LettersTheory & Practice

Heidegger and Geology

A small, handmade green book mysteriously appeared in my New School mail slot, with the intriguing title: The Anthropocene, or “The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.” 

Its author is Woodbine, which turns out to be an address in Brooklyn where the texts in this small book were first presented. (The texts, and information about this interesting project, can also be found here and here). I have never been to Woodbine, but good things seem to be happening there.

I read the book on the way home to Queens from the New School, on the subway. As it turns out this was a fitting place to be reading these very interesting texts, passing through geological strata.

Whenever I raise the Anthropocene with humanities-trained people, their first instinct is to critique it as a concept. It’s hard to buck that liberal arts and grad school training, but it’s an impulse to resist. It’s time to rethink the whole project of ‘humanist culture’, to which even us card-carrying anti-humanists still actually belong.

The Woodbine text makes some useful advances in that direction. But for me I think the project now is not to apply the old grad school bag o’tricks to the Anthropocene, but rather to apply the Anthropocene to a root-and-branch rethinking of how we make knowledge outside the sciences and social sciences.

Woodbine: “The naming of the Anthropocene comes not to announce humankind’s triumph but rather its exhaustion.” (3) This disposes with the most idiotic criticism of the Anthropocene, that it is ‘hubris’ to raise up the human to such a power that it could name a geological age. The Anthropocene actually does something very different. Its not the old rhetoric of a Promethean triumph over nature, but rather poses the question: “How are we to live in a ruin?” (4)

The geologist Paul Crutzen has succinctly listed the signs of the Anthropocene: deforestation, urbanization, mass extinctions, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity and climate change. He thinks collective human labor is starting to transform the very lithosphere itself. Woodbines modulates this a bit, calling this “the Anthropocene biopolitical epoch.” (15) But that’s where I think the radical import of the Anthropocene gets lost. Those trained in the humanities are besotted with the idea of politics, attributing all sorts of magical agency to it. But really, up against the lithosphere, politics may be as uselessly superstructural as fine art, or as imaginary as the Gods of the religions.

Woodbine engagingly calls Marx ‘Captain Anthropocene.’ He is perhaps one of our great witness-conceptualizers about the moment when the Anthropocene really accelerated: “Proletarianizing us, as Marx called it, didn’t just separate us from our conditions of existence: it literally recreated how we live, setting up walls against any other way of living.” (12) Collective social labor made a second nature, over and against nature, but in part also alienating the human from that which produced it.

As I have argued elsewhere, the historical response to this has been to erect a third nature, over and against second nature, to overcome its alienating effects – but in the process producing new ones. That’s where we are now, with the growing disenchantment with the internet and all that.

Crisis is a tricky concept, as my New School colleague Janet Roitman ably explains in her book Anti-Crisis. If there’s no crisis then how can the critical be made to work? The self interest of the latter requires the perception of the former. As somebody once said, to a critic with a hammer, everything looks like a thumb.

The Anthropocene might subtly modulate the old rhetoric of crisis. Woodbine: “with the Anthropocene, the catastrophe is here in the form of the age itself, meaning our entire civilization, and its requisite way of life, is already a ruin.” (18) Crisis is not a thing or event in the world, it is the world.

This would be the profound shock of Crutzen’s provocation, that crisis is not merely political or even economic, but geological. Woodbine: “It’s crazy, like we’re reading Heidegger in the annals of the geological societies!” (19) Actually, here is where I would want to dissent from the Woodbine text. It is not that one finds Heidegger in the geological annals, but the reverse. Heidegger is only of any interest to the extent that one finds the geological in his thought, unrecognized.

It is striking how much of the grad school canon lets us down when it comes to the Anthropocene. It’s disorienting. Things once safely left unaddressed cannot be depended on. Latour: “to live in the Anthropocene is to live in a declared state of war.” But one has to ask whether Latour’s recent discovery of the Anthropocene is really all that consistent with his past work, which seems to me to concede too much to the vanity of humanists. It was only ever about part- or quasi- objects. It never really made the leap of recognizing the weakness of its own methods. Latour was a half-way house, a holding operation. As Donna Haraway pointed out a long time ago, Latour still has a thing for stories about great men waging great conflicts.

For Woodbine, the Anthropocene is the scene of a “metaphysical war.” (21) But it might be more interesting to think this the other way around. What if metaphysics was nothing more than a displaced echo of the Anthropocene? Metaphysics is not an essential key to it. Metaphysics is rather one of the pollutants. Metaphysics is just the off-gassing of the Anthropocene.

Let’s pause, too, over the war metaphor, so beloved of the cold war decision sciences. We need a new imaginary of the relation.

Still, Woodbine does get some mileage out of the dust of the old concepts. There is surely a crisis of state at the moment. The link between rationality and governance can no longer be finessed, it is finally abandoned. Governments become ad hoc reaction machines. Its what I call the spectacle of disintegration, where the state can (1) no longer orient itself in an historical time, (2) is now deceiving itself, and not just its subjects, and (3) wears out and fragments all of the ideological detritus that once sustained at least the illusion that state and history were one.

This is where Woodbine is right to point to the rhetorical figure of ‘resilience’ as a salient one. It’s a rejection of the old mastery trope. No longer is the state the collective subject of history bending the objects of nature to a collective will. Rather, it’s a rhetoric of connecting what were once objects and subjects together in webs and nets in constant flux. Now it’s all feedback loops and recursive, adaptive systems. At least in theory. For now in actuality, power is just disintegrating. Its new militarization is a sign of its lack of confidence. The game is up.

Woodbine chooses here a local, New York example. MoMA organized a show, just after the housing bubble burst, called Rising Currents. The brief was for architects and planners to show how the city (actually mostly Manhattan and the cool bits of Brooklyn) could be more resilient. One project imagines a restoration of the old oyster beds that used to dot the foreshores, as a kind of eco- econo- climate resilience virtuous circle.

When I heard someone not unconnected to Woodbine present this part of the Woodbine text at the Historical Materialism conference, the oyster bed project was met with hoots of laughter. But to me this just shows how alienated humanities-trained people are from design and urban planning as kinds of practice. It’s so much harder to even imagine what one might build in the Anthropocene than to divine its concept. And particularly hard to even imagine what one could build that would scale, that would work for the seven billion.

“The Anthropocene provides the urgency to draw together previously unrelated knowledges, practices, and technologies into a network of relation….” (26-27) One might struggle for and against certain forms such networks might take, or even as to whether they are really going to be ‘networks’ (that word which in our time is both ideological and yet so real). Maybe we would rather be infuriating swarms or packs than networks.

Woodbine: “In the Anthropocene, the critical gesture is finished. New Land, new horizons. Everything is to be reinvented.” (28) One might not want to put it in too declarative a style, but yes indeed. Perhaps its time to get to work re-inventing what humanities knowledge might be, and with what it connects, and how it connects.

The actual culture may be way ahead of us. On the one hand, the Anthropocene is the cultural unconscious. Every movie and tv show is about it, whether it knows it or not. We are “living in this end without end, an exhausted civilization dreams its apocalypse anew each morning…” (32) But a certain paralysis results from this.

Woodbine has a good analysis of this. The apocalypse means to uncover, reveal. For the messianic sects that arose out of Rome in decline, apocalyptic time was unidirectional and teleological. Things are in a state of incompletion. The meaning of the fragments around about one lies in the anticipation of the revealing of their unit. “As a result of this anticipation of an eschatological event through which things and beings will be saved from their decrepitude, the whole of reality is derealized. The disenchantment of the world has closely followed this strange derealization of the real…” (39) This is the problem: the apocalypse disconnects us from the world. As for that matter does the communist horizon, that partly secularized version of the temporal logic of apocalypse.

In this perspective, empire is that which holds back the purifying apocalypse. But in our time, apocalypse has been desacralized. It no longer promises redemption. Resilience is government under conditions of constant apocalypse. It’s a temporality which disperses apocalypse, but also takes away its redeeming power. It is to be endured. There’s no revelation imminent. “If we can understand Rome as catechon, warding off a single catastrophe in space and time (Armageddon), resilience multiplies and diffuses this structure across the whole globe…” (49) Salvation is unthinkable, resilience is all about survival.

And yet, curiously, resilience “maintains the homogenous time of a government without end.” (50) Empire wants to think it is not that which impedes the apocalypse which reveals meaning in its totality, after time breaks. Empire today wants to think it can be rubbery enough to be ‘sustainable’, to pass through multiple crises, but keep a homogenous, spectacular time ticking over. Power gets it that the old subject as master of the object ontology has to go, but strangely still maintains a universal homogenous time of petty and baseless things and their wondrous ‘networks.’

