June 3, 2015

A New View, from Somewhere

This week is a second post from John Heydinger, who had previously written about Ludwik Fleck. Here, he interprets the "Anthropocene" through a lens provided by Donna Haraway. Check it out!

The emergence of the Anthropocene as a new geological moment suggests that the relationship between people and the planet remains a fruitful arena of critical exploration. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution (at least), humans have become a “global geophysical force.” [1] Contemporary research within atmospheric and oceanic chemistry, climate science, the biological sciences, and ecosystem ecology transforms our understanding of the world as the world itself becomes an increasingly changed place. Not only is there a different world to see, human tools of scientific technology mediate new ways of seeing it. The Anthropocene is thus both a mode of planetary existence and a frame of understanding; each suggests new ways for the scholar of science and technology studies (STS) and the historian of science to position herself or himself.

In her 1990 work, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the reinvention of nature (Routledge Press), historian of science Donna Haraway suggests that a new form of scientific objectivity, one that celebrates particular and specific embodiment, is required to overcome the totalizing and failed objectivity of scientific reductionism. As a “search for translation, convertibility, mobility of meanings, and universality” [2] reductionist modes of scientific thought sought to objectify the world, to silence the multiplicity of voices embodied in any time and place. Haraway argues that all knowledge is inherently situated and embodied, that within an “epistemology of partial perspectives” a future “sustained, rational, objective enquiry rests.” [3] An epistemology of partial perspectives recognizes that a visionary gaze is always specifically located in time and place. The logic of the Anthropocene thus seems to dictate that, while our view is located somewhere, the impacts of combined actions are everywhere manifest.

The tension between the specific location of our understanding, and the broadcast impacts of our collective actions, suggests the fragility of the moment and calls into question our ability to positively address the transformed biosphere. Our simultaneous connectedness and uncertainty seem to be one of the many lessons of the Anthropocene. We have become self-aware of our groundedness. The somewhere we inhabit is a world co-created by humans. This new planet of interwoven people and things has become dominated and largely formed by science and scientific ways of seeing. Inasmuch as the Anthropocene suggests a troubling present and future (surely there will be benefits as well), it similarly will be through the sciences that we come to better understand it. Paying heed to Haraway’s call for a scientific knowledge that does not objectify the entities under examination, a vision of the Anthropocene which incorporates human embeddedness will recognize that the promise of a disconnected, disembodied scientific knowledge is a distortion of the work required to achieve a uniquely located understanding of phenomena. The successful application of the term Anthropocene – as though ecosystem functions, atmospheric interactions, geologic transformations, and the multiplicity of being on Earth were amenable to a totalizing label – should alert us to the possibility that we might objectify this newfound (age-old) home. Haraway reminds us that “Situated knowledges require that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor or agent.” [4]  When the term Anthropocene is written or spoken, it resonates with a cacophonous chorus of people and things. Similarly it speaks the voice of the specifically situated knower, grounded in the world and connected with it. Clearly neither people nor the world dictate the terms of our planetary dialogue – each will have their say.

Haraway’s epistemology of situated and embodied knowledge reminds us that our experiences of the Anthropocene depend upon both our own embodied position, as well as that of our interlocutor. Just as human impacts are broadly manifest, yet locally constituted, so too do planetary actions and processes cross scales, and take on unique contextual forms. The impacts of human-planetary interactions will take on strikingly different characteristics depending upon the scale at which they are assessed. Haraway’s situated knowledge of partial perspectives suggests that both we and the Anthropocene will speak in voices specific to the context of the questions being asked. This turn towards partial understanding is not a failure of objectivity. Rather, it is an achievement of knowledge, as well as a recognition that the false hope of disengaged objectivity was always a fool’s hope. Rather than attempt to subjugate people and things to a totalizing and remote vision-from-nowhere, the knower and the known are always contextual – specifically located. Just as people do, the world speaks in an interconnected and multi-vocal manner. Neither human nor the world are so easily straightjacketed into speaking with a unified voice.

There may be much to fear as we enter a new era of co-constituted human and planetary history. Yet being alert to our embeddedness can be a victory of understanding and of vision. Rather than illusionary dreams of god-like domination, it may be affirmed that we are of the Anthropocene, as it is of us. STS and histories of science help us recognize that in addition to being a material reality, the Anthropocene is a conceptual and rhetorical creation. Lest we too easily objectify the Anthropocene, Haraway reminds us that the world may be a trickster; one whose answers will depend upon our questions, and who appears to elude our best attempts at a totalizing gaze. Rather than remove ourselves from the world, newfound ways of seeing can bring us closer to it. Grounding ourselves in the world we have helped to create, the same one which we may only provisionally understand, relieves us of the burden to be always correct and forever powerful. Our embodied and situated questions, positions, theories, and beliefs might then be given the freedom to be provisional – as open to reinvention as the world we inhabit.
[1] Steffen, Will, Paul J Crutzen, and John R McNeill. 2007. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature ?” Ambio 36 (3): 614–21. pg. 614.
[2] Haraway 1990, 187
[3] Haraway 1990, 191
[4] Haraway 1990, 198

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