McKenzie Wark: Rethinking the Anthropocene

Tar Sands Mining photo by Garth Lenz

(Social) Theory for the Anthropocene

McKenzie Wark / First published in The Future We Want / Nov 2, 2015

So what becomes of social theory in the Anthropocene? Well, maybe it could no longer be about the social. Maybe it would no longer be possible to take the social as given, as an artifact for thought. It is rather more messy and complicated connections to the non-social might have to be more evident. This might itself be one of the tasks that a non- or extra-social theory might set itself.

I want to make a distinction here between theory and philosophy. I take philosophy to mean a tradition, a sequence of texts and their teachings. Philosophy is what gets taught as philosophy. I want to use the term theory for something else, for something that arises out of situations rather than institutions. Theory is the practice of forming and using concepts in situations that can arise in everyday life.

So what then is theory for the Anthropocene? It might be theory to be used in some fashion in a certain situation. Now, call this situation whatever you damn well like. Call in the the Anthropocene, or the Manthropocene, or the Misanthropocene, or the Chthulucene, or the Capitalocene. Call it metabolic rift. Just call it something. And by calling it something, recognize that one is naming a situation.

That situation is one in which the sum total of social labor undermines its own conditions of planetary existence. There is no longer an outside, a margin, an elsewhere, to dump the waste products of that labor and pretend this disorder that we make has gone away. That disorder now feeds back through the whole metabolism of the planet. It has done so for a while, it will keep doing so, in a sense, forever. There is no ‘environment’ or ‘nature’ that is separate. There is no ‘ecology’ that could be in balance if we just withdrew from it.

Just as when Galileo declared in public that the earth goes around the sun, or when Darwin and Wallace declared in public that all species without exception are the products of evolution, once again the natural sciences have something to tell us that challenges existing world views.

Certain basic ways of knowing about such things necessarily come to us only from the natural sciences. The best known example is carbon. Pulling carbon out of the ground and putting it into the air changes the climate. This might be one of the key phenomena of the Anthropocene. But it is only known through a vast apparatus, global in scope, of communication, computation, scientific cooperation.

Just as when Galileo declared in public that the earth goes around the sun, or when Darwin and Wallace declared in public that all species without exception are the products of evolution, once again the natural sciences have something to tell us that challenges existing world views. So one aspect of theory for the Anthropocene is to reopen the question of the relation the natural sciences to power, to culture, and to humanistic thought.

There’s a sort of reflex action via which theory tries to claim a higher ground to the sciences. But I don’t find that a satisfactory starting point for theory in the Anthropocene. We only know about the conditions of that ground in the first place from the natural sciences, in this case earth sciences rather than cosmology or biology.

Theory has to rethink its relation to ways of knowing that are not its own. I think we need to refuse to compete for dominance with other forms of knowledge and figure out how to cooperate with them. Neither resenting the power of the sciences nor pretending to a higher, more spiritual power is a way forward for theory in our current situation.

There’s plenty to be done. There’s worldviews to supersede and somehow replace. Our world is not just a heliocentric, evolving one. It is also one in which the world can no longer be treated as a thing apart, or an equilibrium, or a point of difference that can specify what is human, or historical or social. Our own actions are changing it, have changed it, irrevocably. And in ways that undermine and cancel the conditions of possibility for this life. So: we need other theories for other lives.

My own thinking about this has been about the question of labor in its relation to nature, and what counts as value. What if we defined ‘nature’ simply as that which labor encounters? How does cooperative labor, meshed as it is with an inhuman technical apparatus, present to what is human some knowledge and value about a nonhuman world? Can that ensemble of labor and apparatus value the world differently? Those are questions I have been thinking about.

Were capitalism to be abolished tomorrow, the Anthropocene will persist, and for thousands of years.

I don’t want to think about the Anthropocene from the point of view of capital. I think that leads to habits of thought in which capital is an eternal and an all-powerful totality. I find that disabling in the current situation. It also leads to the fantasy that if only it were possible to negate capital, then all our problems would be solved.

This is manifestly untrue. Were capitalism to be abolished tomorrow, the Anthropocene will persist, and for thousands of years. And we will still be faced with the problem of feeding and clothing and housing seven billion people. Not to mention doing triage on a multiplicity of webs of life that are in stress and decline.

In any case, it is clear that capitalism as a civilization is already over, and it knows it. The ruling class of our time knows it can make no claim to rule for anyone but themselves. Hence their instinct to hide from us, to spy on us, to arm and fortify themselves, and to plunder and loot like there is no tomorrow. Because there is no tomorrow. So we have to understand, and process the feeling, of living among the ruins. But the work of making another civilization has already begun. The next one will be a diminished one, in some respects.

If we understand that we are living in ruins, then we can understand that we do not have a tradition of knowledge that we can simply continue as if it where whole and intact and passing through an homogenous time. Rather, what we have are fragments, fragments not of a past but of possible futures. Theory for the Anthropocene will be made from a patch work of fragments, repurposed for the current situation, one which will last as far into the future as the western tradition imagines it stretches into the past. The philosophers have only interpreted the Anthropocene. The point however – to set a modest goal to start with – is to grasp how the Anthropocene has negated the possibility of merely continuing disciplinary thought.

