Man in the Anthropocene (as portrayed by the film Gravity)

— Stephanie Wakefield

Gravity, 2013, photogramme

Gravity, 2013, photogramme

1. Introduction

The Anthropocene, the Age of Man. Whereas the ever-growing mountains of data, shoreline projections, and casual explanations on offer are incapable of even beginning to express phenomenally the experience of living such an age, the recent film Gravity succeeds spectacularly in capturing the deranged, exhausted state in which we, the inheritors of liberalism’s catastrophic anthropology, find ourselves today. It’s easy to read the “humanity” implied in the name as Promethean man, humanist humanity, or the liberal subject and to react with predictable calls for such-and-such substitute for these fictions (cue more-than-human geographies, convivial human/nonhuman hybrids, the life of things, vibrant matter, actor networks, Internet of things, the singularity, etc.). But doing so misses entirely what’s most decisive about the stratigraphers’ (critical metaphysicians?) concept: the Anthropocene names liberal humanity, but does so only in the moment of its historical collapse. (Has there ever been a civilization that named itself after its most cherished principle in order to call the whole thing a disaster?)

2. Looking back
A dot floats in empty space, outside the world it observes as though it were a picture. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

A spacesuit protects an astronaut from the elements while giving her what she needs to survive, transporting her through the flesh of the world without ever touching or being touched by it. The spacesuit is hardly, as Peter Sloterdijk has claimed, a metaphor for all human existence. Instead it’s the image par excellence of liberal life. Neither epistemological illusion nor transcendental given, liberal life is the historical product of several centuries of Western government, whose apparatus works not by imposing order on a preexisting existence but by arranging and producing existence itself, producing it, in accordance with Enlightenment and Christian scripture, as a duality. On one side, human beings simultaneously detached from their conditions of existence and made to identify freedom and happiness with that detachment (Man); on the other, the rest of the world a standing reserve, an inert, orderable supplier now surrounding but never touching Man. The endlessly managed sum of these two sides, liberal life is the recursive global apparatus within which turning mountains into coal providers and constructing the plants and distribution networks they powered was at once connected to the lives those infrastructures sustained: street lights to prevent insurrections and crime, domestic appliances to shore up the home, cars and highways to transport workers to and from work.

Oh man, they really did think the world could be perfectly ordered, that the future would be great…

3. How I Decomposed

The “Promethean” or “humanist” Man required by this civilization is the anthropology that everyone is so eager to critique today. But all this focus on Man misses what’s actually happened to him over the past forty years, which is that Man has been mangled and practically dismantled. First, there was the post-1968 horizontal reorganization of work and existence in the West that opened the enclosures onto the whole of existence via the demand that we create our-selves, constantly, at every moment, and at all costs, to survive or to exist at all. Concurrent with hyperindividualization was the dismantling of the Fordist edifice, which pulled the rug out from beneath the feet of the individual, canceling the future and increasing desires to an unbearable level while making their fulfillment more and more impossible.

Then there is the cyberneticization of government. From the Internet to the building of massive networked automation and infrastructural systems, over the past several decades governing has become more about creating and managing systems and information, rather than subjects. Just as the creation of interlinked systems made firms resilient to their workers, it simultaneously created new threats coextensive with systems themselves: broken gas pipes, downed transmission lines, disrupted underground connections, power grid errors, or failures of the control systems tracking and monitoring them—each small disturbance portending cascading disaster across whole networks. Thus today increasingly the problem of government is how to design resilient infrastructures that can better “adapt,” “respond,” or “absorb” disturbance events. Hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber optic cable, overhead and underground power lines, server farms, flight routes, ports, highways, satellites, coal veins, smart grids and pipelines: this vigilantly managed global system of “vital systems” makes up the only thing that could ever be called a “whole earth.” Within it, we’re just expected to track, transmit and tweet, constantly—if even a pause in communication has become disorienting, it’s because to be is now less about being an individual than it is about being information.

The accidental explosion of a communications satellite has shut down earth’s communication networks and caused a chain reaction sending a cloud of debris hurtling through space. Stone: “Should we be worried?” Kowalsky: “Let’s just let the boys down there worry for us.”

Poor Man, it gets even worse! Most recently the myth of man standing triumphant over nature has fallen from grace not because of its devastating implications but rather from its failures in actually taming nature or these systems at all. Fukushima, blackouts, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: the infrastructures that were supposed to have mastered and perfected the world not only cannot, but moreover it is increasingly from within these networked infrastructures themselves that disasters emerge, disasters producing more disasters producing more cascading disasters, which Man can only watch helplessly.

4. Oh Humanity!

All this is to say, Man is in shambles. Today, anyone seriously organizing to shape the future knows already that, whatever it will be, the coming humanity won’t have much to do with humanist anthropology. Whether Google’s data-drenched sanatorium of screen invalids (this would be the logical outcome of the 1960s—the possibility of an island), flanked by the “but you know you can’t go back” refrain and idiotic images of us in spacesuits bouncing around on asteroids, or the attempts of cities like New York and Paris to stitch the human, technological, and natural wreckage that was the modern city into a resilient self-healing network able to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable—no one believes in this anthropology anymore.

