A note on terrapoetics

Eugene Thacker's 'In the Dust of this Planet' (2011), Evelyn Reilly’s 'Apocalypso' (2012), and Juliana Spahr’s 'Well Then There Now' (2011).

There appears to be an anaesthetic edge to the conceptual, as the concept’s generality implies an inactuality that thwarts the presence presupposed by the here-and-now of aesthetic experience. Conversely, things that exist but cannot be encountered are nothing but pure concepts to us. As the concept of an ecosystem, for example, is not exemplified by anything you may encounter wandering through it, it escapes our aesthetic faculties entirely.

I am interested in what the engagement with pure concepts entails for the conceptuality of poetic practice in the case of the Anthropocene. Geologists propose the Anthropocene to be the current geological epoch — implying that the Holocene, the interglacial epoch outlasting the last 11,700 years of Earth history, has already been shattered by a sudden geological event called industrialized humanity, or capitalism. That humans today modify the majority of the Earth’s surface through agriculture and urbanization, move around more materials annually than all other terrestrial processes combined, with their livestock make up more than ninety-five percent of the biomass of all vertebrates, produce a climate not encountered on Earth since the Tertiary period, and likely will cause the sixth mass-extinction event in Earth history, suggests that the whole Earth is no longer a background upon which human history unfolds. Pushing the definition to its core, the Anthropocene may be called that terrestrial regimein which any possible value of any possible parameter characteristic of the Earth system as a whole as well as of its nested ecosystems and biogeochemical circles can, in principle, be brought about anthropogenically. This amounts to an absolute geological performativity of the Earth, or an absolute interiority of the Earth to a biosphere in which humanity plays a key role.

Now, of course no one has ever seen this with his or her own eyes. Unlike some strands of ecopoetry that feature human encounters with animal and plant life in settings of outdoorness, and focus on visible environmental damage, there is no outdoors in the Anthropocene, which is made up of ecosystems, populations, and flows of matter and energy — not individual nonhuman objects — while the scope of its devastations requires quantitative expertise to be gauged. If it wants to pursue a terrapoetics that is true to the Anthropocene condition, poetry has to familiarize itself with, and choose as its own habitat, the conceptual spaces, datascapes, and terrains of technoscientific knowledge that (by way of its capabilities) have brought about the current status in the first place, and are today involved in its self-reflection under the rubric of the Anthropocene concept. Such poetry would be conceptual first and foremost; note, however, that it would not have to be entirely anaesthetical: it may well draw some aesthetic traits from the diagrammatic and quantitative aesthetics of those spaces, scapes, and terrains which themselves are, of course, perceived firsthand.

I am not entirely sure what to look for here. But one may look for example at Eugene Thacker’s poem “The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids” (in the eponymous chapter of his 2011 book In the Dust of this Planet) and the ways in which it lays out the ecological thresholds of bacterial life under extreme living conditions: “The amoeba Echinamoeba thermarum grows / Optimally at Topt > 50°C”[1] — thresholds corresponding to those towards which efforts of Anthropocene governance are directed in order to construct a “safe operating space for humanity.”[2] We need to stabilize the extremely unlikely living conditions of an artificial Holocene. Furthermore, one could read Evelyn Reilly’s Apocalypso, and the chapter “Dreamquest Malware” in particular, the reports and communications of which — “I am writing regarding our disposal procedures / especially for large containers / rigid with organic grief”[3] — provide us with a sense of the terrestrial indoorness of the spaceship that Earth has become (Buckminster Fuller), implying the necessity of life consciously operating every aspect of its metabolism onboard. And one could analyze Juliana Spahr’s “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” (in Well Then There Now [Black Sparrow Books, 2011]) which, in its unnatural exuberant listings of things, displays the anthropogenic taxonomic permeation of ecosystems as superseding any sense of scene and location, which exist no more in the global Anthropocene commixture of everything.

But this is not even a starting point; we will have to go further. This will be the future Conceptual poetry, which will certainly startle and skid, slide, trip and fall: because, how to imagine a conceptual that would not be general? But the Anthropocene, and the whole Earth at its core, are concepts, but not general — but singular — as there are no multiple Earths, and nothing on Earth is more concrete than the whole Earth? How can there be something conceptual in the face of the singularity of the whole Earth, where singularity signals: facticity, fate? Maybe we can think about this.

1. Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1 (Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2011), 145.

2. Johan Rockström et al., “A safe operating space for humanity,” Nature no. 461 (September 24, 2009): 472–75.

3. Evelyn Reilly, Apocalypso (New York: Roof Books, 2012), 15.