Planetary Gardening @ Goldsmiths


This Thursday, 5th March, I’m presenting some new ideas on gardening for the Anthropocene. The talk will be part of the ‘Critical Environments’ lecture series convened by Lynn Turner & Wood Roberdeau at Goldsmiths Department of Visual Cultures. More details can be found at the Visual Cultures website. Here’s the abstract:

This talk deals with four lures proffered by the Anthropocene. The first three: hyper-modernisation, or the colonisation of deep time by the anthropos; apocalypse therapy, or melancholic revelry in the end times; the significance sky hook, or “cfp: X in the Anthropocene”. These three are lures to be avoided. I then note a latent underspecified tendency shared by many – from progressive policy folk to biophilosophers – to invoke gardening as metaphor for planetary ethics. Drawing on my research into real and imaginary gardens, I outline something of what such an ethic might partake: anticipating life with vegetal philosophy; domesticating decomposition and death; flourishing awkwardly while fighting wars against the enemy. These take us to a final, more attractive lure. Beginning from nomadic points of difference, we might glimpse beyond the Anthropocene the utopian lure of new collectives and new kinds of humans, composed for more sanity and for feeling more deeply the earth and all its knotty difficulties.

The Onomatophore of the Anthropocene by Bronislaw Szerszynski; Thurs., 27 Nov at 6pm

Caring for the Future Through Ancestral Time | The Onomatophore of the Anthropocene by Bronislaw Szerszynski; Thurs., 27 Nov at 6pm.

You are cordially invited to a special evening performance and dialogue with Bronislaw Szerszynski (Department of Sociology, Lancaster University) this Thursday, Nov 27 at 6pm in the Martin Hall, “The Onomatophore of the Anthropocene: Commission on Planetary Ages Decision CC87966424/49″:
“Earth scientists have proposed that the Earth may be entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which the human species is the main geological force. In this performance for voice and animated graphics we will hear the declaration of an official decision from an imagined body which has the legal power to determine the names of the ages of all planetary bodies or ‘worlds’ across the galaxy. The decision considers the claim from Homo sapiens that the new geological age of the Earth should be named after their species.  It places this claim in the context of what is known about the evolution of worlds and what it means to be decreed the onomatophore or ‘name-bearer’ of a planetary age, and concludes with a dramatic rewriting of the future evolution of the Earth.”

Seating is limited, so we recommend that you obtain a free ticket through event brite at this link.

Interstellar: Not cosmic

Spoiler red alert: this is an assessment, not a review, of

Interstellar. A film in which:

Michael Cain is revealed as cinema’s least convincing science-genius. Retire already!

Matthew McConaughey pushes his grufflo-whistly-voice into the red zone. McConaughey’s character, Cooper, also undergoes total consistency fail to make sure we get to Act V.

Jessica Chastain channels steely-beauty energies in order to overcome abandonment and solve the “problem of gravity”. A lone genius scribbling on a blackboard.

Anne Hathaway claims that love is empirically verifiable. That’s science, don’t you know: methodical, logical, emotionally void. Like Hathaway’s acting.

Matt Damon appears. Impersonates Bourne gone loopy. Re-enacts classic fight scene from Arena. Why, oh why?! Don’t wake him up!

He's behind you!
He’s behind you, Coop!

The robots, TARS and CASE, don’t go mad. They save the day. Multiple times. They totally steal the show.

Good monolith! Tars saves Dr Bland
Good monolith! Tars saves Dr Bland

Interstellar is not original. It’s not a homage to 2001. It’s a mish-mash of The Fifth Element, Close Encounters, Contact, ET, Solaris, and 2001; a dash of Prometheus, Alien, The Tree of Life. Most of all it reminded me of Danny Boyle’s much under-rated Sunshine, and the 60s family show Lost in Space. Interstellar is a high-brow wannabe girded with lashings of sentimental twaddle.

The low point: When they arrive at Saturn’s black hole, and the science guy explains to Cooper that faster-than-light travel “is like folding a page”. Argh! As if ashamed at their clichéd exposition, the producers decided to make the black hole a sphere. “A sphere? I thought it would be a hole,” says Cooper, speaking on behalf of the dumb audience members. Science guy slaps forehead: “4D, man, 4D!”

