Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 12, 2018
Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, eds. Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies London: Open Humanities Press, 2015. 402 pp. Hardcover £14.13 (9781785420054)
T. J. Demos Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017. 132 pp.; 25 color ills. Hardcover €18.00 (9783956792106)

Since the glaciers of the last ice age receded, 11,700 years ago, humanity has lived under the stable climatic conditions of the geologic epoch known as the Holocene. Agriculture flourished during this period, and sedentary societies sprouted up around the globe. Yet a growing number of scientists contend that human-induced alterations to the biosphere, beginning with the invention of the coal-fired steam engine in the eighteenth century and accelerating through the atomic age, have brought the period to a close. Two centuries of burning fossil fuels, razing forests, and dropping bombs have transformed the earth so profoundly that humans no longer inhabit the Holocene, but rather the Anthropocene. While the official formalization of this “Age of Man” remains under review by the institution in charge of the geologic time scale, the concept has taken root across the humanities and social sciences. Two recent book publications, reviewed here, address the cultural, political, and speculative dimensions of the Anthropocene, which tend to fall outside scientific discourse despite its dependence on visual media.

In Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today, T. J. Demos charts a path through grassroots struggle toward an equitable political ecology, giving the book the feel of a manifesto as much as a scholarly text. Coming in at just 129 pages, this slim volume offers a compelling follow-up to the program for climate justice outlined in his 2016 publication Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology, while the prescriptive angle in both broadens their relevancy to audiences beyond academia. Not only do the two texts contribute admirably to literature on art and activism, they complement crucial journalism on the political economy of climate change from authors such as Naomi Klein and Christian Parenti.

At its core, Against the Anthropocene articulates a common critique of its subject. Framed in terms of a universal “man,” the Anthropocene falsely implicates all of humanity as the cause, rather than the small number of corporations that have pumped the vast majority of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That narrative erases long and multiple histories of resistance to market expansion, Demos argues, leading to blinkered perspectives on solutions to the climate crisis and reinscribing an epistemic violence against oppressed peoples. He thus joins a contingent of prominent scholars in calling the emergency the “Capitalocene” in order to keep its roots explicit.

What truly makes the book remarkable is the historical framework through which Demos contextualizes visions of the Anthropocene. Readers familiar with Fred Turner’s and Felicity Scott’s groundbreaking work on the 1960s counterculture will surely find it satisfying, as Demos connects a mainstay of Anthropocene imagery—the earth as seen from space, illuminated with computer-generated effects—to the iconic photographs of the planet taken by the Apollo space program. Those pictures galvanized cultural desires for a pacific, interconnected world, but they emerged from a belligerent geopolitical situation. The same legal, economic, and material infrastructure the US military established in low earth orbit during the Cold War continues to furnish the bird’s-eye perspectives of digital gadgetry and mapping systems today, fueling yet more fantasies of technocratic intervention, which preoccupied the “whole earth” generation.

For Demos, visual culture hence either “abets or contradicts” the discursive forces of the Anthropocene (9), and he considers a diverse selection of material to make his case, ranging from the infamous “spill cam” of the Deepwater Horizon disaster to fine-art photography (Edward Burtynsky, Richard Misrach, Ursula Biemann) and political protest. But perhaps the book’s strongest theoretical contribution to art history concerns his treatment of the visual field. Building on Jacques Rancière’s thesis that power relations bar groups of people, forms of life, and even entire ecosystems from public discourse, Demos argues that the fossil-fuel economy retains legitimacy by carefully curating its media presence. He notes in chapter 2, for instance, that the 2010 BP oil spill may have brought untold scrutiny to offshore drilling practices, but the company’s highly publicized, albeit dubious, claims to a successful cleanup went unchallenged in the televised press, thereby sanctioning more reckless extraction. The remaining chapters question how artists and activists might “mobilize politically around a catastrophe’s invisibilities” to contest the cultural hegemony of petrocapitalism (37). Chapter 3 examines indigenous-led struggles against the racist neocolonial expansion of dirty energy technologies, which involve direct action campaigns to protest the oil industry’s flagrant disregard for underprivileged (or less visible) communities and to shut down dangerous extraction operations. Chapter 4 turns attention toward the chemical contamination of environments in Alberta and along the Mississippi River, while the final chapter considers alternatives.

