Saturday, March 05, 2016


by J J Cohen

If you have been reading this blog over the past few years you know I have long been obsessed by Noah's ark as a figure for thinking through climate change. Below is the latest symptom of that obsession, the draft of an essay for a collection on reading strategies in the Anthropocene. The essay is already too long so I can't add more material -- but the project is ongoing, so please let me know what I am missing. The piece was very difficult to compose. It kept wanting a shape different from what I intended; once I realized that fact the formal elements of the essay clicked. Well, I think they did. You will let me know!

(somehow the footnote marks went missing from the text; sorry about that)


And why should I not drown with friends? Let the waters wash. Ale and song and a love of this convicted Earth exceed that gated menagerie, stockpile for a narrowed future. If the floods must scour, if the mountains sink, then think of me when you find an ammonite on the new world’s hill. Place it to your ear. Listen to your heartbeat sea, pulse and punctuation. Know that abyss and vault roared deluge to inscribe a story without sufficient voice. We sang a round and drank from bottles. Water puddled and then swelled. Our tale is now obscure. When gate and gangway closed, they left my companions to the weather. 

Human history and geologic time are incommensurable: one shallow and local, a chronicle of small wonders; the other cosmic and profound, a dense account of mineral thriving, continents that glide a liquid mantle. The bare story of a single species, rapid in tempo, human history is a segment cut from an overwhelming story. Deep time’s scale is a mathematical line extending to infinity. A forty day deluge cannot punctuate a record inscribed by zircon, Snowball Earth, ammonites, subduction. Human history is conveyed by a storehouse of translatable texts and loquacious objects, lush in possibilities. Deep time is a story puzzled from obscure marks upon recalcitrant stone. Interpretive practices derived from a linguistic archive will therefore not be of much use when reading a geological repository.

Yet as Noah Heringman has argued, the era we want to christen the Anthropocene marks an unprecedented “act of writing ourselves into the rock record,” a new chapter in planetary history characterized by “radical discontinuity” with preceding pasts, human and geological.  In the Anthropocene human and geological time find their confluence, enmeshment through lithic inscription. Two seemingly incommensurable temporalities and their modes of reading flow into union, propelled by carbon and radioactivity as well as shared ardor for leaving pasts behind. And there a period. Yet sudden fusion makes evident what Heringman calls “a kind of textual materiality in geological events” (58), something like human writing present in the lithic record all along. To sentences and to epochs belong punctuation marks, formed by pen or sediment, pixel or fossil. To narratives and to eons belong quiet plots, struggles against extinction or death, sedimented archives of story.

Deep, close, surface, distant: contemporary reading strategies love the linear. Through lines, time’s motion becomes legible. This essay’s project is to imagine a vorticular topology of reading that inhabits some Anthropocene eddies. Anthropocene stories embrace full stops and accelerated propulsions, but their currents swirl with affective detritus, recondite matter, queer fragments, vortices of anomalous histories. What forms emerge without the stratified readings an arche [“origin” “rule” “authorization”] in carbon or radiation or deforestation or historical and material context demands? Mick Smith has articulated what he calls an anarchic ecological ethics, “not dependent on defining in any absolute or authoritative form its worldly origins or task.”  Tentative and mundane, aware of its own fallibility, attentive to “the flows and depths of diverse worldly existences happening beneath their surface appearances” (64), Smith’s praxis reads not for depth but for volution within what only seems a stability. What if our attention were not contained by what happens to have been preserved within the ark (arcus, the Latin word for a chest or archive) but what eddies under, around and sometimes through that repository, carries it back and forth, time itself not as laminar flow but spiral of anachronism and unexpected contiguity?

I’ll come clean from the start. I do not believe in periods or genres, not really, not with sufficient enthusiasm. Certain gatherings may compose orderly shapes from mess, organize heaps and muddles into tidy chests. Yet on closer examination an imbroglio remains. The outside clamors for admittance. Forms effloresce and culture-bound modes of story live for a while, flourish, catalyze new parables, go dormant or extinct. But not everything can be read back from denouement. Stories do not end, punctuate as we try. Plotlines thrive and mutate beyond artful terminus, beyond historical probability. Comedy is tragedy is history is romance is comedy. I suspect we live still in the Middle Ages. I know our Now is long. We dwell within a contemporaneity that encompasses the steam engine and the atom bomb. But our present also includes the global dissemination of agriculture and its attendant tumults as well as “the catastrophe (if you are anaerobic) called oxygen.”  So many persisting conditions underlay the possibility of clearing out a now to make our own that the present is best described as “an ever-widening set of concentric temporalities.”  No wonder I sometimes have trouble telling the difference between a romance composed in medieval French lamenting the conclusion of the Arthurian Age and a critical essay rife with Anthropocene melancholy – or (at my worst) between lyrical ekphrasis and a satellite image of a storm that spins against our dwindling coasts.

