The idea that human industrial activity has ushered in a distinctly new geological epoch – the “Anthropocene” – has gained wide currency in the arts, humanities and social sciences. According to Bruno Latour, “the Anthropocene is the most decisive philosophical, religious, anthropological and … political concept yet produced as an alternative to the very notions of ‘modern’ and ‘modernity.’”* Scientists, meanwhile, are more circumspect; they continue to gather evidence as they await an official pronouncement by the specialists with final authority on the question, the Stratigraphy Commission of London’s Geological Society.
The data considered by the Stratigraphy Commission include concrete, plastics, chemicals, airborne pollution and radiation, all of which contribute to today’s disrupted biosphere and changing climate. More significantly, from the Commission’s viewpoint, the global impact of such human waste may be visible ages from now as a clear mark in geological strata, separating the Anthropocene epoch from our recent past, the relatively mild, temperate Holocene. It is only on the basis of a clear, permanent “time-rock” stratum, akin to the notorious K-Pg boundary, that a new epoch can be said to exist. Scientific American tells us that researchers are narrowing in on a possible starting-point for the Anthropocene. At or around the year 1950, during the global postwar “great acceleration,” many anthropogenic pollutants cause a general uptick on graphs plotting their incidence rates. The most striking marker, however, is that of radioactive plutonium fallout, which is detectable worldwide and will show as “a sharp bomb spike” in the geological record. The authors of an article in Science point out that this “clear and global signature” makes its first appearance in 1951, which can therefore be taken as the start of the Anthropocene.** A look at their graph, however, shows that plutonium-239 increases rapidly in 1954 and reaches its first peak in the year 1955. If a starting point is to be chosen for the new epoch, we propose that this earliest peak may be the best candidate.
Another reason we would choose 1955 from among other options is that it is the publication date of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques. And although books are seldom viewed as geological reference-points, the Anthropocene could thereby be dated, appropriately enough, from the appearance of a landmark work of anthropology. Lévi-Strauss’s text is a far from arbitrary choice for this purpose, moreover, as it holds a position analogous to the data being considered by stratigraphers. More eloquently perhaps than any other book of its time, Tristes Tropiques testifies to a point of no return in human history: the dubious victory of advanced industrial civilization over the last vestiges of stone-age native societies. Lévi-Strauss’s globe-girdling travel memoir is a bitter farewell to the biological homeostasis of that disappearing “lost world” of the Holocene.*** In what follows, a look at the text will help us to cross-check the claims of geologists against those of anthropology, and this will allow us to judge the validity and appropriateness of the Greek prefix in the Anthropocene’s name.
Somewhat overlooked in current debates over the Anthropocene is the unique anomaly of the proposed epoch’s name among other periods of geologic time. Unlike all preceding epochs, the Anthropocene is a time-period caused by man, and the name, then, is more than a conventional designation in words of a separate, independent reality. The “Anthropocene” is a title, just as man is its author. If this is so, then we have pitched out of the abstract, impartial domain of science into the area of symbolic creation. Questions of style are not out of place here; scientific designations can be more or less accurate, but titles may be judged on aesthetic grounds. There is still time, then, before the Stratigraphy Commission rules on the matter, to suggest a better name, less clunky, not so pretentious, a fine euphonic successor to the Holocene: the Homocene.
Lévi-Strauss himself would likely have agreed that “Anthropocene” is a misnomer. The anthropologist’s work focused on so-called “primitive” peoples, the best representatives, in his view, of human groupings in their basic yet fully-fledged social forms. In contrast, modern civilization, for Lévi-Strauss, is cruel, imbalanced and self-destructive, its vaunted order bought at the cost of global ecological degradation. “The order and harmony of the Western world … demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe,” Lévi-Strauss says at the outset of his book. “The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind” (38). Such “filth,” as we have seen, constitutes crucial data for stratigraphers, but for Lévi-Strauss, in contrast, it doesn’t count as properly human; indeed, it’s the exact negation of man’s true anthropological nature. And since so-called western “order” and “harmony” are responsible for irreparable damage to the world, Lévi-Strauss’s own work, in aspiring to a structuralist system of knowledge, must aim for a different form of harmony. Interestingly, in his evocation of “structure” (43), “pattern” and “order” (44), Lévi-Strauss makes explicit reference to geology. His thoughts and memories are compared to a “cloudy liquid … beginning to settle” (43), that is to say, as sediment that can form a rock stratum. Time thereby creates a “profound structure” in which “one order has been replaced by another” (44): an “edifice” representing the formalized creations of structural anthropology.