The low, low point: When they wake up Dr Mann and its Matt Damon.

The low, low, low point: more physics exposition. I half expected Brian Cox to enter stage left and start bumbling on about how this or that new planet was billions and billions and billions of light years away.

As with all Nolan’s films, aggressive sound pummels you into submission. Like a giant, all-encompassing dust-storm, the score waxes so loud it fills all plot holes, corrodes all lumps in pace, suffocates all shonky dialogue, and forces you to retreat to the deepest recesses of your cinema seat. Noise power can be exhilarating – the post disaster docking sequence is genuinely awesome – but it is also obvious and tiring.

The low, low, low, low point: the Final Act. Deathbed scene with your decrepit daughter? That’s just base sentimentality worthy of Hanks/Spielberg.

Still, Interstellar looks good

I don’t get why critics call this film incomprehensible. Its obvious.

George Monbiot’s analysis is totally on the money: “This fantasy permits us to escape the complexities of life on Earth for a starlit wonderland beyond politics.” He is so right it leaves little to say. Except that the film isn’t about life beyond earth. The film never even gets that far, really; it just transmutes space exploration into ‘love dilemmas’. Dear Mariella, I’m one hundred and thirty years older than my daughter due to a temporal anomaly, what should I do? Dear Mariella, my boyfriend crash-landed on a planet, but I don’t know if its habitable – should I call him?

Interstellar doesn’t explore the cosmos – it retreats into heteronormative, US small town, family drama.

Item 1: The team are all American. Small point, but it flies against the internationalism of, say, Sunshine, or the post-national techno-asceticism of 2001. They are also obviously American – the old school NASA logo, the corn-farm as ground zero. And all the humans going to be saved in Plan A, or in the eugenic-tastic Plan B are – we can only presume – American. Just as Dr Bland describes the arch-pioneer of the first mission as “the best of us,” we can only assume that this American embryo bank represents the best of us too.

Farm with veranda? Check. Dust? Check. Pickup truck? Check. Interstellar coordinates confirmed: US Midwest, the centre of the universe

Item 2: The robots steal the show. The human characters are totally shackled to Earth by the messy ties of love, unable to think about the cosmic importance of their mission. Coop bleats on about his children, who he sort of liked but are estranged and annoying (and billions of billions of billions of miles away anyway). Brand Jnr is prepared to alter the mission to chase after her squeeze – it takes Coop to remind her that ‘love’ is not generally an acceptable parameter in hypothesis formulation. I’m not quite sure whether Dr Mann (Matt Damon) is trying to save the mission or himself.

By contrast the robots are faster, stronger, smarter. They are able to crack jokes (even if they are weak sf-homage/rip-off ones about setting the auto-destruct sequence they bring much-needed levity…). They save people on multiple occasions.

Why was the mission not run by the robots? Matt Damon tells us that this is because they “can’t improvise.” But since all the mission problems come from people improvising and changing their minds having a few more robots around might have been a good idea! The real clincher is the way that TARS and CASE are prepared to go into the singularity to collect data (Coop’s motives make no sense here). The robots are still doing science long after the best of humanity have descended into dribbling sentimental idiots.

The final Acts reveal that instead of dwelling in deep space and infinite time, we are caught in claustrophobic, recursive loops: love, love lost, love regained. That isn’t uplifting. It’s boring, because it’s a drivelly kind of cinema schamltz writ cosmic.

The only wormhole traverse here is Nolan’s yearning for a parochial, apolitical, happy-family mythic world that can’t exist. It’s a retreat, a surrender in the face of a challenge to do good science fiction.


Fossil free


My piece on the inspiring rise of the fossil fuel divestment campaign!

Fossil fuel companies use their economic clout to sow doubt about climate science. They lobby for generous subsidies and flout indigenous rights. They commission toys and sponsor art at the Tate, the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company and other cultural institutions to normalise the presence of big oil in our everyday lives … The divestment movement confronts the core logic – license, extract, profit – of fossil fuel companies. One key tactic to make it harder for companies to extract carbon is to erode their political legitimacy.

