Why we Still Need a Human History in the Anthropocene

Dipesh Chakrabarty’s engagement with the idea of the concept of the anthropocene has become a key starting point for rethinking the humanities in the era of anthropogenic climate change. His work raises some fundamental questions for the way in which we go about historical research in the present, and, even more profoundly, for the mode in which we think historically at all.

At the heart of Chakrabarty’s 2009 article in Critical Inquiry ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, which has been translated into various languages and circulated widely, is the idea that the emergence of humanity as a geological agent (i.e. as a species with the capacity to transform, and even to destroy, its own conditions of existence) fundamentally undermines the constitutive distinction between human and natural histories. These two forms of historical consciousness (deep time understood through geological research and natural science, and historical time, comprehended through the interpretive textual work of the historian) are, Chakrabarty suggests, now collapsing into one another, with important intellectual and political consequences.

The anthropocene, then, marks the end of the binary distinction between humanist and scientific knowledge that underpinned the Enlightenment rationalist project. Chakrabarty also argues that this collapse queries the distinctive political project of Enlightenment, the pursuit of human freedom (exemplified in the form of historical consciousness that enabled both liberalism and Marxism to function as political projects). In the anthropocene, the natural parameters within which that project was pursued begin to collapse. Human freedom thus threatens to undermine its own conditions of possibility, perhaps suggesting the need to found a radically different kind of politics.

However, Chakrabarty’s anthropocene is not without its own problems, which arise in the course of the article the presumptions and omissions constitutive of his four theses. Let us look at each of these in turn.

Chakrabarty’s first thesis is that anthropogenic climate change spells the end of the “age old humanist distinction between natural history and human history”. It is interesting that he explicitly connects this thesis to anthropogenic climate change rather than the anthropocene in general, which might be argued to include other factors such as the transformation of landscape, growth of population, formation of urban centres and the extinction of species. This move immediately narrows the problem of the anthropocene from a wider historical/geological perspective to the immediate contemporary question of climate change.

This may seem trivial, but, arguably, by making this move Chakrabarty is not at this point addressing the anthropocene all. Each of the factors outlined above might be included in a strictly geological account of the anthropocene, but each also invokes a different temporality. Human intervention in the fate of other species through hunting, farming, genetic modification and/or deliberate extirpation obviously has a long and discontinuous history. By focussing on the immediacy of climate change as crisis, Chakrabarty structures his argument from the perspective of the anthropocene as a transformation occurring now. Obviously, if we have been living in the anthropocene for longer (three of four hundred years perhaps) his conclusions regarding the fate of Enlightenment reason would have to be somewhat different. Chakrabarty’s argument thus rests on a set of constitutive exclusions of certain elements of the totality of the anthropocene idea.

This presentism of Chakrabarty’s anthropocene in the first thesis does further work in his critique of the environment and geography in traditional history. By suggesting that the time of the anthropocene is the time of our present, it is possible for Chakrabarty to argue that environmental and geographical phenomena have generally been viewed as changing only slowly, and therefore operating in a different temporality to that of much human political and social history. Of course, if we were to give the anthropocene itself a deeper history, this would perhaps revise the extent of the challenge it presents to the humanities.

What are we to make of Chakrabarty’s second thesis, that the emergence of humans as a geological force “severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/globalization”?  Here Chakrabarty investigates the role of freedom in the Enlightenment historical imaginary, and the modern project more generally.  He claims that “most of our freedoms so far have been energy intensive”. Here we enter into a welter of ideas, including the debate over the dating of the anthropocene, none of which really end with any firm conclusions. It does seem however, that at this point in the argument a different temporality is at work that in the first thesis. The beginnings of the industrial epoch now emerge as the deeper history to the anthropocene. The anthropocene, at least in its genesis, no longer acts to disrupt normal historical temporality, but actually becomes commensurable with the history of industrialization and the history of ‘freedom’.

Obviously there is something suggestive about the temporal slippage between the first and second theses. From a radically present-oriented crisis of historicity, we have returned to a radically historicized account of origins, appended to a naturalized account of industrialization as development. It is not clear that the thesis that human freedom and energy intensive industrial development are at all linked by necessity, as opposed to pure contingency. The history of emancipatory struggles before 1750 disappears from this account, as does the history of the MANY defeats of human emancipatory desires in the modern era. Ultimately, it is unclear what kind of history of freedom, if any, Chakrabarty is offering us in this thesis. Did energy intensive industrial organisation really enable the realization of freedom? Or did the achievements of emancipatory struggles (for instance the defeats suffered by the western European feudal order in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries) lay the basis of a social system that would then emerge as energy intensive?

