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  • Mother Earth, Mother City:Abjection and the Anthropocene
  • Janell Watson

If the term “Anthropocenedesignates the global influence of the human species over its terrestrial habitat, then its arrival profoundly changes a number of relations that have long occupied Western philosophy: that between humans and animals; between humans and nature; and between humans and their technologies. The possibility that humans have transformed not only the biology but also the geology of the earth brings to the forefront the physical world, whose corporeal materiality was all but ignored by mid-twentieth-century continental philosophy, focused almost exclusively on language and politics. As Michel Serres put it in 1990, “Our a-cosmic philosophies, for almost half a century now, have been holding forth only on language or politics, writing or logic” (1995b, 29). Technicians and scientists have created a new world, observes Serres, while philosophers act as if they still live in the old one (2001, 4). By the time Paul Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer formally introduced the term “Anthropocene” in 2000 (Crutzen and Steffen, 2003), Serres had developed a philosophy for the new human-dominated techno-scientific world. It is true that the physical world has in the meanwhile reappeared in continental philosophy thanks to object-oriented philosophy and various new materialisms, but Serres was among the first to formulate into a philosophical question the human impact on the physical and biological earth (2014, 63). He may well have been the very first to develop a philosophy of pollution. Serres complains that Plato, one of the few Western philosophers to even mention detritus, excludes residue and waste from metaphysics (2001, 185). Garbage, atmospheric emissions, and toxic waste not [End Page 269] only threaten life, but are also transforming biological and geological features of the earth. The philosophical dimension of pollution will be the topic of my paper.

Philosophy has remained silent on this question of waste, with the notable exception of Julia Kristeva, whose theory of abjection brought the body and its discharges back into philosophy at the height of the linguistic turn. Although she presents abjection as a psychic formation, she derives the notion from the physical reaction of repugnance, vomiting, retching, and turning away when confronted with “filth, waste, or dung” and “defilement, sewage, and muck” (1982, 2). Both Serres and Kristeva portray pollution and abjection as remainders left behind by a subject-object dialectic that positions (male) humans as subjects, and everything else (and everyone) as objects to be mastered and appropriated. They both locate this oozing dialectic in Plato’s semiotic khôra, the mother’s womb. Read together, these philosophers of pollution expose the “materialist foundation” of “dialectical logic” by way of the maternal body (Kristeva 1984, 15). Kristeva focuses on the mother in order to demonstrate a corporeal basis for language and subjectivity. Although he shares the view that language comes from the body, Serres celebrates the womb as the first human habitat. He emphasizes the maternal functions of the earth: neonatal incubator, nurturer, habitat.

However, waxing poetic about the sea, the riverside, and the wilderness, Serres writes very little about cities, even though they are the preferred human habitat of the new epoch. I therefore extend his reflections on human habitation in the Anthropocene epoch by considering the maternal aspects of the global megalopolis, which simultaneously sustains domestic life and produces deadly pollution. The maternal functions of reproduction, nourishment, and shelter are pushing the limits of the earth’s physical capacities. Maternity thus lies at the heart of the problem of the Anthropocene: the possibility that human domination of the earth will deplete its ability to sustain life.


Although he grounds his philosophy in complexity, chaos, narrative, and anthropology, in his 1990 manifesto, The Natural Contract, Serres argues that science and technology have brought about a subject-object reversal between the human species and the earth (1995b). He bases his argument on a dialectical model in order to expose a struggle for domination, the classical confrontation between master and slave. Serres credits Descartes with foreseeing from his vantage point at the dawn of the scientific age that humans would go on to “dominate and appropriate” the natural world according...


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pp. 269-285
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