Inventing New Worlds: Abysmal Tectonic Temporalities, Anthropocenic Archechronotopes, or Geothanotologies
How long is the long durée? Relative to what? How do we measure time, and how do we learn to recognized different timescales? In this essay I aim to foreground the theme of the “temporalization of time” –to use that felicitous expression by Reinhart Koselleck. Time itself has a historicity; it is a trace of the ways in which we live/practice time, represent time, and above all, imagine time—what I call chronotopologies. There is always a “temporal imaginary” that informs our relationship to our contemporaneity, past, and of course, futurity. My contribution to our discussion will be to ponder the problem of the representation of both spaces and natures, along the long durée from the perspective of what I called tectonic temporalities, but that given the moment at which we find ourselves, I will now call Anthropocenic Archechronotopes. Here I am not following a fashion, as actually I have been writing for a while now on the Anthropocenic Polis and Anthropocenic Bestiaries, as well as Anthropocenic temporalities. For some time, now, I have been writing on the chronotope and heterochronotopologies. In this intervention, I want to bring together the contested notion of the Anthropocene with the Bakhtinian generative concept of the chronotope. In a recent paper on Melville and his almost intractable story “Benito Cereno,” I used the deck of the St. Dominick as the stage for the chronotope of slavery. Now, I want to explore certain “found objects” from our Anthropocenic age as exemplars in a geological museum of what I would name necro-geognosis, or necrogeologies, or better geothanatologies, or perhaps too hyperbolically necro-ontologies. From the standpoint of entropy and the freezing darkness of the dying universe, our planet, our nature, begin to appear like a necropolis, necrogaia.
I will broach the ‘length’ of the long durée by exploring images/representation/narratives that aim to give us a view of the age of nature. An images and representations, however, are frozen time, situated spaces, but these frozen times and situated spaces require that we attempt to represent, narrate them, whether as a succession of events, or a succession of cataclysms, as we do with the earth, whose age is measured in eons, eras, periods, and epochs, each punctuated by distinct earthly traumas. Images, pictures, Weltbilden are not innocent facts, artifacts; they are also result of epistemic struggles, struggles about how to deal with time and space. Every Weltbild then is part of a politics of time, a politics of space, and per force also the politics of representing nature. A Weltbild gives us mappings of the world and worldviews that give meaning to nature. But, as Jerry Brotton writes in his A History of the World in Twelve Maps, “A world view gives rise to a world map; but the world map in turn defines its culture’s view of the world. It is an exceptional act of symbiotic alchemy.” (6) I am interested here in how the Weltbilden that have been projected of the so-called New World have catalyzed alchemies of worldviews and mappings of nature. For now, however, let me ask: Where is the cosmos, and should I say nature, in the representation of the “space-time” continuum that begins with the singularity of “zero radius” and the closes with the end of time, the “Dark Era” in which because of the law of entropy the entire universe has become an expanse of nothingness, where not even space time bends anymore?
In order to get us to think of think about the “temporalization” of the long durée, I will begin with an engagement with the work of conceptual artist Rachel Sussman, who has been, on the one hand, photographing and thinking about the “oldest living” things on the planet, and the age of the universe, on the other. I will discuss her ironic and suggestive, “(Selected) History of the SpaceTime Continuum” –an installation that has had two iterations. If the universe has a timeline, which can be selected, as if allowing us to edit a family album of how the universe was born and will fade into entropic senility, surely the nature on earth also has a time. In order to explore this question, I turn to the earliest narratives of European when they encountered –in that Aesopian language—the “New World.” This “New World” was both new, and already very old. In this section, I focus on the diaries of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, who penned the earliest known European attempt to describe a world that was new to them. This putative “New World,” however, soon was made to fit into a temporalizing matrix that consign the New World to an infantile, immature, and even already decadent “nature” –This is what we learn in Antonello Gerbi’s encyclopedic scholarship. In Gerbi’s pioneering work we face the ‘polemic’ about the “age” and “maturity” of the Nature of the New World.
While Gerbi focused on nearly two centuries of work on denigrating the nature of the Americas, in Alexander von Humboldt we face a scientist who dismantled through his cutting edge botanical, geographical, and environmental work the myth of the juvenility of the nature of the New World. Humboldt is particularly important not only because of the ways in which he exposed us to the long durée of ways of thinking about nature, but also because he engaged in a transnational scientific venture, one that reached across the Americas, but also the Eurasian continent. If the cosmos has a history, nature also has a history. And like few Humboldt taught us to recognize the history and historicity of nature tout court. In a similar vein, I then turn to the work of Steven Pyne, who wrote a fascinating work on the History of the Grand Canyon. Again, the aim is to foreground the question of the ways in which cosmos, earth, and nature have both a history and a historicity. Pyne’s work also allows me to focus on what I call thanatogeognosy, or the ways in which the history of nature is the history of death, the death of life on planet earth. Nature is not simply the supreme germinal of life, but also a Mausoleum, the charnel house of life.
Then, to appreciate the time of the long durée, bookended between so-called discovery of the New World and the discovery of the antiquity of the nature in the New World, I turn at the end of my essay towards a consideration of how ‘nature’ might look with out “us” –“us” referring to humans. In this last section, I consider what I call Anthropocenic Archechronotopes, namely, what is the generative or arche, or archaic, that is, generative time that fuels our concern with the age of the planet that is now named after humans, who are a relatively latecomer to this planet. In this last section, paralleling the Grand Canyon, I focus on Denver’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which is a depository of some of the most lethal chemical weapons ever develop by human being, and which because of that, have created a sanctuary for nature. Here I explore the concept of lethality and generativity, death and life. The Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain Arsenal becomes synecdoches for the long durée of nature thinking, nature representing, nature imagining, world making, world inventing.
My contribution, then, aims to refract the question of the ‘temporalization of time’ through the themes of the Anthropocene, on the one hand, and what I will be calling ‘Tectonic Temporalities,’ on the other, by doing an archeology/genealogy of the Grand Canyon and Denver’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal. I want to rivet us to the abysmal temporalities that are disclosed as we peer down into the Grand Canyon and up into the Rocky Mountain Arsenal from the perspective of how both became recognized as something majestic and not just as a diabolic wasteland. The descent through the history of the Grand Canyon, and the ascent up the Rocky Mountains, will afford us the opportunity to explore issues of the global production of knowledge, and the expropriation/appropriation of local and subaltern knowledge. Of course, it affords the opportunity to think about how we produce time in the long durée.
Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:
As a scholar, to ensure that epistemic expropriation is acknowledged, if not remedied, while also encouraging epistemic resistance and affirmation; as a pedagogue, to instill the virtues of epistemic humility, generosity, and then, and only after exhibiting those virtues, to be foment epistemic suspicion.
Provisional sketch of essay:
I want to develop a critical analytics of chronotopology, by which I mean, the critical analysis of the ways in which ways of producing knowledge are at the same time forms of producing chrontopes; i.e. ways in which we regiment access to history and historicity, i.e. the ways of producing access to the past, the present, and the future. I am interested in bringing together Bakhthin’s version of the idea of the chronotope, with Fabian’s idea of the denial of coevalness, with notions of epistemic resistance and epistemic insubordination. I am interested in developing this project by focusing on the production of knowledge as it concerns the ‘indigenous’ in the 18th century, in particular, because it is the so-called age of ‘democratic revolutions.’ I would like to approach this through a comparative analysis, a critical one, of Kant, Jefferson, and Humboldt, through the lens of the ‘native informants’ effaced in the writings of each author –naming the names of those effaced so-called native informants will be the challenge, but that is the task.