Purple Magazine
— The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022

t.j. demos


artwork by MÏRKA LUGOSI

american cultural critic t.j. demos’s essay against the anthropocene refutes the human-driven concept that dilutes our responsibility for the climate crisis. moving beyond disaster narratives, he proposes a radical reconceptualization of humanity’s relation to nature and other species.

ANFISA VRUBEL — “Anthropocene” has become a fashionable term in recent years, but you are critical of it. How would you define this concept, and why are you against it?
T.J. DEMOS — The Anthropocene has emerged in the last couple of decades as a geological term for the current post-Holocene epoch wherein humans are the dominant agents of geological transformations such as climate change, melting polar ice, land alterations, the changing chemical composition of rivers and oceans, and carbon pollution. It’s a problematic term that draws on the root word anthropos, for “human,” which is a generic descriptor that ends up universalizing causality and denies the differentiated impacts of anthropogenic transformations. This proposition depoliticizes the term and throws everyone into the same boat, when in fact, it’s the agents and perpetrators of racial and colonial capitalism that have brought about these disastrous transformations. The majority of people in the “Global South” and the indigenous peoples had a near-zero contribution to the transformations that are categorized under the term Anthropocene. Recruiting them into that category through a generalized lexicon is a colonial act. It’s terminological colonialism.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Is there a certain arrogance to the term and is it too human-centered?
T.J. DEMOS — Yes, ultimately. This equalization of causality and impact is incredibly problematic because it depoliticizes agency and fails to identify the perpetrators of climate crimes. It also perpetuates the idea of human exceptionalism, plotted at the apex of species hierarchy, which has long been the justification for extractive climate crimes against the more-than-human.

ANFISA VRUBEL — It is also a deterministic view of human nature. It presupposes that there’s nothing we can do since this is how we are. We are naturally voracious, extractive, and everybody shares in this responsibility equally. This rhetoric is insidious.
T.J. DEMOS — Yes, and there are two additional problems. Firstly, anthropos is a fictitious identity. As biological sciences increasingly show, there’s no such thing as the human. The human genetic and cellular composition is a multispecies affair, with more nonhuman than “human” DNA in our bodies. The Anthropocene is problematic in its denial of the more complex reality that human beings are networked multispecies creatures. I prefer more explicitly political terms like Racial Capitalocene, which identifies the perpetrators and refuses to equalize vulnerabilities. Finally, the discourse of the Anthropocene is increasingly being taken up and driven within formations of “green capitalism.” We’re encountering the neoliberalization of the Anthropocene discourse, put to task by geoengineering technologies, as if we can create a “good Anthropocene.” But, in fact, it functions as an ideological mechanism that guarantees the continuation of the dominant economic regime without making any changes other than attempting to create green alternatives within the conditions of capitalism.

ALEPH MOLINARI — So, it’s not changing the paradigm. It’s basically small incremental improvements to a system that is a failure by design, a system that is not metabolic to the planet.
T.J. DEMOS — Exactly.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you think that capitalism is a source of ecological disaster? Do you see an alternative?
T.J. DEMOS — Racial and colonial capitalism are, in my view, the sources of climate breakdown in all of its complex aspects. Consequently, we have to think beyond capitalism in considering any meaningful transformation. Capitalism is an economic system that prioritizes economic growth above all else, and in continuing to produce value endlessly, it devalues the natural sources of its wealth and the laborers who produce it. Fundamentally, it’s a logic that is counter to any kind of sustainable ecology. So, the crucial first step is to come up with an anti-systemic, anti-capitalist ecology if we want to escape the conditions of the Anthropocene.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you believe that capitalism is, in some way, incompatible with life on Earth?
T.J. DEMOS — Absolutely.

