By Austin Read
The notion of the Anthropocene and the relative failure of many conventional evidence-based Western epistemologies to address robustly the issues posed by anthropogenic climate change suggests the need for different stories and imaginations beyond conventional conceptual repertoires. In this post, I map out how a turn to experimental sound-based research methodologies might help us to cultivate more just relations between human worlds, as well as help to craft a world in which different forms of life can flourish together.
The Anthropocene, the notion that our current planetary moment is so inordinately influenced by the actions of humanity that it can be figured as something of a ‘geology of mankind’ [sic] (Crutzen, 2002), has been a fertile concept across a broad range of disciplines. It is a concept that incites contestation and debate, and is often taken to extremes: for example, in the quixotic, techno-optimistic responses that see the Anthropocene as an invitation to engineer ever-more sophisticated technology and bend Earth processes to the benefit of humanity. Elsewhere, there are those who see the Anthropocene as an indication of an inevitable disaster, bemoaning humanity for sullying and destroying an otherwise abundant world. However, despite these problematic currents of thought, the Anthropocene remains a productive notion to think with, and many theorists are articulating more nuanced figurations of the Anthropocene. For my dissertation project, I am particularly interested in the way that the Anthropocene has been taken up within the fields of decolonial and posthuman thought. Thinkers in both fields seek to prise the Anthropocene away from the homogenous, gendered Greek figure of the Anthropos to whom it owes its name. For example, cultural theorist Heather Davis and Indigenous feminist scholar Zoe Todd (2017: 765) argue that the Anthropocene is a tale of ‘radionuclides, coal, plutonium, plastic, concrete, genocide and other markers now visible in the geologic strata’. In other words, Davis & Todd move towards a provincialized notion of the Anthropocene, one which sees climatic degradation as issuing specifically from Euro-American epistemologies, technologies, economic arrangements and geopolitical ambitions. Moreover, building on this political critique, many posthumanist and decolonial scholars see the Anthropocene as an invitation to cultivate new stories and imaginaries beyond the conventional Western grammars of human exceptionalism and individualism. Despite the tension between posthumanism and decolonial thought, it’s important to keep the two, and their engagement with the Anthropocene, in conversation with one another. Engaging the rich genealogies of more-than-European knowledges and acknowledging the plurality of human worlds is fundamentally integral to crafting imaginaries that foreground the dispersed agencies of a more-than-human, material world pushing back against humanity. Telling new stories in the face of the massive problems of anthropogenic climate change is contingent equally upon intra-human justice and inter-species justice.
The question of how to write these stories – how to do justice by the voices of those that we cannot talk to – has no simple answer, and is the primary line of inquiry of my dissertation project. To attend to the rigorous practical demands of a decolonial and posthuman Anthropocene, I am turning to a flourishing field within cultural geography arising around the topic of experimental research methodologies. Drawing upon an unruly array of currents within geographic thought – posthumanism and decolonial thought as well as new materialisms, feminist notions of embodiment, theories of practice and performativity and affect theory – cultural geographers have been exploring different registers of doing and disseminating research. In particular, my dissertation draws upon the recent embrace of sonic research methodologies. Historically, within the ocularcentric epistemic frameworks of the West, sight, or perhaps more specifically light (Ingold, 2007), and the text-based modes of knowledge it enables have been the privileged manner of making and representing knowledge. This is evident in some everyday phrases: knowledge is often considered to be illuminating, or having a good idea is a ‘light-bulb’ moment. The result of such a monopoly of light is a dearth of research into the role of soundwaves in articulating knowledge and relations. In this sense, many geographers have recently turned to an examination of how sound-based research methodologies, and the dispersed agencies they emphasise, might help us to recuperate a sense of the relationality that is often silenced in conventional Western epistemes. Furthermore, sound is also being drawn upon in conversations about how an act of radical listening might be a crucial step in building just intra-human relations in that it indicates an act of sustained careful attention, as well as a privileging of others before the self. Thus, following these developments within geography, sound-based registers of knowledge, and the acts of listening, noticing, and humility it encourages could have a crucial role to play in crafting imaginaries capable of responding to the troubles of the Anthropocene.
Figure One: The Zoom H4n Handy Recorder I’m using to conduct my fieldwork, with Penarth beach in the distance.
