Meaning of the Anthropocene
A few years ago, I was startled to read the words of a conservation officer in California, who stated (but I forget in what context): “Nature can’t do anything right”. I was bemused because these were the words of a conservation officer, although it seems his idea of “conservation” was about conserving nature solely for human commercial interests. I detected in that statement, though, something iconic, something of the same self-contradiction — even a kind of nihilism — similar to the famous statement made by the hapless marine officer to reporter Peter Arnett, a statement that became similarly iconic of the futility and absurdity of the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it, sir”.
Here the values “save” and “destroy” are made to occupy the same semantic space, as it were, but meet like matter and anti-matter, become mutually annihilate, and leave of void of meaninglessness — the absurd. Such statements, in their very absurdity, are symptomatic of a consciousness structure that has reached the end of its tether and of all further possibilities, and which now turns round and devours itself. “Nature can’t do anything right” is of a similar bent, and it is also the meaning of “the Anthropocene”.
What is this next new thing called “the Anthropocene”? Well, we are told it is so owing to the fact that the human race has now left indelible traces of its passing in the geological layer of the earth, mostly garbage and mostly as evidence of our destructive tendencies, evidence of our rising to the status of “super-predator”. We’re the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Lizard King, of our age.
But, garbage in, garbage out: and the garbage that has now formed a distinct geological stratum as well as anthropogenic climate upheaval is simply secondary to the belief that “nature can’t do anything right”. The Anthropocene is, if anything, the perpetual and incremental replacement and substitution of natural, organic processes with man-made, artificial ones in the belief that they are superior to — and more perfect than — all Nature and all natural processes. This is what is now called “progress”, and “development” or “improvement”.
Within the technological drive (including now genetic engineering and biotechnology, which must be considered part of geo-engineering) is the belief that Nature is imperfect for not serving man’s interests. “Development” and progress thus have come to mean substituting natural processes with technical and “rational” ones. Unfortunately, those technical and rational substitutes for Nature have come back to bite us big time — as The Consequential. These technical processes have become now semi-autonomous, and we don’t know now what to do about it. Predicament.
Presently, in order to address the negative and destructive pathologies of the Anthropocene, some are recommending we just grab the bull by the horns and go full bore “geo-engineering” (inclusive of artificial intelligence and genetic modification of species), which, naturally and sensibly, frightens the hell out of many more sober-minded folks, befitting the old saying that “fools go where angels fear to tread”, as it’s quite obvious that “geo-engineering” is only going to dig a deeper hole for ourselves, reinforcing the more pathological aspects of the Anthropocene. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail”, as the old saying goes too. But perhaps Einstein put it best: Repeating the same thing over and over again expecting different results each time is the hallmark of insanity. And to continue to substitute natural and organic processes with anthropocentric and artificial ones seems like the hallmark of insanity, given the consequences.
There is, in all this, something of deficient magical thinking that reminds of the quest for the perfect machine — the perpetual motion machine. And in the symbolism of the perpetual motion machine as automaton is the hope of realisation of eternal life against the reality of what Jean Gebser calls “the law of the earth”. And the “law of the earth” is, as best I can make out, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. Nature, it seems, is considered imperfect because of the reality of time — of impermanence. Man lives in fear of time because time is entropy and entropy is less than perfect, imperfect.
As Reformation has ended in fundamentalism; as Renaissance has ended finally in reductionism; so humanism has ended finally in the Anthropocene. They have become inversions and negations of themselves. In some ways, though, the Anthropocene isn’t entirely novel. At one time, the Great Mother ruled, and in her we lived, moved, and had our being. Then came the Age of the Father, and in Him we lived, moved, and had our being. Now we are in the Anthropocene, which is an anthropomorph — the shape of the human — and in this Anthropomorph, somewhat like the Wicker Man of Druidism, we now live, move, and have our being. And the Anthropomorph as the shape of the Anthropocene follows from the insight of Marshall McLuhan that media (technologies) are the “extensions of man”. The Anthropocene is, in that sense, an Anthropos — an extended man.
