The Anthropocene and the Archive

The Anthropocene and the Archive

Claire Colebrook (Pennsylvania State University, USA)


In the light of potentially cataclysmic events attributable to climate change, what does the idea that human species may become extinct in the near future mean? And what are the effects on human memory?

It is a commonplace in the humanities to acknowledge that the emergence of geological time in the nineteenth century had profound effects on literary form, and the sense of the deep time of the human and inhuman past.  Perhaps this shift is most notable in the framing and range of the novel: if early novels mark a contraction from the epic time of early modern literature to the life story of individuals, with Jane Austen’s novels occurring within the architectural and moral framework of the family estate, then late nineteenth-century novels start to mark a past that cannot be brought to presence but seems to inflect human time nevertheless.  Both in Thomas Hardy and George Eliot the individual and the family are marked by forces from a time and life beyond the frame of individual experience.  And it is perhaps even more of a commonplace to note that for high modernism history becomes a nightmare from which we cannot awake (as though the past invaded an unwilling consciousness that is not the master of its own domain).  And to add one more commonplace: it was Fredric Jameson (1991) who argued that postmodernism was marked by a loss of history; the past is reduced to so many images and motifs dislodged from any meaningful (or human historical) sense of time.  The sense of human emergence opens a problem not only of literary but also of ethical range: to what extent does an inherited but unlived and unliveable past require working through?  To take but one example: Australian Aborigines insofar as they recognise themselves as Aboriginal live their identity in terms of a spiritual past that was directly related to the land; when Aboriginal children were stolen from their families in order to be assimilated into white Australian culture their past, and their land – and therefore the very locus of their identity – was stolen (Frow 1998).  Such a past cannot simply be returned; nor can it be erased.  It lives on as a memory that is at once lost and indelible.

Literature and the imagination do not simply consume scientific information, as though one might add facts to an repository of data; the very nature of the fact – whose fact, and how it is inscribed, and the nature of the archivealters what it means to live in time.  Because the Darwinian past was inscribed in an inhuman archive of rocks and fossils human time was suddenly not its own; but this might also require us to qualify ‘human time.’ The Australian Aboriginal people already lived a time that was inscribed in the earth, an earth that was neither simply object, nor property but that harboured a memory.  The Aboriginal ‘dreaming,’ was and is quite unlike the modernist ‘nightmare’ of history: the spiritual past that is lived in the Aboriginal landscape does not break in and interrupt human time. The very identity of Indigenous Australia is composed from a memory of the earth. Much (but still not enough) work has already been completed on the ways in which non-Western, and specifically Australian Aboriginal, senses of the earth as an archive beyond human history might compose a memory and ethics of the future.  If there is a time and archive beyond the human, then both the past and the future raise questions of the relations humans bear to their own time, and to a time not their ownTo put this more simply: is the ethics of human time simply concerned with how ‘we’ manage the planet for future human generations, or is there some debt to time beyond the human?  I would suggest that the geological proposal of the Anthropocene – that human life will be readable as having an impact – opens a question of the archive that Western liberal and communitarian ethical models cannot answer.

Scientific debate, rather than consensus, still surrounds the concept of the Anthropocene: the idea put forward by geologists that there will be a time, after the end of humans, when the planet will bear the scars of a species having created such impact on the planet that their existence will be discernible as a distinct geological strata. Even though consensus is gathering around this notion, there is at least one sense in which the very possibility of such an event alters almost everything. Does such a definitive inscription impress upon us a need to embark on geo-engineering in order to save our species, or does the delimitation of the human as a geological strata open the idea of considering life and existence beyond life as we know it?  Perhaps the anthropocene will force us to recognise what we have not yet acknowledged as the implication of the Darwinian past: if humans had an emergence in time, and if their milieu is inscribed with a past not their own, then what happens to the ‘we’ or ‘us’ of the species?  If we then try and think about what we owe to a future, who is the ‘we’ for whom we would like to adapt and survive?

Perhaps what Daniel Dennett has referred to ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’ – the idea that in evolutionary theory design does not necessarily need a designer – is more dangerous than even Dennett wants to suggest.  Perhaps we have not simply lost a designer and meaning of life; perhaps life is not simply human, and perhaps the human no longer knows that space of its own time.  In addition to the ‘dangerous idea’ of the contingency of human life, there is the additional danger of the inhumanity of life and time.   From Darwinian time onwards, humans were no longer coterminous with ‘life’ simply defined in anthropocentric terms; there has been– and there will be – a time when life and the planet exist in the absence of humans, and there could be a thought of history and creation that did not have ‘man’ at the beginning or centre.

In some respects, the conception of time and life after Darwinism still allows for a sense of life’s grandeur.  Even if humans were not the origin of life, there might still be an imagined historical trajectory in which they were an end: life begins humbly, without consciousness, but gains increasing complexity, ascending ever more wondrously towards human existence and self-awareness. Many Darwinians, today, when they are most vociferously Darwinian, seem to assume this grand order of increasing complexity and awareness: both Dennett and Richard Dawkins have tried to demonstrate the redundancy of religion and have offered instead a counter-imaginary of ennobling reason and reflection. Darwinists like Dawkins frequently claim that scientific and evolutionary thought are more wondrous and ennobling than any ‘divine watchmaker’ or great designer could be.  Such theological notions may have had their purpose once, but we can now see, by way of evolutionary science, the greater truth of Darwinian evolution. Evolving towards Enlightened secularism we can claim creation as our own discovery and not God’s plan. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, recent events might suggest that a more significant blow can de dealt to Anthropocentric narcissism than mere de-centredness: not only are humans not present at the origin of life, there will also be a time when humans cease to exist. More importantly still, this non-existence of humans, this predicted mass extinction event, will be precipitated by the same reasoning ‘man’ who disburdened himself of the myths of religion; it is the same technologically astute species that supposedly had the wherewithal to free itself from the theological imaginary that reduced the planet to a resource for human development, and is now confronted with the prospect of either self-erasure or further geo-engineering.   The attachment we bear to our own kind and our own archive may very well be parochial, for there is no intrinsic reason as to why we should feel preliminary mourning for the loss of human life, memory and memorials.  Yet, our present is, indeed, dominated by proto-melancholia.  We play out the loss of the past – in one disaster epic after another the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the New York Public Library, Trafalgar Square – appear as dead objects, deprived of the memorialising beings who inscribed such objects as aids to recollection.  (I refer here to films such as The Planet of the Apes, The Day After Tomorrow or 28 Weeks Later, where ‘we’ humans witness the world as if there were no humans left to recognise and read human monuments)

