On Afterness: Art and the Anthropocene


Naomi Riddle

 

‘It was the last nostalgia: that he
Should understand.’

Esthétique du Mal, Wallace Stevens (1942)

 

1.

When a child is learning to walk, they often take their first steps in a wavering line towards their parents, one step at a time, slowly, swaying and unsteady. Their eyes are fixed on their destination, the outstretched arms of mum or dad, a gaze leveled at the person coaxing and cajoling them, waving and encouraging them on. The impetus for the walk stems from the need to reach this place of safety and love, comfort and assurance. And the need to reach it alone.

It is often at the point where the toddler is almost there, just within arms reach of their parent, that there is a slight wobble and a stumble. The feet slip; there is a babbling squeal and a lifting of the heels, and finally a collapse, a tipping forward towards the waiting pair of strong and steady legs. There is the triumph of being held close, of being encircled in arms, the feeling of being safe. This first journey is complete, and for the child, this moment will be repeated again and again, each step becoming stronger, sturdier and forthright, until it is no longer a task at all.

To see this walk is to see the formation of knowledge. Knowledge is the security in the lift, the trip, and knowing where you will land. It is the certainty of a cushioning fall, of welcoming arms. But what happens when knowledge fails? It is to balance between the lift and the fall, to hang suspended, caught in the moment when the soft landing is taken away, to struggle to reach the parent and to find only empty space, absence, and that which you thought was so certain and secure was never really at all. Knowledge is fragile and transient. Knowledge can vanish and be revealed as entirely illusory. It is becoming undone.

 

2.

We are now living in the Anthropocene. It is a new geological age, coming after the relatively calm Holocene, and it is one governed by the ever-increasing impact of humans on the entire earth’s biosphere. To live in the Anthropocene brings with it a kind of double bind – on the one hand, humans are seen to be hugely powerful, manipulating and shaping an entire planet, disrupting the climate, the oceans, the landscape: the very equilibrium of being. But at the same time, this age reveals and perpetuates the fallibility of human knowledge and scope, exposing an inherent frailty in human existence in the face of massive global geological change. As our existence becomes peripheral but also paradoxically entirely central, the world is no longer secure. We are no longer on firm ground.

Writer Rebecca Solnit goes in search of the lost species of the world and finds our perpetual reach for knowledge to be outpacing us. It is a reach that leads to knowing less, to more uncertainty, and to what we once knew slipping away: ‘more is known; there is less to know; we lose both what we know and what we don’t. It is certain that species are vanishing without ever having been known to science. To think about this is to imagine the space inside our heads expanding but the places outside shrinking, as though we were literally devouring them.’1 Our search for knowledge and permanence can be our own undoing – didn’t Icarus know to keep his distance from the sun, and yet was still overcome by the desire to do so? Cassandra sat in Troy waiting for the Greeks to destroy the city even though her foresight allowed her to conceive of its impending end, and Oedipus marched onwards, his very desire to avoid his fate meaning that it would inevitably come to pass.

The underlying tension of the Anthropocene – to know and yet to not know, to be both central and peripheral – allows for a new way of approaching what it means to engage with the modern world, a world where humans are transitory and ghostly presences rather than fixed and permanent beings. Roy Scranton writes of this age as one of ‘radically transformed upheaval’: ‘not possibly, not potentially, but inevitably. We have passed the point of no return’ and yet ‘humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today – it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things as not stable and permanent.’2 And yet the order of things has shifted, the weather is changing, and tomorrow is not a certainty.

This notion of impermanence, not just at the level of the subject or a culture, but in the expansive space of an entire biosphere, has seen a shift, a turn to a new form of understanding: that everything can and will go on – there is a future without us. The debates surrounding climate change, and what appears to be a sense of paralysis in the face of such monumental and vast scales of change, has so much to do with a sense of palpable grief, loss, indecision, rage and fear at this very possibility:

The biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘What does it mean to live?’ In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality – ‘What does my life mean in the face of death?’ – is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?3

 

3.

How can art respond to such a world? Beneath the shadow we find a haunted space that expounds a feeling of loss and fragility, and being conscious of this space opens up a way of thinking about artworks that are beginning to see and expose human beings as marginal, passing and impermanent. These works rupture a human-centric view of the world, plunging us into a vast space where our presence becomes incidental: totality is out of reach.

