NILS BUBANDT

Original file here


THE UNCANNY VALLEYS OF THE ANTHROPOCENE

Psychologist Sigmund Freud described phenomena that are familiar and foreign at the same time as uncanny. Unheimlich – the German word for uncanny – literally means “unhomely” and captures the paradoxical mix of the homely and the strange that goes into the feeling of the uncanny (Freud 2013 [1919]). Ghosts, gods, spirits, and specters are classical icons of the uncanny. These entities are uncanny because they disturb the proper and familiar separation of things: the separation between the living and the dead, between the imaginary and the real, between the virtual and the actual. Ghosts, gods, specters and spirits are invisible apparitions, a paradoxical NO THING, a “between that is tainted with strangeness” (Cixous 1976: 543). But in 1970, the Japanese robotics engineer, Masahiro Mori, suggested that robots, too, become uncanny when they increasingly approach but still fail to achieve full human likeness. A prosthetic hand that has the fleshy look but not the proper fleshy feel of a human hand is, Mori suggested, as uncanny as a ghost. Mori called the experiential space of such phenomena “the uncanny valley”: the space where the function of increased likeness intersects with the function of decreased familiarity (Mori 2012)

Masahi Mori’s Uncanny Valley (photo credit: Wikipedia)


In Mori’s chart of the uncanny valley, corpses and zombies share quarters with only one human invention: the prosthetic hand. But since 1970, it is fair to say, Mori’s uncanny valley has become radically crowded with new beings far beyond robotics. Advances in genetic technology and bioengineering have added cloned animals, gene-modified crops and a host of other familiar-yet-strange denizens to the uncanny valleys of our time. The overpopulation of these uncanny valleys has also arguably grown exponentially after anthropogenic environmental disturbance has begun denaturalizing nature itself: jelly fish blooms, freak storms, and factory chicken are examples of this kind of environmental uncanniness. What are we, for instance, to make of the fact that the total biomass of the 20 billion chickens in the world’s industrial mega-farms is three times that of all wild birds combined (Bar-On et al. 2018)? A chicken is a very familiar bird for sure. But when the chicken is well on the way to becoming the signature, and one day soon perhaps the only, bird in the world, its very familiarity takes on a distinctly uncanny hue. Ecological uncanniness, one might call this.

SCIENCE AND THE REAL: NATURAL-SUPERNATURAL-UNNATURAL

If the uncanny represents a “crisis of the natural” (Royle 2003: 1), the Anthropocene is a truly an uncanny time, a time when the proper separation between things – between culture and nature, subject and object, human and nonhuman, life and non-life – is collapsing. The concept “Anthropocene” was born when geologists and climate chemists had to acknowledge that their natural objects of study was infused by human agency, but in ways that produced their own forms of more-than-human unpredictability. In the J-curves of the Great Acceleration (Steffen et al. 2015) an uncanny valley opened up when scientists had to acknowledge that the familiar promise of endless growth had led to environmental decline and climatic chaos. Climate change is the perhaps most evident example of a human caused but also uncannily run-away process. Consider, for instance, the uncanny rift between familiar experiences of weather and the statistics of climate. Many people across an ordinarily sun-starved northern Europe welcomed the exceptionally warm May of 2018 as an early start to a great summer. But by the end of the month, May turned out to also be the hottest month of May on record in the northern parts of Europe and the contiguous US (NOAA 6.6.2018). And the heat just continued. The hottest temperature ever in Africa was recorded in Algeria in the summer of 2018, and temperature records were broken in Taiwan, Central Asia, Europe, Canada, and the Western US. What was initially experienced as a pleasantly warm weather streak by heat-starving northern Europeans was by July revealed as the hottest El Niña year on record. The hemispheric scale of the heat meant that it began, eerily, to point to more than itself. In early July, a group of leading climate scientists hypothesized that positive feedback loops between changing climate, ocean currents, and other Earth systems could cause cascading effects that would catapult Earth into a “hothouse” state well before current predictions. This, they suggested, would have massive effects on global environment, societies and economies (Steffen et al. 2018). Hoping against all hope that they were wrong, one of the authors said that it was urgent to pose this possibility in the context of the unexpected nature of the ongoing summer heatwave of 2018. It was, in fact, “one of the most urgent existential questions in science” (Watts 2018b). In the course of a few months in 2018, weather had become uncanny, at once familiar and strange, urgent and unknowable. This meant something: namely a shift in how we will be able to experience weather in the future. After 2018, it has arguably become impossible to enjoy a sunny day without a certain frisson – an emotional shiver that is at once existential and epistemological. For while it is “difficult”, as researchers from the World Meteorological Organization put it, to ascribe any individual hot weather streak to climate change, when taken together, all the hot days across the northern hemisphere in 2018 became strong indications of global warming (Watts 2018a). On its own, each freak event is nothing. Together however, the freak events point to a new freaky climate reality, made all the more uncanny by being both perceptible and imperceptible (Hulme 2009). Climate, like ghosts and witches, teeters on the border between being-there and not-being-there (Bubandt 2014). In a time of global warming, weather is no longer innocent and given: from now on, weather is by necessity always-already haunted by the specter of anthropogenic climate change.

