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  • How Does It Feel to Be an Oil Spill?
  • Sara Mameni (bio)

Oil, coal and gas are the by-products of the tears of dead forests.

—Raqs Media Collective1

The recent designation of our epoch as the Anthropocene comes out of a desire to acknowledge the effects of human industry on the earth's ecosystem. The concept of the Anthropocene, initially proposed by the atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen and marine biologist Eugene Stoermer, holds that collective human industry on the planet must be recognized as having a lasting geological effect. As Dipesh Chakrabarty explains it, "Now that humans—thanks to our numbers, the burning of fossil fuels, and other related activities—have become a geological agent on the planet, some scientists have proposed that we recognize the beginning of a new geological era, one in which humans act as a main determinant of the environmental planet."2 As the "anthropos" portion of the term Anthropocene clearly suggests, this new geological era perceives of the anthropos—the human—as a geological force. It proposes that humans, as a collective, have had a lasting effect on the material makeup of the planet and are active agents in the future form of its biosphere.

While the scientific notion of the Anthropocene centers the human as an agent of this new geological era, it is unclear who this human is and how it is defined. Humanities scholars have long been interested in how the human is produced, understood, imagined, and categorized across disciplines. The Anthropocene is an era in which the human species is understood to act as a geological force and requires that we imagine humans to behave like glaciers, earthquakes, wildfires and oil spills. [End Page 82] The notion of the Anthropocene proposes that we think humanity as a collective species across historical times and geographical regions so as to contextualize localized activities on a larger planetary scale. As the philosopher Catherine Malabou has recently noted, the main philosophical problem we face when we think about the Anthropocene is precisely this question of imagining ourselves as both individual living beings and as collective geological agents across time.3 In other words, if we are to truly engage with the concept of the Anthropocene, we have to ask, How does it feel to be an oil spill? Can we sense our bodies shifting weather patterns, contributing to the rising of sea levels, or reducing biodiversity on a mass scale? Can we understand the entanglements of our bodies with geological phenomena?

Within my discipline of art history, there are two important ways in which the human comes to be known. First, we might argue that art objects, or more properly artifacts layered into the earth's crust, are the domain of art historical and archeological knowledge through which the presence of the human is surmised. The Anthropocene relies on the definition of such traces of human industry, activity, and presence deposited into the planet. Such traces are what produce the human within the historical record. The historian Daniel Lord Smail suggests that human history is recorded not only through written documents but also through "artifacts, fossils, vegetable remains, phonemes and various forms of modern DNA."4 Through the analysis of artifacts and their entanglement with other carnal and vegetal remains, art historians and archeologists directly contribute to, if not actively construct, how we define the category of the human.

Second, aesthetic theory has been the domain of the delineation of the human through the capacity for aesthetic judgment since the discipline's inception in the works of Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, and Edmund Burke. In her reading of Kant's Critique of Judgment, Gayatri Spivak argues that the ability for aesthetic judgment is how one is initiated into humanity.5 Analyzing Kant's reference to "the New Hollanders or the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego," Spivak argues that the human is not an accessible category for all but is racially specific and by definition limited to European men. "The project of initiation into humanity," she writes, "is the project of culture (with that unacknowledged provision for limited access for the non- European)."6 Within Enlightenment thought, aesthetic judgment...


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pp. 82-94
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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