by Jesse Oak Taylor
This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.
One of the questions that arose at the V21 Symposium on “Presentism, Form, and the Future of History” was what the “V” actually means. What, if anything is distinctive about the “Victorian” era, especially if one expands the purview beyond the literary and historical culture of a single nation? With this question in mind, the stratigraphic debate over the Anthropocene makes interesting reading because it opens into a world of planetary synchronization in which the Victorian past becomes not merely proximate but densely, literally, atmospherically, and combustively present in the substance of a shared geological moment.
The Anthropocene concept has generated a great deal of discussion in the humanities, much of it around the definition of its titular agent, though scholars have also taken up the implications of different proposed dates: 1784, with James Watt’s steam engine and the shift to fossil fuels; 1945, with the nuclear tests and beginning of the “Great Acceleration” in population growth and fossil fuel use; 1610, with the conquest of the Americas and the “Columbian Exchange” of biota between the Old World and the New, coupled with the deaths of 50 million Native Americans in a dying so great it is legible in polar ice core data—just to name the most prominent candidates (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000; Lewis and Maslin 2015; Zalasiewicz et al 2015).
The dating question may be particularly compelling to humanists because of the way that it echoes debates about periodization within our own disciplines while at the same time reinvigorating and reanimating contemporary interest in particular historical moments. For example, Steve Mentz (2015) notes, “the earlier date catches this Shakespeare professor’s eye: 1610 is three years after the founding of the Jamestown colony and one year before the first staging of The Tempest. Amid the glories of the English Renaissance sits an ecological spike. When Sir Walter Raleigh graced Queen Elizabeth’s court and Shakespeare’s dramas were first played, our Anthropocene nightmare began.” Such intersections reveal a widespread pattern of coincidence in Anthropocene history. The invention of the steam engine coincides with the formulation of the geologic record and the science of stratigraphy itself in the work of James Hutton and Charles Lyell, Thus, dating the Anthropocene to the Industrial Revolution means that there has never been a scientifically articulated geologic record without the human species operating as an agent within that record. In other words, the science of stratigraphy itself becomes coincident with the Anthropocene. These alignments are so pervasive in Anthropocene history that I am increasingly unsatisfied with viewing them as coincidences, but rather suggest that they be read as symptoms, subjective, partial glimpses into the Anthropocene’s emergence.
In this brief paper, I hypothesize that these points of coincidence, or systemic convergence, between the Anthropocene as material condition and the epistemological categories within which it registers, are manifestations of the global synchrony that is an integral feature of the Anthropocene as an enfolding of human history within geophysical processes. The Anthropocene challenges us to track such moments of synchronization, situating acts of interpretation within myriad, intersecting Earth Systems from the biosphere and atmosphere to global capitalism and world literature. The Anthropocene concept is rooted in Earth Systems science, which is to say the study of the Earth as a whole, as single system. This feature is sometimes elided in the Anthropocene concept’s transfer to the humanities, where “geologic agency” or “species being” have attracted more commentary than questions of scale and system (for example, see the emphasis on geologic agency in Chakrabarty 2009). In the stratigraphic debate, the question of planetary scale surfaces in the requirement that the trace marking the entrance to the Anthropocene must be globally synchronous. As the members of the Anthropocene Working Group responsible for proposing a formal designation for the epoch explain, “In defining any unit within the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, perhaps the most important single aspect is the fixing of its boundary (by convention, its lower boundary within strata, or its beginning within time) so that it provides, as far as is possible, a synchronous and effectively correlatable level within strata worldwide” (Zalasiewicz et al 197). To qualify for a GSSP (Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point), or “Golden Spike,” the trace in question must speak to a shift in the Earth System that is true everywhere, rather than occurring at a single point and then spreading outward. This stipulation is counterintuitive because it seems to redefine the very notion of an “event,” which is usually locatable by it specificity in time and space. How can something occur everywhere at once?
