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Whispers of the Anthropocene: Issues of Urgency in an Age of Slow Violence


A still image from a video piece by Anna Stevens. Four found recordings of the first milliseconds of nuclear explosions are displays
'Breathing Bombs' (2023) by Anna Stevens

1945 was the beginning of the end. It was the year that a United States aircraft dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima, the first atomic bomb attack in history, and the beginning of the Anthropocene. It brutally displayed that the pursuit of science and warfare had run ahead of moral concerns surrounding genocide and biocide. Whilst Timothy Morton’s analysis of the exact origins of the epoch are difficult to pinpoint, it could be interpreted as 1945 marking the point of no return: the beginning of the sixth mass extinction. If the whole of human history were to be plotted on a sort of Doomsday Clock, that year would be the striking of midnight, with events like the Neolithic agricultural era being the first failure and the Industrial Revolution inching us closer minute by minute. Meaning that we are very much within it - the end has already begun. This essay explores the difficulty humans have in comprehending that we are within the climate crisis and how this affects a collective sense of urgency in contemporary being. These analyses shall be done utilising Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ as one of Morton’s ‘hyperobjects’. It will argue for art as a potential entry point for immersion into the contemporary sublime with the aim of collective action.


Morton presents hyperobjects as vast things that occur across time and space. He frames global warming as a hyperobject because it transcends “human access modes and scales” (Morton, 2018), making it particularly ungraspable. Global warming and radioactivity are both examples of hyperobjects. They are things of paradox in the sense that they both stick to being itself but also slip through our fingers of conceptualisation. They are intangible and inaccessible as a whole yet their parts appear in the measurably rising sea levels and the sensorial experience of hotter summers. They are huge in their ability to pollute huge swaths of landscape but also tiny (and equally powerful) in their ability to mutate the cells in our bodies. Hyperobjects have an uncanny ability to recontextualise and discolour our experience of reality. Past and future start to operate in unusual ways, with repercussions of historical events infecting the present and all potential futures, and the contemporary shining a new light on previous actions. One becomes immersed in mixing pot (the present) of what-has-ever-been and what-will-ever-be. All of it feeling otherworldly although being completely of this world. When an event makes us aware of a hyperobject, we are awoken to the truth that we are in it rather than viewing it from the outside, or through a removed and othering scientific lens, and so there is no escape. We are part of the biosphere that is filled with radioactive material as well as it being a part of us in our molecular structure, affecting generations to come because of actions made in the past.




Examples of this discolouring effect is seen in many historical artworks, such as the smog filled The Scarlet Sunset (1830-40)[1] by JMW Turner or LS Lowry’s industrial paintings. With a contemporary eye, a strange mixture of terror and bleakness cast a shadow over these classics (Ortiz, 2020). With hindsight, we realise that it is not just a contemporary issue but in fact a human one and so these images become at once timeless and completely of their time. Giacomo Balla’s Abstract Speed – the Car has Passed (1913) was painted during the realisation of a new genre: the technological sublime. As technology raced forward in the Second Industrial Revolution, he marvelled over the power of cars and, painting exhaust fumes in soft blues and pinks, playfully mused over the space that had been touched by a glimpse of the vehicle on its rapid passing. Whilst Balla was in awe of the spectacle, we can now see the reality of this polluting substance through the contemporary lens of climate disaster. It feels horrifically laughable that an image depicting the magic of modern movement (a signifier of life) drips with toxicity when touched by this hyperobject (becoming a signifier of mass extinction).


