The Anthropocene

Anthropological approaches

Liana Chua & Hannah Fair           

Brunel University, London


‘The Anthropocene’ is a term that is increasingly used to define a new planetary era: one in which humans have become the dominant force shaping Earth’s bio-geophysical composition and processes. Initially emerging in the Earth Sciences as the name for a proposed new geological epoch[1] (Crutzen & Stoermer 2000), the Anthropocene has been widely adopted across academia as a catch-all description of the overwhelming impact of human activity on the planet. Its key markers include climate change and its consequences (e.g. sea level rise), the effects of plastic pollution on marine and terrestrial processes, unprecedented rates of biodiversity loss and extinction, and the changing chemical composition of soils, oceans, and the atmosphere.

Academic interest in the Anthropocene has been paralleled by a growing awareness of its existence in the public sphere. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) dedicated an entire journal issue to the Anthropocene (UNESCO 2018), while many of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Sustainable Development Goals (2016-present) are built around key Anthropocenic concerns, such as global emissions, ecosystem damage, and overreliance on fossil fuels. At the same time, productions such as Edward Burtynsky’s film Anthropocene: the human epoch (2018) are drawing public attention to both the term and the challenges that it poses in the contemporary world. The Anthropocene has thus become a ‘charismatic mega-concept’ (Turpin & Davis 2015: 6) that bridges the natural and the social sciences, and academia and the public realm, igniting heated debates across all of them.

This entry provides a short and necessarily partial account of anthropological engagements with the Anthropocene—an immense, burgeoning, and still-embryonic field of study (Gibson & Venkateswar 2015; Swanson, Bubandt, & Tsing 2015). After briefly considering what the Anthropocene is, we shall examine four key anthropological approaches to it: those that a) put ethnography to work in spaces most directly affected by Anthropocenic phenomena; b) critically interrogate the idea of the Anthropocene: its discourses, truth-claims, politics, and ethical injunctions; c) take the Anthropocene as an opportunity for speculation, creativity, and hopeful regeneration; and d) treat the Anthropocene as a political and socio-economic problem and symptom of global inequalities and injustices.

These approaches are characterized by distinct methods, analytical frameworks, conceptual vocabularies, and ethico-political agendas. However, they also share certain key traits. First, they point to how the Anthropocene destabilizes dichotomies between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ and ‘human’ and ‘non-human’, as well as the academic disciplines built around them. At a time when microplastics have infiltrated marine food chains and ‘natural disasters’ like floods and coastal erosion are precipitated by human-induced climate change, such dichotomies have become increasingly hard to maintain. Many anthropologists have responded to this problem by transcending their own disciplinary boundaries, and engaging with methods and frameworks from other disciplines, such as biology and art.

Secondly, none of these approaches can be said to be agnostic about their subject matter. Rather, they exemplify what has become an increasingly pervasive tendency in this field: the imbrication of the analytical with the political and the ethical. More than analyzing the Anthropocene, anthropologists are increasingly asking what can and should be done in response to the threats and opportunities that it poses. Their agendas and interventions, however, vary significantly—as do the demands that they make on themselves. The upshot of all this, thirdly, is that anthropologists are increasingly pushed to ask what exactly their discipline can bring to the evolving ‘Anthropo-scene’, i.e. the intellectual field that has emerged around the concept (Lorimer 2017), and vice-versa. This entry suggests that classic anthropological methods, such as small-scale participant-observation and the critical juxtaposition of ‘strange’ and ‘familiar’ insights, are well suited to adding empirical depth and nuance to this multidisciplinary field. Yet the same time, it is also becoming clear that engagements with the Anthropocene are reshaping anthropological practices and imaginaries, with profound ethical and political implications.

What is the Anthropocene?

Since the early-2000s, the Anthropocene has received increasing scientific attention as a proposed new geological epoch: one dominated by the impact of human activity on planetary systems. These impacts include anthropogenic climate change, biodiversity loss leading to mass extinction, and the ubiquity of microplastics in terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Proposed bio-geophysical evidence for these and other features of the Anthropocene includes increasing global average temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations, rising sea levels and ocean acidification (Zalasiewicz et al. 2008; Lewis & Maslin 2015). On the basis of such evidence, in 2016 the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (f. 2009) provisionally recommended that the Anthropocene be formally recognized as a distinct unit of geological time (Zalasiewicz et al. 2017). However, debates continue regarding its starting point.

Events as early as the extinction of mammoths through human predation 13,800 years ago (Doughty et al. 2010) and forest clearances and rice cultivation 5,000-8,000 years ago (Ruddiman 2003) have been proposed as boundary points that mark the start of the Anthropocene. While Paul Crutzen and other members of the working group previously endorsed the Industrial Revolution and the development of the steam engine as the Anthropocene’s origin (Crutzen 2002; Zalasiewicz et al. 2008), the working group’s members now largely favour the ‘Great Acceleration’ (Zalasiewicz et al. 2015)—the period of extensive technological, demographic, economic, and resource use expansion from 1945 onward—as the origin point. Members of the working group contend that the Great Acceleration represents a global synchronous phenomenon (a key criterion for selecting a stratigraphic marker), compared to earlier suggestions, which they argue were merely regional or did not occur simultaneously across the world.

Alternatively, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin (2015) have proposed 1610 as a starting date, due to the profound alterations to ecosystems produced by the Colombian Exchange[2] as well as the dip in CO2 concentrations most likely caused by reforestation in the Americas, due to the enormous loss of Indigenous life. As well as identifying an event they deem stratigraphically significant, Lewis and Maslin therefore foreground colonial violence as a foundation of the Anthropocene. This position is endorsed by feminist scholars Heather Davis and Zoe Todd (2017), who contend that selecting this starting date would create space for Indigenous thought within the Anthropocene debate.

Decisions regarding the formal boundaries of the Anthropocene have political and socio-economic repercussions. Depending on the starting date that is chosen, particular processes will come to be held responsible for our current planetary predicament. This will suggest certain avenues for action, and foreclose others. For instance, selecting the Industrial Revolution as a start-date suggests that capitalism as a socio-economic system is primarily culpable for the Anthropocene, whereas 1610 foregrounds colonialism and the historic and ongoing exploitation of the majority world[3], suggesting that former imperial nations have a particular responsibility to mitigate Anthropocenic problems. These debates reflect how the Anthropocene is not simply a natural scientific phenomenon, but a methodological, conceptual, and ethico-political challenge for scholars across a range of disciplines. The following sections examine how anthropologists have both approached and intervened in these debates.

The Anthropocene as context

While the Anthropocene encompasses many different processes, anthropogenic climate change is often treated as its main ‘yardstick’ due to the scale and ubiquity of its impacts (Rudiak-Gould 2015: 48). Ethnographic research into the effects of, responses to, and understandings of climate change constitute some of the earliest anthropological engagements with the Anthropocene. These approaches draw upon anthropology’s traditional strengths of rich qualitative research in small scale societies, focusing particularly on regions mostly critically threatened by climate change impacts, such as low-lying small island states. Such ethnographic research provides insights into how Anthropocenic phenomena are apprehended, experienced, and conceptualized in specific settings. In this way, they point to the heterogeneous nature of the Anthropocene, and the need to examine its social and cultural dimensions, rather than approaching it as a purely natural scientific concern.

Anthropologists have commonly tried to understand how climate change is experienced in particular local settings (Crate & Nuttall 2009). In these studies, the Anthropocene is treated as a backdrop to social life or a key factor shaping social relations, rather than as a purely geophysical phenomenon. For example, Heather Lazrus (2009) documents how, in Nanumea, Tuvalu, the tips of islands, which are associated with particular family lineages and corresponding levels of community prestige, are shifting due to coastal erosion, potentially causing changes in familial status and social hierarchies. Susan Crate and Mark Nuttall argue that climate change is ‘ultimately about culture’ (2009: 12) as it has emerged from a culture of mass consumerism, requires cultural change to mitigate it, and threatens Indigenous cultural practices by disrupting cosmologically significant human-environment relations. This emphasis on culture chimes with the work of geographer Mike Hulme (2008), who contends that climate change discourse is dominated by natural scientific frameworks, and consequently has been stripped of cultural context (see also Malm & Hornborg 2014). Instead, he argues both that the climate must be understood culturally, and that climate change must be locally situated and rendered culturally and ethically meaningful for those that it impacts. Thus, culture can be understood as both a cause of climate change, integral to understanding it, and a means of influencing responses to it. This latter process has been explored in relation to Christian responses to climate change, with ethnographies analyzing the use of Biblical stories in challenging the hegemony of predictions of sea level rise in Kiribati (Kempf 2017) and advocating for greater preparedness in the face of intensifying cyclones in Vanuatu (Fair, forthcoming).

Many researchers advocate bringing Indigenous knowledge of climate change into dialogue with scientific knowledge, for example by drawing on Athapaskan and Tlingit oral histories of glacial travel in the Gulf of Alaska (Cruikshank 2001), or organizing community knowledge exchanges that bring together ethnographic accounts and scientific data regarding changes to the permafrost in northeastern Siberia (Crate & Fedorov 2013). This approach, however, raises more fundamental questions about the distinction between local and scientific knowledge. There have been calls to recognize how scientific knowledge of climate change is shaped by specific local and cultural conditions, rather than accepting it as a ‘view from nowhere’ (Hulme 2008), as well as recognizing that local knowledge itself is not isolated, static, or sealed off from scientific discourse. In this vein, anthropologists have explored how scientific knowledge is received, interpreted, and incorporated within specific local cultural settings. For example, Jerry Jacka (2009) shows how the impacts of El Niño in the Porgera Valley in Papua New Guinea have been accommodated within Christian narratives of punishment and apocalypse and understood as revenge for the destruction of significant ritual sites through road building. These local understandings can render problematic the anthropogenic dimension of climate change. While they concur regarding the human responsibility for global warming, they do not agree which specific human actions have caused it.

Peter Rudiak-Gould’s (2012) work in the Marshall Islands also highlights how scientific understandings are combined with local understandings and used to bolster existing moral frameworks, a process he describes as ‘promiscuous corroboration’. He identifies a prevalent Marshallese understanding of climate change as symptomatic of wider, pre-existing cultural decline, due to increasing American influences and the loss of traditional knowledges, lifestyles, and practices. Similar understandings have been identified in the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu (Fair 2018) where climate change impacts, including the intensification of cyclones, have been attributed to deviations from both Christian morality and kastom (traditional knowledge, beliefs, and practices). Climate change as rendered intelligible through these existing ethical frameworks therefore also lead Islanders to hold themselves morally culpable for Anthropocenic impacts, in distinction to their nation’s minimal contributions to carbon dioxide emissions.

Rudiak-Gould’s work reveals some of the tensions that can emerge between research and political advocacy. He argues that while most anthropologists subscribe to a narrative of climate change blame focused upon the responsibilities of industrialized nations, researchers should be open and alert to alternative narratives, even those that challenge their own politico-ethical standpoints. While the Marshallese narrative of Islander responsibility is at odds with conventional framings of small island states as victims of climate injustice, it is also empowering on a local level, as ‘innocence implies impotence’ (Rudiak-Gould 2015: 58).

This raises a broader question: what political and ethical demands does the Anthropocene make of social scientists? Crate and Nuttall (2009) argue that anthropologists have a privileged point of engagement: many are already working with communities who are experiencing the severest impacts of climate change while being some of the least responsible for those impacts. Consequently, some researchers have focused their energies not just on analysis but advocacy, engaging with legislation and policy (Fiske 2009), setting up university sustainability initiatives (Bartlett & Stewart 2009), and participating in climate justice movements (Chatterton et al. 2012). Their efforts exemplify a form of engaged research that seeks to alleviate, or at least highlight, the deleterious effects of the Anthropocene.

