotiate questions of justice and inclusion at the global level, and yet that very gesture of inclusiveness and recognition violently excludes modes of existence that neither comport themselves to the world with a strong sense of ‘the human,’ nor contribute to the earth-system-altering forces that initiated the Anthropocene.  One might say, if one were to accept distributive thinking, that one cannot do without ‘humanity’ as ‘we’ look to a future that may be violent for us all, even if that very gesture constitutes a violence in its own right.  One would see concepts such as the Anthropocene as being insufficiently capable of capturing all the differences among humans, while also creating too much difference between ‘the human’ and others.  Negotiating the Anthropocene by way of deconstruction would see this necessary impossibility as fruitful, messianic and radically futural; what appears as impossible offers itself as the grandest of futural possibilities (Keller 2015, 100).  It may well be that generating the notion of ‘anthropos’ as the single species united in its destructiveness attributes blame to an unjustifiable (and non-existent) humanity in general, but this same violent attribution also opens a thought of the future when justice and recognition will have a greater extension, beyond any of today’s hegemonic forms of the human.  While the concept of the post-human seems to have been rendered problematic by the claims of the Anthropocene by requiring us to return to the unavoidable reality of the human (Chakrabarty 2009), one of the more robust ways of approaching the human as a problem would be by way of deconstruction’s recognition of a necessary complicity with metaphysics.  Deconstruction is not (as Zizek has claimed) simply a form of ‘common sense’ that sees a conflict between universals and particulars (Zizek 1992, 29); on the contrary, it refuses to simply settle with common sense’s conflicts, and insists on a virtual ‘humanity to come’ that would always disturb any actual or closed ‘humanism’ (Burns 2013, 138).  It does not abandon the infinite force of concepts; it does not rest with notions of ‘humanity in general’ being unattainable, but it does recognize that the unavoidable violence of inclusion is the only way to avoid a ‘worse’ violence of no ethics at all, of abandoning the thought of every single other in any thought of who ‘we’ are (Thomson 2005, 65).  Even so, deconstruction is a highly sophisticated instance of negotiating concepts according to inclusion and exclusion, or the ethical and the violent – good and evil (Anderson 2012).  In this respect at least, deconstruction seems to capture the dominant problem of the Anthropocene: on the one hand its extension covers over the difference of what humans actually are, even if – on the other hand – it is a way of thinking beyond narrow and enclosed cultural groupings.  One way of thinking about the difficulty of concepts would therefore be by a form of judgment that distributes and divides the good from the bad: on the one hand the Anthropocene opens political thought beyond a timescale of cultures and states to consider the impact of humanity at the level of the earth as a living system, forcing ‘us’ to recognize impacts beyond the scale of politics in its human-human dimension; on the other hand, the very force of the concept – its operation at a strata that pays little heed to subtle cultural differences – repeats the blindness to other modes of existence that exacerbated Western industrialism’s ecology destroying historical trajectory (Dibley 2012).  This imposed universality, or retrospective universality, or negative universal history is not at all mitigated by the qualification that the Anthropocene was the consequence of certain human histories and activities and not the human ‘as such.’  For it is precisely this differentiation of the human – its distribution and historicization according to narratives of capitalism, industrialism and colonialism – that sustains a single human history where some wage war on the milieu at the expense of others.

