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BOOK REVIEW: ARTS OF LIVING ON A DAMAGED PLANET

Arts of Living on A Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene
Edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt
Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2017

Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt have edited a literary, anthropological, and biological dispatch from The End of the World. A site where science writing intersects with environmental history, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene is grounds for a cross-disciplinary experiment that uncovers the strange in our condition of endangered climate. Entanglement and mutation comprise this new, weird condition in their observations and histories, but have roots in Charles Darwin, Lynn Margulis, and Marie Curie. In a kind of Kuhnian way, discovery starts with the aberrant. For Arts of Living, it is ground zero for the strange and its sensible materiality.

Monsters are spawn of entanglement, and unfamiliar words emerge from this cross-breeding: Karen Barad’s spacetimematterings fuses space, time and matter; Haraway’s sympoiesis (“making-with”) is a word for world-making images in dynamic, responsive systems; Lynn Margulis’s holoboints are part of dynamic, symbiotic assemblages found at all scales of the universe, like how cows, according to Scott F. Gilbert, are inter-dependent with their gut bacteria for survival. Carla Freccero describes human confrontation with beast. Evoking the werewolf in the cultural imagination, Freccero queers the lupine by phantasmorphing its historiography and “denormatizing or decentering the human.” (M92) Marianne Elizabeth Lien describes salmon farms and monocultures in terms of Alfred W. Crosby’s ecological imperialism. (M109) And the editors suggest that activism toward single-species extinction is not a sufficient course of action in our entangled, socio-ecologies within the phantasmagoria of our Anthropocenic conditions.

 

Metaphors too are entanglements of two things made to be similar through an equation. Molecular biologist Andreas Hejnol evokes the history of ladders and trees in scientific representation and notes when those metaphors fall apart. Metaphors both simplify and complicate meaning through revelation and obfuscation, through bringing new connections to light while hiding others. Trees and ladders have a long history of ordering and hierarchizing, and under the current sociological and climate conditions, these metaphors no longer suffice. And maybe they never did.

Metaphors both simplify and complicate meaning through revelation and obfuscation, through bringing new connections to light while hiding others.

“Modernist Futures Have Made the Anthropocene,” the editors probe, and the future “is a characteristic feature of commitments to modernity, that complex of symbolic and material projects for separating nature and culture.” (G7) These projects require infrastructures of colonization, unchecked acceleration, and destruction, wherein extinction is collateral. Ghosts suggest a necessary haunting, and haunting is a powerful idiom, an index with a historical antecedent. If ghosts are signs that “every landscape is haunted by past ways of life,” (G2) then how are these past ways of life represented? This would have been an opportunity to invite the visual arts’ landscape historians, trained to notice the inconsistencies and similarities between past and present vantages from which we lend attention to our real and imagined environments.

 

Environmental historian Kate Brown provides the strongest metaphor for haunted landscapes. She tells the story of health physics technician Aleksandr Kupny’s suicidal quest in documenting Chernobyl after the April 26, 1986 event. For Kupny, “crawling into the belly of the burned-out reactor was as close as he could get to entering a mushroom cloud.” (G37) Many of the negatives on his and videographer Sergei Koshelev’s film are physically marked with radiation. While the isotopes that continued to degrade could be understood as an index of their history—a ghost—the origin event is most definitely a monster made by scientists in a laboratory. Brown notes that Kupny describes his task as partisan, as a civic duty to the then-Soviet State. His excursion, then, is an extension of the isotope’s history in the socialist modernist program.

Certainly, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is a unique work. In burning from both sides, it proposes new handling, attempts a new reading, and forces new attention to arrangements in the natural world as well as in the world of the book. It exacts tactile and cerebral revolution. But one modest and one not so modest asymmetry persist. The first leans toward the inconsistent stylistic motif in Ghosts, where italicized passages with bolded phrases stir up phantom-like themes sought in the remainder of the section. Such a stylistic device could have hunted similar monstrous themes in its mirrored section.

 

The second asymmetry lies in the disequilibrium between the humanities/arts and the sciences. Arts of Living skews toward the sciences, leaving the titular arts, visual or otherwise, nearly out of the Anthropocenic ethos they compose. John Cage’s 1958 Fontana Mix and Jessie Lopez’s illustrations provide more illustrious punctuation than thematic guidance, though Ursula LeGuin’s heartrending poem provides illumination that some essays regard:

There was a word inside a stone.
I tried to pry it clear,
mallet and chisel, pick and gad,
until the stone was dropping blood,
but still I could not hear
the word the stone had said.
I threw it down beside the road
among a thousand stones
and as I turned away it cried
the word aloud within my ear
and the marrow of my bones
heard, and replied.

The heaviest counterweight to the biology, evolutionary, and ecological sciences is Donna Haraway’s discussion of the Crochet Coral Reef project. Twin sisters, a science writer and an artist and poet, Margaret and Christine Wertheim entangle higher geometry and traditionally feminine handicraft. Through the mathematics of crochet and the power of local and global community play, they create and enact symbiotic communities, which collectively create an art of tactile attention and sensible materialism—an art of living on a damaged planet.

 

Less enervating and more invigorating, this unbalance offers its own microcosm in which visual arts and their histories are necessary in order to round out this revolving discussion. Rarely represented in environmental humanities at all, visual and sound art indeed contribute to the entanglements an Anthropocenic ethos assumes. Nevertheless, Arts of Living is a provocative dispatch from the edges of humanity’s new condition.