Misanthropology: foreword to a speculative study of disgust for the Age of the Anthropocene

by Corey Wakeling

here is how to loot a grocery store here is how to levitate the Pentagon.
Sappho Sappho Sappho not by chanting.

Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr, #Misanthropocene
(found here: http://communeeditions.com/misanthropocene/)


Unlike works of conceptual writing that one way or another reiterate Anthropocene triumph – gladly in 2015 we saw those bIand glorifications of a capitalist view of technology, information, and the body under the name of “Conceptual Writing” called out for the garbage accrued – poetic projects which have foregrounded the conceptual using new media in the second decade of the twenty-first century in a broader sense are more likely to protest or reframe history than receive it lightly. Be they Tan Lin’s video installation poems which exploit the powerpoint presentation form of citation, like The Ph.D Sound (2012) (see: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Lin.php) or Toby Fitch’s Jerilderies (2014), an erasure work based on an editing process which fills in pixels of text which make up a Ned Kelly helmet-shaped icon, figurally and politically such works are more likely to compose based upon the decompositional possibilities of new forms of citation and representation than celebrate an assumed event horizon. I want to ask what kind of poetic knowledge such decompositional logics in practice bring into being in the Age of the Anthropocene. Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover’s #Misanthropocene (2014) develops what I want to call misanthropological thinking.

If the development of the human over the past eleven and a half thousand years and since the first ice age in what is coined by chemist Paul Crutzer as the Age of the Anthropocene has been one of the inordinate influence of a single species over the geological history of the earth to a point of perilous risk to our own survival, then the misanthropoid is an anthropoid who holds this continuum in contempt.

Misanthropology is not the same as misanthropy, but instead the proposal to study the many faces and conditions of misanthropy and the contrary knowledge that it gives rise to. Misanthropy itself as a subject can be as environmentally important as the establishment of national parks which deny human industry on their land, as humorous and enchanting of dark subjects as an Edward Gorey comic narrative, or as offensive as the recent Charlie Hebdo cartoon equating drowned Syrian asylum seeker Aylan Kurdi with Cologne New Year’s Eve gropers. If misanthropy is:

spoilt idealism: the flipside of generosity for Timon of Athens, sincerity for Molière’s Alceste, reason for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, innocence for Victor Frankenstein’s monster, romantic love for Dorothy Parker

and, for Sébastien-Roch-Nicolas Chamfort, in his words, really the work of a “philanthropist” (Cottom 122), then misanthropology would be a study of the conditions and assertions of this “spoilt idealism” and the circumstances which give rise to it. So, it is not misanthropy, it is the episteme of ontological questioning of what we are when we self-efface. It would be the study of self-negation as knowledge. Indeed, if the Anthropocene is also the certainty of a hastened end to our species, then, funnily enough, to study misanthropology is to study the disintegration at the heart of the Anthropocene, the Anthropocene’s pride in industrial colonisation of environmental commons, say, or the accumulated militarisation at the heart of geopolitical order. It must be said also that such knowledge can only be sustained speculatively. The human prior to the Anthropocene is the human prior to known cultural memory, and a future misanthropocene without us as we have known ourselves, a future whose history will be recalled abjectly and with shame, no doubt.

So the semantic possibilities of misanthropology as a concept are endless, but all have a particular temporal gist in relation to the human. Misanthropology manifests not just as idealism in excess, but as spoiled, ruined idealism, the exhibition of a negated idealism. Speculating about a figural offspring, notice that ‘misanthropoid’ as a term follows this logic and retains the anthropoid etymology and origin but in turn embodies a figural and biological question for itself in its being. This is a transformation within the anthropoid. It is a gesture of good will to those posthumanists like Friedrich Nietzsche and Donna Haraway, Messianists like Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka, satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne, and ecologists such as Deborah Bird Rose and Val Plumwood – all of whom rethink the industrial logics of the present. But, the misanthropoid inherently disputes the assumed positivism that theorists of ontogeny can suffer expecting of every transformation of the human. Transformation itself is of contingent value. Misanthropology has seen the Anthropocene built upon so many positivist futures bequeathed the anthropoid that misanthropology by contrast invokes the affects of shame and melancholy from a speculative future vantage as it looks back at the contemporary with the view that the anthropoid so thought thus far has already sealed its extinction.

