When trying to negotiate the place of the television medium in the age of the Anthropocene, one faces a tripartite complexity underlying the ways in which the two interconnect, co-evolve and produce a history proper to an epoch that purposefully suspends the demarcation of reality and simulation. First, there is the problem of the Anthropocene itself – as a concept, as an epoch, and as a common critical currency, or as Bonneuil and Fressoz argue, a critical rallying point for various disciplines from geology, anthropology, philosophy, political science, history, etc. (5). As the growing body of diverse literature on the subject indicates, the ‘Anthropocene’ over the past decade has grown beyond the initial scope of a concept denoting an epoch characterized by the ‘human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth’ (Crutzen and Schwagerl, 2011). Expanding the commonly accepted critical stance that human presence has become a force shaping both organic and inorganic matter – from species to climate to the transformation of eco-systems – the Anthropocene has become paramount in critical thinking, with implications for ecology, economy, politics, technology, history, and most recently media (cf. Parikka, 2015). The concept now denotes a range of interconnected issues which are sometimes challenging to consolidate.Consequently, to reposition television’s role in the Anthropocene, it is essential to analyze how the underlying discourses about self, society, development, habitation, domination and responsibility are produced and mediated through television in our present historic context, and how these mediations challenge and shape our understanding of ecological/social reality.
In line with the centrality of narratives of crisis and catastrophe, in recent years post-apocalyptic scenarios have become a central theme to various forms of television drama. From The 100 (CW, 2014-) to Incorporated (Syfy, 2016), from Into the Badlands (AMC, 2015-) to The Expanse (Syfy, 2015-), or from Westworld (HBO, 2016-) to Zoo (CBS, 2015-) to Helix (Syfy, 2014-2015) and Extant (CBS, 2014-2015), most of these narratives mobilize classic tropes of technophobia, post-colonial and post-capitalist discourses, social polarization and totalitarianism, bio-power, genetic engineering and environmentalism, in the context of perpetual war and a culture of paranoia. These narratives reflect cultural anxieties and ethical dilemmas about the future – not just in our present historical time when our sense of security has become eroded in relation to our own identity, but also from a historical perspective. We have to ask – to what extent are these anxieties rooted in, and influenced by, past cultural ideas about possible futures, or in other words, the ‘history of future’ (cf. Jameson, 305 and Marshall, 530.), and to what extent do they offer a progressive critical commentary on them? What is the ontological nature of ‘catastrophe’? How do we negotiate human evolution (biological, technical and ethical)? Can humanity transcend itself, and how will it negotiate its existence in a new ecology? Consequently, investigating the screen of the Anthropocene entails highlighting the broader political and popular cultural contexts in which these narratives unfold, as well as about the complex ethical dilemmas they unmask.
Recent literature on the conceptualization of the future of humans suggests that we consider humans, animals and machines as co-evolutive species (Zylinksa 2011, Sloterdijk 2012) inhabiting the same ecosystem (Parikka 2014). At the same time, cultural ideas about the Anthropocene are frequently aligned with a post-human future that re-imagines these species in a world after a cataclysmic event (Bonneuil and Fressoz, xiii). Such a context implies not only apocalyptic scenarios like a pandemic outbreak (Helix, Syfy 2014-5, 12 Monkeys, Syfy, 2015-), and environmental or nuclear disaster (Oblivion (2013), After Earth (2013), Hunger Games (2012-15), The 100), or a technological singularity (Matrix (1999-2003), Almost Human (Fox, 2013-14), Extant), but, more generally, a shift or a change in the global ecosystem that necessitates a radical repositioning of the human. Such discourses operate under the assumption that we are already within a(n ecological) catastrophe. The underlying human experience (human condition – Heidegger) of the sense of an ending, or as Žižek puts it, the anxiety of living in the end-times (2011) is prompting us to reconsider what human is, and what it means to dwell in the Anthropocene.
Another instance in this complex is the political ecology of the screen, implying a plethora of ‘images’ relegated to the Anthropocene – narratives, figurations, cultural ideas produced and disseminated via the converging media of literary fiction, film, television and videogames, that engage with the beginning and the end of human future as we know it. (Indeed, these images, in the broadest sense of the word, come with a double genitive: they belong to the Anthropocene because they are produced in it/by it (in fact, one could say that representation itself is ‘anthropomorpic’ and therefore belonging to the Anthropocene), and because they are also images about this epoch).
It has been suggested that specific forms of speculative fiction are not a prediction about the future as much as a thought-experiment about the present (Le Guin, 1969). According to Moylan, the “fictive practice” of speculative fiction “has the formal potential to re-envision the world in ways that generate pleasurable, probing and potentially subversive responses in its readers” (2000, 4). Because of its interest in the potential future(s), most speculative fiction writers are deeply concerned with ecological effects of our present behavior. As Weik von Mossner observes, “the risks of the Anthropocene are therefore potential future hazards and catastrophes that have not yet materialized and some of which in fact may never materialize” (2014).
