From Enlightenment to the Anthropocene: Vico Behind or Ahead of His Time?
On all Saint’s Day—November 1, 1755—an earthquake (estimated at 8.5 to 9.0 on the Richter scale) hit the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. Estimates of mortality at the time varied widely from 10,000 to 100,000. Even in more recent projections, the death toll ranged from 15,000–40,000. A giant tsunami destroyed all the boats in the Lisbon harbor 40 minutes after the quake. With raging fires and aftershocks, 85% of the buildings in the city were destroyed. The quake wrecked a vibrant capital city with major ambitions for global empire (fig. 1).
The effects of the quake were not limited to Lisbon. Seismic activity was felt for weeks throughout Europe and beyond, making it an extended physically experienced event. High seas lashed coasts from Finland to North Africa and the Caribbean, and even Brazil, as has been recently documented.1 Written corroboration arrived sometimes weeks later, also by sea. The Lisbon quake created the first major natural disaster media event around the Atlantic, with communications including printed journalism proliferating through oceanic networks, flattening the world at the very moment of its buckling. Thus, even as this ambitious colonial city was destroyed, its impact on global territories emerged in geological, oceanic, and climatic form, as well as in print form. What I have elsewhere described, through Vico, as anatopism [End Page 7] was in play.2 Along with a temporal displacement in news and seismic activity, the historical climatic event also created a spatial displacement that demonstrates that attention to neither the impact on Lisbon nor to its unidirectional effects on the rest of the world is adequate for the task of thinking about climate (fig. 2).
Broad speculation as to the causes of this iconic earthquake ensued. While Voltaire responded with a poem accusing God of indifference, Immanuel Kant came up with a telluric theory of explanation that relied on physics and earth movements.3 His was a pressure cooker theory of hot gases that was later proven wrong. All the same, Catherine Malabou’s recent reading sees Kant as favoring the category of epigenesis.4 Rather than supporting either innateism or contextualism, Kant was interested in the novelty of the development of reason without any prior physical causality. Epigenesis is novelty without divine grace, but it is not physical determinism. It is unmotivated nonteleological development as Darwin would later theorize [End Page 8] in the nineteenth century. While highly distinct in their understanding of this event, Voltaire and Kant both distanced themselves from the divine.
Even as the Lisbon earthquake provided this proliferation of thought, it is worth considering – anachronistically – how philosopher Giambattista Vico, who died at the age of 75, more than a decade before the earthquake, might have responded to it, had he lived to see it. Even more speculatively, we can consider how he might have understood the contemporary world we now identify as the Anthropocene? What would he have made of today’s story of climate change, with its language of scientific certitude and statistical confidence, its colonial ideology, and its sense of the catastrophic-sublime? In this address, I gesture toward a response to these questions by examining Vichian conceptions of time and history, and even of climatic rupture, for what they offer us at a time in which we can, as Fredric Jameson once put it, more easily “imagine the end of the world than…imagine the end of capitalism.”5 The history of the Enlightenment too might be told as a [End Page 9] response to climate awareness, or to the differences and changes brought about by climate. Examples of the latter can be found not only in the story of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and in responses to it, but also in places such as Montesquieu’s colonial climatic theory and Buffon’s thoughts about the development of species in relation to climatic epochs (or what he calls monuments).6
When I told a colleague, Thomas Pavel at Chicago, that I was thinking about the apocalyptic sublime nature of climate change, he quipped that “climate change is the best example of the marriage between serious modern science and the most ancient myths.” Vico declared that mythology was the first version of science, and he chose to narrate Nature and human history together, from the same subject position, within complex temporal cycles. He was interested in poetry as truth and mythical narrative as its proving ground.
Vico’s system separated secular history from sacred history. But he was not just an antiquarian—he offered an alternative “nuova scienza” that was universal, collective, humanistic, and focused on understanding as subjective and collective. He was uninterested in natural history, partly because he did not think Nature was accessible outside of human activity and appropriation. In this sense, Vico represents a refusal of the scientific revolution as an example of Cartesian rationalism that divided matter and mind. The typical Vicchian analytical gesture would be to discern human history and the development of law and political institutions through etiological narratives around mythology and etymology (for example in his understanding of agrarian laws). Philosophy and philology were in a dialectical relationship. While human origins were obscure and Vico had theories about them, he wanted to write a “rational civil theology of divine providence.”7 His was a universal political science justified for a pluralist world. Ironically, even while Enlightenment science largely rejected Vico’s premises and thoroughly objectified the world probabilistically, the wheel has turned full circle on such thought.
