Jennifer Deger on the limits of modernist cartographies, and how art and anthropology might speak to the environmental crises of our time.
Feral Atlas, from which this essay was drawn, is a digital publication by Stanford University Press: “Playful, political, and insistently attuned to more-than-human histories, Feral Atlas does more than catalog sites of imperial and industrial ruin. Stretching conventional notions of maps and mapping, it draws on the relational potential of the digital to offer new ways of analysing—and apprehending—the Anthropocene; while acknowledging danger, it demonstrates how in situ observation and transdisciplinary collaboration can cultivate vital forms of recognition and response to the urgent environmental challenges of our times.” Curated and edited by anthropologist Anna Tsing, visual anthropologist Jennifer Deger, environmental anthropologist Alder Keleman Saxena, and architect Feifei Zhou.
Sydney, December 2019. Amidst the thick smoke haze that chokes Australia’s east coast, as the everyday proceeds under eerie orange light, ash falling on washing lines and backyard barbeques far removed from containment lines, I open my window, look up to the yellow-brown skies, and inhale a world saturated with loss. Immense, immeasurable, and incommensurable loss.
Loss thickened, as it would turn out, with a cocktail of toxins with effects also likely to never be fully quantified.1
New Year greetings arrive with careful caveats, optimism now suddenly unseemly. Statistics amass, but they only add to the overwhelm. Fires more intense and unpredictable than ever recorded.2 More than ten million hectares burned, more than a billion animals dead.3 The long-footed potoroo, Kangaroo Island glossy black-cockatoo, Kangaroo Island dunnart, brush-tailed rock-wallaby, greater glider, koala, eastern ground parrot and eastern bristlebird, and 42 other threatened species have had least 80% of their habitat affected.4 NASA publishes images tracking the smoke around the planet. David Attenborough is on the telly, talking about the press of evidence. Fear and anger singe casual conversation.
The future has arrived. And we have lost our bearings. Or so it seems in this place, and in this moment.
Apocalypse is also in the air. The term is being used with irritating frequency across my media feed, and not only by worn-out spokespeople groping for the ballast of cliché. I turn to Wikipedia. The root of “Apocalypse” (ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning revelation: “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.”5 Okay. Maybe. Yet forest ecologists and others have been quick to challenge any notion that we are witnessing the unknowable. They have been warning of such eventualities for decades.
You are here, they seem to shout: in the Anthropocene.
Curating Feral Atlas has taught me to think about maps and atlases as sensuous forms of coming to knowledge. It has taught me to pay attention to the material strata of knowing and feeling in the body when it comes to cultivating forms of attention and purpose in response to environmental emergency. It has got me wondering about the role of the senses—and the necessary work of sensing for oneself in order to reorientate, so that the much-debated term Anthropocene might take hold as a concept or as an internalised way of looking at the world, a means with which to galvanise new forms of societal recognition and political response.
Does it take such large-scale, high-intensity catastrophes for enough material evidence to amass so that the ground might shift definitively from under us? Or do we each require some version of being there, not simply bearing witness from afar, but having some kind of situated, visceral encounter with these new processes and materialisations, in order that we become ready to relinquish the Holocene and the kinds of lives and futures that it taught people like me to expect?
Perhaps I should pose these questions another way: Why does it matter that this atlas is not simply an extensive exercise in GIS mapping? Or a photographic survey of ecological destruction around the world? Why does this project so willfully stretch the genre of map—and, indeed, atlas?
Maps are always more than simply spatial representations. They offer signposts for those concerned with the unknown: offering deft renderings of terrain while also serving as guides for futures that are always implicitly in danger of going off track, or otherwise coming asunder. Here be dragons and here lies the safety of the known. It is in this implicit tension, between the known and the unknown, the charted and the off-the-charts, that maps claim their special, more-than-empirical appeal. They are orientating devices. They compel us forward. They enable us to seek out new paths. They hold us, frame perspectives, make the path onwards visible. Or at least imaginable.
Maps are required when there is new ground to delineate. Bruno Latour uses diagrams to chart new kinds of political affiliations, to visualise what he envisages as a new politics of the Terrestrial, a term deliberately inclusive of human and nonhuman life, bound by our shared reliance on the thin crust of earth and atmosphere that he and others call the Critical Zone.6
Modernist cartographies, exemplified these days by GIS and all manner of satellite and computer-processed data, presume to offer a definitive grasp on the world. Maybe even when it is going up in smoke. Maybe especially then. Feral Atlas has other ambitions. And, if you learn to view the maps, you will become attuned to the quiet hauntings that inhere.
