An earlier version of this post first appeared on the author’s site, Aesop’s Anthropology.
What just happened in Anthropology? In the 2013 annual meeting there were zero abstracts or paper or panel titles featuring the word “Anthropocene”; this year there were 64! Compare that with “multispecies,” which has held steady at between 16-23 invocations after it first made its appearance in the program in 2010.[i] Why the surge of interest? More importantly, given overlapping concerns highlighted by these two keywords, why the sudden prevalence of one over the other?
Of the two, “Anthropocene” has a much broader public and also more cachet, as it comes from the Earth sciences and bears the imprimatur of geological objectivity. Anthropologists may also be drawn to the greater sense of crisis or urgency the term conveys. And it may be that we’re recognizing here an opportunity to exercise our often over-looked expertise. This concept is centrally about humans, and they are our specialty. But why would this term so suddenly overtake “multispecies” as a means to frame lines of inquiry and research projects?
Perusing the 2014 program, I first though the rise of this term reflected archaeologists’ use of Anthropocene, since the concept is really taking hold in that subfield. But few of the papers or panels are archeological, so that can’t be it. Perhaps it’s a matter of scope: Anthropocene—as a “charismatic mega-category”—takes in millennia and it frames the vast scale of industrialization and globalization. Also, because it focuses on climatic change and risk, the term orients to policy forums and managerial practices concerning environmental resources. In contrast, “multispecies” emerged from more boutique fields, cultural studies broadly (e.g. philosophical posthumanism and Donna Haraway’s companion species, etc) and ethnography in particular. Plus it’s mostly still associated with a method: ethnographic accounting for located relationships and encounters among species. But also its connotations are just weird and disconcerting, in a way that even global apocalypse is not, since that’s been lushly imagined actively over the last two thousand years at least.
Here’s the problem: You can think with and deploy “Anthropocene” without rethinking any of the fundamental assumptions that got us into the crisis it names. Anthropocene, as the name suggests, is anthropocentric: human-driven change is pushing the planet to the Sixth Extinction (see Elizabeth Kolbert). But the concept prompts scant challenges to the perspective of humanism that fueled our species dominance; nor does it require any revisioning of mission of anthropology. Both problems are evident in Paul Stoller’s recent characterization of the current moment.
What does “multispecies” do differently? First, it aims to decenter the human, striving to achieve some detachment from its precepts, assumptions, and conceits. The starting point of multispecies work is that the “human” is comprised of masses of nonhumans—internal swarms of bacteria, viruses, and fungi vastly outnumber our human cell by a ratio of about 9 to 1. We fundamentally misunderstand the human if we see it as a singular, unified agent; rather, what “we” are as a species is utterly entangled in copious folds of nonhumans, without which we would not exist. The challenge is to displace the centrality of the human. In contrast with “Anthropocene,” “multispecies” is first and foremost an effort to dethrone the dominance of the human, which solutions to the crisis of the Anthropocene must entail.
As an exploratory frame, “Anthropocene” bears this potential, too. From the perspective of anthropogenic change, we can see the human with a greater degree of distance than ever before, perhaps gaining a crucial quantum of detachment from its perceptual, conceptual apparatus—in order to think differently from the modes of thought that placed planetary life in peril. Here lies the potential to achieve “species thinking,” which Dipesh Chakrabarty (see “The Climate of History”) characterized as a means to reconstitute critical analysis of climate change. But this comes with the challenge of resisting the evident tendency to construe the Anthropocene as the human writ large across the entire globe. Also, these two keywords entail starkly contrasting assumptions about agency of nonhumans, which we’ll have to engage if we are to counter human-driven change. This must happen at the scale of individuals—as with surging interest in microbiomes—and of commodity chains, as well as managerial efforts to conserve or “rewild” “nature” and environmental mobilizations to constrain rampaging industries.
A crucial way of proceeding with both displacing the human and rethinking forms of agency, while building from the overlapping potential of both “Anthropocene” and “multispecies,” begins surprisingly by reimagining social theory. Since Durkheim, social theory developed to account for forces that pattern our existence and that crosscut—alternately dooming or blessing—individual lives, animating the structures through which all humans pass. At this moment, as we contend with the far-flung extent of impacts of human sociality, perhaps we gain a different purchase on the attendant predicament if we now begin to recognize the social in its nonhuman manifestations and operations. If the human is the problem of the current global crisis, as the term, “Anthropocene,” suggests, social theory is uniquely positioned to decenter this entity by developing the basic insight that sociality extends well beyond the human.
“Anthropocene”—a term to name an epoch of geological time, distinct from the Holocene—was first proffered by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, in a 2002 article in Nature (“Geology of Mankind,” Vol 415). Debate over this assertion continues to be lively—as chronicled in “An Epoch Debate,” (Science, October 7, 2011, Vol 334)—and widespread: see, “The New World of the Anthropocene” (Environmental Science & Technology, 44, 2010), “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship” (Ambio, 40, 2011), and “Conservation in the Anthropocene” (Conservation Biology, 26, 2011). These now are helpfully curated by the just-inaugurated journal, The Anthropocene Review.
John Hartigan is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. His recent books include Anthropology of Race: Biology, Genes, and Culture, (School of Advanced Research Press, 2013), What Can You Say? America’s National Conversation on Race (Stanford University Press, 2010) and Race in the 21st Century: Ethnographic Approaches, (Oxford University Press 2010), and more recently, Aesop’s Anthropology: A Multispecies Approach, (University of Minnesota Press, 2014). The Aesop’s Anthropology project can also be followed at https://twitter.com/aesopsanthro and http://www.aesopsanthropology.com/blog/
[i] 2013 may have been an odd year. There 7 references to “Anthropocene” in both 2012 and 2011. But references to “multispecies” in Anthrosource outnumber those for “Anthropecene,” with the former mostly in journal titles and abstracts and the latter confined to Section discussions in Anthropology News in 2013.
Image: Detail of “Adam Naming the Animals” from the Northumberland Bestiary. J. Paul Getty Museum. ca. 1250