Authors Meet Critics

Authors Meet Critics: “Terracene: A Crude Aesthetics,” Salar Mameni

Recorded on March 4, 2024, this Authors Meet Critics panel focused on Terracene: A Crude Aesthetics, by Professor Salar Mameni, Assistant Professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies. Professor Mameni was joined by Mayanthi Fernando, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz; Sugata Ray, Associate Professor of South and Southeast Asian Art and Architecture in the Departments of History of Art and South & Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley; and Stefania Pandolfo, Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley.

The panel was co-sponsored by the Program in Critical Theory, the Art Research Center, the Center for Race and Gender, the Center for the Study of Sexual Culture, the Department of Art History, the Department of Ethnic Studies, the South Asia Art Initiative at the Institute for South Asia Studies, and the Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative.

About the Book

Salar Mameni
Salar Mameni

In Terracene, Professor Salar Mameni historicizes the popularization of the scientific notion of the Anthropocene alongside the emergence of the global war on terror. Mameni theorizes the Terracene as an epoch marked by a convergence of racialized militarism and environmental destruction. Both the Anthropocene and the war on terror centered the antagonist figures of the Anthropos and the terrorist as responsible for epochal changes in the new geological and geopolitical world orders. In response, Mameni shows how the Terracene requires radically new engagements with terra (the earth), whose intelligence resides in matters such as oil and phenomena like earthquakes and fires. Drawing on the work of artists whose practices interrogate histories of settler-colonial and imperial interests in land and resources in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait, Syria, Palestine, and other regions most affected by the war on terror, Mameni offers speculative paths into the aesthetics of the Terracene.

Podcast and Transcript

Listen to this event below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


[JULIA SIZEK] Hello, everyone. We are going to go ahead and get started. My name is Julia Sizek, and I’m the postdoc here at Social Science Matrix. Today, as you all know, we are here to talk about Salar Mameni’s new book, which we are all very excited about if not already have been excited about for a while.

I have been super lucky to actually watch this book along its journey to publication because when Salar first came to this campus, we did a matrix feature on this book. And then also Salar was a faculty fellow with us last year, which was awesome. This is also a plug for anyone who is an assistant or associate professor at Berkeley. You can apply to be a faculty fellow for next year. The applications are actually due in about a week and a half from now. So all of this is to say we have really enjoyed seeing this book come to publication. And also to have this as part of that journey is really awesome.

Terracene is a book that really brings together terror with terror, bridging how the war on terror, which, of course, is also a war over natural resources with other longer terrors of colonialism. So using art to help theorize the Terracene as a way to creatively bridge the affective experiences of terror with the science of the Anthropocene, this book really is an amazing contribution to both art history and to theories of the Anthropocene. So I’m excited for that, this event.

And before we get truly started, we want to thank our co-sponsors, which is a very long list, the Department of Ethnic Studies, Critical Theory, Art Research Center, the Center for Race and Gender, the Center for the Study of Sexual Culture, Art History, the South Asia Art Initiative at the Institute for South Asian Studies, UC Berkeley, and the Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative, which maybe speaks to the way that this book has really touched many different fields of scholars across campus. This is also part of our author meets critics series as you know. So if you know of a book that’s coming out in the social sciences, please let us know because we would love to feature it.

Our other announcements are some of our upcoming events at Matrix. So we have a couple of events actually later this week that you all might be interested in attending. So first, we’re going to have an event about AI on Wednesday, which is organized by one of our faculty fellows. And then on Thursday, we’re going to be having an event about obstetric racism, which is organized by another one of our faculty fellows. It’s very faculty fellow and former faculty fellow heavy week. And then next week we’re going to be having an event on Monday about storytelling and the climate crisis featuring different writers of fiction and nonfiction and how they think about integrating the climate crisis into their work.

The following week and going into spring break, we’re going to be having two events that are of particular interest to those interested in California issues. So one of them, conservatorship is going to be about the California system of conservatorship, which is about care for mental illness. And then we will also be having one of our new directions panels, which features the work of junior scholars about greening infrastructure, so a lot of upcoming and extremely exciting events.

And now to move on to our event for today, so I will go ahead and introduce Stefania Pandolfo, who will be our moderator today. She is a professor of anthropology and a member of the programs in critical theory and medical anthropology at UC Berkeley. Her work centers subjectivity, imagination, trauma, and the experience of madness with a focus on the Maghrib in Islam and in conversation with psychoanalysis and Islamic thought.

In recent years, her research and writing have reflected on forms of the subject and ethics straddling psychical political, religious, and aesthetic processes and vocabularies. She is currently working on a book on aesthetic experience, violence, and psychic pain based on her ethnography and on collaborations with a number of artists. So without any further ado, I’m going to turn it over to Stefania to introduce Salar.