In explicating humanity’s historical roots through stages, Vico asserts that humanity has acted according to certain fixed paths of development, commencing with a first, sacred age that was shrouded in the mists of religion where gods spoke not to a weak human reason but to a lively human imagination or the true mythos. Fear of religion was key in the progress from an age of gods to a second age of heroes, or giants, who understood their world passionately through poetic metaphor and their status as the sons of Jupiter. The giants lorded over ordinary mortals who lived without laws and property. Vico’s contemporary modernity was a third age when political institutions and prosaic speech developed in civilization, which was modest, benign, and reasonable. However, time was cyclical in that the age [End Page 10] of barbarism (the second age) could return, as it did during the Middle Ages. Cyclical time was one form of the temporal displacement Vico understood as anachronism. (If Joyce is right, there could be a Vichian fourth age, when post-Enlightenment humans could act upon themselves, but this would be more futuristic!8)
As a life-long Neapolitan, Vico had his own local source of natural disaster to contend with, namely Mount Vesuvius. Putting aside the utter destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79AD, Vesuvius erupted with significant and devastating regularity. An earthquake following a volcanic eruption had killed some 3,000 people in December 1631, two decades before Vico’s birth. There were several major earthquakes and eruptions in Vico’s lifetime and in contemporary Neapolitan lived experience including in 1682, 1688, 1694, 1698, 1707, and 1737. Were these experiences Vico drew upon when he wrote about the bestioni responding to lightning striking a mountain in Nuova Scienza (The New Science)?9 Vesuvius was worshipped as a power of Jupiter (fig. 3).
More than eruptions or earthquakes, the important prehistoric natural event for Vico’s imagination was the Flood (fig. 4). This was a major resetting event. The sons of Noah were dispersed around the earth and its forests, and the heavens produced lightning and thunder as the earth dried out and produced “dry exhalations of flammable matter.”10 Vico claims to be writing a “new natural history of the universal flood.”11 The few giants who lived on the mountain could only express themselves “by shouting and grunting, but they imagined the heavens as a great living body, and in this manifestation called the sky Jupiter.”12 Then, the first theological poets created the divine myth of Jupiter hurling the thunderbolt, animating the universe and all its parts. Vico’s argument is that primitive human beings imagine Nature through the pathetic fallacy by way of the inventions of Gods, giants, and other such frightful beings. The first event is also a communication, in which Vico cites the tag—“Iovis Omnia plena” (“all things are full of Jupiter”).13 Along with Rousseau who came after him, Vico imagines that language was invented to communicate emotions.
Giuseppe Mazzotta indicates that Vico’s “exotopy” (or outsidedness) interrogates the “place” of the subject and the philosopher in relation to sciences of the earth.14 What is the subject position of the humanist philosopher of history reading mythology as a residual archive of the enactment of various agrarian laws? In his discourses, Vico represents narratives of Nature as myth rather than as an objective reality; Nature is integrated with human culture but never analytically separable from human will. That shows us his prescience in relation to recent debates about the meaning and origins of the Anthropocene.15 [End Page 11]
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For instance, Vico’s “groves” and “clearings” are “refuges” for bands of yet-to-be-humans in search of political recognition.16 “Giants” recruited these populations as servants without the property rights that they slowly won, humanizing themselves through considerable friction with their masters. Servants left their lords and went off to found their own colonies in a primitive form of marronage. Patrician societies attempted to re-establish their property through institutions such as the census in Roman times. These conflicts helped structure citizenship in early commonwealths. In Rome, the Publilian Laws re-established patricians after the rape of Lucretia and then the Poetelian Laws liberated the plebeians from their debt to the patricians. Unlike the natural law theorists who neatly sequenced the transition from the state of nature to civil society in a deeply anti-historical hypothesis disguised as “historical progress,” Vico showed that natural property was unrecognized by civil law, and that political conflict—indeed class warfare—had to go about rectifying these abuses.17 (Marx read Vico.) Yet none of these achievements is irreversible even though there is a universal movement from the sacred to the secular. Patricians grudgingly granted “bonitary” natural property owners “quiritary” ownership, and “eminent domain” came only when plebeians could assure themselves of being able to transmit their legacies through sovereign authority’s recognizable institutions such as marriage.