But weather is not alone in having become eerie in the Anthropocene. Nature has, too. What may once have been “natural” (but then who knows?) increasingly evades experience and language because “nature” itself has lost its proper place. Natural events have increasingly become “unnatural” by default, uncannily monstrous rather than homey and seemingly maternal (Stengers 2015). Take, the 2011 tsunami and nuclear power disaster in Japan, a disaster both natural and thoroughly unnatural (Bestor 2013). As a result, “nature” takes on the uncanny characteristics of those forms of the supernatural that never had a proper place of their own in the modern West: spirits, monsters, ghosts (Bubandt and van Beek 2011). This uncanny monstrosity gels poorly with hegemonic accounts of the Anthropocene where humans are said to be forceful agents acting upon a passive world. But far from being an epoch when humans have become “a force of nature” (Steffen et al. 2007), the Anthropocene names a time when human industry has conjured into existence nonhuman life forces that the modern prophets of industry – those who announced humans to be the only true agents in the world – had declared to be dead. The Anthropocene is a time when ghostly forces come to life in ways that are tainted through and through with strangeness. Take, for instance, the unpredictable agency of anthropogenic earthquakes in the fracked landscapes of Oklahoma (Hand 2014), the explosive but still contested methane flammability of a thawing Siberian tundra (The Siberian Times 2017), or the rapid but poorly understood decline of flyinginsects from the landscapes across Europe in the last 25 years (Carrington 2017). Or, take the global spread of the chytrid fungus by that favored medical animal, the African clawed frog, which is exacerbating the extinction crisis of the world’s amphibians. Or take the vanishing of the bees, or the collapse of fish stocks following the uncontrolled blooms of the planktonic ctenophore Mnemiopsis in the Black Sea and other central Asian bodies of water (Measey et al. 2012; Shiganova and Bulgakova 2000): all ghostly events marked by eerie disappearance or proliferation; all events that straggle the borders between life and death.

