—What's a Species to Do?



Robert Briggs




To name is not to say what is true but to confer on what is named the power to make us feel and think in the mode that the name calls for. (Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 43)


A first glance is caught by an extraordinary geodesy. A gauzed sun in a deep blue sky shines down on a clutter of glacial masses, floating cloudlike above the surface of the white ground below. Shattered ice, seemingly released from the earth’s gravitational pull, lines a distant horizon. Frozen, the vista nevertheless transforms after a few moments, as perceptual input processing mechanisms recalibrate. The focus adjusts, and the arresting scene, recalling any number of science-fictional visions of airborne islands, resolves into a figure not quite so fantastical, though perhaps no less disorienting than the initial impression.


The overturned image of drift ice in Greenland’s Disco Bay, reproduced as the cover artwork for this special issue of Ctrl-Z, is a video still taken from Swiss artist and video essayist Ursula Biemann’s Subatlantic (2015). In its inverted form, the image perhaps speaks to a contemporary sense of dislocation—as much of time, concepts and genre as of place and perspective—that characterises changing relations between humans and the ecosphere. The short film in which the image appears enacts a similar displacement of visual attention, bringing to the fore the biochemical, geophysical and other climatic processes which subtend the world of human institutions. Caught somewhere between field report and science fiction, Subatlantic recounts the observations of a scientist on a North Atlantic island conducting research into past periods of environmental change. The methods adopted by the narrative’s protagonist appear to stand in stark contrast, however, to ‘conventional’ understandings of climate science. Working with teams of ‘divers, videographers and metaphycisians’, she pursues a ‘science of intensities’, an approach to her research that concedes the possibility that ‘atmospheric alterations affect not only the physical but also the mental climate on Earth’. Thus, in Biemann’s own words, ‘thoughts reconfigure to engage the changing ecology’; ‘they merge with frozen methane, become part of weather events, are unhinged by new maritime cohabitations’ (Biemann, ‘Late Subatlantic’, n.p.).


In its attempt to give form or meaning to geophysical processes that operate on ‘suprahuman’ scales, Biemann’s Subatlantic is exemplary of what has come to be known as ‘climate change art’. In this guise of what might alternatively be called ‘geoaesthetics’, art becomes charged with the task of bringing to light a ‘human condition’ that is defined primarily in terms of the inhuman: the geological or elemental, not to mention microbiological conditions that enable something like ‘the human’ as a species to appear as such—hence also to disappear—well before a ‘humanity’ could ever have hoped to arrive on the scene. And so such art practice can be said to direct or respond to a shift in the location or function of ‘the earth’ in contemporary knowledge. No longer functioning as a passive, inconsequential background, that is, nor as a transcendent object of knowledge—nor even, strictly speaking, as ‘the environment’—the planet and its constitutive systems have come to take centre stage in cultural inquiry, shaping the latter’s priorities, concepts and methods. Alongside a host of other conceptual formations and cultural practices articulated via the prefix ‘geo-’, geoaesthetics thus raises the question of the status or place of the earth and the earth sciences in the humanities today.


In recent years, such inquiries have been given their most direct expression in humanities debates over the implications of the Anthropocene, to which the most well-known contribution comes in the form of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s reflection on the historical implications of global warming (‘Climate of History’; see also ‘Climate and Capital’). Taking as his starting point the scenario of human extinction brought about by anthropogenic climate change, Chakrabarty confronts the challenge of how to reconcile the ‘historical sensibility’ that narrates the story of human civilisation with the geological timescales that measure the processes of climate change and the evolution of life. For the story of climate change, on Chakrabarty’s account, presents us with a ‘knowledge that defies historical understanding’, leaving conventional approaches to history inadequate for ‘dealing with the crisis of global warming’ (221). On the one hand, the sciences of climatology and geology, with their basis in what was once called ‘natural history’, have accredited human beings with a capacity to affect the earth’s geochemical processes and atmospheric patterns—a geological agency that far exceeds the forms of agency accorded to ‘Man’ by Enlightenment philosophies of the historical process. But the consequences of climate change ‘make sense’, on the other hand,


only if we think of humans as a form of life and look on human history as part of the history of life on this planet. For, ultimately, what the warming of the planet threatens is not the geological planet itself but the very conditions, both biological and geological, on which the survival of human life as developed in the Holocene period depends. (213)


Without this longer or ‘deeper’ history of life on earth—a history of ‘the way different life-forms connect to one another, and the way the mass extinction of one species could spell danger for another’—the ‘crisis of climate change has no human “meaning”’ (217). It’s thus with one eye focusing on a deeper history, in which humans emerge as a force of nature, and the other peering towards a future made radically unknown by the effects of such geological agency, that Chakrabarty undertakes a particular operation of naming: ‘species’ as ‘the name of a placeholder for an emergent, new universal history of humans that flashes up in the moment of the danger that is climate change’ (221)—the implication being that freedom, imagined by Enlightenment thought as the telos driving human history, gives way instead to the goal of species survival.


