Amanda Starling Gould
Duke University

Aesthetics of the Anthropocene: Re/Presentation

How can we aesthetically present and/or represent the issues of the Anthropocene?

In an attempt to critically address this question in a mode appropriately performing the language of its own vernacular structure, I have created a twofold, multi-dimensional movement:

1) First Movement, Exploration on a Planetary Scale:

Here I curate a collaborative Anthropo(s)cene Art Museum to interrogate the nature of aesthetic Anthropo(s)cenic representations.

An exhibit is an exercise in stratified narrative. The individual story of each artwork or artifact composing an exhibit’s overall narrative is simultaneously contained within and constrained by the exhibit’s construct. The exhibit then, is a palimpsest, a collage, an assemblage, a networked ecology of stories within stories. The Anthropo(s)cenic Art Museum is such an exercise: I place unique works–each speaking its own Anthropo(s)cenic representation–into a deliberate, thematically-organized space in order to investigate the similarities of their (in)difference. Artistic photographs lay alongside statistical infographics alongside sonic captures alongside video documentation of already-extinct land art. Placed together, though, they begin to merge.

The Anthropo(s)cene Art Museum is metadatacally organized. Each entry is dated, tagged, and captioned. Each tag is a path through the Museum. Each path is an exhibit within the exhibit. There are 26 tags ranging from #life_curated to #digital_replacement, from #humandestruction to #coexistence. One may also traverse the Museum haphazardly, by way of a Random button that produces an algorithmically-programmed serendipity. Or too via a temporal navigation: the Archive organizes posts by date posted. (A curious note to add: one can back date and/or forward date web posts in the digital Museum, thus fixing an unstable temporality to the artifacts. This seems to suitably reflect the uncertain precarity of the archive).

The Anthropo(s)cene Art Museum expresses itself as an exhibit speaking a univocal tale in a polyvocal lyric; no matter the sensory language used, the message seems singular: the human (the anthropos) is–ontologically & nonontologically[1] is–a geological, biological, ecological agent in the interconnected web of the Ecosphere. And he is complicit in its composition, its becoming, its curation, and its continuation.

2) Second Movement, Excavation on a Nano Scale:

Here I map a single artifact–one appropriately composed of many artifacts–onto the Ecosphere we hint at in Movement One. David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas is a carefully constructed exhibit of carefully constructed stories. It is a microcosm of our planetary scale museum. It is a nested narrative of interconnected life; it is a story of life connected. And it can be mapped, multiply.

The concept

Each sketch in my atlas of mappings marks an act of thinking. Each is an argument or artifact, an arrangement, agencement, or assemblage. Each is a sort of rhythm-izing: an extraction of the rhythms underlying the text.

Nota bene: I am here using Shintaro Miyazaki’s definition of rhythm: “an elementary movement of matter, bodies and signals, which oscillate in-between the discrete and the continuous, between the symbolic and the real, between digital and analogue.” (2012)

I am here too evoking the spirit of Henri Lefèbvre’s Rhythmanalysis as well as Dipesh Chakrabarty’s call for “think[ing] the human on multiple scales and registers.”

The Maps

The Theoretical Project

a) Re/Presenting the Anthropocene through art and the curatorial practice: the Anthropo(s)cene Art Museum.

b) Re/Presenting the Anthropocene through re/formations then through further re(in)(de)formations: David Mitchell re-in-forms the traditional novel’s form in order to inscribe a certain multi-scale, multi-temporal circularity into his Cloud Atlas. My project here then further de-forms Cloud Atlas’s shape for the purpose of its critical examination.

One of the trickiest parts of a “digital humanities” project like the one I’ve here undertaken is sussing out the so-what?. So I’ve mapped and remapped Cloud Atlas, so what? How and What does this contribute to the theoretical conversation?

My answers come penta-fold:

  1. If we remap Cloud Atlas we draw attention to form as material substance. Form (and one might say deformation) is at work in the novel, deliberately, already.
  2. If we read Cloud Atlas for the purpose of visualizing its structure, function, content, and/or characters, we begin reading as archaeologists of sorts: we pillage for paths, we restore and reconstruct possible narrative routes, and we contour navigation points.
  3. If we remap Cloud Atlas, we perform an exhumation of the affect and effectiveness of its original form–which was already self-awarely nontraditional.
  4. By performing a digital humanities type operation on Cloud Atlas, we curate new speculative ways of being for the novel–for this novel specifically, and generally for the Novel as a whole.
  5. Finally, if we extract Cloud Atlas’s thematics for the purpose of their visual interrogation, we see that they map rather elegantly onto the theoretics of the Anthropocene.

