This past September Wenner-Gren found itself back at Tivoli Pálacio de Seteais in Sintra, Portugal for the 156th Symposium, “Patchy Anthropocene: Frenzies and Afterlives of Violent Simplifications”. Be on the lookout for the upcoming special issue of Current Anthropology for the meeting’s papers, available to all 100% Open-Access.
Patchy Anthropocene: Frenzies and Afterlives of Violent Simplifications
Anna Tsing (University of California, Santa Cruz / Aarhus University, Denmark)
Nils Bubandt (Aarhus University, Denmark)
Andrew Mathews (University of California, Santa Cruz)
When geologists first argued that modern humans were a geological force and should have an epoch named after them—Anthropocene—cultural anthropologists were skeptical. After all, the term encapsulated many of the problems anthropologists have pointed to in science policy, including willingness to view the planet as a homogeneous space and the human race as a homogenous group. In the past few years, however, anthropologists have begun to join multidisciplinary conversations in hopes that anthropological insights might reshape Anthropocene discussions, and, conversely, that the urgencies of the Anthropocene might spark a new anthropology. This Wenner-Gren Symposium pushes forward this agenda through an exploration of a “patchy Anthropocene,” that is, the fragmented landscapes of livability and unlivability created by colonialism and industrial development. On the one hand, we are concerned with “violent simplifications,” that is, ecological estrangements and displacements that threaten more-than-human livability. On the other hand, we do not look for these threats merely in elite plans; instead, our focus is on the unintentional design of landscapes, that is, the social and ecological arrangements that have developed beyond the planning of any authority.
To invoke the unintentional is not to argue for pure souls who should not be blamed for destroying the earth. Indeed, blaming is often useful in sparking remedial action. However, our point is to move beyond the dreams of engineers to attend to the consequences of their actions, whether or not they imagined them. Predicting the fate of the earth through the strange dreams of planners is a powerful bad habit that has developed over the last several centuries and continues to reign in the shape of a vision of a “good Anthropocene”; we refuse that vision. This allows us, too, to offer full regard to the historically shifting actions of nonhumans, both living and nonliving. Some nonhumans become allies of industrial and imperial landscape engineering; others interrupt their simplifications and coercions. Landscapes are the sediments of both kinds of actions, along with those of both elite and subaltern humans.
Three kinds of unintentional design inform our discussion. First, we examine the logics and limits of ecological simplifications, as these have been key to the making of “resources” for capital, on the one hand, and the invasion of indigenous space, on the other. Second, we track forms of violence that exceed the logics of planners. Finally, we turn to hope amidst apocalypse—of the kind that emerges out of unintentional design. Together, these kinds of unintentionality help us describe a patchy Anthropocene in which threats to livability are far from randomly distributed. By investigating more-than-human landscapes that emerge from, yet also exceed, industrial and imperial plans, we hope to identify “Anthropocene-in-the-making.” This also means sketching the contours of an anthropology pushed onto new terrain in its efforts to explore a world where the violence of modern simplification and the poisons of the Great Acceleration are creating new worlds of livability and unlivability. Anthropology, we suggest, is currently in a moment of experiment and retooling that would allow it to align the potential of a more-than-human anthropology with insights from critical political history; to cultivate new forms of collaboration that are open to learning from indigenous cosmologies as well as from the natural sciences and environmental activism; and to study both the secular rationalities of a world in ecological crisis and the nonsecular fissures of hope and wonder amidst disaster.
The Symposium begins the arduous process, then, of intervening in debates about dramatic environmental change by describing the Anthropocene with the tools that anthropology can make available—through trans-disciplinary collaboration, ethnographic insight into indigenous worlds, as well as critical reflection about the otherwise—in full recognition of heterogeneity and power differences across life on earth. Anthropology, arguably, has always been the study of unintended consequences; our conference brings this anthropological perspective to more-than-human landscapes.
The three themes of the Symposium are addressed in three sessions, each organized into dialogues.
I. More-than-human estrangements: what worlds do simplification and acceleration make?
A puzzle to consider: The proliferation of modern engineering has also been the proliferation of pests and plagues.
