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  • Hyper-Abjects:Finitude, “Sustainability,” and the Maternal Body in the Anthropocene
  • Bethany Doane

The concept of the Anthropocene prioritizes a new paradigmatic scale that seems to outweigh that of “the political”: imagining deep time or the death of the human species as a result of climate change tends to negate the (relatively speaking) smaller-scale concerns of race, class, gender, or capitalism. While feminist critique is often circumscribed by this political scale, and thus may seem to be dwarfed or rendered obsolete by the geological, deep-time scale of the Anthropocene, examining issues of feminist concern from this geological perspective has profound implications for thinking not only of gender politics but also of how to construct something like the political at all in this new era. Suggesting a new and normative global politics is, of course, beyond the scope of this article, but perhaps we might begin to conceive of a political schema that would function more appropriately in light of this grander scale. At the very least we may begin to think the borders or limits of the species as it has existed in the modern era in a way that neither environmentalism nor posthumanism has yet been able to sufficiently tackle.

The Anthropocene marks the epoch in which human activities have caused global environmental changes that will leave their mark in the geological strata of the earth itself.1 While the specific moments of its onset are contested, its beginnings are generally associated with the industrial age; Crutzen and Stoermer mark its onset at roughly 1800 with the beginnings [End Page 251] of the industrial revolution. (Timothy Morton pinpoints it more specifically with the invention of the steam engine in 1794.) The changes made in this era of geological, technological, and climate convergence have accelerated in the last seventy years or so in what scientists call the Great Acceleration, which began around 1940 and quickened anthropogenic impact with events like the testing/dropping of atomic bombs, the homogenization of biodiversity, mass extinctions as a result of human activity, and various types of drilling and mining.2 In the era broadly conceived as modernity, the steady march of “progress” that has so shaped the paradigm of the period has been made possible only through its own abjections: those phenomena that mark the era as limited, limiting, and unsustainable. In other words, the “birth of the modern world” was made possible only through devastating acts of violence: institutionalized inequalities like slavery, oppression, colonization, and war. These acts of violence translate as cannibalization at the global scale: the exploitation of most members of the species and the consumption of their resources for the benefit and luxury of the few. While these forms of violence have been criticized and confronted by political and theoretical movements since at least the middle of the twentieth century, thinking of them in terms of the Anthropocene and deep time allows us to consider their consequences in a new light. Our present awareness of the Anthropocene makes visible phenomena like climate, global warming, earth, and the “anthropos” that present us with the very real eventuality of species finitude. Species finitude calls into question not just the practices of modernity that have brought about the Anthropocene (the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few), but the entire paradigm of global thinking that is invested in progress, growth, and even in any environmentalism that calls for stewardship of the earth. The notion of care for an entity like “nature” or “the environment” only reinforces the separation between the human and its milieu, a separation that is impossible to maintain in light of the absolute inextricability that the Anthropocene brings to light.

At the heart of this essay are two theoretical concepts: Julia Kristeva’s abjection, and Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, both of which stand for a sort of insufficiency or impossibility of discourse (politics, the Symbolic, etc.) in managing some Real object or phenomenon. Kristeva’s abject is generally thought of as functioning at two levels or scales: the personal, in which an individual must cast off the abject of the maternal body in order to become a proper subject; and the social or...


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pp. 251-267
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