WHOSE ANTHROPOCENE? ‘Anthropocene Feminism’, edited by Richard Grusin

ECOCRITICISM NOW: The essays, reviews, and poetry collected in this thread trace responses to the interlinked terms nature, ecology, and ecocriticism, all of which have come to occupy increasingly important roles in a number of everyday and academic discourses over the last few decades. The “now” of its title is therefore not only a mark of the interest of certain contributions in the development of ecocritical theory (ecocriticism at this moment in time), but also an injunction, a call for more. This thread is co-edited by Tom White.


Richard Grusin, editor. Anthropocene Feminism (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

By Kate Lewis Hood

In Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993), Australian philosopher Val Plumwood argues that Western knowledge systems since the Enlightenment have relied on an idea of “nature” that is not only opposed to “culture” or “reason” but also placed beneath it in a hierarchy.[1] This conceptual arrangement is very similar to those that habitually marginalise and exclude certain human and nonhuman beings along lines such as gender, race, class, and species, as shown in a wide range of feminist and postcolonial thinking. Where Plumwood’s analysis is particularly insightful, though, is in identifying the function of “nature” and the “natural” as a connecting factor in these different oppressions. She suggests that the dualistic thinking that diminishes and depoliticises nature also diminishes and depoliticises women, racialized and colonised people because of the way their actions and labour have historically been subsumed under “nature”:

To be defined as “nature” … is to be defined as passive, as non-agent and non-subject, and the “environment” or invisible background conditions against which the “foreground” achievements of reason or culture (provided typically by the white, western, male expert or entrepreneur) take place.

For Plumwood, an environmentalism that seeks to challenge these hierarchical terms becomes a feminist project. Proposing a connection between women and nature was far from new in the 1990s, by which time an ecofeminist movement in the United States had already grown and declined. However, Plumwood’s emphasis on the structural rather than essential or spiritual aspects of this connection offered a crucial departure from these earlier ecofeminist traditions. Responding to environmental degradation, she suggested, requires something other than romanticised visions of restoration and harmony (often present in ecofeminist writings) or technological “fixes” (their masculinist counterpart), as both of these responses merely reaffirm the hierarchical divisions between human and nature and between man and woman that constitute “ecological rationality.” What is needed is a conceptual and critical shift to challenge this way of thinking as part of an intersectional, liberatory ethics and politics.

So what is the Anthropocene, and where does it fit into all of this? Named after the human (anthropos) and popularised by atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen as the “geology of mankind,” the Anthropocene refers to a proposed geological epoch in which human impact has been great enough to make a lasting inscription on the Earth’s systems and processes.[2] Although debates on the start date of the Anthropocene remain unresolved, its proponents agree that recent scales and rates of environmental change have been so significant that they will leave a record in the rocks. Yet, as Stacy Alaimo asks at the beginning of her chapter in Anthropocene Feminism:

“Who is the ‘anthro’ of the ‘Anthropocene’? In its ostensible universality, does the prefix suggest a subject position that anyone could inhabit?”

Alaimo’s argument is that the Anthropocene concept simply repeats old hierarchical binaries between “human” and “nature” and those included and excluded within them. In its claims for an emerging, exceptional capacity to alter the planet, it smooths over differences and inequalities across the human, denies agency to those considered “nature,” and paradoxically reasserts the power of the masculinist “master identity” that critics such as Plumwood sought to destabilise. In this sense, the Anthropocene threatens to undo decades of feminist and anticolonial work, even as it opens up new horizons for thinking about time, space, politics, and environment. This double-bind is what is at stake in the possibility of Anthropocene feminism.

The question of “whose Anthropocene?” echoes back and forth across Anthropocene Feminism and the 2014 conference at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee out of which the book emerged. Although varying widely in terms of disciplinary background and critical approach, the essays in the volume converge in their focus not so much on the what or the when of the Anthropocene, but instead on the who and the why and the how. Individually and collectively, they examine ways that the “human” and the “environment” are constituted by Anthropocene discourse, and attend to the inequalities of its inclusions and exclusions. The book loosely follows a trajectory from the theoretical to the more practical and creative, although the authors’ shared openness to traversing disciplinary boundaries and commitment to feminist politics renders absolute distinctions between theory and practice inadequate.