BIOLOGICAL HAUNTINGS

In the midst of such disastrous versions of ghostliness out there in the world, ghosts well up in enigmatic forms within science labs and science literature as well. Biology, for instance, is haunted by new insights that challenge conventional ideas about its research object: life. Take tardigrades, a phylum of over 1200 species of microanimals found on both land and in water. Some land-based tardigrades have an ability called cryptobiosis that allows them to lay dormant for decades, entirely desiccated, only to come back to life, when conditions change. Other species of tardigrades are hardy enough to survive almost any imaginable astronomical (or human-caused) disaster. They can, for instance, withstand radiation energy blasts that would be enough to evaporate the planet’s oceans (Temming 2017). The indestructibility of tardigrades, beings also known as “water bears”, has made them prime candidates for optomechanical experiments that seek to establish where the mind-bending laws of quantum mechanics end and the physical laws of “classical reality” begin. Dutch scientists plan to place a tardigrade on a millimeter-size silicon nitride membrane. Using a laser beam, the researchers hope to bring the membrane into an oscillation pattern that is so fast that it, and the tardigrade on it, will be pushed into a quantum superposition – a condition of being where the tardigrade would be nowhere and everywhere on the oscillation curve at the same time (Folger 2018). The tardigrade in a quantum superposition would cease to “be there” in any classical physical or common-sensical way. It would be the first biological entity to be scientifically induced into a ghostly state of pure potentiality. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” as the so-called third law of science-fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, has it (1962: 21). The possibility of a scientifically produced ghost tardigrade begs the question: what are we, in turn, to make of the reality of magic in the face of such technology?

Tardigrade (photo credit: io9.gizmodo.com and Sciencephotolibrary)

If the charismatic-looking tardigrades are the ghosts of biology – uncanny specters at the beginning and the end of the world as we know it – then Symbions are its category-breaking queer spirits. Symbions are microscopic symbiotic animal that live on the mouthparts of some Atlantic shellfish, where they feed on food leftovers. Legless and with a nervous system that is entirely unique in the biological world, Symbions belong to their own phylum called Cycliophora, named by AURA collaborator and biologist, Peter Funch, along with colleague Reinhardt Kristensen in 1995. Symbions have a strange and complex reproduction system: they reproduce sexually as well as asexually. Every adult Symbion has a female inside its body. This female is fertilized, inside the adult body, by males that have been produced and grown inside a different larval form also produced by the adult. The fertilized female leaves the adult body and settles elsewhere on the lobster mouth part, where – inside its body – a new larvae destined to become a new adult, is produced. A Pandora’s box of beings within beings, multiply sexed and cryptically reproducing, Symbions have what some have called “the most bizarre life story on Earth” (Marshall 2010). The evolutionary origin and phylogenetic position of the Symbion are still debated, failing as they do to properly fit the morphological and ontogenetic criteria of animal life.

Symbions (photo credit: Peter Funch)

TOWARDS A NONSECULAR ANALYTIC OF THE ANTHROPOCENE

There is, so it seems to us, an absence of sustained, empirical exploration of the ephemeral, spiritual, magical qualities of the nonhuman agency that has come to take center stage in the Anthropocene. We mean empirical in a critical not a naïvely empiricist sense. Wealso think of being empirical in a non-normative sense, an empirical attention to the world that seeks to study the ephemeral in ways that move beyond the sterile choice between secular or religious sympathies. The lack of a critical, non-normative and empirical approach to the ephemeral and uncommon sensical in Anthropocene scholarship is all the more jarring given what one might call the latent promise of the Anthropocene debate: namely, its claim that in Anthropocene scholarship the “common-sensical” divide between the human and the nonhuman, the living and the non-living is no longer operable. In the wake of this claim, studies of the nonhuman remain strikingly and one-dimensionally secular. Inspired by the epistemological instability between the human and the nonhuman, between life and non-life, that the Anthropocene portends, we ask: Does not the nonhuman entail more than flora, fauna, and geology? How do we include spirits, specters and ghosts in the study of the nonhuman or more-than-human? Might the break-down of the human-nonhuman divide, which destabilizes the distinction between humans and nature and the distinction between humans and technology, not also destabilize the distinction between the material and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, the skeptical and the superstitious? Might the Anthropocene, in other words, not also be a nonsecular Anthropocene?

