Bethany Wiggin, Carolyn Fornoff, Patricia Eunji Kim, eds.

Timescales: Thinking Across Ecological Temporalities

University of Minnesota Press, 2020

205 pages


Reviewed by Tristan Hanson

Thinking Across Ecological Temporalities presents itself as an interdisciplinary “experiment,” collecting essays and installations from a variety of academic disciplines and artistic traditions to “foreground the deep time of nonhuman processes” in response to anthropogenic climate change. Emerging from the 2016 Timescales: Ecological Temporalities across Disciplines conference held at the University of Pennsylvania, the collection arranges its contributions into three “variations”—loosely registering methods, temporal shifts, and enviro-cultural remediations—combining scientific and humanistic approaches (often in the same essay) to the temporal challenges of the Anthropocene. Punctuating these variations are “etudes” which render these discussions through artistic apparatuses that challenge and extend academic thinking. In support of the “open-ended” experimentation in Timescales, the editors of the collection adopt an ethos of “radical hope,” as developed by philosopher Edmund Lear in conversation with Crow Indian Chief Plenty Coups, that asks collaborators (contributors and readers alike) “to be willing to…sink, fail, or awkwardly peter out” as they experiment while, at the same time, holding on to an, at present, unjustified hope that may or may not be realized in the future.nts, again making it a strong contender for use in the classroom. The first chapter sets out to gain some clarity around terminology, unpacking the term ‘scholar-activist’ and revealing how academics committed to anti-racist activism struggle deeply with their institutional identities. To that end, the authors note that “Terminological criticality is perhaps one of the few consistencies in how our heterogeneous group of participants self-identify.” Thus, this chapter offers important insight into the heterogeneity of anti-racist scholar-activism in general: in the people doing the work, in the ways they work in service, and in the issues on which they focus. 

For many contributors to the collection, adopting an ethos of radical hope means suspending the instrumentalization of academic and artistic methods and pedagogies; to stay, live, and play “with the trouble” in ways that are, at best, “value indeterminate.” In the collection’s first essay, “Time Bomb: Pessimistic Approaches to Climate Change Studies,” literary critic Jason Bell and oceanographer Frank Pavia develop “nonlinear paths to nondeterministic knowledge creation” as they “chitchat” about the relations between surf punk music and measuring ocean radiocarbon levels. Through informal talk, Bell and Pavia develop the notion of “interdisciplinary pessimism” or “collaboration without the promise or prospect of mutual understanding or utility.” Interdisciplinary pessimism consciously resists the techno-capitalist demand that scholars produce “useful” research while also resisting the humanist tendency to place humans at the center of all activity, social, material, or otherwise.

Indeed, resistance to the humanist drive to assign intention, work toward predetermined goals, and render judgment can be felt throughout the collection. In “Etude 3: Futurity Unknown,” the artist Beatriz Cortez takes up philosopher Claire Colebroke’s call to imagine a “nonhuman geologist of the future” with the ability to “detect other[-than-human] rhythms, [taking] different points of view about what has been recorded on earth.” Like interdisciplinary pessimism, this nonhuman vision has the upshot of unfixing things from their identities and intentions and opening up new, as of yet, unimagined possibilities for the future of the planet.

Cortez’s sculpture installations, which focus on the memory of plants, are attempts to imagine a sort of nonhuman memory by foregrounding temporal movement and simultaneity. Like humans (and sometimes with humans), plants have moved over the planet. They preserve memories of human activity, but also other- than-human activity that moves on different temporal scales. Imagining this nonhuman memory,  helps us to come to terms with the unimaginable, a planet without the need for humans both before and in the future, but with a memory of all that is (was?) human.

Similarly, nonhuman visions animate the work of environmental justice researcher Jennifer E. Telesca in her ethnography “Fishing for the Anthropocene: Time in Ocean Governance,” appearing in the second variation of Timescales. As an observer of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), Telesca demonstrates how fisheries policymakers use mathematical models–themselves a kind of nonhuman vision–“to plan measure, and quantify time,” particularly future time, in order to produce “maximum sustainable yields” that satisfy environmental regulations, consumptive demand, and capitalist imperative. She argues that the technocratic worldview inherent in the operations of ICCAT instrumentalizes time, forcing it into linearity as to make the future predictable, and “reduces nonhuman animals to number, to dots plotted on graphs, to calculable biological assets” in service of human economies. Encouraging understandings of how time works geologically, ecologically, and biologically, push researchers in the environmental humanities to consider temporal shape and scale in ways that help us think past “maximum yields” as we look for ways to maintain and sustain our environments.

The question of the linearity of time and how the current geological epoch, the so-called Anthropocene, might betray that linearity is also taken up by architectural historian and landscape archaeologist Ömür Haramanşah. In “Deep Time and Landscape History: How Can Historical Particularity Be Translated?,” Haramanşah makes the case for “a new cosmology, new narratives of entangled histories (composed of human and nonhuman actors), and a new ontology of time not restricted to linear chronologies.” For Haramanşah, the Anthropocene allows for unique opportunities to tap into “deep time” or “percolating time” opening up for us an “archaeological way of thinking” and writing that attends to “ongoing material entanglements” crucial to engaging with our ecologies. Indeed, many of the contributions to Timescales, consciously or unconsciously, take up this call, employing methods that sift through “human” time to reveal nonhuman and posthuman temporal scales. As Iemanja Brown describes geophagy, in her essay “Dirt Eating in the Disaster,” an archaeological way of thinking opens “the human organism [up as] a container for a timescale that precedes and outlasts, if not the species, the ways of being human with which we are familiar” (170). Defamiliarization of things like time, the human/nonhuman binary, the nature/culture binary, the science/humanities, of the analytic/artistic binary is one of the primary successes of the collection as it demonstrates different ways forward for environmental scholar-artist-activists.

Timescales might be best described by one of its contributors, Dan Rothenberg, director of the theatrical play A Period of Animate Existence (a description of which appears in the first etude), as “a deliberate effort to get at something that’s too large to get your head around, by coming at it from five very different angles” (58). In the field of environmental studies, this effort requires humanists, scientists, and artists to engage and imagine together as critics and activists. It also requires a sort of hope that may not be human. Radical hope asks us to suspend our belief in hope while still maintaining a state of hope. As an alternative, this reviewer proposes “asymptotic hope,” a hope that describes its own limits, but ultimately fails to “fall together.” Asymptotic hope is a hope not for the future of humanity as we know it, but a hope for a posthuman future that requires the collapse of humanity and, by extension, the “humanities.” This is not the promotion of the extinction of a species, or a discipline, but instead the acceptance that we will consistently circumscribe our own limits and that acting within those limits is more important than transcending them.