What does this text suggest for thinking about and responding to Quotidian Anthropocenes?


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James Adams's picture
May 1, 2020

The authors recognize and relate the critique of the Anthropocene to their critique of both capitalism and sovereignty. “One way or another, however reluctantly, the logic of capital in the Anthropocene points toward planetary sovereignty.” (2018, 122). Later on they remark that “the Anthropocene, the era that now puts all humans on the same geological age” ignores the fact that the “world’s peoples live in a multitude of geo-ecological times despite our planetary ‘simultaneity,’ and the forces that have helped shape those worlds are not reducible to ‘humanity’ in general, but to particular natural-historical social formations.” (2018, 174).

            Crucially, however, Mann and Wainwright do not disagree with the other central claim embedded in the concept of the Anthropocene, the appreciation of social impacts on what are otherwise considered natural or “non-human” systems. Indeed, they pull in Gramsci’s problematization of social and natural history to argue that “‘nature’ and ‘society’ are inseparable, active relations. And these relations are themselves inextricable from the processes through which we forge critical conceptions of the world” (2018, 91).

This picture of the Anthropocene closely aligns with perspective outlined by Elinoff and Vaughan in their discussion of Quotidian Anthropocenes (forthcoming), and reinforces both the analytic and political purchase of ethnographic investigations into the unique cultural and political struggles to respond to the particular configurations of anthropocenics that characterize discrete locales. Such investigations not only problematize top-down or one-size-fits-all policies of climate protection or adaptation, but they also appreciate the potential for keen political insight to develop “organically” (in Gramsci’s sense of the term) in the social formations springing up around local issues.

And, while recognizing a potential disciplinary bias, I believe these insights point to method for answering one of Mann and Wainwright’s questions: “A key question, then, is what the focus of a critical reconstruction of our conception of the world should be. What are the essential common senses we must undo to see the future for which we must struggle?” The focus that I would propose entails ethnographic engagements with place, but ones that are both and simultaneously multi-sited and multi-sighted (Marcus 1995).

Wainwright and Mann are astute macro-political theorists but they seem less reflexive and critical of the way in which they scale their politics.

What is obviously necessary is a means of governance that is not beholden to modern state sovereignty, at the same time that this necessity is denied by some of those very sovereign states. … The scale of the problems is so great, it seems impossible to confront them without the state, but it seems just as impossible that the state as currently constituted is going to get the job done. We face a situation in which there is, under current geopolitical and geoeconomic arrangements, no right answer” (2018, 119-120).

The experimental promise of Anthropology as Cultural Critique (Marcus and Fischer 1986) lay in the innovative solutions that were being generated in response to the problem of keeping the world system of political economy in the same analytical frame as the cultural and symbolic systems that were unique to the researcher’s object of study (see also Fortun 2003, 2009). In sum, multi-sited fieldwork, enabled through complex objects of study and creative research designs, presents the opportunity to perturb our commonsense politics of scale. And, at another level, collaborations across research projects enables further appreciation of “how to reshape a conception of the political in a very hot [polluted, disease-ridden, etc.] world” (Wainwright and Mann 2018, 95).