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Confronting the Scope and Complexity of the Cybersphere: A Transdisciplinary View

By: Daniel Stokols,

In 1969 scientists at the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) successfully sent and received electronic data between two computers, one located at UCLA and the other at Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto.  Later that year, two additional computers at the University of Utah and UC Santa Barbara joined the DARPAnetwork.   From its humble beginnings in the Sixties, the Internet soon mushroomed into a global “network of computer networks”.  Mobile communication technologies followed with the first commercially available handheld cell phones introduced in 1983.  By early 2019, there were more than 4.5 billion Internet users and 5 billion mobile phone users worldwide [1].

Today’s cybersphere is vast in scope and complexity, encompassing numerous digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as computing hardware and software, and the Ethernet and WiFi communication infrastructures that run the Internet and World Wide Web.  Mobile devices that send and receive email, voicemail, text messages, video, and graphical data are also part of the cybersphere, as are the web browsers, search engines, social media, and cell phone “apps” people use to access commercial, recreational (e.g., online gaming, cinema), educational, news, health support, and other “virtual communities”. The cybersphere further includes the app-driven sharing economy, the Internet of Things (in which billions of devices with sensors and IP addresses stream data to each other continuously), GPS navigation, autonomous vehicles and weapons systems, augmented and virtual reality (AR, VR), robotic manufacturing and health care devices, 3-D printing, “smart city” infrastructures, blockchain, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the Deep Web (not accessible through standard search engines), and the Dark Net, or digital underworld.  These technologies all require rapid transmission and processing of digital data and they now permeate every facet of people’s interactions with their natural, built, and sociocultural surroundings.  Connections between the cybersphere and these other environmental domains are described in my recent book Social Ecology in the Digital Age [2] and sketched in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Interconnections between the natural built, sociocultural, and cyber dimensions of human environments

The proliferation of cyber technologies since the 1970s has made it difficult to gain a comprehensive view of their scope and impacts on behavior, health, and sustainability.  Researchers in particular fields address topics most closely related to their own disciplines. For instance, computer scientists focus predominantly on the structure and reliability of hardware and software systems; psychologists measure the impacts of digital multi-tasking and information overload on individuals’ cognition, behavior, and well-being; sociologists probe the influence of social media on political polarization and rates of cybercrime; neuroscientists track brain functioning relative to individuals’ immersion in digital communications; and sustainability scientists study the impacts of cyber technologies on electricity consumption, carbon emissions, and climate change.

These different lines of research have deepened our understanding of specific cyber technologies, yet it’s also important to move beyond discipline-based studies toward a more holistic, transdisciplinary view of the cybersphere writ large – the rapidly expanding portion of human environments comprised of multiple interrelated technologies.  We need new concepts and metrics to describe our virtual surroundings.  Viewing the cybersphere as a broad domain of environmental influence suggests several new research questions.  For instance, what are the cumulative impacts of chronic exposure to cyber technologies on psychological and physical well-being over a specified period?  The evidence from behavioral and cognitive research is mixed, suggesting that a person’s exposure to particular technologies (like social media, wearable fitness devices, virtual reality simulations) is linked to both positive and negative outcomes—for instance, using e-Health apps to achieve healthier lifestyles, or suffering identity theft on social media).  How might we assess these varied outcomes of virtual life in relation to people’s encounters with diverse digital technologies over a given period?   To address that question, we need to account for people’s exposure to multiple facets of the cybersphere such as the number and frequency of their digital communications (e.g., via email, text messaging, and participation in virtual communities such as World of Warcraft and Second Life; and the kinds of social media they engage with on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis [3].

New concepts and metrics for assessing individuals’ cumulative exposure to their virtual surroundings are shown in Figure 2.  The near-cybersphere (situated in the inner circle of the diagram) consists of all the connections between a physical place (e.g., a bedroom, classroom, or office) and the various digital transactions that occur there.  The links between physical places, on the one hand, and a person’s digital spaces, on the other, are referred to as real-virtual (R-V) environmental units.  Connections between between real and virtual environments may be mutually complementary, neutral, or conflicted as depicted by the virtual settings in Figure 2 (V1, V2, and V3) that are linked to a real place-based environment (R1).  Complementary R-V units exist when one’s place-based and virtual activities are well-aligned and mutually supportive (e.g., using online resources in a classroom setting to illustrate key points covered in lecture).  In contrast, conflicted R-V units are where the activities in the real and virtual settings interfere with each other (e.g., checking social media or texting while driving a vehicle).  In neutral R-V units, the place-based and virtual activities neither support nor contradict each other.

Figure 2.  Near and distant regions of the cybersphere.

The R-V units shown in Figure 2 are attached to a single place, yet individuals participate in many different environments on a daily or weekly basis.  To arrive at an overall assessment of people’s routine exposures to multiple R-V settings, the frequency and variety of their digital experiences across residential, work, neighborhood and other environments must be considered.  It’s also important to weigh potential impacts of the distant cybersphere on personal or societal well-being. Although people are aware of the R-V cyberspaces they encounter in their daily lives (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Uber), they are usually not cognizant of the myriad digital transactions that occur in the distant cybersphere.  Examples of remote cyber events are the navigation signals invisibly sent by orbital satellites to GPS-equipped vehicles, or the nefarious acts of cybercriminals in faraway places who commit identity fraud or disrupt local power grids and water distribution systems.  Even though people are oblivious to these hidden cyber events, they can take a profound toll on personal and collective well-being.

A transdisciplinary conception of the cybersphere also is needed to estimate the cumulative impacts of digital technologies on energy consumption, greenhouse gasses, and societal sustainability.  In the late 20th Century, some information scientists insisted that cyber communications were non-material or “weightless” flows of digital data [4, 5].  Today, however, we know that these invisible flows of data have a substantial physical footprint on the ground, as they rely heavily on a vast array of interlinked computers, “cloud” servers, WiFi equipment, smart phones and other devices to create, share, and store digital information [6-8].  These material features of our virtual world consume massive amounts of electrical energy and generate substantial greenhouse gases.  Recent research suggests that the digital currency Bitcoin, alone, now consumes more than one-half percent of the earth’s energy budget and by 2030 digital communications technologies will consume nearly 50% of the world’s power supply [9, 10].  Whereas cyber technologies such as smart city infrastructures help to reduce waste and conserve natural resources, their burgeoning power requirements diminish some of their benefits.  It’s estimated that the Internet of Things will subsume 31 billion interconnected cyber devices by 2020 [1].  Yet, we still lack reliable measures of their future energy demands and the power requirements of many other technologies like autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, and robotic manufacturing; nor do we have accurate estimates of their potential socioeconomic costs such as growing unemployment caused by workplace automation. A transdisciplinary, holistic view of the cybersphere is crucial for confronting these complex challenges in the coming years.

The book is now available on ScienceDirect. Want your own print copy? Order via the Elsevier store and enter code STC319 at the checkout to save up to 30%.

Original post here

References:

  1. Statista, https://www.statista.com/. 2019.
  2. Stokols, D., Social ecology in the digital age: Solving complex problems in a globalized world. 2018, London, UK: Academic Press.
  3. Misra, S. and D. Stokols, A typology of people–environment relationships in the Digital Age. Technology in Society, 2012. 34: p. 311-325.
  4. Coyle, D., The weightless world: Strategies for managing the digital economy. 1998, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  5. Negroponte, N.P., Being Digital. 1995, New York: Vintage Books.
  6. Berkhout, F. and J. Hertin, De-materializing and re-materializing: Digital technologies and the environment.Futures, 2004. 36: p. 903-920.
  7. Coroama, V.C., et al., The direct energy demand of Internet data flows. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 2013.17(5): p. 680-688.
  8. Nardi, B., et al., Computing within limits. Communications of the ACM https://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2018/10/231374-computing-within-limits/fulltext, 2018. 61(10): p. 86-93.
  9. Andrae, A.S. and T. Edler, On global electricity usage of communication technology: Trends to 2030.Challenges, 2015. 6(1): p. 117-157.
  10. AAAS. Bitcoin estimated to use half a percent of the world’s electric energy by end of 2018https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-05/cp-bet051018.php. 2018, May 16  Feb 20, 2019].

