Issue 3/2020 - Post-Anthropozän

The End of "Us"

The Micropolitics and Rhetoric of the Anthropocene

Claire Colebrook

To say that the Anthropocene is a rhetorical event is not at all to reduce the planetary to the social; to say that the best way to understand the rhetoric of the Anthropocene is through micropolitical analysis is to reject a social conception of rhetoric. Once the Anthropocene is considered as a rhetorical event, rhetoric becomes inhuman and extends well beyond the scale of the polity. Let me break this down.
First, by rhetoric I refer to inscription in general, not just language in the narrow sense, but institutional, corporeal, affective, geo-political, figural, sexual and racial differences. The Anthropocene is a time period, with its chronology depending upon a subject who reads the earth in order to open a frame of reference beyond human consciousness. The Anthropocene is a point of view, a position from which the whole is grasped. What is now being recognized as the Anthropocene is made possible by disciplines such as geology, but geology and other knowledge practices emerged from a series of inscriptive events: the marking out of the globe as a resource for the project of colonization, slavery and capitalism; the literary and visual archive of humanism that created a normative conception of the subject that would produce some spaces as less than human or not-yet human; disciplines (such as reading) that would orient bodies to practices of privacy and interiority; and the trajectory of ever-increasing hyper-consumption that would create a portion of the species as ‘humanity’ while those parts of the globe subjected to exploitative labor extraction would come to appear as inhuman, or not-yet human.
Colonizers could either regard their ‘new worlds’ as blank spaces without humans (terra nullius), or as primitive spaces where the people could be brought up to the level of humanity. Settlers to Australia adopted both assumptions; the land they invaded was deemed to be unoccupied, and the children of indigenous families were stolen and given to white families on the assumption that assimilation into settler culture was possible and desirable. It is that same violently dehumanizing and humanizing grasp of the world that today calls itself the Anthropocene, acknowledging that there are peoples not tied to the history of extractive industrialization and yet allowing the world no other future than the one that holds on to, sustains and redeems ‘humanity.’ The Anthropos of the Anthropocene is a complex centuries-long rhetorical event that has created a mode of existence—‘the human’—that appears to offer no alternative. To lose this highly specific composition of desires, affects, habits and orientations would be the end of the world.
Second, once the understanding of the Anthropocene can be expanded to an inscriptive or rhetorical register—not something we do but productive of a ‘we’—the confluence of the personal and geological can be analyzed at the level of the individual body. If it is possible today to say ‘Anthropos’ or use the term ‘we’ to refer to ‘we’ humans this is because of a longer history of universalizing globalism that at once subsumes all those it encounters into the category of the human, and yet talks about humanity, and the humanities, in ways that do not at all include the entire species. How is it that white settlers to Australia declared the land to be terra nullius even though early paintings and engravings depicted Australia’s indigenous peoples? How can one look at a human body and declare it to be less than human, or declare certain modes of existence to be tantamount to the end of the world? This is only possible if—as the vast corpus of post-apocalyptic cinema makes abundantly clear—‘the human’ and the point of view that underpins the Anthropocene assumes that ‘humanity’ takes the form of the private, hyper-consuming, urban, affluent and globally aware individual. When post-apocalyptic cinema imagines the end of the world it depicts scenes of resource scarcity, indentured labor, nomadic wandering, statelessness and fragility. These are precisely the conditions that ‘humanity’ has demanded from those to whom it has outsourced its fragility. ‘The human’ is composed from this rhetoric, and this rhetoric composes bodies, desires, habits and possibilities of recognition. This is micropolitics or what Bernard Stiegler has referred to as ‘organology.’1 It is the long, complex, and contingent history of ‘the human’ as a being composed from ways of speaking, seeing, feeling, moving and desiring.
What Bernard Stiegler has referred to as organology or what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari referred to as micropolitics allows the very composition of the desiring body as human to be seen as the outcome of a history of technology. Deleuze and Guattari’s history of the subject in Anti-Oedipus is a history of privatization:
“The organs begin by detaching themselves from the despotic body, the organs of the citizen risen up against the tyrant. Then they will become those of private man, they will become privatized after the model and memory of the disgraced anus, ejected from the social field—the obsessive fear of smelling bad. The entire history of primitive coding, of despotic overcoding, and of the decoding of private man turns on these movements of flows: the intense germinal influx, the surflux of royal incest, and the reflux of excrement that conducts the dead despot to the latrines, and conducts us all to today's "private man”2.