Studying ‘the Anthropocene’ as a concept

Much of the work cited above is situated in the Anthropocene, which serves as an encompassing, real-life backdrop to ethnographic inquiry. However, there is also a growing body of scholarship that advocates a critical understanding of the Anthropocene as an idea (Moore 2015a: 28). Drawing partly on critical traditions such as science studies and post-structuralism, these writings examine how Anthropocenic knowledge practices and truth-claims are constructed, circulated, contested, and strategically deployed—as well as how these can bring new realities and relations into being.

This approach is marked by a commitment to rendering the familiar strange by showing how apparently clear-cut Anthropocenic ‘facts’, such as ‘climate change’, ‘carbon emissions’, and ‘biodiversity loss’, are inherently partial and dynamic constructs. Rather than assuming their veracity, anthropologists ask: how are such concepts defined, made visible or knowable, and formalized, and to what effect? In recent years, for example, scholars have examined how the Anthropocene is made ‘imaginable and comprehensible’ (Marzec 2014: 249) through specific technologies, including narratives, photography (Kember 2017), infographics (Houser 2014), and environmental visualizations (Carruth & Marzec 2014). Another fecund area of inquiry is that of climate science, with anthropologists examining the scalar, spatial, temporal, and speculative dimensions of climate modelling (Hastrup & Skrydstrup 2013), the universalization of carbon as a metric through which to quantify (and thus compare) a vast array of human activity (Günel 2016), and the impact of ideals of accountability (Hall & Sanders 2015) and expertise (Vaughn 2017) on climate science research. Their insights into the all-too-human production of scientific knowledge are exemplified by Jessica O’Reilly’s discussion of Antarctic research (2016), which reveals how scientific data about the shifting Antarctic landscape is indelibly shaped by scientists’ intimate, sensory engagements with the ice, national research logistics and nationalism, guesswork, and, often, pure chance.

By treating scientific practices and categories as objects of ethnographic scrutiny, such scholars highlight the vital point that [k]nowledges do not float free from their contexts of production, and cannot arrive any old way. They travel well-worn paths, and are preconditioned by other academic knowledges, knowledge-producing apparatuses, and institutional arrangements (Hall & Sanders 2015: 454).

These approaches thus reveal how seemingly ‘factual’ Anthropocenic discourses, categories, and epistemologies are in fact malleable, fragile, and socio-historically specific (see, e.g., Last 2015). Moreover, the truth-claims that they generate are often tied up with profoundly moral ideas that evoke specific ways of thinking and feeling. Some of these, such as paintings of scenes from the Industrial Revolution, romanticize and naturalize the very conditions of human dominance over nature that fuelled the Anthropocene (Mirzoeff 2016). Others, notably public discourses about climate change, are apocalyptic (Swyngedouw 2010), depicting the Anthropocene as a threat to humankind’s very survival.

More than making the Anthropocene knowable, such ideas and imaginaries can have powerful social, political, and material effects in multiple settings. Narratives of low-lying island states being imminently engulfed by rising sea levels, for example, can disempower affected communities and inhibit effective mitigative action by representing Islanders as helpless victims and their homelands as inevitably lost (Farbotko 2010). Rather than reflecting an inherent vulnerability to climate change, these discourses can actually encourage people in affected areas to produce and perform their vulnerability in order to receive development funding (Webber 2013), and in doing so divert resources from other areas. Other studies show how discourses of climate change vulnerability have been mobilized in order to reinforce existing stereotypes of certain places and groups of people as vulnerable, hazardous, and disadvantaged (Yamane 2009).

It is here that anthropologists are well-placed to intervene in ongoing conversations by producing detailed ethnographic accounts of the events by the Anthropocene idea, from emergent political alliances and spatializations to modes of subjectivity and citizenship, from forms of scientific objectification and naturalization to shifting research methods and narratives, from green markets, products, and flows of capital to the materialization and embodiment of these ideas in spaces, places, bodies, and earthly relations (Moore 2015: 40).

Through such accounts, Amelia Moore suggests, anthropologists can begin to treat ‘the Anthropocene idea as a problem space’ (2015: 41; italics in original) that needs to be explored rather than taken for granted.

Moore’s work on the growth of sustainability, conservation, and eco-tourist initiatives in the Bahamas (e.g. Moore 2015) exemplifies the value of such an approach. Taking the Bahamas as one particular ‘Anthropocene space’ (2015: 31), she traces how rising sea levels, notions of sustainability, and concerns about biodiversity loss have collectively reframed and literally reworked the islands’ ecological, spatial, and socio-economic makeup—for example, through the promotion of sustainable fisheries, the establishment of new marine protected areas, and the growth of ecotourism initiatives. In her work, the Anthropocene is not simply a backdrop to ethnographic inquiry, but a material and imaginative space that constantly generates new relations and effects.

Similar approaches can be found in Jason Cons’ (2018) ethnography of the pre-emptive restructuring of Bangladeshi borderlands in the name of climate security; Cymene Howes’ discussion of multiple claims to ‘anthropocentric ecoauthority’ in the context of wind power development in Mexico (2014); and Nayanika Mathur’s description of the political work performed by Anthropocenic categories like ‘climate change’ in the context of human-wildlife conflicts in the Indian Himalayas (2015). Rather than asking how anthropology can illuminate small-scale responses to the Anthropocene, these writings push us to interrogate the very idea of the Anthropocene, the truth-claims and the ethical demands that it makes, and the effects of such claims and demands in multiple settings. By adopting this critical perspective, they imply, anthropologists can not only challenge the deleterious effects of oversimplified concepts such as ‘anthropogenic’ or ‘climate change’, but can also begin to explore ‘alternative visions’ (Cons 2018: 286) and possibilities for life in the Anthropocene. On this point, their work converges with that of another form of scholarship, to which speculation and creativity are central.

Remaking the Anthropocene: speculation, creativity, and experimentation

Rather than critically unpack the ‘Anthropocene’ idea, other scholars have opted to play with the speculative and regenerative possibilities that it presents. While not uncritical of its horrors and injustices, their writings approach the Anthropocene as an opportunity: as a still-emergent entity to be appropriated, recast, and even redone (Buck 2015: 372).

This diverse body of work is often animated by a shared concern with unsettling, reworking, and transcending dominant scholarly categories such as ‘nature’, ‘culture’, ‘human’, and ‘nonhuman’. Although social scientists have long questioned these categories’ universality, the Anthropocene has thrown their contingency into starker relief: if ‘human agency has become the main geological force shaping the face of the earth’ (Latour 2014), how, then, can we tell what is ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’, ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’? By thrusting this vital question into the public spotlight, the Anthropocene has, as Bruno Latour puts it, been a gift to contemporary scholarship—an invitation to ‘renegotiate the shape, boundary, limit and extent’ of anthropology’s core concern, ‘humanity’ (2014), and much more besides.

A common response to this invitation is to embrace rather than abhor the Anthropocene’s human-nonhuman hybrid ‘monsters’ (Latour 2011; Swanson et al. 2017: M4), from bacteria that have evolved to resist human-synthesized drugs to ‘blasted landscapes’, such as sites of oil spills, that are simultaneously ‘natural’ and ‘social’ (Kirksey, Shapiro, & Brodine 2014). Many scholars point out that the Anthropocene has simply made visible the complex webs of relations in which humans and nonhumans have always been enmeshed, while also generating new, inescapable hybrids and relations in the present. Apprehending these old and new hybrids and relations means finding ways to transcend anthropology’s traditional focus on humans, and asking: on what other terms can the Anthropocene be approached? To this end, many anthropologists draw on methods and analytics developed in ‘multispecies ethnography’ (Kirksey & Helmreich 2010), a field of scholarship that foregrounds how all humans and nonhumans on the planet are ‘entangled’—tied together and interdependent in various ways (e.g. Haraway 2008; Mitchell 2016; Reinert 2016; Rose 2011; Tsing 2015; van Dooren 2014). Rather than shunning such entanglements, they posit, why not use them to engender new possibilities for thinking about and living in the Anthropocene?

Such calls are often underpinned by a distinct ethical injunction: to elevate nonhuman entities into subjects worthy of scholarly attention, and also care and solidarity. Musing on the presence of penguins and flying foxes in urban spaces, for example, Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose refute the assumption that such animals are ‘out of place’ (2012: 2), advocating instead an ‘ethic of conviviality for a genuinely inclusive multispecies city…that provides a space for the flourishing of as many different forms of life as possible’ (2012: 17). Similarly, Anna Tsing (2011, 2015) propounds a form of ‘multispecies love’—‘passionate immersion in the lives of…nonhumans’ (2011: 19)—as an antidote to the destructive excesses of global capitalism. For her, multispecies entanglements offer a glimpse of how life, like mushrooms in abandoned anthropogenic landscapes, can emerge from ruined places (2015b: 6). Indeed, ‘in a global state of precarity’, she argues, ‘we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin’ (2015: 6).

For many of the scholars mentioned in this section, then, the interdependence of humans and nonhumans is not simply an ontological fact, but it may be a potent conceptual and ethical way of moving forward on a ‘damaged planet’ (Tsing et al. 2017). As Swanson et al. put it:

Our continued survival demands that we learn something about how best to live and die within the entanglements we have. We need both senses of monstrosity: entanglement as life and as danger (2017: M4).

In such work, the Anthropocene is thus an opportunity to: 1) right old wrongs, particularly the anthropocentric hubris that caused such planetary ruination; and 2) create and experiment with new modes of understanding, living with/in, and transforming the Anthropocene, so as to make it plural, livable, even charming (Buck 2015). Here, hope and possibility (Kirskey, Shapiro, & Brodine 2014) are key motifs; correctives to what Donna Haraway calls the ‘game over’ attitude (2016: 2) that characterizes more cynical, hopeless responses to the Anthropocene.

Such hopeful interventions are often accompanied by an impulse to play and experiment with existing scholarly methods and frameworks. Rather than writing straightforward ethnographies, anthropologists are increasingly turning to cross- and trans-disciplinary engagements—with art and artists (Davis & Turpin 2015; Kirksey, Schuetze, & Helmreich 2014), natural sciences and scientists (Tsing 2015), and stories and storytelling (Haraway 2016; van Dooren & Rose 2012)—to overcome the limits of disciplinary knowledges, practices, and barriers. These experimental, collaborative projects are generally characterized by two attributes.

First, many are ‘transgressive’ (Kirksey, Schuetze, & Helmreich 2014: 17) and ‘speculative’ (Davis & Turpin 2015: 17; Haraway 2016). Defying, rather than conforming to, academic conventions and expectations, they experiment with different methods, forms of knowledge, and aesthetics to ‘imagine alternative [Anthropocenic] futures’ (Lorimer 2017: 131). For example, Terike Haapoja and Laura Gustafsson (2015), creators of the art installation, The Museum of the History of Cattle (2013), use the narrative of an imaginary cow in a way that urges the reader to reimagine the world’s history, animal sociality, and the Anthropocene in bovine terms. In the process, they invite us to consider how we relate to nonhuman others in the Anthropocene, and what a non-anthropocentric Anthropocenic future might look like.

Second, as we saw above, these interventions are commonly framed as ethico-political manifestos that implicate their audiences in the urgent project of finding new ways to live and survive in the Anthropocene (see esp. Gibson, Rose, & Fincher 2015; Kirksey, Shapiro, & Brodine 2014; Tsing et al. 2017). Treating the ethical, the political, and the scholarly as of a piece, such speculative discussions impel anthropologists to embrace their connections with other entities and to formulate ‘alternative political visions, modes of relation and opportunities for ethical responsiveness’ (Mitchell 2016: 39). In contrast to the critical, deconstructionist agendas of the works cited in the previous section, these interventions are self-consciously experimental and collaborative—and always ethically and politically loaded. Yet, as the next section shows, they have their own limitations.

