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T.J. Demos: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Gynocene: The Many Names of Resistance
In my past postings, I’ve pointed out how the Anthropocene thesis can be roundly criticized for its assorted failings. Nonetheless, the term remains significant for one reason: it registers the geological impact of human activities, and as such offers an important wedge—one that unites climate science and environmental studies with the environmental arts and humanities—against climate change denialism, funded generously by the destructive fossil-fuel industry. And now, with the momentum of its growing adoption across diverse fields of academic, science, cultural and artistic practice, the term Anthropocene is likely here to stay—despite, or even because of, its use-value in generalizing and thereby disavowing responsibility for Earth-systems disruption, validating further geoengineering experiments, and diffusing political traction in the struggle against climate change.
There are other contenders for geopolitical descriptors, and among these the leader, in my view, is the Capitalocene—the age of capital—which has the advantage of naming the culprit, locating climate change not merely in fossil fuels, but within the complex and interrelated processes of global-scale economic-political organization stretched over histories of enclosures, colonialisms, industrializations, and globalizations, which have both evolved within nature’s web of life as well as brought ecological transformations to it. In other words, the crisis of climate change, according to this perspective, owes not simply to a substance like oil or coal, but to complex socio-economic, political and material operations, involving classes and commodities, imperialism and empire, biotechnology and militarism, that distributes causality for environmental change beyond the problematic generalization of human species-being.1 That said, perhaps we need many names to account for the sheer complexity and multiple dimensions of this geo-politico-economic ecology.
Another candidate is the Chthulucene, a term of Donna Haraway’s, which draws on the resources of science fiction as much as science fact, speculative feminism as much as speculative fabulation, in naming the post-anthropocentric age of multi-species assemblages.2 Contrary to the reductive and essentializing figure of Anthropos, this conceptualization reveals the distributed agencies involved in climate chaos, as well as highlights the resilient generative practices of inter-species collaborations and the “sym-poiesis” of co-becoming that determine the very conditions of life. While the term shifts the focus from corporate neoliberalism, neo-colonialism, and extractivism, emphasized by the Capitalocene thesis, it does outline the necessary ethics of what Haraway terms “response-ability,” the skilled capacities for survival on a damaged planet that include the practice of justice and sustainable belonging.
Additionally, there’s the Gynocene thesis, implying a gender-equalized, even feminist-led, interventionist environmentalism, which locates anthropogenic geological violence as coextensive with patriarchal domination, linking ecocide and gynocide. Contesting the ravages of Anthropos it calls for new models of eco-feminist stewardship, resonating as much with Indigenous reverence for Mother Earth and the multifaceted rights-of-nature mobilizations in South America, as with the post-heteronormative, eco-sexualist care for Earth-as-Lover, as appearing in the carnivalesque Earth-marriage ceremonies of performance artists Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, who deploy matrimony as a radical act against environmental destruction, including mountain-top removal mining in North America.3 As well, there is the Plantationocene, which, as a sub-category of the Capitalocene, highlights the plantation system—and particularly its nexus of corporate colonialism, slave labor, and commodification of nature—as a structural cause of geological transformation.4 The latter points finally toward the Homogenocene, the epoch of monocultures and mass extinctions, identifying the de-biodiversifying effects of globalization’s reduction of nature to the commodity-form via corporate-extractivist-strip-mining-oil-drilling-monocrop-planting-dam-building neoliberalism.5
All of which provide useful conceptual tools to test, rethink, and even conceptually challenge the Anthropocene thesis. One additional problem with the latter is what sociologist Jason Moore refers to as its “consequentialist” bias, meaning its tendency to focus on the effects of climate change (global warming, CO2 pollution, sea level rise, drought, etc.), while ignoring the structural causes (capitalism-in-nature and nature-in-capitalism).6 This is why the industrial revolution looms so large in Anthropocene discourse and in Green thinking more broadly, rather than the historical formation of capitalism’s co-becoming with nature, including its colonization of nonhuman and human nature beginning in the late fifteenth century, which the Capitalocene references. As Moore argues, the diagnosis of a problem determines its solution, which is why, in Anthropocene discourse, locating the problem is fossil-fuels and finding the solution in renewable energies is ultimately superficial and inadequate—as if we can simply carry on exploiting and colonizing the world, only in newly green ways.
