Witness in the Age of Humans: Generating an Anthropo-Scenic View from Somewhere

This post is part of a multi-year project, “Being Human in the Age of Humans: Perspectives from Religion and Ethics” led by Lisa Sideris (Indiana University), Celia Deane-Drummond (Notre Dame), Sarah Fredericks (University of Chicago) and Kyle Powys Whyte (Michigan State University). To read the first post from Lisa Sideris, click here.

“Feminist objectivity...allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see.” Donna Haraway (“Situated Knowledges,” 583)

 

In Appalachia, a group of evangelicals, environmentalists, and scientists together generated a new form of witness in the time of the Anthropocene. When they collaborated to measure the community health impact of living near mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining sites in central Appalachia, they created a shared space where Christian witness and empirical science meet. What they learned how to see may make us answerable witnesses of the Anthropocene, for they replaced the prevailing view from nowhere with an Anthropo-scenic view from somewhere that points one possible way through and beyond this age of bewildering assemblages and burgeoning damage.

 

In the 2000s, a creation care organization called Restoring Eden started taking students

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from Christian colleges on Appalachian Witness Tours, where they would worship God in the mountains and visit MTR sites in hopes of igniting young people’s passion to “love, serve, and protect God’s creation.” After learning about the seeming ubiquity of chronic health problems in nearby communities, Restoring Eden partnered with residents and public health scientists to produce the first health census to measure possible correlations between MTR coal mining and poor community health. They organized and trained students from mostly Christian colleges to serve as volunteer door-to-door health data gatherers during spring breaks from 2011 to 2014. The results, which did indeed show significant correlations, were published in peer-reviewed public health journals. While their research helped to shift the burden of persuasion onto the coal industry and pro-coal politicians, industry pushed back. Industry funded their own research initiative, intimidated researchers through a court process, and attacked the credibility of the group’s research. The federal government stepped in by commissioning a panel of scientists to study the issue further, only to be recently disbanded by the Trump Administration.

 

So, what does this have to do with the Anthropocene? In light of the significance of fossil fuels—coal, in particular—to Anthropocene theory, those who get to produce knowledge about coal (and its impact) get to witness the making of the object called the Anthropocene. And those who get to name the age get the first chance to set the agenda for responding to it.

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For instance, according to an article by earth systems scientist Paul Crutzen, the time when “mankind” is a geological agent summons the powers of the techno-scientific vanguard to “manage” human behavior, nay the whole earth. Crutzen’s Anthropo-scenic view from nowhere aligns with a politics and science—perhaps even a religion—of Man-Age-ment, by which I mean, in the spirit of Sylvia Wynter, the time when the educated white masculine projects himself as the normative human knower. The MTR health initiative, in contrast, deployed young people to collect family health information from and pray with Appalachian residents, many of whom are suffering the losses and alienations of coal in their own bodies and those of their loved ones. Results showed that proximity to an MTR site is correlated with much higher rates of cancer and birth defects. This situated and partial kind of knowledge gives a very different character to public knowledge about coal and, by extension, to the Anthropocene. It brings different questions, time-scales, people, and pathways into view. Bringing things into view through technologies of visualization is what I mean by science.

 

Witnessing Objective Facts-in-the-Making

Science and vision have a unique history in the modern West. Scientist and philosopher Donna Haraway suggests that a founding moment of experimental science in seventeenth-century England imprinted in modern science a legacy that continues today. Experimental scientists invisibilized their own bodies and made themselves transparent mirrors of nature—“ventriloquists for the object world” (“Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium,” The Haraway Reader, 224–5). In the context of a broader search for ways to organize bodies in space around matters of fact, rather than around the endless contentions of religion and politics, these scientists, through their ability to see and generate facts, gained a God-like epistemic and political power over nature, and therefore over human bodies. Instead of this deiform view from nowhere, Haraway calls for a practice of science that is more situated and partial—situated in the sense of located in a web of relations among human and nonhuman others to whom scientists are response-able, and partial in the dual sense of both finite and taking sides (237). This kind of science is no less rigorous or objective, yet those objects that it brings into view make those who view them more responsible.

 

As an object-in-the-making, the Anthropocene as seen by the MTR health project is something that might bring us closer to reality at the same time that it makes us more responsible to the human and nonhuman others with whom we share this time and space. Their practice of science as a visualization technology exposed the ways that coal companies release harmful toxins that snake invisibly through air, water, and soil into human bodies. It also proposed a way through the Anthropocene through new forms of care, for the care of mountains and the care of human bodies are caught up together.

 

Witnessing Subjects-in-the-Making

Modern science not only makes objects, it also remakes subjects, splitting humanity

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between witnesses and watchers. To legitimize the facts their experiments produced, early experimental scientists needed a witnessing public that could testify to the results of their experiments. Yet, Haraway notes, this “public,” composed of male elites, excluded the testimony of women and the laboring classes. These latter groups could never lend credibility to facts by witnessing experiments; they could only watch, for their observations were unreliable (225–8). However, it is not that Man prevented Woman from witnessing. Rather, “men became man in the practice of modest witnessing” (229). Modern scientific practice helped make modern gendered and classed subjects. Witnessing man came about alongside his unreliable other, the watcher. More positively, if such relations were made, this means they can also be remade differently.

 

Around the time that the health project’s findings were published, the coal industry and pro-coal politicians launched a campaign to reduce the witnesses of MTR’s human costs to unreliable watchers. They struggled to reinforce the witness-watcher dichotomy in order to discredit the study’s findings. Yet the health project collaborators have continued to practice and innovate their methods to increase and multiply witnesses of coal from among the erstwhile class of watchers.I have suggested that the Anthropo-scenic view from nowhere brings into view an Anthropocene object witnessed by transparent subjects that makes an elite group of technocrats responsible for managing all earthly life indefinitely. At the same time, building on Haraway and the MTR health project, I suggest that generating an Anthropo-scenic view from somewhere entails learning to practice a creaturely science that multiplies witnesses and visualizes objects that can help to develop better forms of caring relations in this time of epochal damage.

 

Ryan Juskus is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke University, where he brings together Christian theology and political ecology to understand resource extraction and its social and ecological impacts.