DAY 14 /// RESPONDING TO PEDRO NEVES MARQUES - LOOK ABOVE, THE SKY IS FALLING: HUMANITY BEFORE AND AFTER THE END OF THE WORLD, by RACHAEL RAKES
In Praise of Sameness
Photograph: World Catastrophe 1330×880 Wallpaper
When considering the end of the world, we ought to think in practical terms. As Pedro Neves Marques points out, many have seen apocalyptic ends already, throughout history, before modernity and after. And as Christian Parenti suggests in his theory of “catastrophic convergence,” there are already many societies in the world experiencing climate change-influenced war and massacres, in which droughts coupled with austerity measures can be significant catalysts for civil war.
Humans have always changed the environment. Many of the current scientific arguments about how far back to date the Anthropocene elude the more critical question of how the most recent and destructive changes are taking place, as well as its scale and direction. But this discussion, rather than remaining a debate within the field of geology, has emerged in a public realm, which has discursively linked it to climate change, and also radioactivity, overfishing, deforestation, soil erosion, habitat loss, toxification, and so on. This could be useful. If these human-led realities can manage to remain connected to the discussion of the Anthropocene, the latter has the potential to become a shorthand not simply for the historical presence of humans on the globe but also for the ecological destruction driven by Capitalism: we don’t need new terms, but new definitions.
As Neves Marques suggests, practically speaking, the Cartesian duality and the conservationist ideology it supports are culpable remnants of modernism that we need to burn in order to move forward. Environmentalism—conceived as a project of saving a disconnected but lovable nature—displaces urgency, thus allowing for further planetary destruction. But humans are not unnatural. Marxist scholar Jason Moore suggests, the term Oikeios to better conceptualize the dialectic between human and non-human nature. Within it, the rest of nature is brought into the whole of human activity. Nature becomes “the matrix within which human activity unfolds, and the field upon which historical agency operates.” Donna Haraway (via Scott Gilbert) demonstrates this symbiosis from a biological perspective, with the formulation that “we are all lichens.” No animal—and least of all a human—can be considered individual because of its reliance on and mutual exchange of symbiotic microrganisms. Our most fundamental existence is codependent.
One way of attempting to philosophize ourselves out of the Anthropocene has been to try to consider ourselves objects and others. These turns in realism represent a capitulation to all of that which will survive us—our inert creations, our archives, our infrastructures, our garbage. It is a resignation to the inability of humanity to survive, and a validation of the object as the sole locus of value—especially of lasting value. This of course neatly resembles the art market’s obsessions, as evidenced by the unkillable fascination with the objet trouvé in contemporary art.
It always comes back to the human. We need to not be Cartesian about ourselves, either. Even animism might not go far enough beyond correlationism to be useful in this. However, Neves Marques’s proposal that the conception be reversed, that everything be made human instead of finding ontologies for objects in our still and ever stratifying minds, is pragmatism I can get behind.
But why not go further into this ubiquito-humanism? Neves Marques writes that, “from the perspective of the earth, humanity looks increasingly like the problem.” This inference, of a problem/solution dichotomy halts movement towards fixing the future. At present mankind is driving the metabolism of the earth, destructively, but they haven’t always been, and won’t always be. But, for the moment, humanity is both problem and solution, and the power to alter the earth’s systems remains multidirectional. And of course, we’re only trying to save ourselves here. Pretending otherwise will get us nowhere.
Here are a few questions:
- Can artistic collaboration or collectivity be useful in reconceiving humanity in the Anthropocene?
- What non-apocalyptic freedoms can thinking through the anthropocene afford?
- How can we transmit symbiosis culturally?
- Does Venice being almost underwater make this more prescient?
- Is this an opportunity to break down the individual?
Rachael Rakes is an editor for the Brooklyn Rail, Programmer at Large at Film Society of Lincoln Center, and a consultant for Verso Books.