Humanities under the Sign of the Anthropocene

The University of Nebraska held a “Future of the Humanities” symposium on March 9 and 10, 2017. Here is the talk I delivered.


About 25 years ago, when the poet Gary Snyder was asked what literary period he identified with, he replied “the Holocene.” It sounds like a joke, but he wasn’t really kidding. Taking the long view, he described “the present” era as the last 10 or 11 thousand years, since the end of the last Ice Age. It is, he said, the world in which we were living, with a particular suite of familiar flora and fauna, and a relatively stable and predictable climate and sea level. He suggested that a recognizable style of human culture developed at the beginning of the Holocene, and as a poet he continues performing in that style. This all makes sense if you know Snyder’s archaic and elemental work. But then he also suggested that the Holocene is likely to last another 10 thousand years. And though Snyder has been right about many things, he seems, alas, to have been wrong about that.

As is now widely if not universally accepted, we seem to have departed the Holocene epoch and crossed the threshold into the Anthropocene, the epoch of Humans. I accept this as highly likely, and offer that it has profound implications for the future of the humanities.

Often conflated with one of its more obvious and most politicized manifestations, climate change, the Anthropocene actually signals many other human-caused planetary changes that amount to an inadvertant terraforming project, including mass extinctions, unprecedented human-aided migration of species between continents, ocean acidification, the collapse of coral reefs, massive soil erosion, nuclear testing, and a host of other deleterious effects of human habitation on planet Earth.

51xvrSzDFJL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_As Timothy Clark notes in his recent book Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (which I’ve recently taught and to which I will return frequently) “The term [Anthropocene] has rapidly become adopted in the humanities in a sense beyond the strictly geological. Its force is mainly as a loose, shorthand term for all the new contexts and demands – cultural, ethical, aesthetic, philosophical and political – of environmental issues that are truly planetary in scale” (2).

We humanities folks are inclined to blame our colleagues in other fields for the ecosystemic collapses and other calamities that have ushered in the Anthropocene: those ag school folks who foster massive changes in flora and fauna and blissfully tinker with the genes of other species (and indeed the beginning of agriculture is chosen by some as an early marker of the Anthropocene); or those engineers, who invented the steam engine and then petroculture and our fossil fuel dependence (and most folks cite the industrial revolution as the true beginning of the Anthropocene); or those physicists who split the atom (and the effects of their work will most assuredly be recorded as radioactive traces in the geologic strata for tens of millions of years). Or perhaps those business professors who promote neoliberal capitalism with no thought to its long-term consequences (and some argue that we should call this new epoch the capitalocene because of the primary role of capitalism in instigating environmental change). We humanities professors might smugly insist that it’s their fault that the planet is such a mess, these STEM and business guys.

Well yes, it is their fault, but it is our fault too. There’s plenty of fault to go around. We humanists, artists, and cultural producers of various kinds have contributed our share. And indeed, the very term Anthropocene bears our trace: Anthropos, of course, being just the Greek version of the Latin Human. How could we humanists not be implicated in the Anthropocene?

Though the tenor of this conference is to lament the general cultural weakness of the humanities, perhaps the humanities have done their work too well, centralizing our concerns upon ourselves, largely to the exclusion of consideration of our relationship to the 8 million other species on planet Earth, only an infinitesimally small fraction of whom ever appear in our humanistic and artistic productions.

As Clark notes, “In environmental contexts, humanism becomes another version of anthropocentrism, the evaluation of all other beings solely as they relate to human use or aims. (147). Humanism is a sort of intellectual solipsism.

In his manifesto on the importance of the Anthropocene, Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that “All progressive political thought, including postcolonial criticism, will have to register this profound change in the human condition.” This is true not just of progressive political thought, I would argue, but of humanistic thought as well; it too must register and respond to this profound change in the human and planetary condition.

Indeed a humanities for the Anthropocene probably should not be called “humanities” at all. The most commonly suggested alternative is “posthumanism,” which I have reservations about, but which probably is the term that has been settled upon and I’ll need to live with it. 

In the Anthropocene we can no longer operate as though humans are separate from and by implication if not outright claim more exalted than the rest of nature. We cannot study “us” without studying “it.” In fact we need to resist this very dichotomy. We are nature, we are animals, we are entirely constituted by our environment. Under the sign of the Anthropocene we need to recognize that all literature is environmental literature, all philosophy is environmental philosophy, all history is environmental history . . . all humanities are environmental humanities, whether labelled so or not.

Clark proposes that “An emergent effect of the Anthropocene is to revise strongly notions of what is or is not historically significant”  (52). In the context of my own field of Western literary studies, for example, I might suggest that what’s important about the gunfight at the OK corral is not the macho dispute between the Earps and the Glantons, not, that is, the gunfight, but, rather, the seemingly incidental feature, the corral: the environmental change it represents, which is a far more enduring legacy than who shot whom about what.

If the warnings of climate scientists are correct, and we have no reason to doubt them, in fact if anything they may be too conservative in their predictions, we and the planet we ride upon are in for some tough times. In fact those tough times are already upon us, as the ongoing collapse of the Great Barrier reef, one of the planet’s most precious biomes, demonstrates.

Given the realities we face, Clark asks “How . . .  to write literary criticism in a time of acknowledged mass extinction without just seeming absurd?”  (Clark 48). And I would extend his question, how can we conduct humanistic inquiry on the threshhold of the Anthropocene without seeming absurd, without seeming like Nero fiddling while the planet burns down around us. Clark asks us to “imagine the current canon of literature being read in some future . . . wasteland,  . . .  an Earth with no forests and in which no animal larger than a dog exists outside of factory farms or wildlife parks” (Clark 195). What will those readers think of us? Why, they will wonder, were we not bringing all of our intellectual and artistic capacities to bear on preventing the calamity that they now suffer.

The novelist Amitav Ghosh has raised a similar point:

51Kf4xo089L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museumgoers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they— what can they— do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”

He continues:

“And if the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over— and this, I think, is very far from being the case”  (Ghosh, 106).

Clark similarly notes that

“the stakes of the Anthropocene are so extraordinarily high – a sixth mass extinction event that, over the very brief geological timespan, could well see the extinction of a large percentage of life on Earth – that any [literary] text which simply perpetuates long-dominant assumptions about humanity and human society (and which do not?) must come to seem suspect.”

We intellectuals tend to mock climate change deniers, suggesting they are possessed of either untold stupidity or venality, or some noxious cocktail of both. But Clark and Ghosh are suggesting that we humanists, artists, thinkers, writers, intellectuals, are also climate change deniers. The implications of the Anthropocene have not affected our work. Like most people, we live our lives, for the most part, as though it were not happening, and more importantly for this symposium, our academic work continues blissfully along as though it were not happening. We purport to know better than climate change deniers, yet for the most part we act no differently from them.

In short, I would suggest if we are to have a humanities and an artistic and literary culture for the future, (indeed if we are to have any future at all) it must be a humanities fully informed by and responsive to the reality of the Anthropocene.

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