Naturalcultural Wonders to Anthropocene Disasters: A Bibliography for Possibility Aesthetics

From Art Journal 76, nos. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 2017)

Andrew Yang Critical Bibliography

“Artificial” derives from Latin: artificialis, “of, or belonging to, art.” Language is one of many ways that the long-standing opposition between art and nature in Western thinking manifests. It is part of an abiding assumption about how we distinguish the cultural, as a human domain, from the nonhuman matrix of material—the natural world, a physical backdrop for human autonomy and agency. However, humanity is now the predominant biogeochemical force on the planet. Whether viewed through the lens of global warming, the rates of carbon and nitrogen cycling, or the demise of innumerable species—by almost any measure, our artificialis has now become Earth’s second nature.

Scientists have proposed the “Anthropocene” as a novel geological epoch to mark these dramatic changes, as a designation for how human ingenuity generally—and the logic of extractive capitalism specifically—has transformed the face of the planet. If Earth is a collective lifescape, then the question is how we will contribute to its resilience or to its decay, and what kinds of imaginaries will function as mediums for either path. Alas, art can no longer presume the privilege of humanistic neutrality (as if it ever really could). Representations of the human and nonhuman across art, design, and literature are nothing less than forms of possibility aesthetics. These aesthetics, as models, implicitly take a position on the shape of a future in which cultural and planetary histories have now irrevocably woven into one another. I would argue that the proposal for a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, urges an expansive recalibration of our scales of perception: from single lifetimes to multigenerational deep time, from human autonomy to creaturely mutuality, from inertness of substance to the vibrancy of matter. Put in the context of geological time, our human-scale notions of past, present, and future blur into a shared continuum in which science fiction and u/dystopian thinking begins to make its way into everyday life. “How did we get here?” and “where we going?” form a common query that, in turn, forces fresh scrutiny on precisely who the collective “we” even is, or could be. Which we is responsible, or most at risk? What sorts of people, organisms, and entities does we invite or exclude? In the age of climate change, reimagining Earth’s econo-ecology is an exercise in how the aesthetics of possibility can propose something less simplistic than the “natural” or the “artificial,” and more sustainable than business as usual.

The works in this bibliography are intended to expand these spaces of aesthetic consideration. Many of the entries are not typical bedfellows, which may be a fitting model for the Anthropocene: a wonder-filling and terrifying assemblage in need of new sense. Likewise, few of the listed works are specifically about the Anthropocene. Although there are a number of excellent books specifically on “art and the Anthropocene,” my primary goal is to highlight varied formats and sources (speculative histories, manifestos, performative lectures, graphic novels) that take shape as a transdisciplinary cluster, a sampling that avoids tidy packaging in favor of a prismatic scattering of shared concerns. I hope that where the works diverge, they also reconverge—not only as opportunities for perceiving the complexity of planet-size facts, but also as spaces for imagining newly shaped fictions.

John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” in Why Look at Animals?
(London: Penguin, 2009); also in Berger, About Looking (New York: Vintage, 1992)
This Penguin edition takes readers on an incisive journey through Berger’s analysis of the nature/culture aesthetics that follow from industrialized capitalism, circa the 1970s. His classic essays “Why Look at Animals?” and “Ape Theatre” analyze the zoo as a monument to humans’ loss of intimacy with other animals, which are now usually relegated to the role of cartoon, pet, or factory-farmed flesh. His essay on peasant and bourgeois food habits, “The Eaters and the Eaten,” unpacks the problematic division of modern subjectivity from the material sources that feed it (which connects to Brett Bloom’s Petro-Subjectivity as well as the collective “Ecomodernist Manifesto” in surprisingly rich ways—see below). Berger’s remarkable mix of criticality, expressions of transcendence, and somewhat Romantic melancholy remains a fertile source for puzzling over the status of nature and of representation in modern/postmodern span of the Anthropocene. For example, what should we make of the claim, “Art does not imitate nature, it imitates creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature”? Berger died at the beginning of this year; while he rests in peace, his writings continue to be restless.

Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin, eds., Land and Animal and Nonanimal. With texts and artworks by Thom van Dooren, Mitchell Akiyama, Natasha Ginwala, Alex Straschnoy, Arvo Leo, Bianca Baldi, Karthik Pandian and Andros Zins-Browne, Seth Denizen and Etienne Turpin, Richard W. Pell and Lauren B. Allen, and the Land Archive, from the series Intercalations, 2 (Berlin: K. Verlag and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2015)
This collection is a kind of contemporary cousin to Berger’s writings, with a twist: it is a self-proclaimed book-as-exhibition within which, according to the series description on the front flap, “erratic intercalations of the Anthropocene invite new forms of literacy, visuality, inquiry, and speculation.” This slim volume’s text and visual essays include artists, designers, curators, and philosophers examining the aesthetics of care and inquiry. Thom van Dooren’s “The Last Snail: Loss, Hope, and Care for the Future” looks at heroic efforts to save or “bank” endangered species, such as the Hawaiian snail, Achatinella. What forms of hope against extinction are sustaining, and what forms are wishful thinking that undermine “our imaginative and moral capacity to perceive” crisis or properly care for the future? Van Dooren references Donna Haraway (see below), as does Mitchell Akiyama’s paired contributions on animal language and photography. Artist projects curated by Natasha Ginwala collage places, images, and histories as a way to explore the idea of animal traces. Such traces are a fitting introduction to “Preface to a Genealogy to the Postnatural,” by the artists Richard W. Pell and Lauren Allen, which guides readers through their museum (the Center for Postnatural History) and delves into the aesthetics of the genetically modified creatures that are coming to define our neo-natural world.