Re-politicizing the Anthropocene

While enthusiastically adopted in some quarters, creative approaches to the Anthropocene have also been criticized for failing to rigorously interrogate the relationships between capitalism, power, inequality, and the Anthropocene. Such critiques typify a fourth main response to the Anthropocene in our discipline: one that emphasizes historical contingency, political contestation, and socio-economic inequality. Contributors to this field have reproached both speculative and dominant scientific approaches for depoliticizing their subject matter at a time when political engagement is most needed.

Three major concerns have been expressed regarding the dominant narrative generated by the Anthropocene Working Group. The first concerns its portrayal of the Anthropocene as a moment of rupture. In The shock of the Anthropocene, historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz (2016) contend that the dominant narrative perpetuates a historically inaccurate myth: that humans have suddenly awoken to the negative consequences of their actions upon the environment (see, e.g., Steffen et al. 2011). This awakening narrative, they argue, presumes that environmental inaction emerges from ignorance, as opposed to an ideological battle over how humans engage with the non-human world. It conceals longstanding environmental consciousness and previous grassroots political struggles against ecological degradation in the Global North and Global South, thereby depoliticizing the contested history of the Anthropocene (Swyngedouw & Ernstson 2018). Bonneuil and Fressoz further argue that such narratives glorify the position of scientists, placing them above society and suggesting that science can provide straightforward solutions to the Anthropocene while concealing a need for political choices. This narrative frames the Anthropocene in terms of human accomplishments, rather than taking it as an opportunity for humility and recognizing the distinction between human influence and human control (Nixon 2017). The notion that the Anthropocene represents a sudden new era of ecological dystopia has also been critiqued by Indigenous scholars. Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte (2018), for example, argues that this fails to recognize that, from one Indigenous perspective, the Anthropocene is a perpetuation of environmental destruction, displacement, and extinction due to the violence of colonialism: for some Indigenous communities, he argues, the apocalypse already arrived long ago.

Secondly, scholars have argued that the dominant Anthropocene narrative treats humanity — the Anthropos — as a ‘unitary species actor’ (Nixon 2017: 24), or a singular universal subject. In this capacity, the imaginary of ‘the anthropogenic’ covers over the global and historical inequalities between humans that caused the Anthropocene, and that continue to structure global politics today (Sayre 2012). It thus fails to recognize the inequity of responsibility for anthropogenic climate change, as well as the unequal distribution of exposure to its impacts, thereby depoliticizing analysis. Moreover, far from being universal, this vision of the Anthropos has been criticized for making wealthy European perspectives stand in for the experiences of all of humanity, thereby replicating the homogenizing violence of colonialism (Davis & Todd 2017). Métis scholar Zoe Todd argues that the Eurocentrism of the dominant Anthropocene narrative is a consequence of its emergence from white Eurocentric institutions, and instead advocates a decolonization of the Anthropocene through bringing in Indigenous knowledges that emphasize the ‘reciprocal, ongoing, and dynamic relationships’ (2015: 251) between humans and nonhumans.

Thirdly, dominant Anthropocene narratives may also naturalize the development of the Anthropocene, depicting it as inevitable rather than identifying it as a consequence of contingent historical developments and particular political choices. Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg (2014) note how, in some accounts, a linear trajectory is drawn from the discovery of fire to the development of the steam engine. This presentation of the Anthropocene as a natural, inevitable, teleological development depoliticizes its origins, and limits political responses to it. Instead, they argue that the Anthropocene should be understood as a ‘sociogenic’ phenomenon, emerging from particular social relations and an uneven distribution of power between different nations, social groups, and species. Naturalizing the Anthropocene can lead to an understanding of human domination of the planet and of nonhuman life as inevitable, with the epoch’s very name maintaining an anthropocentric perspective to the exclusion of all others (Crist 2016). This failure to recognize the Anthropocene’s historically contingent conditions can be attributed to a ‘consequentialist bias’ (Moore 2016) of dominant scientific approaches, reflecting their greater emphasis upon evidence of biophysical changes as opposed to systemic causes.

Responses to this singular Anthropocene grand narrative vary. Bonneuil and Fressoz advocate producing multiple histories of the Anthropocene, which recognize the different political choices that have been and can be made (2016). Bringing analyses of power into the Anthropocene and rejecting the homogenized figure of the Anthropos, Malm and Jason Moore present contrasting accounts of a ‘Capitalocene’, an epoch defined by the impacts of Capitalism upon planetary systems, as opposed to those of all of humanity. While Malm (2016) focuses on the Industrial Revolution and the role of fossil fuels in capital accumulation, Jason Moore (2016; but c.f. Hornborg 2017) identifies 1450 and the mercantile capitalist era as the starting point of the Capitalocene. He argues that this period witnessed the production of ‘Nature’ as an abstracted object of power, and that it was the violent exclusion of ‘Nature’ from ‘Society’ that enabled the development of capitalism. Meanwhile, Hann (2017) urges an even more long-term perspective on the development of capitalism, one that overcomes what he perceives as the Eurocentrism of existing analyses. He focuses on Jack Goody’s work and urban revolutions of the Bronze Age, arguing that the emergence of commodity as opposed to gift economies can be seen as part of the social, political, and cosmological preconditions of the Anthropocene.

Like the speculative scholarship discussed earlier, such writings undermine the Euro-American modernist division between ‘nature’ and ‘society’. However, their interventions take a markedly different form. Rather than treating the Anthropocene as an opportunity for hopeful, creative speculation, they view it as a spur to unmasking and contesting long-standing political and socio-economic inequalities in the present. But does this entail entirely dissolving the differences between ‘nature’ and ‘society’? Hornborg (2017), for one, rejects Moore’s view of nature and society as entirely entangled. He contends that without a clear analytical separation of nature and society, capitalism cannot be critiqued, thereby diminishing the possibility for political action. Similarly, Erik Swyngedouw and Henrik Ernstson (2018) challenge what they label as a post-humanist rejection of nature/society distinctions. For them, an understanding of nature as entirely part of society and capitalism creates a view of nature that can be too easily managed and co-opted by neoliberalism. This depoliticizes the Anthropocene, as it perpetuates the fantasy that life and capitalism can continue as they are, ignoring the need for decisive, radical socio-economic transformation.

Such neo-Marxist concerns about depoliticizing the Anthropocene extend to their critiques of the speculative and creative approaches discussed above. Hornborg (2017), for example, accuses scholars like Tsing (2015) and Haraway (2016) of ‘dithering’ in the face of ecological crisis: producing poetic yet inaccessible, theoretically imprecise interventions that preoccupy the attention of critical scholars rather than critiquing inequality or encouraging political action. While blunter than most, Hornborg’s critique typifies a specific kind of ethico-political position on the Anthropocene. Underpinned by the insights of political economy and political ecology, such scholarship treats anthropological critique as an intervention in the world: as a means of highlighting ongoing inequalities and historical contingencies and continuities, as well as the basis of a direct, engaged form of political action.


Jason Moore describes the Anthropocene as having ‘two lives’: one as a scientific concept and object of geological debate; and another as an idea that has moved beyond its natural science origins, permeating the social sciences and public discourse, and raising questions about the relationship between humans and the non-human world (2016: 80). This entry has offered a glimpse of the Anthropocene’s second life as it is playing out in various anthropological quarters.

As we have seen, the Anthropocene is apprehended in multiple ways within anthropology: as an encompassing, threatening backdrop to ethnographic inquiry; as an idea and ‘problem space’ to be interrogated; as an opportunity for creativity, speculation, and experimentation; and as the outcome of historical inequalities and injustices. These varied figurations of the Anthropocene give rise to equally varied ethico-political positions and interventions. As the approaches above reveal, there are different, and differently scaled, ways of responding to the Anthropocene: to take it apart and focus on its small-scale, localized challenges; to critique its truth-claims and politics on various levels; or to capitalize on the Anthropocene as an opportunity to formulate new, hopeful, experimental possibilities for the future.

Embedded in, but also evolving through, these propositions are thus different visions of what anthropology is, could be, and can do. But such competing visions—and they are likely to be joined by many more—are not simply about the future of anthropology. As lenses onto the world, they raise much bigger questions about how the very categories of ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ and ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are being reproduced, transformed, or even dissolved in the present moment. And as Anthropocenic phenomena impact ever more of the planet, and Anthropocenic discourses gain greater social, political, and moral traction, these are questions that will animate academic debates and affect the lives of millions of people for years to come.

Note on contributors

Liana Chua is Reader in Anthropology at Brunel University London. She has studied conversion to Christianity, ethnic politics, indigeneity, resettlement and development in Malaysian Borneo since 2003. She is currently leading a large multi-sited project that explores the global nexus of orangutan conservation in the Anthropocene.

Hannah Fair’s doctoral research concerned Pan-Pacific climate justice movements and religious understandings of climate change in Vanuatu. She holds a PhD in Human Geography from University College London, and is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Anthropology at Brunel University London, investigating interspecies compassion, extinction, and orangutan conservation in the Anthropocene.

Anthropology, Department of Social and Political Sciences, Brunel University London, Uxbridge, Middlesex, UB8 3PH, United Kingdom.

Original publication by Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology (2019): entry The Anthropocene, shared under Creative Commons Attribution non-Commercial 4.0 International License.


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[1] At the time of writing (late 2018), ‘the Anthropocene’ has yet to be formally recognized by the International Union of Geological Sciences or the International Commission on Stratigraphy as a distinct geological epoch.

[2] A term that refers broadly to the movement of plants and animals such as potatoes, tomatoes, cattle, and sugarcane between the Americas and Europe, Africa, and Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries.

[3] The term ‘majority world’ collectively refers to the countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania – who make up the majority of the world’s population – without defining them negatively in comparison with Europe and North America (unlike the categories ‘third world’ or ‘developing world’).

On the Philosophy of Trembling: Negen-u-topia, Sun Death, Ecosophy

Joff P. N. Bradley

Here several utopian/dystopian thought experiments are proffered to explore the contemporary sheer dread in thinking otherwise than the contemporary unworld as it is.1 With reference to the 2017 BBC drama Hard Sun and the cosmological horror of a world without a sun, what is demonstrated is the contemporary incapacity of thought to think beyond the utopos of the unworld as it is. Hard Sun, an essentially failed science-fiction TV series, is contrasted with the satirical optimism of Gabriel Tarde’s Underground Man, published in 1905, in which a postapocalypse sunless utopia, and with it utopic forms of telluric life, is envisaged under the Earth. Shaping and guiding these considerations are the different philosophical senses of utopia found in Félix Guattari’s and Édouard Glissant’s work and the way these ruminations reveal the limits of the contemporary catastrophic imagination. Put otherwise, to contest the petrification of the world as it is, to manifest a new inhuman image of thought, is to turn to the trembling of the Earth (tremblement de terre) and the Zerrissenheit or diremption of subjectivity. It is in this torn-to-pieces-hood or absolute disruption of the self that the sense of a “being-quake” of what Timothy Morton speaks of is superseded and equivocates on the possibility of hope/fear and therefore offers a faint possibility of thinking otherwise than the status quo without redemption.2 The play of febrility, anxiety, and nature is noted in Edvard Munch’s description of the 1995 version of the Scream: “I was walking along the road with two friends—the sun was setting—suddenly the sky turned blood red—I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence—there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city—my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety—and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”3

The Earth is aquake and aquiver. Philosophy is awake and aquake. The Earth shudders, shivers, trembles. Philosophy too shudders, shivers, trembles albeit frenetically, schizophrenically. The Earth is ashake and rootless. Faced with the demand to think otherwise than the singularity of the Anthropocene, to resist peering into the abyss of absolute nihilism and forms of destructive jouissance, to contest the failure of philosophy to transcend sclerotic systemsof thought is to imagine the unknown, to imagine utopia afresh. What is preventing a new image of thought from coming into being?