'Abstract Speed - the Car has Passed' (1913) by Giacomo Balla

Like Balla’s painting, sublime events and objects are what brings hyperobjects to our attention[2]. Kant understood these events and objects as “so vast and/or sudden that one’s imagination is immobilized and attempts to make sense and verbalize the feeling are stymied” (Shapiro, 2018). The experience of hyperobjects is both mathematically sublime and dynamically sublime[3]. Climate change is difficult to quantify in terms of scale. Its vastness transcending across time and space means that we can only see small parts of it through these events. They reveal a greater whole to us but we cannot sensorially understand the full hyperobject in its entirety (Morton, 2018). We develop the concept of global warming, labelling it and measuring various its effects scientifically, in an attempt to overcome this threat to our understanding. Anthropocentrically, we use modes that relate to human scales of time and space, placing ourselves in the centre of our concepts of reality and somehow still outside of them, looking in through the microscope. At the same time, this vastness highlights our own smallness and vulnerability. An event like an earthquake or the bombing of Hiroshima induces a terror because we are reminded of our individual and collective mortality. Sublime events bring forward the awareness of climate change from our subconscious to our conscious, giving them an inherently uncanny feeling, it is both alien and familiar, it is the world we know but presented in a way that we do not recognise. “Mass extinction is so awful, so incomprehensible, so horrible – and at present it’s so invisible” (Morton, 2018), it is background radiation in that it is always there and yet physically intangible to humans. It is understandable that we repress such an unpleasant feeling of instability. It is much like death denial, an almost necessary evil to be able to continue being, or rather being in the anthropocentric controlled sense with which we are familiar. However, as these events reoccur, so does our continous reawakening to the terror of the epoch we find ourselves in.


A key cause of our impending mass extinction is our human-exceptionalist, militant and scientific modes of thinking about ‘nature’. We continuously fail to acknowledge our entanglements with nonhumans due to society itself being based on borders, separating ‘us’ from the human and nonhuman ‘other’ (Morton, 2018). We access everything we know in individual slices and so we are unable to fully realise that everything is interconnected. This entanglement is true on multiple levels: in the sense that all of space, time and matter are inseparable (Barad, 2017), that we have evolved from the same origins and share the same planet, and so we exist within the same hyperobjects. Morton suggests that the Neolithic agricultural era is the birth of control systems that have shaped society and our perceptions of nature. We view it as ‘other’, something we are outside of, and so when exposed to reality of being in it, the feeling is abject. It disrupts the world view that we have legitimised over thousands of years, a world of borders and geopolitics. Nature has continuously been viewed as a passive resource, we see the landscape as a space to conquer and control for economic and technological progress, from a colonialist viewpoint. Jussi Parikka highlights this when analysing Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ upon the other:


“Many of the colonials forms of power as well as the modern conquest of nature relied on measures that ensured that there was visually nothing: the invention of indigenous nations as terra nullius and the wider sense in which the non-human world was a res nullius in itself was both a militarized way of seeing and capturing space.” (Parikka, 2016)


It is the drive of homo economicus to continue the path set before him and conform to fabricated divisions and technologically idealised views of growth. In turn, this keeps the terror of nature suppressed and reinforces borders by presenting the image of the passive natural other (Haiven, 2019). Parikka highlights how militant our agricultural practices are, tearing down forests and carving up the landscapes. It is our scientific striving for progress and militant machismo that led us to break the atom (or atomos literally meaning ‘uncuttable’ in ancient Greek) and develop devastating nuclear weapons resulting in indiscriminate deadly radiation. Perhaps one of the best illustrations of this is seen in Rachel Caron’s Silent Spring, where she discusses the use of synthetic pesticides in agriculture. These chemicals were designed during World War II to kill humans. Once the anthropocentric war event was over, they were indiscriminately used in acts of biocide, under the easy-to-swallow, means-to-an-end label of ‘agriculture’. However, with the use of these ecological munitions comes an underestimated toxic fallout, which is only unforeseen because of our disregard for the entangled nature of being – or the biosphere itself. Carson reveals this in her examination of the contamination of the food chain, which infected nonhumans and humans alike (Carson, 2000).


Carson’s “war against nature” (Carson, 1963) is best understood through ‘slow violence’. Nixon defines slow violence as occurring “gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (Nixon, 2011). He attributes a large amount of ecological devastation to this almost invisible post-warfare, the type that continues long after the human battle has occurred. It lacks graspability due to its vastness, stretching so far beyond human size and lifespan that its incomprehensible. An example of slow violence is seen in the deaths in Hiroshima from radiation poisoning long after the event itself occurred. This ability to transcend time and space makes slow violence a hyperobject. Whilst global warming is the hyperobject that becomes the context for contemporary being, slow violence is the fuel driving it forward, ensuring the ever-growing momentum, it is the language in which the Anthropocene whispers.