But I am thinking more about the forms of everyday denial one encounters when talking about the Anthropocene among fairly enlightened audiences.

An impediment to getting on with the job is a species of denialism. Sure, there are climate denialists, some with extravagant funding from the fossil fuel industries, and so forth. But I am thinking more about the forms of everyday denial one encounters when talking about the Anthropocene among fairly enlightened audiences.

Firstly, there the relentless tendency to critique, but one which no longer has a sense of what the main concepts are that are in need of it. This is critique that loses sight of an agenda for thought. All concepts are fragile things. They are only ever slightly true. Their (weak) power is in their generality.

Secondly, treating the Anthropocene as fashion. Oh, first we were post structural, then we were postmodern, then there was the ontological turn, and so forth. The Anthropocene as an object of thought could become one of those moments, but its causes lies elsewhere. This time it’s a matter of dealing with results from outside social scientific and humanistic thought. It’s a matter of processing results from the sciences, but ones which have far more pressing and immediate consequences than dealing with the fact of a heliocentric universe.

Thirdly, there’s the opposite tendency: oh, we always knew this, nothing new under the sun, and so forth. This is mostly a problem of assimilating some new things to some old things that sound similar, but which are not. Its not the same thing as certain ecological and environmental ideas, although these turn out to be powerful and useful. Nor is it the same as familiar tropes about disaster, trauma or crisis.

Fourthly, a variant which wants to say this was already refuted. For example, Marx showed Malthus was wrong. Limits aren’t natural they are social and historical. Well, that there were ways to overcome limits to agricultural output in the past does not mean there are ways to overcome the rather more systematic constraints that are apparent in our time. This is to fall for an equally asocial and ahistorical argument, in which all constraints are only ever temporary. That past constraints were overcome does not in itself guarantee that current ones also can or will be.

Lastly, one confronts arguments along the lines that since one’s political adversaries are talking about the Anthropocene, it must therefore be only a political idea that belongs to their agenda and should be rejected out of hand. Ironically, both left and right make this same argument. The right rejects it as belonging to those who want to end capitalism and the left reject it as belonging to those who want to perpetuate it.

In short, one has to cut through a lot of strategies of denial even to talk about the Anthropocene. But cut through one must.

In short, one has to cut through a lot of strategies of denial even to talk about the Anthropocene. But cut through one must. The question then becomes one of how the various social science and social theory traditions might go through their own resources and find the fragments that might be put to work in the present situation. There are probably resources in any tradition, whether you are a Weberian or an ANT or whatever. It is not very interesting to try to gain advantage for one’s little discursive world at the expense of another out of such a big question about the larger world.

And so while I have worked through the Marxist tradition, I don’t think it has any exclusive claim to useful concepts or results. But still: John Bellamy Foster opened up a way of thinking about the Anthropocene through Marx’s understanding of metabolic rift.

In Molecular Red I interpreted this in a slightly different way to Foster, drawing on the work of Donna Haraway and others. This involves a selection from the Marxist archive that is different to the accepted one. Among the western Marxists, Sartre’s concept of the practico-inert seems to me very powerful. It is a way of thinking about the inertia of social-technical forms, or what he called ‘serial’ forms. Just as one example, that seems to me a useful concept from within a well known literature.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for combing the archive for neglected resources. Foster thinks Marxists have rather overlooked Engels’ attempt to engage with the natural sciences. That attempt had its problems, but was perhaps preferable to withdrawing into the social and cultural.

Here I think the neglected work of Alexander Bogdanov on forms of collaboration between scientific, technical and other kinds of labor might have its uses. One has to lift the ban on this line of thought that unites otherwise disparate figures such as Lukacs and Althusser. The neglected resources include the scientific and technical side of Marxist praxis. Why are Joseph Needham and JD Bernal so neglected as major social thinkers? Or rather social-technical-natural thinkers?

Building forms of collaborative scientific, technical, intellectual, organizational, affective and manual labor to confront the Anthropocene and find a path through the unstable time in announces.

There may well be resources in a more utopian vein as well. Charles Fourier had an entirely hallucinatory idea about how climates could change, but at least he had one. Compared to the realist fiction of his contemporaries, his writings are in some ways even more ‘realist’, in that unlike them he thinks about whose job it is to take out the trash. Here I think one can side-step that tradition coming out of Ernst Bloch that sees the utopian as a flash of the redemptive or messianic irrupting in the everyday. One can instead see the utopian as a speculative discourse on extremely practical matters.

These are just some of the resources that come to mind in the Marxist tradition within which I am familiar. One could find such resources elsewhere. But the project of a non- or extra- social theory for the Anthropocene seems to me to involve a double labor.

Firstly, a labor of selecting from available intellectual resources entirely on the basis of the demands of the situation at hand. Secondly, of building forms of collaborative scientific, technical, intellectual, organizational, affective and manual labor to confront the Anthropocene and find a path through the unstable time in announces. The question of the futures anyone might want has to be thought in the context of the futures that might still be possible.

Ken-Wark - portraitMcKenzie Wark is the author of Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (Verso 2015) and various other things. Wark is professor of culture and media at Eugene Lang College and of liberal studies at the New School for Social Research, in New York City.

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