Occupying art theory, visualizing the Anthropocene

Anthropocene is the name given by scientists to the new era in geology caused by human intervention, primarily the burning of fossil fuels. It is only 250 years old, a mote in the eye of geological time, which can barely register the ephemeral 10,000 years of the preceding Holocene, whose unusually stable climatic conditions made human agriculture and civilization possible.
No more can humans see the Anthropocene, extending across centuries, through dimensions and across time. It can only be visualized. This task is further complicated because it affects everything from the lithosphere to the upper atmosphere and all the biota in between. Further, while visualization is normally carried out by the agent of an action, such as the general visualizing a battlefield, the Anthropocene is a human-created machine that is now unconsciously bent on its own destruction, a purposiveness without purpose, to repurpose Immanuel Kant’s famous definition of the aesthetic.
As I have argued elsewhere, a complex of visualization usually comprises three steps: classification, separation, and aestheticization. In this case, however, the first two steps are essentially redundant: the Anthropocene defines the entire planet, whether we like it or not. The last moment of human agency comes in the rendering of this phenomenon into an aesthetic, comprising both the ancient concept of bodily perception and the modern sense of the beautiful.
Perhaps surprisingly, to visualize the Anthropocene is to invoke the aesthetic. There are many aesthetics that are not those of the Anthropocene, of course, but that is not my concern here. In the brief compass available here, the first step is to recognize how deeply embedded in our very sensorium and modern ways of seeing the Anthropocene-aesthetic- capitalist complex of modern visuality has become. Next, we need to recognize that this interface is neither singular nor self-contained: it moves in nonlinear and networked form. Such patterns of material, social, human, and nonhuman interaction cannot be simply resisted or countered. There is, finally, a possible complex of the antiaesthetic in the Anthropocene, nonetheless, that turns out to have been there all along.
This antiaesthetics is not a classificatory scheme of the beautiful, or a style of formal art practice, but what Jacques Rancière calls “an ‘aesthetics’ at the core of politics . . . as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience.”
The body can no longer make sense of what is presented to it. We cannot articulate what we perceive, namely, that the climate is wrong—too hot, too dry, too wet, or all of the above. Any suggestion to this effect is at once challenged. There is no effective climate change politics at the national or international level.
Since the intensification and expansion of the global social movements in 2011, in which the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement built on the foundations laid since the Zapatista uprising in 1994, we as commoners have nonetheless placed our bodies where they are not supposed to be seen, in part as a claim to that perception. This claim is what I call the “right to look.“ It is not a right in the sense of human rights, for declarations and charters. It is not a gaze but a look mutually exchanged between people in a consensual “invention of the other.”
In the language of the social movements, it is not a demand. It is the process of consensus, producing the claim to a political subjectivity and collectivity. This invention is common, and it creates a commons when it comes into being. There is an exchange but no creation of a surplus. It is therefore sustainable. You, or your group, allow another to find you, and, in so doing, you find both the other and yourself. It means requiring the recognition of the other in order to have a place from which to claim a right and to determine what is right. It is the claim to a subjectivity that has the autonomy to arrange and rearrange the relations of the visible and the sayable.
The right to look confronts the police who say to us “Move on, there’s nothing to see here.” Only there is, and we know it and so do they. The claim to occupy public space and the repeated eviction of the common from that space by the police from Buenos Aires to Cairo, Madrid, New York, São Paolo, and Istanbul is the dramatization of that claim and the visualization of the crisis in the current complex of visuality. The right to look is aesthetically a priori, philosophically foundational, and historically prior.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission