Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian agreed to answer a few questions about their latest collaborative and editorial endeavor, Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, a publishing project where contributing authors reflect upon the demands of Anthropocenic thinking and the many, nuanced intersections between humanity and ecology. In the following interview, Howe and Pandian, explore the tensions a word can contain. Howe is an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at Rice University and co-hosts the “Cultures of Energy” podcast; Pandian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.
Caroline Picard: In the opening paragraph for Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, you describe the speed at which the word “Anthropocene” has spread and taken root, perhaps not only in academic discourse, but also popular imagination.
Cymene Howe: The channels that the Anthropocene now occupies are multiple and in many ways this has happened incredibly quickly in both academic and popular discourse. However, I also believe that the term, and especially its implications, has not gone fast, or far, enough. Academics (myself included) have spent time debating whether the term is adequate, or whether it is yet another instance of scholarly jargon that will soon evaporate and be forgotten. In the popular media however, the term has generally failed to take hold. Every day we read about climatological symptoms (wildfires in California or massive flooding in Louisiana being merely two that are front page news at the moment). In these conditions, it seems to me that the Anthropocene ought to be a more robust dimension in mainstream news cycles and for that matter, our social media flow. Beyond simply assuring that the term itself is in circulation, it is crucial that its representational work become part of wider and deeper conversations. I wonder how our political and economic discourses might change if we were really to become collectively and critically aware of the conditions that the Anthropocene represents: the human deformation of Earth.
CP: Is the speed at which the word is assimilating useful?
Anand Pandian: Speed is a strange thing, having so much to do, as a sensation, with where you are placed when you feel it; think, for example, of this Earth we are so worried about now, rocketing through the cosmos at the rate of 65,000 miles per hour. I am quite struck myself at the way in which thinkers and tinkerers of so many kinds—artists, poets, critics, writers, activists, academics—seem to have seized on this neologism as an emblem for this time. To me, this speaks to the workings of the imagination, the way that vectors of drift, trespass, and boundary-crossing can be unleashed by the force of the right kind of image. Let’s not forget this, that the Anthropocene is in fact an image, an arresting and persuasive image, an image of the Earth as captive to the machinations of one species conceived in singular terms. There has been some very interesting historical work on the imaginative impact of the Apollo mission photographs of the Earth as a whole in the 1970s: the relationship between the famous “blue marble” image, for example, and the burgeoning environmental movements of that decade. It strikes me that the Anthropocene may possibly become that kind of image for our time, a sharp refocusing of what is happening now, how we understand what is happening in the time that we call “now,” through a radical shift of perspective. Of course we know that there were serious and constitutive limits to what took place in the name of environmentalism in the 1970s, and hence all the more reason to be vigilant about what is being said and done in the name of the Anthropocene, and whether these things can be bent and turned a bit.
CH: If we agree that an awareness of the Anthropocene’s consequences ought to be more widely understood and confronted, we can also engage the speed of its discursive distribution as rhetoric and metaphor of the present. We live in an accelerated world. That means increased resource use, manufacture and trade as well as faster communication and travel, all of which have their externalities in regards to Earth’s climate system. Speed has become a habit. And in this sense it should not surprise us that terminology also moves rapidly, blazing along at light speed through media conduits. In a theoretical sense, speed is an essential condition of the Anthropocene as a concept. Many observers, as we know, cite the “Great Acceleration” following World War II—the quickened pace of goods-production, transportation and increased use of fossil fuels—as the crucial temporal phase that gave rise to what we now call the Anthropocene. In other words, if we take speed—its physics, mechanics and discursive thrust—and map it onto our bio- litho- aqua- and atmospheres, the quotient we get looks very much like what we have come to think of as the Anthropocene.
CP: How do we shore that up against the fact that the term hasn’t been officially approved?