ALEPH MOLINARI — So, are there other models that allow a degree of resource extraction and that, at the same time, are respectful of life and the natural systems that we’re part of?
T.J. DEMOS — We need to come up with approaches to a postcapitalist future that are grounded in the insights of eco-socialism, while avoiding the dangerous trajectories that have historically degenerated into authoritarianism and tyranny. There is important emerging research into indigeneity as a form of originary communism that it is based on circular ecologies — reparative and caretaking practices in relation to the more-than-human world — and opposed to the dangerous forms of extractivism that put life itself in jeopardy. This means thinking beyond property as a category fundamental to liberal, democratic, and capitalist systems, at least within the dominant Western models that have now become globalized and hegemonic. There are many resources to do so within eco-socialism, socialist environmentalism, as well as indigenous, de-colonial, and abolitionist approaches to ecology and the environment.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Should we be moving toward “acid communism,” to quote Mark Fisher’s reproval of the capitalist system? In the psychedelic culture of the 1960s, there was a return to local and community-based expressions that went against the ideals of the industrial middle class. How do we, as a society, move toward that?
T.J. DEMOS — Well, we’re far from it right now for a variety of historical reasons, but we have to rebuild a collectivity that could be an agent for this kind of transformation. That means moving toward a communist horizon or a postcapitalist future. How we do that is the big challenge. Certainly, artistic and cultural approaches that inspire the imagination in terms of living otherwise are crucial, as is transforming institutions and building collective power through forms of solidarity rooted in labor movements. We must remember that the counterculture, dedicated to personal liberty and individual freedom, gradually transformed into the systems of neoliberal cyberculture, as Fred Turner argues, leaving us with an increasingly unequal world characterized by its own version of techno-determinist, postcapitalist authoritarianism. What radical potential remains in past local and community-based expressions is an important question, especially as we face eco-social necessity, but any such reanimated formation must now be opposed to eco-fascist and neo-nationalist tendencies of socio-organic purity, neo-Malthusian population control, and localist anti-migrant xenophobia. We’re also seeing glimpses of pro-capitalist cyber-utopias realized in the fantasies of billionaires attempting to escape to an off-planetary existence, or in the creation of new virtual spheres, like what Facebook is doing with Meta. These are really problematic neoliberal — or even post-liberal — forms of techno-determinism.

ANFISA VRUBEL — Alternatives are often dismissed on the basis that they have been tried before and have failed. It brings up the specter of past authoritarian socialist regimes.
T.J. DEMOS — It’s crucial to defeat the logic that communism has failed and capitalism is the only way to live, when we’re actually living under conditions of capitalism that are leading us toward a massive species extinction event and the potential end of human civilization. This is the ultimate failure, and capitalism is responsible. It makes no sense to even compare it to what communism has done in this or that place because it goes completely beyond any of those formations.

ANFISA VRUBEL — You put forth other alternatives in your book Against the Anthropocene, such as Donna Haraway’s concept of the “Chthulucene.” Is this a viable alternative or just a playful ideological exercise?
T.J. DEMOS — It’s a necessity. It’s not an alternative in the sense that we have any choice about it. Either we live with other species on which we depend for our biological existence, or we cascade toward species extinctions, which we’re already witnessing. The Chthulucene attempts to locate and center practices that reaffirm interdependence at all scales of existence, and calls for new humanizations — ways of newly becoming human — that take on a caretaking role that supports biodiversity. The Chthulucene is a theoretical proposition, but I think Donna Haraway was getting at a fundamental reality that is bio-geophysically undeniable: the multispecies web of life is absolutely vital for survival. The Chthulucene calls for us to be sensitive and responsible toward this more-than-human affair, to relocate our sense of beingness beyond anthropocentric exceptionalism. In this, we can follow other trajectories and traditions, including indigenous ones that have never separated the human from the natural. Otherwise, we’re simply doomed to extinction.

ANFISA VRUBEL — How do we integrate this interspecies thinking into our lives, which are becoming more virtual and separate from our immediate environments and each other?
T.J. DEMOS — Well, my own research is focused on contemporary art and aesthetic practices that do this. It’s where we see creative thinking about how to reimagine multispecies beingness. For instance, the Dutch artist Jonas Staal is currently involved in a project called the Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes, which invites testimony from more-than-human comrades through human-assisted representation and translation. This is an interesting way of radically shifting the legal and political systems.

