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Anthropocene, or the art of living on a damaged planet

Donna Harraway: I’m going to pro­pose that the Cthulucene might be a way to col­lect up the ques­tions for nam­ing the epoch, for nam­ing what’s hap­pen­ing in the airs, waters, and places, in the rocks, oceans, and atmos­pheres. Perhaps need­ing both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene, but offer­ing some­thing else, some­thing just maybe more liv­able.

Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble

Donna Haraway, Open Transcripts

(Note: This is the transcript of a talk delivered by Donna Harraway. The original video is not available for viewing in India.)

It’s an honor to be here, in so many ways, and I want to begin under the title of this talk with three sto­ries that are too big but also not big enough. The Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, and my favorite, the Cthulucene. The Cthonic ones, the not yet fin­ished, ongo­ing, abyssal, and dread­ful ones that are gen­er­a­tive and destruc­tive, and make Gaia look like a junior kinder­garten daugh­ter.

I’m going to pro­pose to us in the course of the next twenty-five min­utes that the Cthulucene might be a way to col­lect up the ques­tions for nam­ing the epoch, for nam­ing what is hap­pen­ing in the airs, waters, and places, in the rocks, and oceans, and atmos­pheres. Perhaps need­ing both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene, but per­haps offer­ing some­thing else, some­thing just maybe more liv­able. I’m struck by the fact that two kinds of insights seem to have over­taken the intel­lec­tual schol­arly world, inter­na­tion­ally really, and across the divi­sions of the dis­ci­plines. Simultaneously I pro­pose that it has become lit­er­ally unthink­able to do good work in any inter­est­ing field with the premises of indi­vid­u­al­ism, method­olog­i­cally indi­vid­u­al­ism, and human excep­tion­al­ism. None of the most gen­er­a­tive and cre­ative intel­lec­tual work being done today any longer spends much time (except as a kind of foot­note) talk­ing, doing cre­ative work with the premises of indi­vid­u­al­ism and method­olog­i­cal indi­vid­u­al­ism, and I’ll try to illus­trate that a bit, pri­mar­ily from some of the nat­ural sci­ences.

Simultaneously, there has been an explo­sion within the biolo­gies of mul­ti­species becoming-with, of an under­stand­ing that to be a one at all, you must be a many and it’s not a metaphor. That it’s about the tis­sues of being any­thing at all. And that those who are have been in rela­tion­al­ity all the way down. There is no place that the lay­ers of the onion come to rest on some kind of foun­da­tion.

How is it, if these are truly the intel­lec­tual rev­o­lu­tions and I believe cul­tural rev­o­lu­tions that are infus­ing this planet at this time, how is it that the name of our epoch that is seri­ously pro­posed and being stud­ied in the inter­na­tional geo­phys­i­cal union and else­where, with a report to be issued in 2016, that the name pro­posed for our epoch is the Anthropocene, with the fig­ure of the Anthropos? What an extra­or­di­nary kind of con­tra­dic­tion is implied in nam­ing the epoch that way. But it of course is named that way because of the cor­rect under­stand­ing that peo­ple, for­get the Anthropos, peo­ple have been doing on this planet has in fact changed the planet for­ever, and for every­one. Anthropogenic processes are what give war­rant to that name. I will try both to jus­tify and trou­ble that in the next few min­utes.

Jim Clifford last night read a lit­tle quote from Always Coming Home that I think has got to stand along with Virginia Woolf’s epi­graph from Three Guineas. Actually, it’s not the epi­graph of Three Guineas but in the midst of the three guineas Virginia Woolf insists, “Think we must.” Think we must. If ever there has been a time for the need seri­ously to think, it is now, and it has got to be the kind of think­ing that Hannah Arendt accused [Adolph] Eichmann of being inca­pable of. (That was not an English sen­tence, but it’s okay, I’m talk­ing about Germans.) Namely, the banal­ity of evil in the fig­ure of Eichmann was con­densed in Hannah Arendt’s analy­sis into the inca­pac­ity to think the world that is actu­ally being lived. The inabil­ity to con­front the con­se­quences of the world­ing that one is in fact engaged in, and the lim­it­ing and think­ing to func­tion­al­ity. The lim­it­ing of think­ing to busi­ness as usual. Being smart, per­haps, being effi­cient, per­haps, but that Eichmann was inca­pable of think­ing, and in that con­sisted the banal­ity and ordi­nar­i­ness of evil. And I think among us, the ques­tion of whether we are Eichmanns is a very seri­ous one.