The Anthropocene is the name of the concept whereby discourse imagines the presence of the human as a geological layer from a future vantage point beyond the existence of the species. It has produced a whole subset of literary and cinematic science fiction alongside dire forebodings of massive interspecies extinction. This vantage point of imagining the end of the species from beyond its demise points to a sacred, rather than secular, worldly imagination, or to a form of history imagined on the scale of the human. But why are we so obsessed with the death of our species?
There was debate in the nineteenth century about calling the current era, “Holocene” (or wholly new). Charles Lyell, the father of the secular discipline of modern geology (1797–1875), wanted to call his contemporary post-glacial epoch “Recent.”18 The debate over naming the current epoch “Anthropocene” began with contemporary atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen, who saw the rapid increase of CO2 as a documentable fact beginning in the Industrial Revolution in Europe.19 In addition, the vast increase of methane from anthropogenic agriculture and livestock dates back 12,000 years to rice cultivation in Asia. We have been at it throughout the era of recorded human history, but there is no question that industrial modernity has vastly accelerated the onset of climate change. [End Page 13]
Did the Anthropocene begin with the invention of the steam engine in the 1770s, or the atomic bomb in the 1940s? Should we point to the Asian invention of deforestation and intensive agriculture? To Robinson Crusoe’s carbon footprint? How new is new? What is modernity? And what is behind the desire to shift from a spatial understanding of climatic regions to a temporal one of geological epoch, the name of which is then subject to change (fig. 5)?
But we have gotten ahead of ourselves here. While Vico was very learned in history and classical languages, he knew very little about geology or biology, let alone about today’s scientistic syntheses of climate change or extinction biology. He was a post-Renaissance humanist and a philosopher of conjectural history, a radical exponent of an alternative humanist Enlightenment rather than a critic of “the” Enlightenment. As Hayden White says, Vico was not anti-modernist or traditionalist, but a post-modernist who humbled and historicized modernist arrogance.20 Vico’s ironic take on modernizing Enlightenment discourse found that the conceit of scholars and of nations was rampant; he chose to interpret myths as hiding historical secrets even as he scoffed at scholarly attempts to rationalize history anachronistically because they did not take into account the mentalities of the epoch.
Aristocracies manipulated societies from their inception. There is no getting around the fact, he insists, that civilization arose from “uncertain, unseemly, imperfect, and insubstantial beginnings.”21 These laws evolved internally in every society and were the material result of social conflicts, and not just intellectual imports from Greece. All societies develop according to an internal logic that can be deduced as scientific even as they are open to outside influences that are materially registered as embodied presences. Human pasts and their deep time are fundamentally unknown and only partially knowable through history. Savage and bestial as protohumans, human beings are reimagined through a kind of archaeology of the self and through evidence of language and etymology as a material historical archive. While there are hundreds of such examples in La nuova scienza, a couple would suffice for illustration here: families are connected to their family servants, named famuli in Latin. But here the plot thickens, because philia, friendship is connected to phileo to love, and even to filius son, and eventually to phylê meaning group/tribe/genus. Family, love, friendship, kinship, and group association are linked not just conceptually, but etymologically. Furthermore, marriage is a true form of friendship that unites the honorable, the true, and the pleasant modes of human existence. The web of etymology is a form of a material trace that cannot be dismissed as free association. This is the kind of linguistic specificity of the humanities that philologists [End Page 14] need to cultivate unashamedly as a science. Pagan cultures experienced vivid sensations and had unbounded fantasies, but they were dull and dim-witted in terms of their capacity to apply their reason, Vico tells us. Words contain dim residues of past significations (semainoumenon) that emerge when human beings encounter the phenomenal world. Pagan obsessions with gold are metaleptic. For agrarian societies, the yellow color of grain was a powerful metaphor of wealth. This is backed up by conjectural etymology—the word for granary in Latin is thesaurus, the word for treasury. But thesaurum auri, the term for “gold treasury,” appears redundant unless it dawns upon you that grain was the gold before gold that ancient societies actually stored and valued. Surplus value is derived from metaphorical displacement onto a yellow metal of the same color as grain.
