Perception, Power, Plasticity: On the Mind in the Anthropocene

What are we to make of the fact that humans are susceptible to conspiracy theories involving anthropogenic effects on the planet? When Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, whose top campaign contributors are in the oil industry, presented a snowball on the Senate floor to refute climate change, his gesture was widely replayed in the media, and the episode became an enabling component of at least two broadly held attitudes that fail to recognize the severity of human contributions to climate change, each preferring a kind of self-deception: first, a willingness to be duped by snowballs, dismissing all that is entailed by scientific explanations of sea-level rise, extreme weather, water shortages, mass extinction, and so forth, instead burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich (which does not actually perform this behavior); second, an enthrallment to profiteering logics so strong as to do or support anything, even the proffering of snowballs, in the craven pursuit of money — like a diabolical villain in a film. Holders of both attitudes fool themselves, and neither could hold the beliefs they do were it not for perceptions of the possibility that what they outwardly refute is real. Such links between reality, possibility, perception, and states of mind prompt an important question: because perception is crucial for our minds’ access to reality, how does the Anthropocene — both the concept and that to which it refers — affect our perception of things? And considering that my two types of climate-change deniers are themselves touched with reality-distorting conspiracy, what can we do about the Anthropocene’s tendency to lead our thinking — and our actions — astray, as it does when it prompts conspiratorial thinking, including conspiratorial thinking about conspiratorial thinking?

I am less interested in any direct link between air pollution or climate change and intellectual abilities or mental health, frightening as recent studies about such things are. Instead, I am curious about how, more broadly, changes in perception resulting from changes in environment result in changes in the dispositions that we carry around with us, prompting us to act in ways that further change the environment. In other words, our consciousness collaborates with our surroundings, and the terms of that collaboration are perpetually changing. Sometimes, loopy feedback establishes itself with devastating results. Sometimes, new possibilities get introduced into those loops, providing occasion to exit them and occupy healthier states of mind.

I was prompted to inquire into our present entrapment in a set of such loops both by conspiratorial acts like the highly visible appearance of a snowball in the halls of power and by the blindingly obvious and therefore routinely overlooked effects that humans have on the planet, rendering it plastic — figuratively as well as literally. One of the most ubiquitous and accessible places to perceive and fail to perceive the Anthropocene is the pedosphere, the outermost layer of the earth, which is composed mostly of soil and near enough to everyone at all times. Recently, I was doing fieldwork in the Great Basin region of the western United States and on several occasions, without seeking it out, was struck by the plastic I found on the ground, often at remote sites. I stopped to pick up small fragments of it — bits of broken tail-lights, disposable cups, ammunition containers, and so forth — scattered about near roadsides, in mines, by railroad tracks, and elsewhere. These little specks of plastic are increasingly becoming components of the soil. Their origins, in most cases, are actually geological because they are byproducts of the oil and gas industry’s extraction of fossil fuels from the planet. Synthesized, they undergo something that we might now call an anthropogenic geological process, a kind of “meta-metamorphism” by which the remains of dead animals become the protoliths for processes that destine plastics to be something like synthetic rocks or components of plastiglomerates. These are then subject to all the processes, anthropogenic and otherwise, that affect them, leading at least some parts of some of them to become parts of the soil.

Anthropogenic soils are common just about everywhere humans find themselves; indeed, all soil bears traces of our actions, though our traces are not always so readily apparent as brightly colored or jaggedly shaped bits of plastic are. Still, we tend to overlook even those that ought to stand out, bracketing them from our perception as if they were visual noise. Then again, our thinking inevitably derives from misperceptions, as consciousness requires a certain amount of willful ignorance lest we be beset by an unbearable amount of stimuli. Indeed, it is hard to imagine an actual mind that always perceives the evidence of human artistry in all things, whether deliberately fashioned or unintentionally produced, a mind that pauses to note how nothing is not, to some degree, affected by humans, that nearly all of the water hydrating it was treated or filtered by humans, that each breath of air sustaining it was polluted by humans. We naturalize too much for that to be possible, even as nature is never entirely circumscribed by our activities, always exceeding and encompassing them, affecting us as we affect it. Everywhere we walk, we disturb the ground, yet, when we think of soil, we do not usually think of it as crisscrossed by our traces, even though planting ourselves on the natural support of literal ground provides a figurative ground for all of our thinking, activity, thoughtlessness, and inaction. In the Anthropocene, we have become groundless re-makers of the ground. Something about our shaping of the planet occludes our perception of that shaping; we repress our knowledge about what we do in order to get it done. We do not, as Hannah Arendt implored in the prologue to The Human Condition, “think what we are doing,” but even when we do, we still fail to recognize that our acts of perceiving the changes we affect are still changing things further — what physicists call the observer effect and what anthropologists note as the limits of participant observation. In the end, what does not register properly is plasticity.

