Embracing the Horror of the Anthropocene

This talk was delivered as the plenary paper at The 11th Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Conference, Imperial College, London, 2nd August 2016

In a footnote from a 1962 essay on the ‘Hazards of Prophecy’ and ‘The Failure of the Imagination’ science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke made a now iconic statement, that:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. [1]

The line is classic Clarke in its optimism and apparent breadth.

An appeal to the grand passage humankind has made from firing slingshots to catching Pokémon on our smartphones, from building pyramids to over-subscribing penicillin, from navigating the African savannah, to polluting every corner of the globe – starting at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, and rising up to the peak of Mount Everest. Clarke’s appeal to magic tempts us, for a moment, into a state of awe at the technologically mediated world we inhabit. Reassuring us that the road ahead of us is as long, and as filled with wonder, as the road travelled by our nameless ancestors.

Implicit in Arthur C. Clarke’s statement about the wonder of technology, is a darker truth about the banality of magic. Looking at it obliquely, magic is nothing more than clever tricks which take advantage of the deep desire of the human subject to be deceived.

In 2012 science fiction author and commentator Bruce Sterling reflected on 50 years of Arthur C. Clarke’s statement on technology and magic, coining his own take which has echoed so far and wide of its origin that it has begun to spawn further snowclones:

Any sufficiently advanced civilisation is indistinguishable from its garbage. [2]

For the purposes of this paper I want to turn to one of the defining technologies and waste products of our times, a technology that might become bound to the definition of The Anthropocene itself (due to be decided by the International Commission on Stratigraphy later this year). That technology – is plastic.

Upon visiting an exhibition of plastic, in Paris in the mid 1950s, Roland Barthes wrote a short essay on the metaphoric qualities of the 20th century wonder material:

“More than a substance,” Barthes wrote, “plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible. And it is this, in fact, which makes it a miraculous substance.” [3]

Barthes’ Mythologies collection, from which his Plastic essay is taken, was a semiological elegy on the everyday. In banal capitalist commodities and pop cultural clichés Barthes sought out the ‘magical’, revealing the everyday as the fountain of secular mythology. [4] Plastic is seemingly infinite in its capacity to be formed and used, and it is this feature which renders plastic meaningless in itself, able to take on completely any gesture or idea that is breathed into it. The substance’s descent to prosaic, crass, cheap, and expendable is – for Barthes – precisely what marks it as miraculous. The transformations plastic is capable of going through give us, according to Barthes, a measure of our power, “since the very itinerary of plastic gives [us] the euphoria of a prestigious free-wheeling through nature.” With remarkable prescience, and in retrospect, breath-taking ecological ignorance, Barthes foresaw a time where “ultimately objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them.” [5]

A substance of unrivalled utility and acquiescence, the miraculous, “sudden transformation” of plastic, soon gives way to the mundane, through the rituals of use and waste that organise our collective hyperconsumptive disregard. We swaddle our food in plastic, and place it in babies’ mouths to aid in their weaning. It protects and insulates the surface of our bodies, and its nonreactive properties see it plunged inside us during medical procedures. But plastic is ultimately ready to be discarded as soon as it is produced, one of the many pathologies of our capitalist yearning for comfort and economic renewal. As Felix Guattari noted, “capitalism remains a formidable desiring machine. The monetary flux, the means of production, of manpower, of new markets, all that is the flow of desire.” [6]

Having once been desired, or produced as mere byproduct of our desires, plastic soon becomes garbage, junk, trash, waste. Digging through landfill middens produced by capitalist accumulation over the last century, future archaeologists will peel at layer beneath layer of plastic food packaging, baby pacifiers, and unfixable kitchen appliances in a journey back through our times. Human detritus indicates and organises the fashions of each decade, not only in testimony to what consumers once valued, but ‘as a material enactment of forgetting.’ [7] As Myra J. Hird observes:

Landfills swell with things we once wanted and now do not want, once valued and no longer value. What remains after our disgorgement is what we (want to) consider our real self. [8]