If we map the novel for the purpose of grafting it onto (an equally speculative) map of the Anthropocene, we reveal revealing connections.

Cloud Atlas becomes an Anthropocene Novel, a novel of the Anthropocene
…and this is what interests us.

Let’s take each of these in turn then.

<Note: A larger, more robust critical-theoretical project expanding on these ideas is in the works. The notes here refer directly to the present twofold project of the Museum and the atlas of Cloud Atlas maps>

1. Form as Substance, Materiality of form

By calling attention to form as materiality, we can view Cloud Atlas as a practice enacting the theories of media ecological theorists such as Jane Bennett, Peter Sloterdijk, Jussi Parikka (and Zelinski), Manuel DeLanda, Bruno Latour, Kate Hayles and Mark Hansen. If we think about the materiality of form as interface connection, we might also invoke Stephen Perella on Hypersurface Architecture.

Several of the art works found in our Museum–e.g. works of sand art, wasteland art, or plant art–are meant to decay and to move perpetually. The materiality of these works is in the intra- and inter-relations between the compositional parts and not in the objects themselves. These works manifest form, and formation, as substance. The composed form of an Andy Goldsworthy rock sculpture, for instance, when delicately placed dangerously near to rising waters, is its information; the composed form is its material ecology. As soon as the water’s waves break the sculpture’s form, as they are programmed to do, the rocks once enformed as a rock sculpture are still rocks, but when decoupled from their carefully structured organization, the rock sculpture disappears. The sculpture is no more. The art disappears when the ecology breaks. The form is key, not the individual rocks themselves.

Matter matters. Form matters; it makes a difference. And form matters; it en-worlds, it creates matter. Matter in-forms, en-forms, and is information. Following Bateson, it is the difference that makes a difference, and an ecological art piece like a Goldsworthy rock sculpture, as well as an Anthropo(s)cenic novel like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, prove just this.

2. The importance of Path, the Ecology of the (networked) novel

If form matters, navigation through that form becomes an inherent, molecular aspect of that form. The path matters. The path is matter. And it informs. The novelist deliberately places and paces his narrative for the reader to traverse. The curator designs spaces and placements in order to reveal the narrative held within. Our two cases here–the Museum and Cloud Atlas–demonstrate the importance of the path.  

Cloud Atlas can be read differently. One might read ‘linearly,’ moving in a text-based, spatially consistent path, from page 1 to page 509. Or, one might choose an alternative linearityone temporally basedfollowing the narrative’s chronology. In this method, the reader would read each nested story in its entirety, hopscotching through the page numbers, before moving back to begin the next. The first would be a spatial reading, the second, a temporal. By doing both (as I have done), the reader discovers varying gravitational pulls, looping ecologies, and connections at scales perhaps unnoticed by way of a singular reading path. The novel becomes a slightly different experience depending upon the ecology of its interacting parts and the reader’s interaction with them.

Likewise with our Anthropo(s)cenic Museum. Within the digital Museum, one may navigate by way of linked and linking paths, by way of the artificially-created ‘Archive,’ by way of simply moving through the stacked posts, by way of randomly jumping via the Museum’s Randomizing algorithm, or in a combinatory way trying out various points of contact. One may stay within the Museum or (un)accidentally slip outside. As a networked piece, the switches and slippages between edges and nodes matter just as much as the objects themselves. It has a Mortonesque darkly ecological loopy nature. The layers indeed provide not only options for accessing the Museum’s content but also create a palimpsest ‘reading’ experience that speaks to the ambiguity of what Perella calls hyperspace architecture and to the thickness of the shifting (local/nonlocal) parameters we find in Anthropocene thinking.

Like our digital Museum, Cloud Atlas is always on the brink of transition. The reader is always precariously placed to either slip into another narrative stream or to reveal a hidden linkage between them. We might say the novel and the museum create and demonstrate ecological ecotones.

These issues–those of the ecotone, of the implac(e)ability of the parameter, of the importance of the entangled character of the ecological network–are issues of the Anthropocene. From Chakrabarty to Jane Bennett to Benjamin Bratton, these questions are key.

