Stephanie Wakefield Lecture
The Back Loop: Experimentation in the Anthropocene’s Unsafe Operating Space
While some accounts of the Anthropocene celebrate the life of things or even a world without us—perverse anti-humanisms appropriate to the new geological epoch and our own potential extinction—our time is just as equally one of great experimentation in human capacities and more than human futures. The cowboys of Pleistocene Park envision bringing back woolly mammoths to rebuild permafrost. SpaceX dreams of Martian exploration and another space. Scientists in Miami hope to propagate a million orchids. Forecasters at Shell read science fiction to predict climate futures. Engineers and government alike seek to manage New York City’s rising seas and storm surge with artificial oyster reefs. Neighbors and families set up makeshift gyms to experiment with bodies. Mangroves move north with warming climates. In powerful ways, these ‘Anthropocene experiments’ attune themselves to our warmer and wetter world, to the new normal that is upending our deeply held notions and threatening to wash away the grounds of the earth itself.
In the face of outmoded infrastructures, ideologies, design practices, and change models, we need new tools. In the place of critique and despair, what is called for in such a time is audacious experimentation, an openness to the unknown. Is this a world coming apart, or one piecing itself back together? Resilience thinker CS Holling has pointedly called our time a ‘back loop,’ a phase of transition, release, and reorganization, albeit at the level of an entire civilization. It’s time to embrace the back loop.
Stephanie Wakefield is an urban geographer and visiting Assistant Professor in Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College at The New School. She has written and organized extensively around the political and philosophical questions of the Anthropocene, exploring it as a threshold moment of both great potential and catastrophe. She is finalizing a book on the being, time and politics of oysters, ‘living infrastructures’ of urban resilience in post-Sandy New York. Her new research explores urban ‘experimentation’ as a mode of dwelling in the Anthropocene and emancipatory possibilities offered by the concept of the ‘back loop.’ Her work has been published in diverse venues including May, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Progress in Human Geography, and The Brooklyn Rail.