Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols
A philosophical look at humanity’s potential transfiguration in a post-apocalyptic future
by Claire Colebrook
If one heard the narrative from elsewhere one might imagine it would proceed quite differently. There is a species, and part of that species decides initially that it is exceptional at a moral and rational level, but then declares, late in the day, that the species is better described neither as moral nor as rational, but as constituted by destruction. One might think the next chapter would see this species go through a phase of humility, and yet that is not how the story seems to be unfolding. ‘The Human’ seems to have been given a new lease of life, with knowledge of its destructive power (for all its bleak and dire predictions) nevertheless seeming to offer knowledge a certain privilege — if things are this serious then we need to throw away relativism and humility and start thinking for real. It seems as though, then, that the Anthropocene is not just one more claim about nature, but that it erases all sublimity: ‘nature’ is not some idea that we must assume but never know; nature is so real and so present as to have the force to erase decades of social construction, relativism, anti-humanism and theory. Nature, now, offers its own narrative and frames the human species, placing it within the scale and register of earth system science.
Things ‘we’ have been told about the Anthropocene: first, we have passed a tipping point; second, this geological event is a game-changer and spells death both for social constructivism and post-humanism; and, finally, we are faced with a stark choice, either we radically transform the world, or we are doomed. The Anthropocene is not only a geological declaration, but a series of diagnoses that generate imperatives. If we have damaged the planet to this degree, then we all need to act as one, and for the sake of saving us all. If we have passed a tipping point, then we are faced with necessary and immediate measures that cannot indulge in the luxuries of democracy or doubt. If there is a way that we might survive then that is the path we must follow. And who is the ‘we’ that is being saved? It is the ‘we’ that is constituted precisely by way of a death sentence: I mourn my future non-being and therefore I am. Further, I mourn my future non-being and therefore I must do all I can to survive. There is no longer time for post-humanism, anti-humanism, and, most of all, no time at all for questioning the accepted value and existence of the human. The Anthropocene requires that we think of humans as a species, and (even though that unifying thought has been generated by evidence of destruction), once the species comes into being as a geological force its survival is constituted as an imperative.
It is in this respect that the Anthropocene is not one twilight concept among others, arriving late in the day to alert ‘us’ to our destructiveness, and thereby demanding that we become the properly earth-nurturing humans that we ought to have been all along. If the Anthropocene, today, is possible, this is because its potentiality haunted the very constitution of the human as a political animal. How is it that ‘man’ is thought of as necessarily political — as properly oriented towards others, as having his essential being defined by having no essence other than sociality? To be political is not just to be, but to be in-relation. It is this fetish of unity, connectedness, attunement, mindfulness and humanity as an intertwined ecology that pervades post-Anthropocene pop culture (ranging from the utopian dreams of James Cameron’s Avatar, to more recent sci-fi fantasies of collective consciousness, such as the recent Netflix series Sense8, or the earlier Fox series Touch).
This shrill insistence on the political — that there is, beneath it all, a ‘we’ that must emerge once we erase the pernicious ‘man’ of capitalist individualism — allows for a humanity to come. Both in social theory and in post-apocalyptic culture, capitalist ‘man’ — the isolated individual of self-interest, consumption and myopia — is displaced by the new humanity brought into being by the Anthropocene: humanity is (finally) revealed as one aspect of the earth as a living interconnected system. Perhaps this is what post-apocalyptic means: after the realisation that what called itself ‘man’ was destructive at a geological level it became time for a new eco-friendly humanity to inherit the earth.
One of the constant objections to the overly inclusive conception of the Anthropocene has been that it is insufficiently political. To refer to ‘anthropos’ (which is to say, all of humanity) is to forgo asking just who within humanity was the agent of destruction. To politicise the Anthropocene is to place a broad geological narrative within a different scale or frame, and then to differentiate among humans. If it is capitalism, patriarchy, corporatism or colonialism that is responsible for geological inscription, then an observation regarding the species becomes nuanced by reference to a timeframe of a smaller scale. And this shift of scale becomes possible if one maintains a conception of politics that allows for significant groupings: rather than blame ‘humanity’ we might think (as Naomi Klein does) of ‘capitalism versus the climate.’ One might say, then, that the problem with the concept of the Anthropocene is not that it assumes that there is such a thing as humanity in general, but rather that it is insufficiently humanised, and that one would want to place the ‘anthropos’ within human historical narratives that make sense of what ‘we’ do by some broader reference to relations among individuals. To politicise is to offer a narrative, with narrative always generating a moral decision regarding scale. Debates about the ‘golden spike’ [golden spikes are driven into rock layers to mark geological epochs], or debates regarding the temporality of anthropogenic destruction, like the Anthropocene in general, are claims made for narrative frames and trajectories, and presuppose not only that humans are political — defined by their relations to each other — but that those relations can be morally differentiated. For all their complexity, the majority of these inter-human relations of politics are relations of good and evil, and allow for the thought of a proper humanity that would not be guilty of the Anthropocene scar. One might say that it is only when a crime has been committed, such as planetary destruction, that there becomes both the need to attribute that crime to a perpetrator, and then have those to whom the crime is committed emerge as the proper inheritors of the earth.
