Textures of The Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray
Katrin Klingan, Ashkan Sepahvand, Christoph Rosol and Bernd M. Scherer, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015
1008 pp. Paper, $64.95
Reviewed by Johanna Ickert
Transtechnology Research, University of Plymouth
The consequences of human activity on the planet have led many scientists to declare the current geological era as the 'Anthropocene'. The premise of this concept is that under human influence, the Earth system is changing in its totality, getting unstable and less controllable. This situation is frequently considered as a result of earthbound human knowledge and unknowingness, as a consequence of how humans perceive the world.
Against the background that recent knowledge-based activities of humans are mostly fragmented and discipline-bound, the editors of Textures of The Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray take a different approach: "When humankind itself becomes a natural force", they state in the preface of the 1st volume, "traditional methods of knowledge acquisition - the natural sciences on the one side and the humanities on the other - have reached a limit." The Anthropocene with its increased material and immaterial interconnections and processes therefore requires novel approaches to the constitutive dynamics of the world. This book is provides such an approach by following the editors claim for methods "that integrate material transformations and fluid theoretical models", and that help to establish "a new sense of amazement at the wonder of the Earth."
Textures of The Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray is a 4-volume book that deals with the fundamental questions arising from the interplay between earthly conditions and human imagination, two fundamentally inseparable categories. The editors approach this interplay between matters and matter, focusing on the dynamic of textures in motion: The particulate (Grain), the volatile (Vapor) and the radiant (Ray). Grain, Vapor, and Ray are the titles of the main three volumes. Each of them provides a series of paired historic and contemporary texts on textures "through which the reader can (re)image Earth-shaping processes". The historic texts - reaching from Hippokrates to Lacan, from Spinoza to Kafka - can be read as archives of different perspectives on the dynamics of material processes. A variety of contemporary authors, including theorists, practitioners, scientists or artists, respond to these "historical imaginations", providing further thoughts on the constantly shifting qualities of the textures. Authors like Peter Sloterdijk, Tim Ingold, Bronislaw Szerszynksi comment on the historic texts, extend them, or even completely depart from them. All together, the authors provide a variety of accesses to explore positions on the textures and forms that knowledge takes on within the Anthropocene.
A fourth volume serves as a 'manual', proving a framework to approach the other volumes. It gives prefatory remarks in the form of a longer essay that explores the contours of human knowledge in relation to the Anthropocene. Furthermore, it provides two indexical registers, which create connections between the themes and concerns that run through the chapters, organized around titles, keywords and authors.
Presently, the vibrant discourse on the Anthropocene shows typical features of a new "grand narrative". The innumerable parallel debates that evolve out of the concept might trigger its sneaking devaluation. Therefore, instead of further describing or analyzing the necessity of inter- and transdisciplinary approaches or the role of art, the editors set up an experimental framework to find entry points to the dynamics of the Anthropocene. In this way this edition responds to the concept's vastness without classifying the Anthropocene discourse into its geological, social, institutional, ethical, political etc. dimensions. On the contrary, it allows a reconfiguration of the many perspectives in which "matter matters and tells us tales". These lively connections between the different texts that open up a space for the reader to explore "world constituting" languages and forms of knowledge production through their interplay. It is the compilation of these meticulously selected texts that creates the impressive editorial work. Its creativity unfolds in the synergetic coupling of texts and the juxtaposition of different knowledge bases, which are not only text-bound, but also represented in a multitude of illustrations, archival footage, graphs, etc. Even the covers of the volumes play with different textures.
This book takes the 'materiality of the world at its word'. With no doubt it is an innovative, highly informative, and inspiring response to the call for a non-dualist, sensitive understanding of the dynamic of the Anthropocene as a fundamental category. It shows how the Anthropocene discourse can unleash new approaches to human knowledge that do not necessitate to reinforce their inspirational power by overstimulating doomsday pictures or technological promises of salvation. The way the editors approach the topic of knowledge production in the Anthropocene is deeply political, as they chose an editorial approach that focuses on interaction, participation and dialogue. Given these strengths, it is somewhat disappointing, however, that the book does not outline the necessary preconditions for building further forums that enable such necessary transformations. No chapter on how education systems could be transformed. No chapter on frameworks for a sustainable development. No chapter about how risks and potentials, knowledge and power within this world of 'our' own creation are unequally distributed between the rich and the poor. It is those perspectives that are lost within the many realities the book describes. If the book cannot give clear political claims on how novel forms of knowledge production can be established, it will still be a thought-provoking book, yet the energy to change a running system will be absorbed by the aesthetic and intellectual fascination about the "new sensuous-aesthetic praxis" that it is promoting.