Perhaps the utopist should heed this unset­tling news at last. Perhaps the utopist would do well to lose the plan, throw away the map, get off the motor­cy­cle, put on a very strange-looking hat, bark sharply three times, and trot off look­ing thin, yel­low, and dingy across the desert and up into the dig­ger pines.

An underwater photograph of an octopus.

I’m giv­ing this talk under a par­tic­u­lar gor­geous image of Octopus cyanea, or the day octo­pus, who you can see in the cur­rent “Tentacles” exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As I have been for a long time, I’ve been try­ing to stay with the trou­ble under the sign of sci­ence of SF, of string fig­ures, sci­ence fact, sci­ence fic­tion, spec­u­la­tive fab­u­la­tion, spec­u­la­tive fem­i­nism, so far. The sky has not fallen, not yet. And I have been inspired by the think­ing of Marilyn Strathern and oth­ers, who tell me that it mat­ters what sto­ries tell sto­ries, it mat­ters what thoughts think thoughts, it mat­ters what worlds world worlds. That we need to take seri­ously the acqui­si­tion of that kind of skill, emo­tional, intel­lec­tual, mate­r­ial skill, to desta­bi­lize our own sto­ries, to retell them with other sto­ries, and vice versa. A kind of seri­ous denor­mal­iza­tion of that which is nor­mally held still, in order to do that which one thinks one is doing. It mat­ters to desta­bi­lize worlds of think­ing with other worlds of think­ing. It mat­ters to be less parochial. If ever there was a time, it is surely now, and I think all of us lack many of the skills.

As you know, Ursula Le Guin is my prin­ci­pal inspi­ra­tion for a great deal, not least her way of approach­ing ques­tions of nar­ra­tion, evo­lu­tion, writ­ing, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” That rather than a heroic story told yet one more time with the first beau­ti­ful words and weapons, or words as weapons and weapons as words, instead rethink the ques­tions of evo­lu­tion in a much smaller vein, with the tiny, hollowed-out neg­a­tive spaces, the shell which can hold some water that can be shared, the net bag that can carry food back to the camp, that can carry the baby. The kind of social­ity that comes from com­mu­ni­ties mak­ing their lives together. Not any kind of Utopia, cer­tainly not absent con­flict, but it is not the heroic story of the priv­i­leged sig­ni­fier mov­ing across matrix space to bring back the prize at the end and die.

Hand-drawn map of the lanscape of <i>Always Coming Home</i>

Always Coming Home is a story that acti­vates that par­tic­u­lar the­ory of being, the­ory of evo­lu­tion, really. The Anthropocene is that name that was pro­posed in about 2000. The word was invented, actu­ally, by a man who is a great lover and studier of diatoms in the Great Lakes of North America. It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that Eugene Stoermer is a fresh­wa­ter biol­o­gist and a lover of the diatoms. His term the Anthropocene was in fact invented in order to sig­nal the Anthropogenic processes that are acid­i­fy­ing the waters and chang­ing the nature of life on Earth. But it was picked up and pop­u­lar­ized by Paul Crutzen, an atmos­pheric chemist who won a Nobel Prize. Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer joined together to pop­u­lar­ize the name Anthropocene specif­i­cally in rela­tion­ship to those sorts of processes ema­nat­ing par­tic­u­larly from the mid-18th cen­tury and the steam engine and the extra­or­di­nar­ily expand­ing use of fos­sil fuels that acid­ify the oceans, bleach the corals (They were par­tic­u­larly wor­ried about a vib­rio infec­tion in coral reefs that’s respon­si­ble for bleach­ing— We’ll be hear­ing more about vib­rio bac­te­ria both from me and from Margaret [McFall-Ngai] in a few min­utes. Vibrio is respon­si­ble for cholera, another vari­ant of it. Vibrios are geniuses at com­mu­ni­ca­tion. They are sig­nallers, queuers par excel­lence. Those are guys who really get into the world and change it. In the case of the Hawaiian bob­tail squid, we can cheer for them. In the case of the bleached coral and cholera in Haiti, I think we have quite another atti­tude toward the encour­age­ment of vib­rio on this planet.

