Singular Metabolism


Yesterday I had the immense pleasure of participating in Running with Concepts: The Geologic Edition. Organized by Christine Shaw, the Director/Curator at the Blackwood Gallery, the event brought together scientists, artists and those working in hybrid practices to “engage transdisciplinary debates and studies of the geologic as source of explanation, motivation, and inspiration for understanding and responding to conditions of the present moment.” Alongside angela rawlings, Onyeka Igwe, Julie Joosten and Francisco-Fernando Granados, I presented a program of readings and performances entitled Singular Metabolism.

Geologic time is marked by measurable differences in rock layers, and the idea of the anthropocene stakes itself as a new geologic era meant to describe the profound environmental shifts that human beings have effected since we first tested the atomic bomb, or since the Industrial Revolution, or perhaps even further back, since we began to farm. The timeframe of the anthropocene is not exactly agreed upon, and neither is it agreed upon exactly what the anthropecene is. But regardless of whether we think it strictly adheres to a definition of geologic transformation, or if we think it is merely a useful ideological tool for framing the profound consequences of a shifting climate that humans have brought about, it strikes me as useful that discourse about the anthropocene irrevocably yokes human action and ecological devastation. However, so much talk in and around this proposed new geologic time does not seem to go deep enough to account for the specific human mechanics that have brought about this changing world.

The anthropocene, as an idea, tends to obscure social and political structures of power. In reality, the physical changes it denotes are equivalent to all kinds of deleterious social formations that stem from Euro-American or Euro-Western domination of colonized and enslaved populations, and the systemic disregard of ways of knowing and being in relation that exist outside of the status quo.

This critique is not new. It has been made by Zoe Todd in her essay “Indigenizing the Anthropocene,” which is published in Art and the Anthropocene (2015), and it has been made by James W. Moore in his new book Capitalism in the Web of Life (2015), from whom I borrowed the phrase “singular metabolism” as the title of this event.

Moore’s idea of singular metabolism insists on the deeply enfolded relationship between society and nature. Social crises and ecological crises are not binary phenomena; they are many expressions of a singular but immensely complex upheaval. Capitalism is racism is the potential extinction of life on earth. Or, more concretely, climate change is going to fundamentally alter the conditions of making a profit. And making a life. The event, then, was an attempt to think through how the exploitation of natural resources is connected to colonization, white supremacy and a globalization powered by capitalism. Taking the idea of singular metabolism seriously, artistic responses will be as necessary as economic or ecological tactics in addressing our changing world. 

The artists and poets I collaborated with share a concern for how “the anthropocene” functions as a euphemism, and they offered complex interpretations for what might lay beneath this specific deploy of language.

angela rawlings was not able to join us in person but contributed a specially edited video of her project Jöklar, which describes glacial shifts in Iceland through a language game that turns glacier names into affective descriptions of their changing environment. Onyeka Igwe presented her video Bordered and reflected on how migration is an index of social organization that takes different kinds of bodies (human, plant, mineral). Julie Joosten read a trilogy of poems: The Power of Movement in Plants considered Charles Darwin’s experiments with recording the dances of botany and the language he used to describe his findings; If light stabilizing / If to receive a bee mapped colonization through the plant trade; and [Horseshoe shaped drift of silence, its ends pointing downwind] bore witness to the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women through a reflection of social silences through the language of geology. Francisco-Fernando Granados‘s performance involved drawing a line from his shoulder through the tip of his thumb by bringing blood to the surface of his flesh, raising questions about how we construct and claim objects of knowledge, the body foremost.

As I tried to facilitate a discussion afterwards, I found myself weeping. My collaborators are brilliant—this is why I invited them. But I was completely unprepared for how the shift from philosophical consideration to performative embodiment would move me. I’m not sure I totally understand the scale of my emotional reaction, but I learned something profound about the relation between theory and life, and the uncomfortable—but necessary—consequences of refusing that distinction. These performances represented strategies for introducing more nuance into the discourse of the anthropocene and strategies for addressing our shared metabolic condition in ways that do not reproduce the variety of dispossessions that characterize our present tense. It was tough and it was gorgeous.


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