Maps never merely document a terrain composed of paths, roads, and borders. They point beyond historical points of interest and make epistemic insistences that geographic informatics fail to deliver. They point to relationships, drawing lines of connection propelled by the imperative to refigure the current versions of the future. Or to anchor the present anew.
Feral Atlas attends to worlds neither safe nor contained. In doing so it joins its voice with those of many scholars calling for an urgent change the in the techniques and perspectives brought to bear in order that humans might better sense and know the Anthropocene. Joanna Zylinska, for instance, suggests that the Anthropocene demands a view of human and nonhuman life as “dynamic relations between entities across various scales such as stem cells, flowers, dogs, humans, rivers, electricity pylons, computer networks, and planets, to name but a few.”7 Manuel De Landa’s account of “geologic time” considers human and nonhuman forces side by side, showing human history as “unfolding immersed” in a “cauldron of nonorganic life,” and highlighting the ways that these material processes and the temporalities that their analysis brings to the fore profoundly disrupt unilinear histories of human progress.8
When surveying a map the question must always be asked: Whose point of view and what kind of power does it assert? As Sylvia Wynter has described, Western cartography provided a spatialised schema that directly facilitated the extractive, exploitative, and genocidal projects of colonialism.9,10 She and many others, including critical cartographers Jeremy Crampton and John Krygier, have shown how particular ways of seeing—shaped by a raft of presumptions about one’s power to know and organise the world—become reinforced through cartographical methods.11 Distant places are depicted as knowable. Quantifiable. Borders appear as God-given. Immutable. Territory is rendered as resource, and as Indigenous people continue to attest, whole worlds become erased in the process.
During the days that my brother’s house was under threat, he sent through updates about the fires in the form of maps. A pair of blue binoculars in a white sphere marked his place. A khaki green expanse signified the extent of the burnt and burning (an odd choice of color, I remember thinking at the time). It seemed likely that his home would join the hundreds of others burning to the ground.
In the end, in the fire burned right through to the beach, past the cluster of houses coated in pink chemical fire retardant dropped by air, kept standing by the combined efforts of local residents and volunteer firefighters from Sydney. Waiting for updates from my brother, I repeatedly replayed a video from Facebook shot from a small boat. It showed the Bendalong headland engulfed in smoke and flames.
Thousands of kilometers to the southeast, the glaciers of New Zealand were turning brown.
Aboriginal author and historian, Bruce Pascoe, describes how, in their depiction of hunter-gatherers as “hapless opportunists,” settler-colonial histories failed to acknowledge the widespread presence of Aboriginal agricultural infrastructures, such as dams, wells, and storage structures.12 He and others have made the link between that and the unprecedented fires that devastated southeast Australia in 2019–2020, the result of the discontinuation of traditional Indigenous practices of mosaic patterns of burning and forestry management.13
Ada Smailbegović has written about the politics of time in the Anthropocene. She points to the ways that the Anthropocene escapes the human sensorium because the processes involved are generally not immediately in your face and up your nose in the way the bushfires, for instance, were. “[M]any of the temporalities that are relevant for developing a politics of time in the Anthropocene—such as minute and incrementally accumulating processes of change, or the long duration of geological time, or even the temporal rhythms relevant to particular non-humans—may not be directly available to the human sensorium.”14
Bruce Pascoe may have tasted the waft of colonial histories and the effects of industrial land management practices in the smoke that filled his lungs during this past smoky summer, but not many of us know how to breathe these histories so deeply. (See Stephen Pyne’s entry on Fire).
How might we render the Anthropocene more fully sensible and, indeed, palpable? How might we stretch our senses to encompass Anthropocene histories? How might one use sensory methods to encourage—to mediate—a collective reorientation, without necessarily having to be there breathing in toxic smoke and seeing one’s home (almost) go up in flames?
Anthropology and art share overlapping concerns with provoking new ways of seeing the world. Each finds motivation and effect in moments of gestalt, those internal recalibrations of perception, imagination, and understanding whereby something shifts and things never look quite the same again.
Just over 50 years ago a single image achieved such an effect: the photograph taken by NASA astronauts of the earth from space, which became known as “The Blue Marble,” is popularly credited with starting the environmental movement. In that single image, the fragility of the earth was revealed.
Yet, as Latour and others have observed, this view has its limits.15 The image of earth as a globe, Latour writes, “grasps all things from far away, as if they were external to the social world and completely indifferent to human concerns. The Terrestrial grasps the same structures from up close, as internal to the collectivities and sensitive to human actions, to which they react swiftly.”16
The challenge of the Anthropocene, as many others also insist, is to move beyond the universalising implicit in a planetary approach, by attending closely to the intimate conjunctions of ecologies and social forces in specific places and processes, thereby becoming attuned to what can be learned there. To do this requires not only many different maps and multiple scales. It requires many different kinds of maps. This is the “patchy Anthropocene” that Feral Atlas maps.