Humans and nonhumans that have died bad, unnatural deaths are victims of the destructive division between culture and nature (Gain, et al., 2017). The natural self is “violently repressed with violent results” (Morton, 2018). It is this Freudian repression of our entanglements in nature and invisibly devastating consequences that directs us towards slow violence as the ‘fallout’ of the Anthropocene. The absent presence of individual deaths and collective extinctions sticks to the contemporary, creating an uncanny “thick present”, loaded with hauntings (Haraway, 2016). The war against nature is ongoing, it is “the war that never ended” (Parikka, 2016). It is a continuous Cold-War, in both meanings of the term. The first being the Cold War, starting with the bombing of Hiroshima and marking the beginning of the Anthropocene itself. It began a period indicative of collective death and toxic pollution, with the fear of nuclear war looming over like a hyperobject of its own and the bomb itself becoming a sublime object of terror. The second being Nixon’s concept of cold-war vs. hot-war, the latter being the war event itself, the dropping of Little Boy to force the Japanese into surrender, and the former being the slow, invisible, unconsidered violence that proliferates continuously through time and space (Nixon, 2011).


The issue with our understanding of hyperobjects and slow violence is that they are ungraspable. Their exceeding of sensorial understanding, and our willingness towards repression, means they are pushed back into the subconscious, hence why they often go unseen and violence is allowed to continue. This brings about problems with urgency. As Shapiro highlights, “Heidegger suggests that when certain events take place, we are enjoined to think about thinking […] thinking is intimately tied to attention” (Shapiro, 2018). Attention is required to allow thinking to occur and there cannot be any sense of urgency without thought upon the subject. Without having a collective feeling of urgency, we are unable to have effective action. The issue with a lack of attention and action from the public is that the main perpetrators of slow violence are regularly allowed to continue without having to take responsibility for their actions. Nixon looks to the millions of landmines and cluster bombs discarded in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by the United States and United Kingdom, munitions that continue to blow up small children today. In countries where short political terms create an absence of long-term policy, the responsibility for the clean-up is quickly forgotten. Places like the UK, where new prime ministers are selected every four years (or, recently, even more regularly) lasting commitment is non-existent and responsibility is blurry. As slow violence transcends time, “time itself becomes the ultimate cover-up” and this “exacerbates the problem of political accountability. In the aftermath of war, political changes occur far faster than environmental recovery” (Nixon, 2011). We have to look beyond human constraints of time, whether that be political terms or generational lifespans, in a world where radiation and landmines continue to take victims long after the battle is won. It requires an ecological attention span and a less anthropocentric one.


A major obstacle here is the severe lack of representation of environmental issues in the media. Stuart et al. point out that media coverage of these topics correlate with the public’s current concern for them. This is cyclical issue: the media does not fully represent the ongoing destruction and so people are not aware and because they are not aware they do not call for more media representation. Without this change in attention, it is impossible to influence political change. When concerned, the public seeks reassurance in authority figures[4](Shapiro, 2018) but slow violence spanning over decades does not fit the sound bite headline format in which news ‘stories’ conform to. They must have a beginning, middle and end, which means they appear like isolated freak accidents and not a part of an ongoing whole crisis, the “prioritisation of the ‘human element’, and with it the corresponding emphasis on the extraordinary at the expense of the ordinary, decisively shapes what gets reported and how” (Stuart, et al., 2000). It is the spectacle of the sublime event that grabs our attention but in this context of journalistic conventions, we are protected from the vastness of hyperobjects. The problem with the “attention-grabbing experience of the sublime” is that it “leads not (as Kant had hoped) toward a shared moral sensibility but to an ethico-political sensibility that recognizes the fragilities of our grasp of experience and enjoins engagement with a pluralist world in which the in-common must be continually negotiated” (Shapiro, 2018). So, whilst it may seem like common sense to protect the planet we live on, it turns out that common sense is very subjective, especially in an anthropocentric narrative that has always valued the resources we can pillage off nature instead of respecting it as kin, which, in the name of technological and economic prosperity, is what leads political policy. An explicit display of this is Project Plowshare, a US pitch that aimed to use atomic weapons to reshape the landscape for industrial purposes. It was terminated in the 1970s but not before many tests had already contaminated the water and atmosphere with long-lasting radioactive material (Fay, 2018). Whilst one would think common sense would dictate that the slow violence effects of using nuclear munitions would outweigh the potential short-term economic opportunities, clearly repeated histories have displayed otherwise.


