Critical Theory I: Anthropology of the Anthropocene, jr.

Hey all,

I thought I’d take a stab at outlining the theoretical frameworks that intersect with the research we’re doing  in The Bahamas right now. I might bludgeon some things. I’m sorry. I’m an undergraduate (poor excuse). I also am a little hung up on this term, “Anthropocene.”

What is the “Anthropocene”? Like an idiot, I realized I never really defined my terms, or necessarily illuminated the academic context for the problem. There is a debate within several branches of The Academy about what the Anthopocene could mean, and it all started with a proposal to the Geology community by Nobel-prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen and UMichigan Biologist Eugene Stoermer. The two proposed that the Holocene, barely out of its cradle in geologic time, is over, as  people – humans –  have become such a driving force on the planet that a new epoch has reared its head: the Anthropocene. Many pinpoint the Industrial Revolution, that bastard, as a period that strengthened abstract idealizations of a separate nature “as pristine and untouched by humans, in part through the ideologies and activities of the entrenched bourgeoisie, who retreated from cities despoiled by their factories”; coincidentally, this was the same period that Crutzen identifies as the beginning of an Anthopocene where technologies finally enabled human participation in global climate systems. (Williams, “Ideas of Nature”; Crutzen, 2002. Sayre lays out a great history of the term.)

Let's keep this lighthearted for now, yeah?
Let’s keep this lighthearted for now, yeah? Plus it’s hard to have a picture that immediately evokes the Anthropocene.

The International Commission on Stratigraphy, the official keeper of the geological time scale, is split on the term. Such a proposal grapples with ideas of human permanency, indicates human-driven processes that have changed the composition of our geology and climate, and challenges the ever-dubious Nature-Human divide: “[these two poles are] merging into something unrecognizable, or uncognizable, in terms of our inherited concepts.” (Sayre, 58) This collapsing distinction implies that “our technology, consciousness, concepts, and the material world combine to produce an ‘environmental globalism’ in which ‘it is virtually impossible to distinguish the social and the natural.” (White, 1999; Sayre, 62) How do communities think in these terms, if they do at all? This is part of what Amelia’s research investigates.

The conversations we have in our fieldwork, while using the term “Anthropocene,” don’t necessarily validate it as a period of geological time – untangling this frustratingly political, finger-pointing web isn’t the point of Amelia’s project.  (If it were, I would have a rather difficult summer as I tried to dismantle global capitalism with a laptop and barely enough money to pay rent in a vacation hot-spot.) They do, however, describe how people conceptualize or perceive their own actions rather than redefine those actions for them.

Evocative, no?
Evocative, no?

Regardless of whether or not the geological society ratifies the period, the concept has as creeped up the ivory tower like a vine as a politicized term. In the positive, the debates surrounding the term allow refection on the fundamental bases of the humanist fields, on the primacy of the human in academia, on the possibility for a new planetary subjectivity. Consequences abound: if humans are now embedded within our climate systems, etc. as an agentic force, humans  – more specifically, humans responsible for environmental harm – are also culpable for whatever harm we’ve already done and will do. It’s a tricky discussion in itself – see the Kyoto Protocol – because there are degrees of responsibility that vary from nation to nation, and person to person, Marginalized communities that feel the effects of climate change are the ones least responsible for it, and are perpetually ignored as reporters from the field (please read Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon!).

Or we could, y'know, just not think about it live our materially exorbitant American lives. Jason deCaires Taylor, underwater sculptor, is my idol.
Or we could, y’know, just not think about it live our materially exorbitant American lives. Jason deCaires Taylor, underwater sculptor, is my idol.

No, Dr. Moore’s project is actually more traditional anthropology fieldwork than one would expect. It seeks to find the social meaning behind lived practices, and to inhabit that world enough to truly understand that perspective.

Physical systems, highlighted in our case through design and architecture, that communities use to highlight/address/confront/excuse/consider their participation in global systems are one way in which we can access folks’ consideration of anthropogenic environmental change and whatever that might mean for this debate about the Anthropocene. As Brian Larkin maps in “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” these physical spaces and forms that facilitate social or financial or material exchange manifest a certain politics in their design. They “are things and also the relation between things” and “reveal forms of political rationality that underly technological projects.” (Larkin, 328) Systems thinking can create standards of behavior, visual vocabularies that connote modernity, and create the “ambient conditions of everyday life” that effect affect. (Larkin, 336) Part of this project is to immerse ourselves in this vocabulary – I remain partially unsure of how uncritically – and pull apart what the infrastructure at a place like Schooner Bay or Baha Mar might be.