If one objects to the notion of the Anthropocene that it generates a far too general and all-encompassing ‘anthropos’, it does not follow that one needs to find another culprit or proper name, such as the Capitalocene or the Corporatocene. Other geological markers, including the Holocene, do not have a cause but mark a shift in multiple factors and forces; and perhaps one could think of all history this way, as ongoing reconfiguration with multiple acts of violence and opportunism. It is not as though there are masters who win and who inflict violence; there is violence and cruelty, from which something like a distribution between master and slave emerges. Only by way of narrative metalepsis could one think of a certain type of humanity (capitalist man) causing the Anthropocene; rather, it is from the observation of changes to the earth as a living system that one can then, from a series of observed patterns of violence, posit a relatively stable force or ‘anthropos’. And only then, once that ‘man’ as agent of destruction is posited, might one then find another agent, a force for good.
The briefest of glimpses at contemporary cultural production testifies to this ressentiment: if humanity has been the victim of those who have intensified its improper capacities (over-consumption, over-production, exploitation) then another humanity will emerge after the game-change of the Anthropocene. The flourishing industries of climate change fiction and post-apocalyptic drama — in addition to all the usual laments regarding capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy — have generated an excess of monstrous humans, including aliens, zombies, viruses, pseudo-humans and corporations who enslave the planet, thereby prompting the proper future-oriented humanity to gather forces and triumph over an external and inhuman force. (In addition to Avatar one can think here of recent films such as World War Z, Oblivion, Interstellar, Elysium, Into the Storm and Mad Max 4: Fury Road.) In both fiction explicitly concerned with climate change to more allegorical presentations of species bifurcation, humanity is at war with the improper and inhuman fragment of itself: a destructive humanity becomes the catalyst for human triumph, with a proper humanity emerging with sublimity from near death. In Interstellar, Elysium and Avatar, a myopic, profit-driven, corporate, militaristic state power is vanquished by an ecological, future-oriented and empathetic humanity. If there is an improper destructive humanity — and this is evidenced by the geological inscription of the ‘anthropos’ — then there must be a humanity who would emerge when such an evil humanity has been vanquished. If we are fallen, now in a world of loss and mourning, then there must have been (and will be) a better humanity to come. This is not to say that there has not been violence and injustice, but it is to suggest that just because there has been violence one might attribute such force to a single guilty agent (bad Anthropocene man) thereby promising another humanity. One might contrast a Kantian conception of justice, where the very idea of a good will necessarily opens and promises the idea of justice to come, with a Nietzchean notion of justice as the play of forces that generates disequilibrium. The former conception of justice allows the promise of a proper future to follow from the violence of the present: if there is no paradise, then paradise must have been lost, and therefore will be regained. This logic is not confined to post-apocalyptic cinema, but is announced in Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, where despite all the violence undertaken in the name of justice and democracy, these ideas cannot be contained by the present and necessarily promise a future, justice and democracy to come. Against this, one might think of forces in strife as operating less by way of good and evil, or light and dark, and more by way of twilight — of discernible distinctions but always amid a potentially overwhelming indifference.
It does not follow, then, that all the evidence of violence and injustice, and especially the positing of an agent of destruction that operates at species-level, generates the promise of a good human future. If humanity has somehow managed to bring itself to the brink of non-existence, it does not follow that it must rally to save itself, nor that it must do so against a certain evil tendency that will be vanquished in the humanity to come, nor that ‘we’ will be all the greater for having contemplated the potential end of humanity as such. From Naomi Klein’s claim that climate change is the opportunity finally to triumph over capitalism, to the environmental humanities movement that spurns decades of ‘textualist’ theory in order to regain nature and life, to wise geo-engineers who operate from the imperative that if we are to survive we must act immediately and unilaterally, the end of man has generated a thousand tiny industries of new dawns.
Detail view of Alice Channer’s Burial, part of her Early Man body of work.
Photo by Roman März, © Alice Channer and Konrad Fischer Galerie, used with permission.
All of these vivid calls to arms rely on expertise and generate the very ‘we’ that is being addressed. Let us take the first claim about Anthopocene tipping points, or the ‘golden spike’. Let us accept the premise of the dispute, and say that we might quibble about just when to mark the Anthropocene (industrialised agriculture, colonialism, the steam engine, nuclear energy); accepting that there is a point where man became definitively destructive implicitly generates another pre-Anthropocene humanity, or a counter-Anthropocene. An implicitly moral line of time is effected: if there is a point at which humanity becomes catastrophic at a planetary level, then there is the possibility both of attributing blame, and of retrieving and saving another humanity.
