The Anthropocene Campus

Recently it was my privilege to attend the “Anthropocene Campus” at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin. The Campus brought together over 150 participants from around the world and with an incredible diversity of intellectual backgrounds for a 9-day series of seminars and presentations on themes related to the Anthropocene proposal. This post offers some reflections on my time there—with thanks to the organizers and their staff for what all the participants agreed was a unique and rewarding experience.

A central concern of the Campus was to examine the way that knowledge about the Anthropocene is produced (the term “knowledge production” was heard quite frequently). Indeed, the Campus was organized around the same assumption that underlies this blog—that the Anthropocene requires a massive effort at interdisciplinary exchange. And that raises a question I have wondered about quite a bit: what is the character of interdisciplinary knowledge?

I interpret that question in terms of what I’ll label a Kantian understanding of knowledge, namely that knowledge involves a synthesis, forged by the knower’s mind. In the basic Kantian formulation, the mind synthesizes the experience that is the object of knowledge by bringing an intuition provided by sense under a concept supplied by the mind, creating the judgment that (for example) that colored shape is a chair. The point of this reference to Kant is to locate the synthesis that, quite literally, constitutes knowledge: the synthesis is a mental event that (to use spatial language) takes place “in” the mind of an individual knower.

This account suggests a model for interdisciplinary knowledge, according to which it is, so to speak, doubly synthetic. In addition to being a synthesis by which data are understood in light of concepts, an instance of interdisciplinary knowledge might also involve concepts synthesized from elements drawn from multiple disciplinary frameworks. But I’d like to highlight a different feature that might be attributed to interdisciplinary knowledge on this model. That feature is that the knowledge remains the product of a mind, i.e. that interdisciplinary knowledge can have an individual knower.

No doubt there are extraordinary individuals who are capable of holding a wide range of ideas in a single mental grasp. But the intellectual demands posed by the Anthropocene seem to require far more mental bandwidth than is available to most of us. Rather than supposing that it is therefore unknowable, however, it seems reasonable to consider whether the quasi-Kantian model of knowledge just surveyed simply does not apply to inherently interdisciplinary topics such as the Anthropocene.

In this light let me explore the notion that the Campus itself provided just such a model of de-centered knowledge. For, it seemed, the experience of the Campus matched the experience of trying to know the Anthropocene. Indeed the Campus was organized in ways that made it impossible to have a comprehensive, fully synthesized view of every idea being presented.

Schedule for Anthropocene Campus

The Campus schedule consisted of nine day and a half-long seminars, which ran three at a time over six days, and the work of each seminar was in turn conducted by smaller sub-groups. Thus, no participant could have direct knowledge of the event as a whole; instead, each participant had a partial view, delimited by his or her particular location in the structure of the event. Any sense of the whole was only via reports by others, either about their own similarly limited experiences within a given seminar, or else in the form of highly condensed summaries of other seminars.

This fragmentary approach was exemplified in the concluding sessions of the Campus, which consisted of “table talks” on a set of key concepts. The session on the Friday evening was unlike any such event I’ve ever attended: members of the audience were issued headsets, so they could choose which of three simultaneous conversations taking place on stage they could listen to.

The last day of the Campus likewise consisted of parallel presentations—except for the very last session, dedicated to the idea of experimentation at which all participants were assembled.

As a result of its form, that is, the Campus withheld from its participants the opportunity to know what happened at it in its totality. The way the event was organized expressed the impossibility faced by any individual participant of integrating all the knowledge that was presented into a unified understanding of the Anthropocene. In other words, the Campus manifested the idea that knowledge of the Anthropocene must be distributed across some kind of collective cognitive institution.

Was the Campus itself just that kind of institution? That it concluded with a session on experimentation was deliberate: the organizers acknowledged that the Campus was itself a kind of experiment, to see what might result from bringing together this diverse array of people. And in those terms the experiment has not concluded: part of the design of the Campus project are plans for a printed “course book” and an associated website which should appear next year. That tangible outcome will obviously inform any assessment of the Campus as a model for knowledge production.

But to my mind the Campus already has demonstrated something important about what must be involved in the kind of de-centered, non-individualized knowledge I’ve alluded to here. The bearer of such knowledge is an intellectual community, and the Campus succeeded brilliantly at the level of community building. The rich fabric of connections that developed among the participants was perhaps the most surprising thing about the event—and was noted by everyone I spoke with as unique in their experience of academic-style conferences. The social dimension—facilitated by shared meals and indeed the demanding schedule—created a kind of affective foundation for the more intellectual exchanges at formal sessions and informal gatherings alike.

I think acknowledging this affective foundation is in fact crucial to understanding how it is possible for there to be knowledge incorporating a diversity of sources beyond the capabilities of any one mind to synthesize. Knowledge that is too big for any individual to cognize can be said to emerge from cognitive communities. But cognitive communities require that affective foundation to support a human environment in which individuals are able to exercise their intellectual virtues most fully—contributing both to the content of the ideas being explored, and to the character of the interpersonal interactions which call ideas forth. If knowledge of the Anthropocene is emergent from the interactions within a community, participants in the Campus felt what membership in such a community would be like. It was a feeling of sheer intellectual joy.

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