Donna Haraway Reads The National Geographic on Primates
(1987, video, sound, color and black-and-white, 28 min., Paper Tiger Television/University of California, Santa Cruz; see, as of September 12, 2017)

Dr. Penny Patterson: Are you an animal or a person?
Koko: I’m animal-gorilla.

With this exchange between a biologist and a language-trained gorilla, Donna Haraway launches into a carnivalesque video perfor mance that dissects how Man and Nature are co-constructed by science and colonial power. Over the span of thirty minutes, she takes culture apart like ball of yarn, string by string. In Berger’s book, the animal doesn’t return our gaze, but Haraway is interested in Koko as the ape that uses a camera to photograph herself, keeps a pet kitten, and represents Universal Man. “What gets to count as nature, for whom and when, and how much it costs to produce nature at a particular moment in history for a particular group of people?” Haraway contrasts the scientific and anthropological aesthetics of modernist universalism with that of situated specifics. Through her critical analysis of magazines, movies, postcards, and even a chocolate layer cake, Haraway deconstructs race, gender, science, and corporate power in a way that is lucid, densely packed, and just as resonant now as it was in 1987. Indeed, while Haraway has written and spoken extensively on various -cenes of late (Anthropocene, Capitalocene, and Chthulucene), this performance from thirty years ago offers an examination of natureculture at a historical moment very different from and also eerily similar to the present. She presses on how various kinds of “we” come to be, through globalizing narratives and across “the traffic between nature and culture.”

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014)
The cultural theorist Fredric Jameson wrote, “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.”1 This book might be part of that attempt—not the end of the world in total, but certainly the world as it is now, and (as the title suggests) the Western world in particular. Whatever political safety historians might find by employing hindsight as 20/20 vision, the historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway abandon it in favor of writing the prehistory of a catastrophic climate future. Writing from the perspective of a Chinese historian three hundred years from now, this work of historical science fiction details a series of disasters set off by global warming. As a vision of the future, its dystopian tone is tempered by a sense of hopeful resilience, while still clearly pointing to the capitalist cult of “market fundamentalism” as an accelerating engine of the Anthropocene. The text also includes a short “lexicon of archaic terms” in which the future historian critically reinterprets concepts like invisible hand and environment, terms whose service to natureculture have been equally dubious. An interview with Oreskes and Conway at the end of the book offers insight into how history-as-science-fiction might be aesthetically effective in an era in which conventional intellectual discourse and science communication have lost social traction.

John Asafu-Adjaye et al., “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” (, 2015)
Manifestos are enduring artistic and political forms, both as claims to principle and calls to action. “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” is a techno-utopic vision that seeks a “good, or even great” Anthropocene by doubling down on the human/nature divide. Through an “accelerated decoupling” of the direct reliance of our species on natural resources, the ecomodernists see promise in more genetically modified agriculture, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination. By design-optimizing humanity, and further idealizing nonhuman “nature,” they claim that we can prosper on Spaceship Earth. It is a matter of aesthetics as much as anything else: “The case for a more active, conscious, and accelerated decoupling to spare nature draws more on spiritual or aesthetic than on material or utilitarian arguments. Current and future generations could survive and prosper materially on a planet with much less biodiversity and wild nature. But this is not a world we want nor, if humans embrace decoupling processes, need to accept.” The manifesto’s eighteen authors claim that their brand of modernization isn’t synonymous with “capitalism, corporate power, and laissez-faire economic policies;” little is offered, however, about how that won’t be the case. Techno-fixes meant to mitigate global warming end up hastening and amplifying the collapse of the climate in Oreskes and Conway’s cli-fi history; accordingly, ecomodernist boosterism is worth scrutinizing in terms of hope as well as possible care for the future. Given a vision so utopic, holistic, and problematic, their website’s inclusion of commentaries both for and against is a thoughtful resource. The social-media-friendly .org platform on which the manifesto is published is also worth critical consideration. The clickability of “joining the conversation” and its scroll-fading hyperlinked aesthetics embody, for better or for worse, the kind of generic inclusivity that modernism reveres.

