This article sends out an invitation. It invites readers to enter the Anthropocene and begin to explore the role of human beings in a new wide and complicated, still unfamiliar and unexplored landscape. Upon closer inspection, though, the invitation extended here may also be perceived as an unavoidable pressing and daunting challenge and even as a statutory obligation.
The fact is that, according to well-established knowledge in a number of natural sciences, life on Earth seems to have already arrived in the Anthropocene, like it or not. The Anthropocene is a new geological epoch, suggested by not only The Geological Society of London but also by a number of scientific disciplines, that follows and replaces the Holocene (our hitherto most recent epoch). This age distinguishes itself from all previous eons in the history of the Earth, however, since it is the epoch in which the impact of collective human activity has acquired paramount importance. The Anthropocene is the age of the over-arching environmental influence of humanity.
As a consequence, the balance seems to have shifted such that humanity can no longer conceive of itself as a minor and inferior being, living on Earth and exposed to given conditions (Arendt & Canovan 1998). Instead, the human factor has become a major and probably decisive global factor in future developments. It is evident in discussions concerning pollution, anthropogenic sedimentation, and in particular climate change that human activity has a decisive impact on the biological, physical, and chemical processes of the Earth, and that human civilization critically affects human environment and nature.
With the coming of the Anthropocene, the nature of the world has thus changed in ways that humans and humanity are still unable to capably cope with, be it politically, practically, theoretically or scientifically (Hamilton 2010). The experience that the conditions hitherto applying to life on Earth are no longer valid provide for the sense that the end is near and a return or resurgence of the eschatological and the apocalyptic (Žižek 2002; Žižek 2011; Lovelock 2006; Lovelock 2009). At the same time, however, the reconfiguration will probably also lead to the end of humanity as we have hitherto known, perceived and performed it. In the New World, the human being, too, must take on a new shape.
To venture out into the still unknown landscape of the Anthropocene and seek a footing there, knowledge from the natural sciences is certainly indispensable. Nonetheless, it is also insufficient in itself. To articulate and understand how the human factor unintentionally (re)emerges in the shape of an irreducible, independent and decisive dimension in the Anthropocene, it is equally essential to draw upon the human sciences and the arts (Raffnsøe 2016). Within this setting, the human sciences take on a central though often undetermined significance through their examination of the specifically human and its redeployment. Equally, the arts may form a connecting fulcrum, not only permitting to perceive and picture the actual predicament and the character of the new humans in a setting where humans have become colossal humble creatures situated on the earth but also allowing to sense and anticipate what is arriving and what may lie ahead.
To begin articulating the predicament, I begin by fleshing out the characteristics and the conditions of the Anthropocene epoch as they have been described by various natural sciences. Subsequently, I indicate how the human factor emerges as decisive in a new sense with the Anthropocene. Insofar as the Anthropocene epoch gives name to a world where the human being has taken on a central and decisive role and has extensively begun to recreate the conditions for its own existence, and for the existence of other creatures on the planet, the reconfiguration in turn not only calls for specific knowledge concerning the human factor and human activity but also for a reconceptualization of what it is to be a human being. This setting implies that the traditional field of investigation for and the contribution of the human sciences have become crucially important. To make the shifts and the predicaments become perceptible and intuitive and imaginable, I recurrently introduce examples from the visual arts. In this manner, the arts may equally play an active and essential role.
The Anthropocene epoch.
Since being proposed, most notably by the Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen two years into the new millennium (Crutzen 2010: S10), the designation ‘the Anthropocene’ has increasingly won a place in the geological literature (Dalby 2011; Steffen et al. 2011). In 2016 the Anthropocene Working Group, part of the Subcommission on Quarternary Stratigraphy of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, has stated that “distinctive attributes of the recent geological record support the formalization of the Anthropocene as a stratigraphic entity equivalent to other formally defined geological epochs” (Waters et al. 2016: aad2622–9).
The Anthropocene refers to a new geological epoch in which we currently find ourselves, and which is the most recent link in the chain of geochronological periods employed so far. The Anthropocene era succeeds the hitherto most recent age of the “wholly new,” namely the Holocene era, which opens around the end of the last Ice Age, a good 10,000 carbon-14 years prior to 1950, and which includes the vast majority of the history of human civilization. A term formed in continuation of the construction “Holocene,” the Anthropocene therefore refers to another successive new epoch that follows as the newest of new epochs.
The underlying criteria for geological epochs are stratigraphic. Determination is based on layers and deposits in the Earth’s crust, and most notably in decisive changes in types of deposits, all this with a view to making conclusions on the general development of the globe and its defining phases. Geological time is time chiseled in stone. The geological adoption of the term the Anthropocene recognizes that the volume of deposits in Earth’s lithosphere resulting overwhelmingly from human activity, either directly or indirectly, is now so significant that it is reasonable to speak of a new “humanly” characterized or affected epoch. In this epoch, geological analyses become “archeological,” in that they also shed light on human activity in former times.
