In 2014, Open Humanities published Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (Open Humanities Press, 2014), a robust collection of essays, interviews and “vectors” co-edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin. Over the course of 400 pages, more than forty contributors provide an unflinching, polyvocal examination of artistic production in the Anthropocene. As Critical Climate Change editors Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook write in their introduction to the series “The possibility of extinction has always been a latent figure in the textual production and archives; but the current sense of depletion, decay, mutation and exhaustion calls for new modes of address, new styles of publishing and authoring, and new formats and speeds of distribution.” In the following interview, Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin describe their editorial process, articulating once more the need to disrupt petrocapitalism and the violence perpetuated by its entrenched hierarchies.
Caroline Picard: I’m curious about the character of your conversation as editors on Art in the Anthropocene—what made you come together, and what it was like to follow through on such an ambitious project?
Etienne Turpin: I wanted to work with Heather because her writing and research were already very influential on my thinking in Architecture in the Anthropocene (2013), in which she made several key contributions, but also because she was a colleague whose thinking I admire and respect. Fortunately, she was interested to work on this collection together, and we shared an interest in moving beyond a standard academic collection to include many voices that often get “edited out” through a credentialized, patriarchal, and white supremacist process of publishing in the Higher Education industry. We both had ideas about who to invite and how to proceed, and I learned a lot as we made the book together. It was a serious project—I think for both of us—because the Anthropocene was becoming a thing, and we wanted that thing to remain political and meaningful; it has, of course, become a theme, and a rather sad theme in many instantiations, but I think the book was an attempt to keep alive a trajectory of thinking, and to explore it with thinkers, artists, and writers with whom we shared some affinities.
Heather Davis: I was keen to work on a book that drew together my interests in art, politics, and environmental thought. Etienne’s and my own commitments and perspectives both converged and diverged throughout the project, and so part of the reason the book contains so many different lines is that we opted for the plurality produced through the tension in our different positions and geographical locations. We were both committed to trying to retain the Anthropocene as a political concept, as Etienne says. Also, we both reject traditional hierarchies being applied to the modes of thinking that art, writing, and conversation enable. Each of these forms is necessary when working through the ecological horrors and their attendant social crises in this historical moment. The art projects that are published in the book are not an afterthought nor are they used as illustrations; instead, they are valuable, nuanced ways to engage with the affective complexity of living through these difficult times.
CP: At one point in your introduction, you suggest that “the arts can be a way of attuning to new realities,” almost as an antidote, I think, to culture’s fast-assimilation of facts, conditions, and terms. I was wondering if you could talk more about how you see art’s role, and what art and philosophy might have in common?
HD: One of the things that is so strange about our current moment is that the world we are born into changes, has changed, is changing, so fast that it is almost unrecognizable, even within a relatively short lifetime. The kinds of tacit knowledge we have about a place cannot be assumed to continue. I am thinking of everything from technological change to when a river will freeze or what kinds of plants or animals one might run across. The forms of knowledge that people (and animals and plants) have carried from generation to generation for thousands of years are becoming less and less stable, making their use equally precarious. We are having to learn to adapt at a pace that is unprecedented, all to keep up with the fantasy of unending economic growth. These kinds of changes are aesthetic changes, changes to our systems of sensing and feeling. Art practices have deep vocabularies with which to express and explore the strangeness of our present, its contradictions, and the ways we are moving and being moved. Art practices can provide a secular space of ritual and engagement with the affective horrors of our times in a way that allows us to feel without becoming completely overwhelmed or desensitized.
Philosophy can also be creative and meaningful, it can help find ways to develop structures of relation and feeling that allow us to move through, to continue. In developing concepts, philosophy or critical theory helps us to name structures of power and new modes of existence.
Of course, each of these modes, despite our attachments to them, are completely enmeshed in capitalism’s systems of accumulation. They are not enough. We need direct action and government policies that address the problems that we are living through. But we also need ways of feeling and thinking that allow us to continue without falling apart. Art and philosophy can be ways of making sense, of providing modes of futurity, and propositions for living differently.