Chakrabarty’s double act of appellation—affirmation of the term ‘anthropocene’; designation of the ‘human species’ as a category guiding historical and political thought—has, of course, prompted any number of objections, which in turn have sparked numerous counter-objections. Most notably, Slavoj Žižek (Living) argues that it is ‘Capital’, and not the species per se, that threatens the stability of the geological parameters of life (330-6), while in a similar vein Jason Moore (among others) has proposed ‘the Capitalocene’ as the more appropriate name for the current geological era (‘Anthropocene’). From the other side, Timothy Morton has argued that such suggestions ‘miss the mark’ (Dark Ecology, 23) to the extent that they shirk the basic fact that ‘humans created the Anthropocene … not bacteria, not lemons’: ‘humans devised modes of agriculture … that now cover most of Earth and are responsible for an alarming amount of global warming emissions all by themselves, let alone the carbon emitting industry that agricultural mode necessitated’ (23). While the various ‘modes of Anthropocene denial’ (14; 14-24) emerge out of a wariness for any logic that ‘unfairly lumps together the whole human race’ (15), Morton argues that ‘the human considered as a species’ is rather ‘a hyperobject, a massively distributed physical entity of which I am and am not a member, simultaneously’ (ibid.). ‘Stripped of its metaphysical, easy-to-identify, soothingly teleological content’ (36), anthropos is thus ‘open, porous, flickering’ (24); it is a deconstructive, de-ontological category, as it were, one which breaks with the ‘absurd teleological and metaphysical’ concepts that have given expression to anthropocentric thought (23).


By the same token, Morton’s insistence, after Chakrabarty, on the name ‘species’ as against ‘Capital’ (or any other candidate for the geological force in question) serves to bring home the potential for such discussions to be reduced to a form of deontology, understood in a much more conventional sense. Humanities arguments over the naming of the current geological era, that is, often end up focusing on the question of causal responsibility, reducing history, in both its socio-political and deep-geological forms, to an exercise in moral judgement. At this level, the politics of the ‘Anthropocene’ seems imaginable only in terms of specific distributions of the burden of culpability—a ‘politics’ confirmed already in Chakrabarty’s initial attempts to anticipate objections to his summonsing of anthropos: ‘Why should one include the poor of the world—whose carbon footprint is small anyway—by use of such all-inclusive terms as species or mankind when the blame for the current crisis should be squarely laid at the door of the rich nations in the first place and the richer classes in the poorer ones?’ (‘Climate’, 216).


And while Chakrabarty (‘Climate’, 221) emphasises the unwitting nature of the species’ effects on earth systems processes—a concession which implicitly challenges the image of a rational actor in sovereign command of its actions—the very language of ‘unintentionality’ holds out the promise of improved self-awareness and coordinated response. Thus, when it comes to the politics not of blame but of action, this species-without-identity is confronted with the chance to transform itself into a fully-fledged, wholly global political agent:


Climate change poses for us a question of a human collectivity, an us, pointing to a figure of the universal that escapes our capacity to experience the world. It is more like a universal that arises from a shared sense of catastrophe. It calls for a global approach to politics without the myth of global identity. (222; emphases added)


In Chakrabarty’s production of this Anthropocenic drama, therefore, ‘species’ makes a last-minute costume change before stepping onto the global stage. Not only does this geological actor arrive to play the role of master of its destiny but, in doing so, it represents itself as a figure of hope, in the sense that Jean-François Lyotard depicted as specifically modern: ‘hope is what belongs to a subject of history who promises him/herself—or to whom has been promised—a final perfection’ (Postmodern Fables, 99). As a name, in other words, ‘species’, at least on Chakrabarty’s telling, appears to call forth a mode of thinking and feeling that turns out to be all too human(ist).


