- Aura in the Anthropocene
“The Anthropocene” has been proposed as the name for the geological epoch in which collective human action alters the course of Earth history. It is a neologism that responds primarily to climate change, but also addresses ongoing interventions in the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, the sixth mass extinction event, and other environmental dynamics of contemporary global society. In the words of some of its most notable scientific proponents, the Anthropocene is “a new phase in the history of both humankind and the Earth, when natural forces and human forces become intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other” (Zalasiewicz et al. 2010, 2231).
As this formulation suggests, the Anthropocene is an essentially dialectical concept, requiring us to think together what have usually been understood as distinct orders of being. The Anthropocene’s unprecedented conflations of natural process and human history challenge existing forms of historical understanding, and also the sense of a relatively unassailable natural order underlying those forms. The Anthropocene requires historians, for instance, “to mix together the immiscible chronologies of capital and species history” (Chakrabarty 2009, 220), and to posit an agency operating at the universal level of the human species as a whole—a super-subject beyond all possible subjective experience. For geologists, on the other hand, it requires cross-comparison of the fossil record with the present day, in an effort to read the unceasing flux of our current moment as a petrified past to come (Zalasiewicz et al. 2010, 2230). The Anthropocene deconstructs traditional divisions between timescales (geological and existential), between temporal frames (the deep past and the living present), between objects of knowledge (natural and cultural), and between notions of force, cause and agency (geophysical and political). It calls into question the gulf between the intersubjective world, organized through discursive and technological media—through memory, language, experience and historical action—and the objective order of the natural cosmos.
While the Anthropocene may collapse traditional oppositions, none of these oppositions seemed undeconstructable after poststructuralism, and indeed many appeared philosophically unreliable well before the Anthropocene concept was first introduced in 2000. Nonetheless, knowledge of climate change makes a difference. If theory interpreted the world [End Page 65] differently, the Anthropocene acknowledges that practice changed it. It names a moment when discrepant temporal scales suddenly intersect, and distinct ways of telling time are folded, concretely, into each other. Once familiar notions of historical sequence, of one thing regularly following another of a like order, grow uncertain. In such circumstances, it becomes possible, if only in a speculative spirit, to consider whether the theory of climate change—or, at least, some elements of this theory—may have preceded the event. The case I examine here is Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history, and in particular its relationship with atmosphere. Benjamin’s concept of aura, I will argue, names a radical ambiguity in historical experience, atmosphere, and practices of reading and citation. This ambiguity or radical doubleness becomes fleetingly perceptible in moments of crisis or emergency, like our own, when breath suddenly intervenes in the reading of history.
In his theses On the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin argues that the past becomes newly legible in moments of historical danger, in what he calls elsewhere “the now of recognizability” (1996-2003, 4:390-91, 183). These critical moments potentially disrupt temporal homogeneity and break with the terms of sequential development, instead blasting an image of the past “out of the continuum of history” (1996-2003, 4:395). The past becomes momentarily available to historical knowledge, and also to radical social change—to revolution. But Benjamin notes the operation of another form of temporal disjunction which, although very similar, must be rigorously distinguished from this revolutionary present that comes charged with the deliverance of the past. Fashion, for example, involves similar short-circuits between past and present: Benjamin remarks that fashion cites bygone modes of dress in much the same way as the French Revolution once cited ancient Rome. What is fashionably new is inevitably a citation of what is archaic and outdated; in fashion, newness itself becomes recurrent and citational, so that fashion is...