Ecocriticism on the Edge
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Ecocriticism on the Edge

The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept

Timothy Clark

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Ecocriticism on the Edge

The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept

Timothy Clark

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The twenty-first century has seen an increased awareness of the forms of environmental destruction that cannot immediately be seen, localised or, by some, even acknowledged. Ecocriticism on the Edge explores the possibility of a new mode of critical practice, one fully engaged with the destructive force of the planetary environmental crisis. Timothy Clark argues that, in literary and cultural criticism, the "Anthropocene", which names the epoch in which human impacts on the planet's ecological systems reach a dangerous limit, also represents a threshold at which modes of interpretation that once seemed sufficient or progressive become, in this new counterintuitive context, inadequate or even latently destructive. The book includes analyses of literary works, including texts by Paule Marshall, Gary Snyder, Ben Okri, Henry Lawson, Lorrie Moore and Raymond Carver.

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Year
2015
ISBN
9781474246309
CHAPTER ONE
The Anthropocene – questions of definition
Considering that it has yet to be officially recognized by geologists, the context of its original coining, the proliferation of the term ‘Anthropocene’ over the past five years has been striking. Features in magazines with titles such as ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ are no longer news. The term, though often used vaguely and now in danger of becoming hackneyed, is clearly filling a need – though a need to name what exactly?
The term was first coined by atmospheric scientists as a name for the geological epoch that the Earth entered with the industrial revolution, around 1800. It is characterized by the unprecedented fact that humanity has come to play a decisive, if still largely incalculable, role in the planet’s ecology and geology, that ‘Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of nature and are pushing the Earth as a whole into planetary terra incognita’.1
The original coiners of the term dated the Anthropocene from the industrial revolution and the invention of the steam engine. Others, however, have argued that extensive agriculture and forest-clearing may already have significantly affected the Earth system and marked a new epoch thousands of years ago.2 The force of the term, however, applies mostly to the ‘Great Acceleration’ since 1945 in which human impacts on the entire biosphere have achieved an unprecedented and arguably dangerous intensity. For geoscientists seeking to broadcast the fears inspired by their research, the coinage ‘Anthropocene’ is primarily ‘a politically savvy way of presenting to nonscientists the sheer magnitude of global biophysical change’ (Noel Castree).3
The term has rapidly become adopted in the humanities in a sense beyond the strictly geological. Its force is mainly as a loose, shorthand term for all the new contexts and demands – cultural, ethical, aesthetic, philosophical and political – of environmental issues that are truly planetary in scale, notably climate change, ocean acidification, effects of overpopulation, deforestation, soil-erosion, overfishing and the general and accelerating degradation of ecosystems. This is broadly how it is used in this study.
For Tom Cohen, 2011 marks or will mark in future retrospect, the rough date at which the irreversible nature of global warming was widely recognized, with the ‘“anthropocene era” naming itself as if from without’,4 while Timothy Morton stresses that one defining feature of this situation, which he also terms the Anthropocene, is precisely the impossibility of a secure overview. His book Hyperobjects (2013) describes the Anthropocene as ‘the daunting, indeed horrifying, coincidence of human history and terrestrial geology’,5 with the dawning realization of ‘a new phase of history in which nonhumans are no longer excluded or merely decorative features of . . . social, psychic, and philosophical space’ (12). This is the time of the human realization of what he nicknames ‘hyperobjects’, that is ‘things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans, and which defy overview and resist understanding’ (1).6
For Tobias Menely and Margaret Ronda, the ‘Anthropocene’ names the moment at which expanding global capitalism, with its increasingly destructive side effects of pollution, deforestation, and immiseration, reaches a threshold of self-destruction, but also of self-deception, as the accelerating conversion of all natural entities into forms of human capital becomes more and more patently in denial of ecological realities and limits.7 Ulrich Beck’s arguments are similar, as he describes modernity entering a newly uncertain, reflexive stage, the age of ‘unintended consequences’.8
Slavoj Žižek argues that anthropogenic climate change is only a ‘pseudo-problem’ masking the deeper question of international capitalism.9 However, it is not now enough to identify modern capitalism as the exclusive agent of environmental violence. Aside from the fact that socialist systems of government have also had appalling environmental records, the processes culminating in the Anthropocene include events that predate the advent of capitalism, primarily the invention of agriculture, deforestation and the eradication over centuries of large mammals in all continents beyond Africa as humanity expanded across the globe. Morton traces environmentally destructive attitudes back to the effects of the psychic space of inhabitation made possible by agriculture in the Neolithic: ‘agriculture turns reality into domination-ready chunks of parcelled out space waiting to be filled and ploughed by humans’.10 As Dipesh Chakravarty writes: ‘the current crisis has brought into view certain other conditions for the existence of life in the human form that have no intrinsic connections to the logics of capitalist, nationalist or socialist identities’.11 If the deep history of agriculture forms one unavoidable context for thinking in environmental ways about capitalist, communist or other modes of political organization, then to critique capital may remain supremely important, but is also insufficient. ‘All progressive political thought, including postcolonial criticism, will have to register this profound change in the human condition’ (Chakravarty).12
The term ‘Anthropocene’ is also a catchphrase, used as both intellectual shortcut and expanded question mark to refer to the novel situation we are in. The word is increasingly also a piece of academic rhetoric (e.g. is it cynical to observe that 2011, Cohen’s supposed date for recognition of the Anthropocene, is also that of the publication of the book in which he writes that? Or that his co-author Claire Colebrook is already using the impossible term ‘post-Anthropocene’?).13 The term, already rather free from the constraints of geological terminology, may remain useful so long as its various but related uses retain a self-critical, even self-deconstructive force, even marking the term’s own equivocality as symptomatic of the kinds of blurring of would-be sharp conceptual, rhetorical, material and disciplinary borders in a newly recognized planetary context.