Preventing catastrophe will require a collective mobilization for freedom. Why does everyday life tremble with fear and loathing? . . . [W]hat we have now is a transcendental, yet actually manmade fear which seeps into every mind with immobilizing, catastrophic dread. Indeed hope itself has fled this hopeless, hapless, grey world. Beyond malaise, life sinks into sadness, boredom and monotony, with no chance to break out of the morass of absurdity. Communication . . . has all been taken in by the discourse of mass media. Interpersonal relations . . . have spoiled, and are now characterized by indifference, disingenuous disgust and self-hatred—in a word, we’re all suffering from bad faith.4

Rereading the quote above by Félix Guattari after it was penned more than three decades ago, two questions arise: What is the nature of our bad faith? And how does it tie to our bewilderment and consternation vis-à-vis the Anthropocene? I shall try and answer these questions using Guattari’s and Édouard Glissant’s conceptual architecture.

Glissant encourages us to think beyond the calamity of the world, to think utopia as a rebuilding of relation. In the Liberation newspaper in 2003, he writes the following:

Regardons alentour. La terre tremble de partout, les volcans s’éventrent, les inondations nivellent les pays, les tornades déracinent les bourgs, les épidémies sont inarrêtables, la température flambe, l’eau s’épuise et se pollue, les famines fauchent des communautés sans recours, et tout cela est le plus souvent la conséquence de l’oeuvre des hommes. Résistons à la pensée de l’Apocalypse.5

Look around. The earth trembles everywhere, volcanoes disembowel, floods level countries, tornadoes uproot villages, epidemics unstoppable, temperatures enflame, water runs out and pollutes, famines ruin communities without appeal, and all this most commonly the consequence of the work of men. Resist the thought of the Apocalypse.6

In his Poetics of Relation, the Martinican philosopher offers the idea of “mobilizing all” to protect the Earth. What is this sense of all? In his ecological vision of relation, the mobilization of all is thought in terms of a defense of minor languages and the protection of the land.7 This requires the “insurrection of the imaginary.” There is a clear passage in Glissant’s thinking from globalization to mondialité or worldliness; this is a cartography charting a path toward a new Earth, the all-world, a chaos-world. His sense of worldliness comprehends the all-world by approaching it through opacity instead of transparency (which is made all the more apparent by planetary capitalism). Here Glissant is close to Guattari, a friend and interlocutor in the early 1980s. Indeed, in Guattari’s Chaosmosis we find many thoughts of a Glissantian hue on creation, imagination, and experimentation amid the opacity of things. In light of the environmental crisis, the Earth, the errant star,8 can be rethought through Glissant’s sense of errancy, that is, through the wandering of the world, through rhizomatic, experimental, transversal thought, through relation with alterity as such. To fight and resist globalization is not undertaken by withdrawing into ourselves, into our own condition, Glissant writes, but, rather, by establishing relations with the other, the Outside as such. This sense of relation is the real dimension of utopia, Glissant says; resisting globalization demands an “enormous act of the imagination.”9 A question arises: How can we respond to the “quaking thoughts” prompted by the singularity and event of the Anthropocene? For many the existential earthquake of this event leaves us trembling toward extinction. There is little left in this moment of exhaustion but to search frantically to reinvigorate the utopian tradition. The problem is that utopia is missing: the becoming-people, the chaos-people, the utopia-people, the commune-people are all missing. Glissant insists that the all-world trembles physically, geologically, mentally, spiritually, and indeed ecologically in its search for the “utopian point.” For our purposes, this is the point where Zerrissenheit and utopia fold into each other. This is a politics of dread. Yet without the possibility of a restorative Auf hebung there is little trace of a redemptive power, no sign of a restorative sense beyond “inner conflict” and “world-weariness.” This is literally our bad faith.

Sol obitus

The BBC’s Hard Sun is a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London. The protagonists Charlie Hicks and Elaine Renko—two ready-to-get-things-done-whatever-the-cost-type police detectives—stumble across a USB flash drive, in which is a top secret government document detailing the “extinction-level event” that will destroy the Earth in five years. The sun will die. MI5 is desperately trying to keep this explosive fact secret to prevent societal collapse. The duo is pursued by MI5 operatives who have orders to kill anyone with knowledge of the data on the flash drive. While I refrain from detailing the trials and tribulations of Hicks and Renko in this six-part drama, I will add that apart from being chased by the state and dodging murder attempts, most bizarrely, the coppers keep their day job, filling their days with paperwork and tracking down serial killers, cult leaders, and the like who have caught wind of the ontological apocalypse. What is interesting about Hard Sun is that once we clear away the crime drama’s ludicrous twists and turns,the premise of the series becomes clear—it deals with the moral quandary: whether the imminent extermination of humanity should be hushed up or made a matter of public knowledge. Personally speaking, this moral quandary was revealed to me when I was a child. A primary school teacher informed my class that one day the sun would die. She did not elaborate on what would happen to life on the Earth itself but explained that this event would not happen for millions of years. Despite this caveat, the trauma of this existential revelation remains seared into my memory. Therefore when I chanced upon Hard Sun the traumatic memory returned. The writer of the series appears gleeful of the lot of the human species and all life on Earth. This rather bizarre crime series encapsulates a perverse kind of celebration in the collapse of the human security system, as Nick Land might say.10 What made me laugh uncontrollably after chancing upon Hard Sun is the truly unfathomable demand for a second series by British TV viewers. How would the series proceed? What would another prequel series be like? How would it trace the gradual movement and fall into nihilism? How punishing it would be to watch a multiseries version of Hard Sun that has as a final denouement the death of the sun and therefore all lifeon Earth. After watching the series to its dramatic finale and indeed shedding a tear, I must say that in episode 6, one is witness to the Unspeakable and the Unstoppable,11 the death of the sun and with it the end of all life. The demand for a second series is suggestive of the collective disavowal of the Anthropocene, that is to say, emblematic of the psychic solastalgia that confounds comprehension of the ecology of the present and its causes.12

The apocalyptic end and unfolding catastrophe are perpetually disavowed, infinitely deferred and repressed. Like Bartleby, we would prefer not to think about this. Faced with ruin, destruction, and annihilation, there is an exhaustion of thought; there is nothing left to say of the future, save a sickening and contagious delight in extinction, horror, and ecocatastrophe. Of course British science fiction is hardly apocalypse-shy (think of The Day of the Triffids), but Hard Sun takes on a perverse, singular dimension.Quite pointlessly perhaps, I try to stay positive after watching this series. I repeat a mantra to myself that this exhausted dystopia may turn into other dissensual fabulations, perhaps a renewed belief in the all-world or at best abelief in the end-of-another-world. The arising of such problems is a way of creating a future. Yet such optimism does not last. The Anthropocene is literally on the immediate horizon: the Sol obitus is the hyperobject par excellence. It is a symptom of a fundamental shaking of being, a “being-quake,” as Timothy Morton says. The sun, “the hub of nature” as Lingis puts it, exhausts itself of hydrogen. Life on Earth ends as the sun dies and becomes a giant red star, scorching all in its wake. The sun squanders its energy and expends without recompense. The sun’s end is earth-shattering. The Earth no longer orbits around the sun in perpetuum. It is a philosophical earthquake of singular proportion.

Blissful Dawn to the Blistering of the Sun

The kairotic time of the Anthropocene interrupts chronic normality with an apocalyptic singularity of both beginning and end. It demands a dark, opaque theory. One possible extreme example and response to sun death is to accelerate the process; to say deliriously, We haven’t seen anything yet; to expect more ripping and tearing of the Earth’s crust. This is mad, black Deleuzianism at its most sinister and gleeful. This is found in the “dark thinking” of the “black sun” as expounded by David R. Cole.13 Thick and viscous, the Anthropocene is our blackest hole and blackest melancholy. The black sun, the depressed superego, is the culmination of the human death drive. The Anthropocene is the “dark expression” of these drives. Exemplified in Hard Sun, what is truly disturbing is the delight in the impending annihilation of the human species. There is little concern with the question of what it might mean to live at the end of the world. In the surreal vision of the sun coming to an end, there is a disturbance in time itself. Time ends. We are out of time and out of joint. Time is obliterated. Cosmic rays have triggered a runaway breakdown. In heat death, from maximum entropy, the lights will go out. Eventually there will be no more light. This is the end of the human world, the end of global humanity. It is not only the end of our world but the end of all worlds, all existence, all life. There is global ecosystemic meltdown, thermal degeneration, a freezing over of the world—all organization is dissolved.

How do we think the catastrophic prospect of nonexistence, the prospect of the loss of humanity, the loss of humanity? At this crisis point, the hyperobject of the sun contacts us. It demands that we think oblivion. What is the nature of suspended time, solitary time, noncaring time? How do we enjoy this time, this dull aching sense of nontime, this unbearable and intolerable sense of time, this exception to time? Human futures cannot be thought. Living at the end of time is waiting for time to end. In the wake or our wake of not being in the world, not being with the Earth, this becomes an incarceration in the present. This is the dread of not being in the world, not being in the nonworld, not being in the sunless world. The death of the sun obliterates all life. This pertains to mourning, depression, nihilism—a petrified, impersonal and abstract, dull, aching moment. This apocalyptic narrative points to our human lot—to the love between parent and child, friends, all livings things. This image of human extinction is what endures at the end. Our geotrauma,14 “aboriginal trauma,”15 is real. The end returns us to the question of the human, how to endure the horror of the Anthropocene. Even as it dies the hyperobject that is the sun teaches us its lesson. In this way, Timothy Morton is correct, hyper-objects have contacted us. In his form of mystical animism, it is argued that it behooves us to make sense of this contact. Making sense of this contact is a question of how to live in the Anthropocene, how to live in the Anthropocene with knowledge of the Anthropocene, with knowledge of the hyperobject. For its part, Hard Sun ends in decadence, downgoing, and nihilism; the world is plunged into pessimism, despair, and darkness. The dying sun no longer burns bright. There can be no self-overcoming of modernity. No longer blissful, the sun comes to a blistering end.

Scorched-Earth Plateau—Countdown

To respond to the black sun scenario,16 engineered utopias are quivering, trembling, tremulous; they exceed shrink-wrapped systems of anthropocentric thought and subject themselves to the not-yet. Trembling thought (la pensée du tremblement) migrates beyond the end of utopia and history. Trembling or dread is not mere uncertainty or fear. In response to the disruption or rift of our time, deliriously, there is a thirst for fragmentation, splitting: not redemption per se but diremption. Accelerating the process of our inhuman decomposition, this utopian thought is excrescent, archipelagic, invoking new islands, volcanoes, earthquakes, heterogeneous worlds, traversing the unknown and nonhuman. The world is aquake. Faced with a perverse, febrile sense of collective Schadenfreude, the mad, black delight in eschatologico-thanatological ends, human life is sans-fond, without ground. The world trembles. Uprooted, the wandering world is without origin. Dorismond is right to ask: “How is politics still possible at this moment of creating stories?”17 How to resist the collapse of philosophy—the so-called organon of extinction?18 Far from making thought collapse at the moment of its witness to chaos and cataclysm, in the time of the Anthropocene, we might invoke Deleuze’s distinction between “foundation” (fondation) and “ground” (fondement).19 The “ungrounding” of the Earth is taken as effondement in Deleuze’s sense. Beneath every ground is a nonground: the Earthcannot ground itself in itself. There is a universal breakdown (effondrement) but also an event taken as an unfounding (effondement). Then the Anthropocene reveals a universal breakdown or collapse (effondrement) beside a universal ungrounding (effondement)—in effect, the “absence of fondement” or ground. Similarly, for Glissant, every mental, material, or social territory is founded upon this global passage of ungrounding.20 The Earth trembles even as the sun dies.

