Anthropocene: A problem of scale?

This is the second in a series of posts in response to weekly readings from a seminar I am participating in called “The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene,” a critical and interdisciplinary seminar exploring ideas about being human on a changing planet.

“The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene Collaborative Research Seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from the humanities and environmental sciences to develop a theoretical framework for the environmental humanities and to examine possibilities for an integrated approach to the recent environmental turn in the humanities.”

One of the main challenges in delineating exactly what constitutes  the “anthropocene” is a problem of scale. The timescales of the effects of humans on the earth cannot be seen with the human gaze, nor by using the ordinary faculties of perception that humans are equipped with. Furthermore, the effects may only be perceptible on generational scales, and the effects of current events (e.g. warfare) may only be properly understood cumulatively, beyond the scope of current lifetimes. This week’s authors bring in concepts of visualization, through data (Cubitt) and art (Mirzoefff, Demos), that are able to capture some of these longer-term processes, but also the ways in which the use of these techniques reinforce existing hierarchies.

Mirzoeff argues that the aesthetic of the anthropocene is indeed an anti-aesthetic (or anesthetic), which takes away our ability to perceive and notice certain changes – e.g. the inability to see smog. Art, he argues, accomplishes this by normalizing the aesthetics of the anthropocene. The time scales of the anthropocene demand a view longer than the human gaze. Cave art, and art carved into trees (Chapela), through multi-species contributions, bear evidence and allow us to witness some of these larger timescales. Through long exposure photography, Darren Almond (Demos) is able to capture some of these visualities, displaying hybrid landscapes on film through long exposure photography. According to Demos, Almond’s work represents a paradigm shift in our ability to visualize ‘hyperobjects’ such as global warming, which are those that are massively distributed in time and space, a key aesthetic of the anthropocene. Cubitt focuses on data visualization as a tool that allows us to imagine and represent long time-scales.

Darren Almond, Fullmoon@The River of Turns (2013). From Demos
Darren Almond, Fullmoon@The River of Turns (2013). From Demos

Although these strategies provide promise of allowing us to visualize longer timescales, Mirzoeff invokes visualization as a tool originally used in warfare, which can result in reasserting the war of humans against nature. Cubitt, too asserts, that although data visualization strategies seem to represent scientific neutrality and the populist masses, they are actually political tools which are capable of acting as voices of non-humans, while also serving to reinforce nature and non-human actors as objects of study and subjected to human authority. Chapela ultimately argues that to use the term “anthropocene” is a human arrogance, as if today’s form of humans were the only kind of humans there ever were. This echoes Mirzoeff’s assertion that part of capitalism’s success in colonizing our psyches has been in taking away our collective ability to visualize the world without capitalism. He argues that we have been conditioned to believe that our basic humanity lies in conflict as opposed to community. Chapela’s art relics from previous humans serve to remind us of other types of humanity, which were perhaps more accustomed to relating with non-human others.

Symbiotic Art from Chapela 2014
Symbiotic art (from Chapela 2014)

Nixon’s article on the rhetoric of warfare, points out that we are also lacking appropriate narratives that account for the long-term casualties of modern warfare, which are extending the spatial and temporal scales of health and ecological impacts of war. Nixon brings into relief the ability of time to act as camouflage for the horrors of war, and for the turning of nature – soil, air, and water – into weapons against human life. We are left with a sense of the stark inadequacy of human imagination and human tools (e.g. microscope, telescope, camera, narrative), for dealing with the timescales playing out over the era we are calling the anthropocene. If anthropocenic changes are happening at scales that we are unable to perceive and represent with ordinary human faculties, what technological, artistic, and spiritual means are available to us that unmask the camouflage of space and time and reveal our essential humanity? Perhaps, as Chapela and others allude to, the solution will not lie within human means. This leads me to wonder, who will be the survivors of the sixth mass extinction, and what is their agency in these anthropocenic processes?

Works Cited:

1. Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “Visualizing the Anthropocene” Public Culture 26, 2 (2014): 213-232.

2. Demos, T.J. “Photography at the End of the World: On Darren Almond’s Fullmoon Series.”

3. Chapela, Ignacio. “Symbiotic Art and Shared Nostalgia,” in Mihnea Mircan & Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, eds. Allegory of the Cave Painting. Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2015.

4. Davis, Heather and Etienne Turpin. “Art & Death: Lives Between the Fifth Assessment & the Sixth Extinction.” In Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, eds., Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies. London: Open Humanities Press, 2015, pp. 3-29.

5. Cubitt, Sean. “Data Visualisation and Ecocriticism” in Stephen Rust, Salma Monani and Sean Cubitt, eds. The Ecocinema Reader: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge/American Film Institute, 2012, pp. 277-296.

6. Nixon, Rob. “Ecologies of the Aftermath: Precision Warfare and Slow Violence,” in Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011, Ch. 7, pp. 199-232.