ALEPH MOLINARI — So what can we do individually?
T.J. DEMOS — Individual-level practices are important, but they’re not going to matter unless we get rid of the massive polluting and exploitative systems that exist. We need to mobilize collectively to urgently stop the biggest and most consequential perpetrators of climate crimes. The US Department of Defense and the Pentagon are the biggest institutional polluters in the world, bigger than many European countries. Ending militarism is an immediate step that would have a massive positive impact on sustaining the larger web of life within and beyond the human.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Can we engineer ourselves out of this current predicament? How can we reorient technology, considering the human propensity to evolve, innovate, and to create artificial worlds?
T.J. DEMOS — My approach to what I see as the necessary horizon of emancipation is not anti-technological. Rather, it’s bending technology toward justice, equity, and ecology. I don’t think geoengineering offers a solution, especially in terms of solar radiation management. It’s actually very dangerous, even as it receives massive economic investment within green capitalism “solutions.” Carbon removal systems will likely be important, especially in this time of emergency. The larger structural challenge is how to cultivate a practice of technology and science beyond the growth-obsessed conditions of capitalism to which they’re so often pledged. That’s the real challenge.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Is it also a question of designing in a way that mimics nature and assimilates its metabolic processes?
T.J. DEMOS — It could be. At the same time, I’m hesitant to support anything that’s a techno-determinist approach in terms of its design protocols and objectives. Design and technology have to be rethought in relation to ecological imperatives, and maybe that ends up with approaches that are biomimetic. What we want to avoid are design solutions that bypass democratic practices and environmental justice. I see a really dangerous move within ecosystem design toward a techno-determinist authoritarianism that is algorithmically supported and ultimately post-humanist.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Can technology still play a positive role or is it entirely negative?
T.J. DEMOS — Technology is an intrinsic and inseparable part of human existence and its evolutions. We can’t do anything, and we’ve never done anything, without it. Technology has to be resituated within the framework of political approaches to ecological survival, multispecies flourishing, equity, and justice. The real challenge is to think of technology beyond the constraints of capitalist determination. There are many indigenous approaches to technology and science that are important, and we have to learn from them.

ANFISA VRUBEL — Do you think that techno-fixes circumscribe the possibilities that could otherwise exist and prevent us from visualizing a different future?
T.J. DEMOS — Absolutely. It ultimately leads toward a specific approach to climate solutions that negates all others, based on the idea that we can have continued economic growth plus sustainability. This is the equation of green capitalism. Even some of the most powerful players in global climate governance are openly depending on technologies that do not currently exist to save us. It is the height of arrogance to say that we can continue to dedicate ourselves to short-term profits and that the future will figure itself out from a yet-to-be-invented technological basis.

ANFISA VRUBEL — The Anthropocene is essentially a progression of ruins. Cultures that lived through European colonization have already had their apocalypses. Their worlds and their ways of life have been destroyed. Are our present-day anxieties about an apocalyptic future a subconscious projection of colonialist thinking?
T.J. DEMOS — Worries about near-future climate collapse are symptomatic of a repressed sensibility that the world has already ended, and indeed it has. The present-day worry is a kind of settler anxiety, as indigenous people say, one that forecloses past apocalypses. If we’re to imagine and realize an emancipatory futurity, it has to be on the basis of thinking deeply and in the presence of people who have survived past apocalypses. We have to draw these catastrophic pasts into a constellation to guide us into the future.

ALEPH MOLINARI — So, is having an apocalypse the solution to the apocalypse? Do you think that we, as a society, need an apocalypse, a blank slate?
T.J. DEMOS — It’s not a blank slate because I think we need a deeply historical futurity. We must learn the lessons of past disasters, which many are still living. But if the current threat is racial and colonial capitalism, according to which the world is set on its own destruction, then we must accelerate its ending. In that sense, we need to work for the apocalypse — the finality of the destructive social-economic system itself. That is an ethical and political imperative.

ANFISA VRUBEL — A future world of many worlds is necessary in order to avoid the “one-world domination” of no-alternatives. That could veer into nationalistic tribal territory. We need greater international and transnational cooperation, while preserving different narratives, historical contexts and cultures. How do you see this dynamic unfolding?
T.J. DEMOS — That’s a great question. It’s something that I’m addressing in my current book, Radical Futurisms. If we will live in a future of many futures, or a world of many worlds, how will we negotiate between them? How do we maintain a space for internationalism and avoid the traps of both one-world domination and separatism? Ultimately, we need a future diplomacy that will support a world of many worlds, in which no one world is able to achieve dominance or a colonial relation to others, as well as a chronopolitics capable of mediating a future of many futures.