For a critical theory of the Anthropocene

Anne FREMAUX

The ‘Anthropocene’ concept was initially launched as a lens for understanding the destructive power of humanity on nature and as a warning concerning the unpredictable, long-lasting, and potentially threatening effects of human action for human and non-human life. It underlines, indeed, the fact that technologically enhanced human activities have grown to such a scale that they have become significant geological forces competing with other natural processes, such as volcanic phenomena or variations of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. This new geological period identifies human species as a leading telluric force which is literally ‘terra-forming and transforming our home’ (Barry, 2016: 107). Although initially well-intentioned, this concept is questionable. If the goal is to help us become less self-human-centred and more reflective about the harm we do to the world, if the core idea of this concept is to gain some humility about our place in the universe, is the naming of an entire geological era after ourselves, the best way to achieve it? My contention, here, is that human supremacists and anti-environmentalists have seized the opportunity of this concept as a justification for further environmental destruction. As Mitchell (2014) says, ‘the existing concept of the “Anthropocene” magnifies and sometimes even valorises radical anthropocentrism, reverence of human agency and the desire to gain mastery over nature’ (n.p.). In other words, the term itself contributes to the problems it is supposed to address. First, it pushes the logic which has created the predicament to its extreme by suggesting that humans can shape the planet and re-create it in their image. Second, it perpetuates the ontological dichotomy between humans and nature in which human agency is treated as a force acting upon rather than in or as a part of nature. Third, and aside from ontological implications, this concept offers an apolitical and ahistorical account of the ecological crisis by designating an undifferentiated ‘Anthropos’ responsible for the large-scale changes that take us outside of the stable Holocene.

From the perspective of the Earth System Sciences, the earth is indeed going through a huge change, leaving behind us the thousands of years of exceptional stability of climate temperatures and sea levels that characterized the Holocene to enter a new epoch of climate instability, uncertainty, and significant climate related socio-environmental transformations. Earth System Science (ESS)’s approach considers feedback mechanisms inherent in forces that escape our analytical models and sudden collapse thresholds of ecosystems as carrying unpredictable consequences that will change the conditions of life on Earth. It offers a nonlinear view of the future of our planet understood as a complex system, ultimately very vulnerable and unpredictable (fraught with structural indeterminacies).

The Anthropocene, considered as an ecological predicament, is therefore rather an era of ‘nonknowledge’ or rational ignorance linked to uncertainties and ontological indeterminacy than a period of human mastery and domination of earth systems. But further, it also displays the helplessness (impotence) of already accumulated scientific knowledge to trigger necessary changes. Indeed, the issue today is not any longer to get a clearer picture of the situation by accumulating scientific data but to understand ‘how we entered the Anthropocene despite very consistent warnings, knowledge and opposition’ (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016: 79; original emphasis). The accumulation of empirical facts and scientific findings on the predicament of our planet, no matter how detailed and alarming they are ‘can never be’, as Blühdorn explains, ‘a substitute for normative judgments’ (2015: 159). The lack of ethical, philosophical, and political judgements associated with the neoliberal management of environmental issues, explains, indeed, the depth and acuity of the ecological crisis.

A paradigmatic example of the apolitical treatment of the Anthropocene is the ecomodernist talk of a ‘good Anthropocene’. Ecomodernists or ‘neo-greens’, (also called ‘eco-pragmatists’ or ‘neo-environmentalists’) advocate the decoupling of the human economy from nature in order to save it, celebrate the ‘end of nature’ as well as ‘the death of environmentalism’, encourage the use of technology to counter the side-effects of technology, and especially call for a ‘neoliberal conservation’ guided by economic rationality and human-centred managerialism’ (Asafu-Adjayeet al., An Ecomodernist Manifesto, 2015). Such a techno-optimist and neoliberal view celebrates ‘the “age of human” as the achievement of the cornucopian dream to create and recreate the planet according to our wishes’ (Fremaux & Barry, 2019). However, in such unsure and endangered times, nothing appears less appealing than Latour’s and ecomodernists’ invitation to ‘love our monsters’ (Latour, 2012; Nordhaus & Schellenberger, 2011), that is the dramatic and dangerous side-effects of our technologies (such as global climate change, nuclear waste, presence of radionuclides, microplastic particles and aluminum in the core elements of matter, alteration of fundamental chemical cycles, etc.) As Crist and Rinker warn us: ‘[t]o rip into the planet’s rhythms, cycles, and interconnections, as the civilisation we have created is doing, signals human folly, not mastery’ (2010: 13).

The techno-optimistic association made by those who wish to maintain the present fatal trajectory, between the Anthropocene and a new age of further mastery and control contradicts our conception of the Anthropocene as an era fraught with uncontrolled and unpredictable ‘human-induced changes’. There is, indeed, a conceptual gap between saying that humans ‘influence’ nature and arguing, as ecomodernists do, that humans are now ‘creating’ it. Contrary to the latter position, it is now obvious that human (impotent) power has become ‘uncontrollable’ and ‘unmanageable’: that’s what one may call the ‘non-mastery of our mastery’. The Anthropocene ‘dominant narrative’, i.e. the ‘good Anthropocene’ given by some scientists (Crutzen included) and post-environmentalists fails to recognize the predicament in which we are and the fact that the new ‘geology of humankind’ is not so much the era of (mastered) human domination on earth but rather the era of (uncontrolled) human destruction of earth.

We have entered a world of boundaries, a material world of ecological limits but also a symbolic world of scientific limits (what post-normal sciences call the ‘unknown unknowns’, Ravetz 2006). Therefore, this is not the traditional (modern and ‘mostmodern’) narrative of progress, control, and mastery which will help us inhabit the Anthropocene but rather the recognition of our ignorance and limitations. Western people must realize that the traditional set of knowledge held by orthodox disciplines, from economics and political science to biological and natural sciences, cannot guide us any longer with accuracy and certainty in these turbulent times. Navigation in ‘heavy weather’ like the one characterizing postnormal times demands virtues such as humility, modesty, and accountability for the present but also for the future, for those who are on the deck as much as for those who are in the engine-room and in the holds (socio-environmental justice). The legacy of the Anthropocene will be legible for the millennia to come and requires that Western people start to inhabit and consciously live within ‘deep time’, or in other terms, that they extend their thinking ahead of short-term interests to the next generations and the less privileged as well as to non-human beings. The Anthropocene calls indeed for shared solidarity between humans (different generations, Global North and Global south), but also with our non-human companions on this planet.

At the time of writing, and even though the Anthropocene Working Group nominated by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) has voted last April by a majority to designate a new geological epoch the ‘Anthropocene’, neither the ICS itself nor the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) have officially approved the term as a recognized subdivision of geologic time. Without an official accreditation, the Anthropocene remains a paradigm, a ‘claim’ rather than a validated scientific concept. Nevertheless, this concept has already become a powerful idea used by environmentalists and conservationists but also by policymakers, artists, activists, historians, journalists, writers, as well as social scientists. The word ‘Anthropocene’ has become a ‘buzzword’ which already encounters a great success, even before its geological confirmation. This success entails the pressing need for a more critical Anthropocene research agenda (as opposed to calls for a depoliticized and techno-focused ‘good Anthropocene’). If the Anthropocene has been an opportunity for some scientists and academics to revive Promethean modern dreams of technological mastery of nature and present these within an apolitical ‘naturalizing’ narrative which puts science and experts at the centre, there is also the possibility to develop another narrative and present the Anthropocene as an epoch of great danger and indeterminacy – and for scientists themselves, an age of ‘impotent power’ – which calls, therefore, for prudence and humility, for human decentring, and for shifting the attention from ecological modernization to the building of ecological democracies and a sustainable global civilization that give a significant voice to civil societies. Against the ecomodernist techno-optimistic ‘neoliberal Anthropocene’, the alternative would be a humbler ‘democratic Anthropocene’, in which humans repair and sustain the world instead of destroying it and calling, afterwards, for its artificial and incentivized reproduction and replacement.

NB.: most of the arguments developed here are extracted from:

Fremaux A. (2019), After The Anthropocene: Green Republicanism in a Post-Capitalist World. New York: Palgrave.

References:

Asafu-Adjaye, J., Blomquist, L., Brand, S., Brook, B. W., Defries, R., Ellis, E., . . . Lynas, M. (2015). An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Retrieved From Https://Static1.Squarespace.Com/Static/5515d9f9e4b04d5c3198b7bb/T/552d37bbe4b07a7dd69fcdbb/1429026747046/An+Ecomodernist+Manifesto.Pdf

Barry, J.(2016). Bio-Fuelling The Hummer? Transdisciplinary Thoughts On Techno-Optimism and Innovation in The Transition from Unsustainability. In E. Byrne, G. Mullally & C. Sage (Eds.), Transdisciplinary Perspectives On Transitions to Sustainability (pp. 106-123). London: Routledge.

Blühdorn, I. (2015). A Much-Needed Renewal of Environmentalism? In C. Hamilton, C. Bonneuil & F. Gemenne (Eds.), The Anthropocene and The Global Environmental Crisis. Rethinking Modernity in A New Epoch (pp. 156-168).

Bonneuil, C., & Fressoz, J.-B. (2016). The Shock of the Anthropocene. London, New York: Verso.