Projects of state-making and empire building, of weaving world-spanning commodity networks and intrusive bureaucracies, have helped produce the environmental and cultural transformations that we now call Anthropocene. Such projects have focused on controlling plants, animals, and material processes, and on related efforts to define and control the people who work in plantations, factories, farms, or broader landscapes. At every stage, efforts to control humans and nonhumans have been undermined or reworked by transformations and escapes from control, sometimes visibly, sometimes almost unnoticed. From the Columbian exchange, which moved people, plants, animals and diseases between the Old and New World, to plantation economies which helped bring into being smallholder cultivation systems and forms of anti- and decolonial political resistance, to more recent efforts to build factory-farm systems that have produced new diseases, the ordering projects of modernity have continually undermined themselves, producing unexpected escapes, transformations, and estrangements. The first set of dialogues in this symposium asks participants to consider how world-making projects have produced unexpected consequences, how new and strange forms of human and non-human have come into being. How do the more-than-human relations of non-humans produce new diseases, new plants and animals, new kinds of human subjects, and new landscapes? How might the details of particular cases and landscapes help us understand the Anthropocene more widely, perhaps as “Plantationocene,” perhaps as “Capitalocene,” perhaps as something else? How might thinking of the spaces of modernist control as inhabited by excess and escape enrich anthropological engagements with the Anthropocene? What new concepts, methods or collaborations might we need in order to engage with these experimental spaces?
II. Patchy violence: what kinds of unlivability shape the Anthropocene?
A puzzle to consider: Why, despite continual assertions of its homogeneity, is the Anthropocene so uneven?
The Anthropocene is a time of heightened violence against all living things on earth; the big question today is whether enough can survive to allow the kinds of life on earth we inherited from the Holocene, and earlier epochs, to continue. Species extinctions have rocketed; ecosystems disappear; industrial and military waste spreads around the planet. Vulnerable humans and other forms of life bear the brunt of such violence—and sometimes stand in its way. There is a lot for anthropologists to tackle in such challenges to livability. In this conference, we’ll take up three themes. First, beings other than humans make landscapes, and we turn to those “creatures of empire” (to use Virginia Anderson’s term) that wreck indigenous life-worlds along with humans. These include animals and plants—but also nonliving things, including the waste products of urban life. What kinds of landscapes are made by such ambivalent allies and enemies of human well-being? Second, what species and ecosystems are destroyed in industrial and imperial conquest—and what possibilities are there for resistance, resilience, and survival? This is a set of questions, too, in which biologists and anthropologists might look for common ground; the challenges of transdisciplinarity share center stage in discussing more-than-human vulnerabilities. We hope to tackle these creatively. Third, unintentional landscapes of the Anthropocene exist inside bodies as well as around them. To track the poisons of our times, attention to the links between inner and outer landscapes is essential. Poison is a key characteristic of the Anthropocene, and we need to understand its dynamics and its distribution.
III: Illegitimate hope: what more-than-human worlds are made amidst destruction?
A puzzle to consider: What do anthropological collaborations with natural scientists, with activists, and with indigenous spokespeople have in common?
The Anthropocene ties new terrors to novel kinds of hope. Environmental change, global warming and the imminent prospect of mass extinction are pushing new modernist dreams of control, and the contemporary moment is replete with designs for carbon trading, climate engineering, re-wilding, DNA banking, and escapes to Mars. Anthropology needs to pay attention to the ways in which the modernist project of human mastery and economic growth seeks to reinvent itself in the face of ecological apocalypse. But other formations of hope, different kinds of conviviality, exist beyond this “good Anthropocene.” The more-than-human worlds of indigenous communities around the world offer one kind of alternative. Critical environmental activism may hold the promise of another. And Western science itself, long the backbone of the imagined modern conquest of Nature, is currently being transfigured, as new insights within the natural sciences into the fundamentally symbiotic and an interdependent make-up of life question cherished oppositions and concepts of modernity. All of these alternatives, disparate as they may be, point to another Anthropocene: patchy spaces in which human worlds critically depend on the world of spirits, animals, ghosts, plants and other non-humans. In an Anthropocene that is fundamentally unknown, uninvited, and unexpected, hope may also dwell. The third session of the symposium explores this more-than-human Anthropocene as an occasion to reinvent anthropology, as an invitation to transdisciplinary collaboration, and as a space for illegitimate hopes for co-species survival. How might anthropology reinvent itself to explore the magic of the more-than-human comparatively across the worlds of indigenous communities, activist groups, and science? What possibilities of transdisciplinary collaboration exist when neither “the human” nor “Nature” is what we thought? What forms of radical hope for co-species survival exist in the critical zones of the Anthropocene?