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Epochal Aesthetics: Affectual Infrastructures of the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene renders visible new architectures of time and matter, both sedimenting existing genealogies of global-world-space and radically reorganizing an imagination of the scope and material duration of what the human is in and through time. The idealized architectures of social formations that have hitherto been thought of as purely “social” structures are now beginning to betray their subtended geologies. Unraveling the fantasies of growth without accumulation, the global effects of climate change and resource depletion suggest that there is no accumulation without dispossession in both social or geological worlds. This new vision of the geologic underpinnings of social formations suggests that the “standing stock” of matter was never a suitable means to theorize how the geo and social hook up, or come to matter, nor does it adequately account for the full reach of those geosocial formations into time and sub-surface matter. Ruination of the future, it seems, is as a much a product of the subtended infrastructures of architectural projects as it is of these interventions themselves. Or, to put it another way, what was once imagined and imaged as extraneous and external to the rational projects of materializing late modernity might now seem to have found it had a missing substratum.

The substratum of the technosphere—the output of contemporary enterprise—has a central claim in accounts of the Anthropocene’s material geographies. Waste sites, mining shafts and extraction zones are imagined as the new museums of humanity, alongside the more affectual and accumulative material registers of pollution, toxicity and climate shifts. More than the by-products of social projects and industrial practices, such chemical and atmospheric modes of ruination are producing their own unique traces or architectural fossils in the Earth in the form of coral bleachings, plasticized rocks and carbon dioxide measurements. The accumulation of new mineralogical arrangements and organic-inorganic composites in the flow of geologic matter provides the evidential base for the Anthropocene. This new intemperate science of fossilization is generating the technofossils of the future.

Everything from the occurrence of McDonalds, Dairy Queen and Walmart chains to changes in nitrogen and carbon cycles position the geologies of the present into interlocking geosocial architectures. We might imagine the term “architecture” to refer to the organization of the material structures of space and its temporal patterning; or, how the material mediation of space orders a specific temporal indexing. These new empirics of sedimentation, of rapidly destratifying and restratifying social, economic and mineral practices, are rearranging the global dynamics of the bio and geosphere. This suggests that the old artifacts of Earth that constituted the imagination of global-world-space are overly reliant on a stable material foundation and therefore a temporal location. In this sense, the Anthropocene as a new rendering of time, subjectivity and agency announces both a break in and consolidation of modernity’s temporal arc. The city, as an ever-expanding urban fossil, is enacting a temporal buckling in its allegiance to the “now” in the form of its on-going contribution to a hominid geology with a duration far in excess of contemporary visions of disposability, newness and change. The provisionality of the present and its organization of a form of politics, thought to be a contingent social relation, is being fractured through the temporal break of geology. And, it is through the violent infrastructures of geology that new forms of politics are emerging, such as those at Standing Rock around the Dakota Access Pipeline that insist of a different vision of temporal affiliation and material filiation. As Lauren Berlant argues, “An infrastructural analysis helps us see that what we commonly call ‘structure’ is not what we usually call it, an intractable principle of continuity across time and space, but is really a convergence of force and value in patterns of movement that’s only solid when seen from a distance. Objects are always looser than they appear. Objectness is only a semblance, a seeming, a projection effect of interest in a thing we are trying to stabilize.” If infrastructures are also structures of feeling and convergences of force, then the appreciation of those affects need to reach down below the surface into the substratum to see how those forces both maintain and disrupt edifices of intention on the surface.

The underground spaces of extraction and the cavernous holes of excavated fossil fuels are now the curatorial spaces that await an anticipatory geology and a future direction beyond human agency. These spaces of extraction are nonetheless tied to the global socio-economic expulsions of late neoliberal subjective life through the invisible labors of subterranean workers and the toxicities that accompany these material mobilizations. The material destratifications of marine, mineral and chemical flows of carbon and nitrogen are returning in various accumulative modalities of pollution, toxicity and anthropogenic climate change, which in turn reconfigure the biopolitical possibilities of life. These affectual material infrastructures are shifting a sense of the planetary by generating new orders of time and a geo-logics of existence, simultaneously hacking and re-syncing the planet and its temporal structures to produce an arrangement of the future that looks decidedly irrational and unthought: infrastructures of geologic mobility that far outstrip, but are a direct consequence of, conventional forms of material communication and transnational infrastructures; geo-logics of social and material expulsions whose visible effects have been hidden in plain sight all along, understood as the waste and excess of normative modes of agency, architectural planning and capital accumulation. The task of geomorphic aesthetics is to think these new duration and material recombinations as an unthought affective infrastructure that subtends the architectures of materiality and resource distribution that themselves inscribe the planetary present of global-world-space. Specifically, geoaesthetics might make sensible how geologic forces move across time and space to disrupt the provisional unity of global-world-space and render new geographical imaginations of intemperate locations in both political and geologic time. This new form of geopolitics would understand the “geo” as a temporal disfigurement of political space rather than as a descriptive mode of spatiality.

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