The concept “Anthropocene” is the buzzword, the mot de jour, of the current moment. Like other buzzwords before it which sought to describe something essential about “the current moment” – modernity, globalization, capitalism, democracy – the word Anthropocene means different things to different people (Swanson et al. 2015; see also Howe and Pandian 2016). The conventional Anthropocene story, the story of the Anthropocene that most often makes it into the public news, is however an “all-to human” story: “we humans”, so this story goes, have through our carbon-driven industry caused massive changes to the ecological and bio-chemical systems of the globe (Crutzen 2002: 23). This all-too-human story is one of tragic irony, a story of harvesting the sour grapes of our own progress. It is a Zivilizationskritik as told through the human destruction of the fragile environment around us. It is an apt and useful story, but also a very specific story: one that insists, yet again, on putting Man (capital M) and Western Man (capital W and capital M) at its center. It is a story which has one of two endings: either apocalypse of one kind or another or salvation through some technological fix (embodied in dreams of machines to sequester carbon, of gene banks to store the DNA of extinct species, or of an exodus to Mars) (Haraway 2016).

We want to tell other and more-Earthbound stories of the Anthropocene that challenge this anthropocentric and euro-centric story. We want to tell multi-species stories about the more-than-human socialities that we humans cultivate, in many different ways, with the bacteria, the fungi, the protists, the animals and the plants around us. This interest in more-than-human-socialities have drawn us into collaboration with biologists, through whom we have come to learn hugely interesting stories about the magic of symbiotic evolution, about the alien and space-defying life-cycles of the tardigrade, and about the uncanny reproduction of the Symbion. And it is here that the conversation about “lack” and “latent promise” comes in: for what kind of conversation might be possible, we wonder, between these biological insights into the magic, the alien, the uncanniness of the lives of animals, plants and fungi on the one hand, and the anthropological engagement with the magic, the alien and the uncanny in fieldwork, on the other? Might we learn to take both kinds of magic – the magic of the natural world and the magic of what is erroneously called “the supernatural world” – equally seriously? To think critically and curiously across the realities opened up by each of them? To think of magical ecologies as both biological AND full of the unknown, the magical, the unusual? To engage empirically with the unnatural in order to better understand a natural world gone awry (Bubandt 2017)? More-than-human sociality might in this light, for anthropologists, be more than a foray into new terrains of biology, technology, and geology but also a rediscovery of some old terrain: the anthropological study of that which our secular language does not allow us to say without secretly snickering: the spiritual, the cosmological, the magical, the ancestral. Secularist reason, ironically, obliges us to dismiss and distance ourselves from these dimensions in spite of the fact that the magic, the alien, the spiritual is found not only in exotic settings far away but may also be found in our global financial markets, in “natural” disasters, in voting booths, and on an optomechanical membrane. Far more than that, magic – so we suggest – is woven into the very fabric of co-species relations of a ruined world.

So could not, and should not, Anthropocene scholarship also be an engagement with and a critique of the secular language and secular common-sense that shore it up? For this language and the common-sense view of the world that it affords prevent us from properly – that is, critical and empirically – exploring the uncommon and uncanny forms of agency and enchantment that are called into being in the Anthropocene (Szerszynski 2017; Buck 2015; Latour 2014). The idea of a nonsecular Anthropocene, for us, does not point to a place, a domain outside of the secular. Rather a nonsecular Anthropocene seeks to name an analytical perspective, a different kind of language and a different way of seeing. In fashioning the vocabularies and spectacles for this perspective, we are helped a great deal by existing research. Elisabeth Povinelli’s study of geo-ontologies seeks to probe the distinction between animate and inanimate the structures modern, neo-liberal and secular power – a distinction that is fundamentally challenged on its own terms in a time when both rivers and companies have become legal persons (Povinelli 2016). Marisol de la Cadena’s notion of cosmo-politics and her argument that the Anthropocene is haunted by the Anthropo-unseen also points to what we call a nonsecular Anthropocene (de la Cadena 2015), as does Timothy Morton’s call to magical re alismas a necessary perspective for the study of hyper-objects such as global warming and species extinction (Morton 2013).