Except us. We’re still living out this fiction. Hence the incredible confusion and delirium everywhere. Reiner Schürmann used the expression “anarchy principle” for a contradictory threshold moment at the end of metaphysics, in which the first principles—the ways of knowing and acting that gave civilization shape and sense—are still functional, but are fractured, falling away.

Decades of “work” to show the metaphysical nature of the catastrophe, the stratigraphers have climbed over all of this (just another heap of debris) and placed us, succinctly, directly, in the present. Naming the age after its first principle-in-ruins, they force us to face our age in all its schizophrenia.

5. How does it feel to live in the end of the world? Sad/confusing/exciting?

Kowalsky and Stone are the images of the demented experience of Man in the Anthropocene, trying to stand on a ground that’s crumbling.
Kowalsky: “They don’t bankroll prototypes, even for your pretty blue eyes.”
Stone: “Well, my eyes are brown.”
Stone: “So I was bumping my way down Bourbon Street…”
Houston: “Mission abort!” 

Kowalsky, veteran astronaut commanding his final mission, confident Ocean’s Eleven playboy ready to talk his way out of any situation, Promethean Man in disarray. The jokes that once charmed fall flat. He gets the color of her eyes wrong. His stories are interrupted or trail off into the void. Literally and figuratively we watch him fade away repeatedly, with almost no fanfare, as if its not even happening, incessantly returning, one more quip piping up in the darkness, finally even saving Stone’s life, one last heroic effort as if to say, “I’m still here,” while obviously disappearing, into the void, into the reflection of Stone’s watch screen. Like the ice caps, like the forests, so goes Man.

Or, Stone, resilient survivor machine: from Miss Congeniality, the girl who enchanted the world to Dr. Stone, melancholic for a dream that never came about, exhausted, stressed to the max, holding it together, driving to work all day in a basement laboratory and driving home alone again at night (“right now, your eyes are bloodshot). Look at this body, she is the melancholically-toned middle age woman eating a giant salad (parsley, almonds, kale, pears, lemons, and apples, omega-6, specifically gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), eggs and pumpkin seeds packed with zinc hemp oil). She’s the woman first in line at every Spin class, forever trying to out-pedal the world, out-pedal death. (The spin instructor breathes into his headset, “Faster, faster, the zombies are right behind you! The tsunami is right behind you!” You scream, “Save me! I scream back, “Save yourseeeellllllffff!!!!) The frenetic sculpting of a smoothly surfaced body in the face of death, chaos, or volatility to match the smooth space of our screens. But what was supposed to have been a measurable world refuses measure, and the creases, the fissures, on the skin, on the ground, in the water mains, in the icecaps continue to emerge—but maybe this serum, this asteroid mine, or oyster reef will work…

“GPS is down” “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t breath…”

From “ecological anxiety disorder” to a government of constant crisis management, anxiety permeates everything and everyone. We’re threatened by calamity everywhere. Polar vortex, government shut down, crazy ants, the fiscal cliff, net neutrality, economic crisis, housing crisis, and biker beatdown crisis. I’m watching what I eat, washing my hands after touching anything in public, pretending that the sea levels aren’t rising, not playing dumb with my smartphone, trying not to become a statistic on the subway tracks, either getting stuck on the tracks, getting pushed, or by slipping during wintery weather conditions. Cannibal rats!

Above all Gravity explains what it means to govern today: no aim, no future to speculate or hang humanity’s hopes on—only a precarious present to hold together, critical infrastructure by critical infrastructure. Life support for a dying civilization, inundated everywhere by revolts both human and nonhuman: Occupy/Sandy, Gezi/Fukushima. Every new crisis scare, every report forecasting civilization’s imminent collapse in reality are a projection of resilience’s ontology onto us: a world of tipping points, a coming landscape populated by corpses, suffering and cascade disasters. Like Stone, we are to be hypochondriac survivors, that is, to explicitly become what we already are.

6. The search

Ryan Stone:All right, the way I see it, there is only two possible outcomes. Either I make it down there in one piece and I have one hell of a story to tell, or I burn up in the next ten minutes. Either way, it’ll be one hell of a ride. I’m ready.

The collapse we’re living through isn’t just a mass extinction of coral, bats, and forests—it is spiritual, metaphysical, ethical. The catastrophe is not a hurricane coming in the future—it is our everyday frenetic absence from the world. The devastation can’t be described by data and it can’t be explained with concepts— it is sensible. This reality, once covered over by pharmaceuticals, reassurances, or jobs, can no longer be denied. And, whether it’s Glenn Beck and his commune in Texas or the anti-Fukushima exodus to Western Japan, to be alive today is to be searching, searching for answers, ideas, ways out of the devastation, ways back to the world. Yet this search, so often, leads only to more despair or confusion, because the answers and paths we find are themselves the fossilized remnants of the civilization passing away.

