Review of Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015
1008 pp., illus. 125 b/w. Paper, £54.95
Now that the Anthropocene, the world as disastrously defined by human, has found such a solid place in today’s thought, it is useful to return to a publication that has possibly not been given the attention that it deserves. Although the times we live in are no doubt daunting, we could also call them exciting times due to their particular challenges. The incredible intellectual candy store Textures of the Anthropocene makes that much clear, both through its wonderful collection of texts but also in its design. To start with the latter, each of the four volumes has its own identity through a different use of paper. Where the three main volumes all have a white cover, the ‘manual’ is bright yellow and relatively thin compared to the others. Thus, while reading one not only has an intellectual but also a sensual experience that is quite important to understand the main idea behind this publication. Being in the Anthropocene is amongst others realizing and respecting the agency of the nonhuman. Different qualities of paper, from grainy and light to glossy and heavy, thus add to the information that is communicated.
These textures can also be seen to allude to geographical layers that are further enhanced by the angles of approach of each of the volumes. Grain, Vapor, and Ray talk respectively about the particulate, the volatile, and the radiant. The set-up is to bring various texts from throughout history and from different disciplines into conversation with contemporary comments. This results in a thoroughly and much needed transdisciplinary undertaking. Although the volumes are accompanied and not so much introduced by a ‘Manual’, the full publication as such is certainly not one, or at least not in any traditional sense. It does not intend to offer clear instructions of how to tackle the consequences of the Anthropocene. What the manual text by Klingan, Rosol and Sepahvand in the yellow volume makes beautifully clear is the importance of imagination and storytelling if we want to find solutions or a way out. Narratives are world making. Klingan, Rosol and Sepahvand refer to various authors to make their point, from Hannah Arendt to Walter Benjamin, Henri Bergson to John Dewey, but especially Michel Serres. Where Bergson already pointed to the fact that “all division of matter into independent bodies with absolutely determined outlines is an artificial division” (Manual, p.11), Serres introduced the angel of flux (Manual, p.16), connecting to the inherent viscosity of Earth. Serres also states: “Indeed, it is worth telling the (his)tory of a small, local, singular element, that of an atom, a grain of sand, a thin layer of fluid somewhere in the middle of this violent zone where various flows intermingle” (Manual, p.24). Klingan, Rosol and Sepahvand connect these ideas with the mutability and transformation of a history of imagination.
Although every volume is of an extreme richness, the Ray volume in particular brings everything together. Serres fittingly ends this volume, but equally forms a beginning of the whole undertaking. In a response to Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus (1664), Serres replaces Plato’s possibly overused cave with that of Jules Verne’s from his The Southern Star Mystery. Whereas Plato’s cave is mainly dark with just one light source, Verne’s is a dazzle of light, textures, and colours and thus points to a different and potentially greater kind of richness. Philosophy meets fiction in this example, but if there’s one thing to learn from Textures of the Anthropocene it is that all things mingle in a mixture from which new things can evolve. We used our imagination to get into the situation, as John Dewey would name the Anthropocene (Manual, p.18), we can also use our imagination to potentially get out of it or find another way of dealing with it, even though we are at a point of no return. As we finally have become human by recognizing the unhuman in ourselves and in the world, this is the most important and creative insight we can have. Interestingly Klingan, Rosol and Sepahvand bring play into the equation, probably the last thing the average person would think about when considering the Anthropocene. But referring to Johann Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, the authors realise that “(p)lay is fundamental. … Things change, because people play, tinkering toying, recomposing the rules” (Manual, p. 38).
Overall Textures of the Anthropocene brings together such a poignant set of texts. There are too many brilliant combinations, too many quotes that one would like to give, that it’s hard to name only a few. Starting the Grain volume for instance with Robert Smithson’s text ‘A Sedimentation of Mind: Earth Projects’ with especially its notion of time is immediately mind blowing because of it being so much to the point right now. It finds an echo in a fragment of The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things in the Ray volume that is beautifully commented on by Molly Nesbit. George Kubler’s Kafka’s ‘The Cares of a Family Man’ on the weird creature Odradek and Jane Bennet’s response to it at the start of the Vapor volume is another example:
“There are multiple creatures, shapes, misfits, simulacra, doodles, and vapors afoot, colliding, entangling, cooperating, competing, lurking, and crashing. They overlap with us even as we distinguish ourselves from them as a “species”. Odradek prods us to ponder these inter- and intra-actions, and pushes us to consider how to respond to the fact of being outlived – as humans – even if not as earthlings (Vapor, p. 28).”
The Ray volume is possibly my current favourite as it starts off with a fragment from Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland and its reminder of the importance of Thoughtland. Textures of the Anthropocene is a form of Thoughtland in itself. Sometimes it is devastating to see what we knew all along but not widely recognized or acknowledged, often coming from a poetic science fiction setting. Textures of the Anthropocene is very importantly about reading and rereading, discovering and rediscovering, to keep our subversive imagination and creativity flowing in dire times.