And like the recent publication Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Tsing et al. 2017), we ask what kinds of ghosts and monsters, ancestors and gods inhabit the ruined landscapes of the Anthropocene. How, in other words, might the study of biological landscapes be brought into a conversation with the study of the uncanny valleys of the Anthropocene? By bringing the empirical study of landscape ecology into conversation with the critical study of the multiple ontologies of the uncanny valleys of the new reality named the Anthropocene we hope to build a nonsecular approach to the more-than-human ecologies of contemporary environmental crisis. Such an approach might, we propose, begin with an empirical study of the eco-theologies of co-species life to then ask questions about the links between political ecology and political theology. If political ecology seeks to describe the relationship between politics and the environment, and political theology that between politics and the realm of gods and spirits, the study of an Anthropocene uncanny would seek to explore what happens in the links between these. For how do the politics of nature and the politics of religion relate in the Anthropocene? Bruno Latour began an answer to this question in his 2013 Gifford lectures on Gaia which he subtitled Six Lectures on the political theology of nature (2013; see also Latour 2017). In these lectures, he started by dismissing “religion” and “nature” as useful categories in the Anthropocene, partly because, as he put it, “they share too many attributes”, and partly because they fail to adequately name “the agencies that populate the Earth”: those humans and nonhumans that are called into being and into action by the changing world they inhabit together. So, the Anthropocene seems to be a critical moment in which to reinquire into how we might best study those beings that used to be contained either in “nature” or in “religion”. Beings that used to be neatly separated into each their proper domain – ghosts, spirits, gods and specters within the domain of “belief” and “religion” and tardigrades, carbon particles, methanogenic bacteria within the domain of “fact” and “nature” – now roam the same uncanny valleys of the Anthropocene. The contributions to A Nonsecular Anthropocene make a common call to study these uncommon beings and their reality effects on all of us. There is no easy way to study the afterlives of nature and religion in these uncanny valleys, but they are too omnipresent and important to be ignored.

When US President Donald Trump in 2017 announced the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change, following pre-election tweets that he believed global warming to be a Chinese hoax perpetrated to financially trick America (White House Briefing 2017; Pierre-Louis 2017), he was roundly criticized for withdrawing from the global accounting system for a nation-based reduction to carbon-emission (itself not an ideal system) – not only by other political leaders, but also by Pope Francis. In his 2015 Encyclical letter, Pope Francis had already declared the climate to be a common good and the earth the “common home” of humankind. Following earlier Papal calls for a “global ecological conversion”, Pope Francis announced the need for a dialogue between science and religion to address an ecological crisis that was caused by humans and through which “humanity has disappointed God” (Pope Francis 2015: 44). The entanglements of belief and skepticism, of the homely and the uncanny, are thick and spectacularly ambiguous in this melting pot of political doubt, scientific truth and religious morality. In an Anthropocene twist of modernity, belief and skepticism have themselves become unrecognizable, uncanny: doubt today aligns easily with populism and corporate-financed conspiracy theory (Oreskes and Conway 2010), while science today finds new alliances with theology. If it is true that nature has no proper place in the Anthropocene, it is equally true that “politics”, “religion”, and “science” longer look the same either. A nonsecular approach to the Anthropocene begins by taking this twist seriously by studying how – in contrast to conventional accounts of secular modernity – environmental and climatic crisis appears to give center stage to new alignments of truth and belief, politics and doubt in multiple ways and how in the wake of these realignments the possibility of gods and ghosts irrupts from within the politics and sciences that not so long ago insisted on banishing ghosts and gods to a putative elsewhere – to the exotic other, to the naïve and uneducated or to our own pre-Enlightenment ancestors. This banishment from the realm of the real is no longer so easy to maintain. Unexpectedly, and unwantedly, ghosts and monsters have now come to occupy the place of the real, of the deadly serious, in novel and unexpected ways. Nature-as-we-knew-it may be have ceased to be, but what has taken its place? What is the reality of nature after its death? Nature as ghost? As imagination? As calculation? As conspiracy? As hyper-object? As monster?


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