How to Not Think Alone in the Anthropocene
By Michaela Dwyer
Sometimes I like to envision all of us sharing a groupthink of early-week rituals, cleansing our minds from days past to begin each week anew. Mine recently has been reading “We Think Alone” every Monday morning. The multi-media artist and writer Miranda July has been running the curated email project, which just ended this week, since July 1. The premise is simple: anyone can subscribe, and every Monday July sends a giant email made up of already-sent messages from a diverse group of variously famous people like Lena Dunham, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lee Smolin, and Kirsten Dunst. Each compiled email centers around a certain theme: “an angry email,” “an email about the body,” “an email with a song in it.” More than a ritual, these emails are confirmation that people—people I’ve never physically met—continue to exist in the world and think similar thoughts, write emails in the same formal and informal ways I do. The project is called “We Think Alone” but its format does the exact opposite, intentionally mashing up different voices and contexts along their points of connection.
It’s been harder for me to do this—this Monday Cleanse—recently, and especially as last Friday blended into Saturday-Sunday and then Monday of this week. Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines beginning on Friday and the death toll has since risen dramatically. On Sunday night I read Roy Scranton’s piece in the New York Times about the Anthropocene—a recent buzzword geologists and humanities folks alike have used to refer to “a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the arrival of the human species as a geological force.” His contention is that as humans, we’ve already done our part in destroying the natural world and must now learn to live within this destruction—and to do so, crucially, with the understanding that we’re already, in a way, dead. On Monday morning I drove to work and pulled into campus to the sound of scratchy BBC reports from the Philippines. A reporter was interviewing several small children, asking them if they were hungry. “Yes, yes,” they kept repeating, their high-pitched voices in stark contrast with the reporter’s deep British accent and trained newspeak. It was desperate in-the-moment journalism, pulled straight from the field, nothing polished. I suddenly felt physically ill. How do you go to work when this is happening in the world? How do you open your email and read “an email about a problem you’re having with your computer”? My thoughts were spiraling in the second-person, and fittingly so. During times like these I want an instruction manual for ethically being. I want someone, or something, to tell me if it’s okay to read and enjoy July’s email as I usually do. I want to know how long I can put thoughts about the typhoon on hold as I sit down at my desk and organize my daily tasks, post-it-notes, highlighters.
In his piece, Scranton accuses us precisely for living this way: “…humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent.” He says our desire for livable stability—put another, more ironic way, sustainable living—orients us toward disaster. And maybe this desire will come to define this era of the Anthropocene as an era of accumulated self-destruction. If any solution is possible, he posits it’s more serious groupthink: “learn[ing] how to die as a civilization.”
But an injunction like “hey, we need to collectively think a little more about the state of our [already-dead] existence” doesn’t seem to do much—and even seems deleteriously unethical—when more than 2,000 people die and 600,000 are displaced from a disaster, natural or not. Reading a think-piece like Scranton’s won’t solve this tension; reading Kant won’t do it; reading the compiled-and-curated emails of public figures won’t, either. But thinking about these issues and approaches in tandem—in connection, and in balance—doesn’t have to be wrong.
“We Think Alone” was commissioned by Swedish gallery Magasin 3 as part of a larger exhibition called “On the Tip of My Tongue.” The curators’ statement says that the collection of art projects “aim[s] to trigger situations and experiences that linger as if ‘just out of reach,’ to generate encounters that keep growing— in thought and through conversation—long after each actual event has ended.” In reality, on this day in November 2013, traveling either to the Philippines or to a white-walled Swedish art gallery is out of my reach. But I could, just like anyone else in the world with an email address, sign up for “We Think Alone” earlier this year (and, as you know, I did). I wanted to see what happened when I placed myself—my email-correspondent self—in the space of sustained technological connection with people I wouldn’t typically encounter. I often feel consumed and subsumed in buzzwords others attach to “my generation,” to “people like me.” We’re being trained to see something so pure and so distilled—ourselves in relation to each other—in emphatic balloon-type: collaboration! co-working! sharing! empathy! With “We Think Alone,” I (somewhat warily) drafted myself into a test-run of contrived global community. It wasn’t perfect. And it wasn’t enough to sustain me throughout the week, every week. And it’s not enough to sustain me when events in the world feel beyond my control. So maybe Scranton would applaud this ethos of self-aware unsustainability, though I’m not looking for his moral approval. I’m looking for more mechanisms to think and talk and be together, to live and die as ourselves, with each other, and outside of isolation, to figure out what we can change—alter, bring to light, frame in a new way— and what we cannot. And perhaps we can change that, too—we’re all living in this muck of uncertainty, after all.