Poesis is a making. I have learned from Roger Caillois, Marie de France, Jane Bennett and Manuel De Landa (among many others posthumanists) not to worry too much about allocating composition to singulars or humans. Medieval writers told stories of gems with lyrical powers not because they were obtuse but because they perceived something vertiginously productive in the confluence of the human with the geological, a companionship in story-making that it has taken us the Anthropocene to recall.

Embody your countercurrents in an angry woman – a wife no less – and let her rail against the Flood. But then her son will descend to force her aboard while her friends remain in deepening sea. Carols and ale against the surge. The fludd comes fleetinge in full faste.  Our ark was built against a fallen world, its membership exclusive, refuge from climate refugees. History is written with force. One everye syde that spredeth full farre. I wanted to remain in the storm so that another story, sung as a round, might endure. For fere of drowninge I am agast. The waters poured from the vault of heaven, and the waters gushed from the abyss. You will have forgotten the Flood was confluence, its shape a gyre. Good gossippe, lett us drawe nere. After all the Earth was ocean, we could no longer tell the valleys, or the rivers. Everything smoothed when our ship became a singular story. But sometimes below the water I glimpsed the drowned. Their song is held aloft, long after, its archive restless air. History is read with force.

The narrative repertoire we humans possess is splendid in possibility but limited in matter, pattern and plot. We reuse stories. We create palimpsests.  We compose through alliance. The creative and archival repertoire stone possesses is likewise splendid in possibility but limited in material, pattern, plot. We may have learned to intensify our narrative art from this enduring substance, the matter upon which all biological flourishing depends (organic life is geochemical). The Anthropocene as the great rejoining of two partners in world making is belated recognition of an abiding tale, the opening of an obscured archive, a challenge to the topology of customary reading practices. Every archive is a box through which an inadequate number of records are preserved, a climate controlled collation secured against time and weather. Le temps: as anyone who speaks French knows, or anyone who sees in the word weather a verb as well as a noun, history and climate are the same thing. Michel Serres observes
Time is paradoxical; it folds or twists; it is as various as the dance of flames in a brazier – here interrupted, there vertical, mobile, and unexpected. The French language in its wisdom uses the same word for weather and time, le temps. At a profound level they are the same thing … Time flows in a turbulent and chaotic manner. 
Time-weather (le temps) is vortcular rather than smooth. Its elements are swift air, fire, and water – and earth thought within its proper duration (stone as slow water, whorled lithic flow). Ian Baucom writes vividly of the Anthropocene as demanding new topologies of time, emphasizing a “temporal and ontological multiplicity” that knots the progressive lines of customary history. I am sympathetic to Baucom’s call for an Anthropocene-engendered “fourth order of history, measured both in dates and in degrees, in times and temperatures; an historical, infra-historical, and supra-historical order” – but with Michel Serres believe that Baucom’s corkscrewing version of the time-climate has been with us all along. We do not need to grant the Anthropocene its desired ruptures.

We treasure what we have with long and serene habit conserved against le temps, so that a curated collection of records that may originate in happenstance sediments into history. We can learn as much from what has been left to the tempest (“time-storm”) around the ἀρχή [archē], the building or room or chest into which inscriptions of a partial story have been placed to buttress hierarchy, authority, and other straightened or stratified slices of history. Long apprenticeship in the knowledge of how to read that matter for time renders us disciplinary specialists.

Stratigraphy peers into stripes [strata] of stone to discern the inscriptions [graphesis] of long narratives, Earth’s history made legible through layering. That this close reading strives for the linear, with each successive striation well punctuated, is underscored by the idea of an unconformity, a discontinuity in the geological record where horizontal bands have shifted to sit at strange angles. When James Hutton observed such strange rotations he was provoked to formulate an aeonic approach to geology that came to be known as uniformitarianism.  Emphasizing the steady unfolding of repeating, incremental processes, uniformitarianism is a patient hermeneutic that contrasts with catastrophism, the belief that the geological record is storied by sudden floods and irruptions. Through what he described as “reading in the face of rocks the annals of a former world,” Hutton assisted mightily in the liberation of archive Earth from fleeting calamities and the mayfly meter of human time.  World-engulfing disasters like the water Noah built his ark against cease to matter, except perhaps as one unremarkable manifestation of endlessly recurring planetary processes. Catastrophe narratives are brusque, anthropocentric, and not the stuff of stones. From the expansive scales that Hutton’s lithic annals demand “we find no vestige of a beginning -- no prospect of an end.”
Yet Hutton’s reading for depth depends upon unsettled texts, petronarratives that defy their contexts. His inspiration derived from the cliffs of his native Scotland, a geological repository in which he beheld what his companion John Playfair described as “the abyss of time,” a story writ in stone that unfolds “too slow to be immediately perceived … the duration of the world.”  Hutton’s epiphany arrives when he realizes through a combination of close reading and imagining the massive distribution of his data that restless rocks refuse any plot that could unfold in human time. The garrulous angles of geological uncomformity are the bucking of terrestrial force against anthropocentric intelligibility. Such convolutions in the archive can be narrativized only when the Earth is thought within its proper duration. Deep time moves slowly forward, with breaks to inscribe transitions among eons, eras, periods epochs, and ages – and yet in its roiled flow will also reveal a tendency to swirl back upon itself, engendering whorls.

