What was “Hacking the Anthropocene”? (Or, why the Environmental Humanities needs more Feminism)

by Jennifer Mae Hamilton and Astrida Neimanis


Welcome to the Anthropocene! Although this geological era is still to be officially included in the Chronostratigraphic Chart, members of the Anthropocene expert working group agree that we humans are interfering in planetary systems in consequential and irreversible ways. As a result, many are thinking about the current geological epoch as the Age of Man [sic].

None of this is news. Some have, hopefully, been sobered by the idea of the Anthropocene. The concept raises important questions about the impact of human activity on the earth and offers an apocalyptic image of a planetary future in which the only trace of human existence is a curious and toxic layer of rock and chemical sediment. The flipside of sobriety is, of course, intoxication. And, just as the idea can be humbling or cautionary, it can also lead to celebration of an exceptional human capacity to transform the earth in violent and unsustainable ways.

Taken in the latter sense, the Anthropocene presents as the twenty-first century version of the “Man versus Nature” binary. In this iteration, rather than understanding Nature as a canvas upon which Man paints his culture, the whole earth is a medium that the genius human can master and mould.

Thus, many scholars are starting to ask: If the Anthropocene is the material mark of a human exceptionalist approach to life, can we really mend our ways with a concept that puts humans right back at the centre? Moreover, even if the concept suggests an entangled relation between nature and culture, what further human incursions—geoengineering, for example—might Anthropocene-talk problematically welcome? [i]

For decades, feminists have challenged the binary imaginaries of nature/man or nature/culture because of the ways in which they promote various forms of oppression, exceptionalism, and exclusion. A key feminist response has been to emphasise continuity across these binaries (humans are also animals, for example) but just as importantly, to pay keen attention to difference within categories such as “the human.” One of the central problems with the Anthropocene is its gathering of all humans back into one lump. Thus its widespread uptake crosses out decades of academic and social justice work that refuses such pretensions to a singular concept of Man as the only subject of history. As feminist geographer Kathryn Yusoff points out, the Anthropocene both “re-performs this spatial dislocation of “others” (once again alienating marginalized people from writing their own histories)” while also “naturalising the “we” of Western culture.”[ii] In this regard, the Anthropocene is not a check on human hubris, but notched up as a win for an exclusive mode of human exceptionalism. Welcome to the #Manthropocene!

Don’t reject it, just hack it.

 We’re not suggesting getting rid of the Anthropocene concept[iii] as a potential future stratigraphic layer, no matter how problematic and universalising the anthropos- prefix. After all, there is no unmaking the bores, new metals, rocks, chemical transformations in the ocean and the human hubris that materially constitutes the new epoch. Like it or lump it, our suggestion is that we must in the very least “hack it.” In one sense, this means we need to find ways of coping with or enduring these Anthropocenic marks that can’t be undone.

But we are also saying it needs to be hacked into. That is both spliced, broken down, reimagined, torqued, turned on its head and accessed and reprogrammed by unauthorised or seemingly “other” voices, historically excluded from the humanist hegemony. Given the urgency of many of the challenges presented by the environmental crisis, we also want to suggest that many of the tools and resources for thinking, making, doing an alternative future might already exist in the scholarship and activism of those historically excluded from the hegemony named by the Anthropocene.

Just as many had to hack (read: endure) the rise of a dominant white, masculinist, heteronormative modernity, so too they hacked (read: torqued and reprogrammed) into it via protest, critique, deconstructive analysis, community building, creative production, and policy making. So, in this regard, we suggest that the ecological challenges we face will be better served when addressed not as an issue discrete from extant human challenges, but taken as another dimension in an ongoing tradition of inclusive feminist critiques of power, violence, inequality and injustice.

Methods for Hacking

In April 2016, the Sydney Environment Institute (with additional support from SOPHI and The Seed Box) hosted “Hacking the Anthropocene: Feminist, Queer, and Anticolonial Propositions” (“Hacking”). Rather than offering up a series of papers that presented critiques of the idea from different discourses or standpoints, this non-traditional symposium brought together scholars, artists, and writers to intervene in and offer up methods for remaking the dominant Anthropocenic imaginary.

Donna Haraway, a central figure in the environmental humanities and long serving feminist, has argued that “our job is to make the Anthropocene as short/thin as possible and to cultivate with each other in every way imaginable epochs to come that can replenish refuge. Right now, the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge” (2015: 160). Elsewhere, she has argued that planetary survival depends on us bipeds finding a relationship to nature other than “reification, possession, appropriation, and nostalgia” (2004:  126). “Hacking” demonstrated that we need not look far for strategies for living differently with each other and having a new relationship with the more-than-human world. Indeed, we do not need to invent high-tech solutions for more extreme and intentional forms of geoengineering.  The most useful logics are already located within the embodied and lived experience of people today; they just need to be taken up. Thus the participants in “Hacking” were not scholarly experts on stratigraphy, and most were not even theorists of the short-history of its cultural uptake. They were thinkers and practitioners already hacking into its paradoxical premises.

How, for example, can art-making and creative engagement with non-human worlds invite us to contemplate different strategies for getting on with our worldly companions, in all of their diversity? The symposium opened with Love Letters to Other Worlds, an evening event in a community space in Newtown, where US-based artist Kathy High invited participants to contemplate how our own bodies’ inner ecologies are important sites for earthly survival. Meanwhile Perth-based artist Perdy Phillips facilitated communication with the underworlds of termites. Hacking here is less about critiquing the Anthropocene as a concept, and more about prying open this space to how our own human lives are tethered to bodies and places we rarely consider.