Therefore, the re-emergence of sci-fi/fantasy/post-apocalyptic genres on television that address questions about human and non-human futures is unsurprising and is in line with the social and cultural status of the television as the dominant medium of storytelling. These cultural texts readily play the social anxiety card, which also means that from a critical point of view it’s very tempting to offer allegorical readings of them – which I would want to refrain from in this analysis. It might seem that the introduction of the label of ‘anthropocene drama’ might just be a duplication of categories, which might be deemed unnecessary. I of course wouldn’t want to suggest there is a new genre here. I would nevertheless point it out that there’s an abundance of genres and generic hybrids that can still be seen as a conglomerate (or a rhizome) displaying similar narrative traits and a similar syntax, and that revolve around the centrality of the Anthropocene broadly understood.
These observations lead us to the third feature of this approach, namely that these program texts are haunted by the spectre of post-human sensibilities. This hauntology of the ‘uncanny repetition of paranoia’ underlies our anxieties about the future. Obviously, these images themselves are characterized by heterogeneity, just like conceptualizations of what the Anthropocene entails with regard to (conceptualizations of) the future. The extent of radicalism (and pessimism) with which these interpretations predict the implications and possible consequences of human impact on the planet’s ecosystem occupy a very broad scale: some will equate the Anthropocene with catastrophe, envisioning the accelerated deterioration of the Earth system (and consequently, the destruction of the planet). Others will go ‘only’ as far as stipulating the inevitability of an extinction-level cataclysmic event bringing human history as we know it to an end: Irmgard Emmelhainz notes, ‘the Anthropocene thus announces the collapse of the future through slow fragmentation towards primitivism, perpetual crisis and planetary ecological collapse’. Or as Roy Scranton succinctly puts it at the beginning of his ironically titled book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: ‘We’re fucked. The only question is how soon, and how badly’. Luckily, a couple of pages later he refines the picture by explaining that what this project entails, saying that “for humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current situation.” (22). And although I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting this is what explains the popularity of programs like The 100 (with its replication of the Žižekian idea of the militarisation of society), Into the Badlands (with its obvious comic books aesthetics), or Zoo (drawing on the respective conceptual legacies of Resident Evil as well as of The Walking Dead), viewing them as symbolic figurations of the experience of crisis and an eroded sense of security might help understand why especially young audiences tend to respond so strongly to them.
There is now a critical consensus that narratives of emancipation, reconciliation and redemption via green technology, sustainability, climate control, and romanticized ideas of scientists finding technological solutions are not going to save us because not only are these ideas unsustainable at present, but they’re also depoliticized, removing agency and responsibility from governments and society as a whole. In the light of these changes, we might have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of a non-human future: from this perspective, human dominance and control (epitomized by the concept of nature-culture dichotomy), capitalist and colonial ideologies, and with them, concepts of the border will have to be re-thought (cf. Nail, 2016). The Expanse’s central narrative presents an example of practice for the ways these changes are symbolized. The story revolves around the retrieval and attempted destruction of an alien life form that was weaponised to escalate a protracted conflict between Earth and Mars. In the series Earth is portrayed as a colonising force, whilst Mars is is depicted as a primarily military power exerting its own entitlement to what Earth has deprived it from. A somewhat displaced and divergent community of the Belters is caught up in between these two superpowers, and, after taking possession of the weapon, they come to negotiate their own ways of benefitting from the conflict and moving from the position of a marginalised social ‘other’ to the status of a powerful third party. But as the first two seasons have amply demonstrated, the real question is not so much who’s going to be the dominant power, it is whether we, humans, are able to recognise the gravity of responsibility and the fact that our habitats rely on limited resources. As Bruno Latour (2013) has recently argued, ‘awareness of the Anthropocene closes down the modern conception of the infinite universe, drawing us back once again to the parochial, limited and exhausted earth. Rather than an open horizon of possibility limited only by the pure laws of logic or universal reason, we are now ‘earthbound.’’
