Anthropocene | T.J. Demos | Friday, 05.06.2015

Capitalocene Violence

“Climate change is global-scale violence against places and species, as well as against human beings, writes Rebecca Solnit. “Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.”1Rebecca Solnit, “Climate Change Is Violence,” in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2014), One way to “call violence by name” is to opt for the Capitalocene—the geological age of capitalism—rather than the misdirected Anthropocene—identifying “human activities” as the agency behind environmental change.2araway credits Andreas Malm and Jason Moore with the earliest usages of “Capitalocene,” in Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities vol. 6 (2015), 161. The “Chthulucene,” for her, designates the post-anthropocentric and post-anthropos age of multispecies assemblages—named not so much after sci-fi writer H.P. Lovecraft’s monster Cthulhu, but rather the “diverse earth-wide tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa...” suggesting “myriad temporalities and spatialities and myriad intra-active entities-in-assemblages, including the more-than-human, other-than-human, inhuman, and human-as-humus”—the basis for Haraway’s additional rejection of the Anthropocene. No doubt any single term is ultimately inadequate. The terminological distinction invites a critical analysis of Anthropocene imagery, especially in regards to popular photography.
Take National Geographic, and science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2011 essay “Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man,” which accepts and thereby legitimates the Anthropocene thesis in its opening lines: “It’s a new name for a new geologic epoch—one defined by our own [sic] massive impact on the planet.”3Elizabeth Kolbert, “Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man,” National Geographic (March 2011), Kolbert’s text accompanies a photo gallery including images of Edward Burtynsky, a photographer whose large-scale prints of industry are as seductive as they are horrific, as revealing as they are aestheticizing—and aestheticizing in an extremely disturbing manner.
Burtynsky’s Oil Fields #19ab, Belridge, California, USA, 2003. Courtesy of the artist
Consider Burtynsky’s Oil Fields #19ab, Belridge, California, USA, 2003, a diptych that shows the San Joaquin Valley desert landscape overtaken by an expansive network of oil rigs. Captured from a low aerial perspective with an elevated horizon line, the petroscape appears patterned by extraction machinery, extending nearly as far as the eye can see. “Discovered in 1911, this field pumped on as cities were rebuilt for cars and as ancient petroleum molecules were spun into household products such as plastics, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals,” National Geographic’s caption explains. “South Belridge today produces 32 million barrels a year—enough for nine hours of world demand.”
The photographer’s explanation, found on his website, opts for the sanguine: “When I first started photographing industry it was out of a sense of awe at what we as a species were up to. Our achievements became a source of infinite possibilities.“ Such is typical of Burtynsky’s tendency to make monumental, awe-inspiring photographs from scenes of environmental violence—violence defined not only locally in terms of the damage to regional landscapes, but also globally in relation to the contribution of industrial fossil fuel production to destructive climate change.
It’s true that the photographer goes on to signal his own concern with such images, adding the following: “But time goes on, and that flush of wonder began to turn. The car that I drove cross-country began to represent not only freedom, but also something much more conflicted. I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of energy that makes everything possible, and as a source of dread, for its ongoing endangerment of our habitat.” Yet his images, in my view, are less about staging that ambivalence, and more about dramatizing in spectacular fashion the perverse beauty of a technological, and even geological, mastery devoid of environmental ethics. While Burtynsky is right to point out the complexity of the consumer-based complicity in the oil economy, that frequently made observation is also part of the ruse that universalizes responsibility for climate disruption, diverting attention from the fact of petrocapitalism’s enormous economic influence on global politics that keeps us all locked in its clutches (total oil and gas lobby spending in 2013 in the USA, for instance, was an astounding $144,878,531, according to the Center for Responsive Politics,4“Oil & Gas,”, Center for Responsive Politics, and; cited in Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Allen Lane, 2014), 149, which breaks this lobbying down further into the figure of $400,000 per day. which makes sure that renewable energy is kept off the table).
