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  • Being against the Anthropocene
  • Saswat Samay Das (bio), Snigdha Mondal (bio), and Deepak Mathew (bio)
Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today, by T. J. Demos, Berlin: Sternberg, 2017, 132 pages, $20.90 (paperback), ISBN 978-3956792106

In this book T. J. Demos, professor of art history and visual culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz, characterizes the Anthropocene as an abstract concept that offers a reductive approach to understanding humanity. As Demos makes evident, the label Anthropocene seems to be a manipulative construct of capitalism designed to assimilate, control, and mask the differential nature of humanity. In contrast, Demos, an art historian and cultural critic, depicts humanity as a vibrating field of differences that is reluctant to express itself as oneness. Through this insistence Demos enables us to see how capitalist interests appropriate the universalizing logic of the Anthropocene to blame humanity in its entirety as responsible for environmental devastation brought about by the capitalists, the corporations, and the petrochemical industries. According to Demos, it is necessary to resist obscuring corporate accountability by partaking in an overarching narrative like the Anthropocene that posits contemporary naturalization of the consumerist human activity as sole perpetrator of environmental degradation. Instead, we must give attention to environ-mental activists and powerless communities that fight against, or stand as victims of environmental degradation, and in the process make anthropocentrism untenable.

In the first two chapters of his book, Demos throws light on capitalist stratagems that keep the concept of the Anthropocene afloat. He shows how capitalism uses satellite-guided images of ecodestructive human activities to implicate the whole of humanity. These images provide the foundation for [End Page 412] Demos's central argument, that the primary axiom of his book is to show how

the Anthropocene rhetoric—joining images and texts—frequently acts as mechanisms of universalization, albeit complexly mediated and distributed among various agents, which enables the military-state-corporate apparatus to disavow responsibility for the differentiated impacts of climate change, effectively obscur ing the accountability behind the mounting eco-catastrophe and inadvertently making us all complicit in its destructive project.


Demos argues that, though images of ecological devastation do manifest human potential to cause ecological catastrophe, there is even greater necessity to put the spotlight on the activities of corporate industries that use Anthropocene narratives as a smokescreen to camouflage their accountability. The immediate consequence of this failure to hold petrocapitalism accountable manifests in how capitalism manipulates Anthropocene narratives to sell geoengineering as an effective means of addressing ecological devastation. For Demos, therefore, geoengineering serves as a technoscientific eyewash for continuing business as usual and profit making rather than fighting climate change.

These themes are revisited in chapter 4, "Capitalocene Violence," where Demos again exposes how certain artistic visualizations work as allies of capitalocentric governance and lend credibility to the Anthropocene, which petrocapitalism uses as a distractive mechanism to avert attention from the workings of capitalist industries. To validate his point Demos turns his attention to Edward Burtynsky's Oil Fields photographic series to show how, instead of capturing the nuances of capitalistic violence, these images pro-vide forensic insight into consumer-based participation in the profit-making maneuverers of oil industries and defamiliarizes human agency to the point of making us question its potential to do good. Demos subsequently contrasts such visualizations with those that depict the Capitalocene violence in all its brutality, such as Richard Misrach and Kate Orff's project Petrochemical America. Demos argues that the project "rejects the Anthropocene's terminological obfuscations and disavowals of culpability. It shows its on-the-ground environmental and human costs" (71). Misrach's photo feature of the 150-mile "petrolized" landscapes of the Mississippi River, which has become "Cancer Alley" and therefore largely abandoned, and Orff's accompanying Ecological Atlas, which maps the cancerous chemical wastes and links them to the vanishing people, animals, reptiles, and ecosystems, encapsulate the degree of environmental degradation petrocapitalists leave behind in their pursuit of profits.

Demos dwells on how the Anthropocene posits equal distribution of human agency as a natural phenomenon that implicates each of us in the creation of ecological disaster. However, he points out that lived experience shows asymmetrical distribution of...


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pp. 412-414
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