- The Anthropocene and Elemental Multiplicity
Our hope in the present essay is to provide a figure for thought in response to what Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer first named “the Anthropocene,” Our interest is not in providing a substitute for this concept, but in offering an alternative way of approaching the vast political-ecological work currently being attributed to it. We want to question the images of impending global catastrophe,1 the glorifications of human abilities to overcome such quasi-apocalyptic conditions, and the ironic celebrations of our ‘natural’ resilience and technological prowess that are woven through the calls to responsibility and action which characterize Anthropocene discourse.
We draw our approach from a critical reading of the work of Luce Irigaray. Irigaray’s project is part of a genealogy of feminist thought that predates the emergence of Anthropocene discourse and offers a sustained critique of the concepts of both Nature and Man.2 We share serious concerns about the limitations of Irigaray’s project with regard to race and heteronormativity.3 However, we find her work helpful because of the way it combines two key strands: first, a critique of what she calls the hom(m)ogeriizing logic of the One, whose refusal of difference(s) is as much an ecological as it is a political disaster; and second, a critical analysis of the hylomorphism which, she argues, has informed western conceptions of political life and of the larger ecological life of which the political is a part.
According to this hylomorphic logic, a particular sense of “hyle” (matter) is opposed and subordinated to a particular sense of “morphe” (form). Irigaray shows how the ecological consequences of this logic, in terms of its constitutive devaluation of the matter of the earth,4 are inseparable from its political implications: those bodies identified with the inertness or passivity of matter are subordinated to the needs, lives, and energies of those identified with the liveliness of immaterial forms. And yet, it is not only specific bodies, but the irreducible non-identity of bodies as well as their constitutive and multiple dependencies which western cultures have often violently suppressed. It is the combination of Irigaray’s critical attentiveness to hylomorphism and the colonizing logic of the One that allows her to work towards a rethinking of bodily matters that is attentive to lively differences and relational dependencies as well as to the ways in which those differences and dependencies are appropriated and exploited.
In this paper, we deploy a perspective inspired partly by Irigaray to identify the legacy of these appropriative, hylomorphic logics within Anthropocene discourse. In particular we build on Irigaray’s interest in the elements as figures for thought that condense her simultaneous rethinking of matter and difference. While wary of the potentially foundational [End Page 61] resonances of any appeal to the elemental, we seek to develop an anti-foundational concept of elemental multiplicity.5 We read Irigaray as offering a thoroughly non-essentializing account of earthly materialities as irreducible differences. The potential of this account is limited by her increasing emphasis on sexual difference as ‘only’ rather than ‘at least’ two:6 it is here that a potentially re-founding logic needs to be resisted. Our concern, then, is to pursue a conception of elemental difference that is drawn from Irigaray, yet also works against some of her own commitments, as one possible figure for the earthly relations that the concept of the Anthropocene simultaneously foregrounds and obscures.
The Human According to the Anthropocene
The figure of the Anthropocene was first expressed in two short essays by Nobel-prize inning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist E.F. Stoermer.7 The first, simply entitled “The ‘Anthropocene’,” lists a number of scientists beginning in 1864 who were interested in studying the “earth as modified by human action.” In 1873, geologist and priest Antonio Stoppani speaks of a current “anthropozoic era.” And in 1924 Teilhard de Chardin and E. Le Roy identified the “growing role played by mankind’s brainpower and technological talents in shaping its own future and environment” as establishing, a “noosphere,” a world of consciousness working its power over matter...