ANTHOLOGISING THE ANTHROPOCENE: ‘Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet’ and ‘Veer Ecology’

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.

Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubandt, editors. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, editors. Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

By Shona McCombes

You’ve heard of the Anthropocene. The word is at least a few decades old; according to most accounts it has been in popular circulation since 2000. In those eighteen years it has migrated far from its geological origins, increasingly ubiquitous across the arts and humanities, sprouting up in book titles and conferences and research centres. It is a word that feels epoch-making, important. But still, in 2018, you’re not always precisely sure what it means. The Anthropocene seems never quite to have reached the status of self-evidence, perpetually qualified by a definitional aside or a gesture of uncertainty: “this era that we are coming to refer to as the Anthropocene” is a typical formulation, with the hesitance of a word that, despite the prestige of its scientific provenance, remains insecure in its authority. You know it has something to do with climate crisis and tipping points and planetary systems, and most importantly it has to do with the human and its unprecedented power. But the degree of that power, its precise relationship with “nature”, ranges from the cautious (human activity as “a planetary force”) to the dominant (human activity “exceeds the forces of nature”) to the positively all-powerful: humans as “the major force determining the continuing livability of the earth,” a destructive deity that has the final say in what will happen next.[1] The uses to which the Anthropocene can be put range from the soberly descriptive to the creative and speculative, a scientific designation or a narrative device, a warning or a promise.

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet and Veer Ecology are books about the Anthropocene, and both are permeated by its hesitance. Each makes a serious attempt to tie its multi-authored, multi-disciplinary chapters into something resembling a whole, embedding ideas of ontological entanglement and planetary interconnection at the level of the text itself. For an academic publication, Arts of Living is a strikingly aesthetic object, carefully curated at the level of form as well as content. The volume is divided into two sections, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Monsters’, brought together in a reversible text that can be read from one side or the other – an impressive feat of symmetry. ‘Ghosts’ focuses on landscapes and ‘Monsters’ on bodies, thematics that materialize in two sets of sketches: roots and tentacles, emblems of entanglement, snaking their way through the book’s blank spaces to meet in the middle. Veer Ecology, meanwhile, performs its coherence in a linguistic mode: each author chooses a verb as a springboard for thought, and the veer of the title makes a cameo in each chapter. Foregrounding movement, suddenness, “deviation and spiral,” veer is also a nod to a process of academic trend-making that has shifted in recent decades from the linear, temporal language of “post” to the multidirectional, spatial language of “turn”, as the editors note in their introduction: “The ‘animal turn,’ ‘material turn,’ ‘geologic turn,’ and ‘hydrological turn’ designate an array of investigations into how the ecological works: it spins.”

Veer Ecology is edited by literary scholars and Arts of Living by anthropologists, and while both aspire to break down disciplinary barriers, their roots are apparent, shaping the strengths and weaknesses that set them apart. The former is awash with history and politics and literary-linguistic games; the latter tends more towards the scientific, featuring pieces by biologists, ecologists, botanists, zoologists and geneticists, alongside pioneers of the science-humanities frontier like Donna Haraway and Karen Barad. But the fantasy conceits of the section themes keep the collection at a safe distance from crude scientism, attuned to other modes of knowing and telling, alert to the agency of the unreal and the materiality of myth. ‘Monsters’ opens with a brief reflection and a collection of poems by the late, great Ursula K Le Guin, who makes a neat case for such a project: “Science describes accurately from outside; poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates; poetry implicates.” The result of bringing them together is a dazzling diversity in content and a certain inconsistency in style: alongside the eloquent poetics of Le Guin, Barad and others, there’s a fair amount of plodding prose to get through. But it’s all eminently accessible, and no reader (from any disciplinary background or none) will come away without having learned many unexpected things.

