Ian Baucom’s new book, History 4º Celsius: Search for a Method in the Age of the Anthropocene (Duke UP, 2020) draws pithily and adroitly on decolonial theory, black critical thought, aesthetics, and environmental critique. The book urgently exhorts Humanist scholars toward a method that will address and engage not only what he terms the “forces” of history, politics, and society that, as Marx noted in “The 18th Brumaire”, make history and humans what we are (e.g., capitalism, imperialism, the Atlantic slave trade and its legacies, colonialism), but also what he refers to as the cosmological, theological, and geological “forcings” that entangle human life in scales and situations that subtend and supersede us (e.g., carbon monoxide emissions, solar flares, messianic promises) (cf. p. 8). He notes the obvious but methodologically difficult fact that, “the play of historical forces and climate forcings are not autonomous from one another but exacerbate and intensify one another” (p. 14). Even so, most Humanist scholars still write to the side of this dialectical exacerbation and intensity.
The core of Baucom’s argument lies in a friendly debate with Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose decade-long appeal for postcolonial theory to take seriously our age of climate emergency has clearly struck Baucom deeply. Baucom signs on to Chakrabarty’s division of human activity into “History 1” and “History 2”, the first indexing an Enlightenment notion of progressive history, with its “attendant politics of rights-based citizenship and democracy” (45) and its concomitant investments in the Atlantic Slave trade and imperial-colonial extractions of labor and resources; and the second indexing theories and events that “interrupt” History 1 with their non-progressive temporalities, political resistances, multiple ontologies and post-secular insistence that humans dwell among or alongside gods and spirits. (44-46). Baucom’s methodological question (which is also a political question) lies in how to research, teach and write toward a model of social transformation, a model of what Baucom continues to call “freedom” that pulls History 1 and History 2 into immanent engagement with “History 3”, the so-called “forcings” wrought by theology, cosmology, and geology—something he argues Chakrabarty considers impossible.
Baucom construes an answer to this question by, first, posing the question aesthetically, through an image. Nyani Quarmyne’s picture (Panos Pictures) of the young Collins Kusietey, titled “We Were Once Three Miles from the Sea” depicts a single, vulnerable child standing somewhat forlornly on a hill of sand that his encroaching up the walls of what used to be his home, with the ocean shimmering visibly through a window frame behind him. From his analysis of this picture, Baucom then proceeds to demonstrate how the question of method, that is, the question of how to address and engage the intercalation of “force” and “forcings”, requires reworking scholarly presumptions and hopes for ‘the Human’, for ‘History’, and for ‘freedom.’
He channels these reworkings through the theoretical and political differences between the humanism and post- or more-than-humanism, seen first, in Paul Gilroy, Achille Mbembe, and Franz Fanon; and then Sartre and Levi-Strauss, sprinking his text with support from Bill McKibbon, Christiana Sharpe, Donna Haraway, and laboratory-based climate scientists. Baucom finally takes up the “little discussed” eighteenth thesis of Walter Benjamin’s “Philosophy of History,” which rockets out from the plane of human life to the scale of planetary and astrological history, and uses its lessons to return to the picture of Quarmyne’s picture. Joining the figure of this Ghanian boy with the literary figure, Sonmi~451 from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Baucom argues that the “grammar” of figuration affords us access to a means of “comprehending and decoding these images” (57), “emblembatiz[ing] the new ‘type’ of the type of the Anthropocene World…an order of personhood bringing together (and simultaneously embedded in) multiple scales of Anthropocene time: scales of the biographical, the nomological, the biological, the zoological, the geological, and the cosmo/theological” (91).
Nothing in this slim book is overly drawn out, and yet I find myself completely drawn in by Baucom’s grammar of figuration, by his intermittent and not quite gathered up argument about freedom, and especially by the way he casually floats the need for a re-engagement with theology, or at least with a post-secular, post-cynical acknowledgement that humans act, enact, and commune with others in light of God, gods, or spirits that surround them. To me, a Religion scholar sick of Enlightenment-laden dismissals of religion that rapidly reduce it to ideology, neurosis, violence, or worse, I find the inclusion of the gods refreshing. Baucom’s capacious orientation toward theologies and divinities–undefined and un-delimited–performs the “‘type’ of type” that I think is necessary for his proposed method for the Humanities, an approach to existence that is open to uncertainty and to obscured knowing, to the rhythms and relations of quarks, to what we can do with our brains (Malabou), to global sensoria that supersede any one person’s cognitive grasp (Jameson), and yes of gods, spirits, and demons of all stripes and colors. To refuse to foreclose or predetermine the wildness and rites of spirit seems to me central to the success of Baucom’s book and to his plea for a new Humanist method.