Rather than the body and its flows being lived collectively, the management of one’s organs is inscribed within a sexually differentiated private family; one becomes male or female according to one’s body parts. The binary of the family, or the sexual contract, produces man—who is also, in this erasure of collective modes of existence, a fully racialized inscription. The production of interiority, privacy, who ‘I’ am, and ‘the human’ is a geopolitical event. What ‘we’ fear as the end of the world is the loss of us, a narrowly inscribed possibility that always relied on the dehumanization of them. This is why one of the most compelling texts of the Anthropocene is Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), a film that details that holding on to who we are is not at all a matter of universal recognition but instead making sure ‘we’ destroy anything that threatens who ‘we’ are. The film depicts affluent America suddenly invaded by a population of Doppelgangers; in order to save the world, you have to kill the person who looks exactly like you but is not you, their only difference from you being that they are simply not you. Our right to life, who ‘we’ are, the ‘us’ in the narrative of saving the world is nothing more than who ‘we’ happen to be.
The ‘we’ of the Anthropocene is an ‘end of world’ machine; it relies on producing bodies whose desires are so folded around the space of private hyper-consumption that no other mode of existence can appear to have any value. Better to destroy everything other than who ‘we’ are than imagine the end of ‘us.’
The rhetorical ‘we’ of the Anthropocene can be discerned in institutions as (seemingly) diverse as Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute,3 where saving humanity amounts to securing technological maturity and intelligence, and in contemporary ‘end of world’ cinema, where vast swathes of the planet are destroyed and yet the world is saved if only a few privileged humans from the hyper-consuming present are able to secure their own future. There is a confluence between the Future of Humanity Institute’s director’s argument regarding technological luck, which is exemplary in its use of the humanist ‘we,’ and the post-apocalyptic imaginary. In his 2019 essay Nick Bostrom argues that technology to date has been beneficial for us, but we need to be aware of the ‘black balls’ that we may draw in the technological lottery that would harm us:
!What we haven’t extracted, so far, is a black ball: a technology that invariably or by default destroys the civilization that invents it. The reason is not that we have been particularly careful or wise in our technology policy. We have just been lucky. […] We do have examples of civilizations being destroyed by inventions made elsewhere. For example, the European inventions that enabled transoceanic travel and force projection could be regarded as a black-ball event for the indigenous populations of the Americas, Australia, Tasmania, and some other places. The extinction of archaic hominid populations, such as the Neanderthals and the Denisovans, was probably facilitated by the technological superiority of Homo sapiens. But thus far, it seems, we have seen no sufficiently auto-destructive invention to count as a black ball for humanity.”4
‘We’ have been lucky; indigenous people have not. Indigenous populations have been destroyed, but humanity is ok. To be fair to Bostrom he is not marking a difference between humanity and indigenous populations, but rather sees indigenous worlds those people who—within the grand story of humanity—might regard certain technologies as black balls. But the ‘we’ and the ‘humanity’ deployed in this talk of a vulnerable world is one in which genocide does not count as destructive for humanity in general, and in which industrialized slavery and its aftermath are past events that allow us to say, ‘The global population has grown about three orders of magnitude over the last ten thousand years, and in the last two centuries per capita income, standards of living and life expectancy have also risen.’5
To say that slavery, genocide and the Holocaust do not count as ‘black balls’ for humanity is to distinguish between the humanity of technological progress and the supposedly accidental corruptions of that forward movement. Bostrom’s use of the ‘we’ and of ‘humanity’ and the situation of the loss of indigenous worlds as collateral damage assumes that the end of those worlds is not only not the end of the world, but does not contemplate that losing those worlds might well have been utterly catastrophic for a different ‘we.’ Bostrom’s ‘future of humanity’ is utterly post-apocalyptic and utterly aligned with the ‘end of world’ cinematic point of view that produces a ‘we’ that can watch the planet collapse while ‘humanity’ saves the day. To take just one example: I am Legend (2007) concludes with the main character sacrificing his life in order to pass a vaccine to what is left of humanity—a mother and child on their way to Vermont. It is heroic to die for one’s kind, to do anything to avoid becoming them. Saving ‘us’ amounts to saving the world, saving humanity.