CH: The fact that the International Commission on Stratigraphy has not codified the Anthropocene as a geologic epoch is not, for me, a concern. Geology is a slow science, in the best of ways. Perhaps the careful consideration of a scientific community that operates in such slowly-unfolding timescales is a needed antidote to our accelerationist tendencies. Rushing to adopt the designation of Anthropocene might in fact jeopardize the methodical authority of our earth scientists. What is more meaningful for me than the consecration of the term is the fact that the person (Jan Zalasiewicz) who is leading the Special Working Group on the Anthropocene (that will submit its findings and conclusions to the Commission) is an inclusive thinker who values not only the physical sciences but the social ones as well; he and others are speaking across disciplinary divides to arrive at better understandings and better analytics. To state what might now be a truism, working in collaboration and pooling our collective knowledge is, really, the only way forward in this era, whatever its name.
CP: I find the question of agency really interesting and difficult with regard to the Anthropocene. One friend recently mentioned that he didn’t feel we were ready for the term to become a political vehicle for action, because we didn’t yet know what “Anthropocene” meant, or even how best to approach it—I think he was imagining that at this stage the term could easily be co-opted by a number of agendas that could just as easily argue, for instance, to reinforce national borders or relax them in the face environmental crisis. These discussions, and maybe also your title “for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen” attributes a significant and ambivalent amount of power to the word. What does the word Anthropocene do for you? Is it too weird to ask what it’s “nature” might be?
CH: The worries expressed by your friend are likely warranted. Anthropocene is a world-engulfing concept, utterly comprehensive and drawing everything and being imaginable into its purview, both in terms of geographic scales and temporal duration. And it is a term and condition that has crisis at its fulcrum. This means that it is the sort of concept that risks becoming a vehicle for particularly corrosive restrictions, military measures, and all manner of abuses in its name. The feminist philosopher, Isabelle Stengers, has shared similar concerns and offers several reflections on these potentialities. In the epoch of the Anthropocene, and in the name of securing the climate (and all that thrives from it), she recognizes that “Man will be called on to mobilize” with all his/our [?] technoscientic resources at hand. She warns that a future with “unhappily necessary,” measures is, therefore, not far off. Within Stengers’s worries is a culprit, or better put, a causality, that fuels a draconian future: predatory capitalism. She calls this condition a “waking nightmare” where States have ceded control of the future to an oligarchy of the super-rich. What we might abstract from Stengers’s concerns is that while we must acknowledge that climate change is “real” (always a fraught term for a philosopher!), our political economic system is exacerbating that reality. Combining climate crisis with predatory capitalism offers up a toxic brew that can be used by the powers that be to exert controls, potentially unprecedented controls.
CP: How does someone, just an average person going about their lives, respond to that fear?
CH: So, one question that we need to collectively pose is how to diminish the power of predatory capitalism; or on a more radical note: how to drive it to extinction in order to get on with the work of reverse engineering the ecocide it has produced.
AP: This is precisely where the “yet unseen” comes in. For, like any moment of intense movement and dynamism, the energy swirling now around the Anthropocene idea cannot be contained or domesticated by any one dominant understanding. I think it’s useful to think of the Anthropocene as an opening to imagine the present in contrary terms, and to engage creatively with this opening in lending force or momentum to more heterodox imaginations and movements. It fascinates me, for example, that we have seen such a proliferation of “alters” to the Anthropocene: Anthrobscene, Chthulucene, Eurocene, Misanthropocene, Plasticene, and so on, each tilting away from the epochal impetus to stress some other feature, to make some other feature more palpable as a way of redefining what exactly it is that we share now by way of ecological implicatedness. We have further, yet-to-be-published entries to our lexicon that will push these alternatives further, proposing Simulocene, Prometheocene, and many other such names. I think there’s something refreshing, and, dare I say hopeful in the evidence of such play. The Anthropocene is “good to think,” to borrow a phrase from the structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. With the idea of a lexicon, we are less interested in an authoritative redefinition of the term than in helping to propel its radicalization to the point where it could speak more effectively to the experience of a wider range of contemporary human societies and circumstances.
CP: How do you see anthropology’s role changing in the Anthropocene? What might be asked of the discipline that wasn’t asked before?