This question of “whose Anthropocene?” is also significant for its interrogative mood. In his introduction to the volume, editor Richard Grusin suggests that Anthropocene feminism demands different ways of thinking, including “speculation and imagination as forms of queer and feminist knowledge production.” Instead of a singular, techno-scientific account of knowledge in which “nature” is just another object to be known and controlled, the authors of Anthropocene Feminism offer multiple, situated knowledges, in which the questions are just as important as the answers. Setting the tone for the book in the opening chapter, Claire Colebrook frames her argument as a question: “What might it mean to think a counterfactual scenario where humans had not inflicted the difference of the Anthropocene on the planet?” By considering possibilities for alternative scenarios, she opens up the grounds for a more radical environmental politics in which humans are not the only actors. In addition to Colebrook’s speculative “counterfactual,” the volume offers a range of approaches, from Rosi Braidotti’s “theses” and Elizabeth A. Povinelli’s “figures” to Alaimo’s “thinking with” and Natalie Jeremijenko’s making with shelled marine creatures. Combining literary and cultural criticism, philosophy, anthropology, earth science, and visual art practice, the collection invites thought that is cross-disciplinary, exploratory, and unpredictable, sometimes even counterintuitive. Presented together, these different ways of knowing and imagining open up possibilities for working otherwise to the “ecological rationality” that Plumwood saw to be so damaging.

Several of the contributors choose to discuss (and often contest) historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ground-breaking article on the Anthropocene, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses,’ published in 2009.[3] Somewhat controversially in the context of his earlier postcolonial work, Chakrabarty argues that the Anthropocene demands a new “species history” that goes beyond histories of capital and colonisation. In Anthropocene Feminism, Braidotti responds with her own ‘Four Theses on Posthuman Feminism.’ She argues that feminist critiques of the “abstract masculinity, triumphant whiteness, and hegemonic able-bodiedness” that implicitly constitute a unitary “human” subject need to be amplified rather than abandoned in the Anthropocene. Braidotti proposes an alternative model of “posthuman” subjectivity in which the “embedded and embodied” and the “relational and affective” reveal the “human” to be a thing of porous boundaries and multiple differences. Alaimo also critiques Chakrabarty, arguing that he fails to acknowledge ways that humans are “interwoven into living and nonliving trans-corporeal networks” of bodies that are at once biological, chemical, and geological. Extending these vocabularies of vitality and responsiveness, Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr suggest that Chakrabarty’s analysis is politically “inert.” In doing so, they gesture towards the book’s wider motions to reanimate and rematerialize the terms of the Anthropocene debate.

Chapters by Colebrook, Braidotti, Povinelli, and Lynne Huffer each re-examine the nature of matter in relation to configurations of power. This engages with a growing body of theory that can be loosely categorised as “new materialism” or “new vitalism”, with notable examples including Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010) and the recent work of Elizabeth Grosz.[4] However, although each of these chapters seeks to challenge predominant conceptions of the Anthropocene as an abstract “humanity” acting on “nature” or “the environment,” their responses are far from homogeneous. Where Braidotti follows a lot of new materialist work in affirming differences as an attempt to enable political alliances across lively nature(s) in contrast to narrow hierarchical binaries, Colebrook argues for the importance of indifference in the Anthropocene. She challenges a focus on the exceptional – whether of exceptional human mastery and control or catastrophe and extinction – in claims for geological agency:

To live is to tend towards indifference, where tendencies and forces result less in distinct kinds than in complicated, confused, and disordered partial bodies.

For Povinelli and Huffer, the notion of “life itself,” on which much of new materialist thinking depends, can be called into question. Drawing from Michel Foucault’s genealogical approach to concepts and discourses, Huffer suggests rethinking life “not as a timeless metaphysical substance whose features are derived from modern biology but as a strange, nonhuman writing” that is unintelligible, disordered, and monstrous. Such an imaginary fundamentally challenges prominent Anthropocene ideas of a legible geological inscription arising from human agency.

In these accounts, Anthropocene feminism becomes about questioning existing logics and ways of knowing. Taking a more anthropological approach, Myra J. Hird and Alexander Zahara’s ‘The Arctic Waste’ traces historical and changing waste practices of Inuit and other aboriginal peoples in Iqaluit, northern Canada, in order to pose the Anthropocene as a partial problematic of Western cosmologies that separate humans from their environment. Similarly to the way that Plumwood demonstrated how racist, misogynist hierarchies are naturalised through ideas of “nature” and “environment,” Hird and Zahara note

[t]he long-standing association of waste, dirt and disease with racialized and colonized peoples as a justification for practices of subjugation.