Rhetoric, or the marking out of who ‘we’ are, ranges from statements and policies concerning ‘the human,’ to the level of what individual bodies will desire and tolerate. Talk of the ‘end of the world’ is always about the end of this narrow and yet all-encompassing world of the human; when ‘we’ imagine the end of the world it is invariably the end of a certain mode of affective embodiment: the end of the stable, hyper-consuming, globally-oriented and media-attuned private individual. When Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute talks about saving humanity, it is not about saving human beings but about saving a mode of existence or point of view, the ‘we’ of Anthropos, the ‘silent presupposed we’ that Jacques Derrida identified in the history of Western metaphysics famously outlined by Edmund Husserl:
“This knowing, as horizon-certainty, is not something learned, not knowledge which was once actual and has merely sunk back to become part of the background; the horizon-certainty had to be already there in order to be capable of being laid out thematically; it is already presupposed in order that we can seek to know what we do not know. All not-knowing concerns the unknown world, which yet exists in advance for us as world, as the horizon of all questions of the present and thus also all questions which are specifically historical.”6
This ‘we’ is also the ‘we’ of post-apocalyptic culture in which the ‘end of the world’ is depicted in scenes that look remarkably like the world that ‘we’ have looked upon as the ‘third’ or developing world.
Former US president Barack Obama often used the phrase ‘this is not who we are,’ to refer to events that were at odds with the ideal of America.7 The phrase is performative, creating a ‘we’ that is at odds with what is actually happening. In a nation built on slavery and the erasure of indigenous cultures the reference to a ‘we’ that is neither racist nor violent produces an ideal that is distinct from the supposedly accidental and exceptional loss of who ‘we’ essentially are. In the 2020 global pandemic the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison referred to those who indulged in panic buying as ‘un-Australian;’ he said this at the same time as pictures of empty shelves in Australian supermarkets were circulating in global media.8 Also in response to the 2020 pandemic UK prime minister Boris Johnson appealed to the second world war ‘spirit of national endeavor’ to conquer the coronavirus; this ‘spirit’ was in stark contrast with the ongoing violation of social distancing guidelines, including the flouting of travel restrictions by the government’s own ministers.9 How can an event that is occurring now be at odds with who ‘we’ are? Two conditions have to pertain. First, there is an ideal ‘we’ that is not only different from actuality, but also functions to redeem and justify the actions of the ‘we’ to whom it refers. This is as true of political appeals to national spirit as it is of liberal political theory and popular culture. Second, the ‘we’ to whom it refers is ideal but even in its ideality it excludes those assumed not to fully or properly human. When white settlers declared Australia to be terra nullius they did so because the indigenous peoples they encountered were not deemed to be agents in the project of world history. When contemporary ‘end of world’ cinema offers heroic narratives about the potential loss and then redemption of ‘the world’ it is never the human species that is threatened and saved but rather this normative ‘we,’ a humanity that has been forged in a long geo-political, philosophical and rhetorical tradition of globalism.
