The Anthropocene and the Sixth Extinction
The term Anthropocene, whose accuracy has still been being debated, was coined in 2000 by a Dutch chemist and a Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen to describe the circumstances and deep results of the impact of the humankind on the Earth. These effects stem especially from the practically oriented Western scientific (and capitalistic!) project grounded in the assumptions of the anthropocentric culture and aimed at achieving by the human a total control over a nonhuman world. Even though there are different positions on when the Anthropocene began, Crutzen claims that it started to crystallize in the late 18th century (which corresponds with the invention of a steam engine) and coincides with the publication of Immanuel Kant’s famous essay entitled “What is Enlightenment?” This fact is important in the context of current discussions on Western aggressive scientific and industrial developments and the dramatic impact of their side effects and by-products on the natural environment. As Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin notice, it seems that “the moment at which human and natural history become inseparable coincides with the most decisive event of their (philosophical) separation, Kant’s alleged ‘Copernican Revolution’” (2015, 5; see also Zalasiewicz et al. 2010). This opens up interesting possibilities as far as the conceptualization of this relatively new geological epoch is concerned.
Certainly, as mentioned earlier, the term “Anthropocene” is far from unproblematic. A recent study by T.J. Demos reveals the ideological functions that the word serves—terminologically, conceptually, politically, and visually—as far as the current politics of ecology is concerned (2017, 16). Demos points out that the rhetoric of the Anthropocene “frequently acts as a mechanism of universalization, albeit complexly mediated and distributed among various agents.” This, for the critic, “enables the military-state-corporate apparatus to disavow responsibility for the differentiated impacts of climate change, effectively obscuring the accountability behind the mounting eco-catastrophe and inadvertently making us all complicit in its destructive project” (Demos 2017, 17). Meanwhile, many humans—raced, classed, sexualized, and gendered—“would certainly resist identifying with the collective ‘we’ of the implied Anthropocene subject” (Demos 2017, 11). The responsibility for the differently located effects of the deep geological transformations should be rather, for Demos, attributed to those who really trigger these changes in their quest for financial profit and political power. For this reason Demos opts instead for using the term Capitalocene, designating the geological epoch “created by corporate globalization,” which “helps identify the economic determination of our geological present” (2017, 55-56). Capitalocene refers, therefore, to the “geological age of capitalism” (2017, 62).
In considering the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene, one has to take into account such invasive and usually irreversible processes as massive urbanization, excessive exploitation of natural resources, the rise of agriculture and attendant deforestation, extinction of animal and plant species, pollution of the oceans, the altered atmosphere, the effects of combustion of carbon-based fuels and emissions, an unabated explosion in population growth, and so on. This has led to the immense transformation of the environment leaving inerasable traces on the geological composition of the planet. In her insightful critique of these processes, containing also a sharp evaluation of contemporary land art, Lucy Lippard (2014) proposes to use the term “land use” instead of the “landscape” as the former term does justice to the aggressive nature of these complex natural-cultural processes. On the one hand, this shift in terminology is inspired by Lippard’s detailed study of the multiplication of gravel pits (mostly in New Mexico) and the capitalist interests hidden beneath this invasive activity. On the other hand, it stems from the shrewd study of the immense body of artistic production connected with land, adobe, or natural heritage. Fascinated with the vernacular land art, Lippard calls for more responsibility from artists and more sensitivity toward the environment in which they create. Writes Lippard: “There is a point where artists too must take some responsibility for the things and places they love, a point at which the colonization of magnificent scenery gives way to a more painfully focused vision of a fragile landscape and its bewildered inhabitants. The land is not separate from the often harsh realities of lives lived upon and around it” (2014, loc. 1262).
Given such historical circumstances, geoart aims at raising consciousness about these complex problems and increase sensitivity toward environmental issues, pointing to the deep interconnections and relations between the human and the more-than-human (where the latter term should be read in terms of excess rather than an opposition). The dramatic environmental circumstances of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene have contributed to the increased awareness that the Earth is soon to face another mass-extinction event, resembling in its character the previous five great extinctions that have already occurred on the planet (Leakey and Lewin 1995, Glavin 2006, Kolbert 2014). As Ashley Dawson aptly notices, “extinction needs to be seen, along with climate change, as the leading edge of contemporary capitalism’s contradictions” (2016, 13). It is the by-product of the Western quest for might and control.
