Reflections on the “Anthropocene” : A Discussion with Prof. Laura López (Part One)

Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.

Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene

It seems as though the term “Anthropocene” has become a buzzword in academic discourse today. Though it may be simply defined as a geological age in which human activity has been the dominating influence on the environment and climate, the scientific concept is now a lens through which most societies research, observe, and relate to the world. I became fascinated by the term after reading fragments of Donna Haraway’s writing, a feminist theorist who navigates the nature of reality through the examination of topics such as climate change and the intersection of the exploitation of women and nature. Her style of writing opened up an entirely new way of thinking for me, with her theory quickly flitting from the anthropomorphized experience of a carrier pigeon to the examination of a work of art to the ideas of another theorist and so on. It seemed to me that this kind of multifaceted observation was the writing of the ‘anthropocene’—a new approach which disregarded obsolete academic classifications as a means of shedding light on the experience of living in this time for both humans and non-humans. To express this complex state is no easy task, but it is one that Professor Dr. Laura López has been thinking about for a long time.

 In the fall semester of 2021, I took her course “Contemporary Art and the Anthropocene.” Laura framed the course around the question “What can art do?”, a particularly challenging quandary given how many people feel a total lack of agency in the face of the impending doom of climate change. In a research-group format, students in the class read theorists such as Donna Haraway (my personal favorite), along with John Pretsch, Bruno Latour, James Lovelock, Linn Margulis, and many more. We also engaged with a myriad of artists and art forms—the knitted coral of Margaret and Christine Wertheim, the thousands of reconceptualized bicycles by Ai Weiwei, Hito Steyerl’s shocking video art, and the poetry of Studio for Propositional Cinema, among others. All of this material, brought to the group by Laura, reinforced and expanded each student’s personal research, with topics such as the metaverse, decolonial poetry, smart farming, and internet nostalgia being explored in independent work. The course was extremely informative to my own academic interests, leading me to decide that my thesis topic will be a discussion of the history of cosmograms (scientific representations of the world), and asking my parents for a hardcopy of Linn Margulis’s Symbiotic Planet for Christmas. The course illuminated many connections to other Bard courses that I’d taken, and I was infinitely grateful for the learning experience. I also greatly admired my professor, Laura, for taking a chance with this class and allowing for unconventional research methods. Thus, in this semester I wanted to offer a space of reflection to think about the course and what was mutually gained from it by asking Laura to have a conversation with me. She graciously accepted, and we sat down for a virtual talk in early March. 

I began by asking her what her intentions for the course were, why she’d chosen certain texts on the syllabus, and what ideas she had been thinking about before the fall semester. After a pause, she said:

I was very interested in this idea of art’s possibilities in doing something, gaining agency or understanding things. In the arts, every age does different things and its definition is then reexamined. I think art right now is able to be a discipline that allows for a lot of other disciplines to come together. So it’s a space of holistic knowledge in a way. And that is something that is needed to face the future and the challenges that we have right now. I thought that that was very interesting. And probably my greatest inspiration for the course, as you know, is Bruno Latour and his perspective. I think he is a very unique figure—he taught me a lot. He’s one of the reasons why I really got into the subject matter of the class because the Anthropocene is a term that originates in science and geology,but it has become much more than that. It’s much more than a term that only belongs to natural science. It also has cultural dimensions. It has political dimensions. And I think Latour is very conscious and speaks very eloquently about how the Anthropocene functions. It’s a complex issue that has ties to different areas of human knowledge and action. That interested me a lot, you know? For example, this idea of cosmologies and how we see science—it’s changing our politics and it’s changing our culture.

Laura continued on to discuss in further detail Latour’s theory of how culture changes science and his work with Zentrum für Kunst und Medien before turning to the significance of Donna Haraway.

“Donna Haraway was also extremely important, because, of course, if we are imagining all of these relationships between humans and nature and what being human means, we need to create a lot of knowledge. And her way of thinking is absolutely marvelous and creative and open. It fuels people’s capacity to think poetically in many ways at the same time. I think it’s beautiful because she’s also not easy. She’s very challenging. It’s probably not so much the question, or at least not for this class, to understand everything that she said. It was more to experience the inspiration that comes from her writing, and the new ideas that you can start developing.”