The entire plot of Gravity follows Stone’s attempt to get back to the world, a quest that repeatedly turns into more and more disasters as everything she does seems to make it worse. Careening helplessly in the void, as bits of the city, bits of man, bits of what were satellites whirl around her, earth’s reflection looping across her visor, talking endlessly in case anyone is listening: “Do you copy? Do you copy? Please copy.” A flying barrage of pieces of all the things that make us live, that we don’t understand and that we cannot control. Stone’s leg gets entangled in Soyuz’s parachute cords. Stone reaches the international space station, immediately a fire breaks out. Stone and Kowalsky try to hold onto each other with big puffy spacesuit mittens, unable to actually touch, to connect to each other. Stone’s leg gets entangled in Soyuz’s parachute cords and she grabs a strap on Kowalski’s suit. Despite Stone’s protests, Kowalsky detaches himself from the tether to save her from drifting away with him, and she is pulled back towards the ISS while Kowalsky floats away (If touch reminds us that we live in a three-dimensional world, we watch the spectacle of our own flailing attempts to regain that sense with 3-D glasses.)

When Stone does finally make contact with someone on earth, she tries desperately to explain her situation to him, but they can’t understand each other and the language he’s speaking is unidentifiable. A short film also made by Cuarón depicts the other side of the conversation: an Inuit fisherman in Greenland, who explains to her that he’s also in a kind of distress. One of his sled dogs is gravely ill, and he is going to have to sacrifice her. He says, “I know it’s normal, she’s very old, but I can’t give up on her, I can’t say goodbye, I love her so much.” Stone says, “arf.” The fisherman howls. She says she’s probably going to die and he puts down the receiver. Two sad people who really can’t help each other at all.

Very often when we attempt to fight, we find ourselves caught, lost, and so our distress multiplies. “Flight is the engendering of a space without refuge. Let us flee. This should mean: let us seek a place of refuge. But rather it says: let us flee into what must be fled, let us take refuge in the flight that takes away all refuge. Or again, there where I flee, ‘I’ do not flee, only flight flees, an undefined movement that steals, steals away and leaves nothing into which one might steal away.” —Blanchot

7. Something not to be overlooked

To be alive today is to exist under the reign of an entirely infantilizing culture and infrastructural apparatus, to be hostage to a million devices that feed, transport, entertain, soothe, and ask in return only that the anthropology of man as a needy being continue, that we remain, in essence, idiots. (Remember that in reality inside the spacesuit any astronaut would actually be wearing giant adult diapers.) There is something heartbreaking in the realization currently dawning on our civilization, the child-like incomprehension of what’s happened, what’s happening, the inconsolable sorrow of suddenly comprehending the scope of the disaster that has occurred. It’s like when a child draws on the wall, and the parents come in and shout and scream but the child doesn’t understand. As a friend once said, maybe revolution won’t only be these big uprisings. Maybe one day soon humanity will gather in the squares and just weep together, remembering the food that fed us and killed us, singing of the salads, the fruits, and the meats; the power plants, the manifestoes. Shape-ups.

But isn’t there something else happening? Don’t you sense a weird freshness emerging that wasn’t there before? Isn’t it obvious? When we were kids, we were open to new experiences and absorbed ourselves in them, because the world around us was fascinating and rich enough on its own. Faced with once-in-a-century blizzards, television weathermen are having some kind of sudden mystical experience of the real, diving into the snow, throwing it in the air, “LOOK AT THIS STUFF, ISN’T IT AMAZING?!” Or the preposterous rediscovery of “the nonhuman,” the breathless awe at the life of “THINGS THEMSELVES.” (“Fucking magnets how do they work?!”) That freaky kid at Zuccotti who had invented one hundred ways to use a beer keg for the occupation.

For every sad soul who insists that nothing is possible, our time shows precisely the opposite. Tens and hundreds of thousands of people take over parks, refuse to leave. They camp out there, set up barricades, fight off incursions and attacks, risk injury and death, form alliances, take care of the wounded, stockpile food supplies, holding their ground like they were defending their homes, homeland, or territory. “The life of a child is ungraspable, not because it transcends toward another world, but because it adheres to this world and to its body in a way that adults find intolerable.” (Agamben) Confused, deranged, wracked by anxiety, but searching from within the devastation, humanity is figuring things out, discovering a million things as if they’ve never been thought of before—because lacking the jadedness of the militant, the ironic detachment of the hipster—and acting with refound dignity and enormous mental fluidity, not according to preconceived ideas or principles, but by responding to the moment, playing with whatever can be found. How do you pilot a space capsule when the instructions are in Chinese? How to communicate when there’s no common language? If the astronaut bouncing around in space is the figure of twentieth-century liberal humanity, the figure of the Anthropocene is Stone trapped inside her spacesuit, gasping for air, tangled in a parachute cord, using a fire extinguisher as a jet pack, trying to get back to the world.

Αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων πεσσεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη. The age: a child that plays.