Even our language, the very tool we use to understand reality, is skewed towards anthropocentric militancy. Nixon uses ‘precision’ warfare as an example of this. The very term ‘operation’ connotates a clinical and contained methodology. However, much like Carson’s pesticides, the use of cluster bombs are anything but “precise”, they are “weapons of indiscriminate effect” (Nixon, 2011). Nixon highlights that every new scientifically enhanced war “brings together new euphemisms, new technologies, new strategies of temporal and geographical displacement that help us keep suffering at arm’s length, allowing us to live in states of denial distinctive of our age” (Nixon, 2011). We use these terms to subdue the messy and visceral imagery of blowing up other beings.[5] Violence is not occurring in our Western back yard and so it becomes abstract in terms of scale, it becomes a problem of the other, which is invisible to us beyond the immediate event. Controlled language only ensures this illusion is sustained. The very format of news reporting lends itself to this softening, it is suggestive of an over-there-ness. By dumping our landfill elsewhere, we avoid constant awareness of our responsibility. When we leave landmines to blow up toddlers, it is easy because they are not our children (Shapiro, 2018). However, with the vast and indiscriminate nature of slow violence and our inherent entanglements with other beings, there is no such thing as ‘over there’. As Morton highlights, we are ‘in it’. Radiation blowing across Europe after Chernobyl is the sort of event that exposes the relative smallness of the planet in an age of climate disaster. Those are our children. We are all in this together.


Morton too displays an issue with our linguistic and conceptual understanding of the climate crisis. The use of neat and self-contained factoids (or “dispassionate facts” as Stuart et al. labels them) point to the abstract, scientific evaluation of hyperobjects, quantifying them in ways that not only demystify them of their essential strange qualities (so as not to really feel or understand them at all) but to also display them anticipatory. He claims that “there is some safety or security in being able to anticipate […] information dumb mode is a way for us to try to install ourselves at a fictional point in time before global warming happened” (Morton, 2018). Urgency is quite difficult to adopt if you are still under the illusion that you have time to spare on the Doomsday Clock[6].


Accountability becomes complicated in a world where hyperobjects blur the individual and the collective. 1945 might have shown us, for the first time in a long time, the possibility of collective death, both under the threat of the bomb, and now in hindsight, the threat of climate induced mass extinction. When these issues span all the way back to Neolithic origins and all the way forward to extinction itself, and across the whole planet, it becomes blurry as to whom is responsible for the present epoch. The whole thing becomes far too exhausting and one can easily fall into repression and denial, using dangerous bystander arguments such as ‘it’s not my problem’. It could be argued that it is the fault of our ancestors, the rich and powerful, of males, of engineers and scientists, colonialists, or governments. Whilst this is all true, the very issue of scale that is intrinsic to hyperobjects displays back to us the “uncanny gap between little me and me as a member of what is called species” (Morton, 2018). Morton describes our current crisis as a build up of actions, a “heap”, one which most of us have contributed to, whether that be through the profiting off oil sales or the consumption of it to heat our homes. It leads to the surreal experience of realising that these individual actions, these parts, are greater than their whole, greater than their overall heap. We struggle experiencing hyperobjects using human-centred access modes of scale and time when the legacy of our actions is greater than the individual (Morton, 2018).