Crist, E., & Rinker, H. B. (2010). Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion, And Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fremaux, A., & Barry, J. (2018 forthcoming) The ‘Good Anthropocene’ and Green Political Theory: Rethinking Environmentalism, Resisting Ecomodernism. In F. Biermann, & E. Lövbrand (Eds.), Anthropocene Encounters. New Directions in Green Political Thinking (Working Title). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Latour, B. (Winter 2012). Love Your Monsters in Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and The Anthropocene. Breakthrough Journal, Retrieved From Http://Thebreakthrough.Org/Index.Php/Journal/Past-Issues/Issue-2/Love-Your-Monsters

Mitchell, A. (2014). Making A ‘Cene’. Blog, February 23, 2014. Retrieved From Https://Worldlyir.Wordpress.Com/Tag/Paul-Crutzen/

Nordhaus, T., & Schellenberger, M. (Eds.). (2011a). Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and The Anthropocene. Oakland, Ca: The Breakthrough Institute.

Ravetz, J. R. (2006). Post-Normal Science and The Complexity of Transitions Towards Sustainability. Ecological Complexity, 3(4), 275-284.

Thinking Anthropocenically

Denis Byrne and Paul James

The Anthropocene is a phenomenon which has taken up residence in our minds and our research practices. Some might argue for variations in naming the phenomenon — the Capitalocene,[1] the Chthulucene,[2] and so on — but the process through which humans have come fundamentally to impact the planet is now too well documented and measured to be dismissed. The concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ entered the purview of researchers in the Institute for Culture and Society by way of a cultural shock. We, along with many others, have been forced to recognise that many environmental ‘systems’ are no longer independent of human social action.[3] We find, for example, that the carbon emitted by everyday activities, which are intrinsic the complex lives of so many of us, have contributed to changing the world’s climate. Now, even our simplest activities, once avidly pursued with all their unintended ecological consequences, are revealed to have a ‘carbon footprint’.

The reality of the Anthropocene cuts the ground cleanly out from under the doctrine of Progress, the ideology which underpinned the industrializing West’s esteem and confidence, as well as serving to excuse industrial capitalism’s negatives, including environmental pollution and workplace death and injury.[4] Recognising the passing of Progress, we structure this essay around an alternative conception of human history over the last few centuries as a kind of dance, or what one might call the ‘Anthropocene shuffle.’ This essay represents the coming together of two perspectives on the contemporary global environmental crisis — those of archaeology (Denis) and of social theory (Paul).

Four Steps Back and One Step Forward

As a research institute focused on finding better ways of living in a rapidly changing world, we find it no longer possible to study ‘the social’ independent of ‘the environmental’. But if the environment or nature can no longer be thought of as just a background to or setting for the social, and if it is accepted that the human-social permeates the earth system, equally — and this has also come as a shock — we must now contend with the realization that earth’s many ‘sub-systems’, which we were brought up to see as being all around us, are actually also inside us as biosocial beings. The environment is no longer just out there. To be sure, the environment continues to be the integrative space in which we exist, but thinking in this double way — as both context and constitutive being — requires basic changes to our research vocabulary, thinking and practice.

This is why we have chosen, following its Greek etymological roots, to define ‘ecology’ as a domain of the social — along with economics, politics and culture. It is the domain that concerns the materiality of the intersection of the social and the environmental, just as culture concerns the meaning of social relations, including the relations of that intersection. The environment in this sense comes to be understood as that which both grounds our existence (in every way) and exists far beyond even the most expansive definitions of the social or the ecological. This means that it no longer even makes sense, except in very well-defined circumstances, to talk of the ‘more-than-human’ to describe the environment. We can no longer be comfortable with treating the human as the point of departure for all beings and things, as if they are only ‘more-than’ us.[5] At same time, any suggestion that becoming post-human is a viable politics, ignores the contradictions entailed in leaving behind what constituted us as humans across the natural/social history of our being.

Hence, in our research thinking, there is first the need for taking a few steps backward from the mainstream (modern) centring of the human and also from the fashionable (postmodern) flattening of ontological difference into a single plane of being. Full recognition of the complexities and contradictions of the Anthropocene would force this upon us.

Backward Step 1. Recognize that non-human being is constitutively enmeshed in human being — but not as an ontological flattening of the human and natural.

‘Social space was never exclusively human’, as Timothy Morton puts it.[6] But this doesn’t just mean we share this space with nonhumans or that we relate to nonhumans within social space; it means also that nonhumans are present in the space of our bodies in old and new ways. We have long known we embody nonhumans in the form of bacteria and we now know there are around ten times the number of microbial cells in the human body as there are human cells. But in addition to this old ecological enmeshment with nonhumans, we have produced the elements of new kinds of enmeshment. For example, over the 240 years since we have been burning serious amounts of coal for industrial production and power generation, millions of us have breathed in significant volumes of fine particles released by this burning. It is partly with this in mind that Kathryn Yusoff proposes that we rethink the Anthropocene as being characterised by a ‘corporeal geology of/in the blood, rather than a universal stratigraphic trace in some future geologic record’.[7] The chemicals in makeup and other skin products, for example, constitute one ecology of this embodiment, becoming part of who we are even as we present the surface of ourselves through them.

The so-called ‘material turn’ in the humanities and social sciences has led us beyond conceding agency to materials such as iron ore, alloys such as aluminium and glass, and complex objects like phones and houses, to an understanding ‘nonhumans’ (noting that the concept of ‘nonhuman’ needs to be used judiciously) as having a vibrancy and integrity of their own. This amounts to a retreat from the generalized modern idea in the West that humans have a monopoly on these qualities,[8] but it also opens the way to new kinds of problems of understanding and attribution. Just as the prior materialism of Marxism was criticised for sometimes entertaining the sin of technological determinism, the new materialism is in danger of both over-generalizing the agency of things, technologies and objects, while excusing us humans as dominant actors on planet earth. If everything is an actor in the same way as human beings, then coal and concrete must be as culpable for climate change as the humans whose life-worlds were built upon these materials, … and, more pointedly, the humans who continue to advocate for these materials when their massive use has been shown to compromise the sustainability of the planet.

Why is it, as political paeans to the beauty of coal are sung by political advocates across the world, avant garde social theory has turned in the same direction? The flat ontology of Actor Network theory, for example, provides a non-hierarchical view of human-nonhuman relations, but ANT’s conception of objects as mediating relations between humans has opened it to the critique of being underwritten by an anthropocentricism in which things are primarily of interest to us when seen to be involved in human projects. Here an assiduous critique of anthropocentrism can be distinguished from the recognition of our mixed poetic tendency towards anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is sometimes good poetics, and sometimes, in attributing human-like capacities to others, turns into a bad re-centring of those human capacities as describing the way of all things. Does coal act? Yes, but not with intention, feeling or subjective agency. Through continuing anthropocentrism, things are too often enrolled or domesticated as quasi-humans, so disguising their ‘thingly otherness’.[9] Things, objects and unknown beings clearly exceed their relations with humans. As Graham Harman points out, ‘the vast majority of relations in the universe do not involve human beings, those obscure inhabitants of an average-sized planet near a middling sun, one of 100 billion stars near the fringe of an undistinguished galaxy among at least 100 billion others.’[10] This means that we while we need to recognize that non-human being is constitutively enmeshed in human being (Backward Step 1), it is equally important that in the process of that recognition we do not to flatten the ontological meaning of either the human or the natural.

The tendency we have to ‘socialize’ nonhumans and give them dubious anthropomorphized agency is understandable given the enormous number of objects that have been tailored for human use, the number of species whose bodies and lives have been changed by us, and the number of rivers, coastlines, forests, swamps, soils and airs that show unmistakable signs of our impact. It is this that the Anthropocene has been named for but, equally, our susceptibility to being deafened by our own noise and hence to be unable to imagine a world without us is a real obstacle to of our mobilizing against the reproduction of Anthropocenic relations.

In all of this we are pointing to the extent to which it has become increasing difficult to practice humanities and social science research within the space formerly understood as social space or (more narrowly) human space, without rethinking what it means to talk of ‘the social’ and what it means to be ‘human’.

Backward Step 2. Excavate carefully and then learn from the negative debris of the Anthropocene.

There was only a relatively small interval in time between the idea of geological strata being introduced through the work of scientists like Georges Cuvier and James Lyell — a bit over 200 years — and the 1950s when we began laying down to lay down the elements of what would qualify as our own geological strata.[11] Archaeologists are classically thought of as excavating remains of the human past buried in the earth, but as the Anthropocene strata takes shape as a layer accumulating on the earth’s surface, some are turning to interrogate this layer as an archaeological object in its own right.[12] A mass of textual, audio, visual and other records testify to Earth’s history in the period since the early 1950s, but there is an argument to be made that — in addition to these sources — we should allow the objects of the Anthropocene to signify themselves. Objects do play active roles in history. Objects do ‘speak’ (if we understand the term ‘speak’ to be only a poetic expression of a thingly acting we do not have the words for). The plastic water bottle, for example, has material potentialities that have proven to be highly significant in the commodification of drinking water.[13] It speaks to the profound effects of the simple everyday activity of sipping as degrading nature as we have known it.