Uncomformity triggers the foundering of the imagination, an invitation to creativity and inventive apprehension, to the realization that the lithosphere flows not like some tranquil river but the billowing sea. Waves of strata crash so slowly that we discern no movement, yet their surge and batter are more powerful than any ocean ever voyaged.

When they compelled me to load the boat I ushered to the hold untreasured things. They love their lions and their sheep, their animals for allegory and aliment. I am the guardian of derided beasts, the chaotic and the fierce: burglars of human plenty, creatures of dissent and scorn. Not every animal is household, housebroken, housemaking. Not every skin is vellum or sacrifice. Bears, wolves, weasels, apes, owls, squirrels: I would proliferate them all, and so I stowed them in snug pens.  Does this family think a future forms without dissension, without triggers to story? They would have peace in a wave-tossed ship. I do not think a wooden wall can ever hold against such tumult. The ocean is already within. Like the air, the characters it carries endure far longer than men and gods would have you think. Though built against the drowned, more stories cling to the ark than you may have been taught.

The International Commission on Stratigraphy publishes an official Chronostratigraphic Chart that maps geological progression from the extensive Hadean to the brief Holocene, the epoch in which we now live.  This ten thousand year span includes the retreat of glaciers whose stories we see inscribed in everyday stones, the proliferation of forest-clearing agriculture, the extinction of the mastodon (along with countless other species that were likewise our contemporaries and companions), genocide, population explosion. The ICS is now attempting to decide if we dwell in a new epoch, one even more recent than the Holocene [“wholly new”]. Starting in 1610 with a planetary dip in CO2, or maybe with the patenting of the steam engine in 1781, or perhaps with the Great Acceleration or the blasting of atomic bombs, we may have initiated the Anthropocene, the Age of Man.  The Anthropocene would inscribe a punctuation mark after which all alters. With its ardor for disequilibrium, storm, speed, technology run amok and sudden havoc, the Anthropocene is a catastrophist’s dream. Yet stratigraphy is a science of straight lines and sedimented narratives, a narrative built on layers. Its love of straightforward sequence is so forceful that the uncomformities within the Anthropocene’s rupture-obsessed narrative are in danger of being smashed and leveled before they speak a more vorticular story. And there a period.

The word period derives from classical Greek peri- [around] + hodos [going], a circling more than a punctuated, linear segment. Medieval Latin employed the noun periodus to denote a cycle that recurs -- and “recur” is itself a Latin verb that means to run back, to circle round. Linguistic strata subjected to close reading reveal themselves to be full of signifying whorls, at least according to the geology of language, etymology. But if the Anthropocene is the wholly new that comes after the wholly new, perhaps familiar terms and reading practices will only obscure the apprehension of a transformed reality, a narrative without forebear, a new segment on the time line. Stones stories after all are not ours.

So there we stood, probably on a rock, but after all this time who knows? The waves were rising. We were giddy women and we were drunk. The fludd comes fleetinge in full faste. We sang our round against the tempest. Our ankles were wet, then knees, hips, chests. And lett us drink or wee departe. We boozed. We crooned. When the water reached our necks we clung and tasted salt. Good gossippe, lett us draw nere. At last from the gangplank my sons descended, first to plead and then to force.
JAPHETT: Come into the shippe for feare of the wedder.
NOES WYFFE: That will I not for all your call but I have my gosseppes all.
SHEM: In fayth, mother, yett thou shall, whether thou will or nought.
He carried me aboard. From the little window I watched my companions cling to their drowning rock, cling to their bottle, their song. By the time the ark lifted they were gone. 
So departed the world. A new era dawned. I knew that when the waters receded and the ship came to rest on a mountain we would sacrifice some cherished animals. The clean beasts and their children we would eat, use their bodies for plastic and for art. You will have forgotten that before the Flood humans feasted only upon plants. The animals we devoured when we left the ark had been messmates and long companions.

Like stratigraphy, the reading practice called historicism holds that the literary record is linear, well punctuated, the product and legible bearer of a roiled climate stilled into context. Texts and genres are signifiers of circumstance, best interpreted by looking closely at economic and social conditions, predecessor texts and contemporary events, cultural contact, social and intellectual transformations, all of which exert determinative force. Stratigraphy has epochs; historicism has periods. The literary archive is horizontal, layered, punctuated – even if we have more difficulty than we admit discerning the integrity of its strata. We cannot expect to find the matter of medieval romance within a nineteenth century lyric unless a writer is deliberately old fashioned, nostalgic, or anachronistic (and even then that impulse is mainly legible as a flight from contemporaneity rather than the conveyance of temporal anomaly). Yet like the geological record, literary texts and the archives to which they belong bear unconformities.