I think the proper icon for the Anthropocene, I think of that human being that is sig­nalled by the Anthropocene, this Anthropos, the one who looks up, is Fossil-Making Man, burn­ing fos­sils as fast as pos­si­ble. And what else would sig­nal this man but the Burning Man fes­ti­val in the deserts of Nevada?

The Burning Man effigy, burning

This is of course the burn­ing effigy at one of the Burning Man fes­ti­vals. They started on the beach, Baker Beach in San Francisco in a much smaller way. Rather small wooden effi­gies of a man (and a dog, I might point out) that were burned as part of the cel­e­bra­tion of the sum­mer sol­stice, and they grew in the way of Fossil-Making Man’s atti­tudes toward things, from a rather mod­est effigy to a 104 foot-tall burn­ing thing in the desert, such that every­body who takes a snap­shot of burn­ing man has to sign a con­tract that the copy­right is owned by the Burning Man orga­ni­za­tion.

The Anthropocene is also tightly tied to a god­dess fig­ure, Gaia, the fig­ure of the Earth who is Gaia partly because Gaia was invoked by James Lovelock to sig­nal what a liv­ing planet looks like from space. Very much part of the NASA project, the Apollo mis­sions, the search for life on Mars. Gaia is a fig­ure who emerges into the con­scious­ness of the Anthropos from space. She is an earthly fig­ure, not a female fig­ure but an it, one who fig­ures the metab­o­lism of a planet, that a planet is a whole, autopoi­etic sys­tem.

[This photo] is from one of the Apollo mis­sions, the pho­to­graph of the Earth ris­ing from the Moon. That is the per­spec­tive from which Gaia is the fig­ure of the Anthropocene.

[This] dia­gram is one that James Lovelock used in one of his lec­tures on Gaia that gives us a sense of what an autopoi­etic sys­tem looks like. It’s a sys­tems the­ory. It def­i­nitely has to do with com­plex sys­tem processes. It is not a the­ory of addi­tive change but of sys­tem change. It is about self-making and lay­ers of self-making. It’s about order out of dis­or­der. It’s about home­o­sta­tic mech­a­nisms in autopoi­etic sys­tems. The lim­its of home­o­sta­tic mech­a­nisms. The moments of flip from accom­mo­da­tion, accom­mo­da­tion, accom­mo­da­tion, whoops, col­lapse. accom­mo­da­tion, Accommodation, accom­mo­da­tion, whoops, col­lapse. Autopoietic the­o­ries accom­mo­date col­lapse as they accom­mo­date adjust­ment in their sys­temic ways of think­ing. These are the fun­da­men­tal kinds of log­i­cal appa­ra­tuses that have been used in sci­en­tiz­ing the Anthropocene in its major research orga­ni­za­tions and pol­icy bod­ies, most cer­tainly includ­ing the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC has been issu­ing its reports now for a num­ber of years. It uses the pho­tographs, the snap­shots from the cell­phone, of the planet Earth, and it engages that kind of sys­tem think­ing that pro­duces a very par­tic­u­lar kind of scale called “global.”

