Geological time is long; the lifespan of critical terms is decidedly shorter. The sedimentary record of buzzwords logs the granulated residue of terms that were snuffed out not by intellectual gradualism but a particularly volatile mode of cultural catastrophism. We have for a while been standing on the flaky vanilla-coated nonpareil crust left by what used to be called postmodernism; the particulate matter currently clogging the airways has come to be known as the Anthropocene. McKenzie Wark is rightly leery of the term, not least because it manages to smuggle anthropocentrism back into a discussion of climate change that demands precisely a mode of thinking that reaches beyond the earth-is-for-us model. Rather than fuss over terminology, though, Wark sticks with Anthropocene since, he writes near the end of Molecular Red, ‘perhaps it is better to see it as what it is: a brilliant hack. The Anthropocene introduces the labor point of view – in the broadest possible sense – into geology.’ We are finally, Wark claims, at the end of ‘pre-history’; history proper begins now that humanity has been forced to fully acknowledge its own role in the production of ‘nature’.
One consequence of the ‘emergency’ of the Anthropocene is that it has finally given those of us who are interested in more than one thing a job to do. Like the war effort, the revolution or alien invasion, the congealing of multiple issues around the Anthropocene has served to sharpen attention towards a common cause. Transdisciplinarity is no longer the pipedream of university managers seeking joined-up governance but the most viable means of mobilizing resources towards solving problems. Scientists and engineers, among others, have known this for some time, but the arts and humanities have largely remained waist-up in the quagmire of individual expression, however much collectivist torque is applied. Deterrence geeks at RAND and economic futurists grasped early on the need for speculative thinking and plugged writers and artists into the mainframe, but only recently has the radical instability of the known world meant that people who make stuff up for a living might be as well equipped as anyone to deal with the situation.
The framing concept of the Anthropocene represents, Jill Bennett has recently argued, a paradigm shift in which ‘the external or cultural ramifications … are at least as profound as the internal or scientific ones’. Neoliberal and neoconservative resistance to climate science is one measure of how such a paradigm shift ripples through the culture; another might be the reallocation of cultural labour as a function of primary production instead of its conventional position as compliantly subaltern or ineffectively insubordinate. Recent impatience with the politics of representation and the perceived exhaustion of critique are, in no small measure, indicators that the limits of the cultural Left have already been exceeded: what is needed is less in the way of diagnostics and more intervention.