Brett Bloom, Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self
(Fort Wayne: Breakdown Break Down Press, 2015)
This short book by the artist, environmental activist, and educator Brett Bloom is also a pointed polemic, but one that presents a rather different approach to cultural sustenance in the context of climate change. Bloom shines a critical light on what he calls “petro-subjectivity”—an experience of the world built almost completely from fossil fuels that “restructures our relationships and capacities to perceive.” He argues that our ability to relate to the world, as an everyday reality or future imaginary, is aesthetically bound by a petro-subjective way of living. Bloom claims that increased decoupling from nature through technological aspiration is in fact the enduring problem—trying to address climate breakdown with the same technophilic addiction to cheap, industrialized energy (be that natural gas or wind turbines) simply perpetuates the crisis. Sound is one of the primary means that Bloom seeks to deindustrialize our senses and sensibilities, especially through practices of Deep Listening, the contemplative musical practice pioneered by the composer Pauline Oliveros. Bloom’s approach is a kind of catastrophism mixed with hopeful intervention: “It is largely from the work I have done to challenge my own petro-subjectivity that my optimism springs most strongly. I have come to see to what extent our sensory world in urban spaces and industrialized rural landscapes is dramatically limited . . . we cannot imagine the full range of emotions, experiences, perceptions, and other ways of being that we are capable of.” Here is possibility aesthetics in full flourish: retuning our practices of perception as the means for reconceiving and for rebuilding a culture more sustaining than the one that we’ve currently come to accept. By embracing the unpredictably of and renewed openness to the natural world, Bloom proposes a collective reclamation project of the senses—if anything, a kind of eco-antimodernist manifesto. See also Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium Is the Massage (New York: Bantam Books, 1967), for a provocative companion and foil that explores electro-subjectivity, aurality, and embodiment.

Yuichi Yokoyama, New Engineering
(Brooklyn: PictureBox, 2007)
In the fantastical world of this graphic novel, only humans seem to exist. Futuristically dressed characters obsessively terraform the land and, in the process, generate an encyclopedic range of unremitting construction noise. In each panel the large graphic lettering for the sounds become architectural elements in their own right: pach (the sound of pieces being snapped together); goro goro goro (the sound of astroturf rolling); dokaaaa dododo (big machines and explosions). It is the kind of incessant, petro-subjective noise pollution that Deep Listening struggles against. While the world of New Engineering might represent some version of ecomodernism gone terribly wrong, these speculative spaces most certainly take inspiration from the landscape of Yokoyama’s native Japan and the radical, concrete transformation much of the country has undergone over the past sixty-five years (see, for example, the photography of Toshio Shibata). Indeed, in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, the topographical reordering along Japan’s northeastern coast has only accelerated, sometimes with striking resemblance to scenes in New Engineering. In the book, seemingly natural landscapes like lakes and tree-covered mountains are fabricated by the most meticulous, aggressive, and absurd means possible: shuru shuru (the high-pitched sound of boulders being dropped from a plane). When paka (the sound of a globe being torn apart) appears in one panel, it is a classroom globe of Earth being split in halves and fashioned into impromptu hats. It is hard not to read such a scene as anything but an allegory of a planet being disassembled for human use . . . but neither is it incidental that in the accompanying interview Yokoyama mentions, “It may be that the pictures I draw are not scenes seen through human eyes. They may represent the perspective of an animal, insect, machine, or other inanimate matter.” Are the humans in New Engineering constructing the world, or is the world in various nonhuman forms—tsunami to meltdown—also very much constructing us?

Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010)
Many still believe that humans are distinct in having minds and not just brains. Sure, animals (as etymology suggests) are animated compared to nonliving matter, but both lack meaningful motivation. The political scientist Jane Bennett, however, explores the possibilities of matter exerting its own potent agency. Through her lens of “vibrant matter” the questions of “we”—its membership, its politics, and its ecologies—become more expansive and complicated: “It is difficult . . . for a public convened by environmentalism to include animals, vegetables, or minerals as bona fide members, for nonhumans are already named as a passive environment. . . . A more materialist public would need to include more earthlings.” Through examples spanning power grids, garbage, and stem cells, Bennett makes a compelling case for imagining the vastly distributed nature of Nature. Her chapter on food, for example, expands kaleidoscopically on ideas that Berger raises on the socioeconomics of eating. Heavy on the heavies of Western philosophy, many of her ideas link to concepts explored by speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, and other new materialisms popular in contemporary art now. Bennett’s vibrant proposal for a more inclusive and participatory notion of us expands the circle beyond modernist human to animal through to things, and all the forms of we in between. In the end, possibility aesthetics is not simply about what happens tomorrow as much as reconceiving who matters today.

Andrew Yang is an artist and educator working across the naturalcultural. His projects have been exhibited from Oklahoma to Yokohama, including the 14th Istanbul Biennial (2015) and a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2016). His writings appear in Leonardo, Biological Theory, Gastronomica, and Antennae, among others. He holds a PhD in biology and an MFA in visual arts, and is an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

  1. Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review 21 (May-June 2003): 65-79.