Or how might fiction spur us to imagine indigenous sovereignty and multispecies futures? Opening the symposium’s second day, Ellen van Neerven, author of Comfort Food (2016), read from her debut novel Heat and Light (2014) and wove this into reflections on life as a writer and Murri woman. Participants gathered around her feet and were offered access to a different kind of human-nature relation represented in her novel. In the world we learned about a contemporary love affair between a human protagonist and plant-person, troubled by genocidal government policy. Her work is neither magical realism, nor “merely” fiction, but a description of and creative response to the experience and politics of survivance as an indigenous person today.

Van Neerven was followed by sixteen small “hacks” whereby scholars from all stages of their careers, from Professor Vicki Kirby (whose body of work sustains a critique of the nature/culture dualism) to Sydney University Masters candidate in Gender and Cultural Studies Majidi Warda (whose project involves rethinking human relations with fire). These writers, theorists and artists offered up a range of possible points of departure—from sexuality, senses and animal politics to urban infrastructure management, mining, and military food stuffs—for imagining an “Alter-Anthropocene.”

At the end of the day, two keynote speakers presented more extensive ideas for different ways of approaching and intervening in the large-scale material, conceptual and political problem of the Anthropocene. As keynote speaker and self-professed cyborg feminist Cecilia Åsberg suggests, we need to “hack a thousand tiny anthropocenes; and even so, we have to live with the fact that we might not get out of this geological or biotic or climatological situation alive.”[iv] This means living with and as “Nature”—whatever that might be—in non-innocent and situated ways.  “A thousand tiny anthropocenes” remind us that the world is not homogenous, this “Age of Man” is variously produced and differently felt across bodies, species, times, and places, and that this is the only world there is. As Åsberg noted, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak; clues for this kind of other-worlding can be found in long-established feminist theory and practice.

 Not only do these feminist roots need to be acknowledged, as Kathryn Yusoff’s keynote demonstrated, they need to be critically expanded. Critiques of “Anthropocene Man” demand, for example, more attention to how such human avatars have always been racialised:

Moving ‘Towards the idea of a black Anthropocene’ would re-centre that which is already centred in the Anthropocene—race—and would move against the implicit structural whiteness of the Anthropocene in its current formation, potentially towards other more accountable, decolonised, geosocial futures.

As Yusoff highlighted, simultaneous to the celebratory universal concept of the Anthropocene is both a systematic “hardening of geopolitical borders” and a “destatification” of the economy. The concept of the Anthropocene might (productively, even) elide geopolitical borders while emphasising other lines, matters, marks made on the earth. Yet, for some bodies living on the “wrong” side of the immaterial border, that border is still a wall. Yusoff’s notion of a “Black Anthropocene” thus tangles the deep-time geological provocations of the stratigraphic concept with hard contemporary political questions about how to actually produce just, decolonised and sustainable futures.

Towards an Inclusive Feminist Environmental Humanities

The question that animates work in the feminist environmental humanities is thus: how might our resources to address current environmental challenges be enhanced by feminist, queer and anticolonial perspectives that for decades have already been producing incisive critique of and creative responses to various kinds of humanist domination? Our aim is to build a politics of citation[v] within the environmental humanities that doubles forward and back. In this, feminist environmental humanities builds on and expands earlier and ongoing ecofeminist work and work in feminist science and technology studies (STS). In these citational practices, we also insist upon a feminist acknowledgment of critical race and anticolonial work that subtends much work in the posthumanities.

At the same time, we call upon the environmental humanities as a field to acknowledge these critical precursors. “Acknowledgement” (like “tolerance,” and “diversity”) is an imprecise placeholder; it suggests that all we need to do is make room for “others” in an already-established club. This is neither our point, nor our goal. Rather, we want to stress that hacking the environmental humanities, much like hacking the Anthropocene, is about making different kinds of conversations possible. We want to hack how we narrate where we come from, and how we imagine where we are going.

The “reproductive power of origin stories”[vi] pertains not only to how we narrate the Anthropocene, as Kathryn Yusoff reminded us in her talk at “Hacking”, but also to the broader field of environmental humanities itself. Put otherwise, we suggest that feminist and related approaches are what give the field of environmental humanities its critical purchases—even what makes it possible.

The point of “Hacking” is, in Yusoff’s words, “a desire to agitate or trouble those origins to generate new future possibilities and modes of responsibility in the present.” What kinds of alternative futures could be activated if the full force of feminist, anticolonial and queer analysis were welcomed?

This was cross-posted on the Sydney Environment Institute blog

[i] See for example Eileen Crist, “On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature” Environmental Humanities 3 (2013): 129-147; Andreas Malm & Alf Hornborg, “The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative” The Anthropocene Review 1.1 (2014): 62-69; Astrida Neimanis, Cecilia Åsberg and Johan Hedrén, “Four problems, four directions for environmental humanities: Toward critical posthumanities for the anthropocene”. Ethics and the Environment, 20.1 (2015): 67-97.

[ii] Kathryn Yusoff, “Towards the Idea of a Black Anthropocene” Feminist, Queer, Anticolonial Propositions for Hacking the Anthropocene (Sydney: Sydney University, April 8, 2016), Keynote Lecture.

[iii] Although some have suggested the “Capitalocene” instead:  See Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 159-165 and Jason W. Moore (ed) Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (Oakland: PM Press, 2016).

[iv] Cecilia Åsberg, “A thousand tiny anthropocenes: Worlding troubles from Swedish feminist environmental humanities perspectives” Feminist, Queer, Anticolonial Propositions for Hacking the Anthropocene (Sydney: Sydney University, April 8, 2016), Keynote Lecture.

[v] We plan to explore the question of politics of citation in feminist environmental humanities further, but for now, have a look at Sara Ahmed’s fantastic blog post for some reflections on why citational practices are political. https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/09/11/making-feminist-points/

[vi] For more on the feminist politics of citation see this blog post from Sara Ahmed https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/09/11/making-feminist-points/


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