So the question arises: how do we reverse-engineer the place the television of the Anthropocene plays from the perspective of the future? Does it effectively help erase the nature-culture dichotomy reminiscent of the late 19th century (namely that humans are ‘just’ one of many other species, together with animals and machines, promoting ideas of equality), or does it contribute to a re-inscription of colonial power-structures where the symbiotic co-existence of species is unmasked as another attempt at domination? Can there be domination-through-symbiosis? Don’t these narratives represent a return to a more silent, slower form of (ecological) violence? (cf Žižek; Zylinksa). Do imaginings of the future disclose a specific form of nostalgia in so far as they inscribe themselves into the narrative of history itself? A relatively clear consequence of these considerations would be to assume that our representational imperative prevents us from thinking outside / beyond the Anthropocene. Therefore it is essential for us to re-think the relationships between human and non-human, dwelling, domination and responsibility in a progressive way, with respect to their spatial and temporal contexts, and to outline the phenomenological, epistemological, aesthetic and historical conditions under which representations of these concepts develop and intertwine.
The television of the Anthropocene is still very anthropomorphic in the sense that it presents the catastrophe from the point of view of humans; that is to say, humans are the par excellence agents of it, and at the same time, they’re also the ones acted upon. Consequently, the question of responsibility is also focused on humans as a species; a responsibility humans (as agents) have towards their as well as other species via the human-non-human processes of evolution (adaptation to the natural environment) vs. domestication (adaptation to the artificial one) (Sloterdijk 2012) – as suggested.
The Anthropocene presents us with anxieties and challenges the cultural representations of which the serial narrative modes of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic fiction are particularly conducive to – by way of their underlying interest in the human and its relation to the non-human (which I wish to expand beyond the monster, the vampire, the zombie – to the machine, the animal, the alien and more broadly to all figurations of Otherness). This means re-positioning /revamping the human as that which is defined not only against this Otherness, but whose definition this Otherness forms an integral part of, whose definition this Otherness is a condition of.
Some critics dismiss our inability to take into account the possibility of our own extinction and the possibility of an Earth without humans – or no Earth at all (although: Life After People (History, 2009-2010) did attempt to present scenarios of that sort). But I guess thus is just a human quality (it’s an anthropological trait) to go with the drive to survive. As humans, we indulge in narratives of redemption and reconciliation, especially in times of crisis. The question is – do we deserve to be redeemed?
To be continued –
- Bonneuil, Christophe and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene. The Earth, History and Us. Translated by David Fernbach. London and New York: Verso. 2016.
- Colebrook, Claire: ‘We Have Always Been Post-Anthropocene’. https://www.academia.edu/12757260/We_Have_Always_Been_Post-Anthropocene
- Crutzen, Paul and Christian Schwagerl. ‘Living in the Anthropocene: Toward a New Global Ethos.’ Yale Environment 360, 2011. http://e360.yale.edu/features/living_in_the_anthropocene_toward_a_new_global_ethos
- Emmelhainz, Irmgard. ‘Conditions of Visuality Under the Anthropocene’. e-flux, #63 2015 (March). http://www.e-flux.com/journal/63/60882/conditions-of-visuality-under-the-anthropocene-and-images-of-the-anthropocene-to-come/
- Franklin, Bob and Scott Eldridge II (eds). The Routledge Companion to Digital Journalism Studies. London, New York: Routledge, 2017.
- Jameson, Fredric. Antinomies of Realism. London and New York: Verso. 2013.
- Le Guin, Ursula. The Left Hand of Darkness. Ace Books, 1969.
- Marshall, Kate. ‘What are the Novels of the Anthropocene? American Fiction in Geological Time.’ American Literary History Volume 27, Number 3, Fall 2015, pp. 523-538.
- Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untained Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Boulder: Westview P, 2000.
- Weik von Mossner, Alexa. ‘Science Fiction and the Risks of the Anthropocene: Anticipated Transformations in Dale Pendell’s The Great Bay.’ Environmental Humanities 5 (2014), pp. 203-16.
- Nail, Thomas. Theory of the Border. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Parikka, Jussi. The Anthrobscene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
- Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
- Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. City Lights, 2015.
- Sloterdijk, Peter. Strangers to Nature: Animal Lives and Human Ethics. Lexington Books, 2012.
- Žižek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. London and New York. Verso, 2011.
- Zylinska, Joanna. Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene. Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2014.
David Levente Palatinus is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies and founder of the Anthropocene Media Lab at the University of Ruzomberok. His research moves between and across visual studies, digital media, and cultural theory. He has worked and written on violence in serial culture, medicine and autopsy, autoimmunity and war, and digital subjectivity in the Anthropocene. He is co-editor of the ECREA section of Critical Studies in Television Online, and sits on the editorial board of Americana E-Journal of American Studies (Hungary) and Rewind: British and American Studies Series of Aras Edizioni (Fano, Italy). He is co-editor of the volume Crime and Detection in the Age of Electronic Reproduction (forthcoming, Americana Ebooks, 2017), and is currently completing a book called Spectres of Medicine: The Ethos of Contemporary Medical Dramas (forthcoming, Aras Edizioni).