‘Ghosts’ surveys a collection of haunted landscapes: from the polluted canyons of the US-Mexican border to the gravestones of a New England cemetery, from the multispecies histories of Aboriginal Australia to the “spectral presence” of long-extinct animals across continents. Two of the section’s standout chapters focus on the afterlives of nuclear disaster, an Anthropogenic emblem of human hubris. Kate Brown’s study of a Chernobyl technician who makes photographic expeditions into the ruins of the radioactive reactor, determined to understand the “scarcely sensible phenomenon” of nuclear power and unfazed by the risks of exposure, is woven into a gripping scientific-historical story. And Karen Barad, best known for her densely theoretical writing that brings post-structuralist philosophy into contact with quantum physics, contributes a starkly poetic reflection on nuclear time after Hiroshima, forcefully reminding us that “hauntings are not immaterial.” Both resist simple lessons, alert to the contradictions of the Anthropocene, the imbrications of life and death and science and politics that leave nobody innocent and untouched.

While the tangled temporality of haunting undermines “the fable of Progress”, the figure of the monster is put to work against “the conceit of the Individual” in stories of symbiosis. The chapters of this section elaborate cascading interdependencies of domestication and extinction, material-semiotic histories of animals that have shaped what it is to be human, and complex biological encounters through which beings come into being. Margaret McFall-Ngai and Scott F Gilbert both offer accessible, engaging introductions to the recent microbial turn in biology and its implications for traditional ideas about individuality and autonomy; in the revelation that “we are more microbe than human,” the Anthropos is disrupted by its own materiality. This is not just a pleasing rhetorical gesture: both writers go into some detail about the consequences of these discoveries for understandings of evolution, development, immunology, genetics, ecology – and, as Gilbert suggests, perhaps even politics. If “symbionts play havoc with the notion of a pure body politic” at every level and the natural order of things is not what it seems, our ideas about what “we” are, about the limits of community and the meaning of identity might be opened up to new possibilities.

If Arts of Living is mired in the material world, Veer Ecology – as one might expect from a collection conceived around a grammatical form – moves more easily in the linguistic realm. At the level of style, it is more daring and fluent, and in the range of topics its literary-linguistic leanings are apparent. Etymological excavations, wordplays that squeeze every drop of signification from a single root, verbings of nouns and nounings of verbs: all of this is enjoyable, at times extravagantly creative, often illuminating and thoughtful, but at certain points one begins to experience linguistic fatigue, a vague sensation of playing word games while the world burns. In her preface, Cheryll Glotfelty shares a snippet of the editorial process, quoting from an email that warned contributors: “your verb will want to become a noun, so that it freezes into a concept rather than transports unexpectedly: watch out for that peril, and veer rather than stabilize.” Many of the authors take these instructions seriously, meditating at length on the verbiness of their verbs, dutifully drawing connections between their own projects and the dynamism of the veer. The result is a compelling sense of coherence, a meshing of disparate matters. But in ‘Attune’, Timothy Morton strikes a note of dissidence, asking “whether nouns really are uninteresting until we make them more like verbs”:

Haven’t we already smuggled in a basic, default ontology before we start to think or talk about thinking, if we say thing is a noun and noun is static, must it be put in motion to be worthy of inclusion in a collection of essays on veering? All the objects in the world must be rounded up and forced to march and march until they drop, because that’s the kind of work that makes them free?”

The sense that any word can do anything you want it to, if you push it hard enough; it’s the kind of freedom that can start to feel like a cover for something. Morton compares the “grammatical novelty” of verbing to corporate marketing strategies, suggesting that capitalism might be seen as “a ‘verbal’ economic form,” oriented as it is towards relentless movement, transfiguration, surplus, growth.