They locate these logics in specific neo-colonial practices operating within globalised industrial capitalism and in the more speculative territories of deep time pasts and futures.

Spahr and Clover also locate the Anthropocene in colonial histories: using a native Hawaiian creation chant as their starting point, they argue that the Anthropocene is “not simply a period but a set of forces” in which forms of circulation particular to capital and empire materialise as political ecologies. Drawing on feminist Marxism, they identify a structural crisis in the globalised, patriarchal, capitalist system through which the Anthropocene unfolds. While the analyses of Hird and Zahara, and Clover and Spahr are helpful in challenging the Anthropocene’s Eurocentric biases, it is regrettable that the volume is lacking in non-white and indigenous contributions and perspectives, particularly given the issues of environmental injustice and neo-colonialism at stake.

Other chapters – in particular curator Dehlia Hannah’s conversation with artist Natalie Jeremijenko – put forward what Hannah calls a more “constructive” form of critique in which material and collaborative practices become key sites of enquiry and intervention. Much of Jeremijenko’s recent work has consisted of “experiments” involving human and non-human inhabitants of environments and communities in which she is working. Drawing on a range of expertise (including her own background in computer science and engineering) but seeking to decentre “the peer-reviewed academic journal article,” she makes innovative proposals and projects for “more convivial, socially situated, embodied, contextual knowledge production.” Developing collective experiments between scientists, citizens, and nonhuman participants such as the mussels in her MUSSELxCHOIR work, she refigures the Anthropocene as an “invitation”: to think differently, to experiment, even to intervene. She argues that

[h]aving these small-scale material experiments is the only way we can explore the cultural, technical, environmental, social, and political implications of changing our shared environmental commons.

The Anthropocene opens up the possibility to “design” these emerging commons in radical, responsible ways, working against a model of singular masculine agency but nonetheless resisting a motion to retreat.

It is here that Grusin’s subtitle of “an experiment in collaborative theorizing” seems most accurate and effective. Perhaps better thought of as an ideal or an ongoing project rather than fixed description, this subtitle points towards the potential of the interdisciplinary edited collection as a productive and dynamic format in which to grapple with political, ethical, and environmental questions on the Anthropocene’s scale. In this sense, the book fits in well with important predecessors such as Material Feminisms (2008), edited by Alaimo and Susan Hekman, and the more recent Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (2017), edited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt. In these cases, editorial decisions regarding the ordering of material are important, and it is interesting that in Anthropocene Feminism, earth scientist Jill S. Schneiderman’s chapter on the stratigraphic intricacies of the Anthropocene is not placed first as a way to “explain” the term. However, as it stands, the book as a whole feels a little top-heavy, with the sole-authored theoretical chapters in the first half slightly distanced from the more diverging approaches of the second. Perhaps greater interspersion of these different approaches would have invited in more readers from the outset, and enabled more unexpected passages of thought.

Nevertheless, Anthropocene Feminism undoubtedly makes an important intervention in the Anthropocene controversy, questioning the terms of the debate but also its claims to novelty. As Grusin writes in the introduction, although the Anthropocene appears as the new, it has a long history in critical thinking that needs to be recovered:

the concept of the Anthropocene has arguably been implicit in feminism and queer theory for decades, a genealogy that is largely ignored, or, worse, erased, by the masculine authority of an institutional scientific discourse that now seeks to name our current historical moment the Anthropocene.

In seeking to describe and demand ecocriticism now, scholars, creative practitioners, and activists are challenged to represent the urgency of unfolding, uneven ecological crisis. However, we are also required to take the time to return to the critiques, knowledges, and practices of others, particularly those which have been marginalised or erased in a singular trajectory in which the only endpoints are mastery or catastrophe, and to ask critical questions even of the very “we” we assume. What the authors in Anthropocene Feminism do collectively is foreground alternative timelines, histories, locations, and speculations for the Anthropocene, refiguring it as provocation for what remains to be done.


Notes:

[1] Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993).

[2] Paul J. Crutzen, ‘Geology of Mankind’, Nature, 415.6867 (2002), 23.

[3] Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Critical Inquiry, 35.2 (2009), 197-222.

[4] See in particular: The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism (2017); Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art (2011); and Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (2005).


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