Friday, 5 December 2014

Life in the Anthropocene: reflections on a couple of recent talks

Whenever You Breathe Out, I Breathe In (2014) - David Gasi
By Martin

A couple of talks I attended last week threw up some interesting links and comparisons, and offered some useful snapshots into the direction of travel among those interested in ideas about the Anthropocene and the nature of the human.

First up was an event at the University of Westminster entitled The Anthropocene: Architecture, Cities, Politics, Law, as Geological Agents and jointly hosted by the Faculties of Architecture & the Built Environment and of Social Sciences & Humanities. Jon Goodbun, Tom Lloyd-Jones, Lucy Bond, David Chandler and Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos all gave short reflections on what the (possible) designation of the Anthropocene means for contemporary thought. Jon Goodbun for example offered some interesting thoughts on Marx's notion of species-being. Lucy Bond reflected on the nature of memory, time and trauma, while Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos outlined how he sees the Anthropocene vindicating moves towards flat ontologies, while calling for a recovery of a Spinozan situational ethics which recognises blurred boundaries between beings, collectivity, and imperfect forms of knowledge.

I've found some of David Chandler's thinking on the concept of resilience to be quite interesting, and he offered a similar take on the Anthropocene. Chandler identified a shift from a humanistic mode of thought, which posits an independent human concerned with managing 'external' conditions, to a post-humanist mode which redistributes agency to beings heretofore considered other - whether ecological or geological. This new metaphysics has, for Chandler, important political implications. He talked about the need to re-learn how to govern, but also how this could be achieved through recognition of the complex interwovenness of human and non-human forces in determining, for example, the outcomes of a disaster like a flood. He suggested that we are starting to recognise that now, rather than just building higher walls to keep the elements out, we need to exercise humility and a willingness to learn in the face of events and processes in which we are implicated, but of which we can never have perfect knowledge or capacities to anticipate.

He dismissed those who critique the 'Anthropocene' as a totalising and inequality-denying concept as engaging in too-easy a form of criticism, and stressed that social inequalities have a growing relevance to disasters (once called 'natural disasters') which perhaps now surpasses their relevance to forms of direct human conflict. I wasn't convinced by all of Chandler's arguments, particularly his claims that questions of causality are now less relevant than questions of correlation, and therefore that intricate monitoring and Big Data can help us come to terms with, and respond to, shifting material conditions, transforming how we govern ourselves in the process. Understanding Big Data as a potentially transparent window onto material processes would seem to repeat some of the epistemological tricks which he dismisses as out-of-date humanism. Nonetheless, his thesis that the Anthropocene - as a performative political event as much as a geological category - is a moment of potentially transformative changes in the government of complex human/non-human systems, is an interesting one that I'm sure many would agree with.

Later in the week I took in Nik Rose's seminar at the Cities group in King's College London Geography. Rose has recently been making the case that we are witnessing something of a transformative moment in the relationship between the biological and the social sciences. While the former is abandoning an asocial reductionism, the latter is increasingly engaging with questions of body, affect and vitality. Rose is positioning himself at this new epistemic intersection, and suggested in his seminar talk that social scientists need to abandon their "hermeneutics of suspicion" viz. the claims made by the biological sciences about the material underpinnings of emotional experience and social difference.

Rose spoke about some of the work (and justifications) of the Urban Brain Lab, which aims to explore the new spaces opening up at the boundaries of neuro-, bio- and social sciences. He and his team are interested in new developments in theories about epigenetics, neurogenesis, neuroplasticity and so forth, all of which point to how the expression of our genetic make-up can change as we move through life, in response to environmental stimulants. These developments are a radical re-casting of the so-called 'nature vs. nurture' debate, fundamentally blurring the boundaries between the two.

Picking up where earlier thinkers like Baudelaire, Benjamin and Simmel left off, Rose is interested in mental life in the city - in how the urban experience quite literally gets 'under the skin',  influencing our mental well-being and even our material constitution, and thus raising new questions about how and why mental illnesses are unevenly distributed across social space. Like David Chandler, Rose is sympathetic to ideas of resilience (unlike many in the critical social sciences), and is concerned with understanding the concept from the cellular to the societal scale - why is it that some people aren't as affected by the mental strains of urban life as others, and what can emerging biological sciences sciences tell us about the reasons for such differences?

Rose is not interested in reducing affective experience to either biological or social processes. A lot of work has examined phenomena like stress and loneliness in urban settings but, rather than take these as objective things, Rose is concerned with how they are rendered into thought and experienced subjectively, and how they subsequently perhaps influence the ongoing re-making of the brain.

Rose's work does not necessarily sit easily with those concerned about the history and residues of various forms of biological and genetic determinism in the understanding of social inequality and social change. All I want to comment briefly on now are some interesting resonances between Rose's thinking and broader debates about the Anthropocene.

Both of the discussions I've described have highlighted how we are witnessing a period of boundary-blurring between the geologic, the human, and biologic. Discussions of the Anthropocene have revolved not just around the embedding of the human trace in geological strata, but also in observations about the material make-up of human bodies - about the increasing presence of 'artificial', industrially-produced proteins alongside 'natural' ones, for instance. The city has become something of an icon of the Anthropocene, especially in its visual discourses; the city's materialities contributing to an anthropogenic lithology of tarmac and concrete. But the city is a site where the human body and the human brain, as well as the earth, undergoes transformation, if we follow Rose's arguments. Lines of causality here are shifting. Once-straight arrows on conceptual diagrams are looping back on themselves. And if causation is the stuff of politics - praise, blame and intervention - then the shape of political possibility is perhaps also changing.

Some find the Anthropocene a suffocating idea - we have woken up inside a cloying morass of biological and geological ambiguity, where neat categories of social and political thought are smeared across elongated time-scales and new conceptual maps of human-environment interactions. The very categories of 'human' and 'environment' have been woven into each other, challenging the conventional bases of both political and environmental thought. For some thinkers, the causes and effects of social inequality cannot be thought like they used to be. For others, the protection of an environmental 'out-there' can no longer be so neatly theorised and practiced. Personally, while not wholly sold on some of the arguments being hooked to the Anthropocene bandwagon, I'm sensitive to how political difference and human agency are currently being re-thought in interesting, if challenging, ways. These debates are certainly worth keeping a critical eye on, not least because there are some fascinating links emerging between new ways of thinking about urban life and planetary politics.


  1. Readers in the northeast US might like to know of a roundtable on the anthropocene that will be held Thurs Dec 18 at the American Museum of Natural History. Three researchers, JC Salyer, Paige West and Ben Orlove, will make brief introductory statements and then there will be discussion between the audience and the researchers. 2-3pm in the Kaufmann Theatre.

  2. Sounds great - wish I could come!