The editors, to give them their due, are not altogether unaware of this. Their introduction turns a critical eye on the most famous of green verbs: “Recycle too easily greenwashes, commodifies, obscures its motivating imperatives consume and forget.” Recycling, indeed, has become something of an emblem for an impotent environmentalism, the depoliticized virtue of subjects powerless to enact any real change. When waste is taken away and put to work, no longer loitering in our clean and comfortable spaces, it ceases to make us anxious; maybe, Veer Ecology suggests, a little anxiety, a sense of discomfort and an acquaintance with dirt will be a necessary part of making a liveable word. Indeed, the chapters between which Morton’s is sandwiched – Serpil Oppermann’s ‘Compost’ and Stephanie Lemenager’s ‘Sediment’ – both forego cleanliness in favour of filth. To compost might be a kind of recycling, but it’s one that exceeds human agency, a constant living process that goes on oblivious to whether or not we put things in the right bin. Decaying matter engenders anxiety and discomfort, and it is both utterly necessary and simply inevitable: “whether or not composting is understood as returning in generative nurture or putrefying abandonment, it embodies environmentalism as a visceral venture, and however repellent its materialization and deviant its meanings, edible (or not) vegetation depends on it.” Lemenager, meanwhile, trails dirt back into human dwellings, as sediment brings together the fossilised logics of extractivism and the colonial violence of human settling. Processes of sedimenting and settling have kept modernity running, materially and ideologically.

This attention to the material in an older sense, to the economic and particularly to the complex relationships between capital, climate and intellectual labour, is one of Veer Ecology’s notable strengths. Near the beginning of the collection, a run of standout chapters – ‘Globalize,’ ‘Commodify,’ ‘Power Down,’ ‘Obsolesce’ – twist Marxian ideas into new ecological shapes, weaving together old and new materialisms. Taking up the theme of extractivism, Joseph Campana’s ‘Power Down’ tackles the centrality of energy in economy and ecology, noting astutely that “power fluidly refers to energy systems and sociopolitical systems alike, which constitute nonidentical but overlapping circuits of efficacy and resistance.” Margaret Ronda’s ‘Obsolesce’ explores tensions between productivity, growth and capitalism’s tendency to “creative destruction”, tracing the transnational and neo-colonial trajectories of recycled materials. Jesse Oak Taylor’s ‘Globalize’, meanwhile, offers the book’s most sustained treatment of the Anthropocene concept. He excavates a series of dates proposed as marking the start of this epoch – 1610, 1784, 1945 – that each forge “a connection between the globe-as-model and the world remade by that model.” In the first, the development of the globe itself is inextricable from the “ecological globalization” of colonial conquest; the idea of the world’s globality is both idea and technology, a scientific representation and a performative act of “globalization”. In the second model, the steam engine – driver of industrial modernity – is inextricable from emerging principles of geology that remade the world from surface to depth. And in the third, the Great Acceleration and systems theory is inextricable from the idea of a “global climate” that has come under threat by the same developments that make it comprehensible. Each of these thresholds, he argues, demonstrate that “the models we build to imagine the world matter in profound and literal ways.”

The Anthropocene, of course, is not without its critics, and collapsing the “human” into a singular phenomenon has been both a boon and a burden for challenges to anthropocentrism. Ecotheory is always caught up in a precarious balancing act: bearing witness to the damage wrought by humans without elevating the human-as-protagonist; acknowledging difference, alterity, and enmeshment without eliding disparities in responsibility and consequence. The world is made neither by or for the human species, our agency and our survival is not the be-all and end-all of life on Earth; and yet the human – as a species or an idea, as intentional agent or biological accident – remains stubbornly at the centre, and it’s hard to imagine how else to make sense of climactic disaster and mass extinction, how else to seek some kind of accountability and demand some kind of justice. Tobias Menely’s ‘Commodify’ takes this tension seriously, grappling with anthropocentrism through Marxist theories of value and accumulation and arguing that “the centrality of the human – however deeply our species is itself internally riven by the commodification process – is less a matter of norms or beliefs than an order of things built into the fabric of a commodified world.” It is an astutely made point, resonating with other attempts to recast the Anthropocene as Capitalocene, reorienting its meaning away from a naturalised species and towards a particular historical-economic form that “make[s] the living world recognizable as property, possessable and sellable.”