The overview effect
More than a decade before the term ‘Anthropocene’ was even coined, Michel Serres’s The Natural Contract (first published in 1990) offered one of the earliest considerations of the deeper implications of humanity having become a geological force. In effect, Serres set out some basic stakes for the concept:
On planet Earth, henceforth, action comes not so much from man as an individual or subject, the ancient warrior-hero of philosophy and old-style historical consciousness, not so much from the canonized combat of master and slave . . . not so much from the groups analyzed by the old social sciences – assemblies, parties, nations, armies, tiny villages – no, the decisive actions are now, massively, those of enormous and dense tectonic plates of humanity.14
Serres’s book had called for a ‘natural contract’ to supplement the hypothetical ‘social contract’ that underlies human beings living together in ordered groups. This would acknowledge and address the violence humanity has waged against the Earth itself. Serres’s essay poises itself on a moment of simultaneous supreme danger to humanity and the Earth, and the possibility of humanity as steward and ‘mother’ of the Earth, taking on a kind of cosmic role.
Nevertheless, for all its prescience, Serres’s final section on the image of the whole Earth from space was also an instance of the kind of dangerous fantasy that the Anthropocene may represent, testimony to just how elusive and unpreconceivable its challenges may be. First, Serres celebrates a moment of totalization, a culmination of the human project:
Seen from above, from this new high place, Earth contains all our ancestors, indistinguishably mingled: the universal tomb of universal history. What funeral service do all these vapour plumes herald? And since, from up here, no-one perceives borders, which are abstract in any case, we can speak for the first time of Adam and Eve, our first common parents, and thus of brotherhood. One humanity at last. (121)
The act of engaging with the Earth as a whole is taken as that of an achieved humanity in the singular. This is ‘the universal-subject, humanity, in solidarity at last, in contemplating the object-universe’ (122). It is the realization, or at least anticipation, of a unified human agent, reconceiving it and its possibilities in the prospect of the planet below it, like the image of the star-baby at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (USA, 1968).
Serres concedes that this moment of (imagined) transcendence is also a moment of realized dependence and finitude:
Flying high enough to see her whole, we find ourselves tethered to her by the totality of our knowledge, the sum of our technologies, the collection of our communications; by torrents of signals, by the complete set of imaginable umbilical cords, living and artificial, visible and invisible, concrete or purely formal. (122)
Nevertheless, for Serres this is not a chastening realization of human finitude, but the achievement of knowledge as self-transcendence (‘we pull on these cords to the point that we comprehend them all’ (122)). He anticipates here contemporary arguments that the Anthropocene, in its very danger, could also represent the hope for a new form of humanism, one tied to a collective self-recognition of the human as ‘steward’ of the planet, envisaging the Earth as a vast garden-city sustained by various geo-engineering schemes. Likewise for Erle Ellis, writing in an anthology celebrating a supposedly ‘postenviromental’ liberalism, the Anthropocene can mark ‘the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human-directed opportunity’.15
Yet Serres is writing metaphorically of something he has never seen. In fact, no-one has immediate access to the world as a planet: what we have is a complex set of data from various recording stations at various points on the surface or above, and a history of such data or comparable information, all needing to be synthesized, interpreted and debated. So, many of the intellectual challenges and dangers of overload that accompany the thought of the Anthropocene are already and at once embedded in the perplexing and multiple conception of the ‘Anthropocene’ itself, as no sort of unitary or easily perceived object but the correlate of numerous observations, and sometimes conflicting theories in many different disciplines, of paleoclimatological reconstructions, atmospheric modelling and so on.
Bruno Latour also argues against the too-hasty appropriation of the whole Earth image by forms of environmental moralism:
it is useless for the ecologically motivated activist to try shaming the ordinary citizen for not thinking globally enough, for not having a feel for the Earth as such. No-one sees the Earth globally and no-one sees an ecological system from nowhere.16
In sum, Serres’s essay is an exercise in anthropocentric illusion. At times, the prose resembles a rousing head-teacher’s pep-talk to a young humanity ready to leave school and take on the cosmos. Serres’s otherwise prescient account of the Anthropocene in the early 1990s is still entangled in the human self-conceptions it is actually bringing to a close. For the major irony of the Anthropocene is that, though named as that era in the planet’s natural history in which humanity becomes a decisive geological and climatological force, it manifests itself to us primarily through the domain of ‘natural’ becoming, as it were, dangerously out of bounds, in extreme or unprecedented weather events, ecosystems becoming simplified or trashed, die-back or collapse.17
‘We are as Gods? No, for we have created the power but not the mind’18
In their The Techno-Human Condition (2011), Braden R. Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz present an image of the current human world that is almost an inverse of that given by Serres. Acknowledging the Anthropocene as ‘a world in which human activity increasingly affects global systems, including the climate and the hydrological, carbon, and nitrogen cycles of the anthropogenic Earth’ (10), they argue that ‘the world we are making through our own choices and inventions is a world that neutralizes and even mocks our existing commitments to rationality, comprehension, and a meaningful link between action and consequence’ (64–5).
Why is this? Their subject is technological complexity and the dysfunctions that arise out of the human inability to think beyond certain levels of complexity. Allenby and Sarewitz contrast three levels of complexity in the relation of our species to technics (a relation essential for any definition of what human beings are). A Level I relation is, crudely, that of the traditional notion of technology as a simple tool. An aeroplane, for instance, is a complex piece of engineering. ...

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