La nuova scienza focuses on ten emergent civil institutions including 1) refuges; 2) families; 3) cities; 4) jurisdictions; 5) expansions of empire; 6) coats-of-arms; 7) fame; 8) true nobility; 9) true heroism; and 10) treaties of war and peace. The four classical virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude are relevant for the successful development of these institutions. Cultures develop from forests to huts to villages to cities and eventually to [End Page 15] academies and universities. Vico’s laws are ironclad and axiomatic, in that he was one of the first stadial thinkers with rational arguments to back up his stagism. Vico wrote, “I would venture to say that anyone who studies my Science will retrace this ideal eternal history for himself, recreating it by the criterion that it had to, has to, and will have to be so.”22 Vico also produces an etiology of the serial development of the twelve Greek/Roman gods as archetypes according to material principles of evolution. Vulcan, Mars, and Venus are plebeian archetypes given their characteristics; whereas, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva symbolize patrician heroes. For Vico, the birth of Minerva (derivation, minuere caput), fully armed from Zeus’s head, happens when Vulcan attacks Zeus with an ax. This act, he conjectures, symbolizes the birth of the civil state out of the family state—the plebeian famuli break free of patrician domination. Vesta has towers (torres) and lands (terrae); from this she creates the world of nations (orbis terrarum). Neptune comes last among the dozen gods, because naval and nautical arts are the last invention of nations. This is a creative version of what David Bidney has called “ethnic euhemerism,” which explains myth with the help of naturalistic etiologies.23 However, there is something reductive going on here as well, as characters are reduced to the peoples they stand for, and myths become versions of ethnohistory.
Vico’s systematic contribution to the philosophy of law was expanded upon by a key Enlightenment figure, Montesquieu, whose De L’Esprit des Lois (1748) presents us with a fully developed instance of eighteenth-century climate thought. For Vico, climate was determinative of nature and culture. As he put it, “different climates clearly produce peoples with different natures and different customs, and these in turn produce different languages.”24 Montesquieu’s contribution, however, appears much cruder than Vico’s. Unlike Vico’s universalist incorporation of post-diluvian history, Montesquieu localizes climate as a major factor amongst others, flattening the space of the globe into Empire in a way that functions to justify slavery as well as colonial conquest. In that story, climate is understood causally, such that time effectively overtakes space in the governing of the earth.
One of the six parts of De L’Esprit des Lois explores climate as a relativistic determinant of human nature, focusing on the ways that laws and culture develop in accordance with the biological and physiological tendencies created by climate. The axiomatic principle is laid out in Ch. 1 of Bk. 14, “If it is true that the character of the spirit and the passions of the heart are extremely different in the various climates, laws should be relative to the differences in these passions and the differences in these characters.”25 Cold climates make humans vigorous; whereas heat makes for lethargy; cold desensitizes; whereas warmth hypersensitizes the body. These spurious generalizations are based on Montesquieu’s dissection of a sheep’s tongue. [End Page 16]
Montesquieu thereby reveals an ethnocentric bias that favors the geographically active North and West over the presumedly passive stagnancy of the East and South. Northern cultures prefer the bodily pleasures of “hunting, travels, war, and wine,” whereas in southern climates “a delicate, weak, but sensitive machine gives itself up to a love which in a seraglio is constantly aroused and calmed.”26 Indians worship total inaction, and monasticism was born “in the hot eastern countries where one is given to action less than to speculation.”27 While Book 14 connects laws with the climate, Book 15 justifies slavery or “civil servitude” as a function of climate.28 At some points the views stated seem so harsh as to be almost satirical.
Here and in other books, we see how Montesquieu argues for the exceptionality of European cultures on the basis of Europe’s subtle fluctuations of temperature, whereas Asian despotisms occur from extremes of hot and cold. To quote Montesquieu, “Asia has no temperate zone… the places situated in a very cold climate there are immediately adjacent to those that are in a very warm climate, that is, Turkey, Persia, the Mogul Empire, China, Korea, Japan. In Europe, on the other hand, the temperate zone is very broad, although the climates within it are very different from each other.”29 The relative equality of European nations and their medium sizes make the strong face the strong, and liberty increases or decreases according to the circumstances. In Asia, “brave and active warrior peoples are immediately adjacent to effeminate, lazy, and timid peoples,” leading to despotism and empire.30
There were many critics of Montesquieu’s theory of the relationship among climate, culture and power. Voltaire, for example, queried why ancient Greece was eminent compared to contemporary Greece even though the climate had not changed. And while we might be inclined to dismiss Montesquieu’s cultural generalizations, they return today in more sophisticated forms concerning the racial characterizations of others. Moreover, the effects of the colonial subjugation they served to justify continue to affect our discussions and negotiations around climate. What caused the vulnerability of the “vulnerable nations group” in contemporary climate change negotiations? How do the actions of those in the Global North reverberate in the Global South? Which countries and their human inhabitants should be forced to make the largest “sacrifices” in meeting the carbon emission reductions that are needed to save the species? Through eighteenth-century climate theory, we can read the anthropocene as empire biologized.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Montesquieu’s ontology is the attribution of cultural tendency to physical causes such as climate that are then animated vicariously by human nature and culture. Consequently, Asia [End Page 17] has been subjugated thirteen times over the last two millennia, whereas Europe only four times. While the differences are enacted and essentialized through the political and cultural superstructures of various peoples amidst their environments, the springs (ressorts) of the actions are underlying determinants that create multifarious characteristics and tendencies. Contextual racism here defines actions in terms of tendencies.