Crucial to this rhetoric and politics of the ‘we’ of assumed humanity is a constitutive fragility: to say ‘this is not who we are’ is to acknowledge that ‘we’ are not necessarily who ‘we’ ought to be. Nationalist appeals to spirit mark out a proper future—what we ought to be—from the present, mark out a fallen and less than ideal version of ourselves from what happens (unfortunately) to be the case. Within philosophy the bifurcation between who ‘we’ properly are and our fallen or inauthentic present is clearly expressed in Martin Heidegger’s end of metaphysics. There is ‘a’ destiny tied to ‘a’ past, from which we have necessarily fallen:
“Thought in a more primordial way, there is the history of Being to which thinking belongs as recollection of this history, propriated by it. Such recollective thought differs essentially from the subsequent presentation of history in the sense of an evanescent past. History does not take place primarily as a happening. And its happening is not evanescence. The happening of history occurs essentially as the destiny of the truth of Being and from it. Being comes to destiny in that It, Being, gives itself. But thought in terms of such destiny this says: it gives itself and refuses itself simultaneously.”10
Because we live among things ‘we’ have a tendency to imagine ourselves as simply higher beings, as ‘rational animals.’ The humanist tradition, for Heidegger, maintained the notion that humans were blessed with a special faculty—reason or logic—that elevated us above other beings. Against this notion of the human species as exceptional, Heidegger argued used the term Dasein to refer to the ‘there’ (Da) through which the world (being or Sein) unfolded. When thinking about how Dasein might release itself from thinking of itself inauthentically as some sort of thing, Heidegger drew upon a sense of Volk that would be different from the ‘idle chatter’ (Gerede) of everyday distraction and recognize itself as the decisive and futural existence. If Heidegger’s association with National Socialism prompts a wariness towards notions of a purifying existence that liberates itself from the fallenness of the past, then this wariness should extend beyond Heidegger’s work to the structure of a futural ‘we’ that has become ever more intense in the twenty-first century with the concept of the Anthropocene. ‘Anthropos,’ like Heidegger’s Da-Sein, is not the actual collection of human beings that have populated the planet, but those humans who have created a ‘humanity’ that is the agent of industrial and technological progress – the same humanity that demands that ‘we’ all progress to a common future of recognition, even if the inclusive ‘we’ also operates to dehumanize and erase those not oriented to the narrative of humanism.
If the Anthropocene as a concept seems to refer to humans as a species but ultimately marks out only those humans who have emerged through industrialization, hyper-consumption and specific disciplines of human cultivation, nationalism by contrast marks out a particularity that conceals a normative universality. The ‘we’ of the Anthropocene and the ‘we’ of nationalism are not simply joined by being normative rhetorical unities, with ‘Anthropos’ being a larger scale form of inclusion than apparently more parochial nationalisms. Both are performatives that include as they divide, dividing who ‘we’ are from what ‘we’ ought to be, and dividing what ‘we’ might become from those less than human others who do not share our trajectory. Even the most parochial of nationalisms that would ask us to be great again seek to restore an earlier state of things that is an unquestioned and unsullied good; proper futures inevitably rely on idealized pasts, and they do so by dividing the present. To say that this is not who ‘we’ are, or that an event is un-Australian, un-American or at odds with the ‘spirit’ of our past generates a ‘we’ that has a prima facie right to life and the future. Heidegger’s future-oriented Germany would be the fulfilment of a Western tradition going back to ancient Greece, not a local and parochial identity. The same applies today to even the most regressive and isolationist nationalisms. Nationalism is an implicit universalism, just as most forms of humanism rely on a ‘we’ that is at once all of ‘us’ (as we ought to be) while also excluding those others not currently fulfilling the human ideal. Anthropos is both the humanity that has taken such a toll on the planet that it has transformed the earth as a living system, and—again—a futural and normative ‘we’ that is formed by recognizing its fallen past with the imperative to redeem the future.
The normativity of the ‘we’ – the presupposed ‘we’ of philosophy, nationalism, humanism and Anthropocene culture – is bound up with a transcendental fragility. Only by acknowledging that ‘we’ can fail to fulfil our proper potentiality can we differentiate the past and the present from a future to which we have an absolute right to life. A micropolitics and rhetoric of the Anthropocene would decompose this ‘we,’ looking at the erasures, inhumanities, non-worlds and other worlds that do not fall within the point of view of ‘humanity.’



1 Bernard Stiegler, “Elements of a General Organology,” trans. Daniel Ross, in: Derrida Today, 13.1 (2020), pp. 72–94.
2 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1983, p. 211.
4 Nick Bostrom, “The Vulnerable World Hypothesis,” in: Global Policy 10.4 (2019),
5 Ibid, p. 455.
6 Edmund Husserl, “The Origin of Geometry,” in: Jacques Derrida, Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, trans. John P. Leavey Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978, p. 176.
10 Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper Collins, 1993, p. 239.