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McKenzie Wark on Donna Haraway and naming


For Public Seminar, McKenzie Wark writes about Donna Haraway’s essay “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene” in the newly released issue of e-flux journal, using her coinage of “Cthulucene” to think about the question of naming. Read Wark in partial below, in full via Public Seminar.

It’s a time naming things in another way, because the thing that needs to be named is a certain strange quality of time. Here’s a marvelous sentence by Donna Haraway, with three names for three kinds of time, all in the one sentence, overlapping but not the same: “The unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.”[1] I want to take the opportunity of Haraway’s lovely coinage of the Chthulucene – more on which below – to think about names. I want to take up the question of naming, just for a while, to think about the role it can play in getting to grips with our awkward world. What follows is adapted from Molecular Red.[2]

It is time to leave the twenty-first century. The metabolic rift that wakes from the carbon liberation front is not the only challenge to the biosphere. The Anthropocene is the name Paul Crutzen and others give to this period of geological time upon which the planet has entered. Crutzen: “About 30-50% of the planet’s land surface is exploited by humans…. More than half of all accessible fresh water is used by mankind. Fisheries remove more than 25% of the primary production un upwelling ocean regions… Energy use has grown 16-fold during the twentieth century… More nitrogen fertilizer is applied in agriculture than is fixed naturally in all terrestrial ecosystems.”[3]

It’s not the end of the world, but it is the end of pre-history. It is time to announce in the marketplace of social media that the God who still hid in the worldview of an ecology that was self-correcting, self-balancing and self-healing – is dead. “The Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode in the history of the planet.”[4] The human is no longer that figure in the foreground which pursues its self-interest against the background of a holistic, organicist cycle that the human might perturb but with which it can be in balance and harmony, in the end, by simply withdrawing from certain excesses.

The term Anthropocene splices two roots together, anthropos and kainos. Anthropos: that with the face of ‘man,’ that which looks up. Kainos: that which is not just a new unit of time but a new quality or form. What would this mean to Alexander Bogdanov? He would refuse the authoritarian causality lurking in anthropos, that residue of the sky-God, and insist instead on making it mean collective labor. The kainos of labor in the twenty-first century is labor as intra-action, entanglement, the tragedy of the totality.

As someone who does texts rather than things, I am tempted to reject the term Anthropocene. Naming things ought to be the prerogative of us professional wordsmiths. Why accept a name some scientists came up with? And can’t we have a more aspirational name? I want a name for what ought to be the kainos, not what is.[5] And in any case, it’s too anthropocentric. All of the interesting and useful movements in the humanities since the late twentieth century have critiqued and dissented from the theologies of the human.

The anthropos in Anthropocene might do unexpected work for those trained in the sciences or technical fields. Perhaps it is kainos that could be usefully confusing for humanists, social scientists, or for those few of us who remain who were trained at party school. What might it mean to think the qualitatively new, but where what is new is not defined by the communist horizon? It is striking how much even the anti-communists of the cold war era took the model of a new kainos, against which any other had to be thought, to be ‘communism.’ Their neo-liberal successors too.

This kainos, whether thought in, against or after the communist horizon, is usually thought as a new social relation. To the extent that it is thought as a relation to nature, it is as a victory that made Platonovian struggles in and against nature obsolete. The Anthropocene, by contrast, calls for thinking something that is not even defeat. Nonhuman kainos is then as provocative a thing to think for those whose training is all about organizing the human as anthropos is for those whose training is in organizing the nonhuman.

Or such might be a way to make the most of something Bogdanov would surely have appreciated: that new experiences often have to be thought within the basic metaphors that already exist. Anthropocene it is, then. For now. A bad name for a bad time, thus not unfit. Haraway: “We need another figure, a thousand names of something else, to erupt out of the Anthropocene into another, big enough story.”[6] It’s a task not just of naming, but of doing, of making new kinds of labor for a new kind of nature.

There is still some low theory work to do, to transmit the metaphor of the Anthropocene between domains, but in that process, those labor processes will change it. Rather than ‘interrogate’ Crutzen’s Anthropocene – and where did that metaphor come from? – perhaps it is better to see it as what it is: a brilliant hack. The Anthropocene introduces the labor point of view – in the broadest possible sense – into geology. Perhaps the challenge is then to find analogous but different ways to hack other specialized domains of knowledge, to orient them to the situation and the tasks at hand.

Let’s invent new metaphors! Personally, I like the #misanthropocene, but don’t expect it to catch on. Jason Moore thinks we could call this the Capitalocene. Donna Haraway offers to name it the Chthulucene, a more chthonic version of Cthulhu, the octopoid monster of H.P. Lovecraft’s weird stories.[7] “Chthulucene does not close in on itself; it does not round off; its contact zones are ubiquitous and continuously spin out loopy tendrils.”

Haraway notes the strikingly parallel evolution of new metaphorical tools in both humanities and biologies, where competitive individualism is no longer a given. In Bogdanovite terms, perhaps it is because in both domains, producing knowledge got strangely complex, collaborative, and mediated by apparatus. A new breed of basic metaphor is at least partly at work and in play, one which in the biology could be described as a “multi-species becoming-with.”

Haraway wants to both “justify and trouble” the language of the Anthropocene. As Paul Edwards does with climate science, she insists on the embeddedness in an infrastructure that makes the global appear as a work-object to those natural scientists for whom the Anthropocene makes sense as a metaphor. She points to the limits of its basic metaphors, which still think one-sidely of competition between populations or genes, where success equals reproduction. More symbiotic – dare we say comradely? – kinds of life hardly figure in such metaphors. But perhaps, as Haraway says, “we are all lichens now” – cyborg lichens.

*Image: A tardigrade can withstand up to five years dehydrated making it one of the most resilient critters presently known.