In Anna Tsing’s Friction she does a very inter­est­ing ethno­graphic study of what pro­duces the scale called global, and how the mod­els work, how the insti­tu­tions work, how it is that some­thing as big as some­thing called “global” emerges as a work object. Anna is not a trasher, Anna is not the sort of thing that says, “Oops, gotcha. Done with that.” but rather, “Oh, that’s how it works. How can this both work and not work for any­thing that needs to be done on this Earth?” So I am not argu­ing that we don’t need the kinds of oper­a­tions that go on under the sign of the Anthropocene, Gaia, autopoi­etic think­ing, and global scale, but Iam sig­nalling their very his­tor­i­cal and mate­r­ial speci­ficity, and their lim­i­ta­tions both mytho­log­i­cal and oth­er­wise.

I would also argue (and this is much more ten­u­ous) that the Anthropocene main bio­log­i­cal sci­ences are those of the so-called mod­ern syn­the­sis that was put together crudely from the 30s to the 50s, and then again from the 50s to the 70s, and at some very deep sense these sci­ences are grossly inad­e­quate to the kind of think­ing required for our urgent times. They are pow­er­ful. I’m not talk­ing about trash­ing them. Again I’m talk­ing about under­stand­ing what they did, can do, can’t do, and what they stopped. So that the sci­ences of the mod­ern syn­the­sis work with genes, cells, organ­isms, pop­u­la­tions, species, put them into rela­tion­ships with each other that were well-described by the math­e­mat­ics of com­pe­ti­tion, the com­pe­ti­tion equa­tions derived ulti­mately from the ther­mo­dy­nam­ics of Gibbs, and that the world is pro­foundly math­e­ma­tized in terms of those sorts of units that can suc­cess­fully leave copies of each other in com­pe­ti­tion with other copy­ing units. Powerful appa­ra­tus for under­stand­ing the biolo­gies.

But what the sci­ences of the mod­ern syn­the­sis could not do and did not do was have any grip on micro­bi­ol­ogy, partly because micro­bi­ol­ogy works in such a weird way. The lit­tle crit­ters just do things we would not per­mit in the aver­age mid­dle school. They could not and did not deal with sym­bio­sis. The many bio­log­i­cal process that have come to be shown as gen­eral to life on Earth were ungras­pable within the sci­ences of the mod­ern syn­the­sis, basi­cally. They were really minor­ity sci­ences. Everything to do with lichens and coral reefs that became so excit­ing in the late 19th cen­tury in some sig­nif­i­cant way dis­ap­peared from the lead­ing sci­ences until very recently. And they could not and did not deal with devel­op­men­tal phe­nom­ena. They could not deal with change through time in any very seri­ous way.

I would like to pro­pose for per­fectly obvi­ous rea­sons that for all of the fail­ings of the Anthropos and the Anthropocene, and all of the strengths of both, the Anthropos did not do this thing that threat­ens mass extinc­tion, and that if we were to use only one word for the processes that we’re talk­ing about, it should be the Capitalocene.

Furthermore, those processes that are sig­nalled by the extra­or­di­nary prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tions and extrac­tions of orga­ni­za­tions of labor and pro­duc­tions of tech­nolo­gies of very par­tic­u­lar kinds for the extrac­tion and mald­is­tri­b­u­tion of profit, so on and so forth, did not start in the mid-18th cen­tury, nor do we need to go back to “deep time” and the end of the last Ice Age and play the notion that human ver­sus nature is as old as our species itself. Stark non­sense. But we do need to go deeper in time than the mid-18th cen­tury, and I use this slide sim­ply to sig­nal the for­ma­tions of mar­kets and accu­mu­la­tions of wealth in the great trade routes, many of which fig­ured China as a major player, and the Indian Ocean as a major player. I do this sim­ply to sig­nal that those metab­o­lisms of the oikos and [ikos?], of econ­omy and ecol­ogy, and of world­ing, and of trad­ing and mak­ing, need to be fig­ured older than the mid-18th cen­tury, and that does not mean going back to some kind of deep ecol­ogy.