As the rest of the volume unfurls, though, this insight sometimes feels like it’s slipping away: Veer Ecology, like much work in the environmental humanities (and the humanities more broadly), is deeply invested in the importance of “norms and beliefs,” insistent upon the sheer imaginative power of critique and storytelling to remake the world. The volume’s verbs are put to work as perceptual paradigms, modes of knowing and seeing and understanding that “heal our shortsighted vision, awaken us to our responsibility to the nonhuman”, as Oppermann writes in ‘Compost’. This idea of shifts in perception, awakening and awareness, resonates throughout both Veer Ecology and Arts of Living: if only we try harder to see the things we have neglected, all the vibrant teeming life and dirt and substance of the world, if only we rise from our anthropocentric slumber – surely, then, we wouldn’t keep doing what we are doing; surely, then, we would start to live differently? It’s a refrain that can begin to feel frustratingly vague, even naive, sometimes verging on the tone of the self-help guru, as when Glotfelty introduces the book as “a mental toolkit that can help us gain perspective and become wise.” There’s something deeply humanist about all this – that universalising “we”, the human as knowing subject that must redeem itself through an exercise of rational self-reflection, precisely the move that the various posthumanisms have claimed to renounce. “Against a humanities that too often becomes a war of the words,” write Cohen and Duckert, “we hope for a shared ethics of veering, a turning toward and with that entails deep attunement to human and nonhuman thriving.” But such an aspiration, admirable as it may be, seems to understate the continued urgency of turning-against. Against the concrete power relations, the vested interests, the institutional and structural arrangements that will fight hard to maintain their status in a fragmenting world, affirmation and attunement will not be enough: some kind of warring remains troublingly necessary.

Arts of Living evinces a similar sense of complexity combined with naivety – a rhetoric of political ecology that sometimes feels devoid of politics. If this book had a verb, it would probably be entangle; like much writing about the Anthropocene, its central point is that things cannot be extricated from other things – that there is not nature and culture or the material and the discursive or the human and the nonhuman or even, really, the humanities and the sciences – that all of these things cascade into and co-produce one another in ways that are impossible to predict or ultimately represent. In practical terms, writing about this kind of entanglement often means writing in lists. Lists of different kinds of beings, like Andrew S Mathews’ excavation of “long durée encounters between humans, plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and soils” in an Italian forest; lists of disparate academic and artistic practices, like Donna Haraway’s “sympoietic knotting of mathematics, marine biology, environmental activism, ecological consciousness raising, women’s handicrafts, fiber arts, museum display, and community art practices”; lists of incongruous explanatory paradigms and sites of power, like Nils Bubandt’s insistence that “the realms of geology, politics, industry, divination, lawsuits, spiritual revenge, and corruption are inextricably entangled” in the story of an Indonesian mud volcano. These lists express the promise and the problem of thinking the Anthropocene: the desire to integrate infinite different registers of knowledge and thought and meaning, to gather up all the trailing knotted threads of the world and make some sort of sense from them, is a project that announces its own impossibility in advance. In this respect, anthologise is an appropriate verb for these times. To anthologise is ambitiously expansive and always incomplete. There is no grand theory here, no final say, no wrapping up – only proliferating paths, all promising to lead somewhere new. But as Daniel C Remein writes, in all that luxurious spiralling entanglement, still “some tendrils lead to a dead end.” And there are inevitably a few dead ends here: sometimes an attempt to gesture towards everything ends up saying nothing at all.

Remein’s verb, ‘Decorate’, is emblematic of Veer Ecology’s taste for the counterintuitive: against environmentalist orthodoxies of reducing, reusing, recycling, against a politics of survival and subsistence, to decorate is “to spend without reserve on the inessential.” The radical excess of the aesthetic is a recurring theme in both of these books, and at times they can feel a little too much like inessential luxuries – the chatter of a class that will be protected from the worst of what is to come. But still, there is much here that is nourishing and provocative. Both offer valuable lessons in breaching the economic, ideological and disciplinary boundaries that have divided the “human” from everything else. And they do so with complementary emphases: Arts of Living makes a convincing case for the relevance of “hard science” to art and politics; Veer Ecology is a sustained argument for the necessity of art and politics to make sense of environmental science. A few wrong turns are inevitable in such varied and shifting landscapes, but not all dead ends are a waste of time.


[1] These quotations are each taken from a chapter in Arts of Living, by Jens-Christian Svenning, Nils Bubandt, and the editors respectively.