Gemma Messih’s The Distance Between Us (2013) is a kind of weather narrative, an anonymous first-person written account of the shifting Icelandic climate situated alongside archival newspaper images of the landscape – a landscape that appears to be entirely unmoved by our presence, existing outside of us – we are not important here. What appears at first as a conventional diarised narrative of love, desire and loss, is revealed as a one-sided ache, a longing to be at one with the weather, to know the climate itself, and the inevitable distance that exists between the human body and nature. Nature remains indifferent: ‘I wonder if I meant as much to you as you did to me.’4

The bodies that appear in the archival images are dwarfed by the landscape, by the mountains, glaciers and caves. A group of trekkers, women on the edge of the ocean, a solitary man standing beneath the opening of a cave – humanity is overcome here, appearing overwhelmingly fragile and child-like, as the writer concedes, ‘the distance between us makes me look tiny…I can feel your power. Your unpredictable nature excites me as much as it scares me.’5

The poet Mary Ruefle writes about the notion of fear, the power of being afraid, and the constant tension and uneasiness that sits just beneath the surface of writing. In doing so, she discovers Barry Lopez’s account of Eskimos in Arctic Dreams (1986), whose relationship to nature, to the earth itself, is so at odds with Western culture. As Lopez suggests:

‘Eskimos do not maintain this intimacy with nature without paying a certain price…I have realized that they are more afraid than we are. They are afraid because they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a part of life, of really living, as are the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful’.6

Messih’s work gets close to this type of fear, in close proximity to a geological space that is inherently unpredictable, that reduces and challenges a human-centric understanding of the world, that allows for an acceptance of what is violent and tragic; the inevitable passing into shadow: ‘I can feel you slipping and I’m not ready to let go.’7 As Ruefle argues, ‘the industrial world destroys nature not because it doesn’t love it but because it is not afraid of it,’ and perhaps this fear, a sense of apprehension and impermanence, a disruption to ‘the order of things’ is only now beginning to take root in our understanding of the world. But it is a fear that has come too late.8

 

4.

The archival images in Messih’s work are haunting because of their lateness, of being seen seventy years after they were taken, reformed and re-appropriated. We are seeing them afterwards, and as Zadie Smith writes, ‘what “used to be” is painful to remember.’9 The philosopher Gerhard Richter offers us a way of thinking about such lateness through the notion of ‘afterness’, an idea which stems from Walter Benjamin’s preoccupation with nachleben in modernity: ‘living on, living after, surviving…or following.’10 The idea of afterness is always connected to what came before, ‘a matter of the ghostly other that continues to haunt and that will not stay buried,’ but also to a sense of belatedness, of arriving after the fact.11 It is an unstable temporal position that suggests a perpetual need to grasp at an absence, that which came before, a kind of perpetual melancholia. As Richter argues, ‘the unsettling feeling of always already having arrived too late gives rise to the experience of a certain after that consciousness is now forced to inhabit.’12

It is an afterness, a haunting belatedness, which exists right within the present moment. And such a feeling can be interwoven with the age of the Anthropocene, a sense of lateness, of certainty seeming fleeting and momentary, a feeling of transience without end.

 

5.

Monolithic concrete sound mirrors dot the British coastline near Dover. They are vast structures built before the advent of radar in an attempt to hear the approach of enemy aircraft, to provide a few minutes reprieve. With the invention of radar arriving only a few years after the sound mirror’s construction, they were rendered obsolete. Yet still the decaying structures remain; they are not so easily undone. When the character of Matt Shay stumbles upon an abandoned concrete bunker in Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) he finds ‘something irresistible about the building’: ‘how strange and still and beautiful a chunk of concrete can be, lived in fleetingly and abandoned, the soul of wilderness signed by men and women passing through.’13

The sound mirrors on the coast of Dover are structures that arrived too late, strange and still objects that were immediately superseded, objects that still carry the trace of men and women passing through. Their very existence points to the failure of a particular type of knowledge that was immediately cast aside and overcome. To rebuild these structures is to point to this sense of failure, a haunting afterness, whilst at the same time revealing the inherent beauty in the objects themselves, and the fleeting and temporary nature of human endeavour.

Tim Bruniges’ installation MIRRORS (2014) does just this, reconfiguring and recuperating the historical structures into active sound sculptures: two imposing concrete sound mirrors face each other, each with a microphone placed at the centre, which take in, delay, loop, overlay and amplify all that is heard.

