The Anthropocene: A Return to Grand Narratives?

Anthony Giddens in his The Consequences of Modernity would remind us that the condition of post-modernity is distinguished by an evaporating of the “grand narrative”— the overarching “story line” by means of which we are placed in history as beings having a definite past and a predictable future. The post-modern outlook sees a plurality of heterogeneous claims to knowledge, in which science does not have a privileged place.1

Whether this combination of pluralism and the demotion of the sciences to one among several forms of knowledge is central to the vision of the post-moderns and their aftermath is beside the point. Yet, I wonder if the trend toward the return of those Grand Narratives under a new guise is peeping its head out of the post-modern quicksands? Recently in scholarship we’ve seen a new term, the Anthropocene, emerge which conveys the sense of human intervention across large spectrums of time and history. So much so that even the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC has redefined itself spending over $45 million on an exhibit that palaeobiologist Scott Wing describes as a new story of human history: “We want to help people imagine their role in the world, which is maybe more important than many of them realize.”2  As Monastersky reports it:

This provocative exhibit will focus on the Anthropocene — the slice of Earth’s history during which people have become a major geological force. Through mining activities alone, humans move more sediment than all the world’s rivers combined. Homo sapiens has also warmed the planet, raised sea levels, eroded the ozone layer and acidified the oceans.

Given the magnitude of these changes, many researchers propose that the Anthropocene represents a new division of geological time. The concept has gained traction, especially in the past few years — and not just among geoscientists. The word has been invoked by archaeologists, historians and even gender-studies researchers; several museums around the world have exhibited art inspired by the Anthropocene; and the media have heartily adopted the idea. “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” The Economist announced in 2011.

Yet, not everyone is happy with this all-encompassing term, metaphor, hyperbole. As Monstersky will observe although the term is trending, the Anthropocene is still an amorphous notion — an unofficial name that has yet to be accepted as part of the geological timescale. That may change soon. “A committee of researchers is currently hashing out whether to codify the Anthropocene as a formal geological unit, and when to define its starting point.” Continuing he says:

But critics worry that important arguments against the proposal have been drowned out by popular enthusiasm, driven in part by environmentally minded researchers who want to highlight how destructive humans have become. Some supporters of the Anthropocene idea have even been likened to zealots. “There’s a similarity to certain religious groups who are extremely keen on their religion — to the extent that they think everybody who doesn’t practice their religion is some kind of barbarian,” says one geologist who asked not to be named.

The word “Anthropocene” was coined by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen about a decade ago. One day Crutzen, who shared a Nobel Prize for discovering the effects of ozone-depleting compounds, was sitting at a scientific conference. The conference chairman kept referring to the Holocene, the epoch that began at the end of the last ice age, 11,500 years ago, and that—officially, at least—continues to this day.

“‘Let’s stop it,'” Crutzen recalls blurting out. “‘We are no longer in the Holocene. We are in the Anthropocene.’ Well, it was quiet in the room for a while.” When the group took a coffee break, the Anthropocene was the main topic of conversation. Someone suggested that Crutzen copyright the word. (see Age of Man National Geographic)

Copyright the word? A meme factory? A sort of property right against the corruption and degradation of life by humans to be copyrighted?

We learn that it was back in 2007 when Jan Zalasiewicz was serving as chairman of the Geological Society of London’s Stratigraphy Commission. At a meeting he decided to ask his fellow stratigraphers what they thought of the Anthropocene. Twenty-one of 22 thought the concept had merit. So the question was: When it does, will human impacts show up as “stratigraphically significant”? The answer, Zalasiewicz’s group decided, is yes—though not necessarily for the reasons you’d expect. (see Masters of the Anthropocene podcast)

I think what we’re seeing is the great divide between the sciences and cultural theory breaking over us again. Whereas Crutzer, Zalasiewicz and their geologists are demarcating a stratigraphical epoch for purposes of studying the larger issues of scientific problems, the cultural drift is hijacking the concept and misplacing it into cultural critique and hype for purposes of academic politics – as a instrument for political and social critique of human impact on the environment. The two forms, scientific and cultural theory seem utterly at odds with each other. Sciences are just beginning the study of this problematique, while we are seeing an overloaded market of cultural critique using the metaphor and hyperbole of the Anthropocene: The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz; Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization by Roy Scranton; After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene by Jedidiah Purdy, etc.. Even Edward O. Wilson has hopped on board of late with a new apocalyptic work Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, telling us that “In order to stave off the mass extinction of species, including our own, we must move swiftly to preserve the biodiversity of our planet, says Edward O. Wilson in his most impassioned book to date. Half-Earth argues that the situation facing us is too large to be solved piecemeal and proposes a solution commensurate with the magnitude of the problem: dedicate fully half the surface of the Earth to nature.”

Of course the scholarly treadmill of academia has hopped on board with the extreme metaphor of the sciences and will use it as a new fear tactic for promoting Climate Change agendas, this is to be expected. Just strange to follow these memes into their viral agent stage where now it is becoming almost a mainstay of discourse that will go by without a deep thinking process, but will become a part of our Facebook and Twitter blip cultural turn toward short drifts of hypersigns full of sound and fury… but will they mean “nothing” or “something”? Only time will tell… and, don’t misread my view of Climate Change: it is happening, but I’m against a certain type of hypercritique that hyperbolizes it into cultural parlance rather than bringing it back to the sciences.


