The Anthropocene’s proliferation of disasters—or, the increasingly legible actions of nonhuman actors in human spaces—produce fluid territory upon which the ecological, economic, and political whirl and feedback. But for all the uncertainty, the geopolitical powers of the Global North remain in a privileged position: possessed of the luxury of “turning necessity into opportunity”, they can construct illusions of solidity, of uniformity, of ordered procession, and in doing so, reinforce themselves. Ideological constructs and infrastructural fortifications move together in delirious lockstep: the flooded coastline is not a diluvian catastrophe, but an opportunity for development; earthquakes produced by hydraulic fracturing leads to the structural thickening of the drilling apparatus. The Anthropocene, far from being the duration-entity of an emphatic and final deterritorialization (a millenarian delusion), is reciprocally characterized by abrupt re-equalization—by market-forces rushing back in, blindly and hysterically beholden to thermodynamic laws of pressure that dictate: the voidspace left by the onslaught of the nonhuman must be re-filled as quickly and as spectacularly as possible. (One wonders: if it wasn’t, would it be like missing teeth in a smile, or the removal of gaudy paint from a marble sculpture from antiquity?) The attritive scraping of the nonhuman on the human—100-year storms, rise of sea levels, decade-long draughts, et al.—does nothing to negate the fact that, under capitalism, territory is property, and property is to be built on, excavated, paved over, and secured.
In doing so, capitalistic development has positioned itself as the interlocutor between the nonhuman and the human. Having produced an aberrant, mutated planetary system, capitalism now fails to meet with it, despite its best efforts, and despite its self-appointed status as guardian. The Anthropocene has not seen the dissolution of capital so much as it has seen it reassert itself as the only possibility; the only system capable of responding to massive destruction with massive reconstruction. The Anthropocene’s massive destructive possibilities merely offer new opportunities of a continued, bleak rebirth, always in the capitalistic mode, until there is no ground left.
The barrier-territory left by deterritorialization and immediately once more pseudopodically swallowed by capital is itself, of course, immediately capitalized.
I can’t help but wonder if the wavering between anthropocene and capitalocene as the proper distinguishers of our current epoch obscures the fact that the distinction is unnecessary. What is humanity, at the present period, if not a hive of workers to perpetuate capitalism? This is a rather Landian digression (capitalism as xeno-entity, powered by humans; a hyperstitional visit from outside time) but bears exploration.
If we say Anthropocene, it must come with qualifiers that distinguish human activities that have shaped our current milieu; that is, activities undertaken without capitalistic provocation. I would argue these don’t exist, and that capitalism has territorialized human notions of technological progress but what’s more, the quotidian to such a degree that any activity is indistinguishable from a capitalistic process.
That said, I still believe capitalocene is somewhat reductionist and revisionist, rewriting history prior to the genesis of the xenomonster of capital in the long 16th c. as a transcendent, teleological run-up to the full force of capitalism’s hideous emergence. Prior to the 16th c., we were in the anthropocene. After, the capitalocene. This proposes a new dyadic schema (Pre- and Post-Era Vulgaris): Anthropocene and Capitalocene, all bound under the name Chthulucene, taken from Haraway. The beauty of Haraway’s moniker is that it distinguishes the substrate upon which both the Anthro- and Capital depend: the creorder and further manipulation of telluro-temporal systems: processes, magnificent in their breadth and depth, invisible in their benthic occultation, only tangentially viewed and even then never in full; the shoggoths of our planetary existence, only perceived generationally. These practices and networks silently exist outside the perception of the human; Haraway is correct in identifying in them a certain cosmicism or horror.
Regardless, the human project on Earth has been defined by the attempts to interface with the telluro-temporal. The beginning of these activities place us in the Chthulucene.
In Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of this Planet, Thacker draws up a tripartite secular cosmogeny consisting of three spheres identified by their divergence from humanoid/anthropocentric optics: the world-for-us, the world-in-itself, and the world-without-us; or, humanity’s world and environs, the world as understood empirically, and the unhuman—that which we cannot experience.
Obviously, it is hardwired within us to increasingly push outward, to mount colonization efforts and invade the world-without-us. This is a failing preposition: considering the world-without-us causes it to vanish. In the Dust of this Planet proposes that we interact with the sublime unknowable of the w-w-u through horror, which offers a “non-philosophical” way to think ourselves out of existence.
There is, however, another way, residing in the atmospheric record and as imparted to us from ice cores (added bonus: reading ice and air, a kind of material logos-system of inhuman processes, seems very in fitting with the attempts to exhume the asymptotic that define the search for the w-w-u). Over the course of human history, there are instances where the atmosphere improves and things (‘things’ used as a general catchall for nonhuman planetary systems) snap back to ‘normal’ (‘normal’ being a hypothesized vectorization of the world’s ‘things’ if we had never existed. Stewart Brand in Whole Earth Discipline names some of these resets: the great diebacks after the collapse of ancient Rome, the genocide of Native Americans be the ass-backwards pathogenic warfare of the colonizing Europeans, etc. It’s happening again, too: the Middle East, eaten whole by conflict, is the only region of the world where air quality is improving. Will this be inscribed on the aerologos? Impossible to say.
The point of this post is to maintain that the world-without-us is not simply or even predominantly a tool of critical literature, but a useful heuristic that throws harsh light on the eschatology of our discourse. The apocalypse is a complete deterritorialization, but the world-without-us is more helpful because, while asymptotic, it possesses a sickening gravity; one can’t help by feel we are being pulled to it, breaking through thresholds the whole way down. It is only asymptotic because once we arrive there will be no hominids left to perceive it, of course. The world-without-us is not a technique of literature or theory – though both are doubtlessly useful, and I’m not attempting to shit on either – but is a geo-ontological reality. It’s what lies at the bottom of the slope.