I want to suggest that it is time to think stratigraphically about the Anthropocene, now that the Anthropocene has settled into a concept that seems to operate by way of distribution – calling upon ‘us’ to acknowledge its global force while nevertheless being wary of its violent disrespect for difference.  Of course, in the narrow or literal sense, the Anthropocene is a concept of stratigraphy, but there is another multiple stratigraphy articulated and embedded in Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari’s work.  In What is Philosophy? they argue for a time that is philosophical rather than chronological/historical, and that is stratigraphic in a manner that surpasses a strictly geological stratigraphy.  We could say that one way of thinking about our present is at the scale of geology where something like the Anthropocene becomes possible, and some humans would constitute a species defined by a capacity to alter the earth as a living system.  Alongside this stratification there would be others: thinking of literature as made up of stylistic periods, such that one could argue whether a text was Romantic or Modernist that would have little to do with its calendar date; Platonism, Kantianism, Epicureanism are not movements bound to a date, individual or school but exist as potentialities for anyone doing philosophy (with it always being the case that certain Kantians or Cartesians have little to do with philosophical history, or with reading specific authors).  Outside of intellectual histories it would be possible to think of (at least) a thousand plateaus.  The entire history of philosophy, of art, of politics and any other way of thinking time, exists virtually and is transformed with every new event.  All these histories are not only different ways of spatializing time, stratifying and overlaying its differences side by side; they also converge and diverge.  It is possible to tie the Anthropocene to industrialism, imperialism, white supremacy and patriarchy, but there are also other stratifications   When Deleuze and Guattari compose a seemingly sequential/chronological history – in Anti-Oedipus and its transition from primitivism to despotism to capitalism – their project is nevertheless marked by the theorization of ‘archaisms.’  The world we live in now – a world where there is nothing other than exchange, no value other than the capacity to enter into market networks (especially as the ‘knowledge economy’ takes hold) – is at once the expression of a potentiality for quantitative flows which in previous epochs had been warded off, at the same time as our world of the present is accompanied by the ongoing existence of despotisms and tribalisms.  Such archaisms cannot be distributed geographically or geo-politically but exist alongside each other, stratigraphically: the far right in the United States is as committed to the free exchange of the market without intervention, as it is to a centralized, top-down and despotic control of bodies (including the prohibition on abortion, the teaching of creationism, and various other precepts).  The virtue of thinking politics stratigraphically is evident when one thinks about other concepts, such as that of the ‘cultural dominant.’  The latter notion defines a period of time by the logic that captures most thought and behavior, and then explains residual or resistant forms in relation to the dominant.  Such a conception is chronological and forward moving, and simply irreversible.  Capitalism would emerge with the ongoing creation of networks of exchange, increasing consumer freedoms and the constitution of the subject, but would nevertheless allow some practices and spaces to lag behind.  By contrast, stratigraphy – as A Thousand Plateaus makes abundantly clear – sees every event at every point in time in virtual relation to every ‘present.’  Not all these relations are actualized.  It may well be that nothing is to be gained from seeing this grain of sand here and now in relation to the invention of the steam engine or the invasion of what came to be known as Australia, but the grain of sand, the steam engine and white Australia (like all events) converge and diverge.  One may be able to read the planet in a pebble (Zalasiewicz, 2010) A.or a grain of sand, even if most of the universe is too dim and distant to be rendered with any distinction. Understanding Mahler’s symphonies requires intuiting the rhythms and refrains that compose emergent birdsong and animal territories, but those territories – in turn – are intuitable as refrains because of the compositions of every composer from plain chant and Bach to Mahler and Messiaen. One might want to object that art, however emergent its conditions might be, has a capacity to stand alone and be read and repeated beyond its context.  One can listen to Mahler or Messiaen without ever having heard folksong or birdsong; but in such a case what is not being heard is fully real and virtual.  Imagine if a text, such as Joyce’s Ulysses were the one text to survive the destruction of ‘civilization:’ everything that allows that text to make sense would no longer be readable, present, actual or retrievable, but would nevertheless have a virtual existence, which one refer to as sense.  Perhaps there are events, perceptions, inscriptions and vibrations that would, if brought into relation, generate a whole new Shakespeare; if those relations are never actualized they are nevertheless fully real and virtual.  What sense, then, might unfold from the Anthropocene considered as a concept?  It may well be that for our actual world, with our inscriptions and perceptions the recent geological narrative of stratification gives an order to the history we have lived; but the movement of the Anthropocene and its grasp of the whole might, as a concept, open the thought of all the other ways in which inhuman timelines might stratify the present, creating different relations – even if those relations are not actual.  What world might be realized if one thought of all the histories that did not take place, had white colonization not almost completely erased other non-humanist understandings of the earth?  Rather than allowing one stratification to order all others, and then be inflected by sub-narratives (such as the history of capital, colonialism or patriarchy), one might superimpose a thousand tiny anthropocenes, or all the lived and unlived potentialities of the earth.  Every point in the whole has the potential to illuminate the infinite and open whole of which it is but one perception, with every perception possessing greater or lesser clarity and distinction of the whole of which it is a creative part. 