Clearly, the melt­ing of the ice around the Arctic is very impor­tant to the Capitalocene, in no small part because some­thing like 30% of the nat­ural gas reserves are in the Arctic seas under the ice, or the no-longer ice. I give you here an old ship that didn’t quite make it, and a new ship which is quite capa­ble, thank you.

And then I give you the third age of car­bon, which I believe we are liv­ing in. I’m indebted to Michael Klare for this. That is to say that even though sus­tain­able tech­nolo­gies of all kinds are get­ting vast invest­ments, way more money is going into suck­ing the last calo­rie of fos­sil fuel out of the tis­sues of the Earth and the melt­ing of the ice in the Northwest Passage. The melt­ing of ice in the Hudson Bay is a big part of this.

What we have here is Greenpeace going against a Russian oil rig in the Russian areas of the Arctic. The inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion in the Northern seas is aston­ish­ing. The mil­i­tary com­pe­ti­tion, the cor­po­rate com­pe­ti­tion. The suck­ing of the last calo­rie of car­bon out of this planet is a big deal.

So we get to the Cthulucene. My fig­ure [on the left] is Potnia Theron, or Medusa. Medusa is the Greek ver­sion of this snake-haired cthonic entity who is Potnia Theron, Potnia Melissa the god­dess of the bees, who is a very old and cthonic fig­ure who is in no one’s pocket. A fig­ure of cre­ation and destruc­tion, an entity of extra­or­di­nary pow­ers, and I would sug­gest to you that those who think the cthonic ones are old, tra­di­tional, done, been there, sup­planted by civ­i­liza­tion, are sim­ply wrong. I fig­ure that for this pur­pose with the Ood out of Doctor Who sci­ence fic­tion film TV series that I bet every­body in the room has at least seen some of. And I remind you that the ten­tac­u­lar ones, whose faces are ten­ta­cles and not eyes, whose face are feel­ers, that the Ood had their hind­brain out­side their body and that the bad enslavers came and cut their hind­brain, which was the part of them that tied them to each other and to the pos­si­bil­ity of what they call a hive-mind but let’s just call it com­mu­nity or think­ing with each other, and replaced it with a lit­tle glow­ing globe that could be con­trolled by the slave­mak­ers. So I think of the Ood as a per­fectly appro­pri­ate Cthonic One for the Cthulucene.

But let’s move to the biolo­gies and go to Lynn Margulis. This is “Endosymbiosis: Homage to Lynn Margulis,” a giant paint­ing of sev­eral feet by sev­eral feet, on the wall between the bio­log­i­cal sci­ences and the geo­sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where Lynn pro­posed, and she and her labs showed, that the ori­gin of com­plex cel­lu­lar­ity on this Earth is an endosym­bi­otic event. That is, some bac­te­r­ial sorts of crit­ters ate oth­ers and got indi­ges­tion and stuck around with each other. That the ori­gin of com­plex cel­lu­lar­ity is an act of indi­ges­tion. This paint­ing is of the crit­ters involved in indi­ges­tion that is per­haps the world’s first com­plex world­ing, except Lynn would dis­agree with that since she was quite sure the bac­te­ria were already quite com­plex enough, thank you.

You’ll hear more about this from Margaret, but it’s not just mul­ti­cel­lu­lar­ity which is at a sym­bio­genetic event of cthonic pro­por­tions, but also if you take this lovely lit­tle Hawaiian bob­tail squid, get it hatched and fill a lit­tle spe­cial­ized pouch with very par­tic­u­lar bac­te­ria at a very par­tic­u­lar time, those very par­tic­u­lar bac­te­ria will sig­nal meta­mor­phic changes in the squid that allows it to build a cer­tain kind of struc­ture that’s really cru­cial for its being able to har­bor light-emitting bac­te­ria as an adult and look like a starry sky from below so that it can swim along and get its prey. It’ll glue sand to its back so from above it looks like a sandy bot­tom and from below it looks like a starry sky, and it can shoot its way through the waters gob­bling up din­ner because of sym­bio­genetic events. So that’s about devel­op­men­tal pro­gram­ming. It’s about, to develop prop­erly through time, we need each other in an oblig­ate sym­bio­sis, and this proves to be way more gen­eral than one would think.