Over July, I’ve been visiting an array of green, watery and industrial landscapes across the wider Severn Estuary and recording the sonic geographies of the place on my borrowed Zoom H4n ‘Handy Recorder’ (see figure 1; thank you to Dr. Nina Williams for the loan!). One such visit was to Penarth Beach, a coastal stretch of land where South Wales bleeds into the Severn Estuary. My interest in visiting Penarth was provoked after coming across articles detailing a proposed scheme of dumping 300,000 tonnes of radioactive mud dredged from Hinkley Point nuclear station, the leftovers of Britain’s nuclear power and atomic weapons programmes (Doward, 2017), in the depths of the Severn Estuary. If the dumping goes ahead, Penarth Beach will be one of the closest accessible sites to the mud (see figure 2). The incremental increase in nuclear technologies of the twentieth century is often earmarked as a suitable official indicator of the dawn of the Anthropocene. In that sense, Penarth may end up playing a central role in the writing of the Anthropocene. If it did – perhaps the toxic mud, which scientists have declared to be radioactive in negligible amounts, proved to be more potent than anticipated – what would future generations know about Penarth? Who would be figured as important in the elaboration of its story? There is no knowing at present what future lies ahead for Penarth, but the articles moved me to visit it and notice what processes and relations are unfolding there today. I wanted to listen to all that was going on – the fizzing of the saline waters, the clattering of rocks under feet, the hubbub of naval traffic, the squawks of marine birds, the scratch of damp sand, the moist thud of seaweed, the distant shouts of children and parents – and reflect about what messages these different agencies might be communicating. Often, of course, this is a speculative project: as humans, we are only able to comprehend a fraction of the ecologies in which we are embedded, and not all messages are intended for our ears (Bawaka Country et al., 2014). But still, I argue, there is something worthwhile in the trying: perhaps if those of us living in the grips of petrocapitalism were to develop sensibilities capable of making that tentative reach across different human and more-than-human worlds, no place would become a dump.
Figure 2: Penarth in relation to the proposed site of the mud disposal scheme. [Image source: Penarth News]
Below, you can listen to the unedited sound recording of my visit to Penarth Beach. This sound file is an excerpt from what will be a longer piece consisting of layered recordings sourced from visits across the wider geographies of the Severn. In this sound piece, I want to foreground the dissonant, exuberant voices of the myriad more-than-human actors involved in the authoring of the stories of the Anthropocene. In doing so, I am aiming to explore how creative modes of listening to these vibrant sounds might be a legitimate method of knowing place and, moreover, what role this listening might play in crafting an ethical practice of caring for our shared worlds. Furthermore, in situating my investigation in a relatively small geographic area, I am seeking to examine how scaling down the impossibly large problems of the Anthropocene might be productive. What listening to local, intimate and mundane more-than-human stories allows us to do, I argue, is to attune to our own complex ecologies and to get to grips with the earthy character of our existence, rather than giving into that temptation to zoom out and analyse the situation from the smooth, deracinated perspective of conventional Western epistemes. Finally, what I hope to achieve with creating and exploring this sound piece is to emphasise the joyous possibility of simply doing. Disregarding notions of skill or expertise (it’s fun to be a bit DIY about it!), I want to see how grabbing a sound recorder – or a paint brush, a camera, a pen and paper, a gardening trowel, a pair of walking boots, or anything that allows us to sharpen sensibility to the ubiquity of our more-than-human neighbours – might just be the basis of a truly radical ethics of caring for our home.
Bawaka Country, Wright, S., Suchet-Pearson, S., Lloyd, K., Burarrwanga, L., Ganambarr, R., Ganambarr-Stubbs, M., Ganambarr, B., Maymuru, D. and Sweeney, J. (2014) Co-becoming Bawaka: Towards a relational understanding of place/space. Progress in Human Geography 40(4): 455-475.
Crutzen, P. (2002) The geology of mankind. Nature 415: 23.
Davis, H. & Todd, Z. (2017) On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the Anthropocene. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 16(4): 761-780.
Doward, J. (2017) ‘Hinkley nuclear site radioactive mud to be dumped near Cardiff’ The Guardian, 14th October 2017 [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/oct/14/hinkley-point-radioactive-mud-dumped-cardiff-severn-estuary (Accessed 09 July, 2018).
Ingold, I. (2007) ‘Against Soundscape’ in Autumn Leaves, Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice. CRiSAP / Double Entendre.