ET: I agree completely with Heather on this point; for me, personally, philosophy and art are practices that help keep me together amidst the violence of the present while, at the same time, connecting my work as a researcher to other transversal elements which cross paths conceptually or pragmatically. A remarkable thing, isn’t it, that art and philosophy can both keep you together and pull you apart?
I’d just add to what Heather wrote that I think that philosophy and art are engaged, in a fundamental way, with what Deleuze identified as a problem of the cliche. It is not that thinking or artistic production face a blank page (or a blank canvas), but one that is so full of cliches that it prevents thought or sensation from unfolding during an encounter. So, perhaps this was present as well in the book: how can we approach the Anthropocene, with its climate migrations and resource wars, its mass extinction and ecocide, without adding to the cliches already filling our thoughts and perceptions in a world of mass media? How to make sense and make thought that avoids the reductive trap of the trending cliche?
CP: Going to this idea of epistemological diversity, does the banner of the Anthropocene offer new possibilities for that vision? What role might translation play in such an endeavor?
HD: I think the Anthropocene offers the possibility of genuinely working across different academic disciplines, from the humanities, the arts, the social sciences and the natural sciences. It is a concept that has sparked a lot of dialogue among these epistemological communities and has prompted new methodologies that seek to link and take seriously different disciplines. There have been some interesting moments in the humanities incorporating geologic and biologic thinking into our understanding of the human. Unfortunately, I think there is a lot of work to be done for the Anthropocene to not simply be a reiteration of white supremacist, European, patriarchal thought. We can see this in the unquestioned re-assertion of Man as the signifier of humanity, and White Man as both the ultimate villain and paradoxical saviour of the Earth. These narratives are incredibly damaging and it is deeply troubling that they are being re-told as part of the Anthropocene story. This is what Zoe Todd takes aim at in her brilliant essay “Indigenizing the Anthropocene,” the blind re-articulation of white supremacist logics couched in psuedo-scientific language.
ET: I agree with Heather on this point as well; while there is an incredible opportunity to leverage the Anthropocene as a context which demands the complete overhaul of the disciplines in the Higher Education Industry, committed, engaged post-disciplinary research remains precariously on the fringe despite so much lip service being paid to collaboration by university deans and presidents.
Meanwhile, you have the journal Telos publishing an issue called “Political Critiques of the Anthropocene” with only male European contributors. In 2015! Maybe the left of the European academia isn’t so far from the patriarchal white supremacy of Donald Trump after all?! It seemed like it must be a joke, or something from The Onion, but it wasn’t at all. The blindness that allows Telos editors to reproduce patriarchy in this way is no different from any other status quo comportment to the violence of the present, or toward the political economic system we call capitalism. Of course, this is just one among countless other possible examples.
But, please let me try saying this another way: if the practices that converge in and through encounters with the Anthropocene—whether as a discourse or as an existential condition—do not work to dismantle patriarchal white supremacy and Eurocentrism, they won’t have achieved much. Sure, Telos might appear to be relevant, or even contemporary, or someone might add a few lines to their CV or shore up their tenure case, but enduring the Anthropocene requires a renewed, militant attention to the organization of power and its everyday reproduction, which is not some academic trend but a vital part of political struggle within a history of “emancipatory social practices,” as Félix Guattari might say.
CP: You connect the violence of petrocapitalism with white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and ableism, offering this elegant and seemingly effortless capsule of why the Anthropocene is so entwined with both human society and the environment, a capsule that reiterates the entanglements of our world. As Heather points out in her essay on plastic, it seems impossible to stop producing the stuff without creating a massive disruption in global society. How can we move forward within the paradox that many of the systems of civilization (particularly Western civilization), which were devised for its subsistence, are both extremely harmful and yet impossible to step outside of without spurning some other form of violence? How would humanity accomplish such a change, or is this change what we should aim for?