Exhaustion of the Hyperobject

At the point of exhaustion, that which exhausts itself exhausts conventional signification. There is nothing left to say as the sun dies. At the time of the Anthropocene, we are left with the becomings of language, painful stutterings and stammerings, a difficult mourning in making sense of the dreadful. There is a limit to exhaustion, to the possible, to the exhaustion of all possibilities and responses. The exhausted exhausts all of the possible. This is the exhaustion of syntactic style.21 This is the exhaustion of extant utopias. In witnessing the horror of sun death, awaiting death, the exhausted exhausts the possible: humans are without goal, signification, or hope. There is nothing left to say. Life cannot go on, but it must go on. Faced with this abysmal thought foolhardily one tries to stay positive. Though tired of words, fatigued with nihilistic thoughts, at the limit of that which can be thought, one asks desperately and downcast, Is not the invention of the possible itself possible again? Is there not an open way for experimentation?

Transvaluation of All Values

The state of emergency that is the Anthropocene demands a transvaluation of all values. The Earth-affirming Zarathustra waits for a new world to manifest from the downgoing of man and the sun. Nietzsche writes of Zarathustra wanting to go under like the sun.22 Yet do we moderns see the sun as Nietzsche once did? Perhaps, we last men squint askance at the distorted world. Lovecraft captures this crisis brilliantly: “The very sun of heaven seemed distorted when viewed through the polarising miasma welling out from this sea-soaked perversion, and twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazy elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance showed concavity after the first showed convexity.”23

Can utopias emerge in the exhaustion of thinking the possible? Can utopia be a new language to explore our human-all-too-human lot? If so, as we search for the new in the deformation of language, for an image of thought altogether other, what becomes apparent is the need for a new register of language to engineer visions and sounds that linger imperceptibly behind the tired models and formulas of utopia. It is not a question of resurrecting utopias of yore. Rather, this is to think absolute deterritorialization,24 nomadism, the drift of the present—possibilities formed from the site of exhaustion, by way of hidden relations and inextricable language. For Deleuze and Guattari, the utopian constitutes more than a mere pipe dream because it also “designates that conjunction of philosophy, or of the concept, with the present milieu—political philosophy.”25 For them, it is through absolute re-(de)territorialization and the embrace of the forces of the Outside that one may begin to detail the contours of this absolute Other, the absolute uncanny contrary to the stasis of the present. Here it is to ask how one might think beyond models of repetition and simulacra to create something like negen-u-topia.26What new images of thought may coalesce into being? In thisspeculative cosmology, in confrontation with apocalyptic ends, namely, the extinction of the human species, how can we fabulate kinetic negen-u-topias? I turn to Glissant, as his counsel is striking. Utopia is a concept enabling thought to think what and must come:

Utopia is not a dream. It is what we are lacking in the world. Here’s what it is: that which we are lacking in the world. Many of us have rejoiced in the fact that the philosopher Gilles Deleuze considered that the function of literature as art is first to invent a people that is missing. Utopia is the very place of that people. We imagine, we try to imagine what would happen if we could not invent that, even if we didn’t know what it is, except that we know that with this people and this peopled country we would be closer to the world, and the world closer to us.27

Melancholia at the End of the World

In the last episode of Hard Sun, at the apocalyptic end, the screen is filled with impersonal affects of melancholy, mourning, deep-seated trauma, solastalgia, and Zerrissenheit. The sun dies. The camera zooms in on the face, on the eye, and traces a falling tear. The face turns to the sun and knows the giver of life takes it all away. We are witness to a dreadful haecceity—a singularity of simultaneous beginning and end. We are torn from the world. The world as we knew it is no more. Human intervention is absurd; miraculous attempts to save humanity are pathetic. This is the melancholic, nihilistic, and apocalyptic aesthetic of Hard Sun. The grief has begun not only for the past, for personal memories of loved ones and friends, but also futurally and anticipatory, for those who will not come. All is forlorn as the sun will die. Thinking about this last scene, I ask myself what aesthetic encounters found in Hard Sun have the potential for the reinvigoration of ecological thought. I try to think this because Morton suggests that melancholy is “ethically appropriate” in an ecological situation in which “the worst has already happened”28 and in which we find ourselves “already fully implicated.” The hyperobject of the dying sun disturbs, arouses, agitates, incites us to think once again. It compels us to go under. The hyperobject of the dying sun solicits us (sollicitare in old Latin means “to shake as a whole,” “to make tremble in entirety”). The hyper-object of stellar death produces a trembling thought. The sun blackens. It is our ultimate distress, harassment, and vexation.29 How can we think the black sun as a counterdepressant, a depression inhibitor, if, as Kristeva suggests, there is no imagination that is not, “overtly or secretly,” melancholy?30 How can we think otherwise than its blinding, scorching despair? How can we tie the black sun to an imaginary that, contra Kristeva, is not itself melancholic? If we think the object of the sun in hyperobjective terms, how can we think it other than a concern for object loss, that is to say, depression, the mourning of a lost object? What is beyond the putrefaction of the object, its decomposition into the blackest of all black bile? The black sun of melancholia becomes the blistering, blinding force of solastalgia.

I return to Glissant. What can be extracted from Glissant is an “aesthetics” of the toutmonde, the all-world. Glissant too is thinking planetary consciousness as absolute deterritorialization, bidding to free thought of territorial, statist, nationhood, kin, and clan—in summa, to rethink the politics of identity. Capitalism hates this utopian decodification. Glissant’s affirmation of utopia is a terrifying nightmare. Utopia fills capitalism with dread; it is a flow that eludes its codification—it hates the gnawing refrain that things can be otherwise. I enjoy this thought: utopia haunts capitalism as a terrifying nightmare and specter. “It is the dread they feel of a flow that would elude their codes,” as Deleuze and Guattari describe in Anti-Oedipus.31

The Black Sun

The sun dies, and its imperative is imposed upon us. We are compelled to think our complicity in ecological and climatic destruction. Alphonso Lingis finds imperatives imposed on us by nonhuman nature—landscapes, ecosystems, oceans, and the planetary system. In “The Malice in Good Deeds,” Lingis claims: “The most urgent ethics of responsibility is yet to be elaborated.”32 Indeed, elsewhere Lingis lingers on this sense of a world without a sun and speaks of a new basis for material reality and a new understanding of the destination and destiny for man that the death of the sun summons us to consider: “We have hardly begun work into our conception of ourselves, our values, and our pleasures, the revelation by astronomy that the sun is burning itself out as fast as it can, and that in another billion years all animal and plant life on Earth, now already 4.5 billion years old, will be incinerated before the exploding end of the sun. We shall have to find a new conception of material reality and recognize the destination and destiny to which it summons us.”33 And clearly influenced by Lingis’s uniquely crafted, Deleuze-inflected phenomenology, Harman in his object-oriented ontology writes of the imperatives emanating precisely from objects: “The object is an imperative, radiating over us like a black sun, holding us in its orbit, demanding our attention, insisting that we reorganize our lives along its shifting axes. The object is a force, and thus our valuation of it is a gift of force, and nothing like a recognition at all.”34

Trembling, intrepid thought vibrates and spirals, fragments, splits, cracking the world further. This is to imagine the cracking up of the world, the diremption of all being.35 The all-world is not the One, Glissant will say, because he invokes a trembling philosophy approaching the entanglement and complexity of the world.36 Such a tremblement of things and objects rejects dogmatic images of thought. Glissant writes: “The all-world trembles; the all-world trembles physically, geologically, mentally, spiritually, because the all-world is looking for the point of utopia.”37 For Glissant, utopia is where “all the world’s cultures and imaginations meet and hear one another without dispersing or losing themselves. Utopia is where one can meet with the other without losing himself.”38 Mirroring this, my thought experiment of negen-u-topia can be taken as a form of “quaking thought” preparatory for autopian “worldquake.” A quaking thought of the archipelagic mind would counter Morton’s melancholic “quake in being.” Why? Glissant explicitly argues that the archipelagic mind is opposed to system thinking. The archipelagic mind thus accords with the tremble of our world.39 Glissant’s thought might be described as thixotropic, wherein viscous matter flows more fluidly when shaken, agitated, or stressed. Viscous, striated thinking flows with the trembling of the inextricable world.

Disaster, the end of world relations, evokes to the mind a trembling of peoples. The trembling before the Anthropocene is our Zerrissenheit, our seismic and spiritual torn-to-pieces-hood, our groundbreaking thought. It is a rhizomatic thought of solidarity with the oppressed of the world. This rhizomatic aspect from Deleuze and Guattari finds its way into Glissant’s work: it charts our unpredictable chaos-world and whole-world. It is a tool to think the precarious, fragmentary, trembling of the Earth and its future. Their rhizomatics is consistent with Glissant’s rejection of One-thinking (pensee de l’Un) and his affirmation of diverse-thinking (pensee du Divers), whichacknowledges the opacity or darkness of that which it surveys. It suggests the birth of the diverse, the multiple, the heterogeneous, which Glissant says will establish a new way of conceiving being, a new way of relating to the world. Glissant is demanding that we learn to think and act in the inextricable world without reducing it to singular impulses or interests, individual or collective, and to our own systems of thought. We can argue that this is a new utopia. I agree with Glissant that what the inhabitants of the all-world most need is to resist the thought of the apocalypse (resistons a la pensee d’Apocalypse). For me, philosophy in its current desperate mode is a way of building new imaginaries. This is a way to critique Morton’s sometimes indulgent antihuman theory of hyperobjects. Contra Morton, philosophy is tasked with writing an ecosophy precisely with a world. At the end of catastrophe, we must think of a philosophy that begins not with wonder but with dread, as Nietzsche says. Moreover, faced with the terror of our times, philosophy must respond with its own terrorizing practice. Philosophers must learn to attack. This is a form of pedagogy on the brink of the Anthropocene, in the exhaustion of thought, at the point of apoplexy. This is a form of pedagogy probing the inaccessibility of hyperobjects, questioning the incredulity toward this new metanarrative, incredulity toward easily digestible solutions to the Anthropocene.

In contrast to this passive sense of incredulity toward the new metanarrative, it is interesting to turn to Nietzsche and to hear his exhortation in Anti-education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, in which he writes:“We should provoke terror . . . not just wonder; we must attack . . . not timidly flee.”40 How is it possible to untangle a utopianism from the traumatic thoughts and dark phantasmagoria of the Anthropocene? How can we re-generate the generations to forge a communism of relations? Glissant ties imagination with utopia, suggesting that the power of imagination is utopian because utopia is realist when it prefigures what will, as he says, “allow us to accompany the actions that do not tremble.”41 This I take to mean the insurrection of the imaginary and a sense of the imaginary at odds with Kristeva, who claims that imagination itself is inextricably melancholic. Glissant shares much with the thrust of Guattari’s utopian philosophy, because what Guattari is writing against is precisely the sense of a “vertigo of collective death” (vertige de mort collectif ),42 which we might also call the black hole of absolute deterritorialization. The sun dies. Guattari aims to counter the “scarecrow at the end of the world” (l’épouvantail de la fin du monde),43or thought ofcollective annihilation, by invoking utopia in the last instance, through the subjective city, which I read as a utopian city, a resistance to the fetishism of hyperobjects.44 As Guattari states: “There is no question here of opposing the utopia of a new ‘heavenly Jerusalem,’ like that of the Apocalypse, to the harsh necessities of our time, but of establishing a ‘subjective city’ at the very heart of these necessities.”45

Speleology and Underground Man

In utopian terms, much has changed from the fin de siècle of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century in terms of the understanding of the Anthropocene. At the turn of the nineteenth century, there was hope even with the darkening of the sky. In Tarde’s utopian scheme humans are exhorted to literally go under. Tarde’s science-fiction novel is illuminated by Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God in section 125: “The Madman” of The Gay Science: “What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving now? Where are we moving now? Away from all suns? Aren’t we perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Aren’t we straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Hasn’t it become colder? Isn’t more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning?”46

