A History of the Anthropocene in Objects

Handheld DDT pump, with red white and blue label with visible wear

In the fall of 2014, an unusual event took place at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that would set the stage for the book Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. Artists and anthropologists, historians and geographers, literary scholars and biologists from around the world gathered in the playful, performative space of an “Anthropocene Slam” to shape a cabinet of curiosities for this new age of humans. A collaborative project of the Nelson Institute’s Center for Culture, History, and Environment, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich and KTH’s Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm, the Anthropocene Slam invited freestyle conversation, debate, and reflection on what such a cabinet should be. What objects should it house? Which issues should it speak to? What emotions might it evoke? And what range of meanings and moral tales might it contain?

The front cover of the book "Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene."Above all, in this era of extreme hydrocarbon extraction, extreme weather, and extreme economic disparity, how might certain objects make visible the uneven interplay of economic, material, and social forces that shape the relationships among human and nonhuman beings? The Anthropocene is a narrative about space, as well as time. Its sheer scope—for example, the global scale of warming temperatures, species extinction, ocean acidification—risks obliterating the differences through which its impacts are felt by different beings, occupying different ways of life, in locales across the planet.

Slam performers dramatized, versed and otherwise made visible the ways that planetary-scale changes become apparent and leave traces in both space and time. One participant taught the audience to fold origami passenger pigeons, a species hunted to extinction within the span of 100 years. Dozens of paper birds took flight in symbolic de-extinction. Another group poured a test slab of concrete on stage and intoned an imagined chorus for this most widely used material in our increasingly built environment. Thus the objects, images, and echoes on the slam stage evoked the sedimentary remains of humanity’s impact on Earth.

To collect objects of the Anthropocene is to register the diverse emotional responses—loss, grief, hubris, humility, anger, and pain, among others—evoked in a climate of change and uncertainty.

In contemplating and interrogating a preemptive history of the Anthropocene and its meanings, why bring attention to objects when the concept invites planetary-scale thinking across eons? Neil MacGregor, in his best-selling A History of the World in 100 Objects, suggests that a history told through objects is a history that speaks to “whole societies and complex processes rather than individual events.” Just as paleontologists look to fossil remains to infer past conditions of life on earth, so might past and present-day objects offer clues to intertwined human and natural histories. The objects gathered in Future Remains resemble more the tarots of a fortuneteller than the archeological finds of an expedition: they speak of the future.

Collectively, the objects in Future Remains constitute a kind of Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. Popular in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Wunderkammern blurred boundaries, displaying the artificial and the natural side by side. The marvels in them were meant to inspire a range of emotions: wonder, envy, pleasure, and fear. The Anthropocene, by also troubling boundaries between artifice and nature, can provoke similar feelings and a wide range of expressions. It has provoked utmost hubris, as in Stewart Brand’s widely circulated remark, “we are as gods and have to get good at it.” And it has inspired more meditative, humble reflections in the face of widespread accelerated extinctions, reflected in Thom van Dooren’s question: “What obligations do we have to hold open space in the world for other living beings?” Technocratic optimism, ecological declension, and ethical apprehension exist side by side in future imaginaries. To collect objects of the Anthropocene is to register the diverse emotional responses—loss, grief, hubris, humility, anger, and pain, among others—evoked in a climate of change and uncertainty.

Tim Flach’s photographs of the objects found in our Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene are driven by a sense of intrigue and curiosity, inviting the viewer to imagine and explore the past, present, and potentially future meanings of these fossils. Flach’s images suggest each thing’s characteristic trait: the brutality of concrete, the forensic nature of a feather, the extinct form of a Blackberry. A London-based photographer whose animal images circulate around the world and provoke questions of what it means to be human, Flach brings to this project an aesthetic sensibility, keen understanding, and technical brilliance in creating wondrous images in the spirit of a cabinet of curiosities.

As a teaser to the Wunderkammern contained within Future Remains, we offer essay excerpts and images from three of fifteen exemplary objects that offer a fragmentary history of the Anthropocene. We hope they spark your curiosity and entice you to further browse, dip in, and explore. Instead of providing a single overarching narrative—whether of a negative universal history of humanity’s ecological destruction or a triumphal prediction of a bright and perfectly engineered future—these remains interrogate the limits of the idea of Anthropocene and make us wonder anew about what human history is made of.

Anthropocene in a Jar, by Tomas Matza and Nicole Heller

A jar with varied colored layers of sand set agaist black background.

A jar of sand. Photo by Tim Flach, © University of Chicago Press 2018.

