Deep Time at the Dawn of the Anthropocene
by Noah Heringman
The essay begins:
Man can have an influence on the climate he inhabits, and, in a manner, fix its temperature at any point that may be agreeable to him; and, what is singular, it is more difficult for him to cool than to heat the earth.
—Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Epochs of Nature (1778)
The Anthropocene poses a radical new answer to an old question: where do humans fit in the story of deep time? As a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene comes freighted with the Enlightenment origins of the geological time scale, an escalation so profound that it dislocated time itself into a spatial register: deep time. The urgency of this intellectual history in the Anthropocene may seem less clear than the urgency of remembering and disentangling the contingencies of a global political economy built on fossil fuels. Still, as Dipesh Chakrabarty observed in 2009, “In the era of the Anthropocene, we need the Enlightenment (that is, reason) even more than in the past.” One Enlightenment text, Buffon’s Epochs of Nature, provides grounds for questioning Chakrabarty’s insistence on the novelty of the Anthropocene, defined memorably by him as a time in which “humans wield geological force” by virtue of anthropogenic climate change. “In no discussion of freedom in the period since the Enlightenment,” Chakrabarty contends, “was there ever any awareness of the geological agency that human beings were acquiring at the same time as and through processes closely linked to their acquisition of freedom.” As my epigraph shows, however, Buffon does construe freedom as geological agency (“heat[ing] the earth”), signaling the critical potential of a history of deep time in the Anthropocene. All too often civilization has presented itself as the culmination or completion of geological and anthropological time. This Enlightenment legacy is encoded in the very name of the Anthropocene. Recalling it might help to make the Anthropocene less anthropocentric. The cognate stories of deep time and the Anthropocene converge in the present on what I will argue is a primary symptom of the new epoch, and a part of its forgetting: evolutionary nostalgia. Continue reading …
In this essay Heringman argues that the concept of deep time is essential to the intellectual history of the Anthropocene—the name widely (though not yet formally) used for our current geological epoch. Buffon’s Epochs of Nature, one of the earliest secular models of geological time in Enlightenment natural history, uses inscription as a metaphor to mark the advent of biological species, including humans, in the course of earth history. The Anthropocene extends this project of writing ourselves into the rock record. Buffon makes a productive interlocutor for the Anthropocene because he is one of the first to examine climate change and related constraints on human agency in the context of deep time. The essay examines Buffon’s natural history and associated Enlightenment discourses of primitive art and culture to gain a purchase on the challenges of scale posed by the Anthropocene.
NOAH HERINGMAN teaches English at the University of Missouri. His latest book is Sciences of Antiquity: Romantic Antiquarianism, Natural History, and Knowledge Work (2013).