Eric Gidal defines textual unconformities as “more poetic” versions of the spiraled strata that catalyzed geology’s reading practices: untimely irruptions within a narrative, confounding attempts to render a work the record of a moment.  A textual unconformity resists readability, preventing the flow of a smooth “historical continuum between past, present, and future” (183). Such lively temporal admixture challenges “stadial history,” the presumption that poetics as well as peoples progress into better forms over time: more mannered, moral, complex, industrious, individualized, freedom loving, independent, self-reflexive, scientific, skeptical, discovery-driven, inventive, sympathetic, ethical, magnanimous – all the qualities that we congratulate ourselves for having attained, sloughing their opposites onto those distant in time or space. Gidal’s unconformities exist because James Macpherson’s poems of Ossian pretended to convey a past to which they were not contemporary. The obsessive analyses these confounding texts spurred engendered “biblio-stratigraphy,” a bookshelf lined with volumes that offer a visually striking record of “textual sediments and paratextual intrusions” (183). Gidal describes geotextual unconformities as “uniquely modern,” remnants of histories lost as landscapes metamorphose under the pressures of industrialization. No coincidence that the Ossian poems, the patenting of the steam engine, and the formulation of geological deep time are roughly coeval. Gidal reads the Anthropocene as the human race itself becoming an Ossianic unconformity, self-immortalizing as a “trace preserved forever in the rock” to disrupt future geological reading practices (184).

Other than the haunting presence of Pope’s translation of Homer, little of the actual past is to be found within Gidal’s unconformities. Yet the Ossian poems are set in medieval Britain, in a period during which the archipelagic kingdom of Dál Riata enabled a constant flow of people, languages, goods, and stories to traverse coasts. Dál Riata vanished over time into an anglicized Britain, but that assimilation required long, violent work. After the Norman Conquest England was for a while annexed to a transmarinal empire stretching from northern Europe to the Levant. We speak with such reverence about an Age of Discovery proper to the Early Modern period that we forget before Europe encountered its New World it had to discover itself. Much of this discovery unfolded through the same “vessel of modernity,” ships of trade, exploration and war.  As various depictions of Noah’s ark suggest (chest, long ship, cathedral of the seas, cog or carrack), ships are always untimely, always modernity incarnate and yet “vehicles of mythic consciousness.”  Water does not periodize like stone or landlocked texts.  Its archive eddies, conveys strangely, often with storm. In tempests shipwrecks are perpetual but so are intimacies and rounds.

Latin Europe had constantly to be made, a ceaseless process of collective fabrication and internal assimilation with no guarantees of success. A fragile collective, this shifting amalgam was deeply heterogeneous, never inevitable. Numerous indigenous peoples suffered or were obliterated. Richly vernacular stories were left outside the archive. Much was lost to the weather. National homogenization, interior colonization, the forceful imposition of regularity, and genocidal war are easy to forget if we imagine those galleys traversing the Atlantic set sail to the Americas from entities forever stable. History is contingent, filled with possibilities or unconformities straightened into stadial accounts only through great force.

With “biblio-stratigraphy” Gidal describes a specific set of annotated poems and their fervent critical aftermath, but the term could as easily designate the thriving of any popular medieval text as it moves from one vellum instantiation to another, birthing all kinds of pasts and futures, commentaries and sequels. Manuscript culture ensures that most recensions of a narrative will be imprinted by multiple temporalities, knots of disjunct inscription. Beowulf includes stories dating from the sixth century onwards. The poem may have been composed in the eighth century, but the manuscript we possess was inscribed c.1000 AD. The narrative uncannily contains the triad of mariner, stone and text that marks Ossianic literature -- and does so without Homer, thereby pushing hard at what Gidal’s textual unconformity might signify.  Macrobius’ fifth century Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, which records an early impetus to imagine the beauty of the round Earth when viewed from the cosmos, inhabits the philosophy of Boethius, the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes, and the cosmological imaginary of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. Scipio’s dream of space travel was first narrated in Cicero’s De re publica, lost for millennia before its 1819 rediscovery in the Vatican library, where it was hiding in plain sight. The vellum on which the long-sought text was inscribed had been scraped and reused, so that at first glance the skin bore a work of Augustine. A manuscript that holds such simultaneity of impressed stories is called a palimpsest. Were we being more geological, we might label such objects vellum unconformities.