A new humanity is constituted by the threat of its disappearance; or, to follow Nietzsche: it is the voice of a moral law (‘thou shalt not…’) that produces ‘man’ as a guilty animal, bred and groomed through the attribution of guilt. If there is a being called man who has destroyed the planet, then not only is a bad humanity produced as the new agent of history, an entire industry of those who would self-diagnose and redeem humanity becomes possible. It is as though only with the impending end of humanity does something like ‘the human’ become visible in all its anti-human glory. Now that geologists have discerned evidence of damage at species level, the human becomes at once victim, agent and redeemer. The ‘anthropos’ is produced through an event of guilt and diagnosis; if there is damage and inscription at a geological level, then there must be a response at global level, an end to all talk of there being no such thing as ‘man,’ and some account as to who, when and how this tragedy occurred. The ‘anthropos’ brings himself into being by way of a blinding discovery: it turns out, after all these years, that there is a ‘we’ and that ‘we’ have not been good to the planet (well, at least not the planet as we would like it to be). States of emergency seem to call for a suspension of the free reign of opinion along with the resurgence of authority. If the bankers and economists benefited from the 2008 financial crisis by declaring that time was running out and ‘we’ have to act now, and then think about justice, then one might ask why climate science with its dire predictions has not been blessed with the same unquestioning obedience. Perhaps it’s because of a failure of rhetorical flair: ‘we’ can only hear those who offer a future to come, a promise of a blessed humanity that will rightly inherit the earth. Indeed, there is no ‘we’ outside this rhetorical call to arms. So while all the declarations of authority would call for one kind of action worthy of the dire predictions of the present — a questioning of whether what has called itself humanity has a right to survive — the only ‘action’ has been an insistence on a future for us. Just as the 2008 financial crisis somehow — how? — seemed to prompt a desperate effort to ‘save’ the banks, a climate crisis seems to justify saving humanity, and yet without all the emergency measures that were taken to save the global economy.
And yet, as Nietzsche argued, these idols emerge in moments of waning and decline, or disappointment, even if they are, for all their late appearance, eternal:
…as far as sounding out idols is concerned, this time they are not just idols of our age but eternal idols, and they will be touched here with a hammer as with a tuning fork — these are the oldest, most convinced, puffed-up, and fat-headed idols you will ever find. […] The disappointed one speaks: I looked for great men, and all I could find were the apes of their ideals.
It may well be that it is only when the species is at an end that it recognises itself as a species; that it becomes fully and self-righteously human only in the moment it is required to face its loss, a loss that, in turn, seems to grant it the imperative to survive at all costs. Man exists, and must be saved. He can only be recognised and saved in these last hours, when destruction has reached such a degree as to become evident. Some have presented this moment as a felix culpa: without the evident, readable and diagnosable destruction of the Anthropocene, we would not have realised who we are, and might have proceeded with capitalism, industrialism and ecological destruction without this wonderful wake-up call. Now man knows who he is, and that he can only be saved by himself. He must first accept that there is indeed this unified global/geological being called the human. From there, in this moment of being too big to fail, all forms of emergency measures must be unfurled, if we are to survive. In short, it is by way of destruction that the human emerges, finally, as destroyer and preserver, enlivened by a whole series of moral laments that produce man as he might have been — the man prior to whatever we determined the golden spike to be — and then further enlivened by a new managerialism that accepts that if the human exists as destroyer then there is some urgent imperative to generate a fully human future. It is by way of a whole series of self-accusations that Anthropocene man becomes capitalist man, patriarchal man, corporate man, colonising man, or the man of the nuclear age; this industry of self-accusation allows for another humanity, and one — precisely because it is threatened — that deserves to be saved.
Here, though, it might be worth questioning whether the Anthropocene is an event that really does demand that one either accept the general condemnation of man or blame a specific modality in man’s history (capitalism, corporations, males, the West). It seems that we have two options: either the Anthropocene is an effect of man in general, or it can be attributed to capitalism (or corporations, or colonialism, or patriarchy), in which case man can emerge as an innocent animal — as a new humanity to come. But what if one were to refuse both these options by suggesting that man is neither the global culprit, nor the global victim, and that there are many living beings on this planet who live, dwell, struggle and survive with no sense of humanity in general? What would the present begin to look like if we refused both the claim for humanity as global agent and humanity as proper potentiality who may (and ought) to inherit the earth? If we accept the Anthropocene premise that man in general is responsible, then we accept something like the human as such and ignore the subtleties of history, culture and difference; if one aspect of man is responsible — say, capitalism — then that allows for a space outside the guilty party. Either way, one generates the human, first by way of accusation — the Anthropocene, a single scar that calls us all in the moment of defeat — or by way of exculpation: no, not the human in general, but these humans — the capitalists (say) — whose end will actually allow us to dream of a new beginning. Those who declare man to be guilty are the first true humanists, generating the ‘anthropos’ as agent, and promising another humanity — one which can be intimated after the crime of ecological destruction has been detected, diagnosed and managed.
Claire Colebrook is an Australian cultural theorist, currently appointed Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. She has published numerous works on Gilles Deleuze, visual art, poetry, queer theory, film studies, contemporary literature, cultural studies, and visual culture. She is the editor (with Tom Cohen) of the Critical Climate Change book series at Open Humanities Press.
Header image: Detail view of Alice Channer’s Burial, part of her Early Man body of work. Photo by Roman März, © Alice Channer and Konrad Fischer Galerie, used with permission.