HD: It is certainly what we should aim for. There are lots of people who are living in the world who have knowledge of how to live well without this ecocidal violence. You are right that such a drastic shift will signal the end of this world, and that will cause a huge amount of disruption, but thinking about this moment historically is useful. Capitalism has only been around for a few hundred years. Industrialization is an even shorter period. And the world that we are living in is undergoing rapid change all the time. It seems strange that we are so willing to embrace so many kinds of change that continue ongoing violence in tacit and explicit ways, but are so reticent to embrace change that would result in a lessening of this violence—of course the reasons for this are structural, but we need, at least, to hold on to a perspective that what we are living through is an anomaly and that there are multiple ways of living differently. We don’t need petrocapitalism to survive; it is slowly killing everything we need, from human knowledge systems and cultural vibrancy to the air and water and land and other-than-human creatures. How to go about creating this change, undoing petrocapitalist logics and subjectivities and cultural systems is a different question, but there is no doubt that this system is slowly strangling most of us and it is imperative that we end it. Keep it in the Ground or Idle No More are future forms of resistance enacted in the present, vital forces that show a way forward.
ET: Of course, it is true that radically undoing an omnicidal system like capitalism will cause tremendous stress on all related systems, no doubt. Are those stresses and challenges worth enduring, worth considering as amor fati, given that capitalism is programmed to resist all reform and kill everything on earth for the obscene, unprecedented profit of literally less than 100 billionaires? Jacob Wren’s recent book Rich and Poor takes up this question with incredible elegance and humor; in essence, he asks us to reimagine class struggle in the context of the Anthropocene, where “man to man” antagonisms are displaced by precarious affinities, contingent alliances, and an array of entangled forces that cultivate resurgent, albeit “post-heroic,” political struggles.
CP: When the Anthropocene asks that we revisit so many priorities, I wonder how it might influence our sense of the self?
HD: In The Three Ecologies, Guattari talks about the necessity of addressing not just the ecology of the natural world, but the social and psychic ecology. In many ways, this assertion underlies our editorial decisions in the book. We want to address not only the ways in which petrocapitalism is tearing apart the earth and the other-than-human creatures that we share the planet with, depend upon, and are composed of, but to seriously think through the forms of social and psychic life that are created, what Brett Bloom calls petrosubjectivity. Many of the essays, interviews, and art projects which appear in the book are experiments in how to inhabit the world and the notion of the self differently. What might it mean to think about temporality outside of the logics of everyday capitalism, as Ada Smailbegovi? asks? Or, what does it mean to think about history from the point of view of a human-made organism, as Terike Haapoja and Laura Gustafsson do with cattle? And, how might we imagine, with Natasha Myers, what we are living through beyond the teleological assumptions of the apocalypse with all its masculinist fantasies? Each of these questions are about the kinds of subjects we are and might become. These thought experiments in imagining the self differently are central to the process of undoing petrocapitalism, even if we cannot stop there.
ET: Your question is extremely important. Why edit a book together? Why work with others—others who have different ideas, perspectives, concerns, passions, convictions—if not to be remade by these encounters? For me Art in the Anthropocene is like a well-crafted scrapbook from a period of extremely painful reflection on the violence of the present, a period of thinking and reworking how I could sustain a commitment to struggle through my practice and my encounters with others. There is no contribution that did not change my perspective on my own work and on the condition of the Anthropocene, not to mention how co-editing the book with Heather and designing the book with Sara Dean shaped other lines of inquiry related to my practice as a designer and curator. If by reading this book other people are remade a little too, I would be pleased; I was changed by the project and I am grateful to Heather, Sara, and all the contributors for helping me encounter new ways to believe in the world. So, as we write in the introduction: “We can’t say where it goes; in bringing together these essays, projects, and interviews, the measure of our work will be the measurelessness of the worlds which take little bits of this book elsewhere to resist, struggle, and become-together something more powerful than universals and more sensitive than identities.”
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