In a seminal essay of 2009, in which he hypothesizes how historical thinking might adapt to the era of climate change, Dipesh Chakrabarty provides a useful overview of what is now being commonly labelled in academic discourses and cultural practices as the “Anthropocene”. The Anthropocene describes the conceptualization of humans, collectively, as not just biological agents but as possessing geological force or agency (Chakrabarty 2009, 200-201, 206-7). That agency can be dated to the inception of the industrial revolution but has had greatest impact in the second half of the twentieth century. It is from the eighteenth century that humanity’s interaction with nature has been superseded by the actualization of humanity as a force of nature (Ibid., 207), particularly when the consumption of renewable sources of fuel (wood) gave way to the large-scale use of fossil fuels (coal from the 1750s, oil and gas from the twentieth century). As Chakrabarty recounts, the increase in carbon-dioxide emissions through the burning of fossil fuels and its effects of global warming, which has left a geological record as shown by polar ice core samples that date from the mid-to-late-eighteenth century, has prompted Paul J. Crutzen (2000) and Eugene F. Stoermer (2002) to identify the end of the previous geological epoch, the Holocene, the warmer period of 10-12 millennia that succeeded the ice age of the Pleistocene. Crutzen and Stoermer have identified the Anthropocene, as succeeding the Holocene, as a new era of anthropogenic climate change, the geological evidence for which dates back to James Watts’ invention of the steam engine in 1784.
How, then, might the study of cultural memory be reconceptualized and recalibrated in the era of the Anthropocene? If cultural memory studies seeks to theorize remembrance in this era, what is it that is being remembered in the first place, and how might the object of remembrance be delimited? What are its temporal and spatial parameters, and therefore what are the scales of remembrance? That climate changes is nothing new, as geological history demonstrates, but what is key here is the way that atmospheric changes, brought about by industrial emissions, alter the planet’s ability to sustain life across human and non-human worlds – a problem compounded by contamination of the biosphere and the depletion of its life-sustaining resources. The objects of memory might range from the environments and their ecologies that have been and will be degraded, the life, be it human and non-human, and ways of life, that are no longer sustainable – and the more immediate trauma of sudden environmental catastrophes (the cumulative effects of longer-term causes) and their social impacts.
As Jennifer C. James (2011) argues, the lost object cannot be restored, making traditional models of mourning inappropriate. Where mourning is based on a “renewable” economy, the attachment to the lost object is relinquished, a normative, individuated ego is restituted, available for new libidinal attachments to replacement objects. In an ecological context, the lost objects depleted or degraded are not renewable, and, as James points out, mourning them would imply that “scarcity mitigates loss” (167) or that loss can be sustained or managed. For James, “ecomelancholia’s historical and memorial disposition defends against mourning’s call to prematurely forget. It responds to the cumulative losses of nature, land, resources, and to traumas tied to those losses, such as death deracination, and dispossession; it is activated by ongoing and interrelated social and political violence, including the catastrophes of war, genocide and poverty [… and] refuses to take consolation in fantasies of rectification while destruction occurs unabated” (167). What is more, “the ecomelancholic quest to be like the love object, to de-individuate, is the desire which undoes the self-other splitting created in violence” (Ibid.). James identifies the inter-relation of human and non-human devastation (the imbrication of social and natural catastrophes), the ways in which the valency of a melancholic stance can disrupt economies of the mournful forgetting and renewal of that which has been lost, and also the ways in which the refusal of detachment gestures towards subject formations that do not claim environmental or ecological sovereignty.
James identifies psychic and capitalist economies of sustainable loss and postulates a melancholy stance against them, but to what extent are melancholia and mourning extricable in this context, and the latter oppositional? Chakrabarty is useful here in allowing us to think historically the co-presence of the capitalist and the environmental past and future. A critical analysis of global capitalism, a system inextricable from the epoch of the Anthropocene, given its industrial history – an epoch in which environmental catastrophe accentuates the inequalities of that system – will insufficiently address the causes and effects of the Anthropocene (Chakrabarty 2009, 211-212). Such a critique risks reducing the Anthropocene to a “crisis of capitalist management” (212), a matter of sustainability and the mitigation of ongoing loss. The Anthropocene designates an entanglement of human and natural history that will, along with the critical climate conditions it explains, outlive the current phase of global capitalism and its subsequent modulations or variations (212). A deeper sense of history (that extends beyond humanity’s chronicling of itself) allows the differentiation of the Anthropocene from the warming of the climate during the Holocene and so the identification of the threshold for conditions under which human life flourishes – conditions which of course predate capitalism and industrialization. A deeper sense of history also identifies the conditions under which life becomes precarious, in the past, present and in the future (213, 217). Put otherwise, a deeper sense of history allows the consequences of climate change to be mapped: the “ensuing crisis for humans is not understandable unless one works out the consequences of that warming” (213). While existing critiques of global capitalism can historicize the precarity of scenarios of inequitable life, they do not, argues Chakrabarty, have the temporal reach to think about the survival of life per se. They are not calibrated to think in terms of the duration (or not) of the human species (213). The Anthropocene necessitates thinking together “the planetary and the global; deep and recorded histories; species thinking and critiques of capital” (213). This is not to say that humanity is homogenized and essentialized by species thinking. Rather, species thinking can be characterized as a historical self-consciousness of (differentiated) species and its place in a wider and deeper, planetary history and possible future – “a shared catastrophe that we have all fallen into” (214-16, 218). With the “postcolonial suspicion of the universal” in mind, the historicization of the Anthropocene and the “crisis of climate change [call] for thinking simultaneously on both registers, to mix together the immiscible chronologies of capital and species history”. This combination, however, stretches, in quite fundamental ways, the very idea of historical understanding:
Species may indeed be the name of a placeholder for an emergent, new universal history of humans that flashes up in the moment of the danger that is climate change. But we can never understand this universal. It is not a Hegelian universal arising dialectically out of the movement of history, or a universal of capital brought forth by the present crisis [but…] a figure of the universal that escapes our capacity to experience the world. It is more like a universal that arises from a shared sense of a catastrophe. It calls for a global approach to politics without the myth of a global identity, for, unlike a Hegelian universal, it cannot subsume particularities. (Chakrabarty 2009, 221-2)
Chakrabarty’s hypothesis informs the ways in which memory studies might think across time, temporalizing the objects of remembrance – along interconnecting lines of species and capitalism. Where “species” can index the temporal horizons of existence (and extinction), where it serves as a “placeholder” for humanity’s biospheric situation, and where it does not homogenize the experience of the species (except under the general conditions of catastrophe), “species” might still indicate a problematic humanism.