As economist Raj Patel writes, “As disasters go, the Anthropocene isn’t ideal. . . . We can’t undo the mistake, somehow pulling the Holocene back over us” (Patel 21). The Anthropocene for Elizabeth Kolbert is a move away from the formerly defined Holocene account of human interaction with the planet, that is, the fertile ground from which modern humanity could emerge, to the self-critical term ‘Anthropocene’, which is inflected on what has arisen from modern humanity and the gravity of its trace in geological terms. Not felt when lexically the Holocene, the world viewed as “Anthropocene” in view of global warming and the acidification of the oceans, for example, in regards to history “focus[es] our attention on the consequences of our collective action – and on how we might still avert the worst,” says Kolbert (Kolbert, n. pag.). So in my view misanthropology is not just to study the anthropoid in disgust, but to observe disgust as a transformative act of knowledge and subjectivity, if only to take seriously the nullity of future in the Anthropocene sense.

More summarily, misanthropology provides a study of the human condition of disgust for the human condition, the misanthropoid a figure who can embody this disgust and live by it. Herman Melville’s Bartleby is misanthropoid because he lives as, as well as by, what he is not, that is, what “I prefer not to”. Bartleby is the embodiment of an infantile promise of “neither/nor”, the incarnation of “I prefer not to”. As such, it runs “howling with joy and terror” against the harmful anthropotechnics of the Anthropocene. Spahr and Clover echo this in their conclusion about the post-Occupy politicisation of poets, and so “[p]oems are neither the answer nor not,” but are the works of a politicised subject for whom “being a person who is in the world and for whom writing poems is one possibility in trying to figure out what is needed” (Clover and Spahr, “Two Poets on Politics” 5).


Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover’s #Misanthropocene is a study in disgust for the history of Anthropocene progress. The audience of the medium it inhabits is ambiguously viral, being entitled with a hashtag and printed as a pdf file. The longish poem itself is constituted of twenty-four theses. Let me say too that disgust and critique are not the same as resentment and that the poem’s misanthropological theses are expressive rather than resentful. Resentment is to want to return to an earlier state prior to change. It is an affect of nostalgia. Disgust and critique by contrast may have no preferred future or past, and instead engage the disquiet of the immediate. Significantly for conceptualism, it is a work intermedial to social media, flamboyantly touting its own infant marker of belonging to share culture and the uncertainty of cultural commons more generally, and to rapid anthropotechnic finitude and ephemera more particularly. As an irruption within the warned anthropoid, it identifies itself with its own finitude. Here is the ecological significance of reading Spahr and Clover as misanthropoid poets: it can only be through being in disgust of anthropoid trajectories of progress in which the anthropoid narcissistically views itself that the nonhuman environment coded by the anthropoid puts the anthropoid in disgust. It is a certain kind of negation of the Anthropocene inscribing the possibility of a self-annihilating anthropology within the temporal coordinates of the Anthropocene. It is to confirm dissent within an ecological-poetic paradigm, but not disavowing, as Patel cautions, where the misanthropoid comes from, ie. the conceptual heritage of the anthropoid.

I want to use Donna Haraway here to point out the significance of reading figuration in an anti-Anthropocene conceptualism. Haraway’s figural politics of what she calls “contact zones” are relevant to my question of how differently poetry’s investments in new media relate to the Anthropocene view of the medium of poetry (Haraway 4). To embrace the effacement of corporeality and feeling under Anthropocene views of the human future has become the popular hermeneutic used to understand conceptual art and often new media. Yet major practitioners of conceptual art like Stelarc have long intensified the relationship that art might have in contact with the body, viewing the concept and new media in extension of an organic-inorganic ecology of imbrication and implication. Haraway points to ways that what I call misanthropology figures the human ecologically as a series of “contact zones”:

Figures help me grapple inside the flesh of moral world-making entanglements I call contact zones. . . . Figures collect the people through their invitation to inhabit the corporeal story told in their lineaments.
(Haraway 4)

The misanthropological thread of #Misanthropocene is of voice, protest, and physicality contorted within a politicised, carnivalesque contemporary. Bodies are expressive and intensified, self-effacing, rather than autopsied, extrapolated, or equated with instruments, use-value, or information. Haraway’s view of how the human is figured in representation contradicts the Anthropocene’s view that a future of surfeit information and technology entails a diminution of corporeal “contact zones”. Instead, she describes a world in which figures “coshape”:

Figures are not representations or didactic illustrations, but rather material-semiotic nodes or knots in which diverse bodies and meanings coshape one another. For me, figures have always been where the biological and literary or artistic come together with all of the force of lived reality.
(Haraway 4)

The anthropoid and the misanthropoid are both figurations of the human in relation to the geological narratives of ecological science. To imagine the misanthropoid in ways that I argue #Misanthropocene does emphasises the human as an ecological impact, as a series of ecological conditions of emergence, and as a certain “material-semiotic node” that might disgust, rather than degust, the narratives of the Anthropocene which reduce multiplicity to capital.

All of the twenty-four theses of the poem #Misanthropocene situate an erotic or affective commons within the terms of protest. Notable misanthropological events in this very entertaining poem include: an ongoing ridicule of a phantasmatic “west melancholy”, which I take to be ridiculing melancholy not as condition but as mood (Clover and Spahr 2014: 4, 5, 6, 7); birth within or upon death or waste, or “deserts bloom” (3); thesis #24, Sappho as a collective, that is, “Sappho Sappho Sappho not by chanting” (9); theses #9, #10, #11, the stupidity of the “rock banjo” (4,5); thesis #10 again, which is also about disgust for medium and practice: “And fuck not just the Google­bus but the Googledoc this poem rode in on and fuck us for sitting here reading you a rock banjo joke” (5); in thesis #20, the notion of marginalised, collective animal sociality, which includes ants and gophers: “This is how the misanthropocene ends. We go to war against it” (8). The subjectivity lent and interrogated within the terms of annihilation, the self in self-annihilation, is a vital element of the poem’s concern for a commons of affect felt within the accelerated time of the Anthropocene. This concern manifests as a contrariety, as logics of corporeal and sexual identification in tandem with a mutual disavowal of and desire to “abolish culture”, “levitate the Pentagon” (9), or “set an oil well on fire” (8). It is a poem which situates itself in the immediacy of rupture. The registration of this temporality is established as one of feeling:

you feel the rifts as truth because the hatred is real the hatred is an objective force like debt is an objective force and the wage and the heat and the end of the world are objective forces and the rifts are in this sense objective and you call this objectivity the misanthropocene. (8)

But it isn’t all one cadence of anger. Clover and Spahr note among these images of speculative eco-social-warfare on affective terms their preference for other animals than the human. Along with those ants and gophers, frogs are especially liked and identified with, saying: “we’ve always liked frogs their vulnerable skin our vulnerable skin” (5). At once reinforcing and repudiating the destructive instruments of the Anthropocene, this clamour encourages thought of a misanthropoid subjectivity emerging from a poetic-political union in collaboration with the environment. It situates some kind of speculative affective commons built upon a lack of faith in the futures described for the human based upon our anthropocentric mastery of a desired fate. In all this fire and rift is concealed an infant ethic that suggests that it will be the symbiotic and the sustainable which will survive.

#Misanthropocene’s Misanthropocene ecology is the integration of a significant revolutionary modality of misanthropology as real, with rift as truth, mobilised in a recursive poetic construction of a misanthropoid infancy of action. Misanthropological knowledge emerges as it has just fallen from a pair of lips, at the moment of iteration, as the infancy of expressive action.

Works Cited

Clover, Joshua, and Juliana Spahr. #Misanthropocene: 24 Theses. Oakland: Commune Editions, 2014. Web.
—. “Two Poets on Politics.” Poetry Society of America Red, White, & Blue: Poets on Politics (2012): n. pag.
Online. https://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/crossroads/red_white_blue_poets_on_politics/joshua_clover_juliana_spahr_1/
Cottom, Daniel. “To Love to Hate.” Representations 80.1 (2002): 119–138. Print.
Fitch, Toby. Jerilderies, dB series 1. Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2014. Print.
Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Enter the Anthropocene Age of Man.” National Geographic 219.3 (2011): 60–85. Print.
Lin, Tan. “The Ph.D Sound.” Video projection of the work screened at MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies March 31 2012; July 24, 2012. Pennsound. Online. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Lin.php.
Patel, Raj. “The Misanthropocene?” Earth Island Journal (2013): 21–21. Print.