With the radioactive elements released from nuclear bomb tests from the late 1940s and onwards, traces of human activity have become ubiquitous around the globe. To the extent that human activity begins to effect decisive changes to sedimentation in the Earth’s crust, geology becomes archeological.
Human beings assume a dominant role.
With the recognition of the Anthropocene, human activity appears as a stratigraphic event, and one that has such a drastic effect that it gives rise to a new timeline, similar to and in continuation of previous decisive world-altering events, such as the volcanic winter that likely threatened the survival of humanity on the threshold to the Holocene.
The event can be conceived as even more dramatic, however, since the Anthropocene differs fundamentally from all previous eons in the probably 4.5-billion-year-long history of the Earth by virtue of the dominant role that humankind and its activities play in many “key processes” (Zalasiewicz et al. 2011: 835) that are of consequence for geological sedimentation. The introduction of a new stratigraphically based geological age is but one particular testimony that a new state has been reached; a state in which human activity, taken in total, has begun to exert an influence of the highest order upon “the biological, physical and chemical processes at and above the Earth’s surface” (Zalasiewicz et al. 2011: 1036).
The Anthropocene marks the stage at which we have begun to recognize that human activity has come to hold an overarching significance for the globe as such. With the advent of the Anthropocene, humankind has begun to shape and re-create the Earth quite literally, and no longer contents itself with merely reconstructing it metaphorically by means of linguistic usage and symbols (Latour 2011: 3).
Coinciding with the Anthropocene era, we therefore also see the arrival of the Anthropogene. For the term “antropogene” describes the condition that development extensively and decisively, although not exclusively, comes about as a result of human activity.
A cartography of Earth in the Anthropocene indicates the extent of human activity, giving an impression of the human layers that grow inside Earth’s atmosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere, and also affect Earth’s geosphere. The map in question depicts the global transportation system. Cities are yellow; roads are green; ships are blue; airlines are white.
A colossal humble creature situated on the earth.
Insofar as the designations “homo” and “humanus” are clearly linked to humus, loam, earth and soil, the Latin word for the human being, “homo,” etymologically refers to the human as a creature or a species that is located, lives and is born upon the earth (Onions et al. 1966; Benveniste & Lallot 1969a; Benveniste & Lallot 1969b; Garnier 2007). Similar claims have been made in connection with “anthropos,” the Greek word for a human, which seems to spring from an early adjective designating a creature that is “inferior” and “is situated on the ground,” as opposed to existing entities that are related to the heavenly sphere (Garnier 2007). In early Antiquity, in other words, the human was represented as a being or species closely associated with the earth.
In a certain sense, humankind has not left this position, given that the Earth still serves as the essential living place for humans. While staying “chtonic,” or earthly beings, however, human beings have increasingly left their position as inferior. Through a prolonged process of interaction with other species, the earth-bound space of the human earthling has been re-organized, so that it has become and will continue to be a significant and probably even an absolutely key factor in the development of its home planet. Now the humble creature situated on the ground, on earth, has become a colossal being, seemingly capable of affecting the various globes of the Earth literally.
The giant arisen
This painting, attributed by some to Francisco Goya and by some to Asensio Julià, depicts a terrifying humanoid monster, wide awake but with eyes closed, and perhaps even blind, which seemingly leaves a path of destruction in its wake.
Humans as relational and situated beings.
The human being stepping forward and assuming such a pivotal position in the Anthropocene is not a being who is able to take on some natural, already given role on centre stage, straightaway and relatively care-free.
William Pether’s picture presents Man as an enlightened subject, illuminated by candlelight. Concomitantly an object to be represented, he constitutes the focal point of human attention.
This being is still not powerful in the sense that it rules over, or has command of the situation and of its own abilities to control it (Raffnsøe 2013: 244). It does not tally with the image of man as the sovereign ruler and the essential measure of all things. Instead, a relational being steps forward and assumes a central role, in that it constantly is affected by and is relating to something other than itself, for which it plays a decisive role. With the Anthropocene, the human steps forward as a relational being in accentuated form as it is essentially established and defined by its surroundings, which the human relates to in different ways and in different respects.
Cartography and psychography
Julie Mehretu’s painting merges elements from architechtural and geographical contexts such as maps, building plans, facades and columns. A multilayered and multifaceted object is created that forms a place in between: an abstract cartography and psychography in which various scales meet and interact in ways that remain open to further additions and upheavals. Fractured and complex moveable urban sites emerge, still on the lookout for an appropriate mediation and scaling.
Here, humans do not merely come into being through their relationship with their global and local natural surroundings. They are also shaped and reshaped through their relationships with “foreign” objects or technologies that operate as extensions or expansions of themselves, all the while feeding back upon their modalities of being.