If A Thousand Plateaus is stratigraphic at the level of composition, it is so because it not only operates by way of a whole series of divergent scales, at once explaining the world by way of semiotics, then genetics, then forces of war or desire, but also because within each plateau the conditions of emergence and potentiality exist alongside actuality and generated stabilities.  Rather than say that capitalism is a dominant with older residual forms still lagging behind, one can see any form or event at any time as existing alongside all others with different degrees and thresholds of actualization.  This is what A Thousand Plateaus performs in its mode of composition, which is the realization of the mode of philosophizing described in What is Philosophy?  The latter text adds another dimension to this task of stratigraphic thinking, the plane of immanence.  The history of ideas for the most part presupposes a plane of the thinking self, while Deleuze and Guattari’s history in Anti-Oedipus explains social formations by way of the organization of bodies and relations of desire. By contrast, A Thousand Plateaus intimates, in a mode of reverse intuition, that each way of accounting for relations by way of the formation of a plane is an aspect of the plane of immanence, the plane that is nothing more than the ongoing and dynamic open whole of all these planes, the plane of immanence:

Can we say that one plane is “better” than another or, at least, that it does or does not answer to the requirements of the age? What does answering to the requirements of the age mean, and what relationship is there between the movements or diagrammatic features of an image of thought and the movements or sociohistorical features of an age? We can only make headway with these questions if we give up the narrowly historical point of view of before and after in order to consider the time rather than the history of philosophy. This is a stratigraphic time where “before” and “after” indicate only an order of superimpositions. Certain paths (movements) take on sense and direction only as the shortcuts or detours of faded paths; a variable curvature can appear only as the transformation of one or more others; a stratum or layer of the plane of immanence will necessarily be above or below in relation to another, and images of thought cannot arise in any order whatever because they involve changes of orientation that can be directly located only on the earlier image (and even the point of condensation that determines the concept sometimes presupposes the breaking-up of a point. Or the conglomeration of earlier points). …

Philosophical time is thus a grandiose time of coexistence that does not exclude the before and after but superimposes them in a stratigraphic order (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 58-59).

I quote this passage at length for several reasons.  First, it offers a concept of stratigraphy that would be a ‘grandiose superimposition.’  In this respect one would think of the geological stratigraphy that generates the claim of the Anthropocene as historical and chronological.  One of the dominant features of Anthropocene discourse has been its narrative and human frame: debates about just who the ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene is, and just when the shift in the living system of the earth occurred, accompany the strictly geological claim that there is a discernible strata.  Indeed, one might say that the reason Deleuze and Guattari deploy the stratigraphic and geological metaphor is in order to exit the ‘before and after’ logic of metaphor.  They are not transposing a geological concept onto philosophy, but they are intuiting the ‘grandiose’ force made possible by the concept.  If one can think stratigraphically, then one would not say that philosophical concepts and periods are superimposed ‘like’ geological strata, but that superimposition or coexistence ‘is’ the plane of immanence, with all the temporalities, chronologies, histories and events of life existing at once – nothing is the ground or foundation for anything else.  Second, and more specifically, if one can think of geological explanation and stratification as one layer of time, existing alongside the history of philosophy, and the history of social formations, and if this stratigraphic superimposition thinks as if there were no before and after, one would generate a new ethics and a new politics. 

Rather than think of tipping points, of game over, of closing windows, or of opportunities (finally) for achieving justice and victory for all of us, now – we might think of those potentialities that are not of this world, and are not of our history.  There is the time and history of the Anthropocene, a time and history of techno-science, human ‘progress,’ globalism, consumption, expansion and survival.  There are other times and histories, including all those that were vanquished by colonialism and capitalist imperialism.  Now, it may be true that appealing to those other planes of thought – where ‘the human’ does not operate as a ‘silent presupposed ‘we,’ and where the future of ‘us’ as a species does not control the imaginary – would do nothing to help ‘us’ survive.  There have been, and still are, modes of existence that are not marked by a sense of ‘the human,’ and certainly not by a panic regarding the non-existence of human intelligence.  In this respect one might oppose those arguments today that seek to sustain ‘man’ as pure intellect – either by fetishizing the future or privileging ‘intelligence’ as the definitive human potentiality – with styles of living (such as Australian Indigenous culture to name just one example) that see the past, time, space and the earth as populated and given meaning and sense by way of non-human persons.  The ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene is constituted through – among other things – a geological comportment to the world, and a capacity to read human time and survival within a frame of deep time.  Anthropocene man is the man not only of universal history and species recognition, but also the man of sustained self-identity and ecological concern, where such concern is framed by the right to life.  Today’s discourses of climate change ethics and Anthropocene studies are predominantly concerned with how ‘we’ would live on, including how ‘we’ might learn from other cultures.  They reflect upon, delimit, accuse and unify the human from the point of view of the subject who surveys history and adopts the distance of critique and judgment.  (Jacques Derrida, in response to Foucault, suggested that this hyperbolic violence of reason was unavoidable; any attempt to place Western reason within a broader history would itself be an act of unifying, critical and elevated reason [Derrida 1978.)  Anthropocene man, the man who finds himself again as a geological agent, and then reflects upon his viability for ‘the’ future, operates as yet one more transcendence that organizes all other strata.  What would it mean to think as if such an inescapable, universalizing horizon were one strata among others?  We might ask whether ‘other’ cultures that don’t have a sense of ‘the human’ might enable the capacity to think of the world in a manner not divided between human and non-human, man and his others, universal humanity and its differentiation.  Here, I think, we encounter one of the most difficult problem’s of Deleuze’s oeuvre, and (in a related manner) one of the most profound questions opened by the concept of the Anthropocene.  As I have already argued, Deleuze was opposed to arguments that stayed within a certain distribution or orientation of thinking, and then negotiated ‘both sides’ of the argument: ‘on the one hand…on the other hand….’  The difficulty, therefore, is thinking beyond already constituted interior and exterior orientations of thinking.  One might say that nothing marks Western thought more than the ongoing history of self-overcoming, of renewing oneself by way of an ‘outside.’  Philosophy must purge itself of all contingent, received, historically-bounded and specific attachments, constantly erasing its own presuppositions.  One of the ways this has been achieved is by modern anti-foundationalism; if there is nothing timeless, necessary, natural or essential about thinking, then thought finds itself through a process of constant self-erasure.  In practical form this often takes an anthropological turn; one might imagine other cultures or times without ‘our’ sense of self, without binary sexes, without concepts of ownership, without Romantic love, without a sense of ‘art’ or ‘mind’ or ‘guilt’ (and so on).  Nothing would be more internal to the West than emptying itself of its own content by way of finding difference in ‘the other.’  When ‘we’ ask if there might not be a good Anthropocene, or whether climate change might not be the opportunity to find the justice we have always imagined, we are thinking as if there were only one time and only one history. 