[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] Thank you. I really don’t deserve this big introduction because I will be doing very little here. I will just be moderating. But thank you. It’s a great honor actually to be here and participate even maybe a little bit later a little bit more to the discussion about Terracene, which is a really remarkable work that spans many fields but also that attempts to give us a vision of aesthetics that is transformative and profoundly important in this moment.

But let me just begin to say a few facts about Salar. Salar Mameni is both an artist and a scholar. And he says so at the beginning of his book, which he actually– he tells us how he moves between different genres in writing these books. And the sensibility of the artist is present from beginning to end. He’s also an assistant professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Ethnic Studies and an art historian by training, specializing in contemporary transnational art and visual culture in the Arab, Muslim world with an interdisciplinary research on racial discourse on transnational gender politics, militarism, oil cultures, and extractive economies in East Asia.

He was formerly a UC president’s postdoctoral fellow in feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz. And he has a PhD in art history from the University of California San Diego and a BFA in fine arts from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. He has published articles in Brazilian science, women and performance, Al-rida, journal, Fuse Magazine, Fillip review and Canadian Art journal.

Salah’s first book Terracene– that we will discuss today– A Crude Aesthetics Duke University Press 2023, considers the emergence of the Anthropocene as a new geological era in relation to the concurrent declaration of the war on terror in the early 2000s. And playing on words terror and terror, he proposes the term Terracene and Terrance as for the inhabitants, so the terracing, in order to think the planetary in conjunction with ongoing militarization of transnational or transnational regions under terror.

Terracene engages contemporary art and aesthetic productions and particularly those artists that most directly speak to the sensibility and the various material inscriptions in the body and on the senses of the author so are both arbitrary, personal and yet profoundly connected, and paying particular attention to artists navigating the geopolitics of Petro cultures and climate change. Research for his second book– and I want to mention this because it’s to me it’s important. It emerges from the first book in a very interesting way– engages histories of medicine, and in particular of trans medicine and the endocrine system.

So he’s currently conducting archival research to understand visual representations of fluid bodies within Islamic manuscripts prior to the rise of the scientific discipline of endocrinology in the early 20th century. And in fact, to some extent, his research in manuscripts within the Islamic tradition is very present at the very beginning of the book with the creation story. His research has been supported by the Hellman Faculty Fellowship and the Social Science Matrix.

I wanted to say literally two words before beginning the discussion of the book. At several points in his powerful and moving book, Salar cites Walter Benjamin’s Adagia Fiat ars, pereat mundus, create or make some art and the world be destroyed. It is a quote from the conclusion of Benjamin’s famous essay the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction published for the first time in 1935 where Benjamin returns to the site of war, WW I, and the lurking preparation of WW II through the rise of fascism.

All efforts to render politics aesthetics, Benjamin culminate in one thing, war, and conclude Fiat ars pereat mundus says fascism. And as Marinetti, the futurist, writer, poet admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification sense of perception that has been changed by technology, continues Benjamin. This is evident in the consummation of La Perla. It is self-alienation, Benjamin says, that has reach– it’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that mankind can experience its own destruction as the aesthetic pleasure of a first order. This is the situation of politics the fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism or what Benjamin called a redeemed humanity in other places responds by politicizing art.

And this book is an attempt to politicize art on this thin line where one could slip into fascism and one doesn’t, in which there is always a risk, which is also a risk of self dissolution. There is the risk of disappearance. There is the risk of becoming crude. And it’s a book that– it has as the discussants will talk about, I’m sure, a first part that is in the mode of critique that establishes what is a terrorist, a regime of terror from within which certain have not right to the possibility of expression in any way and have been targeted and reduced to resources.

And then there is a second part in which this question of what is a political art is brought to the fore in which we are reading about the possibility of sensing with injured organs. The fact of the encountering crude as the history of oil production, which is also the object of devotion among the Indigenous population in different parts of the United States because it contains the memory of organic life and the spirit of the dead, we encounter the art forms.

And I was most struck by the work of Diana Al-Hadid, the Syrian artist in the US who are experimenting and yet really writing from within an unspeakable experience of being at the heart of a trauma that is not a trauma that will be objectified but as a trauma that will engender the possibility of forms that will continuously dissform themselves or dissolve themselves through those sculptures that dissolve and drip down becoming a phantom limbs or simply going back to the Earth and becoming resources. Or in the work of Larissa Sansou, the Palestinian futurist who is actually imagining a dystopian future in an incredibly sarcastic and powerful way.

We will talk much more about this. But I also wanted to say a last word to the very personal register of this book, which has a profound element, a dimension of autobiography. Even though the autobiography is also an autobiography in which the memory, the body, the senses that are not separated from the conscious, there is a whole theory of perception in this book that, that perception that has been altered by technology as Benjamin says and that in which the author remembers being under the bombings during the Iran-Iraq War and being poisoned by a poison, which is a memory that will also be the material out of which those creations will be born. Thank you. And please help me to welcome Salar.


