Art and Enchantment in the Anthropocene

by Devin Zuber and Suzanne Schwarz Zuber

In the future, what will our present era of planetary instability and transition come to be called? The old certainties about the given relations between rationality, secularism, and the hegemony of western science have been fundamentally roiled by the post-9/11 "return of religion," on the one hand, and the global surge in antidemocratic forms of populism, on the other. Irrespective of such geopolitics, our planet is continuing to warm, with species now dying-off at such a quickening pace that contemporary scientists warn of a human-caused "sixth wave of extinction." The fragility of transnational agreements to mitigate climate change (or extinction) - - the recent ease at which President Trump stepped away from the Paris Agreements--shows how vitiated contemporary politics are for working on behalf of the environment. This, if anything, seems certain: that better caring and concern for our planet and the other-than-human will not be brought about either through the exclusive claims of secular science (whose eroded authority remains a signal part of our "postmodern condition," if we follow Jean-François Lyotard), nor by the political and economic values of neoliberalism.

Geologically-speaking, we may be on the cusp of the Anthropocene--the term currently debated by earth scientists to demarcate a new era where humans have indelibly altered the bedrock and fossil record. In the realm of historiography and culture studies, others have argued for, alternatively, calling our moment the "Capitalocene" (Jason Moore), or the "Chthulucene"--Donna Haraway's more recent coinage to denote an urgent temporality for kin-making with the beings of the earth (chthonic). As neoliberal politics and the disenchantments of materialistic science fail to "make kin" in the Chthulucene, how might art--the visceral experience of aesthetics--provide better auguries for our future? The catastrophe of climate change is, after all, primarily a failure of the imagination: an inability to see, to collectively "image" our embodied entanglement in layered webs of being. Perhaps as the medieval mystics once shut their eyes to gain access to an inner world of transcendental vision--and our word "mystic" comes from the Greek mustikos, literally, a closing of the eyes--we must now close our eyes to open up other senses that might helps us feel the deep-time of the earth. Hearing, touching, moving. This is the "pedagogy of the senses" called for by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, at root in ecstatic states of transcendence; but also more generally suggested by the growth of mindfulness practices and yogic techniques, whose popular ascendance mirrors the increasing awareness of the environmental crisis.

Whereas medieval mystics described about a "great cloud of unknowing" at the center of their visionary experiences, more recent artists have used clouds to register our ambivalence (and wonder) at modernity and its accelerating temporalities. The spectacular atmospheric clouds of smoke and fog painted by J. M. W. Turner and the later Impressionists were enabled by the effects of industrial pollution: paintings that can be read today as sublime indices of the explosive growth of carbon-based capitalism (as in Turner's astonishing Rain, Steam, and Speed: the Great Western Railway, from 1844). Later advancements in photography allowed Modernists as disparate as August Strindberg and Alfred Stieglitz to turn cameras to the clouds and skies, creating "celestographs" (Strindberg) or "equivalents" (Stieglitz) that used the chemical alchemy of the darkroom for an aesthetic that was both radically abstract and deeply, personally spiritual. Stieglitz's and Strindberg's cloud-works are also inadvertent records of weather patterns scored, increasingly, by anthropogenic carbon.

In our own era of dematerializations, clouds have become ubiquitous metaphors for the diffusion of data storage and the disembodied dispersal of digital identities. Must these technologies of infinite reproducibility necessarily lead to Walter Benjamin's iconic horror at a loss of "aura" and the authenticity of the aesthetic? Whatever we want to call our Zeitgeist's failure to imagine the deep time of climate change, we need more creative uses of digital technologies that open up collective kinds of aesthetic (re)enchantments: affective attachments to the actual ground wherever we find ourselves standing, together. Only then might we begin to perceive the wonder in our interconnectedness on a swiftly tilting planet that is, in the end, a small world after all.

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