Despite Deleuze, and Deleuze and Guattari’s, own work offering an outside to thought that seems to repeat, yet again, a long tradition of thought re-finding itself by way of its own self-annihilation, I would suggest that something more provocative can be found in the stratigraphic method.  If one were to take stratigraphic time seriously, one might think of other worlds and other forms of existence still existing in the present, regardless of their functionality or feasibility for our future.  What might it be like to live as if one were not defined and sustained by the parochial desire for our own living on?  Here is where the Deleuzian challenge to thought and its outside truly opens another space: thought has its own outside, and in this case the Anthropocene is predominantly the result of scaling ‘up’ or opening to a thought of deep time, but it is always a deep time unfolded from the point of view of man.  If one thinks of stratigraphy beyond geology, one might not remain within the layers of time that are readable in the earth’s strata, but consider all those once-lived, no-longer-lived, possible and inhuman worlds that – from the present – can appear only as unthinkable or monstrous.  To take just two examples: it appears that post-Apocalyptic culture can only envisage our future as a wasteland in which we yearn for the pleasures of the present.  (One might think here of Oblivion [2013], where the central character played by Tom Cruise has retained records that he plays wistfully, fragile books, a baseball cap and an astounding recollection of the last played Superbowl.)   Beyond the popular imaginary and the ongoing discourse of what ‘we’ must do to be or become sustainable, there is also the high-brow assumption that the loss of what defines itself as ‘the human’ (intelligence) might be catastrophically risked and lost (Bostrom 2014).  The more profound outside or radical exterior would deface what seems most intimate and interior, ‘our’ right to life and the value of life in what ‘we’ take to be its current form.  What if living otherwise were something that would be more destructive than the attrition of climate change?  What if, rather than holding on and eking out an existence as best we can, we were to act and think as if our world and our time were one among others and not the only life with a right to survive?  Imagining those worlds that are not our own – whether actual, past, or virtual – might do nothing to restore or save the present, and might not offer anything for thought as it has defined itself so far.  At a quite banal level one might say that Western thought and its accompanying practices of imperialism, colonization, barbarism and enslavement have destroyed many worlds and potential worlds that would not have generated what calls itself the Anthropocene, but even if those worlds cannot provide any exit from the Anthropocene for us, they might intimate an ethics that was genuinely affirmative of stratigraphic time.  Such an ethics would think and act as if one’s time were not one’s own, as if a thousand other temporalities existed alongside every now.  Rather then than thinking about recycling, minimizing one’s carbon footprint, purchasing a smaller car and buying local produce – all actions designed to sustain this present into ‘our’ future – one might act and think as if this present, with all its desires and interests were not worthy of our care.

Original essay posted here:

Works Cited:

Bostrom, Nick, 2014. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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Claire Colebrook

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