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Against the Anthropocene


A few weeks ago, we featured a piece called “Don’t Mourn, Accelerate” from the new UK-based journal Salvage, which describes itself as a “quarterly of revolutionary arts and letters.” Today, Salvage has made available on its website another piece from its inaugural issue, and it’s sure to ruffle some feathers among art world theory buffs. The piece, written by Daniel Hartley of the University of Giessen, is called “Against the Anthropocene.” Here’s a juicy excerpt:

Even from a literary-critical perspective the Anthropocene is problematic. Take this representative passage, for instance: ‘Pre-industrial humans, still a long way from developing the contemporary civilization that we know today, nevertheless showed some early signs of accessing the very energy-intensive fossil fuels on which contemporary civilization is built’. Just as Sartre remarked in Les mots, the biographies of ‘great men’ only ever see the child as the retrospectively projected necessity of what came after, thereby voiding the past present of its true contradictory presence, so the Anthropocene can only ever think the past in its proleptic trajectory towards our present. Its specific narrative mode translates the time of initiative and praxis into the time of pure physical necessity. Moreover, precisely because of this, it can only explain our own present as part of the empty, homogeneous time of linear succession, which increasingly contracts as ecological catastrophe approaches.

This implicit philosophy of historical temporality goes hand in hand with a Whig view of history as one endless story of human progress and enlightenment. The following two quotations clearly exemplify this tendency:

Migration to cities usually brings with it rising expectations and eventually rising incomes, which in turn brings an increase in consumption’

‘The onset of the Great Acceleration [scientists’ name for the period of increased ‘human’ activity following WWII] may well have been delayed by a half-century or so, interrupted by two world wars and the Great Depression’ (my italics)

The first sentence seems almost wilfully blind to the history of mass urban poverty, gentrification and accumulation by dispossession, whilst the second seems to claim that the bloodiest century in human history – including Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Dresden bombing, the Gulags, and the Holocaust – is a mere blip on the rising line of progress. Needless to say, such a view of human history is, at best, problematic.

Finally, and as a logical consequence of the four preceding problems, the majority of the solutions proposed by scientists are technical (mass climate- and geo-engineering projects, and so on) and managerial in nature – often couched in the language of ‘governance systems’ – rather than political. The scientists arrive at such apolitical solutions precisely because they never pose the Anthropocene as a political problem in the first place. Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent claim that ‘Justice has become a survival technology’ is practically unthinkable within the presuppositions of the scientific representations of the Anthropocene. Just as they cannot see technology as a political force, so they cannot see politics as a material force. Indeed, they have a problematic conception of materiality as such.

Image via “Welcome to the Anthropocene