Elsewhere: a reflection on responsibility in and of the Anthropocene

24 Dec
Antonia Walford

A few days before the opening plenary of the 4S 2016, on the 29th August, the 35-strong International Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ submitted their recommendation to the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, proposing that there was enough evidence for this new geological epoch to be officially declared. Their recommendation still needs to be approved and ratified, a process which will take several more years and three other academic bodies. It has already taken the working group 7 years of deliberation to reach this point.1

Nevertheless, to judge by the topics at the 4S this year, in STS it seems like the initial hubbub around the notion of the Anthropocene is quietening down. There was only one panel devoted to it (which was sceptical of the term’s usefulness), and a handful of presentations that mentioned the term – including a roundtable presentation by Rebekah Cupitt entitled ‘Time to Get Antianthropocene’.

Cristóbal Bonelli2 and I presented a paper this year at the single 4S panel devoted to (critiquing) the idea, despite the fact that we are not ‘Anthropocene’ scholars. But that is perhaps one of the reasons behind the controversial success the idea has had in anthropology and STS: whatever your specialism, it is easy to feel simultaneously implicated in, and eclipsed by, its brazen anthropocentrism, its grand narrative currents and swells, its apocalyptic overtones, and the universalising politics it seems to sanction.3 The speed with which the term appeared to colonise – and polarise – conversations about environmental issues within anthropology and STS seems at odds with the fact that the geological working group has taken 7 years in order to make a recommendation, yet to be ratified, as to its scientific plausibility. At the same time, witnessing (from the sidelines) the iterations of deconstruction that the Anthropocene has subsequently suffered – for its neo-colonial implications, its biocapitalistic echoes, its anthropocentrism, for example (cf Haraway et al 2016) – it feels like the Anthropocene is almost over before it has even begun. In fact, there are already several other neologisms waiting in the wings to take its place, from Jason Moore’s and Andeas Malm’s Capitalocene (cf Haraway 2015), to Natasha Myers’ Planthropocene (2016), to Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene (2015), to name only the most commonly cited. And perhaps, as Haraway suggests, that is the point – to make it as short an ‘epoch’ as possible (2015: 160).

 

Fig. 1: Allée des Baobabs near Morondava, Madagascar. https://www.flickr.com/photos/42244964@N03/4315987006
Courtesy of Frank Vassen.

 

The panel at which Cristóbal and I presented, “Stoking the Anthropocene”, posed the question of whether we (academics), have a responsibility not to ‘stoke’ the flames that the discourse around the Anthropocene has lit in various sectors of academic practice. Rather than just “taking stock” of the debates, it asked us to consider the concrete implications of propagating such discourses, especially for those who are not involved in that privileged propagating machinery (and of course, the panel must count itself as part of that machinery, in one way or another). As with Amelia Moore’s notion of ‘Anthropocene anthropology’, in which she asks us to resist the solidification of the ‘obvious’ (2015: 28), such provocations urge STS to be attuned to the “politics and poetics” of the material interventions made in the name of global change” (Moore 2015: 36) and to take the Anthropocene as itself an anthropological object, that brings forth particular social, ecological and political configurations. Moore sees the Anthropocene as a polysemic socio-materialisation that can flow along transnational circuits of capital and create new markets, or galvanise new forms of scientized political action that frame particular spaces as fragile or endangered; and so she urges us to think of an anthropology ‘of’ and not just ‘in’ the Anthropocene (ibid: 28).

The call to take responsibility for the terms we use and the discourses we marshall is an important one. And the appeal of trying to bring the Anthropocene back down to earth (as Bruno Latour might have it) was perhaps why the panel attracted such a diverse selection of papers, ranging around anthropology, STS, philosophy and policy and environmental governance. During the discussion, many of the issues raised turned on what that responsibility might entail. Implicit in this debate is the feeling that anthropology or STS needs to pull its weight, and get serious about what it can contribute that is concrete or practical: sensible solutions that will make a real difference, not just more speculative theorising that goes no-where. And lurking behind that is the injunction to ‘act’, not just ‘think’.