Though critical of the period’s conception, the compilation Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, a capacious volume of 400 pages, nevertheless retains a favorable opinion of it. “Although the names Eurocene, Technocene, Capitalocene, and Plantationocene are necessary political interventions to draw attention to the origins of our current planetary situation,” editors Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin suggest, “do we really want the epoch to be named as such for the next 10,000 years?” (9). Rather, Davis and Turpin take greater interest in conjectural possibilities the Anthropocene elicits, marshaling an array of essays, interviews, media, and artistic projects focused on transformations in sense experience, politics, modes of being, and ways of thinking. Indeed, as Zoe Todd opines in her insightful contribution, “Indigenizing the Anthropocene,” the period issues an ethical injunction, if we wish to survive it, to eradicate the brutal legacy of white supremacy, empower the disenfranchised, and kindle respectful relationships with others, both human and nonhuman, both now and in the future.

Gathering some of the biggest names in the field, including Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Peter Sloterdijk, the collection can be read and cross-read any which way, an explicit goal of the editors. The rhizomatic process brings certain understated leitmotifs to the fore. One such leitmotif engages the pictorial dimension of metaphysics and ontology at work in the play of figure-ground compositional principles. For several contributors, no fixed position, no “ground,” remains in place to center subjects under conditions of global capitalism, only virtual networks of media, capital, and information. This thesis has, of course, gone in and out of fashion ever since Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari published their two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia, but it gains new resonance in the Anthropocene since the earth itself, long assumed in the Western imaginary as mere backdrop to human affairs, has shifted violently into focus. According to Vincent Normand, the revelation shows nature and history as mutually unstable figures whose interpenetration cancels the conceptual schema of modernity. With the planet “ungrounded,” as Fabien Giraud and Ida Soulard say, alternative epistemologies of human being in the world become viable political projects. These considerations demonstrate the advantage an aesthetic text has for probing the pictorial side of thought, and Davis and Turpin drive the point home by exploring the panoptic condition of space-based surveillance technologies. Anselm Franke, for example, insists in a broad-ranging interview that capitalism’s totalizing project can never come fully to completion, that blind spots will persist despite the closure of external positions, such as those the 1960s counterculture sought to establish (151).

How to represent nature, then, when it no longer can be found “in the wild”—or when, as Haraway suggests, only hybrid “naturecultures” remain. A handful of artistic projects, strewn throughout the book, address the problem through creative engagement with temporality, in all its tangled and fragmented forms. As Davis and Turpin note, the earth imprints the rhythms of existence in the pores of organic matter, leaving behind an archive of materials, such as the “body stones” Ilana Halperin beautifully excavates. These convey a different line of stratification, where the deep history of geophysical processes crosses into the brevity of flesh. In clock-like samples of cerumen—whale earwax—Richard Streitmatter-Tran and Vi Le locate distillations of pure time, as legible as the rings of a tree or, one surmises, as visceral as a Joseph Beuys wax sculpture. By no means, though, are the projects included in the book limited to temporality. On the contrary, they span a spectrum of stimulating topics, including materiality, perception, imagination, alterity, and territoriality. But the temporal trajectory provides perhaps one of the most memorable.

Fittingly, the closing chapters concern finitude as a general thematic, or, as Roy Scranton memorably phrased it elsewhere, on learning how to die in the Anthropocene. Yet, in a stubborn refusal to submit, death fails to have the last word. Instead, survival, reconfiguration, even political sabotage, challenge melancholic resignation and eschatological gloom. Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr’s final poem, “#Misanthropocene,” delivers an angry, irreverent, and jubilant call to arms against the power structures of the Anthropocene. Assembled in short theses, the poem evokes Karl Marx’s pivotal remarks on Ludwig Feuerbach, eliciting the revolutionary’s exhortation to change the world, not just interpret it. “This is how the misanthropocene ends,” Clover and Spahr proclaim. “We go to war against it. My friends go to war against it. They run howling with joy and terror against it. I go with them” (384).

Scott Volz
PhD student, University of California, Irvine