The Return of Νέμεσις: Catastrophism in the Anthropocene


catastrophe (n.)

1530s, “reversal of what is expected” (especially a fatal turning point in a drama), from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophe “an overturning; a sudden end,” from katastrephein “to overturn, turn down, trample on; to come to an end,” from kata “down” (see cata-) + strephein “turn” (see strophe). Extension to “sudden disaster” is first recorded 1748.


Certain geological changes in the earth’s history have been caused by catastrophes rather than gradual evolutionary processes. If one stretches the imagination back into the geologic record then what one begins to discover is that we reside upon the substrate of catastrophe. Just as history is the piling up of ruin upon ruin, so too geologic history is the burying one upon another of ruins.

The first inclination when conceiving of geologic processes is that it is terrestrially based, but geology encompasses a more ubiquitous scope. There is geology below and above us. When we look into the cosmos what we see, besides the vacuum of space, is the geological. With climate science our attention has pretty much been framed by processes occurring here on earth but the earth is part of a cosmic environment: conditions and events beyond the limits of this planet play a decisive role in determining or extinguishing life. Catastrophism puts this in focus. Time and again there have been extreme changes of the earth’s environmental and ecological manifestations, repeatedly taking place over the planet’s lifespan as it interjects catastrophic occurrences. Extreme environment changes have become equivocal in demonstrating that we are only just beginning to understand the climate upon this planet.

Catastrophism describes extinctions of adapted species and disruptions of ecological homeostasis. At the beginning of geological studies, ‘catastrophism’ was assumed to be a relic of Judaeo-Christian mythology (never mind that almost all mythological systems have catastrophist narratives). Hence the original theorists like James Hutton or Charles Lyell reacted negatively to the concept, refusing to accept the possibility of mass-extinctions. Of course, this is proved wrong by the cumulative change across deep time. Uniformitarianism is at work, for sure, but equally punctuating this slow or constant rhythm are all sorts of extinctions and natural disasters.

The  fossil fuel technologies of industrial capitalism – oil – is a prime example of the catastrophic in our deep past. The irony of our present time is that technologies are releasing the substances of prior extinction events into the atmosphere and upon the landscape, contributing to the present catastrophic period. Anthropocene is catastrophic.

Nemesis (Νέμεσις), the Greek goddess of retribution against those who practice hubris, could be inscribed as its mythological image. Nemesis gives what is due. To dig up a bit of ontology in order to connect it with the image: each being that may manifest itself has its condition set upon a dynamic, constantly morphing and ceaselessly changing, immanent becoming of objects. This field is constantly disruptive.

The ground of our existence is discord: the materiality of the field is disruption (such is the experience of breakdown or broken event in the encountering of the ‘tool-being’).

An art of Nemesis would allow the imagination to follow through the experience of disruption. The experience of such art would bring the imago to a momentary access to the geologic horizon itself: the immediacy of the sensation to encounter the material conditions of ontic appearance. When Nemesis returns to the attention in our minds, we discover that Nemesis has never left us.






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