The Anthropocenic Humanities

For the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, the earth has entered a new moment of geological time. The transition from the epoch of the Holocene into that of the Anthropocene emerged from the human’s capacity to alter the earth’s atmosphere, surface, and biological forms. With the dawn of the industrial revolution and the overwhelming displacement of carbon from underground into the atmosphere, the human became a geological force. This new ontological status of the human has effectively undone the category of “nature” and collapsed the human-nature divide, pushing us toward a more expansive sense of historical time. The Anthropocene necessitates a conception of time that looks beyond the markers of decades and even centuries, toward a deep temporal sense of what it means to be human on earth. “The consequences [of global warming],” as Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, “make sense only if we think of humans as a form of life and look on human history as part of the history of life on this planet.” In the Anthropocene, the human is simultaneously privileged as the planet’s principal geological force and deprivileged as just one of innumerable forms of life on earth. This is the paradox we live in these times of crisis.

These notions of “life” and “crisis” that emanate from anthropocenic discourse have engendered a new current in the global humanities. From Australia to Germany to South Africa, scholars and artists have foregrounded this new epoch in philosophical treatises, novels, experimental films, multimedia installations, and music performances. They ask not simply how we might represent these times of crisis, but what happens to aesthetics itself in the Anthropocene, and what are the politics that emerge from these aesthetics. Indeed, if we were ever able to posit the separation of aesthetics and politics, that distinction has now been unequivocally dissolved. In times of ecological crisis, the aesthetic is the political. This project is marked by this dissolution.

The contributions to this collaborative investigation are diverse and expansive. They range from horror fiction to James Baldwin, from digital mappings of literary form to the discursive origins of anthropocenic thought in the 19th century, from the uses of satire in contemporary British fiction to articulations of ecological crisis from Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Disparate these essays may be, their breadth is indicative of the Anthropocene’s saturation of global aesthetics. The humanities take the pulse, as it were, of the Anthropocene, they unpack the layers of cultural signification that lay inside this new geologic moment. In these pages, we dig into these layers, examining the ways in which the novel manipulates and engages notions of temporality and ecological crisis (Kuhn and Gould). We consider affective responses to climate change and the relationship between cultural production and the (im)possibility of social change (Kellish and Richardson). We reach back into the intellectual history of anthropocenic discourse (Morgan) and push forward into speculative notions of apocalypse and post-crisis futures (Durham and Omelsky).

This site is part of a growing body of research into the aesthetic forms of the Anthropocene. We envision it as an extension of a field recently pioneered by several globally-assembled collectives, notably The Transnational Research Network in Environmental Humanities and the collaborative text Making the Geologic Now. We invite readers to page through the site and to provide comments and links to further expand the collaboration.


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