Compare the exhaustion of possibility in Hard Sun with Gabriel Tarde’s 1896 novel Fragment d’histoire future (Underground Man), in which an escape route for the human race beyond the apocalypse is envisioned in the wake of the momentous extinction event of the sun. Although in Hard Sun there is a conspicuous failure to think the future, the collapse of the sun in Fragment d’histoire future compels humans to create a utopia under the Earth. We findthat at both the turn of the nineteenth century and the fin de siècle there lingered a belief that the destiny of humans will survive the prospect of solar death and catastrophe. “The sun is failing us: let us dispense with the sun,” says Miltiades, the leader of the new movement under the Earth. In Tarde’s philosophical anthropology, Miltiades encourages others to follow him underground, to become free from the natural world above, to become perfect social and aesthetic animals, to evolve inside the Cave—we can say to escape the idealism of Western philosophy by embracing the dark materialism of another world. Miltiades tells his audience not to get out of the world but to go deeper within it:

We must say no more: “Up there! but, below!” There, below, far below, lies the promised Eden, the abode of deliverance and of bliss: there, and there alone, there are still innumerable conquests and discoveries to be made! Of the beautiful human race, so strong and noble, formed by so many centuries of effort and genius by such an intelligent and extended selection, there would soon have been only left a few thousands, a few hundreds of haggard and trembling specimens, unique trustees of the last ruins of what had once been civilization.47

According to H. G. Wells, who wrote the preface for the English translation of Tarde’s work, what emerge in Underground Man are “extraordinary imaginative possibilities.” For Tarde, with the death of the sun, there is the prospect of what is deemed “wholly human humankind.” The sun dies, but man survives. All living nature dies except man. The anemic sun collapses. Man goes under in response to a catastrophe of singular proportion. Consequently,the planet’s surface freezes over, millions perish, and civilization is obliged to rebuild itself “for the benefit of all.” Lazzarato calls this the beginning of a “non-historical era,” “an era of creation.”48 This is the era of the inhuman, where no distinction is made between nature and society, human and nonhuman.

Miltiades, “the barbarian, the dissident, the bastard,”49 speaks of the deep geological changes taking place: “The situation is serious. Nothing like it has been seen since the geological epochs. Is it irretrievable? No! Desperate diseases require desperate remedies. An idea, a glimmer of hope has flashed upon me, but it is so strange, I shall never dare to reveal it to you. No, I dare not, I shall never dare to formulate this project. You would believe me to be still insane. You desire it, you promise me to listen to the end to my absurd and extravagant project? Even to give it a fair trial? Well! I will speak.”50 He answers his own rhetoric:

Let us descend into these depths; let us make these abysses our sure retreat. The mystics had a sublime presentiment when they said in their Latin: “From the outward to the inward.” The earth calls us to its inner self. For many centuries it has lived separated, so to say, from its children, the living creatures it produced outside during its period of fecundity before the cooling of its crust! After its crust cooled, the rays of a distant star alone, it is true, have maintained on this dead epidermis their artificial and superficial life which has been a stranger to her own.51

With time upon the inhabitants of the planet, and critical of Tarde’s ironic Panglossian optimism, H. G. Wells questions the enthusiasm and possibility of such a subterranean world:

Directly one thinks at all seriously of such a thing as this solar extinction, one perceives how preposterously hopeless it is to imagine that mankind would make any head against so swift and absolute a fate. Our race would behave just as any single man behaves when death takes him suddenly through some cardiac failure. It would feel very queer, it would want to sit down and alleviate its strange discomfort, it would say something stupid or inarticulate, make an odd gesture or so, and flicker out. But it is compatible with the fantastic and ironical style for M. Tarde to mock our conceit in our race’s capacity and pretend men did all sorts of organized and wholesale things quite beyond their capabilities.52

Apollo, the sun god, bringer of light and rational clarity to the world, is burst asunder. The sun is burst asunder. Deos augei, the light emanating from the sun, the rays of Zeus, radiate no more. We return to the cave, to the volcanic depths of the Earth. We look at the sun, on pain of blindness and death. The explosion of the sun is a futureless singularity bearing down, a singularity to end all others, at least in our nearest universe. This is the time of the Anthropocene. Nothing more is illuminated by the sun. Verily, the fantasy of a world without a sun is a form of destructive jouissance, and Hard Sun expresses the incapacity and anxiety of imagining this universal cataclysm. This incredulity toward the end is one of endless deferral. The sun has sunk down. We are sunk down in existential and solar apoplexy.

The prospect and question of redemption is one of perspective. The trouble with Adorno’s view on the question of salvation is that at the end of the world, there is no light to look back or forward, neither this-worldly nor otherworldly messianic form; at the end there is no light—the sun dies. It is this ruinous limit that makes Hard Sun end so miserably and nihilistically. Face-to-face with our uttermost impossibility, we are not even afforded a retrospective stance regarding the possibility of redemption. There is no light for this redemption. We are not afforded any sense of the philosophical or messianic redemption that Adorno, a writer hardly shy of pessimism, invokes in aphorism 153, entitled “Finale,” at the end of Minima Moralia, where he writes on despair from the standpoint of redemption, claiming that comprehension of its own very impossibility is a vital task:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects—this alone is the task of thought. . . . But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape. The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered up to the world. Even its own impossibility it must at last comprehend for the sake of the possible. But beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters.53

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche ends his story of ascent and descent with the following words: “This is my morning, my day is beginning: up now, up, you great noon!” Zarathustra leaves his cave, “glowing and strong, like a morning sun that emerges from dark mountains.”54 He remains true to the Earth. Not so in the final denouement of Hard Sun, where we see the flaring of the sun. It is our uttermost impossibility. There is no more morning, no beginning, no great noon. There is no rising of the sun above the dark mountains of contemporary stasis and nihilism. With the extinguishing of the sun and its warmth, there is no more terrestrial horizon; Zarathustra stays hermetically in the cave. Zarathustra, like the last men in Tarde’s novel, turns troglodyte, without light, without future. In our time and compared with the dreams, inventions, and overflowing optimism found in the utopias of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the possibility of kinetic,55 immanent utopias seems deadly out of sight and despairingly out of mind.56

Joff P. N. Bradley is Professor in the faculty of language studies at Teikyo University in Tokyo, Japan. Joff is a visiting professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India, and visiting research fellow at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea.


  1. This unworld or immonde of contemporary civilization is productive of what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “inverted, destructive jouissance.” Peter Gratton and Marie-Eve Morin, eds., The Nancy Dictionary (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 10.
  2. Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 21.
  3. Peter Aspden, “So, What Does ‘The Scream’ Mean?” Financial Times, April 21, 2012.
  4. Felix Guattari and Antonio Negri, New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty, ed. Stevphen Shukaitis, trans. Michael Ryan, Jared Becker, Arianna Bove, and Noe Le Blanc (London: Minor Compositions, 2010), 28.
  5. Edouard Glissant, “Mon journal de la semaine. Résistons à la pensée de l’Apocalypse,” Libération 3/4 (May 2003): 34. See also Guattari and Negri, New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty, 28.
  6. Chris Bongie, Friends and Enemies: The Scribal Politics of Post/Colonial Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008), 334.
  7. “Ecology, going above and beyond its concerns with what we call the environment, seems to us to represent mankind’s drive to extend to the planet Earth the former sacred thought of Territory. Thus, it has a double orientation: either it can be conceived of as a by-product of this sacred and in this case be experienced as mysticism, or else this extending thought will bear the germ of criticism of territorial thought (of its sacredness and exc1usiveness), so that ecology will then act as politics. The politics of ecology has implications for populations that are decimated or threatened with disappearance as a people. For, far from consenting to sacred intolerance, it is a driving force for the relational interdependence of all lands, of the whole Earth. It is this very interdependence that forms the basis for entitlement.” Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 146.
  8. Seen from space with human eyes, for Heidegger the Earth has become “the errant star,” the wandering star.
  9. Glissant, “Mon journal de la semaine,” 34; my translation.
  10. Nick Land, Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007, ed. Robin Mackay and Ray Brassier (Falmouth, U.K.: Urbanomic, 2018).
  11. Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 70.
  12. Solastalgia is a portmanteau of the words solace—desolation—and nostalgia, coinedby Glenn Albrecht.
  13. D. R. Cole, Black Sun: The Singularity at the Heart of the Anthropocene (forthcoming).
  14. David Cole, R. Dolphijn, and Joff Bradley, “Fukushima: The Geo-trauma of a Futural Wave,” Trans-humanities 9, no. 3 (2016): 211–33.
  15. Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Houndmills, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 223.
  16. Cole, Black Sun.
  17. E. Dorismond, “Creolization of Politics, Politics of Creolization: Thinking of an ‘Unthought’ in the Work of Edouard Glissant,” Sens public, October 21, 2014, http://
  18. Brassier, Nihil Unbound, 229. I have deliberately tried to steer clear as much as possible from the debates within object-oriented ontology and noncorrelationism. I have used some of the work of Timothy Morton, but I have deliberately not treated philosophers of speculative realism in detail. I have tried to keep my considerations within a rather idiosyncratic Marxist-phenomenological interpretation of solar catastrophe, which is why there is reference to Deleuze, Guattari, Glissant, Alphonso Lingis, Graham Harman, and Timothy Morton, the latter of whom has a reading drawn from Lingis, and not speculative realists such as Quentin Meillassoux or Ray Brassier or indeed the work of Jean-François Lyotard on the inhuman. My reading of utopia and solar extinction, then, is drawn from Deleuze and a Lingisian reading of Bataille and Nietzsche.
  19. The word fond can be taken as either “ground” or “bottom.” The “groundless”
  20. (sans-fond) can be explicitly linked to the German Ungrund.
  21. As Deleuze and Guattari explain the distinction between Earth and territory: “The earth is certainly not the same thing as the territory. The earth is the intense point at the deepest level of the territory . . . where all the forces draw together in close embrace.” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 338–39.
  22. Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, 5.
  23. “Zarathustra too wants to go under like the sun; now he sits and waits, old broken tablets around him and also new tablets—partially written upon.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, trans. Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2015), 159.
  24. H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu: And Other Weird Stories, ed. S. T. Joshi, preface by Alan Moore, illus. by Dan Hillier (London: Folio Society, 2017), 94.
  25. This concept appears in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (London: Verso, 1994).
  26. Ibid., 100.
  27. This is a reworking of the idea of the “neganthropocene” in Bernard Stiegler and Daniel Ross, The Neganthropocene (London: Open Humanities Press, 2018). It is Stiegler who tries to understand the growth of psychic illness that is manifesting in the time of the Anthropocene. He throws down the gauntlet to philosophy to return to the base of knowledge of philosophy to come to terms with, to comprehend, the problems of the Anthropocene. It is this gauntlet I am attempting to pick up in the name of utopian thought by invoking the neologism negen-u-topia. The problematic of thinking the unworld as it is is drawn from a Marxist analysis of the ecological reality we are facing and a consideration of the (utopian) possibility of organizing social relations that can endure the environmental disaster that is upon us (as I asked: How can we re-generate the generations to forge a communism of relations, to resist the fetishism of hyperobjects?). This I insist is philosophy’s task. This is why I have created the neologism negen-u-topia.
  28. Michael Wiedorn, Think like an Archipelago: Paradox in the Work of Édouard Glissant (Albany: State University of New York, 2018), 63–64.
  29. Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 75.
  30. “The Japan earthquake of 2011 was also plausibly a manifestation of global warming, since changing temperatures in the ocean change the pressure on the Earth’s crust. Another footprint may well have been the Japanese earthquake itself, since the changing oceanic temperature may have changed the pressure on Earth’s crust, resulting in an earthquake. The quake destroyed four nuclear reactors. Quanta from these reactors, known as alpha, beta, and gamma particles, inscribe themselves in soft tissue around the world. We are living textbooks on global warming and nuclear materials, crisscrossed with interobjective calligraphy” (Morton, Hyperobjects, 88). Kant will say otherwise; this is not divine retribution.
  31. Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon Samuel Roudiez (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 6.
  32. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, preface by Michel Foucault (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 140.
  33. Alphonso Lingis, “The Malice in Good Deeds,” in Nietzsche and Levinas: “After the Death of a Certain God,” ed. Jill Stauffer and Bettina Bergo (New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 2009), 32.
  34. Alphonso Lingis, “The Voices of Things,” Senses and Society 4, no. 3 (2009): 280–81.
  35. Graham Harman, Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures (Ropley, U.K.: O Books, 2010), 20.
  36. Here Braidotti introduces the possibility of nomadic sustainable ethics. Braidotti writes: “The crack designates the generative emptiness of Death, as part of zoe and the swarming possibilities it expresses. The overcoming of Death as silence by an active frequentation of the line of cracking up is, for Deleuze, the work of thought. We think to infinity, against the terror of insanity, through the horror of the void, in the wilderness of mental landscapes fit only for werewolves. We think with the shadow of death dangling in front of our eyes. Thought, however, is a gesture of affirmation and hope for sustainability and endurance not in the mode of liberal moderation but rather as a radical experiment with thresholds of sustainability. This reiterates the necessity to acknowledge and feel compassion for pain and those who suffer it, but also to work through it. Moving beyond the paralyzing effects of pain on self and others, working across it, is the key to nomadic sustainable ethics. It does not aim at mastery, but at the transformation of negative into positive passions. I do like putting the active back into activism as an ethical as well as a political project.” Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions on Nomadic Ethics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 214.
  37. Edouard Glissant, Esthetique 1 1 ([Paris]: Gallimard, 2006), 187.
  38. Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Edouard Glissant, Edouard Glissant & Hans Ulrich Obrist (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2011), 5.
  39. Ibid., 6.
  40. Edouard Glissant, La Cohée du Lamentin ([Paris]: Gallimard, 2006).
  41. Friedrich Nietzsche, Anti-education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, ed. Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, trans. Damion Searls (New York: New York Review Books, 2016), lecture IV.
  42. Edouard Glissant, Philosophie de la relation: Poésie en étendue (Paris: Gallimard, 2012), 56; my translation.
  43. Felix Guattari, Machinic Eros: Writings on Japan, ed. Gary Genosko and Jay Hetrick (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2015), 107.
  44. Ibid., 106; my translation.
  45. Felix Guattari, Qu’est-ce que l’ecosophie? ed. Stephane Nadaud (Paris: Lignes, 2014), 33.
  46. Guattari, Machinic Eros, 99.
  47. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random, 1974), 181.
  48. Gabriel Tarde, Underground Man, trans. C. Brereton, preface by H. G. Wells (1905; Westport: Hyperion Press, 1974), 60.
  49. Maurizio Lazzarato, introduction to Gabriel Tarde, Underground (Fragments of Future Histories), ed. Liam Gillick (Brussels: Les Maîtres de Forme Contemporains, 2004), 18.
  50. Ibid., 13.
  51. Tarde, Underground Man, 20.
  52. Ibid., 76.
  53. Wells, preface to Tarde, Underground Man, 5.
  54. T. W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2010), 246.
  55. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 266.
  56. John S. Partington, “The Death of the Static: H. G. Wells and the Kinetic Utopia,” Utopian Studies 11, no. 2 (2000): 96–111.
  57. Deleuze and Guattari make a distinction between immanent and transcendent utopias: “In utopia (as in philosophy) there is always the risk of a restoration, and sometimes a proud affirmation, of transcendence, so that we need to distinguish between authoritarian utopias, or utopias of transcendence, and immanent, revolutionary, libertarian utopias” (What Is Philosophy? 10).