Even with his understanding of the relationship between human action and climate, Montesquieu lacked a notion of deep time connecting climate determinism with biological and species temporality and nonhuman assemblages. That notion was provided by the Comte de Buffon’s discovery of species extinction. In his Des Époques de la nature (1784), Buffon comes to the notion of past species extinction through evidence of calcification in ancient geological strata whereby shells, trilobites, and other creatures’ fossilized remains were found in slate (indicating his second and third epochs). This primitive evidence of past life showed that the Earth had gone through major climatic change aeons ago. Buffon is fascinated by the remains of giant species, especially those of mammals from the Pleistocene, including elephants, rhinoceri, hippopotami, and mammoths. He theorized that remains at higher layers suggest that some extinctions are relatively recent. Buffon’s epochal markers are called “monuments”—including elephant bones and hippopotami teeth found in North America. The fifth epoch, according to Buffon, is when Man first appears, and the Seventh epoch is his contemporary moment when Man discovers and transforms Nature, making Civil History part of Natural History. A cautious Buffon was willing to date the age of the earth at 75,000 years in print but in his private notes he had proposed 3 million years. Benoît de Maillet (1656–1738), in Telliamed, or conversations between an Indian philosopher and a French missionary on the diminution of the sea (1748), had earlier suggested 2.4 billion years, significantly closer to the current estimate of 4 billion years, and had also theorized that life had started in water.31
Vico, in a way, also had a sense of deep time, even as it was connected with his not-fully-human giants. He wrote about fossils that he thought were bones of giants found in the mountains. They should have been found in the plains as well but had been swept away.32 Nimrod is mentioned as a giant in the Bible and Augustus had a museum dedicated to giants that Suetonius discusses. Gigantology is hard to comprehend today even though it was such an obsession with Renaissance thought from Rabelais to Chassanion to Vico and even up to Rousseau.33 But Vico’s poetic theory allows us to understand giants as metaphorical truths even if their existence cannot be confirmed empirically: poetry’s proper subject is “a believable impossibility”—and the history of human ideas takes us from divine law to heroic law to the age of [End Page 18] men.34 Myths degenerate into scandalous stories once they no longer hold our imagination, but they functioned in their time as performative enactments of powerful emotions.
Ultimately, Vico’s approach is not so much about Man’s conquest of Nature; rather, it affirms that the human and the natural become indistinguishable from each other, as they act in concert. Vico’s work went on to influence the nineteenth–century French historian J.M. Michelet, who wrote an extraordinary number of natural histories with different standpoints, including L’Oiseau, L’Insecte and La Montagne. Take for instance, Michelet’s wonderful natural history of the sea, La Mer (1861). Michelet describes the sea as “the great female of the earth…permanently conceiving and unendingly giving birth.”35 In a vitalist series of anthropomorphic reflections, Michelet describes the oceanic entity as a kind of sphinx, inscrutable and impenetrable, a dreadful enchantress. It is simultaneously an embodiment of regularity, even while the masculine gendered Man [l’homme] emerges as constantly changing and fickle. In contrast to the necropolitical idea behind the scorched earth of the despot who ravages all and is still completely self-sufficient, we get a positive, pantheistic worship of the sea as an immensely fecund mother. The sea is the fountain of all life. There is a pun at the heart of the French language whereby the sea is the eternal goddess genetrix (la mer / la mère). Even though the sea’s destructive fury can be cataclysmic in the manner of the despot’s, her fury is innocent rather than corrupt. She is a unified being as well as a complex organismic polity, “like a great animal halted at this first stage of organization.”