The echo is a form of afterness, a return of that which came before, a sound of both belatedness and reoccurrence. Yet sound in MIRRORS is not simply an echo, but regenerated and returned to the listener, a never-ending loop, the repetition and augmentation of sound – infinite duration – which ruptures any sense of the linearity of time. Richter writes of afterness existing within a space, a space of simultaneity where ‘there is a scission or rupture in what is no longer simply an after and before’: ‘It is an unsettling experience of an afterness that feels itself to reside somewhere in between the past and the future, in a peculiar space that cannot simply be considered the presence of a now or the prelude to what is to come.’14 This space can be found at the point between the two sound mirrors where present and recorded sound intersect, where there is a return, a trace of a moment that existed hours, days or weeks before, a moment grounded in a concrete structure that is always-already gesturing to a past, which we can only experience in our delayed lateness. To stand here is again to hang suspended between the lift and the fall, to know that knowledge and certainty has been removed. Yet it is a removal that is strangely comforting.

Like Messih’s Icelandic climate, Bruniges’ MIRRORS reduces the presence of human beings, exposing their very existence as entirely momentary and brief, particularly in the face of their own achingly beautiful spectral creation. Afterness becomes spatial; it is all encompassing.

 

6.

Shaun Gladwell’s Maximus Swept Out To Sea (Wattamollo) (2013) is a twelve-minute silent film that shows his characteristic anonymous man in a black motorcycle helmet. But this video feels decidedly different to the rest of his work, slightly off-balance. The man is submerged in water up to his neck, moving in a circle and carrying a perpetually flaming branch. The waterfall silently rages behind him and in some ways the man appears to be struggling to perform this task.

Fire is one of the first potent symbols of man attaining knowledge. It is said that Prometheus gave humankind the ability to make fire to exact his revenge on Zeus. When Zeus discovered that this precious knowledge had been shared, Prometheus was punished, chained to a mountainside with an eagle forever pecking at his liver. The figure of a man and fire is set here against nature, a nature that is continuous and overwhelming. It is a nature that surrounds us but remains ultimately indifferent.

Gladwell’s man seems much reduced – he is not in control, and the powerful figure of his earlier works appears decidedly absent. When thinking of the underlying paralytic rage and sense of loss directed at our changing climate, you could easily think of this image of a man up to his neck in water. We can see the inherent paradox of being exposed as central to this new world, the cause of it, but we are also peripheral, transient and short-lived. This man’s strength must eventually fail: he must surely be completely submerged, even if we do not see this on the screen. The burning flame will go out. Such an image is the image of the Anthropocene.

 

7.

Our very existence is ghostly; we are fading and fragile. We are caught between the lift and the fall without the prospect of the landing, of a safe end point being slowly removed. As the American poet Ed Robson writes:

‘We look upon the world
to see ourselves in the brief moment that we are of the earth
a small fern in a crevice of the cliff face.’15

We know and yet we do not know, we are present and we are absent. We are of the earth, but only for a brief moment, only a small fern set against an indifferent cliff face. Perhaps we should learn, like the Eskimos, to be more afraid.

What we can be certain of is that there will be an afterness without us.

 

 

 


1 Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), p. 187

2 Roy Scranton, ‘Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene’, The New York Times, (10/11/13).

3 Scranton.

4 Gemma Messih, The Distance Between Us (2013), Inkjet prints 184.5 x 45.5cm, p. II

5 Messih, p. III, VI

6 Mary Ruefle, ‘On Fear’, The Poetry Foundation, (1/06/12).

7 Messih, p. VI

8 Ruefle.

9 Zadie Smith, ‘Elegy for a Country’s Seasons’, The New York Review of Books, (3/04/14).

10 Gerhard Richter, Afterness: Figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 2

11 Richter, p. 15

12 Richter, p. 7

13 Don DeLillo, Underworld, (London: Picador, 2011 [1997]), p. 460

14 Richter, p. 201

15 Ed Robson, ‘We look at the world to see the Earth’, To See the Earth Before the End of the World, (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press), p. 22

Naomi Riddle is a Sydney-based writer and artist working across the mediums of analog photography, archival film, text and video. She has recently exhibited at Wellington...


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