Originally published in Utopia Studies

“Planetarity,” “Planetarism,” and the Interpersonal

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, Once Land of Many Nations

For reasons I have elsewhere explained, I tend not to talk about the “Anthropocene.”[1]  But that does not mean we cannot talk here about other relevant things.  One of them is the notion of the planetary.  With the “Anthropocene,” a natural scientific term colonised the humanities and social sciences by contagion, while with the “planetary,” usage from the humanities and social sciences has taken over a natural scientific term.   In many uses of the humanities and social sciences, the “planetary” isn’t simply a word from geology or astronomy.

I say the “notion” of the planetary, because the concept of the planetary is contested, rejected, vague and equivocal across writers and theorists working in and around social science and the humanities now.  Take Neil Brenner’s social-spatial approach.[2]  “Planetary urbanisation” refers to a “problematique” examining the “urbanisation process” throughout the reaches of the Earth.[3]  Brenner’s team at Harvard’s Urban Theory Lab examined “extreme territories” from deep ocean trenches to orbital space and displayed how capitalist processes organised by state strategies of neoliberal rationality bind the planet through an “urbanisation process.”  Here, the “city” is vestigial; the “hinterlands” and “wilderness” become part of capitalist processes; infrastructures are “scrambled” together, and the planet is reshaped as a space of economic flows containing unsustainable tensions and breaking points needing to be managed, typically by some scale of the neoliberal state.  Although complex in its details, the point is straightforward:  the “planetary” becomes a spatial scale of capitalism in cahoots with neoliberal states.  “Planetary” space is produced through urbanisation processes within capitalism.  To say, as a natural scientist and the general public might, that the Earth is our “planet” is incomplete at best.  The “planet” has been colonised by “planetary” urbanisation.  To study the “planetary” is to study how capitalism’s extreme expansion, innovation, and waste has opened up the planet as a space by which most of us live.[4]

Brenner’s notion of the planetary is descriptive, although not in a positivist manner.  But there are also straightforwardly normative uses of the “planetary.”  Take, for instance, Stefan Pedersen’s recent term “planetarism.”[5]  Confronting the path dependencies created by the inter-national order and its nationalisms, Pedersen argues for a political “imaginary” seeking to supplant the nation state and the international order with governance organised sustainably by “symbiosis.”  This form of socio-ecological politics does not continue the territorially fragmented sovereignty of the long shadow of European imperialism.  Nor does it generate the “fragmentation of agency” resulting from the crisis of international authority built into national sovereignty.[6]  Instead, the planetary “imaginary” of planetarism begins by thinking about how we can govern ourselves in a way that makes our feedback loops with the Earth sustainable for us and for the extant order of life on Earth, irrespective of national territories or sovereignties.  Pedersen’s “planetarism” takes general humanistic goals and argues for them on the basis of having recognised how “planetary” space has been produced unsustainably through the inter-national system. While Pedersen does not focus on the critique of capitalism, one could still say that the “planetary” in his thinking is the name for a set of normative concerns playing catch-up with planetary urbanisation as Brenner understood it.  Pedersen asks us to imagine a just and sustainable “planetary polity” to confront and unwork the unsustainable production of planetary space.

Brenner’s and Pedersen’s fairly straightforward uses of the “planetary” differ, however, from Gayatri Chakravorti’s fluctuating gesture, “planetarity.”[7]  For a quarter century, Spivak has been using the notion of the planetary much in the manner of a disrupter gesture like Derrida’s différance.  Spivak intends the term “planetarity” to point to the negation of our epistemic representations of the planet as a unified field.  As Jennifer Gabrys put it,

“In Spivak’s development of the concept of the planetary, the point is not to generate an evasive figure, but rather to thwart an engagement with the planetary that hinges on uniform epistemic representations.”[8]

By using a word that has connotations around our “planet” but then insisting that it is found in resistance to representing the “planet” in a uniform way, Spivak is obviously on conceptually confusing grounds, but only if one ignores her pragmatics.  Spivak doesn’t speak theoretically when she gestures to “planetarity.” Drawing on our associations with the “planet” while refusing to foreclose the excessive meaning of the [X] that is our “planet” across cultures and people’s lives, Spivak speaks practically, in protest.  The problem with the “planetary” is that it too readily organises power upon a stable representational ground subsuming all people, living beings, and ecologies within its assumptions.  There are just too many words and ways to live with the “planet” to organise them under a regime of “planetary” governance or within scales of “planetary” economy.  In other words, Spivak uses a pragmatic utterance to express a principled, post-colonial, skeptical stance in the face of a socio-ecological concept that, in both a descriptive key that erases pluralism and a normative key that threatens neo-imperialism, wants to recuperate the object of European colonialism: the whole damn globe.

Spivak is right not just to listen to what people say but to look too at what people do with their words.[9]  Pedersen’s “planetarism” could become a way to sort out who is “planetary” from whom is not, folding in a prior decision about the proper representation of the planetary.  Brenner’s “planetary urbanisation” could have the tendency to drive eyes away from describing settlements and economies that are not set up reactively to capitalism and that are yet local.  For both thinkers, to use the pragmatic gesture of “planetarity” might forewarn them from summing things up when it comes to the vast and archaic planet of our vast and ancient humankind. 

At the same time, Spivak’s gesture is ineffective.  As she well knows, words refer to things in context, and skepticism makes sense only within a prior commitment to epistemic virtue.  Brenner is after something and can qualify it.  Pedersen is following a normative direction required by justice and can qualify it too.  If we are to do anything with words, they still must mean something so that we may use them in different ways.  I think that there is a better way to protect pluralism and finitude without sacrificing accuracy or clarity.

Spivak was right to look at the orientation through which people write.  What would be better than a skeptical pragmatics, however, is to approach the planetary through relational reason.  Relational reason is the discrete logic of the interpersonal, as opposed to the practical or the theoretical.[10]  When reasoning relationally, we do not try to grasp objects or be objective in the first instance.  Rather, we try to be true to relationships, beginning with being morally accountable within them.  Only on the basis of being true to relationships can we become practically goal-oriented or theoretically objective without selling out (Brenner), failing our humanity (Pedersen), or dominating and silencing others (Spivak).  The writer who approaches “theory” from relational reason first asks how their authorship can uphold their moral relations by writing.[11]

This is what happens to the “planetary” when relational reason becomes our primary orientation toward it: theory and practice give priority to relational processes that pulverise and pluralise the “planetary.”  This takes place not out of a subtraction of meaning as found within Spivak’s gesture, but in a thickening and particularising of meaning.  Inside the orientation of relational reasoning, the planetary is not something one can grasp for others.  This, following Spivak, is an a priori claim.  When each of us must relate personally to things and to all our relations, your relation to the planet – even how you see and what you call the “planet” – is not something I can settle for you.  At best, we have to work out shared meaning iteratively each time we meet new people and form new relations, a radical pedagogical task at best that shutters the institutional forms and practices of high theory.  No one talks down to or at you in this “school.”  No one schools you, even.  We come to things together.

At the same time, to relate to things personally while minding all our relations is to saturate their meaning with personal connotations, something that particularises and thickens meaning to the point of story.  Here, as in Leibniz’s baroque explored by Deleuze, the folds of relations are negatively infinite.  They keep on going as we relate, without an end in sight.[12]  Particularity and thickening in relationships create a second layer of plurality that functions much as Spivak’s skepticism would.

Lastly, relating to the planetary – not just thinking about it or making it practical (including practically gesturing to it) – improves accuracy, clarity, and normative accountability.  As we relate to each other in moral accountability, we have to be truthful, since we owe that much to each other.  At the same time, we have to be able to answer each other’s claims, or we fail to relate.  Finally, we cannot ignore each other on pain of moral hypocrisy or corruption.  The overall result here is subtle:  understanding urbanisation becomes a social process of forming relationships in moral accountability just as much as it is a process of accurate theorising.  Becoming citizens becomes a process of building trust based on non-domination, equality, and epistemic pluralism just as much as it depends on getting political ideology right.  Relating through the “billion” names of the “planetary” helps think about it and act on a basis that is just.[13]

The limitations of Spivak’s gesture, then, are found in plain sight, like the purloined letter in Edgar Allen Poe’s tale of the same name.  The limitations come from the theoretical posture or by reacting against it.[14]  Have you considered what it would be to relate to the “planetary” in a way that wasn’t primarily theoretical or practical, but that depended on relating to everyone around you being part of the story?[15]

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer holds the Beamer-Schneider Professorship in Ethics at Case Western Reserve University and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy there.  He is also a Senior Research Fellow with the Earth System Governance Project, Universiteit Utrecht.  His past monographs include The Ecological Life, The Wind ~ An Unruly Living, and Solar Calendar, and Other Ways of Marking Time – all forms of literary philosophy.  Involving Anthroponomy in the Anthropocene: On Decoloniality appears this month.

