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Dictionnaire testimonial et mémoriel

Memory and the Anthropocene

Mémoire et Anthropocène
Herinnering en het antropoceen
Richard Crownshaw
p. 175


1The increase in carbon-dioxide emissions through the burning of fossil fuels and its effects of global warming has left a geological record, as shown by polar ice core samples that date from the mid-to-late-eighteenth century. This has prompted Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer (in 2000 and 2002) to identify the end of the previous geological epoch, the Holocene, the warmer period of 10-12 millennia that succeeded the ice age of the Pleistocene. Crutzen and Stoermer have identified the Anthropocene, as succeeding the Holocene, to designate a new era of anthropogenic climate change, the geological evidence for which dates back to James Watts’ invention of the steam engine in 1784.

2How might the study of the cultural memory be recalibrated in the era of critical change? Current theories of mourning may prove inappropriate, as their logic suggests that that which is lost can be renewed by a repudiation of libidinal attachments to the lost object and reattachment to its replacement. Put otherwise, the loss, depletion and degradation of environments, ecologies, resources, species and ways of life would be deemed sustainable, and that which has been lost forgettable: an economy of mourning that could be disrupted by an ecomelancholic stance (James 2001).

3Given the multiscalar dynamics of climate change and environmental degradation that are unfolding across time and space, life and matter in predictable, unpredictable and mutating ways, memory studies should also refrain from delimiting that which is to be remembered as a discrete and static object. Given the imbrication of human and non-human worlds and systems described by the Anthropocene, memory studies need to adopt a posthumanist stance, otherwise it will be circumscribed by the normative theorization of memory’s symbolic reconstitution of human life and human worlds (Cohen 2012).

4Furthermore, that the Anthropocene can be dated back to the beginnings of the industrial revolution should not limit the temporal horizons of memory studies. While the Anthropocene has been caused by the advent of industrial capitalism, its globalization and its legacies, and while the catastrophic effects of the Anthropocene are accentuated by global capitalism’s distribution of social inequality, a deeper sense of geological time will identify the conditions under which life becomes precarious and indeed impossible, in the past, present and in the future. As Dipesh Chakarbarty (2009) puts it, the current geological era calls for thinking species history alongside a critique of capitalism.

5The difficulties of predicting where, when and to what degree environmental damage will manifest itself in systemic ways (across global systems) and through cumulative, local degradation calls for a radically enlarged spatial scale of cognition, as does the idea of causality in the Anthropocene in which human actions lend agency to non-human materials and systems that effect differentiated change across the planet. By temporalizing and spatializing its objects of remembrance through a “derangement of scale” (Clark 2012), memory studies is better positioned to remember the Anthropocene.



Chakrabarty, Dipesh, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Critical Inquiry 35 (2), 2009, 197-222.

Clark, Timothy, ‘Scale: Derangements of Scale’, in Tom Cohen (ed.), Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, vol. 1, Open Humanities Press/University of Michigan Library, 2012, 148-166.

Cohen, Tom, ‘Introduction: Murmurations – “Climate Change” and the Defacement of Theory’, in Id. (ed.), Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, vol. 1, Open Humanities Press, 2012, 13-42.

James, Jennifer C., ‘Ecomelancholia: Slavery, War, and Black Ecological Imaginings’, in Stephanie LeMenager, Teresa Shewry & Ken Hiltner (eds.), Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, London: Routledge, 2011.




Richard Crownshaw, Memory and the AnthropoceneTémoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire, 119 | 2014, 175.


Richard Crownshaw, Memory and the AnthropoceneTémoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire [Online], 119 | 2014, Online erschienen am: 01 Januar 2016, abgerufen am 08 März 2021. URL:; DOI:



Richard Crownshaw

Goldsmiths University of London.



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