The work of the Cypriot-Australian performance artist Stelarc (Stelios Arcadiou) has focused on enhancing the capabilities of the human body. In the piece displayed here, he has added a mechanical human-like hand in latex, aluminium and steel to his own biological right hand. The additional hand is controlled by electric signals from the artist’s muscles, ensuring the independent but coordinated movement of the three hands. Simultaneously, Stelarc explores how prosthetic augmentation and cyborgization parasitially feeds on, feeds back into and creates an involuntary body.
Furthermore, humans are established and establish themselves through their relationships with other people, individually and in groups. In the relational landscape described here, the human factor unintentionally emerges in the shape of a “singular” irreducible, independent human dimension in (and related to) the described relationality that returns and comes into play in new and ever-changing ways.
An extensive, non-contemporary landscape
Hockney’s work A Closer Grand Canyon is, as the title indicates, landscape painting that has moved beyond the genre of the landscape painting. The painting shows a landscape that is represented with such magnificence that it cannot be rendered totum simul as a single unified representation perceived as such by the human viewer. Stepping closer, we see that the monumental work consists of a large number of different paintings, each with its own distinctive features. Upon realizing this, the viewer begins to perceive the landscape as consisting of a series of non-contemporary places that one is obliged to move about among, and relate to separately. When moving in “closer”, the viewer becomes involved in a new sensorial interrelatedness, which raises the question of whether the landscape can constitute a (non-contemporary) supporting framework for the activities of the human observer.
In the Anthropocene, man re-appears in the form of human beings, manifesting themselves as they relate actively to the environment they are attempting to successfully inhabit. They re-appear as an inescapable empirical, historical, situated topographical and ethical topic to be investigated and rearticulated.
With the Anthropocene, anthropocentric man wanes; and human beings re-appear, as they are affected by and relate actively to the environment they are attempting to successfully inhabit.
A challenge for the arts.
The exploration of the role of human beings in the Anthropocene presents a special challenge for the arts.
As is evident in the now classical aesthetics of Kant and Schiller (Kant 1790/1978), the aesthetic field was in modern times set free as a specific sphere of experience. As it has gradually become increasingly conspicuous since then with the propagation of aesthetics, however, the aesthetic field was from the outset set free with the ulterior motive of anticipating, articulating, and rendering intelligible an alternative general form of sensory experience of the world (Raffnsøe 1998; Rancière 2009).
On closer inspection, thus, the autonomy of the aesthetic was from the outset never absolute, but relative (Raffnsøe 1998). Aesthetic experiences and aesthetic objects were meant to point beyond themselves as they anticipated a different manner of perceiving, a different truth and/or a different manner of being, affecting not only individual human existence but also indicating new modes of existence for collective life in general (Raffnsøe, Friis Møller, and Pethick 2017).
As is evident from the illustrations to this text, the arts have already begun to address the issue of investigating, re-articulating and re-imagining the human being as a multifarious relational and situated existence assuming a dominant and decisive role. Whereas William Pether’s picture represents man as the centre of attention within a context that could still be experienced as larger than and basically able to enfold human activity and Goya presents a humanoid being that begins to step forward and assume terrifying and potentially destructive proportions, other more recent works of art begin to venture into and investigate yet uncharted territory. Through artful experimentation, Stelarc tries to anticipate and make palpable how human existence may evolve through an exchange with ‘human’ technologies, as they resituate and feed back upon the modalities of being human. David Hockney and Julie Mehretu indicate and make tangible how human existence is reinserted within and must be understood in its relationship to a complex and multilayered landscape and its cartography even as human beings gain an overarching importance as colossal humble creatures situated on the Earth.
A new heightened sense of human responsibility.
Whatever the forms of human existence that begin to appear in the Anthropocene landscape, it seems that human forms of existence must nevertheless all face and try to come to terms with a heightened sense of human responsibility. According to Richard Buckminster Fuller, the inhabitants of Earth ought to be regarded as astronauts aboard a great vessel travelling through space (Fuller 1969). If human existence as a dwelling in the world (Heidegger 1959) can and must now be pictured as a dwelling travelling on a huge construct moving in space, then the cosmonauts on board the spaceship Earth (Fuller 1959) need to realize that, so far, their vessel has got no emergency exit (Crutzen 2011), and so they must face the challenge of how to act accordingly. They must confront the issue of how to take care of the inhabitants of this common abode.
With the Anthropocene, humans are trusted with responsibility for the physical and biological space they inhabit. Are they able to live up to this heightened responsibility? And how, and to what extent, is it even possible to assign meaning to the demand that one must assume responsibility for the abode in which one is forced to dwell?
This article is based on the lecture The New Human(s). What is it like to live on the Moon? held at Malmö University, August 30, 2016, and the book Philosophy of the Anthropocene. The Human Turn. Palgrave Macmillan 2016.
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