Our obsession with forgetting, Hird suggests, is ritualised through the separation, organisation and eventual dumping of waste, of which plastic is one of the most common, and longest lasting constituents. Calling on Mary Douglas’ work on impurity and pollution, Greg Kennedy defines waste as that which ‘settles outside the ruled lines of our conceptual schema,’ [9] remarking further that ‘a society preoccupied with concealing its wastes must have something important to hide from itself.’ [10]

Today, perhaps the most iconic testament to forgetting is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “The creation,” theorist Jane Bennett explains, “of the conjoint actions of water currents, capitalist accumulation, a fervent ideology of economic growth and free markets, and the trillions of plastic bags, toys, packagings, machines, tools, bottles that humans manufacture, use and discard every minute.’ [11] Alongside its un-usability the thing that defines waste is its powerful repulsive capacity. That is, not only the affect rotten, decaying and putrid matter has on the human bodies that disguise, hide, and dispose it, but in waste’s incredible ability to propel itself to the echelons of our apparently considered, organised society. In the Great Pacific Garbage Patch the ritualistic enactment of forgetting becomes monumentalised at a scale difficult for us to comprehend. It is what Timothy Morton refers to as a ‘hyperobject’, an entity of such size and magnitude that it dwarfs our perceptual schema. For Morton hyperobjects like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or Global Warming, the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, or The Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, are catacylsms that close the beyond. [12] There is no ‘away’ anymore, no ‘Outside’ into which we can ritually cast those things we wish to rule out of the schema of ourselves. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a distributed testimony of forgetting that will remain etched into the geological record long long after we are gone.

“Plastic,” Heather Davis suggests, “is the ultimate material of tempophagy, or time-eating, one that consumes the compressed bodies of ancient plants and animals, a process that took thousands of years, only to be transformed into a single-use take-out container.” [13] One of many precocious children conceived by crude oil and industrial capitalism, plastic is composed of long strings of organic polymers separated by fractioning processes. Oil itself is what Amanda Boetzkes and Andrew Pendakis call ‘fossilized death;’ [14] a fluid, concentrated remainder of entire ecosystems, coalescing over millions of years into the lifeblood of capitalist causes. Calling out Roland Barthes’ obsession with plastic as a substance of instantaneity, Heather Davis regards oil and its plastic miscellany as a form of slow violence of inexplicable, drawn out, material consequence.

Once disposed of and disregarded, plastic enters into a further, distended relationship with microscopic flora and fauna. Broken down into microplastic fragments by exposure to the sun and tidal forces, plastic become an ecosystem for bacterial colonies and viruses, locking themselves to its smooth surfaces. As it disperses even further, plastics leach their chemical constituents, perhaps most infamously Bisphenol A, which mimics the effects of the hormone oestrogen, and has been shown to impact on the fertility of fish, amphibians, and some evidence suggests, human beings. As Erik Swyngedouw persuasively argues, we cannot even escape, “’producing nature’… [forcing] us to make choices about what socio-natural worlds we wish to inhabit… a qualitative transformation of BOTH society AND nature has to be envisaged.” [15]

The operation of civilisation, especially in its Imperialist and capitalist guises, can be understood through the domination, appropriation, and control of that which has been considered ‘Outside’. The troubling success of Colonialism can be traced to what Karl Marx called a ‘primary accumulation’ of labour from colonised and enslaved peoples. As well as the subjugation of human labour, growth has been maintained through the consumption of ‘cheap nature’ in the form of using animals for work, the annexation of land for agriculture, and the mining and burning of fossil fuels such as crude oil. As Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova have argued, the female body has always been amongst the most contested of Outsides. Through the subordination of sexual reproduction to the regulations attached to marriage and family, the female body becomes a ‘fluid Outside, which in turn lends energy to the thermodynamic cycle’. [16] Simply put, ‘the fluid Outside’ is anything we consider to be alienated as ‘nature’. A term that has been applied to every subjugated resource, animal, and people as the rampant work of ‘progress’ has proceeded.