  1. Giddens, Anthony (2013-04-24). The Consequences of Modernity (Kindle Locations 95-98). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  2. Richard Monastersky. Anthropocene: The human age. (Nature International Journal of Science, Vol 519, Issue 7542)

10 thoughts on “The Anthropocene: A Return to Grand Narratives?

  1. I always figured ‘post-modern’ as a misconstrewed as it is missapied idea, itself based out of confusion. Because post-modern as an idea itself is based in a denial of its own meaning, a metanarrative in a perpetual effort to overcome itself, an original meaning misappropriated and then dunked and dunked again in mistake posed as purpose.

    Im glad that the intelegensia has or is getting over the mire and actually at least trying to admit that there always has been a ground under that self centered swamp.

    I like the anthroputhcene as a geo-logical determination. And yes, i tend to think the only way to get anywhere is for there to be a ‘catholic’ faith, a grand grand metanarrative that no longer accepts confusion as a legitimate stake in the estimation of things.

    We might then find out what function PM had, over what ‘actual’ situation it proposed or proposes. We might begin to really get at the ‘thing’ that is humanity.

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    • I guess that’s part of why you and I conflict so much: I’m still a partisan of the post-modern which is not about metanarratives, but about microhistories of the specific details arising from a plurality of events rather than a reduction to some totalizing scheme or Grand Narrative… which harkens to tyranny. Most post-modern metanarratives in stories, novels, etc. were irononizing parodies exposing the fallacy of Grand Narratives. So that your seeing postmodernism as a metanarrative is strange, since that is exactly what most of those like Lyotard, Baudrillard, Virilio, Deleuze, and others were attacking… the Platonizing grand schemes…

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      • A narrative that proposes to be against metanarratives is in effect another metanarrative, because it proposes upon a proper totality. If its aim is only to question and disrupt, then it contradicts that it has any basis by which to be considered.

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      • Not sure how you can get that convoluted logic to stick since that’s a sort of ill-founded circular logic rather than a critique of microhistories? Strangely you almost turn it into a mystical gibberish as if it were part of some reduction ad absurdum… don’t take me wrong, nice try, but your logic is a fallacy, and the argument is trivial and ill-founded. Microhistories are neither about disruption or contradicting… have you even read Foucault, Lyotard, Virilio, Baudrillard, Deleuze, just to name a few of the most prominent?

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  2. …and the fact that you refuse to even admit discussion, shows that you are witholding a metanarrative, that your metanarrative that you call post modernism is so fragile that it cant stand up to the light of what Lyotard had in mind; namely that every discourse should have its veracity measured by opposing discourse. This is to say, not by witheld didcourses, but exactly discourses that before the interaction were silent.

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    • This is what Lyotard had in mind: Lyotard’s term for the totalizing narratives or metadiscourses of modernity which have provided ideologies with a legitimating philosophy of history. For example, the grand narratives of the Enlightenment, democracy, and Marxism. Hayden White (b.1928), an American historian, suggests that there are four Western master narratives: Greek fatalism, Christian redemptionism, bourgeois progressivism, and Marxist utopianism. Lyotard argues that such authoritarian universalizing narratives are no longer viable in postmodernity, which heralds the emergence of ‘little narratives’ (or micronarratives, petits récits): localized representations of restricted domains, none of which has a claim to universal truth status. Critics suggest that this could be seen as just another grand narrative, and some have seen it as Eurocentric. Yet, others see it as part of a pluralistic vision one that reject Universalist Discourse.

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    • Here we go again: “…and the fact that you refuse to even admit discussion..”: When did I do that? When did I refuse to admit discussion? Are you once again on the attack, belaboring once again personal affronts as usual? We disagree, Landzek, you’ll not convince me of your logics… simple enough. So far you present a circular logic that tries to loop post-modern theory back into your univeralist discourse. Unsuccessfully, I may add…

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    • In fact in the Postmodern Condition Lyotard as though to point out the obvious and to establish the already established, began the book with a now famous definition of Postmodernism: “I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.” This sentence is tossed casually into a short section on knowledge and its legitimation and reveals a Lyotard looking back and remarking on the fallen state of post-war culture, after the Holocaust, after imperialism, after the sciences had shaken the preexisting belief systems. Of all the Postmodern writers, perhaps he was the most political. With a career that dated back to the forties, Lyotard was an eyewitness to the Holocaust and to the end of French colonialism in Viet Nam and Algeria and to May 1968. One by one, the metanarratives of power and control came an end, totalitarianism (totalization) was (briefly) defeated, but the promise of Marxism as an alternative proved to be a delusion. For the post-war generation watching the crumbling of the comfortable sustaining narratives of received wisdom, the old stories could no longer be told and there was nothing left to believe in. Only science survived with any shred of authority.

      In his assessment of knowledge, culture is a metanarrative, history is a metanarrative and a scientist, and as he states, he hold such tales in scorn, “Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children.” But because they purport to tell the “truth,” narratives are also dangerous: “We know its symptoms. It is the entire history of cultural imperialism from the dawn of Western civilization. It is important to recognize its special tenor, which sets it apart from all other forms of imperialism: it is governed by the demand of legitimation.”

      Lyotard was left with one haunting question: “Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?” He continued, “Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it redefines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. Its principle is not the expert’s homology, but the inventor’s paralogy.” And paralogy–or the challenge of an alternate discourse–disorder–is at the heart of Lyotard’s solution to the end the use of metanarrative.

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