[1] See my Involving Anthroponomy in the Anthropocene: On Decoloniality (New York: Routledge, 2020).

[2] Neil Brenner, Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization (Berlin: Jovis, 2014) and the later essays in New Urban Spaces: Urban Theory and the Scale Question (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[3] Brenner, New Urban Spaces, chapter 10

[4]  See also Steven Vogel, Thinking like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy After the End of Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).

[5] Stefan Pedersen, “Plantetarism: A Paradigmatic Alternative to Internationalism,” Globalizations (March 25th, 2020),

[6]  See Stephen M. Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) on the “global storm.”

[7] Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, “‘Planetarity’ Box 4 (Welt),*” Paragraph (v. 38, n. 2, 2015), 290-292; also “The 2012 Antipode AAG Lecture: Scattered Speculations on Geography,” Antipide (v. 46, n. 1, 2012), 1-12.

[8] Jennifer Gabrys, “Becoming Planetary,” eFlux Architecture (October 2nd, 2018),

[9]  Vladimir Jankélevith, “Do Not Listen to What They Say, Look at What They Do,” trans. Ann Hobart, Critical Inquiry (v. 22, n. 3, 1996), 549-551

[10] For an overview of how I approach this form of reason, see “Recently Published Book Spotlight: The Wind and Solar Calendar,” Blog of the APA (July 4th, 2019), and the related post “How Do You Approach Public Philosophy?” Blog the APA (April 23rd, 2019),

[11]  See Shiri Pasternak’s understanding of how her scholarly activity changed by working on behalf of an Algonquin band in her Grounded Authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake against the State (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017): She comes to ask, “How am I fulfilling my role in this relationship?” when she acts as a scholar (p. 43).

[12] Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992)

[13]  Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2018)

[14]  Positioning by negating preserves the negated as a major determinant.

[15]  I did.  See my Solar Calendar, and Other Ways of Marking Time (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2017).  It’s open access as part of the open access publishing movement.

Contemplative Ecocinema.

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Watching Contemplative Ecocinema as Engaged Mindfulness Practice

Zack Walsh

Through this short blog, I would like to introduce you to a group of films that I watch as a part of my spiritual practice. I have been watching these films for over a decade, and find that they are some of the most powerful catalysts for spiritual cultivation, especially in the context of social and ecological transformation. As part of my day job, I regularly ask myself how society can move toward a socially just and sustainable mode of civilization— toward an Ecological Civilization.[i]The power of these films is that they develop certain observational and empathetic qualities that strengthen my personal and professional commitments while enhancing my capacity to respond to planetary suffering. Therefore, I use them as objects of spiritual guidance.

Collectively, I refer to these films using the term ‘contemplative ecocinema,’ since they combine elements of both contemplative cinema and ecocinema.

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Contemplative cinema is a genre of art cinema that features long takes, and is often minimalist, observational, and with little or no dialogue. They highlight the importance of atmosphere and the ambiance of the environment, emphasizing the background and the context over actions in the foreground. In this way, they encourage the viewer to enter into an experience of the film, rather than being pulled along a pre-given story structure with an expected outcome.

Most films rely on conventional storytelling and film-making methods to engineer filmic experiences that maximize entertainment value. Like an amusement park, they are intentionally constructed to solicit emotional responses that satisfy (which is why consumer research is incorporated into creative decision-making processes). By contrast, contemplative films feature a lot of ambiguity, empty space, and pause for reflection, inviting viewers to relate to the film and make meaning in ways that are personal. They are often very demanding films, because they require careful attention and emotional engagement and may involve subject matter that exposes us to vulnerability. But for this reason, they are also among the most transformative to watch.

Ecocinema is another genre of films that explicitly examines our relationship to ‘nature.’ Often, they present ‘nature’ through non-anthropocentric (biocentric, ecocentric, or posthuman) lenses and address issues of environmental justice.[ii] By doing this, they question the role of the human (Greek, anthropos) in the Anthropocene and challenge us to consider our responsibilities toward other living beings. There are a surprising number of films that fall into either of these categories: contemplative cinema or ecocinema. Though they are not widely distributed, many of them can be easily accessed on the internet. To learn about contemplative cinema, I highly recommend the Unspoken Cinema blog,[iii] and to learn more about ecocinema, I recommend exploring the growing body of ecocinema studies.[iv]

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Personally, some of my favorite contemplative ecocinema include: Samsara (dir. Fricke), Visitors (dir. Reggio), Koyaanisqatsi (dir. Reggio), Manufactured Landscapes (dir. Baichwal), Behemoth (dir. Liang), and Our Daily Bread (dir. Geyrhalter). Although I would not technically consider them contemplative ecocinema (since they rely on a more explicit and dialogue-driven narrative structure), I would also highly recommend: Stalker (dir. Tarkovsky), Mindwalk (dir. Capra), Home (dir. Arthus-Bertrand), and Terra (dir. Arthus-Betrand).

The reason I choose these films is personal, and there are substantive differences between them; but in each case, they evoke an affective ecology of objects, sounds, and narratives that implicate me (as a viewer) in an experience of social and ecological injustice, while inducing a variety of personal responses to my felt presence and engagement in those injustices. The original meaning of ‘affect’ within affect studies (traced back to Deleuze’s 1978 lectures on Spinoza) is an “increasing and decreasing capacity to act.”[v] The combination of objects, sounds, and narratives in these films have profoundly transformed my understanding of the human-nature relationship to the extent that they continue to impact me and inform my behavior long after watching.[vi] For example, the film Samsara evokes visceral feelings of heart-break, awe, and beauty that remain inscribed in my memory and deeply inform my resolve to redress injustice. Similarly, my experience watching coal miners suffering from respiratory ailments in Behemoth motivates my ongoing activism in China where air pollution contributes to the deaths of 4,400 people per day.[vii]What is unique about contemplative ecocinema is that it makes the viewer aware of invisible subaltern realities, and in so doing, invites us to take responsibility for our entanglement with social and ecological injustices. Watching these films as an engaged mindfulness practice is an excellent way to cultivate fierce compassion.

To conclude, I would like to invite you to experience contemplative ecocinema. If you consider these films to be sacred objects, as I do, you may consciously choose to watch them at particular times in particular situations with particular people. With respect to one’s tradition, I encourage you to find ways to integrate viewing experiences within your existing spiritual practice. To do that, I offer the following video and some basic instructions for viewing:

CONTENT WARNING: These images portray scenes of injustice. Please watch mindfully. 

Before watching, set an intention. While watching, maintain a meditative posture. Consider your affective reactions to what you see and hear. Notice how you make sense of the relationships between what the film presents and yourself. After watching, take some private moments to reflect upon and process your experience; then later, consider discussing the film with others.



[ii] Paula Willoquet-Maricondi, ed., Framing the World: Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2010).


[iv] Kiu-wai Chu, “Ecocinema,” Oxford Bibliographies, Last modified March 30, 2017, DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0252.

[v] Ondine Park, Tonya K. Davidson, and Rob Shields, Introduction to Ecologies of Affect: Placing Nostalgia, Desire, and Hope, edited by Tonya K. Davidson, Ondine Park, and Rob Shields (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press), 4.

[vi] Alexa Weik von Mossner, Affective Ecologies: Empathy, Emotion, and Environmental Narrative (Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2017), 7.

[vii] Robert A. Rohde and Richard A. Muller, “Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentrations and Sources,” PLoS ONE 10 (8): e0135749.

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Zack Walsh is a Senior Researcher of Economics and Governance at the One Project. From 2016-2020, he was a Research Associate at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany where he co-led the A Mindset for the Anthropocene (AMA) project. He has completed doctoral coursework in Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology, and is a fellow of the Courage of Care Coalition and a partner of the Institute for Ecological Civilization.

Please connect:, email:

The Ahuman

Patricia MacCormack

The ahuman is a concept coined in the 2014 collected anthology The Animal Catalyst: Toward Ahuman Theory. It sees posthumanism in a parabolic configuration to challenge both the evolutionary monodirectional linearity of cyber biotechnic-based posthumanism and the increasing use of nonhuman animals in posthumanism as a devolutionary metaphor.

The ahuman’s parabola has in one direction nonhuman animals and in the other something which refuses the privilege and signifying systems of the human but does not institute a new version of posthumanism which would continue those tendencies albeit in a mutated form. The apex of the parabola is the (now defunct myth of the) human. The nonhuman animal and the ahuman are thus close in proximity but absolutely extricated from each other simultaneously.

Ahuman theory comes from two motives. The first is the increasing movement from animal rights to absolute abolition. Animal rights traditionally serves the interests of nonhumans based on equivalences with humans and is a flawed politics of equality (equal to the human) rather than difference. Abolition sees the rights of any entity based on not what it is but that it is. Human compulsions to define animal rights define the animal and the discourse is ultimately one between humans and their dominant perceptions of nonhuman entities in order to vindicate their exploitation of those entities.

So all animal studies is inherently human studies between humans of the other and has no nonhuman benefit except in its capacity to catalyse humans to stop being human. In animal rights and animal studies the nonhuman is imposed within a structure for which it has neither given consent nor has the power of address and for this reason becomes the differend after Lyotard’s description of the victim who cannot be plaintiff because it cannot manipulate the master’s discourse.

Abolitionists are activists against all use of animals acknowledging communication is fatally human so we can never know modes of nonhuman communication and to do so is both hubris and materially detrimental to nonhumans. Abolitionists advocate the end of all use of all animals for all purposes and select words to exchange for those in circulation in describing the oppression of nonhumans – ‘food’ (cannibalism for meat, rape and theft and murder of young for dairy and chicken use, murder), ‘entertainment’ (enslavement), ‘research’ (torture) and so forth.

Abolitionist philosophers are also against the fetishisation of nonhumans in posthuman becomings and refuse the use of human perceptions of nonhuman systems and entities as assimilative and co-optive. In both incarnations, abolitionism remains antagonistic to and is considered radical by animal rights, animal studies and ethology in its refusal to utilize animals.

Abolition, after Serres, follows the tenets of symbiosis which is a form of necessary care and grace which is a leaving (to) be in reference to human-nonhuman inevitable interaction – a natural contract which overthrows the entirely social contract within which most current debates around nonhuman entities occurs and which thus will always exclude them. The second motive for ahuman theory negotiates the question of what becomes of the human when it is neither posthuman cyborg nor animal fetishist. We remain non-nonhuman animals yet we must still acknowledge our biological organism’s place within the ecosophical series of relations.

Ahuman theory promotes catalyzing becoming-other from the majoritarian or all human privilege and renouncing the benefits of the anthropocene. This can occur in infinite ways. Some of the suggestions offered include the use of all manifestations of art to form new terrains of apprehension of the world and encourage new ethical relations between entities, the cessation of reproduction toward an end of the human as a parasitic detrimental species, and thinking differently about death by advocating for suicide, euthanasia and a good life over biotechnologies drive for immortality. However these are few of any variety of tactics which could shift human signifying systems toward ahuman asemiotic reterritorializations of connectivity and novel participations. 

Text first appears as entry under ‘Ahuman’ in

The Posthuman Glossary, Bloomsbury, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova (2018)