The other slide is a sim­i­lar kind of argu­ment out of Nicole King’s lab­o­ra­tory at Berkeley, which is about the ori­gin of ani­mal mul­ti­cel­lu­lar­ity from the clump­ing of choanafla­gel­lates in the pres­ence of cer­tain kinds of bac­te­r­ial infec­tion. Infection is nec­es­sary to com­plex­ity.

We are all lichens now. We have never been indi­vid­u­als. From anatom­i­cal, phys­i­o­log­i­cal, evo­lu­tion­ary, devel­op­men­tal, philo­sophic, eco­nomic, I don’t care what per­spec­tive, we are all lichens now.

Art-science activisms inspire me at a level— and I refuse to give any of my pre­sen­ta­tions with­out a kind of potent alliance with those who are work­ing with beauty and fury in their enlist­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of ongo­ing­ness. The first pic­ture that you see up there is from Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s Institute for Figuring. The hyper­bolic Crochet Coral Reef, where the prac­tices of women’s cro­chet­ing the non-Euclidian fig­ures became very impor­tant math­e­mat­i­cal fig­ures. Something like 27 coun­tries and more than 7,000 peo­ple have been involved in the col­lab­o­ra­tions to make dis­plays of coral reefs from cro­chet­ing. They’d enact a sol­i­dar­ity with the reefs through women’s fiber arts, envi­ron­men­tal­ism, the math­e­mat­ics of com­plex non-Euclidian spaces, the inter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tions of instal­la­tion art. They are an extra­or­di­nar­ily inter­est­ing acti­va­tion. This is the “Toxic Reef,” made sig­nif­i­cantly out of dis­carded reel-to-reel tape and other toxic fibers.

The other is a book project put together by a friend of mine who died a cou­ple of months ago, Alison Jolly, a pri­ma­tol­o­gist who stud­ies lemurs in Madagascar and was deeply involved in con­ser­va­tion. Alison was hor­ri­fied by the fact that Malagasy chil­dren study European ani­mals and have no lit­er­a­ture or ani­mal fables in the Malagasy lan­guage, or pic­tures of Malagasy ani­mals, the Madagascar flora and fauna. She and her col­leagues have pro­duced an aston­ish­ing series of about ten children’s books that are bilin­gual in Malagasy and English. Real nat­ural his­tory. These are excit­ing ani­mal sto­ries, fab­u­lous ani­mal sto­ries, that are an effort to incul­cate in the young a love of place, a love of home.

Cthulucene reworld­ing. Compost not Posthuman. “Revolution is but thought car­ried into action,” Emma Goldman. The acti­va­tion of the cthonic pow­ers that is within our grasp as we col­lect up the trash of the Anthropocene and the exter­min­ism of the Capitalocene, to some­thing that might pos­si­bly have a chance of ongo­ing.

Thank you.

Staying with the Trouble: Xenoecologies of Home for Companions in the Contested Zones
Donna Haraway, Culanth.org
Most of my own work these days asks what it could possibly mean to inherit the histories of companion species on a blasted earth where getting on together is still the task. Companion species “break bread” together at table; it’s in the word itself—cum panis, with bread. Who is on the menu at this table is a question of ethical, political, and ecological urgency. It is also not a new question, even in the future tense. Companions have, somehow, “to get on together,” in that scary Australian English idiom. Moved by Deborah Rose, I want to ask what it might mean for human-animal studies in the zoo-ethno-graphic mode to face those who come before, so as to leave quieter, less wild country to those who come after? In other words, what might it mean for multispecies get to inherit the past thickly in the present so as to age the future?

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