How would a mode of reading that abandons the stratified, punctuated archive proceed? Not one text layered upon another, but time convoluted into a whorl. Literary analysis need not replicate stratigraphy, even if familiar reading practices share tools and assumptions with geology. Lines are composed from spirals. We need not assume an absolute break between deep time and human history, between rocks and water, science and art, periods and epochs, the Anthropocene and the Middle Ages. Some suggestive possibilities for gyred reading are found in a long history of Noah and his ark, a narrative machine that does not stop generating alternatives to inundation’s sufferance. Alongside this foundational story of catastrophe, climate change, and gated community have perennially unfolded dissenting tales that embrace the perspective of the excluded, that posit a transhistoricism of affect in an attempt to feel across unbreachable walls. The root of the English word ark is to be found in Latin arca: a chest for safekeeping, a source of political authority and point of origin, the arche of archive. A place of immurement and preservation, an archive is selective. Much must remain outside. What if Noah’s arkive (a floating strongbox of human and animal stories, of trans-species possibilities in the face of eco-catastrophe) is abandoned as singular origin?

A long tradition of dissonant stories that unfold outside the parameters of the ark is well conveyed by the “The Chester Play of Noah’s Flood.” These tales impede easy periodization. They also resist reduction into totalizing, Anthropocene-style stories about the Human as abstract, disembodied force. The Chester “Flood” drama gives voice to the earthbound desires of Noah’s wife, who chooses to remain with her drinking companions over immurement in the family ship. She calls the ark a “chiste” [chest] while clinging to her “pottle” of ale. Her willingness to remain in catastrophe and community rather than imagine a salvific moment of rising above the waters is a resistance to linear history, a curving of its trajectories against its own love of rupture. Epochal narratives attempt, sovereign-like, to periodize. Yet as Noah’s wife insists, these stories are corporeally, affectively, violently, and unevenly felt. They do not easily transcend embodied particularities. When the Chester play was performed, Noah’s wife would have stood with the audience, likewise excluded from the ark.

Although taken to be an exemplary work of medieval drama, the best version we possess of the Chester “Noah’s Flood,” the version haunting this essay, dates from 1607. Its contemporaries are therefore texts like Shakespeare’s drama of shipwreck and perseverance Pericles and a boom in pamphlet-based disaster porn. The story of the ark seldom settles into an era within which it can be separated off into a fullness of contextual meaning, arriving instead as a perpetual uncomformity, not amenable to clean periodizations, easy climatic impress, stratigraphic archives. The ark should not float and yet it does, a vessel built for maelstrom.

A practice of close, slow reading, historicism totalizes. Enamored of discontinuity, it aims to demonstrate why (for example) Shakespeare’s characters display a subjectivity, individuality, market savvy, global consciousness, sexuality, free will, agonistic relation to deity, intimation of the Anthropocene, and so on, that preceding centuries could not. “Emergence” will often attenuate “rupture,” but the point where difference becomes remarkable always seems consonant with the period in which the literary interpreter has been trained and finds an archive. Differences in intensity become sudden differences in kind. The hegemony of periodization meanwhile remains intractable. Reliant upon what Julie Orlemanski has called a “fragile logic of exemplarity” that sutures together “reading and history,” historicism divides the literary record into marbled strata, characterizes each through what became newly possible, and reads in texts the traces of that climate change.  In any archival trace may be found the world at its moment of composition. If the Anthropocene began in 1610, then The Tempest will be replete with its legible signs. The indigenous peoples of the Americas take a final gasp of air as Caliban curses his enslaving master. The storms that Prospero swirls through his rough magic portend our battered coasts.

The confluence of Lewis and Maslin’s early modern Golden Spike, Shakespeare’s final play and the burgeoning of the Anthropocene makes legible a knot in which present and past are confoundingly entwined.  Yet even such entanglements do not necessary disrupt the topography of totality-obsessed historicist reading, or the linear temporalities upon which literary stratigraphy depends for its narratives. Yet presence is not causality, and history holds more intensification than advent. Julie Orlemanski writes that the “synedochic logic” (223) of exemplary reading relies upon a totality that must be discernible from a distance – just like the Anthropocene, the era that we can imagine only from what Jan Zalasiewicz calls “the perspective of the far future.”  This retrospective coherence would include all differences and form a set or system, segmented into a period. Yet if a totality is actually to encompass all differences it will never stop circling back upon itself. The period becomes the round, the cycle, the spiral. Time does not flow so much as twist, ripple, curl.

The Anthropocene marks a rupture, gathering the Earth together at last with humans, climate, oceans, stones, animals, soil, ice, atmosphere, forests, shorelines, deserts, fungi. Designating an epoch in which none of these are undisturbed, the Anthropocene offers a focus point. It assists in thinking through the profundity of contemporary ecological challenges. Scale zooms out vertiginously, from atomic stories in lithic strata to a planetary whole, from primordial stone to futures too farflung to know, from close reading to distant processing. But difficulties attend such swift scalar shifts. The Anthropocene as totality offers such a distant reading on past and present that specific and meaningful differences, human and historical, easily vanish. So do unconformities, which flourish within difficult middles rather than at extremes. Despite the Anthropocene’s promise to name a problem and thereby ameliorate our anthropogenic nightmares, if we refuse to let go of mundane differences then the Anthropocene totality will not close and a detached or distant perspective will never be achieved. But why not admit the Anthropocene is a failed encompassing, like time: a heterogeneous yet vibrant tempestuousness that as it attempts completion of its circuit finds its course altered? There’s no return to arche or origin that is not a spiraling. What if the Anthropocene names not a period or epoch, which relies on linear, stadial, punctual notions of temporality, but a whorl?

