LettersTheory & Practice

Chthulucene, Capitalocene, Anthropocene

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.[8]

Perhaps task is not debating names or trading stories, but negotiating between them, making comradely alliances. Is not Crutzen one of those curious scientist-intellectuals that Kim Stanley Robinson’s fiction trains us to look out for? Crutzen and his colleagues in the earth sciences have flagged something that needs to shape the agenda for knowledge, culture and organization. For those of us seeking to respond from the left, I think the authors presented in Molecular Red offer some of the best ways of processing that information. Bogdanov and Platonov would not really be surprised by the Anthropocene. They were already vulgar enough to think aspects of it already.

So let’s pop the following tools into the dillybag for future use: Something like an empirio-monism has its uses, because it is a way of doing theory that directs the tendency to spin out webs of metaphoric language to the task at hand. It steers the language arts towards agendas arising out of working processes, including those of sciences. It is agnostic about which metaphors best explain the real, but it sees all of them as substitutions which derive from the forms of labor and apparatus of the time.

Something like proletkult has its uses, as the project for the self-organization of the labor point of view. It filters research into past culture and knowledge through the organizational needs of the present. Those needs put pressure on the traditional catetory of labor, opening it towards feminist standpoints, not to mention our queer cyborg entanglements.

Something like a tektology has its uses, as a way of coordinating labor other than through exchange or hierarchy, or the new infrastructure of corporatized ‘networks.’ It communicates between labor processes poetically and qualitiatively. It is a training of the metaphoric wiliness of language towards particular applications which correspond to and with advances in labor technique.

Lastly, something like the utopia of Red Star has its uses, in motivating those working in separate fields to think beyond the fetishistic habits of the local and toward comradely goals. In the absence of a single counter-hegemonic ideology, perhaps something like a meta-utopia might be more useful, and more fun. Meta-utopia offers not so much an imaginary solution to real problems but a real problematizing of how to solve the differences between the imaginal as it arises from particular labor points of view.[9]

And so, to conclude with the slogan with which we began: Workings of the world untie! You have a win to world! It might be the slogan of a Cyborg International. One which already possesses in imagination the means and the will to undo the workings of the Anthropocene. One with nothing for it but to build the new living world within the ruins of the old one. We all know this civilization can’t last. Let’s make another.


[1] Donna Haraway, ‘Tenacular Thinking’, e-flux, 2016 http://www.e-flux.com/journal/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/ See also Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2016: https://www.dukeupress.edu/staying-with-the-trouble

[2] McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red, Verso Books, Brooklyn NY, 2015 https://www.versobooks.com/books/1886-molecular-red

[3] Paul Crutzen, ‘Geology of Mankind’, Nature, Vol. 415, No. 23, January 2002. The term Anthropocene was probably coined by Eugene Stoermer. See also Vaclav Smil, Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Taken from Nature, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2013.

[4] Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Will Steffen and Paul Crutzen, ‘The New World of the Anthropocene’, Environmental Science and Technology Viewpoint, Vol. 44, No. 7, 2010, pp. 2228-2231.

[5] For a thorough critique, see Eileen Crist, ‘On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature’, Environmental Humanities, No. 3, 2013. Her preferred term is Ecozoic, coined by ecotheologian Thomas Berry. But why should theologians still have the privilege of of naming the kainos?

[6] Donna Haraway, ‘Staying With the Trouble: Paper for Isabelle Stengers’, Cerisy, 2013, p. 26

[7] See Jason Moore Capitalism in the Web of Life, Verso Books, 2015, https://www.versobooks.com/books/1924-capitalism-in-the-web-of-life ; Haraway, ‘Staying with the Trouble’, ibid. Haraway is less interested in Lovecraft than in the fact that a spider native to her part of California is named after Cthluthu. I borrow #misanthropocene from Joshua Clover and Julianna Spahr, #misanthropocene: 24 Theses, Commune Editions, 2014 http://communeeditions.com/misanthropocene/ , although like all such terms it appears to have been invented spontaneously several times.

[8] Haraway attributes this slogan to Scott Giblert et al, ‘A Symbiotic View of Life’, Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 87, No. 4, December 2012. The classic statement of symbiosis as a basic metaphor is Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution, Basic Books, New York, 1998.

[9] See Chiara Bottici, Imaginal Politics: Images Beyond Imagination and the Imaginary, Columbia University Press, New York, 2014. Bottici is building on Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1998.

McKenzie Wark

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