Making Space: Feeling the Anthropocene

Ahead of the March 6 launch of our Making Space Series, Astrida Neimanis explores the tension between our messy, irrational and emotional bodies and the immense scale of the Anthropocene, and asks how we can make space to sense, smell, taste, learn and feel our way into troubled times.

Body Trouble

The body is the lesser half of the classic mind-body split—or at least, that is what the history of Western thought has told us. Bodies are messy, irrational, emotional, and unreliable. Bodies need things; to be fed, cared for, cleaned, and to be birthed by another body. They represent a kind of ‘inconvenient truth’ that disturbs the ideal of the self-sufficient, atomistic, individualistic, sovereign Man as subject of the world.

Deep traditions of feminist, indigenous and critical race thinking have long countered this denigration of bodies, and reminded us that bodies (which include, and are not separable from ‘minds’) are key sources of information and knowledge generation. We enjoy food not (only) because we read an ingredients list, but because of the taste and feel on our tongue, the scent in our noses, and the visual appeal on the plate. We become attached to places not (only) because we read about the ecosystems services they offer, but because of the sound of the birds and the vibrancy of foliage, and a pathway that opens up to a certain view. Similarly, our bodies tell us that something is wrong: our stomachs feel queasy, or our fingers fidgety; a slight dampness spreads across the back of our necks.

To paraphrase mid-twentieth century French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, embodiment is consciousness of the world: we can only exist as embodied beings that interface with all that is around us. But when confronting big and seemingly abstract ideas like the Anthropocene, or climate change, or biodiversity loss, what’s a body to do? One of the reasons that these ‘wicked problems’ are so hard to address is their awesome scale. They manifest at scales much larger, and longer, than an individual human body could easily apprehend.

Feeling the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is particularly challenging in this respect. A proposed geological epoch, the Anthropocene is only comprehensible against the backdrop of Deep Time. Operating at this scale, all of human history (not to mention the life experience, or ‘feelings,’ of an individual human body) becomes utterly insignificant. In a memorable metaphor suggested by Stephen Jay Gould, if geological time is the distance from your nose to the end of your outstretched hand, then “one stroke of a nail file” across the tip of your middle finger would swiftly do away with all of human time.

When relegated to such vast scales, the question of how one measly body might intervene in the Anthropocene—and its upending of many of our planetary systems as we have come to know them—seems unthinkable. At best, ‘Anthropocene work’ becomes the purview of geoengineers, geologists and abstract climate modellers who are far better equipped to deal with this scale and these abstractions.

But as queer feminist anthropologist Kath Weston points out, even when issues become abstracted beyond our ostensible comprehension, we do not simply “leave our bodies behind”—instead we keep finding new “embodied intimacies” that can help us make visceral sense out of this distance.

In Weston’s work, these embodied intimacies are engaged by citizen scientists who make DIY Geiger counters to track radiation levels in their own neighbourhoods, or by fisher folk in southern India who consider their hands, in the water, to be the most reliable source of information on rising ocean temperatures. In different ways, these examples are asking: how does the Anthropocene taste, or sound, or smell? How does the Anthropocene feel?

Writers, poets, artists, and makers of all kinds are also well-positioned to undertake this kind of inquiry. Feminist kitchen artist and theorist Lindsay Kelley invites us, for example, to taste our relationship to the Anthropocene through a series of lures; while feminist ecocritic Jennifer Mae Hamilton helps us imagine human impact on land and water by remembering that our bodies are a kind of drain—and all drains lead to somewhere.

In these examples, the body’s sensory immediacy is not effaced in the largess of Anthropocene abstraction, but nor is the scale of the problems our planet faces trivialised or individualised, where “saving the planet” is reduced to a neoliberal plea to “do your part.” Instead, as both Kelley and Hamilton demonstrate, we can trace the connections between the intimately local (our bodies) and the unfathomably global (the planet in Deep Time) through incremental moves. Rather than collapsing these incommensurable scales, writing and art help us develop an agility to move across and between them.

Making Space

The point is not to paint, or write, or dance, the scalar immensity of the Anthroprocene into a single paragraph or snapshot. This would just reinforce the Anthropocene’s seeming distance from our lived experience. Instead, arts and humanities endeavours find ways to make connections to that more-than-human scale through the sensory apparatuses of our bodies: a tastebud finds a pathway to a history of colonialism; the affective tenor of a metaphor brings us into the breathless bottom of the sea; a curved arm in an antenna-like gesture establishes our animal kinship to insect species rapidly disappearing.

As Weston also rightly points out, though, embodied knowledge (like all singular sources of knowledge) is partial. Coming to terms with something as multiscalar as the Anthropocene works best when different ways of knowing come together. So instead of chucking out climate science, geology, or other sciences that deal in large-scale and abstracted phenomena, what if we used our sensory apparatuses to bring these knowledges back to the body? In other words: how might different kinds of expertise collaborate to produce new forms of hybrid knowledge? What kinds of collaborations would help us better understand how the Anthropocene feels? What kinds of spaces do we need to make to allow these bodies, and bodies of knowledge, to learn from one another?

Launching on March 6, The Sydney Environment Institute’s Making Space event series aims to explore these questions in praxis. We will be joined by performers, artists and academics in an intimate, experimental and transdisciplinary exploration of what it means to be a collaborator and a body in the shifting world of the Anthropocene.

Making Space I: Bodies, Space and the Anthropocene will be held on March 6 from 6pm at 107 Projects in Redfern.

Astrida Neimanis is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney and a Key Researcher at the Sydney Environment Institute. Her research is located at the intersection of feminist theory and environmental humanities, with a focus on water, weather and bodies. Her books include Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (2017) and the co-edited collection, Thinking with Water (2013).