We have zoomed back on the Earth to behold the globe suspended in space, a radiant sphere, the famous Blue Marble (Apollo 17 photograph taken from 45,000 kilometers, 1972). We have pulled so far back that we have beheld our planet as a Pale Blue Dot (Voyager photograph taken from 6 billion kilometers, 1990). Both these images offer an icon of the Anthropocene, a “uniquely modern” moment of humans viewing the only home they have known from a distance. It seems we have to leave the Earth to know it. The Blue Marble and Pale Blue Dot offer at last diminish human self-importance -- even as we ruin the very planet our technology has enabled us to view from the outside. Yet these images deceive. The Blue Marble offers the light side of the planet, leaving much to shadow. When we reify the Earth as globe we seldom include the thing that makes it unique, its drenched and fragile atmosphere (the Earth is more extensive than its rocky surface). We ignore what we cannot see: the majority of planetary matter, locked below our feet at the unreachable core. We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about Earth’s interior. Images from space make the globe seem solitary. Yet its intimacy is with the moon, the satellite that churns its waters and makes its crust bulge, that piece of itself which circles Earth while altering Earth’s own circling. The planet spins on its axis while spinning around a spinning star, source of warmth and light. The Sun meanwhile whirls within an arm of a rotating galaxy that hurtles through space. The solar system in motion is a helix, not a placid series of concentric circles (the Ptolemaic cosmos with the sun at its center rather than Earth). The sun conveys its planets through space like buzzing children, their path galactic loops. Spirals within spirals, nothing still.

A vortex that does not close cannot totalize. Maybe the Anthropocene is a circling and we are never going to know when it began.

Neither texts nor stones are timeless, despite what poets say. Both are so full of time that instead of lines and stadial history we get confounding spirals, aggregations of difference that intensify some stories and some climates and spin away from others. Floods of carbon or water may be arriving soon, just as they crashed in the primordial days of the Permian (which we did not cause) or Noah’s Flood (which we did). Maybe at the next recurrence, the one we are fashioning right now, we will pause and listen to Noah’s Wife as she sings her round and drinks her ale with those left to the weather. Maybe this time we will not leave an unloved world to drown.

Disembarking from their houseboat after long sojourn, Noah and his refugee family offer sacrifices to a preserving deity. After wiping Earth clean of all they had possessed, God promises that he will never again send waters so planetary. The rainbow he hangs in the sky – a real bow, the kind that shoots you dead – he aims towards heaven, not Earth: at his heart, not theirs. Is it a sign perhaps that he went too far? As God takes leave of those who have endured the Flood he says to Noah, “And now farewell, my darling dear” (375). 

The last version of the Chester play dates from 1607, three years too early to be part of the 1610 Anthropocene. And yet I cannot help but to hear in its closing words something like Prospero’s recognition that to drown his books will bind them to the archive they deserve. When a dry box in which texts are cherished for their lined inscriptions is traded for a tempest of swirled water, an eddy where they might become something strange, then we possess an Anthropocene without origins, a flow without cuts, a history without bolted chests, a sea rich in open arks. 

Refuge for widened companionships, a difficult story that curves rather than ends.