Flick through any atlas, and it quickly becomes obvious that its power to explain the world lies in repetition. Each new map adds another revelatory refraction of contour and geography. Each map brings to the fore aspects of topography, demography, geology, botany, history, biography, and so on, to reveal places thick, historical, contingent—and different people’s relationships with them are also thick, historically contingent, and sometimes, wildly idiosyncratic.
Many commentators have described the Anthropocene as, in part, a problem of human comprehension. We simply can’t take it in. They point to the expanded temporal and spatial schema of the Anthropocene, what Rob Nixon describes as the “slow moving disasters” that fail to register phenomenologically because the human body is out of step with such temporalities. Moreover, there is no one moment, no one perspective that can hold it all, or bring it all home. As Zylinska’s narrator in her short photo-film Exit Man observes, “The Anthropocene can’t be seen and hence known by us contemporary humans because of the vastness of time across which it has unfolded. It can only be visualised, singularly yet repeatedly.”17 She notes that such visualisations are often apocalyptic, drawing on tropes straight from the Book of Revelation.
Atlases can teach you that there are many different ways of seeing the same place.
T. J. Demos lends his voice to those that warn against the current fetishisation of remote-sensing imagery as the ultimate mode for making sense of the Anthropocene. He points to the ways these technologies produce a seemingly self-evident mastery of the world, resulting in a profusion of maps and images that chart planetary processes with a hyperlegibility that belies the extent to which they are pictures manufactured from potentially questionable underlying data and sources.18 Indeed, Demos has a keen eye for the distancing and obscuring effects of images, especially those that, on the face of things, appear to bring things closer.
Despite all the pictures of devastation circulating online with each new wildfire, we face the insufficiency of the image. Frozen and flattened, images of fire present a misleading visual field of aesthetic contemplation. Framed and objectified, they offer only a privileged sort of distanced voyeurism, a reassuring domination of disaster, but also a failure to capture the momentousness of loss, its duration and nonspectacular wake of suffering.19
He agitates for something other than the documentation of devastation, for something capable of conveying the “banal” wake of suffering of these wildfires. He wants images to account for processes and consequences, to reach beyond the spectacular and the fascinated horror it induces.
Within the digital borders of Feral Atlas, the flow maps come together to create what Demos calls an “ecology of pictures.”18 Conceptually situating them as maps rather than simply as images, facilitates a reading, if not against the grain, as Demos proposes, but in ways that reveal a deeper connective tissue, to allow them to gesture differently, beyond their specific subject matter, or sometimes spectacular first impressions.
Feral Atlas can teach you to see maps differently. Every image that begins a Feral Atlas field report is a map: a representation of feral flows and blockages. Here is a brief a description of some: a chemical diagram of Styrofoam; a sound recording of a seismic gun used for underwater mineral exploration; a watercolor and ink drawing of a satellite image of the Bengal Delta overlaid with a digital tracing of colonial railway maps; a film showing the remains of dead Albatross chicks with piles of plastic amassed in their decomposing bellies on Midway Island; a microscopic rendering of an unseen destroyer of village crops in Mozambique; a photograph of a daughter holding a photograph of her father, presumed murdered in political reprisals in 1960s Indonesia; a video of a plane spraying fungicide across banana plantations in the Philippines; a painting of cane toads moving towards Aboriginal ceremony grounds; the flow of virus- and toxin-filled bloody waste streaming into rivers from fish factory outlet pipes in British Columbia.
Each of these flow maps does conceptual work. Each one refracts feral dynamics from a different perspective. These depictions are not stand-alone; outside of the atlas most of them, indeed, do not function as maps at all and were never construed as such by their makers. But for our purposes, one way or another, they depict feral flows. Neither simply illustrative nor straightforwardly empirical, the choice of materials, genre, content, and style speaks with the field report, and, more generally, with the atlas’s argument as a whole (see Victoria Baskin Coffey’s essay). Often they gesture to temporal depths and spatial significances that may not be entirely evident until one has read the accompanying field report.
Each of these maps shows feral flows and blockages at different scales and registers, revealing an intermeshing of human and nonhuman histories, feral ecologies given form and force by imperial and industrial infrastructural processes. Place matters because it anchors the empirical. Place matters as the locus of historical, multispecies, and infrastructural conjunctions. Place matters as a site of situated observation, politics, and concern.
