CapitalismLettersThe Left

Critical Theory After the Anthropocene

1. One does not have to look far to find intellectuals trained in the humanities, even the social sciences, who feel the need to ‘critique’ the concept of the Anthropocene. Clearly, since we did not invent this concept, it must somehow be lacking! And yet rarely does one find them trying the inverse procedure: what if we took the Anthropocene as that which critiques the state of critical thought? Maybe it is our concepts that are to be found lacking…

2. Even to understand the Anthropocene in its own terms calls for a certain ‘vulgarity’ of thought. The Anthropocene is about the consequences of the production and reproduction of the means of existence of social life on a planetary scale. The Anthropocene calls for the definitive abandonment of the privileging of the superstructures, as the sole object of critique. The primary object of thought is something very basic now: the means of production of social life as a whole.

3. It seems likely that the Anthropocene as a kind of periodization more or less corresponds to the rise of capitalism. But it is no longer helpful, even if that is the case, to tarry among critical theories that only address capitalism and have nothing to say about other periods, other modes of production. The Anthropocene may be brief, but the Holocene is long. A much long temporality is called for. It is ironic that critical theory, so immune in other ways to ‘anthropocentrism’, nevertheless insists on thinking in merely human time scales.

4. To even know the Anthropocene calls on the expertise of many kinds of scientific knowledge and an elaborate technical apparatus. Those who have led the charge in raising alarm about the Anthropocene have been scientific workers. Those who attempt to deny its significance do so through mystifications which, it must be acknowledge, nevertheless draw on critiques of science. Critical theory need not submit itself to scientific knowledge, but it needs to accept its existence and the validity of its methods. One has to know when one’s tactics, even if correct in themselves, put you on the wrong side of history.

5. Means for enduring the Anthropocene are not going to be exclusively cultural or political, let alone theological. They will also have to be scientific and technical. A united front of many kinds of knowledge and labor is absolutely necessary. To imagine that the ‘political’ or ‘revolution’ or ‘communism’ will now work the miracles they so failed to work in the last two centuries is a charming habit of thought, but not a useful one. In the domain of praxis everything is yet to be invented.

6. And so it is not enough to just critique the Anthropocene with the tired old theory toolbox handed down now for more than one generation through the graduate schools. The Anthropocene is a standing rebuke to the exhaustion of those hallowed texts. Let’s have done with answering all contingencies with the old quotations from Freud and Heidegger, Lukacs and Benjamin, Althusser and Foucault. It is time for critical theory to acknowledge its conservative habits – and to break with them.

7. At a minimum, the Anthropocene calls on critical theory to entirely rethink its received ideas, its habituated traditions, its claims to authority. It needs to look back in its own archive for more useful critical tools. Ones that link up with, rather than dismiss or vainly attempt to control, forms of technical and scientific knowledge. The selective tradition needs to be selected again. The judgments of certain unquestioned authorities need for once to be questioned.

8. And in the present, it is time to work transversally, in mixed teams, with the objective of producing forms of knowledge and action that are problem-centered rather than tradition and discipline centered. Critical though avoids the inevitable fate of becoming hypocritical theory when it takes its problems from without, from the world of praxis, rather than from within its own discursive games. The Anthropocene is the call from without to pay attention to just such problems.

9. It is time, in short, for critical theory to be as ‘radical’ in its own actual practice of thought as it advertises. Let’s have done with the old masters and their now rather old-timey concerns. Let’s start with the problem before us, whose name is the Anthropocene.

McKenzie Wark

  • ++++

    Isn’t critical theory in some senses betrayed by it’s own name? Criticism can only react to what has already been created. It is in this sense a purely reactionary movement. Rather than reacting to the institutions, populations and forces that create the anthropocene perhaps the better mode of engagement is to create the institutions, populations and forces that will succeed the niche creators of the anthropocene. We have, after all altered the ecological niche of all of the ecologies we inhabit. This force of harmful creation can also be one of benefit if we turn our attention to the creative acts of restoration, creation, institution building, and rewilding. Criticality is not lost in such an endeavour but it is subordinate to the hard work of creation.

  • Robert Linsley

    This is my own blog post from a year ago – I think it demonstrates that one doesn’t have to take either a humanities or science position, but can simply critique intellectual delusions immanently.

    Scientists have recently proposed that the current geological era should be called the Anthropocene because of the enormous impact of human activity on the biosphere. This seems to be a reasonable idea, but when the art world gets hold of it it becomes something else. A European museum is going to dedicate a year’s worth of programming to the concept, with the thesis that “Our notion of nature is now out of date. Humanity forms nature.” From objective measurement of the relative importance of human impacts on the earth we have moved to an extravagant philosophical claim. I find it dubious in the extreme. There’s no doubt that in art circles the word “nature” has fallen victim to post-modern attitudinizing. Personally I find it very useful, though sometimes prefer to use the term “inhuman” to indicate everything that lies outside of our capacity to manage or exploit. Any artist will recognize that the boundary between the human and the inhuman runs right through every individual. We have hardly encircled nature, and remain surrounded by forces over which we have absolutely no control. The biosphere itself is very small and fragile and far from being the totality of nature. Such fantasies are just another example of our need to assert our own importance. Human beings are not interested in anything outside of themselves, and never cease to imagine swallowing the world entirely. Such dreams might help prepare for an encounter with threatening nature. Science is one activity that tries to overcome this solipsistic habit, art can be another.