The Capitolocene proposition, conversely, locates the origin of the crisis in capitalism’s exploitative relations to labor, food, energy, and raw materials—so many “cheap natures,” according to Moore, that after centuries of exploitation are now no longer easily available, as there are no more new frontiers and peoples to conquer, only ever more extreme forms of extractivism, including Arctic fossil-fuel exploration, fracking for dirty oil, and deep-sea drilling. Which leaves us with a choice: either a future of geoengineering in an age of climate change catastrophe, ruled by centralist, increasingly authoritative governments and their repressive, militarized police forces alongside ever-heightening forms of socio-economic and political inequality—this future is foretold in countless eco-dystopian films, and glimpsed in the extreme weather events happening already across the world. Or, alternately, the formation of localist, sustainable cultures based on renewable energy systems, degrowth and redistributive economics, climate justice, regional sovereignty, rights of nature, and new forms of human, even inter-species political inclusion.7 While the latter scenario may seem even challening, it’s the belief that we can carry on according to the status quo without radical changes to our social, political, economic, and environmental systems, that is truly utopian.
If we were to develop a critical-creative methodology against the Anthropocene what kind of solutions would its diagnosis make possible? If the Capitalocene sanctions a more comprehensive address of, and intervention into, the processes and causes of capitalist ecological violence—rather than merely the effects—then numerous artistic-activist practices are already providing proposals that insist on embedding experimental visual culture within social engagements and collaborative social movements. They’re doing so in order to foster creative forms of life, joining survival to cultural resilience, Indigenous sovereignty to multi-species composition, democratic practice to economic justice and ecological sustainability. Let me identify only a few examples.
One model is Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares’ Forest Law, 2014, a video and mixed-media installation that investigates the damaged surface- and sub-soils in the Ecuadoran Amazon that have suffered decades of oil extraction (by Texaco/Chevron, among others). The project, which also includes researched material presented as a small catalogue, details the struggle of Indigenous peoples such as the Shuar and Serayaku for justice through newly-enshrined laws that protect the rights of nature, according to a revolutionary juridico-political movement prioritizing eco-centric legality in places like Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as part of a growing international formation in Earth jurisprudence. Forest Law also exemplifies the politico-ecological commitments of growing numbers of artists-activists exploring the structural conditions of capitalism’s colonization of nature—such as the collective platform World of Matter, of which Biemann and Tavares are both members—and it parallels the transnational alliances, facilitated by new media ecologies, between Indigenous movements, including the international Idle No More network, seeking to establish native sovereign and environmental rights from Argentina to the Arctic.8
Another example that reinvents the conditions of visuality in relation to Capitalocene violence is the recent work of Finnish artist Terika Haapoja in collaboration with the writer Laura Gustafsson, which attempts to invent the cultural terms of a post-Anthropocene form of life. With History of Others, 2013-ongoing, the pair have developed a complex series of proposals for an inter-species cosmopolitics—an alternative post-anthropocentric world-making assemblage of human-nonhuman relations—mediated by images, performances, imaginary institutions, and diverse social agents.9 As part of this project, they created a court of law capable of hearing testimony from nonhuman agents such as wolves and prosecute people for cross-species crimes (The Trial, 2014); produced a Museum of the History of Cattle (2013), assembling artifacts, historical information, and photographic documents presented from the vantage of said animals; and initiated the Party of Others (2011), an inter-species political party to compete in Helsinki’s 2011 parliamentary elections with an expanded animal constituency, approximating the terms of what Rosi Braidotti calls zoe-centered egalitarianism.10
Or consider the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, a collective (including John Jordan and Isa Frémeaux) based in France working over the last decade at the intersection of climate justice activism, permaculture gardening, radical theater pedagogy, and experiments in anti-capitalist collective living. Currently they are preparing Climate Games to intervene in and contest the anti-democratic power of multinational corporations in determining the agenda of the upcoming UN climate change conference, COP21, meeting in Paris this December.11 The Games represent a large-scale experiment in horizontalist and rebellious movement building, where visual elements, including satellite-generated maps, computerized graphics, cell-phone images, and tactical information, are shared through media networks, all elements supporting and embedded in the movements of insurgent bodies comprising an activist civil sphere. Working in solidarity with global Blockadia movements, the artwork-as-mass-mobilization invites semi-autonomous participating activists to coordinate creative political interventions, competing for “points” by registering and documenting their activities on a networked online site. Resonating with alter-globalization, Occupy, and Spanish Indignado tactics, this form of neo-Brechtian theater intends to intensify the joy of disobedience “to stop this suicidal machine that has literally set the climate on fire and that has lead to the extinction of two hundred species per day.”12 Their main story is: “We are nature defending itself.”
These are diverse engagements for sure—and there are certainly many more; what they generally share is taking a stake in anti-Anthropocene activism, founded upon the refusal to generalize and depoliticize climate-change agency, the rejection of current corporate-dominated environmental governance, and the invention of creative approaches to alternative forms of life beyond the Anthropocene’s techno-fixes and geoengineering ambitions that rest content in addressing merely the consequences, rather than the systemic and determinative processes, of centuries of capitalism’s world-historical colonizing form of co-becoming with nature. Just as it’s crucial to explore a visuality of causes, in addition to one of effects, it also remains imperative to resist detaching cultures of visuality—whether photographic or remote-sensing, networked information systems or cybernetic interventions—from their embedded locations in the expansive field of social-movement aesthetics. These transversal connections between politicized collectives and their rebellious poetics disperse, for sure, into countless names—the emergent lexicons of current geologies and potential future epochs now in the making.