Once we are confronted with the ubiquitous and globally calamitous material affects of materials like plastic, ‘nature’ collapses as a conceit. Jane Bennett calls the Great Pacific Garbage Patch ‘a 21st century commons,’ recognising the universality that arises from this incomprehensible cataclysm. We can argue that the Garbage Patch  – and other hyperobjects that swirl and coalesce around the figure of the Anthropocene – are more the responsibility of Western, industrialised nations than humankind as a whole. But, as Dipesh Chakrabarty outlines in his Four Theses on climate change, the “crises” of hyperobjects “cannot be reduced to a story of capitalism.” [17] They point to a universal, common catastrophe which can only be understood at a geological, planetary scale – far above and beyond that of any particular or generalised conception of the human. A scale that demands approaches to politics and identity that touch at the edge of deep timescales, stretching both behind and ahead of every living thing on the planet.

As Matthew Lepori and others have argued, the ‘anthropos’ of ‘anthropocene’ conjoins every living or dead human being into a ‘single body… a universal subject of history.’ [18] This universalizing, which Lepori refers to as ‘species talk,’ is ‘the logical outcome of a narrative that only contains two actors: humans and nature.’ [19] It is crucial in our handling of the figure of The Anthropocene to regard the insides and outsides implicit in its context and use, lest it become the fabricator of further ‘others’. As Erik Swyngedouw argues, in a paragraph worth repeating at length:

“The socio-environmental Armageddon is already here for many; it is not some distant dystopian promise mobilized to trigger response today. Water conflicts, struggles for food, environmental refugees, etc. testify to the socio-ecological predicament that choreographs everyday life for the majority of the world’s population. Things are already too late; they have always already been too late. There is no Arcadian place, time, or environment to return to, no benign socio-ecological past that needs to be maintained or stabilized. Many already live in the interstices of the apocalypse, albeit a combined and uneven one. It is only within the realization of the apocalyptic reality of the now that a new politics might emerge.” [20]

In her book on The Death of The Posthuman (2014), Claire Colebrook looks to the otherwise, to the under-represented, to destabilise the proposition of the world being for anyone.  As if registering the inevitable extinction of humans isn’t enough, The Anthropocene, by being named in honour of humans makes horrors of those times – past and present – which do not contain us. Its naming therefore becomes a writing mechanism, allowing the imagination of ‘a viewing or reading in the absence of viewers or readers… through images in the present that extinguish the dominance of the present.’ [21] The world ‘without bodies’ that is imaged in this move, Colebrook argues, is written upon by the current state of impending extinction. Humans are then able to look upon the future world-without-us in a state of nostalgia coloured by their inevitable absence.

By examining just one material Anthropocene marker, plastic, it is possible to see an alternative becoming of The Anthropocene, that “weaves all beings into the interdependent context of the manifest world.” [22] A world that exceeds any ‘we’ any ‘us’ that confronts it; a world showing itself to have always already been plastic in its capacity to constantly reform and envelope itself. This world that The Anthropocene brings into being has no outside, no beyond. The horror we have to contend with is one impossible to escape, and it binds us in ways that far exceed the provisional title of ‘human species.’

Kurzweil postulates a law of accelerating returns in which the speed of technological change (and more generally, all evolutionary processes[16]) increases exponentially.

He predicts that such paradigm shifts have and will continue to become increasingly common, leading to “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.” He believes the Law of Accelerating Returns implies that a technological singularity will occur before the end of the 21st century, around 2045.