  • IBB

    Next September in Rio, there is this conference – The Thousand Names of Gaia: from the Anthropocen to the Age of the Earth – organized by Viveiros de Castro and Latour, which gathers people from different disciplines thinking about the subject: https://thethousandnamesofgaia.wordpress.com/about/

    • mckenziewark

      Yes, i think the “thousand names” approach is a constructive one.

  • Jeremy_Benway

    Like any major idea of nature (e.g. evolution, ecosystems, extinction), the Anthropocene can’t be fully thought unless one is able to suspend or at least acknowledge the anthropocentric tendencies which have dominated mainstream humanities, including critical theory, for a very long time. Thus the challenge, I think, is not specific to the Anthropocene.

    However, the idea of Anthropocene as described by scientists is in great need of historians, philosophers, political scientists, critical theorists, etc. to clarify and break it free of naive naturalism and crude anthropocentrism. In this regard, there is much to critique, including whether the name “anthropocene” is even the right/best term for what is transpiring: http://blog.uvm.edu/aivakhiv/2014/08/05/anthropocene-debate-continues/

    So…while critical theory should see its own historic limitations in the face of what is called Anthropocene, it would be a grave mistake to imagine that it is not also in a position to see what is deeply problematic in many articulations.

  • Sereia

    Do you really think that this “anthropo” from the “antropocene” can also be that skimo which were living without damage the hole world during all the other “cenes”? or the indigenas from america? just evoking lévi-strauss: “So that we can ask ourselves if largely responsible, the culprit is not the humanist philosophy in which we are almost exclusively and entirely founded. Humanism is man as a separate kingdom, and from the moment we accept draw a border [between man and animal, non-human, or inhuman], we get the privilege to move this boundary as we wish, in order to reserve the privilege of mankind to portions of increasingly restricted humanity which in turn reject animality.”

    so, in this case, using this word as we are using it, or we are considering all this non-western people as non-humans or we are putting the blame on them too.

    • Cristiano Yuji Sasada Sato

      The blame is on them too. We can’t have nor an over idealized conception of them, nor an over critical understanding of “us”. Putting all of the fault on our culture is not seeing that it developed naturally from small tribes with just as legimate ways of life as native people do possess now.

      There is argument that anthropocene actually began ~10,000 years ago and, if so, we’re all to be blamed as a species. (although its obvious that some groups ended up having a bigger part in the problem and others might hold answers for their solutions)
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene#.22Early_anthropocene.22_theory

      There is a fault that extends to humans anywhere, and which can be checked with mass extinctions of animals worldwide some 12,000 years ago and several collapses of diverse civilizations everywhere since.

      Its not that we were worse humans and let ourselves corrupt, its just that we had an earlier and better opportunities for it. But you can verify that anywhere humans went to they’ve caused their problems (even in the present time scale they’ve reached equilibria).

      • mckenziewark

        How is ‘blame’ even a useful category here?

    • mckenziewark

      I think this is a bit of an over-reaction.

  • Holly Eskew

    Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble” http://vimeo.com/97663518

  • Honest question: You mention “means for enduring the Anthropocene,” and then seek to make these as wide-ranging as possible. Sure. But aren’t the “problems” the Anthropocene poses precisely borne from the eons-long approach of “enduring,” or maybe surviving itself? I’m aware of the ways in which this question can be destroyed polemically. Often with bitter irony (for example, pointing to the daily toll of preventable human death borne from the radical polarity inherent in dominant forms of capitalism, market, etc). I think to raise the question should not pigeon-hole the questioner as a knee-jerk supporter of global eugenics. I’m genuinely asking if survival itself doesn’t contain, produce and proliferate the violence that leads to ecological ruin, war, poverty and closure on a kind of worldly thought that might become, with some careful work, reflexive to a wider range of horrors, and perhaps useful to an actual struggle against the same.

  • Tag50

    Social scientists/critical theorists have yet to convince me why the term anthropocene is a better one to re-appropriate from the hard scientists than the term climate change, to explain the present and future social consequences of environmental changes happening as a result of accelerated co2 emissions…

    The former term was intended as a kind of descriptor to describe a shift in geological dating-time (it was also a term politically instrumental for hard scientists to drive home a much needed policy intervention)….the latter term a descriptor to explain and analyze the effects of this shift (and so presumable a much more than the former, expansive and generative term across disciplines)

    • Showeda

      For me, the term ‘anthropocene’ is a great connector of thoughts, responsibilities and movement (as in time)…There are all together far too many words that can be nuanced and morphed into the ether…’Climate Change’ for me was harder to ‘own’ it felt/feels too big as if we ‘humans’ had no control (I know, the irony right?!)…This isn’t as stupid as I’m making it sound…Human behaviour I think has changed almost fundamentally since we realised we were killing the planet…Short termism, aspiration-less action have become global epidemics…This term (at the moment) offers a more positive framework with which to rethink ourselves and our actions…Love the phrase…’in the domain of praxis everything is yet to be invented…’

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