Calendar of Events

Spring 2014

Thursday, February 6, 2014
Ian Baucom (English, Duke University)
Album cover: Brian Eno, Small Craft on a Milk Sea
History 4°C: Search for a Method
2:00 pm Curtin 368
Cosponsored with the English Department's Program in Literature and Cultural Theory

“The current planetary crisis of climate change or global warming,” Dipesh Chakrabarty has recently argued, has effected a collapse of the long-standing division between human and natural history.

Where it has been the enduring conviction of the historical profession that the proper study of history begins at precisely the point at which human life organizes and separates itself from animal, natural existence, the planet’s looming ecological catastrophe, Chakrabarty indicates, has made that distinction void. Human history, human culture, human society have now come to possess a truly geological force, a capacity not only to shape the local environments of forests, river-systems, and desert terrain, but to effect, catastrophically, the core future of the planet as we enter into the long era of what the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and other climate researchers have called the “Anthropocene.”

If, as Crutzen indicates, this humanly produced geological epoch raises for “scientists and engineers” the “daunting task” of guiding “society toward environmentally sustainable management” addressing “human behavior at all scales,” then the challenges it poses to contemporary critical theory are no less significant—across multiple “scales” of critical understanding. As scholars across the disciplines have increasingly begun to argue, addressing the deep time of the Anthropocene (both its deep history and its deep future) implies a fundamental interrogation (or re-interrogation) of many of our core concepts (“nature,” “politics,” “sovereignty” and the “human” key among them). As the coherence and plasticity of those concepts—particularly of the human—come under renewed pressure, so too are there allied shifts toward a range of posthumanist understanding of the “task” (or “tasks”) of the humanities and, consequently, of the relation of the humanities to the life and other natural sciences.

In this talk, Ian Baucom takes up some of those challenges, particularly as they address the question of framing a critical method adequate to the "situation" of the Anthropocene. He begins by situating Chakrabarty’s recent work on climate change together with a broader contemporary discourse on the human/nonhuman in relation to Claude Levi-Strauss and Jean Paul Sartre’s 1960’s debate on the nature of history and the dialectic. While not explicitly advanced under the sign of that debate, these recent discourses share and extend some of its crucial features, taking something from both sides. From Sartre: the call for a search for critical method adequate to addressing Marx’s observation that we make our own history, but not under circumstances of our own choosing. From Levi-Strauss: the argument that “history” is inadequately addressed by the “historian’s code,” that the situation of our time encompasses multiple scales and orders of time: most significantly, an array of “extra-historical,” “infra-historical,” and “supra-historical” registers of human/nonhuman time.

From Marx and Levi-Strauss, Baucom returns to Chakrabarty to discuss the ways in which his work takes up those twin challenges. Baucom pursues this reading by considering the relation between Chakrabarty’s earlier conceptualization (in Provincializing Europe) of History 1 and History 2 and the new theory of history emerging from his work on climate change (which Baucom calls History 3). Baucom concludes by suggesting that despite its enormously rich considerations of the multi-scaled temporality of the Anthropocene, Chakrabarty’s recent work also sometimes bends the time of climate linear in the progress toward catastrophe, thereby bypassing the full possibility of a multi-temporal ontology of the present that would include the persistence into the Anthropocene of History 1 and 2. Baucom suggests, therefore, that while drawing on Chakrabarty’s recent work, we need to continue in a search for method adequate to the situation of our time; a time that knots together (minimally) Histories 1, 2, and 3; a time that he is provisionally calling History 4°.

Also of interest:

Ian Baucom:
Postcolonial Method and Anthropocene Time
Friday, February 7
3:30 pm Curtin 175

Brown bag lunch with Ian Baucom
Friday, February 7
12 noon Curtin 939
Background reading: Ian Baucom, "Cicero's Ghost: The Atlantic, the Enemy, and the Laws of War," in States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies, eds., Russ Castronovo and Susan Gillman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 124-142.


Ian Baucom works on twentieth-century British Literature and Culture, postcolonial and cultural studies, and African and Black Atlantic literatures. He is the author of Out of Place: Englishness, Empire and the Locations of Identity (1999, Princeton), Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (2005, Duke), and co-editor of Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain (2005, Duke). He has edited special issues of the South Atlantic Quarterly on Atlantic Studies and Romanticism, and is currently working on a new book project tentatively entitled "The Disasters of War: On Inimical Life."

Image: Album cover, Brian Eno, Small Craft on a Milk Sea



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