In an analysis of the etymology of The Anthropocene, McKenzie Wark turns to new forms of theory as a necessary condition of this age of extinction:

All of the interesting and useful movements in the humanities since the late twentieth century have critiqued and dissented from the theologies of the human. The Anthropocene, by contrast, calls for thinking something that is not even defeat. [23]

The Anthropocene should be made into a verb, and relinquished as noun, as name. Once weirded in this way it becomes a productive proposition, as McKenzie Wark has suggested, not just of ‘naming, but of doing, of making new kinds of labor for a new kind of nature.’ [24] To abandon what Claire Colebrook calls ‘the fantasy of one’s endurance,’ [25] our analyses and actions must take on the form of the horrors they pursue, moulding and transforming our inquiries into composite, hybrid figures that never settle in one form lest they become stable, rigid and normalized. This is, for theorist Eugene Thacker, the power of horror, able to take ‘aim at the presuppositions of philosophical inquiry – that the world is always the world-for-us – and [make] of those blind spots its central concern, expressing them not in abstract concepts but in a whole bestiary of impossible life forms – mists, ooze, blobs, slime, clouds, and muck.’ [26]


  • [1] Arthur C Clarke, ‘Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination’, in Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible (New York: Popular Library, 1962), https://groups.google.com/forum/#!msg/rec.arts.sf.misc/LTn-gC0iJ4s/_CZYqBBSGOQJ.
  • [2] Bruce Sterling, ‘Design Fiction: Sascha Pohflepp & Daisy Ginsberg, “Growth Assembly”’, Wired Magazine: Beyond The Beyond, 3 January 2012, http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/01/design-fiction-sascha-pohflepp-daisy-ginsberg-growth-assembly/.
  • [3] Roland Barthes, Annette Lavers, and Sian Reynolds, Mythologies (London: Vintage, 2009).
  • [4] Ben Highmore, The Everyday Life Reader (Psychology Press, 2002), 305.
  • [5] Barthes, Lavers, and Reynolds, Mythologies.
  • [6] Jane Bennett, ‘Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter’ (Lecture, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, 26 September 2011), https://vimeo.com/29535247.
  • [7] Myra J. Hird, ‘Knowing Waste: Towards an Inhuman Epistemology’, Social Epistemology 26, no. 3–4 (October 2012): 456, doi:10.1080/02691728.2012.727195.
  • [8] Ibid., 457.
  • [9] Greg Kennedy, An Ontology of Trash: The Disposable and Its Problematic Nature (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 6.
  • [10] Ibid., 4.
  • [11] Bennett, ‘Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter’.
  • [12] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Posthumanities 27 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 94.
  • [13] Heather Davis, ‘Toxic Progeny: The Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures’, philoSOPHIA 5, no. 2 (2015): 235.
  • [14] Amanda Boetzkes and Andrew Pendakis, ‘Visions of Eternity: Plastic and the Ontology of Oil | E-Flux’, E-Flux, no. 47 (September 2013), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/visions-of-eternity-plastic-and-the-ontology-of-oil/.
  • [15] Erik Swyngedouw, ‘Apocalypse Now! Fear and Doomsday Pleasures’, Capitalism Nature Socialism 24, no. 1 (March 2013): 18, doi:10.1080/10455752.2012.759252.
  • [16] Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, ‘Heat-Death: Emergence And Control In Genetic Engineering And Artificial Life’, CTheory, 10 May 2000, www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=127.
  • [17] Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 221.
  • [18] M. Lepori, ‘There Is No Anthropocene: Climate Change, Species-Talk, and Political Economy’, Telos 2015, no. 172 (1 September 2015): 104, doi:10.3817/0915172103.
  • [19] Ibid., 104–5.
  • [20] Swyngedouw, ‘Apocalypse Now! Fear and Doomsday Pleasures’, 17.
  • [21] Claire Colebrook, Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, Vol. 1 (Open Humanities Press, 2014), 28, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.12329362.0001.001.
  • [22] Kennedy, An Ontology of Trash, 162.
  • [23] McKenzie Wark, ‘Anthropocene Futures’, Versobooks.com, 23 February 2015, http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1875-anthropocene-futures.
  • [24] Ibid.
  • [25] Colebrook, Death of the PostHuman.
  • [26] Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet (Ropley: Zero, 2011), 9.