CH: We could say that anthropology has been doing the Anthropocene all along. The discipline is singular in its breadth of attention to humanity as humanity. This includes realizing all the idiosyncrasies of cultures and the historical roots that help produce them. Anthropology is also unique, I would argue, in its attention to the nexus of deep time and human life. The discipline’s project writ large and historically has been to trace humanity’s journey from pre-history to the present. An archaeological excavation, for example, is intended to unearth the stratigraphy of human presence. This includes postholes and mounds of shells, but it also includes how human footfall has transformed the earth’s crust, carving out paths or remaking its surface with tools and labor. In the branch of anthropology that attends to primates, evolution and biology we also find a careful rendering of human history as a biochemical and material process of growth (and retreat) that is embodied, literally and iteratively, through the human form itself.
Returning to your earlier question on the “nature” of the Anthropocene, anthropology also offers insights because the nature of the Anthropocene is our nature as well. The Anthropocene has been understood as human impact upon earth systems; but it is also important to recognize that the fossilized logics that have flowed from oil and coal—which has largely induced a planetary Anthropocene—has also utterly conditioned our humanity. That is, we cannot see our human being, in the present, as anything other than a human order that is deeply inscribed by oil and coal, and more broadly by each of the fossilized materials we have unearthed and burned. These fossils drove industrialization, they made modernity, if you will (even with all the provisos associated with the concept of “modernity.”) If we follow Timothy Mitchell’s work for example (2011) we find that coal—with its particular material form: relatively solid and mined in certain parts of the world—facilitated the emergence of 20th century liberal democracy. With the injection of oil, various elements of that mission were liquidated. The global economy now depends on oil and its material viscosity has proven sticky in various ways, from military interventions to a reshaping of geopolitics. Put more bluntly, fossil fuels are powerful shit. That is why it is important in this era, to face the fundamental recognition that our sources of energy, what now appear to be diabolical world-wreckers, are a part of us, especially that “us” that resides in the industrialized north. We are constitutionally implicated. As we think about how our energy decisions over the last couple of hundred years have come home to roost in injured eco- and atmospheres, I think it is critical that these forms of energy be taken for what they are: not just what we utilize, but what we are, politically, socially and one could argue, biochemically as well. It is not just that human imprudence with fossilized matter has transformed the Earth; it has altered humans as well.
AP: All of these crucial developments that Cymene describes help to underscore the unique and important place for anthropology in these conversations, for it is this discipline that has dedicated itself most doggedly to an investigation of the human, anthropos, as a problem and a horizon. Anthropology has always been a speculative enterprise, wagered on the chance to surpass some fixed picture of the human and its limits. Take, for example, this sentence from the conclusion to one of the founding works in the field, Bronislaw Malinowski’s 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific: “Though it may be given to us for a moment to enter into the soul of a savage and through his eyes to look at the outer world and feel ourselves what it must feel to him to be himself—yet our final goal is to enrich and deepen our own world’s vision, to understand our own nature and to make it finer, intellectually and artistically.” The language of radical foreignness and indeed savagery in this sentence may remind us of the discipline’s dark birth in the crucible of European colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And yet we may also see glimpse here an intellectual practice of taking the human, some canonical understanding of the human, beyond itself. It’s no accident that Malinowski uses the word “nature” here, I should also emphasize, for there has always been an ecological dimension to anthropological thinking and writing. The discipline has always been dedicated to excavating a thickness of local context in social, geographic, and physical terms, and to conveying this thickness as an essential part of the story through the genre of exploratory writing we’ve come to call ethnography. One of the questions that runs through our lexicon project, perhaps as a muted register but present here nonetheless, is whether and how these legacies of anthropology can be enlisted in the project to conceive this Anthropocene, for this is a discourse that tends to take the human as a given all too quickly and easily.
CP: At one point, Cymene, you write “Geological time parallels with other scenics, like changed landscapes. But timely thinking brings us equally to another sensibility of the scene: pulling back the curtains on the human spectacle of the Anthropocene. Infact, if anthropos belongs anywhere in the scene, it must be to acknowledge that he has behaved with histrionic indulgences, like bouts of carbon binging. Next to geological, climatological, and seemingly impossible timescales, we have another kind of scene: tantrums and human melodrama. Tales of Armageddon, apocalypse, and emergency convey the panic that ensues in the mad dash to save human life (Colebrook 2012). The sky is falling, and we get to hear the countdown in terms of parts per million as the air around us continues to carbonize. This scene is like a staged event—waiting in the dark wondering if the knife will show up in the first act, so that we can know how it all will end.” How does the Anthropocene call for us to relearn how to tell time? What is the relationship between knowledge and imagination in that relearning process?
