Learning how to live in the Anthropocene?

More thoughts arising from Roy Scranton’s piece in the NYT called “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.”

I agree with Jonathan Skinner in his thoughtful response to my response. Scranton’s piece seems like a wake-up call. Asking people to learn how to die has drama. It may be the kind of rhetoric needed to penetrate political inertia in wealthy countries. Others of course are writing in similar terms about the Anthropocene. Timothy Morton, for example, declares in his book Hyperobjects that the world has already ended (twice).

The writings of the object oriented ontologists like Morton have been central to me as I figure out how to write/live this Plastic Autobiography. I find inspiring and transformative the idea of the ecological thought, and of a flat ontology that places everything on an equal plane of being.

But I noted something that happened in Scranton’s piece that also happens with the OOOs (whom he mentions): the lives disappeared. Perhaps making concrete the actual lives (and deaths) of U.S. soldiers, Iraqis, victims of Katrina, would have been too dissonant in a piece calling for people to “learn how to die.” Because of course, the death Scranton calls for is metaphorical, the death of a way of life.

In some OOO writings the engagement with the object in all its mysterious hiddenness seems to have the effect of not only deprioritizing the human subject but occluding  it altogether. As others have pointed out, the context in which objects come into existence—global capitalist production and all the inequities and exploitation it entails—tends to disappear. Some OOO thinkers have noted that this consideration of power structures is just not what OOO is about. Maybe not, but I’m interested in learning about possibilities for living in the Anthropocene—not just for my own life but for all the lives put at risk—so I’m interested in power structures.

In this line of thinking, I appreciate Jane Bennett in particular. As a political scientist, she places the human interaction with the object in an explicitly political context. She says it is the guiding question of her book Vibrant Matter, to ask: “How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies?”

She also notes the limits of foregrounding objects, saying that she “elides what is commonly taken as distinctive or even unique about humans” only “for a while” and “up to a point.” She makes explicit that her project is motivated by concern for human survival.

I’m concerned with survival of many types of lives, not just humans. Nonetheless, I admire Bennett’s positioning. Setting limits, conditioning a stance—these are not bold and dramatic gestures. Such an approach is not likely to garner a headline in The New York Times. Perhaps we need both dramatic rhetoric and carefully delineated scholarship, every tactic possible to draw attention and change thinking. I admire Bennett, though, because her work shows a rigorous sense of responsibility to the subject matter, and to what is at stake. You know, lives.

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