The third thesis that the anthropocene hypothesis “requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans” offers somewhat more clarity, but it is perhaps the least convincing of the four. For the first time we encounter the subject ‘capital’ as an agent in the process of social and ecological transformation. We might wonder why its appearance is so late. But its appearance is of passing kind, the critique of capital appears only to be dismissed as insufficient once the “crisis of climate change has been acknowledged and the Anthropocene has begun to loom on the horizon of the present.” Now Chakrabarty deploys an anthropocene that is neither present, nor past, but future-present, i.e. a ‘known unknown’. That is to say, it is known in its imminent proximity, but unknown in its precise effects.

In fact this thesis is really not a critique of the critique of capital at all. The category of capital is quickly displaced by the non-historical term ‘industrialisation’. Really this thesis is an engagement with the problematic of naturalisation versus historicisation. The proposal to treat humans as an undifferentiated species, or agent, in the Anthropocene is, of course, an assault upon everything that history and historicity stand for, Chakrabarty renders much of this assault as a problem for ‘left historians’, who have always argued that such naturalizing efforts are ideological and suppress the truth of class exploitation beneath an undifferentiated “we”. Yet, this problem also harks back to Herder’s critique of universalising historical logics. It is far from simply a challenge to left historians, it is a challenge to all histories that seek to decentre narratives by displacing the undifferentiated “we” of the human through the practice of historicism. Here there is no need to retreat to a ‘left’ historicism at all; a purely deconstructive reading shows that at stake here are the naturalizing and denaturalizing effects of the discourse of nature itself. Chakrabarty is aware of the treacherous waters being sailed here, but the ultimate conclusion, that we must think simultaneously in two registers, the chronologies of capital and of species history, smacks of an impossible compromise in which there is potentially a great deal to be lost and very little to be gained.

The fourth thesis explores these potential gains, through “probing of the limits of historical understanding” by “cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital.” Here we encounter the most explicitly political of Chakrabarty’s conclusions, and the idea that such a mode of rethinking history might help us to deal with the crisis of global warming. It is notable that at this point the idea that the Anthropocene is again reduced to the question of climate change. This enables Chakrabarty to conclude with his call for a “negative universal history” a history that, by subjecting everyone equally to the risk of global climate apocalypse, constitutes a universal human political subject.

This is certainly a most utopian conclusion, and it is far from supported by the rest of Chakrabarty’s theses. What is curious about this conclusion is the manner in which is posits the emergent human species of the anthropocene as an undifferentiated universal. Throughout his essay Chakrabarty has sailed close to these waters of that antithesis of the historical project, the undifferentiated human “we”, only to row back again furiously. At the end, however, Chakrabarty demonstrates the fullness of his rejection of the Enlightenment project by embracing the idea that between human and natural history one might find, a universal form of human subjectivity, a humanity that would finally reside outside of history.

This is, of course, utterly anthema to Hegelian or Marxian conceptions of totality, where the process of history is precisely driven by the excessive conditions of universality. For Marxists the working-class, the excluded and exploited, are constitutive of capital, but are also the point of potential emancipatory universality, the class that can stand for all others in the historical objective of transcending capitalism and achieving freedom. For Chakrabarty there is no “part of no-part”, no excess. This negative universal is not clearly emancipatory in any sense. Ironically, the anthropocene is seen to generate an organic totality out of rich and poor alike. At the end we perceive our universality in a “shared sense of catastrophe”. We are all paupers now.

So, in the end, Chakrabarty is giving us a fundamentally anti-historical account with distinctly conservative overtones? For all the tacking between the poles of human history and natural history in the end we are left with an organic universal humanity slouched around the catastrophic end of history. Isn’t this exactly the danger of accepting the idea of the anthropocene? What can an undifferentiated universal humanity achieve in this moment of crisis? Who is to do the productive work of defending and reproducing the social world through the crisis of climatic transformation and, we must hope, out the other side? Will the rich be queuing up to divest themselves of their wealth and start shovelling like the rest of us? What kind of political subject could emerge from this universal capable of making the political decisions needed to ensure us a (better) future? If such a subject were to emerge, where should the transformation take place? Must it be global or local in form? How would we negotiate between the rights and needs of the two? A negative universal history offers no answer to these questions, and Chakrabarty does not enlighten us further. In effect he offers us a common without Communism, a universality in which none of the things that really divide us would change at all. Perhaps they would not even be visible to us. In the final analysis, living with this kind of universality might be an even bleaker prospect than living with climatic crisis. It certainly suggests that we should think hard before we conclude that good old-fashioned humanist history has had its day.

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