But, as Donna Haraway often says, paraphrasing Marilyn Strathern, it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas with. So what ideas do we have to think the ‘Anthropocene’, as an anthropological object, differently? Swanson and colleagues have argued that the Anthropocene can be thought of as a “science fiction concept, that is, a concept that pulls us out of familiar space and time to view our predicaments as if they belonged to a distant land” (2015: 149). Science fiction has in fact long been a resource for anthropological thought, and vice versa. From Raymond Williams’ 1956 characterisation of science fiction as “Space Anthropology” (in Collins 2003: 182) to Haraway’s self-acknowledged debt to Ursula Le Guin, there has always been an intimate, if sometimes implicit, traffic between the two. Swanson and colleagues draw on this shared history to make the point that, like science fiction, the Anthropocene thus does not so much predict the future, but presents us with a ‘thought experiment about the present’ (2015: 149). As Cristóbal and I argued in our presentation, “we understand this as the potential of the present, or the real, to hold within it its own alternatives, it’s own capacity for self-differentiation. Heeding the session’s abstract, one modest responsibility we might imagine for ourselves…is therefore to draw out this tension that constitutes the anthropocenic imaginary read as science fiction, which somehow holds together both the here-and-now and the elsewhere…which locates and dislocates, identifies and makes strange, simultaneously”.

From this perspective, one possibility that the diversity of the papers at the panel point to is that the Anthropocene, as an emergent, inchoate field of knowledge, can bring forth new ways of doing and knowing, and particularly, new spaces for trans-disciplinary knowledge; and this is indeed what Swanson and colleagues argue concerning the power of thinking through science fiction (Swanson et al 2015). But I now wonder to what extent the opposite might also be important: that the Anthropocene confronts us with unknowability, excessiveness and the disjunctions and failures in our knowledge practices. In its incarnation as an object of anthropological scrutiny, the Anthropocene may not lend itself to easy revelation or deconstruction, in the same way that in its scientized form, the Anthropocene as a recursive concatenation of socio-ecological forces and feedbacks, toxic excesses and loops, extinction events and population explosions, is also characterised by something that outstrips western scientific or policy-related understandings. Is there space for other forms of responsibility – alongside concrete, practical action – to emerge?

There was another announcement a week or so before the 4S – the winners of the 2016 Hugo awards, the most prominent prizes awarded for science fiction. The winner for best novel this year was N. K Jemisin, for her novel The Fifth Season. The first book of a trilogy, it’s about the end of the world, or a ‘Fifth Season’: a cataclysmic tectonic event that happens unexpectedly if periodically – an enormous volcanic eruption that blocks out the sun, for example, or the emission of gases that change the atmospheric conditions, causing acid rain and widespread famines. People feel themselves to be at the mercy of “Father Earth”4, as the world is in almost endless tectonic upheaval of one sort or another; and people live in a constant state of readiness for another Season that they may or may not survive. Every so often, civilisations are wiped out, continents crack, thousands die and those that survive do so at great cost. It takes the enormous power of the orogones, who can control seismic energy, to keep Father Earth subdued as much as possible, and for that, they are reviled and enslaved, taken when young to be trained and ruthlessly disciplined, and killed if they show any sign of revolt. Yet, as one orogone in the book points out, the orogones can never be fully controlled, just as the Earth cannot. They will break free; the world must change. Jemisin deftly weaves together a world in which the power of the oppressed and colonised, and the power of the Earth, are entwined – both containing within them the same potential to shatter the control that has been so painstakingly, and brutally, constructed by the majority. As Jemisin says in an interview with The Guardian, “As a black woman, I have no particular interest in maintaining the status quo. Why should I? The status quo is harmful, the status quo is significantly racist and sexist and a whole bunch of other things that I think need to change. With epic fantasy there is a tendency for it to be quintessentially conservative, in that its job is to restore what is perceived to be out of whack.”5

