“In relation to the history of organic life of earth,” writes a modern biologist, “the paltry fifty millennia of homo sapiens constitutes something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four hour day. On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would fill one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.” The present, which, as the model of Messianic time comprises the entire history of mankind in a enormous abridgement, coincides exactly with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe.”
– Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1969, 265)
The catastrophic describes sudden events that are ‘geologically instantaneous’ – abrupt changes, violent shifts and unusual events. Dotted in between the gradual geology are all sorts of cataclysmic activities where repeated catastrophic occurrences and repeated new creations may be observed in the differences in fossil forms encountered in successive stratigraphic levels.
The aforementioned passage by Benjamin begins to look like a precedent to the Anthropocene: it evokes biological scales and I can imagine that it could just as easily evoke geological time to convey that all of human history is a brief moment of planetary time, where the cataclysmic informs temporality itself. Could it be that a speculative awareness of geologic time disrupts the homogenous time of exchanges, having the potential to reposition the human on Earth?
What becomes of the imagination when the geology slides over me? The sudden rupture of existing conditions serves to illustrate that I am out of time. As a matter of attempting to grasp the confluences of forces where identity and process collide in order to visual and conceptually render a presentation that I am catastrophe, I speculate on forces that outstrip me where the geologic disrupts the capital of the self.
It seems that the human is wired for the local scale that is relative of their physiological and psychological aspects. We tend to attune ourselves to our immediate size and capabilities so that even with the augments and prosthesis of the technologies we comprehend those scales relative to us. As soon as we begin to pan-out and speculate on scales that exceed the human what becomes immediate is that our habitual take at the local scale seems unable to comprehend the nonlocal conditions in which we find ourselves. Timothy Morton’s term ‘hyperobject’ comes to mind. It is an gooey entwining. The human is caught up in hyperobjects that exceed them, left in fragility when tossed up against the planetary forces of both climate and capitalism.
Can the imagination grasp the brevity of the hyperobjects? The correlating monkey, which may or may not accept the finitude that restricts access to things in themselves, finds themselves up against the tectonic shifts occurring under their feet.
What happens when it is acknowledged that the “two seconds at the close of a twenty-four hour day” was never separate to the geologic, so that the flash of history can no longer be imagined as if it were separate? Could it bring an awareness to those scales that condition history’s enterprise? History/Nature is a fishy demarcation. We are always-already in the geologic.
The human – a master of industry – is now thrown into a situation where the ability to deal with the consequences of actions begin to break down. Technology has accelerated to the degree that all of its non-local manifestations come back to haunt us in dreadful ways. Bodies and psyches are seized by the apparatuses, becoming disciplined units and symbolic vectors for the simulacrum. A course towards exterminism ensues. The self – now not much more than a personalizaiton implement in the identity combines – faces the interdependent variables of global warming and is propelled up against the sheer indifference of global capital. The human being is left in fragility when tossed up against planetary forces of both climate and capitalism, leaving the space of being-there vulnerable to the catastrophic.
The marks of the anthropos at a global scale are catastrophic. Adorno reminds us that we are all victims of catastrophe: 1945 commences the era where every human being is assailable to extermination. But the catastrophic is not just an external threat: it is coded into modes of consumption – into desire and product-fetishism. The cumulatively destructive is the consequence of individual everyday consumption patterns, unexceptional in their singularity but amplified at a higher volume. We cannot pan-out into the scales that exceed us so we continue with the short-term profitability, no matter how potentially destabilizing to continued co-existences. Consumerism is like a concentration camp. What is more, (neoliberal) capitalism has created a habit of extraction that sees profit in leaving destruction behind and makes catastrophe into an industry.
Catastrophism seems to me to be the model of the day. It is not for certain that what occurs today can be said to be at the same rate as what occurred in the past. Acceleration turns gradualism on its head. The question becomes whether or not we have the means to see through the everyday or normative scheme of things into other possible scales – this in order to sense the catastrophic.
It remains to be seen if the thinking monkey can assess the radical situation that cumulative destruction is bringing. The hope is that we won’t just wash our hands of the enterprise. Given the scale of the catastrophic the problem becomes one of perception – how do we perceive the scale that outstrips us? I believe this is where art could once again find its commitments, once again tune itself to history now re-encapsulated into the Anthropocene, by providing sense of catastrophe. It is a crisis of reflection – of seeing oneself reflected in the cumulative and amplified forces of the catastrophic.
This is quite a different project than the sciences that provide us with data. The sciences may provide us artists with statistics but we must provide the testimony: art ought to venture into the ungrounding on its own terms. To imagine scales that exceed us is a speculative journey into the unknown, pushing art back towards the concern of the presentation of the unrepresentable. Not only are we humans now implicated in the climatological and geological record of Earth, additionally we must sense this. Art is the place for sense and sensation and also art could be a place for intimacy, and it is intimacy that we need: to understand intimately the situation in which we now find ourselves: that each one of us incarnates the terminal case. The anthropos is catastrophe.
It is a question of scale that we cannot match ourselves up to the terrain. The territory exceeds the map. Are the human actions short-term perturbations or are they long-term changes in geologic systems? It quickly slides into an unforeseeable situation where one is not so sure what is interdependent and what is independent. A mystery hangs over the head of the ‘instant impact’ of the human – the “two seconds…”
Surely the aim under this situation is a matter of durations and frequencies of human impact, the time scale of interest and all the non-human geologic processes, but I am an artist and not a scientist and therefore I do not possess the quantitative tools to properly address the issues of interdependence or independence with respect to human agency. I set myself a different task: to render in expressive mediums something that is beyond me.