Anthropocene Gothic

Steven Shaviro reviews "Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth," a new academic collection of weird ecocriticism edited by Justin D. Edwards, Rune Graulund, and Johan Höglund.

Anthropocene Gothic

Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth: The Gothic Anthropocene by Johan Höglund, Justin D. Edwards, and Rune Graulund. University of Minnesota Press. 372 pages.

DARK SCENES FROM DAMAGED EARTH is a collection of academic essays that approach our unfolding climate crisis from the viewpoint of gothic literature and culture. The gothic mode, ever since its origins in the 18th century, has spoken to modern society’s deepest fears about history and change. Gothic fiction expresses a sense that something is amiss — even if we cannot quite figure out just what it is. Things are not entirely in their proper places. People and situations that ought to be dead and gone return as ghosts, haunting us and demanding that we complete tasks undone. Conversely, things that we usually take for granted are somehow missing, depriving us of any sense of security. We like to think of ourselves as rational and organized, but there are still phenomena that escape our scrutiny, that we are unable to explain. This is where gothic dread comes in. The gothic is scary and disquieting because it seems to escape precise definition. It is more an atmosphere than a fixed form. Gothic is not so much a noun, the name of a literary genre, as it is an adjective that can be applied to nearly anything. We cannot pin it down, but we “know it when we see it” (as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography). The continued popularity of the gothic over the past two and a half centuries testifies to how it resonates with our deepest worries and our least reputable desires.

The gothic mode is mostly an expression of mood — but the mood it expresses is one that many people have felt, and continue to feel, in the face of climate emergency. We feel trapped and hopeless, and at the same time haunted by uncertainty. We know that the collective actions of humanity are leading us into disaster, with climate extremes becoming more severe each year, and other biological species being driven to extinction in increasing numbers. And yet we have very little idea of what we can do about this situation. Individual actions (driving less, recycling trash, eating less meat) have very little impact on their own. Collective action seems almost impossible to mobilize. Governments, beholden to the wealthy, may pay lip service to the need for change, but they actively prevent any sort of effective action. Even at best, saving the climate would probably mean that I, and most other people in the affluent parts of the world, would have to radically change our lifestyles for the worse, giving up many of our comforts and pleasures. Can I honestly say that I am prepared to do this? Such is the mood that the gothic expresses so well: many feel guilty at the prospect of global warming, but we cannot really imagine doing anything about it. We suffer, therefore, from a combination of anger, panic, and fatalism. The gothic traditionally deals with things like haunted houses and ghosts crying out for recompense. But today the entire earth is haunted, whether by the ghosts of vanished species or by a dreamlike sense of dread as we continue doing the very things that will destroy us. 

Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth, edited by Justin D. Edwards, Rune Graulund, and Johan Höglund, is all about the intricacies of this situation. As the editors say in the book’s introduction: “[W]e are left in the paradoxical position of having a greater impact on nature than ever before, while at the same time experiencing a profound sense of loss and agency when it comes to its continued existence.” This is epitomized in recent debates about the term Anthropocene. The word itself was introduced by geologists two decades ago in order to register the way that human actions have affected the biosphere and the geosphere. In the distant future, scientists who examine the geological record — if there are any such — will be able to find traces of human activity affecting the planet, just as today they can find traces of the ice ages and of the meteor whose crash into the earth drove the dinosaurs to extinction.

There are a number of ironies attending the very concept of the Anthropocene. The term recognizes the impact of Homo sapiens upon the planet as a whole. We have altered the basic conditions of earthly existence — just as cyanobacteria did 3.5 billion years ago, when their growth increased the prevalence of oxygen in the atmosphere from almost nothing to its current 21 percent. Modern Western technology has similarly altered the very nature of the planet as a chemical and biological system. Modern science, dating back at least to the Enlightenment, and before that to the Renaissance, is built on the premise that human beings alone are conscious and active, and that the rest of the living and nonliving planet is just a passive resource, open for us to manipulate and use up as we choose. This is the assumption that has led us to the brink of disaster. Yet we seem unable to abandon this attitude, even though we now know how toxic and destructive it is.

The very concept of the Anthropocene seems to center human activity at the very time when we have come to realize how problematic and dangerous such activity is. This is why some scientists and activists are dissatisfied with the term. It is true that we now have the power, as never before in history, to reshape the entire planet according to our ambitions. But far from being some Nietzschean triumph of the will, this power is actually the key to our weakness and vulnerability. Our actions have such outsized effects not because of any supposed mastery on our part, but rather because our very existence is so densely intertwined with that of innumerable other entities, both living and nonliving. The things we do are so consequential for the world as a whole that they tend to redound back upon us as well. So the term Anthropocene seems to flatter our delusions of grandeur, even as the situation to which it refers threatens our very existence. We urgently need to abandon our taken-for-granted anthropocentrism, and to realize that what is going on is not all about us.

