ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. This book’s objects offer a mirror test for our ‘Age of Human’ — and conceptual links to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
2,890 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes
Objects have a power over the human mind. They live in the world we live in, yet open into others — worlds of imagination and of experience. And maybe this power increases with apparent distance, even while the objects remain close to hand: distant pasts and places, distant cultures, distant natures. Maybe even distant futures, ones we now must reimagine as radical departures from our own experience.
Objects have a place in the growing ClimateCultures archive, of course: our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects has already reached 27, offering its own imaginative range of surprising totems of human presence on the planet, a planet being reprocessed. And some of my strongest memories from TippingPoint events remain those small group discussions where we each brought objects and shared accounts of their personal significance within rapidly changing natural and social contexts. It always seems special to add our story of material encounters to the accumulation of all those other ‘small stories’ that make up and question larger narratives. Objects have voices too.
This impressive book allows many objects to speak to our imaginations of pasts, presents and futures in what we are beginning to recognise — haltingly, imperfectly and with much debate over the terms and even the name of this invention-discovery — as the Anthropocene. The Age of Human. Or the age of some humans at least: those busy undermining planetary stability, resilience and value; more hopefully, the coming age of other humans, those now excluded and undermined in this Age of Precarity but whose voices also ‘we’ must hear, learn from, change with. There’s no clear, honest way of removing the quote mark around ‘us’ in this age, of refusing to acknowledge the provisional status of our knowledge of who we are. As the editors remind us, “Objects, too, can disrupt a sense of human exceptionalism,” and it is far from simply a ‘human’ age.
Objects to think with
Future Remains emerged from a “playful, performative space” — a ‘slam’ of artists and scientists to explore a Cabinet of Curiosities for this new age — and became an exhibition, a workshop and then a book. In all its guises and stages, it remains a provocation. What sort of new age is this; who and what produced and reproduces it; what is the nature of this world; what are its physical signs, wrapped up in nature-culture and available for us to think with, work on, act through?
In their preface, Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert Emmett warn us that objects demand caution as well as curiosity. While curiosity draws us outside ourselves — “can shake up our place in the world” — objects can also blind us to wider horizons, making either their exotic or their familiar worlds more absolute:
“Objects, then, can just as easily outshine as open up other worlds. The challenge is to ask not only what objects reveal but also what they hide. We need to take notice of less familiar things [to] entertain the possibility of other beings, other relations in the world, and other cosmologies not easily subsumed within the dominant tropes of Western science animated by one version of the Anthropocene.”
While it’s the fable-of-civilisational-progress version of the Anthropocene that the editors explicitly warn us to examine and hold up against other lights, it’s a useful caution against any singular, definitive story that the many contending Anthropocene labels seek to make the ‘official’ narrative. Curiosity, then, should remain our dominant mode of exploration, powered by humility in our lack of complete knowledge, just as in our lack of complete control.
Here, I’ve selected eight of the book’s entries.
Anthropocene in a Jar
On a family trip to the beach, Tomas Matza and Nicole Heller dug into the sand and attempted to answer their children’s question: “What causes the stripes?” They began to build an answer between them — a tale of “abstract earth processes … the moon’s tug on the sea, the wave’s tug on the sand and the shells” — trying to make it palpable to a child’s mind and their own as they continued digging.
Later, collecting samples in a jar,
“we came to understand that the jar contains a vast ecology of ocean cycles, tides and moons, wave dynamics, tunnelling critters, barrier islands, lagoons, and debris from ancient mountains — things one could classify as ‘natural’. And it contains pipes, dredging ships, dream houses, cars, carbon emissions, and people with toes in the sand — things one could classify as ‘human.’ … Our jar reminds us how difficult it has become to think of any earth process, whether oceanic, climatic, geomorphic, or otherwise, without also thinking of the human.”
The Age of Man
Through Plowshare, a 1970s Atomic Energy Commission film, Joseph Masco unpicks the grand narrative of the Great Acceleration: the exponential age of plenty we began to rapidly carve out after the Second World War. Powered by Enlightenment dreams of human mastery of nature, the perfectibility of human nature, Plowshare illustrates how the splitting of the atom seemed to “supercharge this imaginary … singling the imminent arrival of a superabundance, promising continuing breakthroughs in health, energy, and consumer economy.” This dream
“… if it did not end in the fiery flash of nuclear war, would push relentlessly and inevitably toward a perfected capitalist society. This was the first ‘age of man’ — a nuclear-powered fantasy that miraculously transformed an unprecedented destructive force into the expectation of a world without limits … Pause, just for a moment, to consider the intoxicating rush of this enterprise, the creative energy of making things that work on this kind of scale, of believing that people could finally shape reality rather than merely submit to it.”
