It’s an hon­or to be here, in so many ways, and I want to begin under the title of this talk with three sto­ries that are too big but also not big enough. The Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, and my favorite, the Cthulucene. The Cthonic ones, the not yet fin­ished, ongo­ing, abyssal, and dread­ful ones that are gen­er­a­tive and destruc­tive, and make Gaia look like a junior kinder­garten daugh­ter.

I’m going to pro­pose to us in the course of the next twenty-five min­utes that the Cthulucene might be a way to col­lect up the ques­tions for nam­ing the epoch, for nam­ing what is hap­pen­ing in the airs, waters, and places, in the rocks, and oceans, and atmos­pheres. Perhaps need­ing both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene, but per­haps offer­ing some­thing else, some­thing just maybe more liv­able. I’m struck by the fact that two kinds of insights seem to have over­tak­en the intel­lec­tu­al schol­ar­ly world, inter­na­tion­al­ly real­ly, and across the divi­sions of the dis­ci­plines. Simultaneously I pro­pose that it has become lit­er­al­ly unthink­able to do good work in any inter­est­ing field with the premis­es of indi­vid­u­al­ism, method­olog­i­cal­ly indi­vid­u­al­ism, and human excep­tion­al­ism. None of the most gen­er­a­tive and cre­ative intel­lec­tu­al work being done today any longer spends much time (except as a kind of foot­note) talk­ing, doing cre­ative work with the premis­es of indi­vid­u­al­ism and method­olog­i­cal indi­vid­u­al­ism, and I’ll try to illus­trate that a bit, pri­mar­i­ly from some of the nat­ur­al sci­ences.

Simultaneously, there has been an explo­sion with­in the biolo­gies of mul­ti­species becoming-with, of an under­stand­ing that to be a one at all, you must be a many and it’s not a metaphor. That it’s about the tis­sues of being any­thing at all. And that those who are have been in rela­tion­al­i­ty all the way down. There is no place that the lay­ers of the onion come to rest on some kind of foun­da­tion.

How is it, if these are tru­ly the intel­lec­tu­al rev­o­lu­tions and I believe cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tions that are infus­ing this plan­et at this time, how is it that the name of our epoch that is seri­ous­ly pro­posed and being stud­ied in the inter­na­tion­al geo­phys­i­cal union and else­where, with a report to be issued in 2016, that the name pro­posed for our epoch is the Anthropocene, with the fig­ure of the Anthropos? What an extra­or­di­nary kind of con­tra­dic­tion is implied in nam­ing th epoch that way. But it of course is named that way because of the cor­rect under­stand­ing that peo­ple, for­get the Anthropos, peo­ple have been doing on this plan­et has in fact changed the plan­et for­ev­er, and for every­one. Anthropogenic process­es are what give war­rant to that name. I will try both to jus­ti­fy and trou­ble that in the next few min­utes.

Jim Clifford last night read a lit­tle quote from Always Coming Home that I think has got to stand along with Virginia Woolf’s epi­graph from Three Guineas. Actually, it’s not the epi­graph of Three Guineas but in the midst of the three guineas Virginia Woolf insists, Think we must.” Think we must. If ever there has been a time for the need seri­ous­ly to think, it is now, and it has got to be the kind of think­ing that Hannah Arendt accused [Adolph] Eichmann of being inca­pable of. (That was not an English sen­tence, but it’s okay, I’m talk­ing about Germans.) Namely, the banal­i­ty of evil in the fig­ure of Eichmann was con­densed in Hannah Arendt’s analy­sis into the inca­pac­i­ty to think the world that is actu­al­ly being lived. The inabil­i­ty to con­front the con­se­quences of the world­ing that one is in fact engaged in, and the lim­it­ing and think­ing to func­tion­al­i­ty. The lim­it­ing of think­ing to busi­ness as usu­al. Being smart, per­haps, being effi­cient, per­haps, but that Eichmann was inca­pable of think­ing, and in that con­sist­ed the banal­i­ty and ordi­nar­i­ness of evil. And I think among us, the ques­tion of whether we are Eichmanns is a very seri­ous one.

Perhaps the utopist should heed this unset­tling news at last. Perhaps the utopist would do well to lose the plan, throw away the map, get off the motor­cy­cle, put on a very strange-looking hat, bark sharply three times, and trot off look­ing thin, yel­low, and dingy across the desert and up into the dig­ger pines.
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be

An underwater photograph of an octopus.

I’m giv­ing this talk under a par­tic­u­lar gor­geous image of Octopus cyanea, or the day octo­pus, who you can see in the cur­rent Tentacles” exhib­it at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As I have been for a long time, I’ve been try­ing to stay with the trou­ble under the sign of sci­ence of SF, of string fig­ures, sci­ence fact, sci­ence fic­tion, spec­u­la­tive fab­u­la­tion, spec­u­la­tive fem­i­nism, so far. The sky has not fall­en, not yet. And I have been inspired by the think­ing of Marilyn Strathern and oth­ers, who tell me that it mat­ters what sto­ries tell sto­ries, it mat­ters what thoughts think thoughts, it mat­ters what worlds world worlds. That we need to take seri­ous­ly the acqui­si­tion of that kind of skill, emo­tion­al, intel­lec­tu­al, mate­r­i­al skill, to desta­bi­lize our own sto­ries, to retell them with oth­er sto­ries, and vice ver­sa. A kind of seri­ous denor­mal­iza­tion of that which is nor­mal­ly held still, in order to do that which one thinks one is doing. It mat­ters to desta­bi­lize worlds of think­ing with oth­er worlds of think­ing. It mat­ters to be less parochial. If ever there was a time, it is sure­ly now, and I think all of us lack many of the skills.

As you know, Ursula Le Guin is my prin­ci­pal inspi­ra­tion for a great deal, not least her way of approach­ing ques­tions of nar­ra­tion, evo­lu­tion, writ­ing, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” That rather than a hero­ic sto­ry told yet one more time with the first beau­ti­ful words and weapons, or words as weapons and weapons as words, instead rethink the ques­tions of evo­lu­tion in a much small­er vein, with the tiny, hollowed-out neg­a­tive spaces, the shell which can hold some water that can be shared, the net bag that can car­ry food back to the camp, that can car­ry the baby. The kind of social­i­ty that comes from com­mu­ni­ties mak­ing their lives togeth­er. Not any kind of Utopia, cer­tain­ly not absent con­flict, but it is not the hero­ic sto­ry of the priv­i­leged sig­ni­fi­er mov­ing across matrix space to bring back the prize at the end and die.