Atlas of Places
Anthropocene Patterns I
If the idea of naming the period – or epoch, some say even era – “Anthropocene” resonates so deeply for the better and maybe for the worse (you will have to decide at the end of my lecture) with the name of your discipline, it is because it builds upon several of the same fault lines as those upon which anthropology had established its fragile tenements for many decades.
First, the very idea of the Anthropocene places the “human agency” (still undifferentiated, taken en bloc and generically) smack in the center of attention. For you to be “anthropocentric” does not come as a great surprise, but it is certainly a complete shock to stratigraphers used to studying million-year-old pebbles and to digging up sediments deposited long before humans ever appeared as a distinct species.
Second, this new concept defines the human agency by drawing on a bewildering range of entities, some clearly related to the “natural” sciences – biochemistry, DNA, evolutionary trends, rock formation, ecosystem – while others clearly relate to what ethnographers have learned to register throughout their field work – patterns of land use, migrations of plants, animal and people, city life, trajectory of epidemics, demography, inequalities, classes and state policies. In other words, to designate the present period as that of the Anthropocene is to tell all the other disciplines that the task of joining “physical” and “cultural anthropology” (I purposely use labels pertaining to the past of your discipline) is no longer your own undertaking, but what suddenly, without you having even asked for help, hundreds of subfields are also busy doing. Everybody it seems is now converging on the same problem, ready to make the same mistakes and to live through the same traumatic experience as what the discipline of anthropology as a whole had lived through since the beginning of the 19th century: namely, how to get bones and divinities fit together.