We can step outside the question of whether or not there will be geological consensus regarding the Anthropocene epoch, and look at the ways in which the very posing of the possibility of the Anthropocene opens up formal literary problems. By literary I do not just refer to books, or even to human or organic communicative systems. Think of what the Anthropocene proposes: we are now able to establish scientifically that there were epochs of planetary existence prior to humans, and prior to conditions that would have enabled life as we know it. From a capacity in the present – a capacity to read certain marks – we can posit a time beyond our own existence. That same capacity is able to imagine, again from the present, a time when we will be readable – when the human species will have inscribed itself as a distinct geological strata. On the one hand, this highly imaginative idea opens traditionally ‘humanist’ or humanities questions to inhuman temporalities: today, ‘our’ questions of climate change can no longer be those of our climate. Given that there will be an end how does this allow us to read ourselves today? How would we imagine ourselves as if viewed from a position beyond the humanly inscribed archive? In many ways these questions are being posed outside traditional domains of humanist criticism – both in a popular culture that is increasingly mourning the earth’s end in advance (in films as sublime as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) and as lamentable as Nick Everhart’s 2012 (2008)), and in the questions posed by the hard sciences (questions ranging from the Anthropocene epoch to problems of dark matter and anti-matter).

It might seem at first that such ‘big’ questions should either reinforce a strong division of labour, for we can no longer write novels or screenplays about anti-matter in the way that we might have incorporated scientific facts into everyday life, or should annihilate our petty human concerns for our archives and memories. I can recall several documentaries and bio-pics on the life of Turing, Darwin, Freud, Einstein (and others) all demonstrating a profound nexus between scientific invention and a profoundly human imagination. Darwinism, far from de-centering human perception, indicated the capacity for humans to look at the earth with wonder and discern its magnificence. I could very easily be wrong, but I would bet that there could be a future equivalent to the portrayal of Einstein in Insignificance (1985), Freud and Jung in A Dangerous Method (2011) or of Darwin in Creation (2009) that will be able the non-scientific public to weave the notion of anti-matter into some personal dynamic.  And this should alert us to the broader problem of reading, register and anticipated memory: we imagine, now, that there will be a time when we are no longer here to read the marks we have made on the earth.  And yet that utterly inhuman thought is inevitably reduced to how we live the inhuman: far from prompting us to abandon the sense of species privilege, the sense of deep and inhuman time opened by the anthropocene has shored up projects for geo-engineering.  If we can mark the world on a geological scale, we can also rewrite our geological future.   It might seem that once the Anthropocene epoch is posed as a possibility of reading and proleptic mourning, that we have lost human scale altogether. How can we argue for questions of human or environmental justice when life as such, and all we have known and inscribed, is at stake?  In this sense, the Anthropocene, is the bio-political concept par excellence: reading the past geologically allows us to delimit the human species as a single planetary event, and one that requires planetary intervention.

I would suggest though that it is only with the posing of inhuman time that we can begin to read the smallest and most local of events. If we allow ourselves to absorb the impact of a time beyond humans, and possibly beyond life, we might be open to two radical thoughts of the human archive. First, we might imagine human texts, not as expressions of a single, intending expressive individual whose thoughts can be conveyed through time, but as having emerged from events that have a complexity beyond individual persons. Local archives would open out, not to some already known context, but to a limitless horizon that included what we now refer to as climate, but so much more. It’s clear that novels as different as McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Maggie Gee’s The Flood (2004) are at once highly human, personal and psychological, at the same time as the psyche described is – like the earth’s strata – a register for geological events. We start to imagine and mourn the human-friendly climate always through the nearest of objects. But this is not unique to twenty-first century fiction. How might we read earlier texts with a sense that they are expressions of a force of life beyond ecology, if the senses of time, life and light were intimations of time beyond humans?  I have already suggested that the individual and familial time-frames of the novel came under pressure with the increasing sense of geological time in the late nineteenth century.  My colleague, Sebastian Groes, reminded me of this very disjunction between the time of the person, and a wider past that in its very fossilization seems to regard ‘us’:

By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight’s eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their death. (Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes, 1873)

Once we think outside the time of life, of personal life, we are confronted with stratigraphy, in which the time of life unites everything from Trilobytes to Macbeth, and then sets this within a time without eyes.  The time that is ‘out of joint’ in Hamlet might not just be a sense of a broken polity, but also a sense that the time of the polity – the time of human interaction and management – occurs within a time of perpetual cosmic displacement, in which human intentionality and sense is but one force among others in the layering of history and memory. Second, and finally, we might then imagine our own present, our-own self-archiving as if it were already being read by non-humans, beyond our own existence. Every text is a time capsule and a time machine, containing the present, but sending the present into a future that the present cannot control.


Frow, John. 1998. ‘A Politics of Stolen Time.’ Australian Humanities Review. 9: Feb, 1998.

Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duram: Duke University Press.