- Worlding and Unworlding in the Long Eighteenth Century
Grand narratives are back. Some of them, like the story of Capital's global spread, are now linked to questions of "world literature," or conscripted by social scientists for a longer view on problems like growing economic inequality. But the grand narrative about our impending planetary and species demise, our entry into the Anthropocene age, has made the projections of the crisis or demise of capitalism into a smaller story within a larger one. Historians like Dipesh Chakravarty have called for disciplinary overhauls so that our thinking for the times revisions modern human history as belonging to two histories at once: the "short-term history of the industrial way of life" and the "much longer-term evolutionary or deep history of our species."1 The Anthropogenic narrative is still seeking philosophical inspiration and historical certainty even though the scientists are already on board. But as this narrative continues to get traction in the Humanities, it may be worth considering how historical periods like the eighteenth century or the historical chapter we call the "Age of European Empires" fit into this longer story.
In a special issue of the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies on "Humans and the Environment," J.R. McNeill points out that while the industrial "Great Acceleration," or late Anthropocene, began in the eighteenth century, any talk of an "early Anthropocene" that accounts for agricultural impact on the environment takes the concept "out of the realm of the humanities entirely."2 However, two notions, that the period is the home for the later epoch's beginnings and that climate-induced ecological change is recorded in the early-modern world, have lent traction to recent work in eighteenth-century studies. There have been in-house criticisms too. In his 2016 Presidential address to the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the late Srinivas Aravamudan questioned the An [End Page 27] thropocene's hurry to create yet another world with humanity as a natural unity, as opposed to a historical conception of humanity as internally differentiated. For Aravamudan, the eighteenth century's anachronistic capacity for imagining such an internally differentiated history is why a figure like the Enlightenment philosopher and rhetorician Giambattista Vico is truly our contemporary in terms of his "uncannily humanistic—and partly posthuman—philosophy of history."3 Vico, whose exorbitant work was largely rejected by Enlightenment Science, is now an enabling anachronism, providing concepts like deep time, or historical scales bigger than those provided by human history, non-human histories, and historical cycles that mirror the planet's own massive bio-geo-chemical cycles. Vico is part of the Enlightenment's counter-current.
In the mainstream, however, the long eighteenth century is the age of the world becoming picture. It is this confluence of thought where the world is imagined both as an object of conquest and as the object of scientific research that we see in Martin Heidegger's 1938 essay, "The Age of the World Picture." In this essay, Heidegger tells us that "the more extensively and the more effectually the world stands at man's disposal as conquered, and the more objectively the object appears . . . all the more impetuously, too, do observation and teaching about the world change into a doctrine of man, into anthropology. It is no wonder that humanism first arises when the world becomes picture" (133).4 For Heidegger, the fact of the world becoming picture (a re-presentation for man) distinguishes the essence of the modern age. However, he does not notice that all the activity involving "observation and teaching about the world" gave some people history but other people only anthropology. Nor does Heidegger recognize that the "doctrine of man" would expand to formulate universal principles in the open-ended procedures of Science, but then exclude systematically the very beings included in the sample. Thus, it is important that as we think of the Anthropocene as the consequence of the world-becoming-picture (or object), we also note that becoming picture for the humanist subject coincided with the devastation of other worlds, and that the world itself was staged through constitutive exclusions. The humanist subject, for whom the world...