Plowshare recasts the military legacy of nuclear explosions, making them weapons not against other humans but against the real enemy: nature. ‘Man’ reshaping “the land in dimensions never before possible … as he struggles against the geography nature has pitted against him.” Want to tear more wealth from deep time and deep rock? To blast new canals between oceans? Nuclear bangs are the way to go. When it comes to nature, war is peace.
Marine Animal Satellite Tags
Nils Hanwahr offers our gaze a much more benign technology — one that’s ubiquitous in our TV wildlife shows, refashioning our understanding of what and where ‘wildlife’ is, how it’s faring across the planet. Satellite tags are invaluable for the data they provide on animals in seas, land and air, logging continuous intelligence on their position, behaviour and environment. Bringing us closer to nature, though a nature wholly mediated through that technology, and living in the imagination rather than experience. And what of the tagged animals?
“Tagging a marine animal with a high-tech device endows the creature with a kind of agency that could only arise in the Anthropocene … Agency only registers on our human scale by leaving a trace and in the twenty-first century that means registering life forms and environments as digital data. We incorporate remote environments into our digital representations of nature … One might wonder if turning an animal into a data point does not itself entail an act of violent reduction into a digital infrastructure.”
Cryogenic Freezer Box
While some living beings are reduced to datapoints in digital infrastructures, other once-living beings become frozen species in DNA banks. Elizabeth Hennessy inspects our drive to preserve the world’s biodiversity in the face of our sixth mass-extinction event. “A key strategy of environmentalism in the Anthropocene is to freeze life.” It’s a ‘natural’ progression, as the “urge to collect has been integral to the production of Western knowledge of the natural world since the sixteenth century when Europeans brought home curiosities during an age of imperial exploration.” But this isn’t just about protecting knowledge (whose? for whom?); it’s also about a supposed insurance policy for the planet.
“Environmentalists position human agency as having a dual role in the Anthropocene — both culprit of environmental destruction and potential saviour of lost life. Cryogenic freezer boxes encapsulate both regret for biodiversity loss and faith in science and technology to deliver life from the shambles of massive environmental crisis.”
Hennessy is not the only Future Remains contributor to invoke, with irony, the words of arch techno-optimist Stewart Brand, that “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” But, she asks:
“Who gets to ‘play god’? Faced with climate change, rising oceans, and other Anthropocene crises, how do these ‘gods’ choose who, or what, should be saved? And if scientists in elite laboratories were able to revive extinct species, where in the world would these animals belong once they left the safe haven of the archive?”
The Monkey Wrench
Daegan Miller’s contribution is an emblem of mass labour in the hands of the individual Anthropocene worker. In his hands, the humble monkey wrench becomes a tool to “get a grip on the world.”
“Once used everywhere lithe human muscle struggled against iron intransigence, the monkey wrench had a hand in building the entire towering, now tottering mechanical skeleton of the industrialised, modern world. [It] now allows us … to consider inequality — whose labour built the Anthropocene? Whose labour laid the rails, fitted the pipes, shovelled the coal, felled the trees, grew the grain, picked the cotton, slaughtered the cattle, sailed the ships, forged the iron, drilled the wells, trucked the oil, poured the concrete, assembled the engines, mined the ore, strung the wires giving light, motion, form, and strength to the Age of Man? … And held once again in a warm human hand, the wrench confronts us: who profited from its work, and who has paid the costs?”
The Germantown Calico Quilt
Bethany Wiggins chooses a commemorative item from 1820s Pennsylvania: a cotton quilt stitched to record both the image of a French hero of America’s revolution against the British, and the treaty with the Native Americans that founded Philadelphia. If revolutionary wars are sudden (if long-developing) acts of violence, the longer processes of migration, colonialism and control of nature and culture are slow, hidden expressions of the same violent forces.
“Such disasters’ creep can be hard to perceive; their toll spans generations and continents. On a local, human scale, they can be difficult to witness … To make Anthropocene violence legible requires a setting simultaneously local and global, and it urges a historical frame extending at least to 1492. But the temporality of the Anthropocene is not only slow. It is also fast, and its pace is always accelerating … The story of the Anthropocene is thus double both temporally and geographically. Its places are always dislocated, at once local and global; its times are ever out of joint, both fast and slow.”
The quilt’s “layers recall geologic strata” and its panels display “the primal scene of the Anthropocene: fast three-masted sailing ships … hint at the new maritime technologies that moved humans and other animal species, plants, and manufactures across the Atlantic world and across the globe.” But, in recasting Columbus in the guise of the virtuous Quaker John Penn, the quilt erases those technologies that don’t suit its narrative: the guns and the slave economy.
