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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.

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McKenzie Wark

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