But, said Nietzsche, “man is the sick animal”. So how could man avoid modeling and mimicking his inherent pathologies in and through his “extensions”? The Anthropocene is the manifest form of the human self-understanding, and that self-understanding is deficient.
William Blake had a presentiment of the Anthropocene, only he called it “Ulro”. Ulro is the shadowland, and also takes a human shape. That shape is the figure of his mad Zoa Urizen, who is the personification of Gebser’s mental-rational consciousness structure in its fallen or “deficient” state. And in that sense, in Macfarlane’s article on “Generation Anthropocene”, the description of the Anthropocene as “shadowtime” seems very, very appropriate as an echo of Blake’s “Ulro” (and Blake’s “Ulro” is what David Loy also calls “the Suffering System“).
There was a passage in Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin that I was re-reading last night which seemed most appropriate to the determination of the meaning of the Anthropocene. It concluded his section of the history of the Mental structure of consciousness:
“Reason, reversing itself metabolistically to an exaggerated rationalism, becomes a kind of inferior plaything of the psyche, neither noticing nor even suspecting the connection. Although the convinced rationalist will be unwilling to admit it, there is after all the rational distorted image of the speculatio animae: the speculatio rationis, a kind of shadow-boxing before a mirror whose reflection occurs against the blind surface. This negative link to the psyche, usurping the place of the genuine mental relation, destroys the very thing achieved by the authentic relation: the ability to gain insight into the psyche.
In every extreme rationalization there is not just a violation of the psyche by the ratio, that is, a negatively magic element, but also the graver danger, graver because of its avenging and incalculable nature: the violation of the ratio by the psyche, where both become deficient. The authentic relation to the psyche, the mental, is perverted into its opposite, to the disadvantage of the ego that has become blind through isolation. In such an instance, man has become isolated and his basic ties have been cut; the moderating, measuring bond of menis and menos is severed. Cut, severed: what was again the meaning of the root da-? It is this ‘cut off, severed, divided,” the “demonic”. The gates to the ‘demonic forces’ have been opened; nothing exists out of itself, everything follows upon something else, everything has become a consequence. We may well ask: a consequence leading to what?” (p. 97)
This excerpt may seem a little cryptic (and it takes a few readings, actually, to get the gist of it), but in meaning it corresponds in all particulars to Seth’s warning that I once posted as “The Most Haunting Words in all Literature“. The import of Gebser’s words are the same — the consequences of “mind at the end of its tether”, to borrow from H.G. Wells’ assessment of late modernity. What Gebser above refers to as “psyche” is what Seth calls “the ancient force”, and what Gebser calls “ratio” is the calculating ego-consciousness. Speculatio animae and speculatio rationalis are, respectively, “mirror of the soul” and “mirror of the rational mind” which, if you like, may be related to the meaning of Iain McGilchrist’s Master and Emissary components of the divided brain, while McGilchrist’s “Emissary” corresponds to Blake’s “Urizen” or Urizenic Man. Urizenic Man is the shape of the Anthropocene as its central “Anthropos”.
The terms “menis” and “menos” are Greek. “Menis” has much the meaning of “wrath”, while “menos” has much the meaning of the guiding intelligence or “mental”. In this sense, they correspond to Seth’s “ancient force” and “enlightened ego consciousness” respectively, and the consequences of them becoming dissociated or “severed” are clear in both Seth and Gebser. The consequential is, as I’ve noted here and in past posts, are chaotic emotion, frenzy, and anxiety, but also all those instances the are symptomatic of the breakdown of the mental-rational structure — unintended consequence, perverse outcome, revenge effect, blowback, all but terms for Nemesis.
And it seems that the Anthropocene is this. And there is something of the recognition of that, also, in a notable article in The New York Times by Roy Scranton: “Learing How to Die in the Anthropocene“.