“The current planetary crisis of climate change or global warming,” Dipesh Chakrabarty has recently argued, has effected a collapse of the long-standing division between human and natural history. Where it has been the enduring conviction of the historical profession that the proper study of history begins at precisely the point at which human life organizes and separates itself from animal, natural existence, the planet’s looming ecological catastrophe, Chakrabarty indicates, has made that distinction void. Human history, human culture, human society have now come to possess a truly geological force, a capacity not only to shape the local environments of forests, river-systems, and desert terrain, but to effect, catastrophically, the core future of the planet as we enter into the long era of what the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and other climate researchers have called the “anthropocene.” If, as Crutzen indicates, this humanly-produced geological epoch, raises for “scientists and engineers” the “daunting task” of guiding “society toward environmentally sustainable management” addressing “human behavior at all scales,” then the challenges it poses to contemporary critical theory are no less significant—across multiple “scales” of critical understanding. As scholars across the disciplines have increasingly begun to argue, addressing the deep time of the anthropocene (both its deep history and its deep future) implies a fundamental interrogation (or re-interrogation) of many of our core concepts (“nature,” “politics,” “sovereignty” and the “human” key among them). As the coherence and plasticity of those concepts—particularly of the human–come under renewed pressure so too are there allied shifts toward a range of posthumanist understanding of the “task” (or tasks”) of the humanities and, consequently, of the relation of the humanities to the life and other natural sciences.
In this seminar we will examine the challenges the anthropocene puts to the conceptual vocabularies, institutional structures, and disciplinary norms of contemporary global critical theory. We will pay particular attention to the ways in which the “geological” or “planetary” turn complicates long-standing understandings of geopolitics and of the conceptual spaces of the globe (both theoretical and historical). Readings for this seminar will include work by Chakrabarty, Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, and Timothy Morton. We will also view and discuss a number of works of recent geo-political visual culture, including Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.