CH: I am glad that you brought up the conjunction of imagination and knowledge as integral to relearning how to tell time. We often think of the phrase “telling time” in a fairly instrumental way: you ask me the time of day and I respond with a quantitative account of the present (usually from a clock) through the coordinates of dawn and dusk. But if we allow ourselves to blur that modality, we can imagine different ways of “telling time.” The Anthropocene, for instance, is a telling time; it marks off a chronological field not by way of the planet’s movement around the sun (dawn and dusk) but by way of human accretions, deposits, and sediments. In a different sense, but one that is not without analogy to the first, we can say that the Anthropocene compels us to encounter time differently. This is primarily what I was playing with in the essay you mention. For humans to take responsibility (or blame) for a geologic epoch necessarily forces our thinking back into the rather unimaginably deep time of rock and magma and tectonic plates. This is difficult for us. (Imagine thinking ourselves geologically!) But more difficult still might be the skill of envisioning forward. At the level of individual subjectivity, we each have a history and so one might say that we can—as beings equipped with grammar as well as experience—think about and imagine the, and our own, past. But our particular future we have not yet lived; we can postulate outcomes, but this limited to a cognitive, and maybe affective, dimension of futurity. Casting our sights seven, twelve, seventy-two generations forward, as the Anthropocene asks us to do, is a true challenge. I don’t know of the algorithm that might help us achieve that sort of long-range imaginary, but I do hope we will find one.
Another take on our time, and its potential, might be to think in terms of a “Betacene.” The Anthropocene has us working with incongruous time scales: geological time encountering the immediacy of catastrophe. While the Holocene may have been the age in which we learned our letters and our agriculture, we are now faced with a genealogy of circulations and reciprocities between humans and other beings that demands, I believe, some experimental plasticity. As we know, the Anthropocene may be more or less “new” depending on how one measures it; but whatever its age, it is an improvisational time for us and our Others. We must innovate new ways of being in, and with, the world. Taking a cue from digital technologies that capture their users’ encounter in what designers call the “beta” mode, I have wondered if we can think about this time as a Betacene. In the Beta phase, a collective re-making occurs, the “user experience” gets honed; bugs and viruses pop out and slippage happens. The Beta-phase is about finding out what goes wrong. The Betacene could be a time to reverse-engineer ourselves toward a less im-perfect humanity: a chance to displace Alpha and a way to rethink ourselves not as apex species but as open to revision. This might be our opportunity to create a plan “B.”
CP: I would love to talk a bit about your contribution, Anand. At one point your write, “plastic as a material has always yielded objects in the form of questions: what else could your life become in the company of this shiny new thing?” You also link to video essay, “Wine Dark Plastic Sea,” where you connect Homer’s Mediterranean Sea to the Chesapeake Bay. Despite the staggering statistics on the volume of plastic the human species use on a regular basis, you maintain a level of optimism, ending your video essay with an observation. “We still have the chance to learn with these things and their buried energies,” you say, “the most crucial lesson of all: what would it take to live profoundly otherwise?” Can you talk about that ending note?