Jemisin was the first black woman to win the Hugo award for a novel. And she won despite the efforts of the now infamous right-wing voting group within the science fiction community known as the Sad Puppies and its more radical faction, the Rabid Puppies, which were formed as a reaction against what was perceived as the appropriation and perversion of science fiction by what the founder of Rabid Puppies, Vox Day, calls “Social Justice Warriors”. As Amy Wallace writes in Wired: “in recent years, as sci-fi has expanded to include storytellers who are women, gays and lesbians, and people of color, the Hugos have changed, too. At the presentation each August, the Gods with the rockets in their hands have been joined by Goddesses and those of other ethnicities and genders and sexual orientations, many of whom want to tell stories about more than just spaceships”.6 Angered by these shifts, the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies try every year to fill the available nominee slots with authors they have sanctioned, that tell the sort of fantasy stories they want to hear: “a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds” or “a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women” rather than a “story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation with interplanetary or interstellar trappings” or “about gay and transgender issues”.7

In this context, it would be hard to see how Jemisin’s speculative, amazing (and indeed epic) books that are all about the complexities of exploitation can not themselves be read as a very concrete triumph over forces that want to determine and control, oppress and subjugate. Her books complicate exactly the idea of ‘distance’ – both in terms of the sort of escapism science fiction permits its readers and the sort of abstraction that speculative academic theories are meant to imply – by writing ‘the way things could be’ into ‘the way that things they are’. It matters very much, very concretely, what stories we tell and think. The way the world already contains within it the potential to be other-than what we have made of it, is perhaps one of those stories.

 

1 http://phys.org/news/2016-08-anthropocene-scientists.html Accessed 4th November 2016

2 It should be noted however that the views expressed in this piece are only mine, and not Cristóbal’s.

3 Not to mention, as Bruno Latour has pointed out, the fact that it also seems to confirm “final rejection of the separation between Nature and Human that has paralysed politics and science since the dawn of modernism.” (2013b:2)

4 “Listen, listen, listen well.

There was an age before the Seasons, when life and Earth, its father, thrived alike. (Life had a mother too. Something terrible happened to Her.)…The people became what Father Earth needed, and then more than He needed. Then we turned on Him, and he has burned with hatred for us ever since.” (Jemisin 2015: 115)

5 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/27/nk-jemisin-interview-fantasy-science-fiction-writing-racism-sexism. Accessed November 4th 2016.

6 https://www.wired.com/2015/08/won-science-fictions-hugo-awards-matters/. Accessed November 4th 2016.

7 Taken from the blog post by Sad Puppies co-founder, Brad Torgersen: https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/sad-puppies-3-the-unraveling-of-an-unreliable-field/. Accessed November 4th 2016.

References

Collins, S.G (2003) ‘Sail on! Sail on! Anthropology, Science Fiction, and the Enticing Future’. Science Fiction Studies 30 (2): 180-198

Haraway, D (2015) ‘Commentary: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’. Environmental Humanities 6: 159-165

Haraway, D., Ishikawa, N., Gilbert, S.F., Olwig, K., Tsing, A.L, and Bubandt, N. (2016) ‘Anthropologists are Talking - About the Anthropocene’. Ethnos 81 (3): 535 -564.

Jemisin, N.K (2015) The Fifth Season. Orbit

Moore, A. (2015) ‘Anthropocene anthropology: reconceptualising contemporary global change.’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 22: 27-46.

Myers, N. (2016) ‘Photosynthesis’. Theorising the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website https://culanth.org/fieldsights/790-photosynthesis

Swanson, H.A., Bubandt, N. and Tsing, A. (2015) ‘Less than One but More than Many: Anthropocene as Science Fiction and Scholarship-in-the-Making’. Environment and Society: Advances in Research 6: 149–166

Author information

author Antonia’s research examines the relationship between digital practices and emergent forms of engagement with nature and the environment. She completed her PhD in 2013, and is currently a teaching fellow and honorary research associate at the Centre for Digital Anthropology at University College London. In January she will also take up a post-doctoral research position at the Centre for Social Data Science at the University of Copenhagen. She has published articles in JRAI, Social Analysis, Cambridge Anthropology and Theorising the Contemporary/Cultural Anthropology.
 

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