Infrastructure at Schooner Bay, all brooding-like.
Infrastructure at Schooner Bay, all brooding-like.

The reason why we’re at Schooner Bay right now is to drink Bahama Mamas at the Cabana and get really tan to understand and record how people think about a development project and the implications of infrastructure when it’s something the development advertises as a positive (moral? aesthetic?) aspect of this site – Buy Now! Only $400 Thousand For A Plot of Land! We Have a Parrot Fly-Over Zone! – about which the developers are and have been highly intentional. This isn’t a one-way street, either: flora and fauna can interrupt human design (a la Multispecies Ethnography, see Kirksey and Helmreich, 2010). That’s why we have to keep our eyes peeled. Wish us luck.



Who hopes this wasn’t too shitty.

See, using no bibliographic style because it’s summer goddamnit:
S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology, Volume 25, 2010.
Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Anthropocene Debate:
Marking Humanity’s Impact,”
Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure”The Annual Review of Anthropology, Volume 42, 2013.
Nathan Sayre, “The Politics of the Anthropogenic,” The Annual Review of Anthropology,  Volume 41, 2012.


7 thoughts on “Critical Theory I: Anthropology of the Anthropocene, jr.

  1. My appreciation for this entry may embarrass someone. First of all, how many blogs have bibliographies, let alone references that are so erudite? But more importantly, how many blogs engage such important work at such a level of both seriousness and humor? Rennie, this is such great, important (and entertaining) scholarship, engaged with a level of seriousness and humanity and humor that I really look forward eagerly to each new entry (as proof, I had a choice between beginning season 2 o Orange is the New Black or reading you blog and I chose the latter!).
    Now, on to substance: Is your use of the Anthropocene to recognize, celebrate or critique the power of human culture and society to change the landscape? Is this a smart trope or an acknowledged scholarly perspective on how the planet changes? I think you answer is “all of the above,” but I thought I’d ask…

  2. Dad you started OITNB like 3 days ago. Yeesh.

    Thanks pops. Well (as I learn my academic footwork), it is not necessarily MY use of the Anthropocene but debates ABOUT the Anthropocene that does all three: recognize, celebrate, critique. Celebrate the least of the three. As I mention, recognition demands responsibility for climate systems that many are wont to accept – even point-source polluters in everyday litigation. The term is highly contentious – I recently “debated” the merits and dangers of the term with Bryan Boddy, who finds The Anthropocene to be something of a reified statue or excuse or theatre or I don’t even want to get into it. A dangerous term indeed.

    To accept the Anthropocene COULD be to radically reconceptualize what it means to be human, to be an individual or alive or planetary or a terre-strial. Humans, all of a sudden, are even MORE responsible for setting the terms of existence outside of whatever hegemonic systems we’ve already spent centuries cultivating (Hobbes would probably dig the Anthropocene as a concept – humans suck! The Leviathan is the planet! Yellow, no Blue -)…Am I answering this helpfully at all?

    1. Ren,
      Are you suggesting that I am watching TOO MUCH OITNB? As if that were possible?

      Thanks for the elaboration. Am I reading too much into your post to see some vaguely Foucaultian intentions in the discourse surrounding the use of the “Anthropocene”? And does the term require quotation marks, or is it becoming and accepted part of postmodern environmental scholarship?

      In either case, thank you for adding a new jungle-gym to the academic playground for us to climb on.


  3. Thanks, this is fun, and I love the seals!

    One question is whether the culture-nature divide (and its criticism) is the most helpful frame of reference for a critical social science. Sometimes it seems like a red herring, for example in Sayre’s article it seems omnipresent and yet unrecognizable, which makes me think it’s not the most important question to ask in this case. I like that the infrastructure perspective seems to encompass many of those debates without getting stuck in them.

    (Anthropogenic means ’caused by humans,’ but anthropogenic climate change effectively reverses the equation to ask ‘what will humans become in this new world we’re making.’)

    Another question is the extent to which anthropocene as a concept requires/enables thinking geology. I think Beth Povinelli has been making this point. I was not able to attend, but it seems Tsing’s anthropocene conference at Santa Cruz had little on geology, which seemed a shame because geology, geological time (or simply rocks) are very different from the issues surrounding multispecies…

  4. Hi – I had to LIKE something in order to be invited to follow the blog (this is a really screwy wordpress format.)… and I did like this post very much. Anthropocene is a concept I’d not yet heard of – so interesting to ponder. Also now the comments are a riot. (Hi, Dad!)

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