[1] Noah Heringman, “Deep Time at the Dawn of the Anthropocene,” Representations 129.1 (2015): 56-85, at 58.
[2] Further on geology as a science that arises in the nineteenth century to read nature’s “book of stone,” see Bronislaw Szerszynski, “The End of the End of Nature: The Anthropocene and the Fate of the Human,” The Oxford Literary Review 34.2 (2012): 165-84. Szerszynski writes of geology’s “linear but contingent deep history, the constant movement from surface differences to deep unities” and the “page-and-writing structure of strata and fossil through which Earth seems to write its own history” 178-79).
[3] Mick Smith, Against Ecological Sovereignty: Ethics, Biopolitics, and Saving the Natural World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 62.
[4] See Timothy Morton, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Term Anthropocene,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 1.2 (2014): 257-64; quotation at 264.
[5] Morton “How I Learned to Stop Worrying” 264.
[6] Sentences not in italics are taken from “Noyes Flood” in The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974).
[7] For the palimpsest as a figure for temporality as thick, explosive, and simultaneous (an idea derived in large part from the work of Bruno Latour and Michel Serres), see Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).
[8] Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans. Rozanne Lapidus (Ann Arbor: Univrsity of Michigan Press, 1995) 58-59. Holding to a “chaotic theory of time,” Serres argues that although time is often posited to flow linearly, like a laminar river, such a straightening figure ignores “counter-currents” and “turbulences” (58), so that “every historical is likewise multitemporal, simultaneously drawing from the obsolete, the contemporary and the futuristic. An object, a circumstance, is thus polychromic, multitemporal, and reveals a time that is gathered together, with multiple pleats” (60).
[9] Ian Baucom, “History 4°: Postcolonial Method and Anthropocene Time,The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry
 1.1 (2014) 123-42. Baucom usefully thinks through the necessity of periodization as part of his project.
[10] The term “uniformitarianism” was coined by William Wewhell in 1832 as he reviewed Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, the book through which Hutton’s ideas became widely known.
[11] James Hutton, Theory of the Earth, with Proofs and Illustrations, vol. 3, ed. Sir Archibald Geikie (London: Geological Society, 1899; reprint Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1997) 46. On geology as a contemporary reading practice see Noah Herringman, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).
[12] Although they likely do not need sourcing, those words in italics are the most famous and widely quoted that Hutton composed. They appear in Abstract of a Dissertation Read in the Royal Society Edinburgh Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and Stability (Edinburgh, 1785) 28.
[13] John Playfair, Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (Edinburgh, 1802) 212, 117.
[14] For the intimate relation between Noah’s wife and the animals she brings aboard the ark, see Lisa Kiser, “The Animals in Chester’s Noah’s Flood,” Early Theatre 14.1 (2001): 15-44.
[15] The chart may be accessed via the ICS website
[16] On the stakes of determining where to instigate the Anrthopocene – and what in fact to call it – see especially Stacy Alaimo, “Your Shell on Acid: Material Immersion, Anthropocene Dissolves,” in Anthropocene Feminism, ed. Richard Grusin and John Blum (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming); Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 159-65; Steve Mentz, Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550-1719 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015) ix-xxiii; Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “Colonization of the Americas, ‘Little Ice Age’ Climate, and Bomb-Produced Carbon: Their Role in Defining the Anthropocene,” The Anthropocene Review 2.2 (2015): 117-27.
[17] Eric Gidal, Ossianic Unconformities: Bardic Poetry in the Industrial Age (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015) 6. See also 12, where Gidal writes of creating a “hybrid taxonomy”of these unconformities to “register and reflect upon the social and spatial disruptions of industrialized modernity and the stratigraphic consciousness of geological deep time” (12).
[18] “Vessel of modernity” is from Charles Withers, Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) 209, cited approvingly by Gidal, who applies it especially to the steam ship (10).
[19] See Gidal 161, who admits a confluence in both tropes but writes that the steam-powered ship is the conveyor of a reshaped “geopoetic imaginary.” Stone and water converge, I think, in desiring narratives of intensification over those of rupture. I am not willing to disalign the Roman trireme, the longboat, the schooner, and the freighter.
[20] I am thinking here of Steve Mentz’s notion of a wet or briny text in At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (London: Continuum, 2009).
[21] See Steve Mentz’s idea of the Naufragocene, or the Anthropocene as “Age of Shipwreck,” in Shipwreck Modernity.
[22] The work of the historian R. R. Davies is essential here. See especially The First English Empire. Power and Identities in the British Isles, 1093-1343 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
[23] The recurring figures of the navigator, the stone that commemorates the warrior, and the text that memorializes them both is central to Gidal’s reading of Ossianic recording of Homer within a “brave new world of industrial modernity” (159) but it is also an untimely episode that unfolds in Beowulf, when the dying king imagines a future navigator spotting his tomb and relating his life.
[24] Julie Orlemanski, “Scales of Reading,” Exemplaria: Medieval, Early Modern, Theory (26): 215-33, at 217.
[25] Mentz writes that of a 400 year old Anthropocene: “The 1610 Anthropocene takes the latest claim for the radical newness of today and submerges it back into History, with all of history’s messiness and swirl.” See “Enter Anthropocene, c.1610” For a counterargument to the plausibility of 1610 as a marker see especially Zalasiewicz et al., “Colonization of the Americas” 3-4.
[26] Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “Are We Now Living in the Anthropocene?” GSA Today 18.2 (2008):4-8, at 4. 


Steve Mentz said...

Such a gorgeous, swirling essay! I'm very glad to read it, even as it reminds me that I need to finish my draft for this same book project / seminar at ACLA. So here's my niggling question about rupture and totalization as both historical and interpretive practices: what if we hate them but also can't do without them? Can we devise a modest or self-limiting critical practice that can do justice to both continuity and change over time? I'd like to think that the answer is yes, though I recognize that any legible practice is likely to slight the full messiness of the experiential whorl.

More from my side of this conversation coming soon, though I think you'll not be at ACLA in a few weeks?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Steve! I am sure you could spot your influence throughout this piece.