ALEPH MOLINARI — What do you mean when you say that we are in a crisis of imagination?
T.J. DEMOS — Imagination has been colonized by capitalism, racism, and white supremacy in many ways within the framework of our cultural and political systems. Now is the time when radical imagination should be thriving and emancipated from constraints. Unfortunately, we’re experiencing an increasing closure of free spaces within platform capitalism, social media, and the privatization of culture. As an institution of collective thinking, the university is also being increasingly instrumentalized according to the imperatives of neoliberalism. We’re seeing this within the arts as well, arguably the site of the greatest possibilities of imaginative thinking and experimentation. The arts are under threat all over the world — by defunding of radical experimentation, by commercialization, by the NFT craze, by late liberal markets. This is really concerning.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Is that the basis of your critique of the visual in the Anthropocene?
T.J. DEMOS — Yes. The biggest barrier to imagination is the inability to think beyond the conditions of capitalism. We see this over and again in relation to climate policy and associated cultural approaches to sustainability. Most environmentalist thinking — even within dominant mainstream environmentalist movements — refuses to identify capitalism as the primary cause of environmental breakdown and major barrier to any meaningful climate solutions. This is a failure of the imagination, as Amitav Ghosh has said, in relation to the inability of mainstream cultural practices to think beyond the dominant economic paradigm. It also goes back to that famous Fredric Jameson quote, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Unfortunately, that continues to be true.

ALEPH MOLINARI — It seems that we are becoming immune to the “panic civilization,” to cite Peter Sloterdijk. Do you think there’s anything we can do against this voracious machine of capitalism and the system of exploitation it perpetuates? Or are we doomed?
T.J. DEMOS — We have a dark and difficult future ahead, given the incapacity of our political system to come up with real solutions. Of course, the perpetrators of climate crimes cannot be our saviors. Still, we must, against all odds, do what we can, beginning with organizing and developing the collectivization of our power through social movements, unions, multiracial solidarities, internationalist politics, and formations like The Progressive International and The Red Nation. It’s definitely an uphill battle, but nihilism is not an option. I like what the journalist and activist Chris Hedges says, “Even if we’re faced with certain defeat, we still have an ethical obligation to do everything possible to resist it.” I love that. It speaks to the pessimistic optimism that I have.

ANFISA VRUBEL — How can we envision and represent the future as a concept apart from current end-of-the-world narratives? Is there a multiplicity of scenarios that we can embrace?
T.J. DEMOS — Yes, there’s a resurgence of thinking about futurity these days. Within afrofuturisms, indigenous futurisms, multi-species futurisms, post-capitalist or eco-socialist futurisms. It’s amazing to see what’s going on. The question is: how do we not only imagine a rupture from the present, but work toward realizing it?

ALEPH MOLINARI — So, is futurism the hope of the oppressed? It seems that they are the ones with the solutions.
T.J. DEMOS — Yes, and can it be any other way? I think any definition of a truly radical future can only find content in relation to past struggles and past experiences of oppression. This is where we need to develop collective forms of education, and artistic and cultural approaches to futurity that ground radicalism within the traditions of the oppressed.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you think that transhumanism and DNA editing can provide solutions for the future?
T.J. DEMOS — I’m intuitively skeptical. The transhumanist proposals I’ve seen are politically problematic. One suggestion to deal with climate breakdown is to edit the human genome to engineer a new kind of human species better suited to a warmer climate. This is really dangerous and basically another techno-fix, addressing the symptoms, not the cause. As long as science is subservient to capitalist imperatives, we can’t expect an ethical outcome to bio-genetic experimentation.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Yes. The terrifying thing is the economy behind this biogenetic experimentation. Human life itself will become a customized product.
T.J. DEMOS — It’s basically neo-eugenics, and I am not entirely certain that it’s not already happening. With this technology we can expect the reproduction of the inequalities within the economy, society, and politics. It’s effectively the naturalization of inequality through biopolitics. Our political systems are way behind the velocity of technological developments.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Technology can also insert us into a simulation that divorces us from reality and our environment. Visualizing what is in the shadow of the future is even harder.
T.J. DEMOS — Yes, I agree. The future can’t be fully determined. There has to be some element of indetermination that is itself part of futurity. If we try to fully determine the what’s-to-come, we close the radical potentiality of futurity itself.



[Table of contents]

The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022

Table of contents

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