That, I think, is a wonderfully distilled analysis. I read Woodbine as wanting to reanimate the messianic rather than abandoning this whole conceptual tar pit. Hence: “Inhabiting the messianic means no longer waiting for the end of the world.” (55) The project is one of transforming lived time. The messianic becomes a practice of the here and now, a practice that might restore a shattered world, that restore being: “we must inhabit the desert.” (57)

There’s a Deleuzian note here, from the cinema books, for example, about believing in the world. “To enter messianic time is to believe in the world, in its possibilities of movement and intensities, and to create worlds.” (58) But as Woodbine acknowledges, this is worse than collapse of Rome. If it’s a ‘crisis’ it is not one that happens in time, it is rather a crisis of time.

Perhaps the worn-out old names so endlessly recycled in grad school are not going to be of much help to us. Are we really expecting, that if time appears now in a very new way, that those who survived the old time and became those who marked its tempo are going to talk about a time not their own? What if Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger or Carl Schmitt had nothing to say about the Anthropocene? When did humanists become the arch-conservatives? Insisting on ever occasion that the answers are always in the same old books? And always the same answers, no matter what the question.

On the one hand, it might be more interesting to pay attention to the organic intellectuals emerging out of more or less consciously Anthropocene practices. Woodbine thinks these are in two categories. Firstly, there’s the insurrections and occupations. Secondly, there’s the cultures of hacking, prepping, modding, which are often not ‘political’ in any overt sense, but which tend to have a firm notion that we need new practices of engaging with the world.

Woodbine wants to think insurrection and occupation as having an almost spiritual dimension. But perhaps the driver of the dissolution of legitimate political form really is going to be the food riot, as it was so often in the past as well. Here I want a much more vulgar read on Marx than Woodbine. We’re going to have to get our hands at least conceptually dirty.

Thinking alongside the organic intellectuals who are hacking and modding the interfaces to the old infrastructure strikes me as a necessary project. I agree with Benjamin Bratton that the question of our time is (as I hear him phrase it, at least): can the infrastructure of the old world produce a qualitatively new infrastructure? But thinking that problem would require a much wider collaboration among forms of knowledge and practice than I think Woodbine is prepared to entertain. It is not the case that only the Gods can save us.

The discourse of the humanities revels in the qualitative, and wants to see only the good side of the qualitative and the bad side of quantitative knowledge, viz: “To be able to judge a situation, or a being, you must introduce some standard of measurement, and hence reduce a living, breathing fullness to an abstracted mass of equivalents. A subject or an object is thus the stripped bare life that can be replaced.” (74)

The problem with this is that it doesn’t follow. There’s no necessary link between measuring something and thinking it replaceable. Climate science, as quantitative knowledge, is counter-factual example enough. On the other hand, the qualitative, as that which makes distinctions, is perfectly capable of making distinctions between who or what matters and what doesn’t, and is replaceable. ‘Bare life’, after all, is a Roman legal category, which has nothing to do with quantification.

Hence I am not too convinced that salvation alone lies in reworking a kind of affirmative ontology: “Whatever singularity is simply the inhabiting, really inhabiting, of the being that we already are…” (75) Rather, the problem might be the very notion that a philosophy can have such magical properties, if only one gets the incantation right. If philosophy was ever going to save us, it would have done so by now.

Most of our theories, it seems now in the Anthropocene, are not keys or tools, but rather symptoms. They are more part of the problem than the solution. I see no difference between keeping the Heidegger industry going and keeping the coal-fired power industry going. Except that the former has even more tenacious apologists.

But I like the Woodbine texts. I salute their attention to what matters. Theory has to know what time it is. Its time is the Anthropocene.

McKenzie Wark

  • Aron Hsiao

    “Most of our theories, it seems now in the Anthropocene, are not keys or tools, but rather symptoms. They are more part of the problem than the solution. I see no difference between keeping the Heidegger industry going and keeping the coal-fired power industry going. Except that the former has even more tenacious apologists.”

    I have waited a long time to see this stated so clearly and unashamedly in academic circles. Well done.

    • Clive Hamilton

      Except that the Heidegger industry won’t kill you.

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