Arendt, the Anthropocene, and Narrative

This project employs Hannah Arendt’s work—especially her concepts of earth, world, and natality; her account (and critique) of modern science and technology; and her approach to narrative—to understand better the complications of community in the age of the Anthropocene. “The Anthropocene” denotes those planetary processes, such as global warming or the spread of microplastics across the earth, initiated by modern technologically-mediated structures of collective living, and which can be revealed in their causal origins and flows only by means of the natural sciences. These planetary processes threaten the stable shared works and architectural structures that, for Arendt, are the precondition for “world,” political community, and the human capacity for action, with the latter understood as the initiation of something new within the web of human relationships. Yet these planetary processes are themselves results of the channeling of the human capacity for action into a technological mode of starting new processes with uncertain and unpredictable outcomes.

Though the natural sciences reveal the planetary processes emblematic of the Anthropocene, these processes only take on normative significance within narratives that explain their relationship to human beings. However, as recent debate within the humanities highlights, it is not immediately evident how to “narrate the Anthropocene.” This difficulty emerges, for example, in a humanities nomenclature debate: should we call this era “the Capitalocene” or “the Plantationocene,” rather than “the Anthropocene”? It also emerges in Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh’s contention that the realist novel’s implicit commitment to a regular, bourgeois world makes it difficult, or perhaps impossible, for this generic form to engage the problem of global warming.

The first half of this project is primarily theoretical, and focuses on the rethinking of Arendt’s concepts (especially earth and world) and her account of technology and the sciences, that are necessary for developing an Arendtian approach to the Anthropocene. The project’s second half is more literary critical in nature, and draws on literary theorists such as Lukács, Ghosh, and Pheng Cheah, among others, to consider the challenge to narrative and to “worlding” that emerges from the vexed relationship of the two forms of action that Arendt identifies.


Fig. above: Industrial plastic pellets (known as “mermaid tears”) in the Aquitanian coast nature reserve, © maldeseine, license: CC BY-SA 3.0.

Head researcher(s): Robert Mitchell