Finding the human and the posthuman in the Anthropocene.

Vanessa Daws, #pluralizetheanthropocene



STEVE MENTZ
St. John’s University

A few weeks ago in late July, a tropical rainstorm cascaded onto my home in Connecticut. During high summer in the northeastern United States, violent thunderstorms often roll through after steamy afternoons. But we weren’t prepared for the speed and volume of water that fell in a few short hours during the evening of July 22, 2019. After we spotted rising water in the basement, spreading into my teenage son’s underground lair, we frantically filled 32-gallon garbage cans and hauled them up the hill from the flooded garage. We weren’t quite successful in keeping all the water out of his room – but we did save the Xbox, not to mention his bed.

Welcome, I didn’t say to him as we each strained to pull more than one hundred pounds of sloshing water up the steep driveway, to the Anthropocene.

According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Programme, July 2019 was the hottest recorded month in human history. The year 2019 also saw record-breaking heat in April, May, and June. Our planet is cooking, and since warm air holds more water vapor, storms are getting wetter. The downpour we experienced might not have been unusual for the tropics. But our cozy New England home wasn’t designed to handle that much water that fast. My flood situation seems pretty tame compared to the prospects facing residents of the Maldives or Marshall Islands, but the Anthropocene touches each one of us, unevenly, unexpectedly, and sometimes painfully.

As the lived experience of climate change becomes more tangible with each storm, flood, and heat wave, we need to activate our imaginations. It’s not easy to make sense of how it feels to live through dynamic ecological change. The buzzword “Anthropocene,” coined in 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, has been spreading its tentacles beyond climate science to the humanities, arts, and other public discourses, but it’s not clear what the term asks of us in response. We know that climate change has a human cause and that we are living through an “Age of Man” in a basic physical sense. We also know the abstract Anthropos that drives up carbon levels in the atmosphere is not the same as the individual Humans who suffer the most drastic effects. Industrial capitalism lights the fires, but people feel the waters rise.

I wrote Break Up the Anthropocene to add more imagination to our responses to climate change. I wanted to synthesize the many ways cultural theorists and eco-philosophers are describing our moment. I also wanted – to cite my argument-by-hashtag – to #pluralizetheanthropocene. That means transforming the ominous and monolithic rise of global temperature into varied, surprising, and radical possibilities. I wanted to exchange the global paradigms of 1.5 or 2 or 3 degrees Celsius with multiple responses to plural lived experiences of catastrophic ecological changes.

I needed help, and I got lots of it. The inspiration started with a gorgeous watercolor painting that swim-artist Vanessa Daws made for me in June 2018, when I was giving a #pluralizetheanthropocene lecture in Lausanne. The image, which balances a Ship of Fools alongside a mostly-hidden sea monster and an ocean full of plastic trash, launched this book with color and turbulence. I’ve tried to stay true to that spirit as the project has moved and turned.

The book’s seven chapters comprise forays into plural perspectives. A chapter called “Six Human Postures” treats Old Man Anthropos as a physical allegory, so that various eco-theoretical approaches involve asking the Old Man’s tired body to assume new positions. Yoga for the Anthropocene! Other chapters include investigations of anachronism as positive method, a Borges-meets-Shakespeare engagement with “now, now, very now” as the time of climate change, and a reading of errancy as central to natural systems. A glossary-chapter, “The Neologismcene,” catalogs two dozen proposed names for our warming age, from “Agnotocene” to “Trumpocene.” We need them all, and more besides. A concluding encounter with the whale-swallowed prophet Jonah suggests that the climate change stories we need today include both the human perspective that counsels repentance, change, and survival, and the posthuman vision that promises shock, disorientation, and new possibilities.

When I was writing this little book, I didn’t think that I’d feel one of its conclusions in my aching back. I need a better system for keeping stormwater out of my house. We need to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. But living in the Anthropocene means finding floods where you don’t expect them and hadn’t encountered them before.

——-

Steve Mentz is professor of English at St. John’s University. He is the author of Shipwreck Modernity (Minnesota, 2015), At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (2009), and Romance for Sale in Early Modern England (2006).


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