3. By focusing on the specific form of THIS novel, we permit a reading of the novel that reflects the nature of Anthropocene scale(s).

The overall force [of the Anthropocene’s ‘environmental crisis’] is of an implosion of scales, implicating seemingly trivial or small actions with enormous stakes while intellectual boundaries and lines of demarcation fold in upon each other. Timothy Clark on Scale

  • The Quantum Scale (Barad)
  • The Plantary Scale (Bratton)
  • Scale Movement: Compression ↔ Expansion

If all matter is entangled movement, perhaps Mitchell is pointing to the fluidity of our (mis)perception of contiguity. In Cloud Atlas, one character is revealed to be the next. A 19th century American notary is a 21st century British publisher is a biohacked Korean robot of the future. The Anthropocene issue of the interconnectedness of space and time scales is here represented as a thematic of the novel. Mitchell seems to anticipate and make manifest Chakrabarty’s 2012 call for a merging of bounded ecological parameters:

“How would it feel trying to translate geological units into human scales?”

“[W]hat happens when we say humans are acting like a geophysical force? We then liken humans to some nonhuman, nonliving agency. That is why I say the science of anthropogenic global warming has doubled the figure of the human–you have to think of the two figures of the human simultaneously: the human-human and the nonhuman-human…We write of pasts through the mediation of the experience of humans of the past…We can also–through art and fiction–extend our understanding to those who in the future may suffer the impact of the geophysical force that is the human…This nonhuman, forcelike mode of existence of the human tells us that we are no longer simply a form of life that is endowed with a sense of ontology…Our thinking of ourselves now stretches our capacity for interpretive understanding…” Chakrabarty[2]

If every body, and everybody, occupies a position in time and space what happens when we complicate or implode traditional time and space boundaries?[3] The Anthropocene allows us to think in larger time-space scales, to think in terms of critical interdependence, and to entertain what Morton calls a ‘radical’ causality at deep-time time scales. The projects here, Cloud Atlas–and my mapping of it–and the Anthropo(s)cene Museum, are exercises attempting to present works that allow us to think along these same terms. The entangled compressing-and-expanding temporal and spatial distributions in Cloud Atlas represent the ecological Anthropocene and give us a speculative base for understanding its implications.[4]

4. By performing a digital humanities type operation on Cloud Atlas, we curate new speculative ways of being for the novel–for this novel specifically, and generally for the Novel as a whole.

The Anthroprocene perhaps requires a form of expression that reflects the issues we’ve worked through already here: One that addresses form as materiality, that understands the importance of networked ecologies and the ambiguity of boundary paramaters, and that expands-and-compresses traditional time-space scales.

Prior to the Anthropocene (was there ever a prior?)–nay, let’s say prior to the recognition of the Anthropocene–man’s world was understood to be a roughly-bounded narrative set in a specific time and place. An autobiography included an individual’s life stages in a basically composed archive of the contained (and containerized) time and place events of an author. Once we recognize our complicity in the past, present, and future of the Anthropocene, our singular autobiography proves a more dynamic one: events in one time and place ripple through uncountable many others. Our parameters now include a whole world of pasts, futures, spaces and conditions. Cloud Atlas reproduces this sort of re-cognition of our simultaneous operation on both quantum microlevels and planetary-scale macrolevels.

The novel itself exists simultaneously in both the micro details of its characters as well as in the macro cyclical-circular cosmic-scale structures of its narrative as a whole. The novel is, we might argue, a (hypersurface) interface that peeks into what may be or may become an Anthropocene literature.

5. Finally, if we extract the novel’s thematics for the purpose of their visual interrogation, we see that they map rather elegantly onto the theoretics of the Anthropocene. This is why I’ve placed the novel’s re-mappings alongside the digital Anthropo(s)cenic Museum. If we map the novel for the purpose of grafting it onto (an equally speculative) map of the Anthropocene, we reveal revealing connections.

The Museum’s tags  themselves perform a narrative (cyclical) arc.


Just as Cloud Atlas circles back to suggest the possibility of endless new beginnings, I hope the Museum the Cloud Atlas atlas present a similar arc. Amid images and warnings of the destruction and desolation caused by the Anthropos acting within his environmental ecology exist rather beautiful speculative Anthropocene futures.