The word ‘interrogate’ used above is actually not a well-chosen word for archaeology’s full relationship with things. As a practice, it engages in  a peculiar form of ‘care, obligation, and loyalty to things’.[14] A certain intimacy with objects builds up over the many hours spent uncovering, handling, gazing at, and wondering about them. This practice of care gestures to a kind of ‘engaged research’[15] where the engagement extends to things as well as humans. It extends also to caring for nonhuman species and their habitats, to the soil, the sea and the air.

On a drift beach in northern Norway, the archaeologist Þóra Pétursdóttir has recently excavated parts of a deposit of wrack, which she describes as ‘matter in motion’.[16] She understands the fragments of driftwood, plastic bottles, synthetic rope and netting, net floats, and a variety of other plastic objects (now tangled up with kelp and seaweed and with beach pebbles and sand) as having ‘escaped human relations’ to drift across the sea until coming to dwell in the circulating surface waters of the North Atlantic Current, and to eventually be deposited by storms and tides in Eidsbukta Cove. The plastic things in the wrack are ‘unruly’ objects: we made them but they are by no means domesticated, subjugated, or predictable.[17] The refusal of plastics to biodegrade — they break up into small and smaller pieces but their molecules remain intact — ensures that they are on their way to becoming part of the geology of the Anthropocene. It is the very persistence of such objects, and the hyper-objects they coalesce into, that underpins this era.

It is because so much human waste does persist after being discarded, and that it persists in a dynamic state of accumulation, that it poses such a threat to us and other living beings. In Pétursdóttir’s archaeology these waste objects are regarded neither negatively nor positively. How can they be negative? After all, it is not they that have precipitated the Anthropocene; we have. This care-full troweling away at the material record of the recent past provides for an archaeology of both us and dark matter that has left the ambit of our direct agency. It is not an archaeology of our prehistoric, classical, or early modern predecessors, but of the ‘we’ who are the enactors and inheritors of the Great Acceleration.[18] In these terms, it is possible to recognize these rubbish gyres as positive in their negativity — they are material signs (positive in the sense that they communicate a new reality) of our own excess (negative in the sense that we are now dangerously exceeding the of limits of the planet). In other words, the social relations concerning these objects are negative, and we still need to do something about those relations.

Backward Step 3. Afford processes that we once saw as positive their full complex Anthropocenic negativity, and remember that such processes can change the prior condition of nature.

As the world comes to accept that we do live in the period of the Anthropocene, old concepts and new are being reworked or revived to mask the continuation of destructive human practices that are not sustainable. Even perfectly good concepts such as sustainability and resilience are being co-opted. The concept of ‘reclamation’, for example, has in the past been seen as a positive act, and it continues to be so for those living in the ‘progressive’ present: from developers talking of reclaiming swamp lands to oil-sand miners treating land reclamation as a form of custodial responsibility.[19] Coastal reclamations are a telling example. Notwithstanding the new (and shocking) move to describe coastal reclamation as a means of responding to climate change,[20] coastal reclamation is an exemplar of the ‘artificial earth’ of the Anthropocene which arises when coastal waters are in-filled in order to extend humanity’s terrestrial habitat seawards. There is an over-reaching conceit in the word ‘reclamation’ and its presumption that the seascape we claim back is already incipiently landscape for human habitation.[21]

In the current era of anthropogenic sea-level rise, you’d think we would be too busy defending what land we have to contemplate extending further into the sea. But globally the rate of coastal reclamation is increasing rather than abating. In China, for example, where almost half the country’s coastal wetlands were lost to reclamation between 1950 and 2000 and where 11,000 kilometres of coastline is now under some form of reclamation, major new reclamations are either under way or on the drawing board, providing space for container ports, urban expansion, theme parks and fish farms.[22]

Once reclamations have been in place for a certain amount of time, they often assume the attribute of being hard to see, something which is especially true of those created for agriculture, parkland, and housing estates. Through the work of bacteria and earthworms, the infill of the reclamation may soon become a living soil, supporting trees and other plants. The reclamation’s surface assumes a beguiling naturalness — and indeed in some ways it is natural (this is the complexity of emeshment that we pointed to earlier). However, the exact location of the boundary line where the reclamation was sutured to the natural landscape quickly becomes blurred in our memories, and the human once again makes over the natural. Familiarity in this case breeds not contempt but a kind of topographic forgetfulness, which we can arguably no longer afford. In order to ensure the Anthropocene is as short/thin as possible,[23] one of the things we need is topographic remembrance. Engaged research can contribute to keeping this past-present relation to the fore.

More than that, coastal reclamations are not so much about creating new land as creating a certain kind of land: abstracted flat land.[24] Our first large-scale efforts at levelling were to do with agriculture: hill slopes terraced to create flat fields for crops. (This is why the Anthropocene is sometimes called the Plantationocene). The flatlands of river deltas became premium habitats for agriculture. In areas where rivers carried large volumes of sediment downstream, much of it to be deposited to form delta mudflats, people constructed bunds to encourage tidal waters to drop their sediment load, sediment which gradually accumulated to form cultivable fields. This way of mimicking natural processes in order to ‘grow’ land began in China’s Pearl River Delta began around 1,400 years ago, became more common in the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279 AD) and greatly intensified from the 1740s.[25] Over time, new agricultural reclamations were added to the outer edge of older ones to create lateral bands of flat land, extending in a ripple effect out from the original coastline. These patterns show up clearly on the satellite imagery available on Google Earth and Baidu Map. What changed in the Pearl River Delta with the economic reform era, beginning in the late 1970s after the death of Mao, was that — with the aid of earth-moving machinery — a new kind of ‘reclamation’ appeared. It was one created by transporting, often over considerable distances, sand, urban waste, concrete from demolished buildings, and rock from highway cuttings. One of the hallmarks of the Anthropocene is a greatly enhanced human ability to move materials through space, and a great deal of this movement occurs in the context of creating new flatlands as platforms for human living.

The spread of coastal reclamations is not currently one of the series of global indicators being used to demonstrate that human activity has become the prime driver of change in the Earth system  (the sum of the planet’s interacting physical, chemical, biological and human processes).[26] But it has in common with such indicators as water-use, large dam construction, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the fact that what has changed dramatically from around the 1950s is the accelerating scale of human impact.[27]

Backward Step 4. Recognize that the Anthropocene involves not just an empirical acceleration of impact, but also a qualitative change — in this case, the emergent possibility of reconstituting the nature of nature.

The concept of ‘the Great Acceleration’, for all of its strengths, remains a set of empirical measures concerning human impact. This signals the current dominance of scientific object-oriented thinking. However, as is perhaps more obvious to humanities and social science researchers — perhaps less so in the sciences — this impact can be understood both quantitatively and qualitatively. From the time in the early 2000s when the term first took off, the definition of the Anthropocene became the period in which humans have had a defined scientifically measureable quantitative impact upon the planet. To understand the full measure of this impact, however, we need to take a step back to an older form of qualitative studies — cultural and political studies before the flattening of theory — which could talk of thresholds of change and dialectics of continuity.

The Anthropocene is said to have begun in the eighteenth century, tout court. What this epochal and flat historicising misses completely is the way in which humans across the past half-century or so have gone beyond just having an impact upon geo-nature. Certainly, we continue with our determined empirical impact, exploring the farthest reaches of nature, pushing it around with bulldozers, ripping it into trucks, dropping it into the ocean to ‘reclaim’ more coastlines, ploughing long lines through it, burning it for energy, and gently contouring it for parks and gardens. But now, and conterminously, something more than that is happening.

We talked earlier of the human technique of mimicking nature or reconstructing the contours of nature. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the speed of human colonization of the Earth certainly increased very rapidly, and continues today, through the ‘settlement’ of nature as territory and the colonization of indigenous populations. However, beyond that, we are now seeing a reconstitution of the foundations of prior nature. Since the middle of the twentieth century, techno-science has been busy reconstituting the very building blocks of nature: atoms, cells, genes, and so. Other building blocks which were missing or only incipiently part of the scientific lexicon in the mid-twentieth century — quarks, the higgs boson, genes, ripples in space/time, nucleotides and chromosomes — are now being interrogated for what they can offer human desires. (Here, interrogated is the right word.) What came to public consciousness with the splitting of the atom in 1945, intervention in the nature of nature, has now extended to everything, from nano-technology production, bio-engineering, stem cell therapy, and DNA manipulation to geo-engineering and terra-forming. Over the past few decades, humans have begun meta-colonizing the planet — sometimes just to understand it better, sometimes in order to save it, but most often in order to exploit it a higher level of intensity.

