'Anthropocene Reviewed': Every Object is a Pathway

By Riccardo Biffi.


How many times in any given day does one stop in front of the random, most mundane object and reflect upon what it can tell us, ignoring pages of history, under the veil of our superficial glance? Almost never. Fortunately, we know we can go about our day minding just our own business, sealing every other non-priority aspect of our lives outside our stream of consciousness; living otherwise would bring on complete paralysis of our agency. But just like the sealing done through omnipresent plastic, that is the universal wall we use to efficiently part the continuum of nature, the mental one is artificial, of course very useful, yet unnatural – and it’s already biting back, as Heather Davis brilliantly explained showing this connection in a recent paper [1].

Luckily though, author John Green took in his hands the matter of contrasting the mindlessness of our daily commerce with everyday objects as he started Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where “we review different facets of the human-centred planet on a five-star scale”, bringing a touch of existential analysis to the critique of our current era. In each 15-to-20 minutes episode, two apparently innocuous objects are elected to get in the spotlight of our discourse to be explored, never dissected, but kindly narrated. They are chosen to be tested to see which reflections they can spin for the critical observer, what stories are hidden in their shadow, what memories they can evoke, and, most importantly, what meaning is to be attributed to the object in our current world. Any object from the Anthropocene and beyond can be up for the task: pineapples, Kentucky blue grass, Diet Dr Pepper, Taco Bell breakfast, the common Canadian goose or even CNN.


For instance, while reviewing Hawaiian pizza one cannot avoid seeing, behind the sweetness of the pineapple, the harsh realities of the colonial and then globalized world, which exploitations still brutally characterize our present, while at the same time recognizing the multilateral variations that cultural appropriations, with their light and shadows, bring around. This is why – states Green – “I find pineapple on pizza a bit overwhelming. Which, come to think, is also how I feel about the hyper-efficiency of the human-centred world that makes pineapple on pizza possible. It’s all more that I can effectively process. [...] It tastes a lot. A lot of sweet, a lot of acid, a lot of salt, a lot of savoury. I often feel like the way pineapple pizza tastes to me: like I don’t know if things are good or bad, but I know they are a lot”[2]. Isn’t this a full recognition of the paralyzing effect of the Anthropocene, once one tries to face its multiple-layered reality?


Or, on the same notes, the review of the Canadian goose, a species that went from near extinction to becoming a pest in some urban areas, can spin one of the most felt anthropocenic contradictions: “[...] you, as an individual, can’t do much about the Canada goose. And that seems to me one of the great weirdnesses of the Anthropocene: collectively, we have unprecedented power – for better or worse, land has become ours. It is ours to cultivate, to shape. It is even ours to protect. [...] Our species is shaping every aspect of life on Earth. But as an individual, I don’t feel that power. I can’t decide whether a species get to live or die: I can’t even get my kids to eat breakfast!”[3]


Once we stop, as Green does, and start observing, interrogating the multifaceted reality of the mundane ‘stuff’ that makes up our days, the objects that we mindlessly use rapidly transform into things that confront us, and that are to be attended to. Indeed, the whole point of the podcast’s monologues – and their success – revolves on this formula: by going beyond the superficial relation with an object as a mere means of utility, and by exposing instead its history, its different traditions, its life prior and post our use, the object becomes a beam of unknown hermeneutic possibilities, a powerful seed [4] that spreads a network of knowledge and understanding that can illuminate its place in the world and ours in the Anthropocene.


This effort is much needed, and still very creative, albeit not truly original. Indeed, ready-made art could come to mind, with its common consumer objects that, when elevated on the podium of the art institution, start looking down on us, holding a mirror on our habits and believes, thus requiring a conversation on their nature and their role in our world; or Anselm Franke’s invitation to resort to pop culture in art in order to “deal with these big questions in a non-depressive, but also non-affirmative way”[5].

Anyway, the methodology of Anthropocene Reviewed surely finds its closest intellectual relative in the later Bruno Latour, as he’s recently been inviting to move the critical scope from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’, from deconstruction of objects and practices to a more ‘constructive’ approach. In this renewed way, our objects cease to be simple matter of use and carelessness, and instead get transformed into things with agency of their own, possibilities, and more importantly become agents of gatherings – as Latour suggests, taking inspiration from Heidegger’s ontology. Indeed when we stop in front of an object and interrogate it (or better let it interrogate us), to see what it can bring to the table – which stories, diverse experiences, what scientific knowledge or poetry – as Green does in his podcast, we are gathering around it in conversation. Thus, according to Latour, the object metamorphizes into an agent, an actor among us and demands to spin the discourse, offering the grounds to do so. As a result, we “end up with an entirely different attitude than a critical one”[6], we step away from iconoclasm and instead ‘build up’ a “multifarious inquiry launched with the tools of anthropology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, sociology to detect how many participants are gathered in a thing to make it exist and to maintain its existence.”[7]


And in Anthropocene Reviewed John Green does just that, bringing Latour’s lesson into practice, uncovering the transformative power of the common object’s agency when elevated for us to talk about, or better, around. Indeed “the critic – to come full circle between Green’s brilliant podcast and Latour’s invite – is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. [...] The one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather”[8]. For this, I give Anthropocene Reviewed five stars out of five.

Notes


[1] Life and Death in the Anthropocene: a Short History of Plastic, in Art in the Anthropocene, H. Davies, E. Turpin, Oxford Humanities Press, London, 2015; p. 347

[2] Anthropocene Reviewed, ep. 5: Hawaiian Pizza and Viral Meningitis, J. Green, produced by R. H. Rojas, 2018

[3] Anthropocene Reviewed, ep. 1: Canada Goose and Diet Dr Pepper, J. Green, produced by R. H. Rojas, 2018

[4] A molecule in the movement of becoming, as in Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy; from Molecular Intimacy, Heater Davis, in Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary, edited by J. Graham, Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich, 2016, pg. 207

[5] The Fates of Negativity, in Art in the Antropocene, op. cit. Pg. 146

[6] Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, B. Latour, Critical Inquiry 30, University of Chicago, 2004, Pg. 245

[7] Latour 2004, op. cit., Pg. 246

[8] ibidem


References


"Life and Death in the Anthropocene: a Short History of Plastic" in Art in the Anthropocene, H. Davis, E. Turpin, Oxford Humanities Press, London, 2015


"Molecular Intimacy", Heather Davis, in Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary, edited by J. Graham, Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich, 2016


Anthropocene Reviewed, ep. 5: Hawaiian Pizza and Viral Meningitis, J. Green, produced by R. H. Rojas, 2018


Anthropocene Reviewed, ep. 1: Canada Goose and Diet Dr Pepper, op. cit.


"The Fates of Negativity," A. Franke & E. Turpin, in Art in the Anthropocene, op. cit.


"Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern," B. Latour, Critical Inquiry 30, University of Chicago, 2004


"Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene," B. Latour, New Literary History, vol. 45, pp. 1-18, 2014

OSLO FORM LAB 2018