AP: It’s a difficult note to hold, and I certainly find its tone and tenor wavering in my own wrestling with the subject. I’ve begun to do field research for a new book on this material, plastic, a substance at the heart of so many of the utopian aspirations of the twentieth century and yet, now, one of the most potent embodiments of contemporary ecological nightmare. I’ve been working a lot with artists and activists in various places who are grappling with the astonishing proliferation of plastic detritus on beaches around the globe, and are experimenting with various ways of calling attention to what this is doing to marine life and the health of the oceans. I had the chance to spend a couple of days this summer on the Greek island of Kefalonia, a stone’s throw from the island of Ithaca that is mentioned in this particular video essay of mine. I was there to get a sense of the work of an American artist, Pam Longobardi, who has been working on the island of Kefalonia for about a decade now, cleaning beaches of plastic waste and making sculptural installations from the plastic objects she finds. I learned how to “snorkel” for brightly colored bits of underwater plastic debris with Longobardi, a poignant departure from the piscine adventures we typically seek, and we spent an afternoon cleaning out bagloads of plastic detritus from a sea cave: nets, straws, bottle caps, fraying bits of an abandoned polyurethane foam mattress, but also curious and even mythological figures that we found in this mass of anthropogenic debris, like toy action heroes, toy fighter planes, and even one sage-like plastic creature with a flowing beard and a staff in hand. To see all this in person, to see a Shell oil bottle cap side by side with “real” seashells as we did one afternoon, can be harrowing and even paralyzing. But there is indeed hope in the kind of work that Longobardi and many other artists and activists are doing now in encouraging us to attend anew to materials and objects we would otherwise neglect, and aspirations that bring us back to the original sense of plastic as material capable of being molded and shaped. Plastic has always come with an attendant promise of plasticity, concerning the malleability not only of the material itself but also of those who live with it. And here, once again, I’m trying to think about whether this promise can be radicalized in a way that might allow for a more livable future, whether plastic and plasticity can be taken as openings to reflect upon the radical forms of change that this new awareness of the age seems to demand.
CP: One of the things that I love about your project is how on the one hand you are tackling a very large topic, one almost impossible to conceive fully, and yet at the same time you all suggest looking at it in very small parts or windows. Similarly, I feel like the texts that you include—despite being assembled under a massive heading of “Lexicon”—are manageable, short, and generous. Was that an editorial decision that you all began with?
AP: The whole process has been curious, and strangely invigorating. As we mention in the online introduction to the collection, the very genesis of the project was a certain kind of accident, an academic conference panel that looked like it might fall apart altogether when it turned out that half the panel could not be present for it, a circumstance that led us to put out an impromptu call for many more brief “pop-up” presentations instead. The energy in that room was frankly electrifying, and we decided to pursue the conversation further online, where once again we could work with a platform that allowed for further brief contributions to emerge organically from the circulation of the series among a widening readership. We have about thirty entries online now and the full collection, when published as a book in the near future, will have about twice as many. Working in this fashion has enabled us to let the momentum of the process lead the broadening and deepening of the Lexicon, rather than having all of this dictated with a very heavy hand by the two of us. Some of the most unique and engaging contributions—such as the redolent pair already up online, Shit and Flatulence—were essays that were floated to us as ideas by scholars who were excited by what they had already read online. We’re very happy to have a mix now of anthropologists, humanists, artists and other writers as contributors, with an interesting balance as well between senior scholars and students just pulling together their dissertation research. It’s become a space of collective speculation, which is how it should be, I think.
CH: Many, though certainly not all, authors in the collection are anthropologists who have been trained to focus on the intimate, local and ethnographic while also being conscious of meta-conditions and contexts that form human life in its close encounters. The local, however, cannot really be distinguished without its foil: the “global” or “universal.” So the question is how to limn these dimensions. Planetary changes are happening, every single one of them, from the reduction of the albedo effect in the Arctic (loss of ice-reflectivity) to deluges and heat spells that are increasingly “unprecedented.” These events are occurring somewhere, affecting some person, now. And now, again. One way to comprehend the particular punctuations of the Anthropocene is to magnify these intimacies of event, both theoretically and narratively. As we have been continuing to collect essays and artworks for the Lexicon, I have begun to see it as a pointillist project, little pinholes that light up the Anthropocene from the inside. This abides with an impulse to draw our readers tightly into a moment. Much of the time the Anthropocene augurs an affective sense of overwhelmed abjection or apathy. It behaves as a set of circumstances wherein individual humans feel disempowered against seemingly impossible odds. Climate change, like Timothy Morton has signaled with his idea of “hyperobjects,” is effectively, and in sum, beyond human comprehension, in its massive scale, generational effects and widely distributed impacts. That is a fair way of describing the Anthropocene to be sure. But even hyperobjects are made up of myriad acts and deferrals. Multiply them and you have the foundations of the Anthropocene. And we have been multiplying. The Lexicon is not an antidote to the magnitudes we are facing, but it is a way into possible other futures through careful and thoughtful reflection. Our hope is that each essay is rich individually, while also speaking in parallel to a whole vocabulary, in a lexicon, that is hopeful toward futures we might create.
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