A certain kind of science is central to this process — technoscience. Without cultural studies, sociology and social theory — the humanities and social sciences — we cannot understand how this kind of science is different from earlier pure and applied science that worked with nature. A proponent of a flat ontology will ask: Is not gene manipulation just an empirical extension of brushing pollen from one variety of wheat onto another variety to produce more ‘robust’ hybrids? Have humans not talked of atoms since the time of the Classical Greeks and the writings of ‘Leucippus’ and Democritus?

What then has changed in a qualitative sense? In short, some lineages of science now seek to control the nature of nature, to manipulate what once were called its ‘building blocks’ and to intervene in its systemic processes. Through this seeking, humans now have the capacity with the touch of a single button to destroy life on this planet as we know it (since 1952, with the phenomenon of nuclear winter) and the technical possibility of creating synthetic life-forms — since 2010, with the chemical construction of a Mycoplasma mycoides bacteria. As it was reported, at the time the emphasis was on scientific breakthrough and human control as good thing:

Craig Venter, the pioneering US geneticist behind the experiment, said the achievement heralds the dawn of a new era in which new life is made to benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and even manufacture vaccines.[28]

There it is again — the idea that in going further, deeper, into the business of changing nature we will save us from ourselves. To the contrary, it is only by recognizing the full force of the point that we have the capacity to reconstitute the very basis of nature that adequate understanding of the social life in the Anthropocene starts to hit home. Our home, planet earth, is in deep trouble, and it only by researching the tensions of this Anthropocentic entanglement and contributing to thinking about living otherwise, that we will have the capacity to respond systematically. Making new life-forms with four bottles of chemicals is not going to save us. Overall our argument is that by taking these ‘backward’ steps in thinking we can move to a positive ethics of care. Such an ethics is one that neither confuses empathy for objects with decentring the massive human impact upon the Earth, nor confuses increased ‘control’ over nature with the act of living within the limits of the planet.

Forward Step 1. Develop an Anthropocenic Perspective

There are many ways of researching how humans have colonized planet Earth. The concept of the archaeosphere is one useful way of drawing attention to the fact that vast areas of the Earth are now covered by the modified soils and terraced hillslopes of agriculture, the concrete and asphalt paving of roads, airports and container ports, the underground infrastructure of tunnels, pipes and wiring below our cities, the burgeoning landfill sites, and reclamations which extend coastlines out into the sea.[29] This archaeosphere is a layer of varying thickness expanding at an accelerating rate, to the point that we have now become a geological agent, something which becomes starkly apparent in areas such as Japan’s main island of Honshu where sixty per cent of the coastline is now classified as ‘artificial’, which is to say that for the most part it is concrete. Honshu has swapped much of its pre-existing coastline of beaches, dune fields and wetlands and for an ocean of concrete that forms a platform for the enactment of contemporary life — forklifts drive over it, kids bounce balls on it — but it is also a fossil-in-waiting, destined to be preserved in the geological record.

Most of Honshu’s concrete dates from the time of Japan’s post-war ‘economic miracle’, beginning in the mid-1950s, and it is representative of a surge in the creation of concrete surfaces (platforms) that began at that time in many parts of the world and has gathered pace ever since. As an Anthropocene marker, this is much easier for most people to grasp than the plutonium traces which fell to earth following nuclear testing in the 1950s and which are now widely agreed to constitute the best marker for dating the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch – in other words, for dating its lower bounding surface.[30] However, as humanities and social science scholars we need to study a much fuller complexity — material layers, natural and human continuities, and constitutive changes

The ability of people to grasp the Anthropocene as a material reality seems a crucial prerequisite for any widespread popular mobilisation against the dark future which the Anthropocene portends. The Anthropocene has, of course, a tangible presence in the effects of global warming: the increasing frequency of heatwaves and superstorms, global ice-melt, and sea-level rise. Some of these are as graspable as signs of a long-term problem for the Earth as is the spread of the archaeosphere. But the archaeosphere has qualities of its own which lend it advantage in the quest to make the Anthropocene visible. To begin with, it is right under our feet: the park lawns where we walk our dogs, the metro tunnels through which we ride to work. By the same token, however, the everydayness of this artificial-natural ground can make it hard to see for what it is — a vast and spreading weed-mat that makes life impossible for most of our fellow species. Moreover, we need to research the non-palpable processes and structures that both continue to legitimize and take further the colonization of nature.

A challenge for those working in the social sciences and humanities is thus to find new ways of lending visibility to the Anthropocene, in all its dimensions. What is needed is an Anthropocenic perspective tailored for everyday life. Academics in the social sciences and humanities are central to such a venture, using the sensitive methods that they have developed for simultaneously engaging with and stepping back from everyday life. This may prove essential for the perspective advocated here, providing a view of the world that is at once familiar and strange. In order to be able to see the Anthropocene what may be needed is that of jolt to the senses and intellect whereby the other side of the ordinary snaps into focus.

The archaeosphere, other than being under the feet of most of the time, also has an historical depth and spread that offers us one window on where the Anthropocene came from. Present-day carbon emissions have their feet in the Industrial Revolution; the current proliferation of plastic begins with early twentieth-century celluloid products designed to imitate natural materials such as ivory, tortoise shell and horn[31]; freeways have a history in the nineteenth-century macadam road construction process, traces of which are easy to find in present-day cities. Seeing the history of the Anthropocene in today’s materiality is an exercise in futuring as much as in historicising. It is one of the practices (whether academic or everyday) that equip us be agents of interpretative change. The idea of an Anthropocene perspective, a way of seeing the Anthropocene as distinct from (but not instead of) naming it, goes back to the earlier point about caring. We shouldn’t turn our backs on the material world we have made, however dystopic it might at times seem. By the same token, the new material turn should not distract us from simultaneously seeking to understand the kinds of sociality that frame the current crisis.

Original article in ICS report here: https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/1453919/ICAS1183_2017-18_ICS_Annual_Review_FA_Web.pdf

Denis Byrne: https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/ics/people/researchers/dr_denis_byrne

Paul James: https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/ics/people/researchers/professor_paul_james


[1] J. Moore, 2015, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, Verso, London.

[2] D. Haraway, 2016, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham.

[3] Here we use the concepts of ‘system’ and ‘sub-system’ advisedly as simplifying scientific metaphors for manifold processes too complex to name other than as a series of abstractions. This does not make the use of the terms illegimate. It makes them a heuristically useful so long as as they are not reified as things in themselves.

[4] C. Bonneuil and J-B Fressoz, 2016, The Shock of the Anthropocene, Verso, London.

[5] This of course was not how it was intended by the person who coined the term: D. Abram, 1996, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, Pantheon Books, New York.

[6] T. Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, Verso, London, p. 139.

[7] K. Yusoff, 2018. ‘Epochal Aesthetics: Affectual Infrastructures of the Anthropocene’, e-flux 29 March, p. 204. http://www.e-flux.com/architecture/accumulation/121847/epochal-aesthetics-affectual-infrastructures-of-the-anthropocene/.

[8] And in our modern hubris it should not be forgotten that customary and traditional peoples long lived with animate matter, understood along different ontological valences from the analogical to the cosmological.

[9] G. Harman, 2016, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, Cambridge, Polity Press; B. Olsen, 2013, ‘The Return to What?’, in A. González-Ruibal (ed.), Reclaiming Archaeology: Beyond the Tropes of Modernity, London, Routledge, p. 293.

[10] Harman, Immaterialism, p. 6.

[11] The base horizon of this strata is marked by deposits of plutonium from nuclear testing in the 1950s and the presence of an altered carbon chemistry, these being identified in core samples at a steadily increasing number of globally distributed sites (Davis and Todd 2017; Waters et al. 2017). Other markers include traces on/in the ground of mass extinction, waste from petrochemical products including plastic, and the spread of artificial earth.

[12] M. Edgeworth, 2014, ‘Archaeology in the Anthropocene: Introduction’, Journal of Contemporary Archaeology vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 73–7; J.M. Erlandson and T.J. Braje, 2013, ‘Archaeology and the Anthropocene’, Anthropocene no. 4, pp. 1–7. P. Pétursdóttir, 2017. ‘Climate Change? Archaeology and the Anthropocene’, Archaeological Dialogues, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 175–205.

[13] G. Hawkins, E. Potter and K. Race, 2015, Plastic Water: The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water. Cambridge, MIT Press, pp. 4–5.

[14] B. Olsen, 2012, Archaeology: The Discipline of Things, Berkeley, University of California Press, p. 1.