Michelet’s progressive instincts make him identify sea-creatures—from molluscs, crabs, and sharks, to whales—in complex allegorical anthropomorphisms that resemble the dissection of a full-fledged political economy. Univalves are the voiceless laborers of the ocean generating surplus value, while crustaceans, with their external armor and accoutrements, are like a medieval warrior nation. The structure of fish with leathery scales and neckless bodies are an advance on exoskeletons in the manner of the buff jerkins of the soldiers of Gustavus Adolphus, the first great Swedish absolutist monarch. The poetic paeans to whales and seals are combined with angry denunciations of the ravages wrought on them by men and sharks. Michelet systematically praises multiple mediations through the benign effects of small and even larger peaceful creatures from plankton to whales, even as the burden of iniquity falls on those despotic agents that cut through intermediations toward instant gratification and instrumental direct violence. The action of men and sharks is perhaps not that different from that of the Louisianan indigenes in Montesquieu who, in utter disrespect for mediation, felled the tree to get at the fruit.36 [End Page 19]
Agriculture heats up the world such that cooling it down is harder than heating it up. The discourse of this particular understanding of deep time is new, and as a matter of fact, the categorization of epochs were themselves up for grabs in the nineteenth century once the secular discipline of geology took over. Nomenclature is all about imperial power—as the geological terms “Cambrian,” “Ordovician,” “Silurian,” and “Devonian,” named after very specific English localities, demonstrate. But this shift from human history via extinction biology to stratigraphy is a generalized shift of scale from history to biology to geology. Hence, as Derek Woods has recently suggested, non-smooth scale variations characterize the recent development of the Anthropocene.37
Human actions are discernible in the physical force of Nature’s biofeedback loop since the hunting of Pleistocene mammals. While post-eighteenth-century Industrial Man might assume the collective guilt of our species, we need to think through the joint agency of Man and Nature for our multispecies planetary predicament amidst the panoply of hyperobjects we have created to outlast us, including dioxin, plutonium, and Styrofoam. We don’t even know what we make until we make it. The Enlightenment marks a certain point of innocence, where there was the fleeting illusion that we could be free of nature and necessity, in a moment we called “modernity.” We thought we could get rid of religion as superstition and denounce ideology because truth and science escaped fiction and myth; but the postmodern condition has taught us about cynical reason and the overstatement of human agency over Nature. But then, as Bruno Latour says, we have never been modern; and the more we can disabuse ourselves of that illusion, paradoxically, the more likely is the hope that we can co-evolve with technology and nonhumans toward solving the intractable problems of interspecies—rather than just human—survival. For this we don’t need more analysis, but better explication.38
We are, as a species, subjectively at a place where we are desperately trying to subordinate argumentum (the probabilistic scientific thinking about climate change) into fabula (a narrative) that will lead to historia (the projected truth of human entelechy). Vico uses the natural science language of embryology and matrices to describe the collapse of mythos into logos. Science and myth have similar narrative structures, but science’s is actually more insidious because it simulates truth rather than foregrounding its equally fictive construction as myth does. While our scientific knowledge of the past quarter-millennium vastly exceeds that available to Vico, we are not necessarily better in terms of self-understanding; the situation is arguably worse given our subjection to technoscience and to the political economy of antihumanist capitalism. How can we refuse pretending to dominate Nature [End Page 20] when we are ourselves the Nature that we dominate? As Vico’s axiom goes, “Man becomes all things by not understanding them.”39 The empirical makes sense only as the intelligible.40 Verum et factum convertuntur. Focusing on poetic metaphor, Vico invented comparative mythology and structural anthropology. Understanding ourselves as makers of ourselves, we have discovered that we have massively altered our environment over historical time. We are Nature. Is there a dialectic?