For Tom Cohen (2012) this is precisely the problem with “mourning theory” (in other words, memory studies) in the era of climate change. “Mourning theory” is underpinned by what Cohen, in a rather bold and general critique, considers to be the reterritorializing logic of critical theory. Theory recuperates and reinscribes “homelands”, both in the political sense and in “the epistemological sense of being secure in our modes of cognition” (Cohen 2012, 15). Theory’s preoccupation with the “defense of cultures, affects, bodies and others” secures, he argues, spurious humanist grounds for thinking, which means deferring addressing “biospheric collapse, mass extinction events, or the implications of resource wars and ‘population’ culling” (15-17). In essence, Cohen’s critique is of Theory’s failure to think ecologically and to apprehend the imbrication of human and nonhuman worlds. So, Theory’s apprehension of difference is in human form, not only circumscribing human life but also the territories humans populate. Theory is then implicated in the maintenance of material and political territories. What Cohen describes as “mourning theory” is particularly implicated, as it reinforces the humanist frame through which life is symbolically reconstituted by the work of memory. Theory’s humanist “enclosures” do not equip it to apprehend and track a “new space of referents”: the multiscalar dynamics of climate change and environmental degradation that are unfolding across time and space, life and matter in predictable, unpredictable and mutating ways (17-18, 21). Here Jane Bennett’s theory of “vibrant materialism” (2010) is useful in its identification of “the capacity of things […] to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own”, which means the “locus of agency is always a human-nonhuman working group”, an ad hoc “assemblage”, and that causality is more “emergent than efficient, more fractal than linear” (ix-xvii, 23-37). Therefore memory studies must resist grounding the memory of environmental damage or devastation, delimiting, as James would argue, the degraded as a discrete, lost and static object to be reconstituted and restored through remembrance. Rather, memory studies must track emergent causalities and ad hoc assemblages of agentic matter of a changing climate.
What forms might cultural memory studies take, if it is to think backwards and forwards in time with Chakrabarty, and expansively across spatial, let alone social and cultural, boundaries not respected by the planetary systems of critical environmental change? Ursula Heise (2008) might suggest “the eco-cosmopolitan” literary narrative of risk as a form that can register, and indeed remember, “species” and “capital” as they unfold unevenly and ecologically across time and space. Heise finds in deterritorialized and mobile globalized culture the capacity to represent “how political, economic, technological, social, cultural, and ecological networks shape daily routines” and local experiences. In other words, how a sense (and the actuality) of place is mediated by a sense (and the actuality) of the “planetary”. In that deterritorialization lies the potential for an “environmental ethics” and an “ecological consciousness”. Put otherwise, this is a matter of scale, the cognition of which enables “more nuanced understanding of how both local cultural and ecological systems are imbricated in global ones”, informing an “environmentally orientated cosmopolitanism”, an “eco-cosmopolitanism” (Heise 2008, 55, 59). In exploring what cultural forms enable communities to see their relation to a “planetary community”, Heise focuses on the potential of literary narratives to convey an eco-cosmopolitanism through literature’s engagement with the perception and actuality of risk. To be more precise, it is the risk of environmental catastrophe, although differentially distributed across the planet, always culturally mediated and experienced in different ways and to different degrees, that registers the potential precariousness of living in the Anthropocene. Indeed, Heise’s concept of eco-cosmopolitanism could easily describe the growing genre of climate change fiction and its imagination of apocalyptic near-future worlds in which ecological change and/or collapse is managed, mitigated or surrendered to, where fossil fuels are depleted, where different social configurations and ways of life to those organized by a once-fossil-fuelled capitalism are suggested, where different relations to resources are considered or different resources and forms of energy are used. It is the future anterior of such narratives that stages the cultural remembrance of the anthropogenesis of current environmental condition lived in these novels, causes of the current condition in which the readers of these novels are implicated.