1.See Jason Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis” (2014), at: http://www.jasonwmoore.com/Essays.html.
2.Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities vol. 6 (2015), with nods to Bruno Latour’s “progressive composition of a common world,” in Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004), 8.
3.The first usage appearing online is from the website Le forum TRANS - Rencontres transgenres - Transsexualité (s), 2010, http://www.i-trans.net/forum-trans/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=11604&start=50&view=print.
4.The “Plantationocene,” according to Haraway, was proposed during a discussion at Aarhus University in October 2014 related to the journal Ethnos, forthcoming as “Anthropologists are Talking About the Anthropocene.” Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chhulucene: Making Kin,” note 4, p. 162.
5.The Homogenocene was suggested by Kieran Suckling, Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, on May 25, 2015, in his response to an earlier posting on this blog. See: http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2015/05/iii-against-the-anthropocene/#respond
6.n other words, capitalism never stood apart from nature but was always internal to it, just as nature provided the milieu necessary for capitalist development. See Moore, “The Capitalocene,” 5-15.
7.As Naomi Klein argues, climate change offers “a catalyzing force for positive change,” in fact the best argument we have “to demand the rebuilding and reviving of local economies; to reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence; to block harmful new free trade deals and rewrite old ones; to invest in starving public infrastructure like mass transit and affordable housing; to take back ownership of essential services like energy and water; to remake our sick agricultural system into something much healthier; to open borders to migrants whose displacement is linked to climate impacts; to finally respect Indigenous land rights—all of which would help to end grotesque levels of inequality within our nations and between them.” Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Allen Lane, 2014), 7.
8.See www.worldofmatter.net/, and my forthcoming book, Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015); and the June 2015 Idle No More report, “Thousands Rally in DC to Demand Justice for Ecuador,” http://www.idlenomore.ca/thousands_rally_in_dc?utm_campaign=inmroots8&utm_medium=email&utm_source=idlenomore.
9.See Isabelle Stengers, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed., Bruno Latour, Peter Weibel (Karlsruhe and Cambridge: ZKM and MIT Press, 2005).
10.Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 60. For extensive analysis of Haapoja’s work, see my forthcoming essay “Animal Cosmopolitics: Terika Haapoja’s History of Others.”
11:Quoted in Ewen Chardronnet’s interview with Isabelle Frémeaux and John Jordan, “Climate Games: ‘We are nature defending itself’” (11 May 2015), http://www.makery.info/en/2015/05/11/climate-games-nous-sommes-la-nature-qui-se-defend/.
Published: 12.06.2015 in the series Anthropocene
T.J. Demos writes widely on modern and contemporary art and his essays have appeared in magazines, journals, and catalogues worldwide. His published work centers broadly on the conjunction of art and politics, examining the ability of artistic practice to invent innovative and experimental strategies that challenge dominant social, political, and economic conventions. He has served on the Art Journal editorial board (2004-08), and currently is on the editorial board of Third Text, and on the advisory board of Grey Room. Demos is Director of the forthcoming Center for Creative Ecologies at UC Santa Cruz. Check out his personal website, for more info and links to many essays.
Demos’ current research focuses on contemporary art and visual culture, investigating in particular the diverse ways that artists and activists have negotiated crises associated with globalization, including the emerging conjunction of post-9/11 political sovereignty and statelessness, the hauntings of the colonial past, and the growing biopolitical conflicts around ecology and climate change. His most recent books include Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (Sternberg Press, 2016), which looks at international artistic and acvitist visual positions in response to growing climate change crises, paying particular attention to environmental justice struggles in the global South and diverse creative proposals for sustainable living; The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (Duke University Press, 2013, winner of the 2014 College Art Association Frank Jewett Mather Award for Art Criticism), which explores the relation of contemporary art—including practices from North America, Europe, and the Middle East—to the experience of social dislocation, political crisis, and economic inequality, where art figures in ways both critically analytical and creatively emancipating; and Return to the Postcolony: Spectres of Colonialism in Contemporary Art (Sternberg Press, 2013), which addresses the recent returns of artists (including Sven Augustijnen, Zarina Bhimji, Pieter Hugo, Renzo Martens, and Vincent Meessen) to former colonial states in Sub-Saharan Africa and the resulting art—predominantly photography and film—that investigates the traumas of past and present colonial relations and injustices.
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