Such a mode of thinking and feeling is literally loopy—at least, according to Morton’s characterisation of ecological awareness as ‘twisting’, ‘looping’. It’s via such ‘weirdness’, where ‘appearance is always strange’, that the ‘dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing’ might be unblocked (Dark Ecology, 5-6). But where Morton names a strange loop as ‘one in which two levels that appear utterly separate’, such as geology and humanity, ‘flip into one another’ (7; emphasis added), the loopiness of Chakrabarty’s argument is brought about by the very mode of thought that Morton hopes to leave behind. A looping return to teleological thinking sees two distinct levels, a whole series of distinct levels in fact, appear as though they could ever be one: causal responsibility and formal responsibility; species behaviour and global action; aggregated activity and programmed response; environmental outcome (‘us’) and political agent (‘we’). Yet how else to deal with the crisis of global warming, except through an endeavour to bring forth a human collectivity and a global approach to politics? And if such attempts ultimately fall prey to the fancies of human exceptionalism that brought us to the situation in which we find ourselves, what’s a thus-named species to do?


In contrast (as it were) with Chakrabarty’s denominative acts, a rather different operation of naming characterises Isabelle Stengers’ reflections on the political challenges raised by climate change. In attending to the looming disasters, Stengers proposes not to identify an ‘us’ who acts and reacts, but instead to name the intrusion of Gaia as an event that calls such an ‘us’ into question (Catastrophic Times, 43). Recalling the famous work by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis (‘Atmospheric Homeostasis’), Stengers’ naming of Gaia nevertheless shatters the reassuring aura of a stable, nurturing and attentive being that characterises many an image of the living ‘mother Earth’. ‘To name Gaia’ is thus to draw attention to ‘an assemblage of material processes that demand neither to be protected nor to be loved, and which cannot be moved by the public manifestation of our remorse’ (Catastrophic Times, 48). Indeed, ‘Gaia, she who intrudes, asks nothing of us, not even a response to the question she imposes’; she is ‘indifferent to the question “who is responsible?”’ (46). Crucially, though, ‘Gaia’ designates not simply a way of conceiving a physical system or a material environment but also a specific disruption to the forms of knowledge and existence that have characterised centuries of human civilisation, the intrusion of ‘an unprecedented or forgotten form of transcendence’:


The intrusion of this type of transcendence, which I am calling Gaia, makes a major unknown, which is here to stay, exist at the heart of our lives. This is perhaps the most difficult to conceptualize: no future can be foreseen in which she will give back to us the liberty of ignoring her. It is not a matter of a ‘bad moment that will pass’, followed by any kind of happy ending—in the shoddy sense of a ‘problem solved’. We are no longer authorized to forget her. (47)


As epistemological intrusion, Gaia calls for a form of thinking and feeling that can break with the instrumental conception of climate change as a problem to be solved. And from this fact stems a series of divergences—twists, perhaps—from the kind of thinking called forth by a naming of the species. In contrast to Chakrabarty’s pursuit of ‘a figure of the universal’, that is, Stengers’ Gaia necessarily interrupts the seach for any such conceptual certainties: ‘the response to her intrusion will not admit, cannot admit, any guarantee, because Gaia is deaf to our ideas’ (Catastrophic Times, 84). And where Chakrabarty finds in the name of ‘species’ a call, upon ‘us’, to pursue a ‘global approach to politics’, Stengers is wary of making any such claim to the terms of the response:


Do not ask me to sketch what other world may be able to come to terms, or compose, with Gaia. The response doesn’t belong to us, that is to those who have provoked her intrusion and now decipher it through data, models, and simulations. Naming Gaia is naming a question, but emphatically not defining the terms of the answer, as such a definition would give us, us again, always us, the first and last word. Learning to compose will need many names, not a global one, the voices of many peoples, knowledges, and earthly practices. It belongs to a process of multifold creation, the terrible difficulty of which it would be foolish and dangerous to underestimate but which it would be suicidal to think of as impossible. There will be no response other than the barabaric if we do not learn to couple together multiple, divergent struggles and engagements in this process of creation, as hesitant and stammering as it may be. (50)


Against the search for universals and the call for a global politics, then, the naming of Gaia’s intrusion might give us pause for thought when claiming different forms of agency on the part of the species. Undoubtedly, various forms of human activity—each differentially constituted with respect to their relative orientations, interactions and impacts—have aggregated to exert a significant force or pressure on the geophysical and atmospheric conditions that define the Subatlantic age of the Holocene. And certainly the need to respond in some way seems undeniable. But Gaia’s intrusion, on Stenger’s account, calls for a response—a mode of thinking and feeling—not from a global ‘we’ or ‘us’, but from ‘many peoples, knowledges, and earthly practices’. Such a call implies, among other things, an injunction to look beyond the figural death of man, and even the literal death of the species, in order to pay better attention to their decomposition.