Burtynsky’s Oil Fields #27, Bakersfield, California, USA, 2004. Courtesy of the artist
Consider also Burtynsky’s Oil Fields #27, Bakersfield, California, USA, 2004, which depicts a nearby hydrocarbon geography where the oil infrastructure appears woven into a gold-bathed chiaroscuro that unifies this hilly topography. Here too technology merges with nature, unified aesthetically, composing a picture that is, monstrously, not only visually pleasurable, but also ostensibly ethically just, an image of American “freedom” whose historical progression is necessary, inevitable, even—as pictured here—beautiful.What the photographer constructs is the petro-industrial sublime, emphasizing the awesome visuality of the catastrophic oil economy founded in obsessive capitalist growth, which “we as a species,” as Burtynsky says, have created. The problem is that such images tend to naturalize petrocapitalism, with a photography mesmerized by the compositional and chromatic elements of the very infrastructure responsible for our environmental destruction. Which reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted insight about fascist aesthetics: “Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.”5Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: 1938-1940, ed., Howard Eiland and Michael William Jennings
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 270. Part of that alienation, in this case, is the perverse enjoyment the photographs afford of our own destruction. Yet another function of Burtynsky’s imagery is to generalize responsibility for that destruction to species-being—a key ideological trope of the Anthropocene.Burtynsky’s Oil Fields can be productively compared to Richard Misrach’s Petrochemical America, an exhibition and book project put together with landscape architect Kate Orff, which hones in on the damaging socio-environmental causes and effects of oil industry development, imaged as a pollution-filled apocalyptic landscape. Check out one photograph entitled Abandoned Trailer, Mississippi River, Near Dow Chemical Plant, Plaquemine, Louisiana, 1998, showing the mighty river dishonorably reduced to a sewer, depopulated ostensibly from the toxic emissions of industry likely dumped directly into the water, leading, thanks to this noxious chemical freight, to the enormous hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Richard Misrach, Abandoned Trailer Home, Mississippi River, near Dow Chemical Plant, Plaquemine, Louisiana, 1998. Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery
This image, unlike Burtynsky’s pictorialism, rejects the Anthropocene’s terminological obfuscations and disavowals of culpability. Instead, Misrach’s photograph invokes the Capitalocene’s insistence on linking the current political economy to geological alteration, showing the “cancer alley” of Southern oil development as part of a necropolitics of ecocide. It thereby gathers criticality and encourages viewers to participate in the growing antagonism between petrocapitalism and its environmentalist opposition—a political relationality otherwise absent in Anthropocene discourse.
Armin Linke, Museum of Evolution of Life, Chandigarh, India, 2014 | © Armin Linke/ Anthropocene Observatory
In this regard, I remain irked by the methodology of the Anthropocene Observatory, a project by Territorial Agency (John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog) in collaboration with artist Armin Linke and curator Anselm Franke. Presented at the House of World Cultures in 2013, the project investigates the genealogy of the Anthropocene thesis, focusing on the scientifico-mathematical calculations of global Earth-making processes, and archives its findings in the form of texts and videos shown in exhibitions and websites. As Palmesino explains in an interview in the book Architecture in the Anthropocene, the Observatory practices a form of “neutrality” toward its subject, a “politics of non-action”—“not to take a position, not to engage with conflicts, not to partake in territorial conditions and the reorganization of factions and parties”—according to which it advocates simply witnessing and studying the unfolding of the Anthropocene.6Etienne Turpin, “Matters of Observation: A Conversation with John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog,” in Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, ed. Etienne Turpin (London: Open Humanities Press, 2013), 23. Yet, as we’ve seen, the Anthropocene itself is far from neutral. As such, I find such calls for neutrality to be inevitably complicit in the very non-neutrality of Anthropocene ideology. If we are to survive the Anthropocene, what we need is activism, not neutrality. What’s required is “a revolt against brutality,” and against the violence of climate change, as Solnit contends, not the neutral observation of the fossil-fuel-driven destruction of planet earth.