In What Should We Do with Our Brain?, the philosopher Catherine Malabou highlights the paradoxical capacities of plastic to give and receive form as well as to deform: “the word plasticity has two basic senses: it means at once the capacity to receive form (clay is called “plastic,” for example) and the capacity to give form (as in the plastic arts or in plastic surgery).” Moreover, “it must be remarked that plasticity is also the capacity to annihilate the very form it is able to receive or create. We should not forget that plastique […] is an explosive substance made of nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose, capable of causing violent explosions” (p. 5). In this book, Malabou investigates plasticity mostly with respect to our brains, exploring the philosophical implications of recent neuroscience, which has demonstrated that our brains exhibit neuroplasticity, changing throughout our lives. “Brain plasticity operates,” she notes, “on three levels: (1) the modeling of neuronal connections (developmental plasticity in the embryo and the child); (2) the modification of neuronal connections (the plasticity of synaptic modulation throughout life); and (3) the capacity for repair (postlesional plasticity)” (p. 5). Crucially, we are neither entirely determined when we are born (the brain, Malabou stresses, is not just historical but also itself a history), nor are most of the events in our lives that affect our brains (our brain histories) points of no return because our brains continue changing, including as a result of their capacity to heal from injury.

What do the appearances of our products — plastics in particular — in the pedosphere, our plasticizing of fossil fuels, our plasticizing of the planet, do with our brain, our plastic brain? How does perceiving this stuff — and not perceiving it — affect what we think and do? What power does it have over us, and what power do we have over ourselves? Is there, in all of this, a capacity for repair? On the one hand, when we see the Anthropocene (and we can, of course, see it anywhere if we wish), it must register to us as bewildering — bewildering for its scale, scope, strangeness, and straying. Our brain is out there. On the other hand, when we do not see it (which, whether willingly or not, is the state of mind we tend to carry around with us), we are also bewildered — led astray by our failure to perceive what happens everywhere all of the time. We must be bewildered, we do not have the power not to be, but how we are bewildered remains undecided, plastic. Can the impositions of power — snowballs tossed around the Senate in utmost bad faith — be perceived as invitations to heal, to conspire with rather than against the planet? Can the Anthropocene, which we have made, be made to make itself more apparent, to afford us with a greater power to perceive the plastic in the soil and, having done so, as an opportunity to collaborate with our environment differently so as to remake what our deranged plastic arts have wrought? After all, when things appear to be plastic, they are also transformable, even potentially explosive — for better or for worse.

2 thoughts on “Perception, Power, Plasticity: On the Mind in the Anthropocene

  1. First of all–I guess The Graduate got it right:

    But mainly–I came across this quote from Simone de Beauvoir the other day: humans are “l’être dont l’être est de n’être pas,” i.e. the being whose essence is to have no essence. Sounds a lot like plastic. In which case, seeing plastic as the emblem of the Anthropocene (if I am reading you correctly as doing this) seems deeply appropriate. Notwithstanding the need to disaggregate the anthropos, the plasticity of the Earth System the Anthropocene highlights seems deeply linked to the deepest characteristic (not to say essence) of the causal agent involved.

  2. It’s worth remembering that The Graduate ends with Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson making an irrational decision together, a kind of existential leap of faith, hoping that there’s going to be ground below them as they strike out on their new lives in the future of… plastics.

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