This is to recall that the ‘political problem’ with the figures of ‘man’, ‘humanity’ and the like derives not simply from their ‘oppressive’ nature, as Chakrabarty assumes (‘Climate’, 221), but more significantly from the fact that these notions have been deployed to name a unity or coordination of purpose and action which has never really existed—the species’ newfound geological agency notwithstanding. Wherever ‘man’ has been thought to be acting, that is, closer inspection has always revealed the circumscribed and contingent operations of assemblages. Hence the debates about whether to name the species or Capital as the geological agency whose actions have given rise to the Anthropocene. A certain kind of loopy thinking nevertheless continues to confer upon a species the power to act in concert, translating ‘aggregated activity’ into ‘coordinated action’ and giving ‘us’ the first and last word yet again.


Rather than implying the return of a human collectivity in the form of anthropos, therefore, Gaia—as epistemological intrusion—underscores even more the need to acknowledge and to create sites, networks and events of agency that refuse the name ‘species’. And on this point it is worth recalling, as Vinciane Despret reminds us, that assemblages take shape in and as distributions of agential, or interagential, force:


Deleuze’s translator, Brian Massumi, chose to translate agencements as ‘assemblages’; I would rather opt for keeping the French word: agencement. First this term renders perceptible the intimate link between ‘agencement’ and ‘agency’, and second, it insists upon an active process of attunement that is never fixed once and for all. An agencement is a rapport of forces that makes some beings capable of making other beings capable, in a plurivocal manner, in such a way that the agencement resists being dismembered, resists clear-cut distribution. What constitutes the agent and the patient is distributed and redistributed incessantly. (‘Secret Agents’, 38)


Despret recalls this point as part of a discussion of animal agency, but in the context of this special issue of Ctrl-Z and the theme of geo- it should be remembered that the range of ‘beings’ made capable in or by such assemblages extends to include not only animals but also ‘peoples, knowledges, and earthly practices’ generally. Artworks and animals, concepts and radiation, sun, sky and signification: the constellations of forces that flow through, in and out of ‘an’ assemblage resist being organised according to conventional taxonomies.


It’s as such an assemblage—or, more precisely, in view of many possible assemblages to come—that the specific contributions to this special issue of Ctrl-Z appear. Initially taking the form of a research symposium, organised by Janice Baker, Matthew Chrulew, Francis Russell and myself, and held at Curtin University on November 28-30, 2018, geo- (the earth and the earth sciences in humanities inquiry) began as an attempt to reflect on the location or function of ‘the earth’ in contemporary knowledge. From the outset, though, the unarticulated impetus was to pursue lines of inquiry that could lead thought to something other than a conventional morality, in the form of a critique, for instance, of the environmental consequences of media consumption. The aim, in other words, was to attempt to respond, from within the domains of media and cultural theory, to Gaia’s intrusion—hence to respond in ways that diverge both from the desire to identify a human universal for the purpose of determining political (moral) responsibility, and from the injunction to coordinate a global approach to politics premised on a human collectivity.


Just what a ‘climate change politics’ might be outside the terms of those frameworks is undoubtedly one of the questions to which Gaia’s intrusion demands we attend. But working without conceptual guarantees, we cannot assume that fragments of a reponse to that question can’t be found in investigations that make no reference whatsoever to the themes of climate change and the Anthropocene. It’s for this reason that the various contributions to this special issue engage with the question of ‘geo-’ in ways that do not always or immediately lend themselves to the objectives of environmentalism. Moreover, it’s in the creation of links—the redistribution of forces that make some thoughts capable of making other thoughts capable—that responses to Gaia’s intrusion might best be pursued.