Feeling the Anthropocene: Air, Rock, Flesh

An event I’m organising in the Autumn with the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network

Symposium: University of Edinburgh

11:00-17:00 Friday 28 November 2014

Not only has the Earth become sensitive to the activities of humans, or least certain strata of humanity, but increasingly, ways of life­—human and more-than-human alike—under late capitalism have become increasingly sensitive to Earth forces.

How do we sense the Anthropocene Earth? What does it mean that the Earth feels us? What might a politics that feels the Earth look like? The symposium will examine such questions—and others—through three elements that tie life together: air, rock, and flesh.

via Feeling the Anthropocene: Air, Rock, Flesh.

Lego Earth / Planet Laboratory


Lego - HGRG away dayAt our Geography Away Day yesterday we made lego diaromas of our research. This is the Earth / Planet Lab. Black core at the bottom, then brown crust, green/blue biosphere, light blue sky, up to the starry night-sky, with cosmic darkness as the backdrop. In the foreground, experimenting on not the Earth, but on their vision of the planet (itself on a pedestal), we have two figures: one with her hand hovering on the green button (go!) the other, cowboy clad, on a platform operating a giant something-or-other pointed at North America. The black pipeline at the rear reaches from the core to the sky – I couldn’t decide what it was.

James Watt’s shed: Anthropocene wormholes in the Firth of Forth

As ruins go, this one isn’t up to much.

The visitor can find it a short distance off the A993, a main road running along the southern coast of Scotland’s Firth of Forth.

James Watts' Shed, 2014Walls have been shored up with indelicate licks of concrete, and shorn of graffiti well enough. The visitor should spot a ubiquitous relic, cider – lively at 8.4%.

Cider, James Watt's workshopNo patina of time-worn memory clings to this ruin. The walls wear no shroud of melancholy; no barely felt absent-presences linger to move the seeker of ruinous pathos. The stones definitely don’t vibrate with emotional or affective force; they just sit there in a bored kind of way.

A passing dog-walker looks skeptical when I ask if this is James Watts’ shed. He says maybe, who knows. Nice day though, isn’t it?

The Council or Some Other Body has provided an interpretive sign for the visitor, but its text has dropped off, disappeared, or simply given up.

Sign, James Watt's workshop

I imagine that the sign, when it was alive, would have told me a tale of Scottish engineering prowess. It might have read something like this:

“Here lies the shed of James Watt, father of the steam engine. Here this plucky Scot overcame the straitjackets of Guild power and social hierarchy; here he incubated the industrial revolution; here he began the epochal shift from horse power to fossil fuel power.”

It is James Watts’ shed, yes – the man whose improved steam engine became instrumental in the industrial revolution. More accurately, it is the shed where Watt worked for his patron and financial backer, the industrialist John Roebuck, between 1767 and 1773. Here Watt spent long years improving Newcomen’s steam engine, tinkering, trying to get his new pipe-condensers, plate-condensers and drum-condenser to work properly.

Watt’s dreams ran ahead of his powers. His image of the technology-to-be called him, urged him stutteringly forward – an address from the future that he grasped for, night by night, experiment by experiment, trial by trial, slowly assembling his powers of invention, patronage, investment and capital. Watt wrote:

“I can think of nothing else but this engine.”

With each setback Roebuck became more impatient, Watt more tenacious in his grand tinkering. When Roebuck went bankrupt in 1773, Watt was distraught (he wrote that he could not “bear the thought of other people becoming losers by my scheme”). But one of Roebuck’s creditors, another industrialist, Boulton, took Watt on, “for love of you and love of a money-getting ingenious project.” Boulton knew that a properly efficient machine would allow more unlucky miners – men, women, and children alike – to burrow quicker and deeper into the Earth.

Watt and Boulton began to sell their engines, the shed traded up for a northern England factory. Watt wrote how

“The velocity, violence, and magnitude and horrible noise of the engine give universal satisfaction to all beholders, believers or not … the noise serves to convey great ideas of power to the ignorant.”

Watt was never simply  the author of a new machine. Rather, he was a subject emerging from his own works; less a genius who made a machine, more a machine that made a genius.

Watt and Boulton sold ten of their steam engines a year, rising to make a cumulative total of 451 – enough for Watt to buy a small mansion that he never really lived in.