At this point in the conversation, Laura asked me what I had thought of Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, a book that had been one of the central theoretical bases in our course. I responded by saying: 

“I really fell in love with Haraway. I agree that it’s challenging, but I think in that sense, it’s almost exciting because when you read her you’re trying to grasp for something that you can’t quite understand. It’s almost a puzzle because it’s just so poetic. Because of that, I understand how her writing might have also been frustrating to some students. I think generally there was a tension in the course between people who were more willing to engage with the more poetic theory that we were reading, and others who were looking for objectivity, because the topic that we were dealing with obviously feels so imminent. But I think what was so wonderful about Haraway was her acceptance of where we’re at. Rather than offering concrete solutions like ‘this is how you solve climate change’, and ‘this is what we can do,’,  it was more like, ‘okay, but how do we exist in this time? And how do we live mindfully and how do we care for each other?’ And I found that to be so much more valuable than other texts that I’ve read that provide more of these dystopian narratives, where it’s very much saying that the apocalypse is near and you can only scream and wait for it to happen. Essentially what I’m saying is that I really enjoy Haraway. But I also understand your hesitation about adding her to the syllabus, because her writing is clearly challenging and can be hard to grasp. It definitely sparked some really interesting conversations throughout the course.”

Laura nodded before saying: 

“That course was so interesting for me in many ways. I learned so much about you all and your perspective. I felt very privileged to have those kinds of conversations with you because your generation does see things in a very particular way. I feel that I just understood so much about your way of seeing things that doesn’t necessarily coincide with what we think as faculty members or how your generation is described anyways. So it was a great discovery for me and I was very moved by how much of yourselves and your sensitivities and your thoughts you put into the work. When I have the chance, I’d like to lead courses that are more research groups, because I find it very interesting to delve into topics that I am discovering with you. I like to define certain baselines that I know well and then leave the space open so that we can discover things together. 

This is risky, but I think it makes it lively and interesting and I’m intrigued and excited because we’re learning at the same time. And I’m not that far ahead of you in many regards, but also it is risky because we’re facing cutting-edge knowledge. This is a field that is being created now, that’s being defined now. And because of that, it’s probably a different kind of knowledge than what you’re used to, because it’s not yet established. 

It is very difficult to grapple with this idea that knowledge is not established and that it’s being created. Especially when you have to look at things and understand that the theorist and the people who are working on this field are struggling to find a baseline. They’re struggling to find the different categories of something so complex. For example, when we talked about hyper objects and Tim Morton, those concepts are very complex as people are working on them right now. You can see it as a challenge. And as you were saying with Donna Haroway, you’re reaching towards something that you don’t understand. So you’re pursuing something and you can be very frustrated. With a lot of this information, even though there is a book that is already very well written and very well structured to refer to, you still have to put extra effort and creativity into it. It has to be a balance. I think I asked a lot of you, and to me you responded incredibly well.”

I thought about what she said for a second. It had been a challenge to engage with ‘unestablished’ material, forcing me to face my own insecurities as a student: 

“For me it was a very fresh academic experience to be pursuing information that wasn’t already defined and cemented, ideas that hadn’t already been thought about for the last century or three. It felt like a lot of the information that was coming up was speculative, but was also providing tools to then examine the anthropocene rather than offer definitive solutions for the subject.That was so exciting for me as a student, because I’d truly never been in a class that offered that kind of flexibility in my own thinking and creativity. I do think at times that was also a source of frustration in the class. Questions that kept coming up were, “Why are we using this theory? Why are we using this language to abstractly discuss something that has shown to be so imminent and pressing?” As we’ve spoken about before, my generation is generally so pessimistic about climate change, and I do wonder now if part of that resistance was just coming from a lack of willingness to engage with something that is honestly scary.”

We both sat with this idea for a second, reflecting on how the individual fears and concerns regarding climate change had affected the course. Laura nodded her head and began to respond… 

END OF PART ONE

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