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Glasgow Review of Books: Anthologising the Anthropocene

By Shona McCombes
Glasgow Review of Books

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Tsing et al)You’ve heard of the Anthropocene. The word is at least a few decades old; according to most accounts it has been in popular circulation since 2000. In those eighteen years it has migrated far from its geological origins, increasingly ubiquitous across the arts and humanities, sprouting up in book titles and conferences and research centres. It is a word that feels epoch-making, important. But still, in 2018, you’re not always precisely sure what it means. The Anthropocene seems never quite to have reached the status of self-evidence, perpetually qualified by a definitional aside or a gesture of uncertainty: “this era that we are coming to refer to as the Anthropocene” is a typical formulation, with the hesitance of a word that, despite the prestige of its scientific provenance, remains insecure in its authority. You know it has something to do with climate crisis and tipping points and planetary systems, and most importantly it has to do with the human and its unprecedented power. But the degree of that power, its precise relationship with “nature”, ranges from the cautious (human activity as “a planetary force”) to the dominant (human activity “exceeds the forces of nature”) to the positively all-powerful: humans as “the major force determining the continuing livability of the earth,” a destructive deity that has the final say in what will happen next.[1] The uses to which the Anthropocene can be put range from the soberly descriptive to the creative and speculative, a scientific designation or a narrative device, a warning or a promise.

 

Veer Ecology (Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, editors)Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet and Veer Ecology are books about the Anthropocene, and both are permeated by its hesitance. Each makes a serious attempt to tie its multi-authored, multi-disciplinary chapters into something resembling a whole, embedding ideas of ontological entanglement and planetary interconnection at the level of the text itself. For an academic publication, Arts of Living is a strikingly aesthetic object, carefully curated at the level of form as well as content. The volume is divided into two sections, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Monsters’, brought together in a reversible text that can be read from one side or the other – an impressive feat of symmetry. ‘Ghosts’ focuses on landscapes and ‘Monsters’ on bodies, thematics that materialize in two sets of sketches: roots and tentacles, emblems of entanglement, snaking their way through the book’s blank spaces to meet in the middle. Veer Ecology, meanwhile, performs its coherence in a linguistic mode: each author chooses a verb as a springboard for thought, and the veer of the title makes a cameo in each chapter. Foregrounding movement, suddenness, “deviation and spiral,” veer is also a nod to a process of academic trend-making that has shifted in recent decades from the linear, temporal language of “post” to the multidirectional, spatial language of “turn”, as the editors note in their introduction: “The ‘animal turn,’ ‘material turn,’ ‘geologic turn,’ and ‘hydrological turn’ designate an array of investigations into how the ecological works: it spins.”

 

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