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  • Life-Stories:How to Write Remains
  • James Dutton (bio)

I'll begin with a broad—possibly the broadest—question: what remains? More interestingly, however, the reply should come: what doesn't? The so-called Anthropocene era foregrounds these questions not only in theory and criticism and whatever we do in "Humanities" departments, but as a central concern of "human" culture and politics. From the broad temporality that this era forces us to make sense of, our existence is surely dependent only on what it leaves behind. That is, it forces us to imagine our lives as the marks, remains and impacts we have left upon the Earth, without "our" influence to define exactly what was meant by these marks. Our existence becomes radically deictic. But has this not always been the case, via the archival structure of cultures reliant on inscription? Claire Colebrook, one of the most prolific thinkers of the Anthropocene in the humanities, argues that what its hypothesis "promises" can never be fulfilled.

Inscription is non-biodegradable: the very techno-science and liberal-humanist archive that allows us to read the Anthropocene is also bound up with what the Anthropocene promises: there may well be no future, and there can certainly be no future for the private reading subject whose power has been generated from an earth that now is indelibly inscribed.

(Colebrook 2017b, 127)

All of the ways "we" make sense of the world emerge from this archive of inscriptions that spans, Colebrook suggests, "from Euclidean geometry to modern techno-science" (2017b, 127). It reads life from the marks it leaves behind, and thus, conflates the two. The Anthropocene "intensifies the Derridean concept of mal d'archive" (Colebrook 2014, 36) because it exemplifies this conflation, suggesting that the way we think of life—and its absence—is a matter of inscription. But by asserting that "human existence on the planet will be readable, after the nonexistence of humans" (Colebrook 2014, 34), it forces us to ask: readable for what, or whom? This question, the Anthropocene's most pressing one as I see it, upsets the "reality" of the world given to us by our archive. It is "indelibly inscribed" because, without these inscriptions, there would be no world—at least not a human world in the sense that "we" have come, through indelibly archival cultures, to understand it. [End Page 313] Every "private reading subject" that forges an identity does so by interpreting different cultural marks: each subject is individuated as such through the archive, and the power generated by it.1 "What has enabled what has come to be known as the Anthropocene is a recuperation, constantly, of inscription," Colebrook suggests (2017b, 132). It is, then, not human extinction per se that the Anthropocene portends, but rather the extinction of an archived, repeatable conception of "the human." Our fear is not for the future, but to be cut off from the archive that makes it possible.

Jacques Derrida's suggestion is that inscription has "now" become indelible because of the archival bent of modern cultures—particularly contemporary, hypomnesic cultures inflected by the "politics of memory." Here he cites national archives and their capture of state or collective memory, as well as the profusion and popularity of recording technologies (Derrida and Stiegler 2002, 62)—but we can also think of Colebrook's liberal-humanist traditions and techno-scientific development: all are "powered" by inscriptive and recording practices.2 In fact, one of his most influential late articles, "Biodegradables: Seven Diary Fragments" grapples throughout with applying the logic of "natural waste treatment" and "recycling, ecosystems, and so on" (1989, 813–14) to the generation of culture. He applies this logic to observe the different ways that textual meanings seep into cultural practice, and how individual identity is necessarily "annihilated" in this "nourishing" process (1989, 838). Inscriptions are the fuel that "powers" the future as they are "forgotten into" the archive—remains slowly disappear into culture as they become this archive that composts "living" identity as its culture-making energy-source. In turn, Derrida argues that the incessant desire for archivization comes from the ubiquity of the archive itself. The archive is exponential; it is self-propagating (at the...


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pp. 313-330
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