Another irony in the term Anthropocene is that it seems to hold human action in general accountable for the dangerous changes to our planet, when in fact certain particular human actions — predominantly those of Western societies over the past several centuries — have had much stronger an impact than many. This has led to a plethora of suggestions for other terms that might reflect our situation, and its causes, more accurately. Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth therefore reflects upon three additional terms. Alongside essays about the Anthropocene, it also features essays discussing the Plantationocene, the Capitalocene, and the Chthulucene.

The first of these alternative terms, the Plantationocene, refers to the way that Western European expansion, starting in the so-called “Age of Discovery,” reorganized economic and social relations on a global scale. Historians have estimated that in the century or so following Columbus’s first contact with the “New World,” 95 percent of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas were exterminated — not only through military action, but also due to exposure to diseases like smallpox, against which the Native populations had no immunity. Even before the discovery of carbon-based fuels, European colonizers radically changed the landscape of the Americas by establishing massive plantations devoted to agricultural monocultures (sugar, tobacco, cotton) and run by the labor of slaves kidnapped from Africa (and their descendants). Plantations and chattel slavery had massive and disastrous ecological consequences, much larger than any previous actions in the course of human history. Slave plantations also kickstarted the development of capitalism in England, in other parts of Europe, and eventually throughout the world.

The second alternative term highlighted in Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth is the Capitalocene. This calls attention to the ways that the planet is being devastated, most specifically, by modern capitalism, with its incessant drive to accumulate and expand, and with its reckless extraction and burning of carbon fuels. Capitalism cannot subsist in a steady state; it stagnates if it ceases to expand. It always needs more. In the past two decades, we have become far more aware of the dangers of global warming than previously was the case. Yet this has led not to even modest attempts to limit consumption, but rather to an exponential increase in the extraction of fossil fuels. Capitalism cannot limit itself, even when it would be self-interestedly prudent to do so. This is because, as the editors point out by quoting the Marxist ecocritic Jason W. Moore, capitalist resource extraction “perpetu­ates the ontological dichotomy between humans and nature in which human agency is treated as a force acting upon rather than in or as a part of nature.” We cannot survive without rejecting this dichotomy. While capitalism may not be the only human source of ecological destruction, its inner dynamics guarantee that it will continue to be the most significant one.

The last alternative term highlighted in the volume, the Chthulucene, was proposed by the biologist and cultural theorist Donna Haraway. The word is derived from Cthulhu, the tentacular monstrosity of H. P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction, but Haraway deliberately changes the spelling in order to emphasize her distance from Lovecraft’s racist and sexist fantasies. Haraway retains Lovecraft’s emphasis on tentacles, but she rejects Lovecraft’s phobic prejudice against octopuses and squids, which are in fact the most beautiful and intelligent of all invertebrates. Haraway’s term, with its shift of the location of the h, also resonates with the word chthonic, meaning having to do with the underworld, or the foundational earth. The term, in Haraway’s usage, thus emphasizes the tentacular entanglement and interdependency of human beings and the world’s multifarious other organisms. This entanglement is of course why human actions in the modern era have been so destructive, but Haraway invites us to shift focus, since these interinvolvements also mark the paths along which we might be able to save the world, including ourselves.

I have spent most of my time discussing the overall structure of the volume because the book gets its cogency and focus from its movement through these four ways of conceiving the “dark scenes” of ecological danger. Each section of the book contains a number of essays that analyze particular gothic works in order to reflect on our overall predicament. The texts discussed range from German and American novels from two centuries ago to recent horror fiction, and to television series such as True Detective and Twin Peaks. The chapters include exemplary readings of such contemporary masters of the weird as Ben Okri, Jeff VanderMeer, and Caitlín Kiernan. All of the essays connect the subjective potency of the texts under discussion — the affects and moods that they inspire in the reader or viewer — to the ways that such works also give us a deeper understanding of the ongoing ecological transactions that are putting our very existence at risk. Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth both reclaims the gothic as an urgently relevant mode of fiction-making and suggests that aesthetic approaches are able to bring us a kind of understanding that scientific studies on their own could not.


Steven Shaviro teaches film studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, and he writes mostly about science fiction and music videos.

LARB Contributor

Steven Shaviro teaches film studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, and he writes mostly about science fiction and music videos.


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