Amanda Starling Gould

Click here for the Bibliography

[1] Chakrabarty, 2012

[2] This reminds us too of the Sloterdijkean situation of the Anthropocene. For Sloterdijk “one co-intelligent system now encompasses subject and object, culture and nature. This information ecology gives man a new fused identity with the other, with his world and his tools. He is no longer an identity apart.” (Anthropo-Technology, Sloterdijk, 2004)

[3] The Quantum scale suggests that every body exists in multiple positions. This even further complicates our situation and reminds us of Erin Manning’s work in Relationscapes: a body can exist in several positions at once because a body is always in constant motion. Even when we stand still, we are swaying. Deep-time quantum thinking tells us too that even when a window seems to be standing ‘solid’, it is in fact very slowly melting.

[4] The importance of the half (half-life, half-lite, half-finished love affair, half-read, half-found, half-viewed, half-lived). Not only does each story split in half, each character who is reading the previous part, is only initially given half of that story. The novel is all about connecting the halves. One compresses and expands into the next.

4 thoughts on “Re/Presentation

  1. Starling Gould gives us here a beautifully written example of why Anthropocene Aesthetics matter, and why the matter of those Aesthetics should interconnect. Indeed, her unique way to writing makes this page of our project a type of aesthetic experience in itself. As we can see from several of the other essays in this project, the Anthropocene asks us to take seriously the removal of barriers related to genre or to previous ways to grouping and analyzing art (including literature). The result of so doing is the surprising abundance of implicit knowing we might gain about our situation in the world today–species thinking is, as Chakrabarty argues, the next step in reconciling the horrors we’ve inflicted upon the planet Earth and the will to succeed as a human species.
    There is something to be said for taking affective responses seriously, and the Museum Starling Gould has put together gives plenty of opportunities for the visitor to feel, and to wonder what those affects mean individually and species-ally.

    In that spirit I will leave here another image of beauty, one connecting to our agricultural beginnings, and one connecting us here in North America to land in Asia.

  2. Amanda leaves us with a haunting, electric representation of Anthropocene aesthetics, making a single term for a geological epoch come alive and reverberate with the networked energies of matter and form. Moreover, her very techniques of mapping point us toward the crucial idea of interconnectedness that has surfaced in multiple contributions to this website. The dynamic visual aspect of her Art Museum, in addition, asks us to consider explicitly the power of vision (or sensory experience more broadly) in coming to terms with the crisis of climate change.

    Perhaps our collaborative project, at its heart, is about recognizing this need for the aesthetic and/or the sensory to supplement the scientific, theoretical and policy-oriented discussions of the Anthropocene. If, as Chakrabarty suggests, humans never experience ourselves as a species, then certainly we don’t experience the Earth we live in–and the ecosystems we live among– as merely a strategic repository of resources. We may exploit it as if we do, but in the end, it is impossible to live on the planet and not somehow be OF the planet. In this way, the ways in which climate change have produced discernible, dramatic sensory and visual changes–which may be observed even outside of scientific discourse–are an essential element of acknowledging the problem, the contours of its consequences, and indeed of mobilizing to move beyond it.

    Jacqueline Kellish

  3. What I found particularly fascinating about the presentation of the materials above is the way in which there is at once a proliferation of links to go and look at other cool stuff–see this, see that, pigs with tattoos, a museum that takes us into a form of wandering through a digital collection–and yet there is also a object (Cloud Atlas) that has been read again and again and thought through with pen and paper and graphs and diagrams. I guess, the questions that this fascinating project raises for me is what does it mean to take any particular object and hold it as particularly worthy of our time and attention: what kind of form must something have in order to be a nod in this network of material? As Amanda uses to Chakrabarty to point out–and Jacqueline suggests in her comment above–the Anthropocene is not easy to think or to represent because there seems to be a gap between what our critical vocabulary allows us to think and what the Anthropocene demands of us in terms of bafflingly complex ecologies that we live in and that seem to be at a point of crisis (is that what we would want to call it? I don’t know… maybe?). What is most suggestive about Amanda’s project to me is the idea that a new-media inflected project of remapping might give us some of the tools to work in the space between what we think we can understand and what we think we _have_ to be able to understand.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response and insightful questions. I appreciate you engaging our project here!

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