Returning to Balla’s abstract painting, it depicts the exhaust fumes of a single car but that individual trail signifies a collective heap of trails, building up to the point of no return. It displays the complication of responsibility across time and space. This is made even more apparent by its being displayed in the same space as Jorge Macchi’s Musical Box (2004) at Tate Liverpool. The video work shows a constant stream of cars flowing through the screen, which depicts a motorway, with musical notes assigned to individual lanes, played as each car passes through. The juxtaposition between the single trail of Balla’s car in the early 1900s, to the stream of ongoing pollution in Macchi’s video nearly a hundred years later reframes both works to become a signifier of toxic being. So, although there are individuals and organisations that should be held accountable for their crimes of biocide, there is also a general public (more specifically a first world public) that are essential to media representation and political movement.


All these issues that inhibit our sense of urgency in an age of mass extinction make us feel like we are not even in a climate crisis. “The feeling of not-quite-reality is exactly the feeling of being in a catastrophe”(Morton, 2018), so by repressing the sense of surreality with factoids and spectacular events we are attempting to place ourselves outside it, allowing the slow violence to continue. Donna Haraway suggests a need to relearn ‘kinship’ with nonhumans through speculative fabulation. This is a way of creating new narratives to immerse oneself in other sensorial and emotive experiences of reality, a reality that connects fully with our natural entanglements. By “staying with the trouble” we avoid anticipating the future, we can truly live in the end, and feel ourselves “as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings” (Haraway, 2016). This way of engaging with mass extinction feels remarkably like Morton’s proposition of ‘attunement’ to live within it. Since we cannot see the whole of climate change in its entirety, we must “tune” to an ecological mindset, as a way to access an “intimate” and dynamic relation to nonhumans (Morton, 2018). These concepts are based in ideas of relearning our natural place in the ecosystem and the actions that come with it, something which we have conditioned out of ourselves through our shaping of society.


'NATURAL INTERACTION' (2023) solo exhibition by Nick Jordon. Image courtesy of Michael Pollard at HOME

Morton and Haraway both suggest that art or speculative fabulation may be an alternative access mode, one which allows for the realisation of kinship or attunement. Art is “ambiguous and powerful”, immersing us fully in the strangeness of being in the age of mass extinction. It has a “solidarity, a feeling of alreadiness” making it a “recognizable fragment of the kind of larger world” (Morton, 2018). It is because of this that it does not conform to the unhelpful and reductionist factoid mode of anticipation and otherness. It is the perfect language for articulating the sense of being entangled in the ecosystem and rediscovering feelings of kinship. One experiences the sublime terror for oneself as being amongst all beings. Nick Jordon’s exhibition NATURAL INTERACTIONS (2023) is an example of this access mode. The collection crosses the artificial borders between art, medical science and horticulture, to discuss the entanglements between humans and nonhumans and uncover diverse ecologies and interconnections. It melds science and art together to reveal our kinship with nonhumans, showing our similarities by presenting the neural networks of forests and family trees. Pieces like The Carbon Landscape display an apocalyptic altering of nature, through man-made polluting technologies, as infecting history by using illustrations of railways that date back to the 1830s[7]. Peatland fungi and coal pollution are a direct commentary on carbon cycles. The use of the mushroom print feels both to be an acknowledgment of mushroom cloud iconography, alluding to the broadcasted atomic bomb tests of the Cold War and the idea of ‘learning to live with the bomb’[8], and alternatively the natural sublime, perhaps reminding us of nature’s continuous power in the face of catastrophic technology. The work transcends disciplines, eras and spaces in a collaborative technique that is essential to attunement, resulting in a sense of hope for the future.