Today, Watt’s patenting of his steam engine in 1769 is invoked as a politico-geological Cape Canaveral for the Anthropocene. Commonly, accounts have the steam engine unleashing a slow but irresistible wave of modernisation: a cascade running from a small invention to planet-encompassing processes. Watt has come to occupy a pivotal point in a fable of geo-history.

Such a fable would suck the unwary visitor to this dull ruin down a worm hole: he or she need not be transported not very far, emerging perhaps less than a mile away to the Grangemouth Refinery. This belching metropolis is a mature, fair-sized oil plant, with a capacity to process 205,000 barrels a day. Grangemouth’s history of disputes between labour, capital, and geology make Watt’s eighteenth-century problems with restive Cornish workers and reluctant pumps look like insignificant hiccups.

Grangemouth Refinery, Copyright RCAHMS
Grangemouth Refinery, Copyright RCAHMS

In going down this wormhole, Watt’s engine becomes transcendent, an angel of modernity grown to straddle the globe (even though its form changes and multiplies along the way, this is mere evolution of pre-given form). As Bruno Latour puts it, effectiveness is to technology what objectivity is to knowledge. When networks of knowledge are well composed, objectivity emerges. When technology “works”, all the twisting, discontinuous, folding, puzzling zig-zags of its making become invisible. Instead of mistaking effectiveness for technology, more properly,

the adjective “technological’ does not designate in the first place an object, a result, but a movement that is going to take from inert entities and from living ones – including the body of the artisan, which becomes more skillful by the day – what is needed to hold together in a lasting way. (Latour 2013, p225)

Although in the end it gave him more, the steam engine also took much from Watt – his time in the shed was not a happy one.

To fund his tinkerings, Watt surveyed for new canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and undertook other odd jobs, “honourable and perhaps profitable employment” as he called it. Away on one such trip, Watt received news that his wife was dying; in fact she had passed away during childbirth even before he received the news, and he hurried home in vain. Watt felt his absence as a tragedy inseparable from his thirst for the steam engine. Watt’s early engines were unsatisfactory, clumsy, his time dominated by “intermediate failures and uncouth constructions”. He was a fanatical worrier, money and the lack of it gnawed at him constantly – debt and ruin often loomed large. Though he was no solitary recluse, Watt was prone to depression, anxiety and ill-health, “plagued with headaches and sometimes heartaches,” as he put it, and often filled with dread “for his approaching doom” – the failure of his engine.

Watt’s technical gropings, his setbacks, and his depression. The way his dream of mechanical elegance – and of riches to come – called him on into his uncertain future. This being of technology is a long way from the author of a geological epoch. These stutterings do not map on to an Anthropocene wormhole – to invoke James Watt as some harbinger of a new earth is to remain deaf to his disappointments and triumphs, to the intimate foldings of man and machine.

Perhaps the sign might better read:

“Here James Watt tinkered with the engines that called him into being, beings that egged him on; here he was consumed by anxiety, and got a bit depressed. He left to make a lot of money by pumping water out of holes in the ground.”

James Watt's shed, sign


Carnegie A (1905) James Watt (Doubleday, Page & Company, New York).
Latour B (2013) An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence (Harvard University Press, Cambridge).
Tann J ed (1981) The selected papers of Boulton & Watt (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.).
Webb R (1972) James Watt : inventor of a steam engine (Franklin Watts, London).

With thanks to Julian for taking point on the cycle there and back…

Anthropocene origin tales: another

Animated along some life-seeking vector, a seed pod lands on a pile human of refuse. Refuse composed not of circuit boards; not a fridge mountain, nor an endless sea of biodegradable shopping bags, but a heap of bone and faeces. The seed pod has no ears, no vision, but nevertheless fits perfectly in its own world. Its world is made of warmth and cold, the regular play of light and dark, and quiet, thrifty labour. The seed sits; it works slowly.


 At the far edge of the rough settlement they pile the gall bladders, flesh-boiled skulls, unsavoury meats and the withered leaves. They throw whatever they no longer need in hollow dips dug in the ground. There they urinate and defecate. When one of these pits is filled they dig another.


 The seed visitor grows.


 The first garden was not Eden. The first garden was started by a lucky plant; a plant that accepted a generous gift of human shit. The first garden was an inter-kingdom exchange.


Have all along plants been cultivating us even as we cultivated them?


Gardening person
Gardening person