Is there hope in the climate, or is the category of the Anthropocene a fearful way of underscoring what I have elsewhere called catachronism?41 Catachronism is true of the Enlightenment as a whole, as the future rewrites the present as a script for impending disaster. If the Enlightenment was the moment when Man wrested Freedom from Necessity as philosophers have opined, it has also been revealed as a willful illusion regarding human agency. Voilà: the human is now revealed as a physical force—we lose our agency even as we are the world, internal and external to ourselves as never before. The agency of Nature is not the much-vaunted “end of history” but its resolute recoil and the beginning of what Latour calls “geostory,” whereby assemblages of humans, nonhumans, and technologies pre-structure the scene rather than replay any simplistically portrayed binary situation.42
The apparently random yet particular event of the Lisbon earthquake might become, in Vico’s hands, the opportunity to discern a universal history temporally and spatially displaced from either secular or sacred temporality (fig. 6). Were he alive today, I do not think Vico would be entirely against posthumanism and technoscience. Rather, he would see them as unacknowledged expansions of human agency that need to be recognized and integrated within a broader account of a Providentially given moral-religious responsibility. We need a new philology to read information technology and parse genetic code, but that is not so different from reading mythologies or doing structural anthropology.43
Wanting to have a front-row seat at one’s own species-death continues the Enlightenment desire for the sublime drama of the unraveling of the social contract. But epigenesis points to redemptive deliverance as well as theological abandonment—not necessarily Providential in Vico’s terms but within the brutal Darwinian future. Many species are indeed going extinct. Maybe the Anthropocene is the beginning of a fourth Vichian age, when poetic knowledge and objective science meet even as the human evolves into the posthuman, not as posthistory but as resolutely biopolitical and technoeconomic. Even if we commit species-suicide, other species will arise. Renaming the era
Anthropocene [barred Anthropocene] in the face of our impending demise will be a most ironic act of naming catachronistically, given that the human species is not the savior, but rather the death-obsessed [End Page 21] species that wrote its own tombstone to fulfill its heightened melancholic desire for the sense of an ending.
Vico’s pluralistic account of political identities from early times is key to his implicit understanding of the natural and climatic conditions of political societies that always involve the migrancy of ethnicities, languages, and classes. Vico provides a dynamic account of the motivated class movements of ancient societies, whether by agrarian laws or the desire for political freedom and citizenship. The idea that there was an ethnic basis to the difference between classes in ancient times matches historical insights concerning the Middle Ages in Europe. Recent migration is not just a problem we confront by way of today’s globalization; it documents the movement of peoples over millennia. It is the boundaried nation-state of post-Enlightenment modernity and the sovereign postcolony that is an exception, one that tests the rule of the longue durée. The way civilization spread was a colonial process through internal colonies and their later coastal increase.
The eighteenth century will live on geologically as critical thought through the interspecies assemblage that will be vindicated. In this post-ontological world, our Toys R Us, and our Pets R Us, even as “we” are not “who” “we” thought “we” once “were.” In generic and mythistorical terms, this will be what Mark McGurl calls posthuman comedy.44 With expressed hope for epic romance and encounters with outer space, this will be not just all-too-humanist [End Page 22] tragedy with accompanying apocalyptical frissons of “the-end-of-the-world.” As Hayden White says, “a properly post-modernist response to the apparent primacy of technology over nature and humanity would be to refuse any temptation to embrace this enterprise, while continuing to recognize the power and opportunity presented to us by technology at the same time.”45 This is where Giambattista Vico is truly our contemporary in terms of his uncannily humanistic—and partly posthuman—philosophy of history.
Srinivas Aravamudan was professor of English, Romance Studies, and the Literature and former dean of the Humanities at Duke University. Author of Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688–1804 (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1999), Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2005), and Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012), he was president of ASECS 2015–16.
Earlier versions of this article were presented at a gathering at Duke University on Vico, and at a conference on “The Future World of Eighteenth-Century Studies” at UCLA in honor of Felicity Nussbaum. I want to thank those who gave feedback on those occasions in addition to Karen Engle and Charlotte Sussman for their input, Kathryn Desplanque for her work on the images, and Heidi Silcox for her work on the references.
1. See, for example, Mark Molesky, The Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason (New York: Knopf, 2015).
2. Srinivas Aravamudan, “The Return of Anachronism,” Modern Language Quarterly 62.4 (2001): 331–53.
3. See Voltaire’s “Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne” (English title: Poem on the Lisbon Disaster). Voltaire, “The Lisbon Earthquake,” in Candide, or Optimism, translator Tobias Smollett (London: Penguin Books, 2005). See also Immanuel Kant, “General Natural History and Theory of the Celestial Bodies; or an Attempt to Account for the Constitution and the Mechanical Origin of the Universe upon Newtonian Principles.” (1755).