Davies Creek Road painting
Robert Emmett senses that “we need emotionally powerful works of art that reorganise our structures of feeling around these transformations in environment and society.” And part of that need is to counter the momentum of Anthropocene narrative that assume continued, planned and perfected ideologies of human mastery. Emmett selects Trish Carroll and Mandy Martin’s painting, Davies Creek Road, as one counter to a ‘Big Dam Theory of Global Eco-Modernity.’
“The storied landscape in Carroll and Martin’s canvas, layered over with the figure of the goanna lizard in X-ray style, offers texture and meaning where the Australian government sees only a blank slate for a proposed dam. Before the Anthropocene becomes a single perspective, story, or agenda, it can still be used to name a raft of forces that resists a simple ending.”
As with the other objects in this volume, Davies Creek Road can help us to “steer the conversation in different directions [to] make a better environmental future from the predicaments of being just humans…”
Sverker Sörlin’s object comes with its own poetic reflection. Drawing on the ‘mirror test’ in psychology — “a check of whether you have an idea of who you are or, perhaps, that you are at all” — Sörlin suggests the Anthropocene as the ultimate, species-level mirror test. As individuals, humans pass the test at around eighteen months, and we know that elephants, apes, magpies and some other animals also recognise themselves as selves.
“Seeing ourselves in the Anthropocene mirror we stand a slightly different test. Not only: do I realise that I am there? But: do I realise that I am part of something larger? Do I figure what this larger something might be?”
The mirror in the exhibition is both physical object — at once the everyday experience of watching yourself and making an exhibit of yourself — and metaphor; the poem and video reflect on “human comedy, showing a few members, a small fragment of the collective Anthropos that the Anthropocene presupposes.” Together, these mirror acts shatter both individualising and globalising narratives of who we are, what we’re engaged in and how this age unfolds. “This is not just one world where a separate humanity impacts on everything nonhuman but a world of increasing entanglements across scales and species and forms of being in the world and thus a world of multiple becomings.”
The mirror is a choice.
Of surface, of now and just now.
Of what is underneath, how we became us, how we became insides, too. How we became divided already in the Pleistocene.
As Elizabeth Hennessy contemplates with her cryogenic freezer box, “the task of the Anthropocene is not to fill a box with life and an instruction manual with technical directions for reversing extinction …
“Nor is it to abandon hope. Instead, the blank pages of the instruction manual can offer a different kind of guide, a space to reflect on a more complicated task: recognising the human role in histories of environmental ruin, having the humility to know they cannot be fixed by extending the limits of life, and still daring to create a better future.”
Daegan Miller reminds us that the Anthropocene may be the end of many things. It should be “the end of a distinctly human past plotted against a static, inert natural world … But perhaps this is a good thing, for the earth, it bears repeating, is not in our hands; only our tools are. And tools are nothing if not the possibilities of a new future made material.”
Robert Emmett suggests that each of us might construct our own Anthropocene cabinets of curiosities: “perhaps do so in communities as ‘little free libraries,’ where the libraries also contain seeds, specimens, and directions for reanimating forms of extinct life.” Might they also be “an aesthetic survival kit, potent dream of a shareable planetary society that prevented numbness to loss?”
Sverker Sorlin’s own question, “Who are the mirrored ones?” is central to the Anthropocene: to how we understand and name it, how we recognise the ‘we’ that it names, how each person owns and experiences it, albeit differently and with different expectations of us. Part of the power that objects have is the power to serve as ‘boundary objects’: things which have ‘plasticity’, holding different features and meanings for different people but retaining enough common identity that they can help broker conversations, holding disparate groups together for deliberations of where and how to proceed.
And the curation of objects amplifies this power, modifies it. As Libby Robins says of the collective, “They stack and array, they align and contrast. Each object is a counterpoint to other objects, in conversations and contradistinction. Objects in museums have always carried stories across generations and places, drawing out memories of other times.”
And memories of other futures? We mirrored ones need to look, to talk and act, to reflect that the Anthropocene, the Age of the More-than-Human, is still open for multiple stories. Stories of change.
“The mirror is a test of hope.”
Find out more
Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert S Emmett, is published by the University of Chicago Press (2018). It is illustrated with the photographs of Tim Flach, and you can find more of his work at timflach.com.
You can also find short reflections on two of the other objects featured in Future Remains at my small blog: Gary Kroll’s Snarge and Jared Farmer’s Technofossil.
And you can explore all 27 of the objects that ClimateCultures Members have contributed so far to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects in our Curious Minds section. I’ve also posted a list of these to my small blog.