[15] P. James, 2015, ‘Engaged research’, in H. Barcham (ed.), Institute for Culture and Society: 2014 Annual Review, University of Western Sydney, Penrith.

[16] Pétursdóttir, ‘Climate Change?’, p. 190.

[17] On the unruliness of things see B. Olsen, ‘The return of what?’ in A. Gonzalez Ruibal (ed), Reclaiming Archaeology: Beyond the Tropes of Modernity, pp. 289-296. London: Routledge, here p. 295..

[18] W. Steffen, W. Broadgate, L. Deutsch, O. Gaffney and C. Ludwig, 2015. ‘The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration’, The Anthropocene Review vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 81–98.

[19] See sustainability.suncor.com/2017/en/environment/reclamation.aspx (last accessed 4 April 2018) for Suncorp’s description of reclamation.

[20] http://www.eco-business.com/videos/more-land-less-sand-singapores-latest-reclamation-project/

(last accessed 4 April 2018).

[21] D. Byrne, 2017. ‘Remembering the Elizabeth Bay Reclamation and the Holocene Sunset in Sydney Harbour’, Environmental Humanities, vol. 9, no. 1., pp. 40–59.

[22] Zhijun Ma, D.S. Melville, Jianguo Liu, Hongyan Yang, Wenwei Ren, Zhengwang Zhang, T. Piersma and Bo Li, 2014, ‘Rethinking China’s New Great Wall’, Science, vo.346, no. 6212, pp. 912–14.

[23] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, p. 100.

[24] On the abstraction of land see J.C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed, Newhaven, Yale University Press

[25] Wei Zhang, Yang Xu, A.J.F. Hoitink, M.G. Sassi, Jinhai Zheng, Xiaowen Chen and Chi Zhang, 2015, ‘Morphological Change in the Pearl River Delta, China’, Marine Geology no. 363, pp. 202–19.

[26] Steffen, et al., ‘The Trajectory of the Anthropocene:

[27] International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, The Great Acceleration. 2015. http://www.igbp.net/globalchange/greatacceleration.4.1b8ae20512db692f2a680001630.html

[28] The Guardian,

[29] M. Edgeworth, 2016, ‘Grounded Objects: Archaeology and Speculative Realism’, Archaeological Dialogues, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 93–113.

[30] C.N. Waters, J. Zalasiewicz, C. Summerhays, I.J. Fairchild, N.L. Rose, N.J. Loader… Matt Edgeworth. 2017. ‘Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) of the Anthropocene Series: Where and How to Look for Potential Candidates’, Earth-Science Reviews no. 178, pp. 379–429.

[31] J. Meikle, 1995, American Plastic: A Cultural History, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.

Rethinking the Anthropocene as Carnivalocene

David Chandler

Writing in the mid-1960s, Russian literary theorist and philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin famously understood medieval carnival to reveal the truth of life’s rebelliousness against the authoritarian rule of official culture. Carnival was important to Bakhtin as it expressed an immanent liveliness that exceeded the regulatory controls of church and state and disrupted the binary hierarchies of power, distinguishing the governing and the governed, high culture from the low, and those with power from those without. Carnival was a world of freedom from external constraint: a world of immanent becoming, rather than transcendental laws: ‘Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it… While carnival lasts there is no life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its own laws, that is the laws of its own freedom.’ (Bakhtin, 2009: 7)

In most treatments in the discipline of International Relations, the Anthropocene and the ethos of carnival could not be further apart. The Anthropocene, formally a concept derived from geological debate over the level of human impact upon the earth’s geomorphology, is often treated merely in terms of the potential security implications of climate change and global warming. Nothing to probe here, just another set of problems which require the assembling of expertise, resolving some organisation issues, perhaps some lobbying and resource redistribution, and then we can be on our way. There seems to be something a little soulless about this rationalist problem-solving approach, whether it’s cast in terms of addressing a planetary crisis, a global problem or even a plain old-fashioned international one (see Burke et al, 2016). It often seems that we are missing out on the disruptive commotions occurring across other disciplines and, even more so, on their expressive eruptions of joy and celebration. It is these more affective aspects of the contemporary condition that we often fail to grapple with and that I wish to foreground in this short piece.

Because we are so used to seeing problems as governmental opportunities – enabling the advocacy of new legislative, economic or military regimes, new modalities of international cooperation or empowering global activist networks – it can be difficult to take the Anthropocene seriously. When contemporary theorists talk about living after ‘the end of the world’ (Morton, 2013) we assume they are making dire predictions about the future or perhaps speaking metaphorically. Everything looks very much as it did before: states; governments; international summits; the whole works. Those able to remember the 1990s went through a similar experience, when people talked about globalisation and how the compression of time and space ‘changes everything’ (see, Rosenberg, 2000). Pretty much everything looked the same but at the same time it wasn’t. Our easy distinctions and separations – modernist binaries – were called into question – not all of them, just the more obvious state-like ones, sovereignty/ anarchy, war/ peace, combatant/ non-combatant, protectorate/ democracy.

In the Anthropocene everything still pretty much looks the same, there are still states, global hierarchies, inequalities and exclusions, poverty, wars, conflicts, exploitations and oppressions; everything one would need to keep IR theory in business. But the changes that happened beneath the surface – the non-visible ones, that were first spotted lurking in discourses of globalisation – have quickened their pace. Hardly any binaries or distinctions are now left standing. First they came for the state-based binaries and now they have come for the rest: culture/ nature, subject/ object, human/ non-human, living/ non-living, figure/ ground, thought/ matter. These are the binaries held to be at the heart of modern or Enlightenment thought, said to have separated the human as subject from the world as object. As long as modernity seemed to be achieving its promises of progress, its epistemological and ontological assumptions went largely unchallenged. Today, the liberal world of the imagined ‘social contract’ and escape from ‘the state of nature’ seems dangerously elitist and stupidly hubristic (Serres, 1995; Latour, 2018). If only the Anthropocene could be put back in the box of problems to be solved, like climate change and global warming. Unfortunately it cannot be. The Anthropocene, like globalisation before it, is not a problem we are facing: it is a condition we are in.

To understand that condition perhaps it would be better to think of the Anthropocene more in terms of the Carnivalocene. The Anthropocene is a time of high emotional intensity, an affective release of the energies and frustrations pent up during the slow implosion of modernity. In the Anthropocene, the world is turned upside down, as all traditional authorities and hierarchies are challenged: the Anthropocene as carnival. Just as with carnival, the Anthropocene is a deeply intense, material experience: a wild romp of the grotesque and the transgressive, emphasising our shared character of Earthly being. It is about the body not the mind. Life is at the centre of the Carnivalocene: not the regulated, ritualised life of separated entities, fixed essences and linear causal chains, but the free-flowing, unregulated and ungovernable life of flux, change and unpredictability. The Carnivalocene cannot be governed, transgression is the norm; life is lively and here to party and to disrupt.

In the Carnivalocene, life comes to the fore in ways, which, we are regularly told, displace figure and ground. The environment/ nature/ the geological forces of the Earth, become the central actors, no longer the background or stage for a merely human drama (Serres, 1995; Latour, 2018; Clark and Yusoff, 2017). Ghosts and monsters become our grotesque guides in the Arts of Living on a Dying Planet (Tsing et al, 2017). Ghosts and monsters both point us towards life’s entanglements: enmeshed in disruptive processes of becoming, they are the return of our uncared for side effects and externalities. The Carnivalocene threatens each and every achievement of modernity with the return of the repressed and the excluded in the form of blowbacks and feedbacks impossible to predict or to control. In carnival, co-species contaminations, symbiogenetic interminglings and cross-species entanglements come to the forefront. Every attempt to regulate, control and order the world seems to make the problems worse as unintended consequences, unforeseen side-effects, unaccounted for externalities and extended networks of interaction and interdependence can make even small interventions catalyse tipping points towards catastrophic new phase transitions. New antibiotic medications breed new drug-resistant bacteria, new and higher sea walls lead to higher levels of flood devastation, new technologies and data processing capacities bring new levels of error and infringements of privacy, new ways of securing reveal new threats and create new insecurities.

In carnival, the lowly and forgotten are put on the same plane as the high and the mighty. We can read from Michael Marder how ‘plants quietly subvert classical philosophical hierarchies and afford us a glimpse into a lived (and growing) destruction of Western metaphysics’ (2013: 53). Anna Tsing tells us how fungal spores fill our stratosphere, challenge species boundaries and turn our ideas of sexual reproduction upside down (2015). María Puig de la Bellacasa investigates the lively power of soil webs of ‘multilateral relational arrangement in which food, energy, and waste circulate in nonreciprocal exchanges’ of care circulating through more than human relations (2017: 192). Natasha Myers explains how molecular life is lively in a perspective that is neither vitalist nor mechanical and how cells and molecules are ‘active participants in the agencements that shape their growth, development, and reproduction’ (2015: 235). Stefanie Fishel writes biopolitics in reverse in the understanding that microbial life can help us rethink the political ‘by affirming life as vital and relational rather than as a purely mechanical reaction against that which is Other’ (2017: 108). The list goes on.