The discussions on the new geological epoch and its impacts create a space for more nuanced reflections. Interestingly enough, although deliberations on these new circumstances and contexts have been triggered, on the one hand, by the selfish/narcissistic fear of the possible (perhaps impending) consequences these environmental changes would entail for the human beings and, on the other one, by the more attentive reflections on how humans are implicated in the world and the world is implicated in them, these new conditions--importantly--also opened up novel paths of philosophical inquiry. The various complex entanglements of nature and culture, so crucial to the identity of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene, have made evident, that no longer can matter (both organic and inorganic) be approached as a passive object of scientific inquiry and control or a resource remaining at the humankind’s disposal. Rather it should be seen as a lively agent, actively participating in the hybrid natural-cultural-discursive processes (Latour 1993) proliferating in the contemporary world. In this context, as Latour prophesizes (1993), the long-established Western ontological divisions between nature and culture as well as the anthropocentric dominance of an allegedly active human over an allegedly passive world of things, which had paved the way for the Western science and industry, are about to collapse. Simultaneously, the issues of agency, plasticity, and liveliness of more-than-human** matter return to the fore of the philosophical inquiry. Such a situation signals the twilight of the taken-for-granted assumptions and calls for a more careful and detailed examination of these deep onto-epistemological connections***.
New materialist approach to art, supplemented with the perspectives originated within the environmental humanities, offers an insight into the complex spatio-temporal entanglements of pasts, presents, and futures in the “age of extinction.” As Claire Colebrook explains, since extinction is both the most human and the most inhuman of concepts, it can function as “the hallmark of our most fragile and most robust present” and may generate “a new dynamic between life and loss” (forthcoming). Certainly, the experience of (witnessing) extinction requires an affective attitude toward the world/environment. And since erasure, or disappearance, is a material practice and the world bears imprints of its constant iterative reconfiguring, the new materialist approach helps us grasp these complex movements of (non-)life. As Barad writes, “[t]o address the past (and future), to speak with ghosts, is not to entertain or reconstruct some narrative of the way it was, but to respond, to be responsible, to take responsibility for that which we inherit …, for the entangled relationalities of inheritance that ‘we’ are, to acknowledge and be responsive to the noncontemporaneity of the present, to put oneself at risk, to risk oneself (which is never one or self), to open oneself up to indeterminacy in moving towards what is to-come.” (2010, 264)
An awareness of vulnerability of life in the twenty-first century as well as “our growing sense of precarious attachment to a fragile planet” (Colebrook 2014, 11) calls for new forms of knowledge and feeling, as well as for new notions of connectivity and responsibility. In this context it is of critical importance to explore the resensitizing potential of the arts. As Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (2015, 3-4) point out, art might be central to “thinking with and feeling through the Anthropocene.” This is because the two entangle and intertwine in a number of ways and “across various scales.” For the two authors the Anthropocene (or the Capitalocene) should be thought about as a sensorial phenomenon--“the experience of living in an increasingly diminished and toxic world.” Since art is a vehicle for the aesthesis, it can offer means for tackling the complexity of the geological time. What is more, Davis and Turpin notice that “the way we have come to understand the Anthropocene has frequently been framed through modes of the visual, that is, through data visualization, satellite imagery, climate models” (see also Demos 2017). This, again, makes art a privileged platform for a deep and creative inquiry of the contemporary condition of the Earth. Finally, art--for the two authors--is a site of inventive experimentation and as such provides “a non-moral form of address that offers a range of discursive, visual, and sensual strategies that are not confined by the regimes of scientific objectivity, political moralism, or psychological depression.” My reflections on the geoartistic, or land art, practice by Jim Denevan gathered in this text subscribe thoroughly to such a way of thinking, pointing to the deep assemblage-like relationalities of human-nonhuman actors as well as to the peculiar connections of natural and technological forces employed for creation of an artistic project and for knowledge production in general.