Over and over these flow maps demonstrate that there is no single perspective on the Anthropocene, no collective “we” who experience the Anthropocene in the same ways and with the same kinds of costs, an observation that holds across categories of the human and more-than-human. As many Indigenous and other scholars of color insistently attest, dispossession, environmental exploitation, and marginalisation lead to chronic accumulations and depletions that demand an ongoing reckoning. As forces of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism remake lands, seas, and more-than-human bodies across generations, toxicity and death accrue in some places, and in some bodies, far more than in others. For many, the end of the world is no abstract threat. It has already occurred.20-22
And is ongoing.
Feral Atlas does not chart the apocalypse. Though replete with endings and terrifying stories of more-than-human worlds, the sun is not blackened in this rendering of our times.
Instead of pronouncing that it is all over, Feral Atlas seeks its revelatory force elsewhere. When it comes to the role of maps, the wide array of representational styles and impulses they enact, each in their own way, is a kind of conceptual-sensorial quickening of Feral Atlas’s arguments about the role of imperial and industrial infrastructures in shaping more-than-human histories—and futures.
In this way, for those willing to stay the distance, the atlas offers a kind of “patchy” gestalt because Feral Atlas invites us not only to find our bearings in the Anthropocene—but to practice “taking it in” as a multisensuous process of apprehension. Map by map by map.
I take these as intrinsically somatic moments. Bite-sized chunks, if you like, by which to digest a terrifying and always potentially overwhelming argument not only about how things got to this point, but how they are continuing to unfold. Well, at least, that is how it has worked for me.
My own experiences over the past four years of working, thinking, and deep-breathing Feral Atlas have irrevocably changed the way I see our world. This makes me wonder if others might also experience the effect generated through the slow assembling and quiet assimilation of Feral Atlas’s multiplicity of worldviews as enlivening. For me the dynamic jolts of revelation and recognition that Feral Atlas delivers serve to temper fear and overwhelm into something else. Something more. Something that I don’t quite know how to describe except to reach for obvious metaphors and to call it a kind of lumpy inner ground which, though prone to constant crumbling, does seem to offer ongoing traction within these worlds and these times that we call the Anthropocene.
Jennifer Deger works at the intersection of art and anthropology. She writes on photography, aesthetics, film, contemporary Aboriginal societies, digital culture, art and ethnographic film, and experimental museology.
1. Oliver, B. We know bushfire smoke affects our health, but the long-term consequences are hazy. The Conversation, January 10, 2020, https://theconversation.com/we-know-bushfire-smoke-affects-our-health-but-the-long-term-consequences-are-hazy-129451.
2. Climate Council. The facts about bushfires and climate change. November 13, 2019, https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/not-normal-climate-change-bushfire-web/.
3. Dickman, C. cited in More than one billion animals killed in Australian bushfires. University of Sydney News, January 8, 2020, https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2020/01/08/australian-bushfires-more-than-one-billion-animals-impacted.html.
4. Nature Conservancy, blog. Bushfire recovery. March 6, 2020, https://www.natureaustralia.org.au/what-we-do/our-insights/perspectives/bushfire-recovery/.
6. Latour, B. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2018).
7. Zylinska, J. Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press, 2014), 20.
8. De Landa. M. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 1997).
9. Wynter, S. "1492: A New World View," in Race, Discourse and the Origins of the Americas: A New World View (Washington, DC, and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).
10. Roane J. T. & Hosbey, J. "Mapping Black Ecologies." Current Research in Digital History 2 (2019).
11. Crampton, J., & Krygier, J. 1. "An introduction to critical cartography." ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 4(1), https://www.acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/723.
12. Pascoe, B. Dark Emu (Broome, Australia: Magabala Books, 2014).
14. Smailbegović, A. "Describing Soft Architectures of Change in the Anthropocene," in Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (eds. Davis, H. & Turpin, E.) 57 (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015), http://openhumanitiespress.org/books/download/Davis-Turpin_2015_Art-in-the-Anthropocene.pdf.
15. Ingold, T. "Globes and Spheres: The Topology of Environmentalism," in Environmentalism: The View from Anthropology (ed., Milton, K.) (London: Routledge, 1993).
16. Latour, B. Down to Earth (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2018), 66–67. Kindle edition.
17. Zylinska, J. (dir.) Exit Man, 2017.
18. Demos, T. J. Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017).
19. Demos, T. J. "The Agency of Fire: Burning Aesthetics." e-flux Journal 98 (February 2019).
20. Whyte, K. P. "Indigeneity in Geoengineering Discourses: Some Considerations." Ethics, Policy & Environment 21(3), 289–307 (2018).
21. Karrabing Collective. The Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland, film, 27 min. (2018).
22. Yusoff, K. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).
Reprinted from Feral Atlas: The More-Than-Human Anthropocene, Tsing, Anna L. and Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena, Feifei Zhou, http://feralatlas.org/ published by Stanford University Press (c) 2020 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. Licensed under the Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode