The Anthropobscene: The Elemental Media Condition

Winchester School of Art are one of the partners of the transmediale-festival, which takes place again in January/February 2014 in Berlin. This short text below is a sort of a trailer to our bit for the event: the text is co-written by myself and Ryan Bishop and the  the contribution to tm14 is likewise co-curated by us. The text gives an indication of some of the themes we will discuss during the festival and conference week, and it draws on some of our work on these topics: Ryan’s writing on the four elements and contemporary aesthetics, and my work-in-progress book project on “geology of media” and what I pitch as the anthropobscene – a new geological era catalysed by the corporate capitalist measures of depletion and exploitation.

Ryan Bishop and Jussi Parikka:
The Elemental Media Condition

Ever since such early geologists as James Hutton and Charles Lyell voiced a distance from biblical time, the Earth has had a proper history. The natural historical durations of the Earth have, despite academic disciplinary divisions, always intertwined with human history. In the current moment, the complex interactions of the two seem more prescient than ever. To follow in the footsteps of Dipash Chakrabarty, the horizon of the anthropocene forces historians to think of durations of nature as entangled with social history, and the historiographical functions of temporality need to be considered alongside such vectors that acknowledge the work of capitalism as a specific epoch. In this sense, we would like to refer not only to the anthropocene as the debated new geological era in scientific classification, but also what can be called the anthropobscene. This portmanteau word combines anthropocene with obscene, thus highlighting the vicious exploitative actions of corporations, governments and other agencies operating on different levels: from human individuals to multigovernmental organisations and transnational corporations. In much the same manner that Jean Baudrillard reconfigured the subject-object relationship placed within a scene as a network-screen relationship in the obscene, the anthropobscene reconstitutes the relationship between human scales of intervention into those of the geological. Thus, amongst other things, it refers to the obscenity of heavy pollution of the earth and the air, bringing back discussions of the four elements as found in the Pre-Socratic thinker Empedocles, whose writings strike both ancient and contemporary chords. Cultural theorists, such as Gary Genosko, have voiced an urgency for a renewed consideration of the elements.

For Empedocles, humans, nature and the universe contain the same elements. Flesh and blood are composed of approximately equal parts of earth, fire, water, and aether: the four elements that constitute the universe. The entire material world for Empedocles comes from the mixture and amounts of these four elements, the mixing of which he likens to paints on an artist’s palette with their different effects due to combinatory portions. This insight of multiple and diverse substances generated through combinations and proportionality becomes a cornerstone of modern science and chemistry. The harmony of Love and the discord of Strife result from the proportionality of the elements with each constantly changing and warring with the others. The Empedoclean elements of this cosmogony and in nature constitute both media and content. They make, transform and destroy at the same time.

Empedocles’ writings use physics to derive an understanding of ethico-political, even moral, laws. In the teaching of Empedocles the problem of substances as they present themselves to us takes a specific form: how do the Many come from One and One from Many?  The primary and ultimately determinate forces behind the various manipulations, combinations and transformations of the elements in Empedocles are in the standard translations Love and Strife, which move in cycles of harmony and disharmony that reign over all of nature, including humans, fish, beasts and birds. But the elements are not simply passive recipients of the forces of Love and Strife.  They can and do themselves act as causal agents, influencing the waxing or waning of Love or Strife.

Contemporary media culture can be opened up through such a consideration of elements. Indeed, as the philosopher Erich Hörl has argued, the technological is one crucial condition for the discourse – and practical existence – of this hypothetical anthroposcene – and anthropobscene, we might add. For artists such as Robert Smithson in truly Empedoclean fashion, the tectonic realms of the Earth and the mind are interconnected. Smithson’s account amounts to a critique of the McLuhan-focussed idea of technology as extensions of Man. Instead, for Smithson, writing in 1968 in Artforum, it is elemental. One is here tempted to think it is elemental in the sense of the Pre-Socratic four elements, as well as elemental in the sense that those elements are more crucial than ever for a consideration of the biopolitical condition. Such aspects range from the materiality of data mining to environmental exploitation.

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  1. January 17, 2014 at 10:06 am
  2. March 19, 2014 at 9:13 pm

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