Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Friday, February 5, 2016

Why Not 1784?

Why are some humanists so very concerned not to date the Anthropocene when the atmospheric and geology people proposed dating it?

For instance, one suggested date is the beginnings of a certain phase of European colonialism, which some put at about 1610. (Which I don't particularly understand in any case, but that's another conversation.)

But this isn't about what's the most big bad nasty thing that humans did to other humans (and there are plenty of other candidates). And of course, those actions did something to nonhumans--creating monocultures, moving nonhumans around Earth either deliberately or accidentally (breadfruit, squirrels).

I'm going to say something now, and some of you are going to think this means I don't care about postcolonial theory or worse.

That's not enough. That doesn't significantly change Earth's crust. Stratigraphy is the science of defining layers in Earth's crust.

And certainly this is not about when some humans started planning or imagining bad things. Francis Bacon's violent language about mining, or something like that. Again, if you want to look for the first “bad ecological thing planned” you might need to go a way further back than that. What about medieval fantasies about the spice islands, which in the end generated the East India Company? Roman, or Greek, or Babylonian colonial propaganda? What about Platonic nihilism? Or reductionism of any kind? Or domestication of animals?

If we go on like that, we are only going to end up with the Fall version 2.0.

So we'd still be on a mission from agricultural-age religion, which might be a problem in itself. This has to do with “Something went wrong in our being, something exactly there and then, and this something is a twist in the fabric of things, a twist often called evil.” We're talking about hyperobjects. We're talking about massively distributed physical stuff here, which can't be pinned down. Evil corporations? We summon them into being and buy their stuff. Americans? Everyone wants air conditioning. Colonial expansion? Agricultural logistics are all about that and those logistics didn't just emerge in Mesopotamia, suspiciously the very region where the Garden of Eden is located.

The trouble, in part, is that for ever we humanists have been treating imagining and planning as on a par with doing and acting. (Oh dear, now you think I have an “unquestioned binary” between imagining and doing or whatever. I've read Of Grammatology and I consider myself a Derridean, very much so. We're in a different sort of domain here, where I'm simply saying that imagining that what I'm doing right now is sucking a lollipop doesn't account for the fact that I'm typing a sentence. I'm pretty sure my old office mate Jacques would in fact agree. He's not a nominalist. And even a nominalist would probably agree.)

It's because of the default correlationist mode we've all accepted for two hundred years, which often ends up in a gravity well where we are quibbling about labels. It's very very hard for us to see this, but Anthropocene isn't a label exactly like that. It's not in the domain of “We [the human subject, human history, human economic relations, human will, human Dasein...] get to decide what counts as real, and these decisions are of course political, so we should first and foremost decide what counts as real according to our particular politics.”

Can you see how this might be said in a mode that's part of the problem? And that it will end up with arguing about exactly the most politically progressive record store label, for the millionth time? Rather than, say, mentioning polar bears?

And thus that there's a politics of trying to fantasize about jumping to a level where you can see and analyze everyone else's politics? It's called cynical reason and it's designed to exclude polar bears.

In the bigger picture, the scientific date isn't about finding fault with (a particular group of) humans for human-on-human violence (which is real and part of the picture) and human-on-nonhuman violent ideas or plans (which is of course also part of the picture).

This is about depositing layers of carbon compounds in Earth's crust. To do that in such a way as to create a powerful stratigraphic signal, you need to be mining coal with steam engines.

Could we just listen to that, for a moment? Could we just reflect as to why we are surprised/shocked/outraged, and whether that might be a little bit our problem or maybe even a lot our problem?

It's as bad as global warming denial I'm so sorry to say. It has the same discursive format. Something doesn't fit our world so we deem it unreal or evil, badly intended, part of a conspiracy.


Derek Woods said...

1610 is one of the dates proposed by geologists/climatoglogists:

If we need a beginning, the one that interests me most is whenever technohumans start to influence the earth system enough to change its large scale chemical cycles and reduce biodiversity.

The geological call is going to be made based on anthropogenic deposition that shows up definitively in the global geological record, so that the stratigraphy commission can decide where to put the "golden spike." But the climatological change seems more significant to me. It's about when our activities start to drive the climate. Maybe we don't need to attach that to a particular year?

Timothy Morton said...

Yes indeed Derek to those final thoughts. I feel maybe that if what is said in the first paragraph is the case, that some scientists have suggested 1610, they are getting a bit seduced by the ways we like to (mis)understand these things. I'd be happy with a nice range such as 1784 to 1945 as the "start" of "enough" human geophysical influence. But not 1610.

But the larger point you're making is that there's something screwy about how we think time. If one zooms out to a large enough scale it started in 10 000 BC.

But it did start. The Holocene preceded it. It started, maybe some-whens rather than at a specific time. So we need to rethink what we mean by "origin."

But none of these awesome points you make pertain to the "I prefer this date because it fits my account of politics according to existing correlationist parameters" part of what I'm trying to say.

Timothy Morton said...

...One way to think about this could be (highly compressed and it's an inevitably absurd analogy because it's an analogy):

We started to design a gun in 10 000 BC.
We made the gun in 1610.
We fired the gun in 1784.
It became clear that we had killed the victim in 1945.

Anonymous said...

Geologists have found agricultural soils in large swaths that are as old as the academically established "golden spike" of the start of the Holocene. In my book, this renders the term "Anthropocene" stratigraphically redundant. By the way, a significant amount of my work in college was with soils.

The main function of the term "Anthropocene" is, has always been, and will always be, political. Whatever stratigraphers do, the main use of the term will be in the political realm. This is not a bad thing, necessarily; what I find dangerous is the immediate impulse to cover up the politics, as if it's geology that's going to lend credence to the politics. It doesn't have to! Just because there is only an Anthropocene in some linguistically deferred sense doesn't make it less important than a rock! Why do we have to defend the term by insisting that it has other-than-human connotations?