I've been thinking a lot about Jameson's declaration (he is so good at declarations; I am always so tentative) that "We cannot *not* periodize." I take that in part t mean we do have to rupture and we do have to totalize. But what would happen if we we didn't? It's not that the world would become an undifferentiated mess or that nothing would change over time; it's more that time itself would be different, and I think we'd speak more about intensification rather than using "emergence" as an attenuated form of "rupture." Surely it is possible to narrate a story in medias res? It won't give us the satisfying conclusions we crave but it could still be a good, forceful, convincing story.

No ACLA for me, as I'm gone for a week to Germany and Switzerland followed by New Orleans followed by Arizona and I do need to be home every once in a while ...

Karl Steel said...

There's a LOT to deal with in this, and it feels in part like an archive of your own work (including archipelagic Britain (that word, archi-pelago!). I'm not thinking about so what you can do with this piece, which feels finished to me (and I love the archival interludes): though here I would recommend citing a certain, humble Steve Mentz's SHIPWRECK MODERNITY, which has great stuff on periodization to start; I'm thinking more about where else you could take this.

I hate to recommend the relation between writing and leaving traces that outlast us as a key figure for Derrida, but there you go.

More interestingly is the clash between the layers in the Biblical ark story (7 clean animals, or only 2?), both preserved in the same book through to the present. That in itself is fascinating, even if we don't read this story alongside larger myths of floods, or Rabbincal commentary, or even the persistence of the ark myth in, say, fantasies of generation ships.

Genesis 6 And of every living creature of all flesh, thou shalt bring two of a sort into the ark, that they may live with thee: of the male sex, and the female. [20] Of fowls according to their kind, and of beasts in their kind, and of every thing that creepeth on the earth according to its kind; two of every sort shall go in with thee, that they may live.

Genesis 7 And the Lord said to him: Go in thou and all thy house into the ark: for thee I have seen just before me in this generation. [2] Of all clean beasts take seven and seven, the male and the female. [3] But of the beasts that are unclean two and two, the male and the female. Of the fowls also of the air seven and seven, the male and the female: that seed may be saved upon the face of the whole earth.

How many? Less important than this being a wonderful representation of exactly the kind of whorled history that you want, here in the very archive of the archive of archives, the Hebrew scriptures.

Karl Steel said...

FURTHER THOUGHTS - written before lunch, while not drinking a Gewürztraminer with (maybe) excessive notes of litchi - a couple obvious things about the flood stories: they arise in ground zero of human civilization, primarily, I believe, from river deltas (does Egypt produce its own flood story? Probably), which means that the flood story obviously records the cycle of flood + fertility that both bedeviled the first civilizations and also made them, and their goods, possible. The feast of wine and meat that follows the biblical flood is a good record of this dynamic [while what's lacking perhaps is much attention to cities, but given that the ancient Israelites were pretty low consequence people among their powerful neighbors, so very productive of artifacts by contrast for the lumberhouse of the Louvre etc), it's no wonder that cities don't show up much in Genesis].

The larger point is this: if you're talking the anthropocene and the flood, one key thing is that the flood story, emerging as it does from the first civilizations, is also a record of the beginning of the settled, civilized, hierarchical societies that enable literacy (and therefore the archive) and may also be the ending of all "this" now. Managing the annual floods, who knows, may have been the first real act of civilization. There's one of your whorls.

Steve Mentz said...

I wonder, Jeffrey, if you and I are responding to/against Jameson's perodizing command in opposite ways. Your gambit is asking what happens if we refuse all periodizing gestures, b/c none of them really explains what they set out to explain. My alternative is to accept them all -- every last one! -- on the chance that the lever of a particular date can reveal or create some new idea about a shared past & uncertain future. "Aways periodize -- more than twice!"

It may be that this split can only be settled by another bout of wrastling in the surf, which would be fun, but the two options make an interesting thought experiment. I agree about narrating in medias res -- but I also think that the narrating habit *always* wants to shape beginnings & endings. Can we tell stories without them? Even if we don't (want to) believe in them, in any conclusive sense?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Karl, for prodding me towards the sedimented density of the biblical record -- and the entanglement with environmental management in its generating world that likely conveys. I have to admit I have been more interested in the story's loquacious afterlife than in its moments of gestation but in the larger project (and this is part of what is becoming a massively large project) I want to account for exactly the observations you've made. In this essay it was important to have the Flood mediated through a woman, since that was the great gift of the Middle Ages when it comes to thinking this catastrophe.

Steve, I wonder if we are not arguing for consonant practices of reading by embracing opposite challenges within Jameson? By embracing every possible periodization (as you do so wonderfully in Shipwreck Modernity; you can see how your book is very much part of the dialogue of this essay) then each segment gets anchored to a nonbinding yet powerful point of suture -- an eye for the hurricane, and then they are going to spin (because they will be laden with conflict and difference; they likely won't mark a simple convergence). Much to think about here so thank you for it!