Understanding the Anthropocene in terms of the Carnivalocene might enable IR to think the contemporary condition in more affective and experimental ways. However, it is important to bear in mind that while the Carnivalocene may, like Bakhtin’s carnival, turn the world ‘inside out’ (2009: 11), the old order, which was merely suspended, does not look set to return, and certainly not in a rejuvenated manner. If carnival does become a condition of stasis rather than one of release, rupture and return (as in the classical adaptive cycle of resilience theory, Wakefield, 2018) then the Carnivalocene may yet turn out to be a dark time for those looking for resources for disciplinary renewal. The carnival of the Carnivalocene is far from the family-friendly, corporate-sponsored, community-policed fun day out type of carnival, where everyone goes happily back to work the day after.

Original article published here: https://www.e-ir.info/2019/04/11/rethinking-the-anthropocene-as-carnivalocene/

Personal website: http://www.davidchandler.org/ 

References

Bakhtin, M. 2009. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Burke, A., Fishel, S., Mitchell, A., Dalby, S. and Levine, D. J. 2016. ‘Planet Politics: A Manifesto from the End of IR’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 44(3): 499–523.

Clark, N. and Yusoff, K. 2017. ‘Geosocial Formations and the Anthropocene’, Theory, Culture and Society 34(2–3): 3–23.

Fishel, S. R. 2017. The Microbial State: Global Thriving and the Body Politic. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Latour, B. 2018. Down to Earth: Politics in a New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Marder, M. 2013. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Morton, T. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Myers, N. 2015. Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers, and Excitable Matter. Durham: Duke University Press.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. 2017. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rosenberg, J. 2000. The Follies of Globalisation Theory: Polemical Essays. London; Verso.

Serres, M. 1995. The Natural Contract. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Tsing, A. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tsing, A., Swanson, H., Gan, E. and Bubandt, N. (eds) 2017. Arts of Living on a Dying Planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Wakefield, S. (2018) ‘Inhabiting the Anthropocene back loop’, Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses 6(2): 77-94

Anthropocene and Negative Anthropology

Hannes Bajohr

Despite all proclamations to the contrary, we still don’t live in the Anthropocene. Instead of hailing this new era, and to the annoyance of many, in July 2018, the International Commission on Stratigraphyintroduced a more detailed subdivision of the Holocene, our current epoch, which the Anthropocene was either to replace or succeed. Besides the Greenlandian and Northgrippian periods, there is also a name for the last 4250 years: Welcome, you now live in the Meghalayan! Geologists continue to discuss the possibility of introducing the Anthropocene, but it remains unclear when or what they will decide. Even in bureaucracy, geology is used to thinking in expansive time scales. It took the discipline 102 years to formalize the Holocene.

In contrast to the natural sciences, the question of official adoption plays virtually no role in the humanities, which have taken up the concept of the Anthropocene with relish. Its attraction lies in its omnicompetent radiance: Not only a geochronological coinage, it implies an ontology, a theory of history, and an anthropology – categories thus within the purview of the humanities – while its normative consequences remain vague. It may, as Dipesh Chakrabarty already showed ten years ago, explode the classic separation between the history of nature and that of mankind. What it doesn’t do is clearly provide a new guiding scheme. This has led to the paradoxical situation that both posthumanists and neohumanists have claimed the Anthropocene, but draw from it radically different conclusions. The former see it as a further empowerment of the human, the latter as its continued decentering. The concept of the Anthropocene, then, is the site of an interpretive struggle about the discursive return of “man.”

Him Again: The Return of “Man” in the Anthropocene

For the longest time, few could have imagined that talk of “man,” of all things, would return. But that was the very stunt pulled by the Anthropocene, the very name of which relies on a hypostasized “man,” the “Anthropos,” as an agent on a planetary scale. Inadvertently, it challenged the antihumanism dominant in the humanities for the last forty years or so. The famous final sentence in Michel Foucault’s Order of Things promised that “man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” Even though Foucault spoke only of “man” as the epistemic central figure of the modern sciences humaines, the disappearing human face became an emblem for something like an antihumanist consensus, to which belong, among many others, Althusser, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, but also Heidegger, Adorno, Kittler, and Luhmann.

These otherwise highly different thinkers were united in their critique of a humanism which, in Kate Soper’s now-classic definition, “appeals (positively) to the notion of a core humanity or common essential features in terms of which human beings can be defined and understood.” This aversion to an essential core humanity has been synthesized since the mid-nineties in posthumanism, which brings together feminist, postcolonial and process-ontological arguments. “Universal ‘Man,’” as Rosi Braidotti summarizes the posthumanist position, is unmasked to be “masculine, white, urbanized, speaking a standard language, heterosexually inscribed in a reproductive unit and a full citizen of a recognized polity.”

In view of this consensus it is not surprising that the Anthropocene was brought into the discourse of the humanities from the outside,through the natural sciences. Natural scientists reveal themselves to be untroubled by antihumanist scruples as soon as they turn philosopher and begin to draw normative and ethical conclusions. In the majority of cases, these result in one or the other version of a model of the human as Prometheus, as homo faber. If the Anthropocene is the epoch in which “the human” itself has become a force of nature, then it only marks the full realization of what it has always implicitly been. This diagnosis is not necessarily pessimistic, for the possibility of self-extinction does not have to indicate catastrophe, but can be further evidence of humanity’s dominance. The practical consequence of these theories is the model of stewardship: their power nominates humans as guardians of the earth.

Paul Crutzen, who together with Eugene Stoermer popularized the concept of the Anthropocene, speaks of an “Age of Man” that should be embraced: “we should shift our mission from crusade to management, so we can steer nature’s course symbiotically instead of enslaving the formerly natural world.” Steering is certainly not the same as symbiosis; what he calls for, rather, is technical ingenuity as a way out of the climate crisis. This is also the demand of the ecomodernists,who imagine a “good anthropocene” and see in it an opportunity for “man” to continue the transformation of the earth in a self-determined way and to his own advantage. One of its representatives, the geologist Erle C. Ellis, therefore speaks of a “second Copernican revolution,” which makes “man” and earth the center of the universe yet again.

Geographers Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin invoke the same image. For them, too, the Anthropocene is nothing less than the reversal of that modern decentering of “man.” Where Copernicus and Darwin (Freud is not mentioned) robbed humans of their elevated status in nature, “Adopting the Anthropocene may reverse this trend by asserting that humans are not passive observers of Earth’s functioning.” In this view, as Bruno Latour notes in his Gaia Lectures, the narrative of human self-assertion in modernity, which Hans Blumenberg developed in his Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966), has, in the Anthropocene, become a scientifically measurable reality. New is the demand not to pursue self-assertion at the expense of self-preservation, but “the human” denotes much the same: the Anthropos is still a Prometheus.

“We’re fucked”: Neohumanist and Posthumanist Responses

Motivated by the popularization of the natural sciences, the humanities’ hand is forced when it comes to the discursive return of “man,” regardless of whether they are posthumanist or neohumanist in character. For the neohumanists, who believe their time has come, the Anthropocene is the final proof of humanity’s special place in the cosmos. Another strand of neohumanism, more philosophical than technocratic, argues against the ecomodernists’ optimism, anddemands meditating on hopelessness as an ethical attitude. In Roy Scranton’s handy formula: “we’re fucked.” If a reversal of climate change is no longer possible, our job is “learning to die in the Anthropocene.” Since Socrates, Cicero and Montaigne, this has been an arch-philosophical task, and the importance of the humanities becomes salient again as “we will need a way of thinking our collective existence. We need a vision of who ‘we’ are. We need a new humanism.”

With less pathos, the Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton similarly pleads for a “new anthropocentrism,” but he does so with a twist borrowed from Kant: Hamilton need no longer merely posit that “man” occupies a special position, as this has now been factually proven through climate change, from which follows humanity’s ethical responsibility for the earth as a whole. Because this responsibility has so far been rejected, we are simply not anthropocentric enough for Hamilton. The Anthropocene, in other words, becomes a Kantian ‘sign of history’ that gives meaning to the existence of mankind. Hamilton calls this “a kind of negative of teleological anthropocentrism.” By virtue of his destructive power, “man” now has the destiny to save the earth for which he is responsible – but rather by abstinence and the renunciation of consumption than by artificial atmospheric change.