'The Lake Project 20' (2002) by David Maisel

On a more sombre note, artworks like David Maisel’s aerial views of toxic wastelands help an audience to visualise slow violence. A century later, the audience experiences the true effects of Balla’s generation’s awe over the technological sublime. With the familiar square patterns of agricultural landscapes, the photographs reveal the repeated histories that infect the present, both a violence against nature itself with the aim of control and resource, and the boxed-in-ness of our own societal conformations. The alluring bright colours abstract the work, making it initially difficult to grasp but resulting in an experience of the toxic sublime as one grows to understand what one is looking at: the chemically polluted aftermaths of biocide – like a glowing corpse of what the vibrantly active ecosystem had once been. We experience an aesthetic seduction and repulsion in response to the alien yet familiar. It conforms to Morton’s need for art to “include ugliness and disgust, and haunting weirdness, and a sense of unreality as much as of reality” (Morton, 2018). The small sections of landscapes generate a sense of strange incompleteness, indicating a larger whole outside of the confines of a photograph, which points to a bigger context – to the hyperobject of climate change due to slow violence (Egan, 2013). Maisel’s images feel like a visual representation of Carson’s ‘fable’ of indiscriminate ecological poisoning.


We have already hit midnight, we are very much in the end, awakening from an endless “PTSD dream” (Morton, 2018). Urgency has never been more important and yet, by repressing the strangeness of hyperobjects and under-representing the slow violence that drives it, urgency is heavily lacking. To begin to comprehend the era of mass extinction, we must immerse ourselves in it, allow it to stick to us and recontextualise our very being and actions. We must hold ourselves accountable for our unrepenting acts of slow violence and relearn to embrace our natural selves by understanding other beings as kin. We currently live in an anthropocentric distortion of reality. To awaken in this uncanny existence may feel blurry and counteractive in the mindset of technological progress but it is in fact closer to an unlearning of controlled behaviours to reveal ourselves as entangled matter. It is about extinguishing this awaken-repression cycle that is created by reframing sublime events in factoid boxes and learning to reconnect and immerse ourselves in our individual and collective naturality and fate. Modes of anticipation and human-exceptionalism are just modes of denial. If we truly live it, attention, thought and urgency must follow.



Footnotes


[1] The painting has been used by historians to estimate pollution levels at the time (Ortiz, 2020). [2] Although they are always there (it does not take the human perception to bring them into presence), they are not always noticeably touching our experience. We access them through slices of their presentation to us (Morton, 2018). [3] Meaning that they threaten us in more than one way. Kant saw the mathematical sublime as the quantity or vastness of things threatening to threaten and overwhelm our understanding of reality as we cannot understand it through our sensorial experience, which we overcome with creating concepts to quantify things. He saw the dynamic sublime as the realisation that, due to the vastness of other things, we are fragile and insignificant (Shapiro, 2018). [4] Whether that be government or media. [5] Images like these are inherently abject because they show the other as us and reveal our fleshy vulnerability back to us. [6] The Doomsday Clock was set to ninety seconds to midnight for 2023. This is closer to midnight than ever before, even during the Cold War. This is due to the conflict in Ukraine, nuclear risk, disruptive technologies, biosecurity and climate change (The Bulletin Science and Security Board, 2023). The issue with putting the clock at any time before midnight is that it suggests that we are not already in the end, that we have time, it anticipates the end. Therefore, urgency feels like it can be put on hold for a few seconds longer. By measuring it on such a human scale, such as clock face, we also come up against anthropocentricity. Using these modes to understand something that is greater aligns with the reductionist modes that we used to get ourselves into this trouble in the first place. [7] This feels particularly relevant when examining Timothy Morton’s slightly complicated analysis of when the end of the planet started. One of his suggestions is that it began in April 1784 with the patenting of the steam engine, which started the carbon build up in the Earth’s crust (Morton, 2013). [8] The use of televised atomic tests during the Cold War desensitised people to collective death, perhaps it is not a surprise that our sense of urgency in the continuous Cold-War is lacking due to this. The tests were displayed as “nontraumatic[,] the repetition of controlled catastrophe” even though we know that there is nothing ‘nontraumatic’ or ‘controlled’ about these indiscriminate lethal explosives. Through this we can see how “nuclearism overlaps with the Anthropocene every day”, in terms of media representation of self-contained and individual events (Fay, 2018).



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