“We would return months later to collect an object of wonder and concern—a sample of swirling sand and shell, captured in a recycled kimchi jar, now housed in a museum exhibit. Eventually we came to understand that the jar contains a vast ecology of ocean cycles, tides and moons, wave dynamics, tunneling critters, barrier islands, lagoons, and debris from ancient mountains—things one could classify as ‘natural.’ And it contains pipes, dredging ships, dream houses, cars, carbon emissions, and people with their toes in the sand—things one could classify as ‘human.’ In essence, the recycled jar captures the entwined and often vexed processes of earth cycles and human development. This entwinement points to what scholars in the sciences and the humanities are calling ‘the Anthropocene,’ a concept signifying the increasing human-domination of earth processes. Our jar reminds us how difficult it has become to think of any earth process, whether oceanic, climatic, geomorphic, or otherwise, without also thinking of the human.”

The Manual Pesticide Spray Pump, by Michelle Mart and Cameron Muir

A manual pesticide spray pump labeled with DDT against a black background.

The manual pesticide spray pump. Photo by Tim Flach, © University of Chicago Press 2018.

“The manual pesticide pump tells us much about the Anthropocene: the proliferation of novel, human-made compounds such sprayers were designed to disperse; the intimate ways in which materials flow between ecologies and our bodies; the unequal geographic and intergenerational distribution of risks; and the kinds of desires, visions, and political economies of the societies that made and used such technologies. The scale of the Anthropocene draws us toward the causes, legacies, and representative objects that are proportionately grand. The diminutive, bicycle pump-sized pesticide sprayer, on the other hand, directs our thinking away from the immensity of the Anthropocene and its abstract futures, down to the local, the present, and the everyday: to backyards, school playgrounds, neighborhood reserves, household kitchens. The participants in the Anthropocene are not just engineers or global mining companies, but ordinary folk, such as conservation volunteers, weekend gardeners, and parents concerned with household hygiene, health, and cleanliness. The pump itself played a historical role in making some of the disruptive processes that define the Anthropocene—in this case, industrial chemical production—become familiar and unthreatening. The physical pump helped to domesticate and naturalize the liquid poison that it contained, leading people throughout the world to accept—or even embrace—the idea that pesticides were integral to modern life.”

On Possibility; or, The Monkey Wrench by Daegan Miller

An old, silver and rust colored monkey wrench set against a black background.

The monkey wrench. Photo by Tim Flach, © University of Chicago Press 2018.

“And so the wrench allows us, if we pause in our work for a moment longer, to consider inequality—whose labor built the Anthropocene? Whose labor laid the rails, fitted the pipes, shoveled the coal, felled the trees, grew the grain, picked the cotton, slaughtered the cattle, sailed the ships, forged the iron, drilled the wells, trucked the oil, poured the concrete, assembled the engines, mined the ore, strung the wires giving light, motion, form, and strength to the Age of Man? Whose labor brought many millions of tool-handling workers into the world? Where did all this work happen? What parts of the world were looted for their wealth—their precious ores, soils, trees, and animals—and what parts of the world have become dumping grounds for the toxic effluvia of industry? Which parts of the world will be saved from the worst effects of the Anthropocene, and which derelict Atlantises will be left to slip beneath rising, acidified seas?”

Featured image: The manual pesticide spray pump. Photo by Tim Flach, © University of Chicago Press 2018.

Gregg Mitman is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and teacher, whose interests span the history of science, medicine, and the environment in the United States and the world. His last contribution to Edge Effects was “A Liberian Journey” (May 2016). Website. Twitter. Contact.

Marco Armiero is the Director of the Environmental Humanities Laboratory (EHL) at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, where he is also an Associate Professor of Environmental History. He has written on environmental justice, migration, fascism and nature, toxic autobiographies, and the Alps. Contact.

Robert S. Emmett is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Roanoke College Environmental Studies program. He is the author of Cultivating Environmental Justice: A Literary History of US Garden Writing (UMass Press, 2016) and with David E. Nye, The Environmental Humanities: A Critical Introduction (MIT Press, 2017). From 2013-2015 he served as Director of Academic Programs at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany. Twitter. Contact.

Preface, excerpts, and images reprinted with permission from Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero, and Robert Emmett, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2018 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.

13 Responses

  1. Thanks for an excellent article – and I’m looking forward to the book. It echoes a creative conversation that I’ve initiated on http://www.ClimateCultures.net – inviting artists, curators and researchers to discuss their personal selections of three objects that help to trace an imagined trajectory of the Anthropocene: past, present and future. Our own ‘cabinet of curiosities’ is now half way to its modest aim of A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects!

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