4. Catherine Malabou, Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality trans. Carolyn Shread (Cambridge: Polity, 2016).
5. See Fredric Jameson’s quip on this form of apocalyptic thinking and its relation to capitalism in “Future City,” New Left Review 21 (May–June 2003): 12.
6. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, Réflexions sur la sobriété des habitants de Rome comparée à l’intempérance des anciens Romains, and L’Esprit des Lois (1748), books XIV–XVII; Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Des Époques de la nature (1784).
7. Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1948), 4.
8. Following Vico, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is divided into parts as ages; however, Joyce adds a fourth to Vico’s three. See James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1939).
9. Vico, The New Science, 146.
10. Vico, The New Science, 90.
11. Vico, The New Science, 143.
12. Vico, The New Science, 146.
13. Vico, The New Science, 147.
14. Giuseppe Mazzotta, New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Princeton Univ. Press, 1999).
15. The term Anthropocene was originally coined by the ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer in Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stormer, “The Anthropocene.” Global Change Magazine 41 (2000): 17–18 to refer to a new geological period, beginning in the late eighteenth century, that marks irreversible and catastrophic human impact on the global climate. Critical disagreement over this phenomenon centers on the date of onset. For example, Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin in “Defining the Anthropocene,” Nature 7542 (2015): 171–80 position the origin firmly at 1610. Conversely, Jan Zalasiewicz, et al. in “When Did the Anthropocene Begin? A Mid-Twentieth Century Boundary Level Is Stratigraphically Optical” Quaternary International 383 (2015): 196–203 claim a start date of 1950. The implications of this phenomenon are also hotly debated. For example, Timothy Clark in Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) argues that the Anthropocene is merely an “overview effect” that places new demands on culture, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy, and politics.
16. Vico, The New Science, 11–12.
17. Vico, The New Science, 27–29.
18. Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, 4 vols (London: John Murray, 1835), I:223, 239. Lyell argued that the Earth’s features are produced by physical, chemical, and biological processes spanning long periods of geological time.
19. Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 36.8 (2007): 614–21.
20. Hayden White, Giambattista Vico; An International Symposium, ed. Giorgio Tagliacozzo and Hayden White (Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1969), 67.
21. Vico, The New Science, 39.
22. Vico, The New Science, 129.
23. David Bidney, “Vico’s New Science of Myth,” in Giambattista Vico: An International Symposium, 269.
24. Vico, The New Science, 182.
25. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), 231.
26. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 234.
27. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 237.
28. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 246–63.
29. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 280.
30. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 280.
31. Benoît de Maillet, Telliamed, or conversations between an Indian philosopher and a French missionary on the diminution of the sea, trans. and ed. Albert V. Carozzi (Urbana, Chicago & London: University of Illinois Press, 1968).
32. Vico, The New Science, 223.
33. See Jean Chassanion de Monistrol, De gigantibus eorumque reliquiis, ac de his hominibus qui prodigiosis viribus ad gigantûm naturam proximè videntur accedere : vbi etiam Ioan. Goropij error perstringitur, qui in sua gigantomachia nulla gigantum corpora tanta, quanta dicuntur fuiste, affirmat (Spirae: Typis Bernardi Albini, an. 1587); François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Thomas Urquhart and Peter Anthony Motteux (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2016); Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages trans. Victor Gourevitch, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997).
34. Vico, The New Science, 149.
36. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 59.
37. Derek Woods, “Scale Critique for the Anthropocene,” Minnesota Review 83 (2014): 133–42.
38. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Harvard: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993).
39. Vico, The New Science, 160.
40. Vico, The New Science, 79.
41. Srinivas Aravamudan, “The Catachronism of Climate Change.” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 41.3 (2013): 6–30.
43. To gloss Vico through Dipesh Chakrabarty, we need Spinoza’s version of globalism to function as History I, and Vico’s earthly and cultural grounding in philology to be the Heideggerian time-lag of History II. But if Althusserian Marxism wanted History II to pull itself up by its bootstraps and follow History I, Vichian Marxism would like History I to correct itself in relation to History II. There is a dialectic we can establish between the political humanism and the technoeconomism rather than forcing a choice in the playing out of the script. For the distinction between History I and History II, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe:Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2007).
44. Mark McGurl, “The Posthuman Comedy,” Critical Inquiry 38 (2012): 533–53.
45. Hayden White, Giambattista Vico; An International Symposium, 63.