Sharp edges have been blunted and whole sections have collapsed: periods and places collide, are juxtaposed or are inverted, like strata displaced by the tremors on the crust of an ageing planet. Some insignificant detail belonging to the distant past may now stand out like a peak, while whole layers of my past have disappeared without trace. Events without any apparent connection, and originating from incongruous periods and places, slide one over the other and suddenly crystallize into a sort of edifice.
This reference to geology is more than a passing metaphor. Tristes Tropiques repeatedly avows its author’s “intense interest” in geology, whose study is more inspiring, he claims, than the many treks and journeys of his anthropological career. “I count among my most precious memories,” Lévi-Strauss says, “… a hike along the flank of a limestone plateau in Languedoc to determine the line of contact between strata” – a quest that represents for him “the very image of knowledge” (56). Accordingly, the author says that primitive social knowledge derives from forces “as anonymous as telluric forces” (58) and that the study of social transformations is akin to the work of paleontologists comparing different strata (112).
In the light of these geo-anthropological claims, it is telling that Tristes Tropiques opens and closes with explicit references to atomic weapons, whose fallout may well fix the start date of the Anthropocene. The last mention in particular deserves close reading. “From the time when he first began to breathe and eat,” Lévi-Strauss says, “up to the invention of atomic and thermonuclear devices, by way of the discovery of fire – what else has man done except blithely break down billions of structures and reduce them to a state in which they are no longer capable of integration?” (413). This saturnine insight leads Lévi-Strauss to recast his anthropological work as the study of entropy. “Anthropology could with advantage be changed into ‘entropology,’ as the name of the discipline concerned with the study of the highest manifestations of this process of disintegration” (414).
Might the “Anthropocene” be re-named, following Lévi-Strauss’s suggestion, as the “Entropocene”? The name would probably not pass muster with the scientists. More importantly, it would give too much credit to Lévi-Strauss’s grim moralizing tone and social conservatism. Geological motifs in Tristes Tropiques reflect this conservative attitude by envisioning social forms as petrified and almost immutable, the lives they harbor caught in a death grip of structure without play. There is moreover, something cynical and vainglorious in the anthropologist’s judgmental posture in Tristes Tropiques’s grand, symphonic ending, and this may be connected to some of the book’s worst failings: its contempt for the Indian subcontinent, which is only matched by Lévi-Strauss’s hatred of all things Muslim, including even India’s Mughul age – an attitude almost proto-fascist in its BJP leanings. No less revealing is Lévi-Strauss’s contempt for the lives of homosexual men on New York’s Fire Island, portrayed in quasi-Célinian strokes of revulsion as a sorry manifestation of “human absurdity” (163).
No doubt a similar negative reflex among scientists foreclosed the prefix homo- for the proposed new geological epoch. Is that why Paul Crutzen, who launched the reigning term in the year 2000, “paused to think” before exclaiming it?**** The mere suspicion is reason enough to take its defense. Homocene is plainly a more aesthetic option than “Anthropocene,” and if the name carries a connotation of sexual dissidence, so much the better: it can serve as a reminder of human freedom and the lability of desire and, in opposition to technocrats and scientists — including so-called human scientists — a standing challenge to mankind’s self-destructiveness.
*Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us (Verso, 2016).
**Colin Waters et al., “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene,” Science, 08 Jan 2016, Vol. 351, Issue 6269.
***Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, John & Doreen Weightman, trans. (New York: Atheneum, 1975), 249.
****”‘No! We are no longer in the Holocene,’ Crutzen exclaimed at a scientific conference. ‘We are in’ — he paused to think — ‘the Anthropocene!'” Jan Zalasciewicz, “What Mark Will We Leave on the Planet?” Scientific American, vol 315, no. 3 (September 2016), 32.