Thus a complicated concept of geomediation as heterogeneous and unruly emerges from Nigel Clark’s and Sean Cubitt’s otherwise divergent discussions. Clark mounts the argument that fire is a medium, ‘from its very inception planetary in scale’, and in so doing introduces humanities inquiry to the inhuman politics of pyrodiversity, while Cubitt traces a genealogy of geomedia that sees the ‘pre-eminence of the human in human affairs’ giving way to a very different form of the inhuman: financial visualisation software and automated trading—‘self-operating systems, driven by motives designed into them by humans but now outstripping human agency’. Moving in a different direction, Chris Russill weaves together an array of insights into earth-observation, technical media, the machinations of war and the abstraction of vision to pursue a conception of the planetary—the earth as light-processing medium—that might allow media theory to look beyond the paradigms of inscription and computation that define not only much media theory but also ‘those contemporary approaches to data processing that overwhelm how we conceive of the planetary’. Engaging with a more familiar sense of ‘the world’, Claire Colebrook reads post-Apocalyptic cinema alongside continental phenomenology to show that the now frequently imagined ‘end of the world’ is always, in fact, the end of a particular, European experience of globalism conditioned by capitalist and colonial outsourcing of risk and volatility, and issuing in a cosmopolitanist comportment. In that sense, Colebrook argues, what ‘humanity’ is now experiencing as a threat to ‘its right to life is better thought of as the intense resurgence of the fragility that had been held at bay and outsourced for the sake of global modernity’.


Isabelle Stengers, in her contribution to this issue, picks up on Anna Tsing’s notion of ‘living in the ruins’ (see Mushroom) and reflects on what’s entailed in taking that prospect as ‘a matter of concern’, particularly in view of the need to consider ‘our legacy to the coming generations’, without thereby neglecting ‘matters of care’. In that respect Stephen Muecke’s disussion of different forms of knowledge about the Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater in Western Australia may well serve as something of an example of what Stengers characterises as cosmopolitics (renamed for the occasion of geo- as ‘Earthpolitics’): ‘caring for those whose worlds we ignore while they enable ours to thrive’. Juxtaposing the different extensions of ‘Western Science’ and ‘Indigenous knowledge’—the quotation marks serving to register the rhetorical power of these names—Muecke sets out not to ‘critique’ science but on the contrary to consider the problem of ‘how to recognise Indigenous knowledge as a kind of science’, as ‘knowledge that is reliable when tested and repeated’. Meanwhile, Peta Mitchell and Tim Highfield turn to the world of geospatial technologies to explore the emergence of a networked locality and its implications for our experience and relationship to place and location. Such concerns perhaps appear a world away from the issues characterising the Anthropocene, yet their analysis of the (unwitting) generation of location data, and of its increasing value for both commercial public policy ends, speaks to ways in which the thought of a ‘hyperobjective’ species—in the form of massively distributed yet eminently aggregable activity—is both enabled and undone. Indeed, if ‘the ecological era’ is ‘the revenge of place’ as Morton argues (Dark Ecology, 11), then the contemporary prominence of geolocation services and the emergence of what Mitchell and Highfield refer to as a ‘new form of location awareness’ invites reflection on unexpected links between the geosocial and the geophysical.


Does Gaia use Google Maps? Does the apparent absurdity of that question frustrate or rather activate attempts to ‘learn what is both meant and required by the demand to protect and to care’ for the way that ‘matters of concern are addressed’, as Stengers characterises the work that humanities academics might perform in response to Gaia’s intrusion? Either way, I hope that you find across the various contributions to this special issue of Ctrl-Z any number of opportunities to reflect on the major unknown that has come to exist at the heart of our lives, and which is here to stay.




Biemann, Ursula. ‘Late Subatlantic: Science Poetry in Times of Global Warming’. L’internationale (2015): n.p.


Chakrabarty, Dipesh. ‘Climate and Capital: On Conjoined Histories’. Critical Inquiry 41, 1 (2014): 1-23.


Chakrabarty, Dipesh. ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’. Critical Inquiry 35, 4 (2009): 197-222.


Despret, Vincianne. ‘From Secret Agents to Interagency’. History and Theory 52 (December 2013): 29-44.


Lovelock, James and Lynn Margulis. ‘Atmospheric Homeostasis by and for the Biosphere: The Gaia Hypothesis’. Tellus 26, 1-2 (February 1974): 2-10.


Lyotard, Jean-François. Postmodern Fables, trans. Georges can den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.


Moore, Jason W. ‘Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism’, in Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Jason Moore. Oakland: PM Press, 2016, pp. 1-11


Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.


Stengers, Isabelle. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, trans. Andrew Goffey. Open Humanities Press, 2015.


Tsing, Anna. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.


Žižek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. London: Verso, 2010.




Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy

ISSN 2200-8616


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