In the camp formerly attached to antihumanism, on the other hand, the concept of the Anthropocene “has arisen at a most inconvenient moment,” as philosopher Timothy Morton admits. With anthropogenic climate change, however, the reality of “man” has become undeniable: It is “caused by humans – not jellyfish, not dolphins, not coral.” And with the rising sea levels, Foucault’s image of the face in the sand has changed its meaning, and now points at the imminent extinction of the species: “the human returns at a far deeper geological level than mere sand.”The cultural theorist Claire Colebrook finds in humanity’s malignant power undeniable evidence of its reality: “the notion that there is no such thing as the human […] must give way to a sense of the human as defined by destructive impact. […] One effect of the Anthropocene has been a new form of difference: it now makes sense to talk of humans as such.” And in this sense, even the avowed posthumanist Rosi Braidotti admits that the Anthropocene represents a unity “of the negative kind, as a shared form of vulnerability.”

For Colebrook, Braidotti and Morton, however, this does not imply the necessity of a new anthropocentrism, as Hamilton and Scranton would have it, even if they all strive to take the concept of “the human” seriously again. This is especially true of Morton, who aims at redefining “humankind” as an ontologically reductive quantity: If all entities are always references to and composites of countless others (as flat ontologies usually claim), then the entity “humankind” is in reality smaller than every single real subject that appears in it. Extending it to animals and things is then a simple task. But why an element of this “humankind” should denote something substantially different than the concept of “person,” as it has long been used in animal ethics, is just as unclear as the practical consequences: Morton, too, continues to place his hopes in collective action – and he addresses his appeal not to jellyfish, corals or dolphins, but humans.

Species Being: The Human as Collective, Reductive, and Scalar Quantity

Posthumanist responses to the Anthropocene are often characterized by this difficulty in coordinating ontological and ethical issues. The best example is Donna Haraway, who pursues Morton’s goals through a reverse strategy. She rejects the concept of the Anthropocene as too anthropocentric. Her counter-suggestion, the “Chthulucene,” does not designate an epoch or humanly segmented time, but rather the “tentacular” all-connectedness of living beings. Yet by dissolving people into unbounded assemblages while opposing the pessimism of the “we’re fucked” anthropocenists, Haraway begins to question whether the perpetrators of climate change can be determined at all: Because humans have always existed in interdependent relationships with other living beings, the Anthropocene is no longer a “human species act.” Questions of responsibility and agency, as with Morton, are in danger of disappearing from view.

Marxists, too, have put forward a critique of the concept of anthropocene, albeit less with an ontological rather than a socio-economic thrust. Historian Andreas Malm and ecologist Alf Hornborg, for example, query the concept of “man” as a collective singular: It implies an undifferentiated humanity, obscuring the unequally distributed responsibility between the global North and South for the ecopathologies of capitalism. Further, they argue, the assumption of a process attributed to the human species denaturalizes climate change by recognizing it as human-made, while at the same time renaturalizing it, since it appears as a result of inherent human characteristics rather than as an effect of economic processes.

The dissolution of philosophical pseudo-problems and -entities – here: “man” – has an honorable tradition; in methodological terms, however, one must ask whether the reduction of the term is not accompanied by a reduction in explanatory power. What phenomena does the anthropocene describe that can’t be explained by capitalist dynamics alone? Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued against Malm and Hornborg that the anthropocene can’t be reduced to capitalism because it concerns the “boundary conditions that human or all other life on earth needs.” In the long run, all people are affected by this without exception, whether poor or rich, which is why “a policy of even more far-reaching solidarity is needed than mere solidarity with the poor” – solidarity, in other words, among people as such.

For Chakrabarty, the return of the human is thus attached to a humanity that must be undifferentiated because it faces questions of bare life. The lessons of postcolonialism and Marxist critique should not be forgotten, but must be relegated to their respective explanatory planes. He places three conceptions of the human in parallel, without wanting to reduce them onto one another: the human as the subject of enlightenment, i.e. as the same rights bearer everywhere, who must still be able to be invoked in the human rights discourse; the human as a postcolonial subject that is differentiated along the axes of class, race, gender, ability, etc.; and the human as the subject of the anthropocene, as that collective quantity that only acquires its meaning qua collectivity.

This distinction emphasizes the status of the Anthropos as a scalar concept: It reveals emergent qualities that go beyond the mere summation of all individual humans on earth, and beyond the constitutional conditions of the human, which are described by any “philosophical anthropology.” In fact, Chakrabarty argues, one cannot perceive oneself as a member of the species. This identification of the Anthropos with the species is, of course, tentative for him: on the one hand, it is desirable to keep a continuity with the descriptive work of the natural sciences, but the term “species” also has the function of marking a desideratum of future orientation narratives. In a passage reminiscent of Benjamin, Chakrabarty writes: “‘Species’ is perhaps the placeholder name for an emerging, new universal history of mankind that flashes at the moment of the threat posed by climate change.”

In the Balance: The Negative Anthropology of the Anthropocene

The debate about the Anthropos in the Anthropocene is a complex one. But what it shows is that “man,” at least as a discursive object, has again taken center stage in the humanities at the very moment when his final farewell seemed certain. While the tradition of antihumanism continues, its reluctant apostates, such as Morton or Colebrook, indicate that one can neither live completely with nor completely without “the human.” But this precarious return does not automatically mean a restitution of substantial anthropologies, as if the antihumanist critique had never existed. The world-builder homo faber, which the “good anthropocene” celebrates, and the strict distinction between humans and nature – here posthumanism is right – shouldn’t be resurrected. But in talking about the Anthropocene, it is also impossible to avoid referring to humans. Be it as an addressee of ethical demands, political actor, cause of climate change and responsibility for reversing it, the human remains an operative, but precarious term.

The most intelligent attempts at negotiating antihumanist and neohumanist positions often employ a negativistic rhetoric. Rather than declaring new positives, the negative modality offers alternatives to relying on concepts of the human or struggling to overcome them. They know what it is not, or what it shouldn’t be, and often this becomes the most pertinent and precise thing they can say about it. When Chakrabarty calls for a “negative universal history” of the human species, he finds an echo in Hamilton’s conception of a “negative of teleological anthropocentrism.” And Colebrook’s talk of the human “defined by destructive impact” takes up Braidotti’s concession that the Anthropocene helped to birth a “negatively indexed new idea of ‘the human’ as an endangered species.”

The evocation of the negative modality refers, on the one hand, to a kind of minimal anthropology that describes the human by its demonstrated destructive power on a planetary scale. At the same time, it refuses any final determination, lest the unproblematic core humanity of the homo faber returns as an equally essentialist homo delens. And both factors – the determination through negation and the negation of determination – show an astonishing similarity to a discourse from twentieth century German philosophy I would like to call negative anthropology.

Negative anthropology, as I understand it, describes an approach that eschews any definition of an “essence of man,” but still insists on making the human the main focus of its attention. This distinguishes negative anthropology from posthumanism. For where the latter wants to banish the human completely, negative anthropology still holds on to it as a variable that is impossible to solve, but which can’t be canceled out from the equation, either.

Such a negative anthropology has a certain tradition in German post-war philosophy. Two examples: Ulrich Sonnemann, a peripheral Frankfurt School thinker, wrote in his 1969 book Negative Anthropologie that the task of such a philosophy is to disclose the open potential of the human being “from the negations that refuse and deny it.”Formulated as a utopian project against all totalizing theories of the human, Sonnemann is the model case for the negation of determination. Determination through negation, the other pole of negative anthropology, can for instance be found in the work of the philosopher Günther Anders, who with this term describes “humanity” as awareness of the nuclear bomb; this idea could easily be transferred to some of today’s Anthropocenists: “We are now one humanity not because of a common natural origin, but because of a common future without a future, because of the unnatural end that is approaching us together.”

Negative anthropology is the surprising convergence point of a geological proposition and the scruples of a specific tradition of the humanities. It denotes the movement of a decentering that turns into a recentering again – but unlike Ellis or Lewis/Maslin discuss it in the image of the Copernican Revolution. It rather evokes what Hans Blumenberg described in his Genesis of the Copernican World as “geotropic astronautics”: For him, the photograph of the blue marble as an icon of the space age becomes a symbol of what Montaigne had called “a secret turning back onto ourselves,” for in the face of the vast expanses of space all astronautic efforts refer us back to earth as the life-worldly ground of our existence. The philosopher Hermann Lübbe called this a “post-Copernican counterrevolution,” which restores to the earth the central position that Copernicus had taken from it, but without cosmologically returning to the Middle Ages. Similarly, the return of “the human” currently underway is a turning back without returning. It seems as if negative anthropology is a good description for our geotropic astronautics in the Anthropocene.

Hannes Bajohr is a research fellow at the Leibniz Center of Literary and Cultural Research, Berlin. This text is an abridged version of an essay that appeared in German in the journal Merkur 73, no. 5 (2019): 63–74; it was translated by the author and was first published on Public Seminar.