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Dr Justin Westgate – Doctoral research

My doctoral research was undertaken at the Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space (ACCESS). This transdisciplinary project interrogated human-nature relations in light of critical planetary entanglements, crossing geography, anthropology, and creative practice, with fieldwork including: investigating emergent responses and communitas within post-disaster sites, considering fluid structural resilience found within coral biology, evaluating alternative energy technologies enrolled within a speculative design framework. It included three months spent as a visiting research fellow at Goldsmiths College London design school, participating in the ‘xskool’ socio-ecological design workshop run by John Thackara and Konstfack in Sweden, as well as the international interdisciplinary Anthropocene Campus at Haus der Kulturen Welten in Berlin and Melbourne.

The thesis itself is embargoed pending other publication.

Unsettling the Anthropocene: Experiments in dwelling on unstable ground

The Anthropocene names a proposed new geological epoch defined by significant human planetary influence. Emerging from earth and physical sciences, the idea has far-ranging ramifications. Beyond its material implications, the Anthropocene provokes profound philosophical questions about the status of humans, unsettling a presumed exceptionalism, and suggesting that humans have never been separate from the ‘natural’ world.

Research on the Anthropocene has explored material, political and social consequences, but much of this work neglects visceral and affective dimensions. In this thesis I argue that reason alone is insufficient, and that the Anthropocene compels attention to the troubling conditions and contradictions of lived experience. Powerful unsettling registers such as uncanniness, anxiety, and loss wrest the self from prosaic complacency and reveal the existential emergency of Anthropocene dwelling. The resulting disruption and disorientation of emergency effectively makes us homeless, exposing us to difference and strangeness. But such experience functions as a vital transcendental exposure to the world, offering generative insights which allow us to productively reorient and remap. Taking the Anthropocene as an existential call to ‘live dangerously’ thus becomes a compelling invitation for planetary dwelling, where humans must grapple with conditions of coexistential inter-being and an awareness of shared embroilment and vulnerability with strange others.

Following this argument I apply an autoethnographic approach investigating multiple sites of emergency. Autoethnography draws on the researcher’s reflective experience of the world and, for this project, is key to interrogating visceral Anthropocene dimensions. My journey unfolds through four field chapters: following the path of a river, across a flood plain, into the ocean, and up into the air. A traumatic encounter with a river is a dissociative entry point. Events that threaten our very being can profoundly unsettle our sense of the world, and I use the experience to reexamine attachments to place and familiar ground. I next survey post-earthquake conditions in the city of Christchurch, contemplating what it means to live on deeply unsettled ground. The task of reorienting and remapping place after disruptive events opens up novel possibilities for dwelling, but jars against persistent attachments to stability. Contemplating loss, I look to oceans and the imperilled Great Barrier Reef. Both enduring and highly precarious, the constitution of this complex biotic structure is infused with paradox, yet the fluid qualities of oceans and corals suggest useful insights for dwelling in turbulence. Concerned with a different kind of unsettledness, a final case ascends into the air, interrogating creative interventions into dwelling. Intentionally disruptive to familiar attachments with firm ground, such artistic work harnesses social, political and energetic potentials of atmosphere, seeking antidotes to Anthropocene unsettling and unease.

I conclude that Anthropocene dwelling requires suspending secure Holocene attachments and, rather, inhabiting unsettledness and paradox. From this argument stem a series of contributions to broader Anthropocene and environmental humanities literature. First, contradictions arise for the theorisation of human-nature relations, conceptions of ‘progress’, and for socio-political response more broadly. This suggests the need for humans to learn to dwell within states of unease, and to use those conditions generatively to stimulate novel outcomes outside of modern conventions. Second, attending to affective registers opens portals into potential human responses to the Anthropocene. Existential ideas remain highly relevant to disturbing conditions of ecological emergency; not only confronting us with profound sense-making but revealing shared vulnerabilities and a coexistence of being within non-human others. Third, intransigent Anthropocene responses may be coloured by denialism, intolerance, and cynicism, suggesting the need for increased misanthropological analysis. Ultimately, we must approach the Anthropocene with clear, tempered examination that avoids overt optimism or fatalism. The Anthropocene is uncharted territory for humans and the planet; and navigating pathways through its unsettled dimensions demands attentiveness to the full range of human faculties.

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