One answer is atmospheric. The Anthropocene is a lithic inscription, a tale of stone combusted into atmosphere and atmosphere condensed back into stone. The dispersive, circulatory quality of the atmosphere, coupled with the fact that there is only one (since its earliest usage the term has referred to the gaseous envelope surrounding a planet or other heavenly body) mean that atmospheric dispersal becomes the vehicle for an event’s global reach. The eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815 ostensibly occurred in Indonesia, but it also occurred everywhere and remains inscribed in such works as Byron’s “Darkness” and Shelley’s Frankenstein (Wood 2014). The volcanoes of industrial production first erupted in Northern England in the 18th century, but their traces are also legible in Antarctic ice cores. The vaporous quality of industrial capitalism as it annihilates space and transforms solidity into air also entwines it within planetary processes from the moment of its inception (Menely 2014; Moore 2015 169-92; Taylor 2016).
Another answer is compression. The Anthropocene is a lithic inscription, a tale of life compressed into stone, combusted into atmosphere, and then re-compressed into the stratigraphic record where it becomes a trace legible only in distinction from the strata that surround it. Despite the fact that the Anthropocene working group is struggling to follow standard stratigraphic procedure in weighing the evidence of the Anthropocene against that of other epochs, a crucial difference remains: the duration of the “event” itself. Part of what enables global synchrony within the stratigraphic record is the vast timescales compressed therein. As the Working Group notes, “in the Cambrian example, there was a wide choice of candidate indicators spanning a range of ~15 million years” (Zalasiewicz et al 198). To distinguish between 1784 and 1945 in stratigraphic terms is thus to parse a difference so infinitesimal that it would not ordinarily register as a difference at all. It may well be true that “it was from the mid-20th century that the worldwide impact of the accelerating Industrial Revolution became both global and near-synchronous” (Zalasiewicz et al 201). However, rather than attempting to decide between the Industrial Revolution and the Great Acceleration, it seems to me more productive to consider both within a single, synchronous event that marks the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene based a sudden, unprecedented vaporization of subterranean carbon stores into Earth’s atmosphere.
Like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, the stratigraphers of the distant future might well perceive the fossil fuel era as a single catastrophic stratum rather than a string of discernable events. This is a profoundly anti-humanist vision of history, perhaps even more so than the stratigraphic debate itself acknowledges, in because the anthropos in question is not exclusively “human” but rather a vast, multi-species, multi-substance assemblage made up of coal, capital, human labor, atmospheric dynamics, and sedimentary processes. Even more troublingly, the timescales on which it operates obliterate not only individual humans but also the kinds of social, national, and class differences that are usually the stuff of historical inquiry. However, it also potentially unleashes a different way of thinking about our relation to the past, or at least to certain parts of it—say, the “V” in V21—because in a profoundly literal sense they cease to be past, but are instead compressed into the present, much the way fossil fuel combustion lies at the prehistoric heart of modernity. In the Anthropocene, we and the Victorians become contemporaries. As Jeffery Jerome Cohen argues, “the lithic thickens time into multiple, densely sedimented, and combustively coincident temporalities” (78). Events that seem isolated from one another because they are occurring in different realms of inquiry or action—geology and the steam engine; the Columbian Exchange and The Tempest; nuclear testing and The Lord of the Rings; cybernetics and climate modeling—are in fact bound up in the same processes, inhabiting the same atmosphere, mining the same rocks and ultimately inscribed within the same globally synchronous event that we now know as the emergence of the Anthropocene.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35 no., 2: 197-222.
Cohen, Jeffery Jerome. 2015. Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Crutzen, Paul and Eugene F. Stoermer. 2000. “The Anthropocene” IGBP Newsletter 41: 17-18.
Lewis, Simon L. and Mark A. Maslin. 2015. “Defining the Anthropocene.” Nature 519: 171-180.
Menely, Tobias. 2014. “Anthropocene Air.” the minnesota review 83: 93-101.
Mentz, Steve. 2015. “Enter the Anthropocene, c. 1610.” Glasgow Review of Books, 27 Sept. Online. https://glasgowreviewofbooks.com/2015/09/27/enter-anthropocene-c-1610/
Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life. New York: Verso.
Taylor, Jesse Oak. The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Wood, Gillen D’Arcy. 2014. Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Zalasiewicz et al, Jan. 2015. “When Did the Anthropocene Begin? A Mid Twentieth Century Boundary is Stratigraphically Optimal” Quaternary International 383: 196-203
Jesse Oak Taylor is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Washington, and the author of The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf (2016). He is currently at work on a book on the Anthropocene as a challenge to the humanities, as well as co-editing (with Tobias Menely) a collection of essays under the title Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times (forthcoming 2017).