Saturday, November 25, 2017

Anthropocene gods

There are a lot of very heady theory discussions about the Anthropocene (usually starting with a principled distancing from the term). The new age's alleged upsetting of the distinctions between natural history and human history, between nature and culture, opens the floodgates to neologisms and equivocations. Any religion in there? It seemed not - religion was presumably part of "culture," and not the most valuable part; it certainly had nothing in particular to say or contribute.

But then I happened on an ingenious article called "Gods of the Anthropocene" and it's rocking my world. It's not exactly an acknowledgment that religion matters, that religions matter, so much as an insistence that thinking "beyond the nature/culture divide" must also be post-secular, that is, reject the assumptions of secularity. And so the author, British sociologist Bronislaw Szerszynski, argues that this new epoch has new "gods" - defined not in any sort of theological way but as "any embodied or disembodied non-human agency that is experienced, interacted with or is otherwise socially consequential but is not (or not always) mapped onto a single body of the kind that is recognized by Western ‘naturalism’ as capable of consciousness or agency” (255). Brilliantly he proposes there are at least six, neatly folding into them popular theories of the Anthropocene.

Anthropos is the imaginary human agent capable of making and remaking the world, and indeed of surviving beyond and without it.

Capital is the trans-human agency to which Marxists and others point in critiquing the humanism of “Anthropocene” imagining.

The sun, in a nod to Georges Bataille, is the actual source of all energy including the human, its surpluses generating culture and politics.

The Earth, whether celebrated as Pachamama, Chthulus (Haraway), or as the thousand-named Gaia (Stengers, Latour), functions in a "god"-like way, too.

Into this august company comes a familiar figure, Yahweh or Allah, pacific in his "Laudato si’" form but threatening in the form of apocalyptic movements spurred on by the upsetting of local orders by carbon capitalism.

The cosmos, finally, is the larger whole of which our whole solar system — not to mention the fleeting farce of human consciousness — is an entirely insignificant part.

Nobody worships all of these gods, but Szerszynski compellingly suggests something non-secular is at work in accounts of each of them. The devotees of each of these "gods" posit the existence of some agency beyond the human which we must reckon with if not reverence, the arbiter of our survival and of the meaning or meaninglessness of human striving. Szerszynski has other tricks up his sleeves (starting with pairing these "high gods" with "low spirits" generated by the turbulence produced by the high gods, "cannibals, vampires and devils" described in recent anthropological studies of religion), which I'll save for another time.

Bronislaw Szerszynski, “Gods of the Anthropocene: Geo-Spiritual Formations in
the Earth’s New Epoch,” Theory, Culture & Society 34/2-3 (2017): 253-275, 258-62

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