I’m back from a weekend ACLA seminar on “Anthropocene Reading” organized by Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor. It was three two hours sessions, spaced over two days, with all of the contributions moving toward a book collection, *Reading the Anthropocene: Literary History in Geologic Times*, coming soon from Penn State UP.
I’m left with a swirl — I might say a vortex, in a nod to Jeffrey Cohen’s “Anarky” — of questions and still-percolating thoughts. A few of them will spill out here, as I get ready to finish my contribution to the book in the next few weeks.
- What if it’s a failure? I don’t mean my chapter, though I suppose that’s always a possibility, but the Anthropocene itself, as a productive concept for the humanities. Benjamin Morgan, who wasn’t actually in Cambridge this weekend, put this point rather brilliantly through his reading of two Hardy novels that I don’t know: what if the Anthropocene names an impossible thought, a task that we cannot accomplish, precisely because positing the conceptual unity of (to borrow Tobias and Jesse’s subtitle) human literary history and vast geologic times isn’t finally possible? One response to this dilemma might be Hardy’s tragic novels — but in writing theoretical criticism rather than fiction, how can we acknowledge the abiding presence of failure and incommensurability?
- What sort of eyeglasses do we need? Many of us over the three sessions talked about different kinds of artificial aids in undertaking the project of Anthropocene Reading. Jesse and Derek Woods talked about the affordances of technology, and many of us talked about different kinds of formalism, especially the strategic formalism recently outlined by Caroline Levine. History and Genre are also powerful spectacles through which we can stare at the Anthropocene glare more or less directly, though always at the risk of some distortion. Jennifer Wenzel’s great talk on Waiting for the Barbarians made me think of the sinister opening image of the torturer’s sunglasses, which mark less an inability to see than a refusal to acknowledge the physical world:
I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? (Coetzee 1)
3. Always allegorize! We spent a lot of time debating alternative forms of periodization, ranging from Jeffrey’s through-going skepticism of any firm period markers to my perhaps incoherent embrace of All The Dates. But I came away thinking about allegory (and genre) as much as about periodicity. Making meaning out of signs, from lyric poems to carbon traces in ice cores, is what we do. To deform another of Jameson’s maxims of modernity: “we cannot not allegorize.”
4. Earth as text and disruption of text: I was struck, especially when Tobias, Jesse, and others, including Dana Luciano, who also appeared only via paper, engaged with earth systems science, that their methods entailed a re-interrogation of close formalist reading practices. On some level, that self-reflexive interrogation is the gambit of the book, I suppose, but, as Jesse said to me after the session yesterday, it felt surprising to go all the way back to Derrida! It may be that deconstructive self-interrogation is something that humanities scholars can usefully add to stratigraphic methods — though stratigraphers are all too deeply aware that traces can vanish and that the absence of signs is not a sign of absence. I also wonder about the instability of treating the living earth, or “earth system,” as a text — even more than a vulnerable page, the earth is never identical to itself in time. Perhaps our methods need to borrow from the ephemerality of performance history, as well as the (relative) stability of the written text? There is no unitary earth-text that remains constant in time: the dynamism of the earth, the key insight of 19c geology, poses interpretive problems.
5. Atmosphere and rock:– inscription and erasure?: Tom Ford’s great paper on Jane Eyre made me think about the multiple layers of our planetary system, the globe’s envelopment in layers of rock, water, and gas. The stratigraphic “signature” is written in ice and rock, but carbon dioxide moves around the system as a gas — which means that in order to become legible, the solid must become gaseous and later solidify again, or mark a solid surface. (Ocean acidification, another Anthropocene signature, is perhaps a slightly different case.) Atmospheric carbon appears (to human eyes at least) erased, while geologic signs are (theoretically) part of a permanent record. A system of writing, however, requires both inscription and erasure, as Roger Chartier has shown. Does that mean that an Anthropocene Text, the Writing inscribed by the Anthropocene, must be read in air as well as solid forms?
6. What if it’s not new? This is perhaps a pre-modernist’s question, when he finds himself surrounded by people whose scholarly archives range from the 18th through the 21st centuries. We entertained lots of early Anthropocenes in the seminar — 1610 was the magic number in which I don’t quite believe but enjoyed playing with in my essay, but we also talked about the dawn of agriculture 12,000 years ago, the Industrial Revolution, Great Acceleration, etc. There seemed to be a desire to accept multiple iterations, perhaps even a repeated pattern of Anthropocene-ing. But if that’s the case, such repetition and extension might qualify the radical novelty of this latest Age of Man.
There were are few moments this past weekend in which people seemed to be seeking a new language, or meta-language, appropriate for Anthropocene reading. The revolutionary energies of 20c modernist and 19c Romantic poetry, not to mention 19c geology, reinforce the need for the new.
But when I think about the Anthropocene as an incitement to narrative and a hermeneutic challenge, I keep coming back to an old-fashioned literary historical awareness that the way novelties emerge over time is through the recombination of old materials. Generic innovations, from 17c tragicomedy like the one I talked about to Tom’s Victorian novel and Jennifer’s post-modern novel, emerge from recombining old things in new ways.
Is the Anthropocene really new, or is it a particular way to recombine things that have been with us as long as human culture?
Driving home into the glare of sunset, I found myself mulling that there is a fixed amount of carbon on our planet. Very little enters or leaves the entire system. Petromodernity has been all about moving the carbon around, from its “transputrefied” forms as oil and coal to all those parts per million in the atmosphere. From a certain point of view, it’s not that absolute a difference.
But it’s enough.