[SALAR MAMENI] Good afternoon, everybody. You can hear me, right? Good afternoon. Thank you so much, Stefania, for the introduction, Julia, for the introduction. It’s really an honor to be in conversation about the book with my colleagues at UC Berkeley, Professor Pandolfo, Professor Ray, and Mayanthi Fernando who’s coming from UC Santa Cruz to join us for this conversation. It’s truly an honor. Thank you so much.

When you see a book in its covers, it feels finished it looks finished, but it’s really not finished. For me, it’s still a work in progress. So I’m sure I will learn a lot from this conversation which can have a different life. I also want to thank the Social Science Matrix for hosting this event. As Julia said, I was a fellow here. And it was just last spring that we hosted a series of conversations here on ecology and medicine in the context of Transgender Studies. So it’s good to be here on the eighth floor. Also grateful for the co-sponsors of the event, and in particular the Department of Ethnic Studies that’s hosting a cocktail event after this at the faculty club. So please join us.

All right, so Terracene, so I’m going to talk briefly 10, 15 minutes just to introduce the book before we go to the conversation. So I’m going to start with a title. So Terracene is a term that I coined for the book in order to engage the notion of the Anthropocene. And as many of you know, the Anthropocene is a proposal for a new geological era that’s kickstarted by the human, the Anthropocene.

It was a term that was proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer who repopularized the term. It was already coined prior to the 2000s. And they wanted to propose that as being a term that could be adopted for our new geological era. So from the beginning when the term was proposed, it came under criticism from many different disciplines. And in the humanities and the social sciences, the term was taken up by in particular feminist, critical, race, and indigenous studies scholars as having quite a lot of shortcomings in terms of creating a homogeneous concept of the human, the Anthropos, proposing that the human species is this homogeneous concept.

So there were a lot of different kinds of critiques that engaged the concept of the Anthropocene. I’m going to give you four of those just as a refresher to the critiques of the Anthropocene. So first, the concept was criticized for the fact that the concept of the human is a racialized idea. So it’s a racialized construct that doesn’t include most humans and non-humans. So it’s a category that’s a racializing concept.

Secondly, this construct of the human is political. So it was a concept that allowed European colonizers to colonize lands across the globe, to extract resources and do so in the name of the human, what was deemed to belong to the human. Third, this concept of the Anthropocene built a particular relationship between the human and the natural world which led to what we understand now as climate change. So pollution, mass extinction, melting of ice caps, viral diseases, et cetera, these are all concepts that came from this particular notion of the human, this particular way of understanding what a human species is and does.

And fourth, the critique was, well, this concept doesn’t stand in for all of humans. There’s a particular angle that this concept takes. There’s a particular edge that it has. Or in the words of Sylvia Winter, it’s a genre of the human that’s being engaged in the concept of the Anthropocene, that Anthropos. And that this European genre of the human is placing a huge multispecies categories of peoples and things at risk. So there’s an imbalanced distribution of risk that’s being produced through this concept.

So these critiques already existed when I came to the concept. So the Anthropocene literature already had much of this critique and more already present. So what was my intervention? So from my angle when I first started engaging Anthropocene literature, I became really interested in, as a historian, in thinking about when the concept was coined. So it was really striking to me that the concept or when it was proposed to be taken seriously coincided with the war on terror as a geopolitical way of describing the planet.

So this is the early 2000s when everyone’s really interested in thinking about time and giving images of what the new century holds. But also looking back, so there was a particular interest in historiography and temporality. And the war on terror gave a particular vision of how to understand the 21st century. And the Anthropocene was also proposing a particular image of the planet. So I was really interested in putting these two together. So even though the Anthropocene engaged with a massive temporality that went beyond the idea of the human species or how we could understand the humans engagement or destruction of the planet, it was nonetheless a concept in time. So I was really interested in historicizing that concept in relation to the war on terror.

So the central question that the book asks– and that’s how the book started– was to ask, What is the relationship between the Anthropocene and the war on terror given this coincidence of their engagement in the early 2000s? So I give you a whole book’s worth of answers to this question. But I think there are two main proposals that I make that are maybe the most significant. So those are the ones I’m going to share with you.

So first, I argue that the terrorist, the concept of the terrorist, is a racializing other of the Anthropos. So while the Anthropocene is proposing a category of the human species, the war on terror is proposing a particular category, the terrorist, after whom the– or towards whom the war on terror is being waged. So reading these two together, I saw the terrorist as the other, the racial other of the Anthropos in the concept of the Anthropocene.

And it was important that the terrorist was actually a non-human concept. So the terrorist was a vast category that couldn’t be easily defined. It included non-human entities like infectious disease and toxic landscapes, but it also obviously included less than humans, so what we more readily associate with the concept of terrorism. So bio terrorist, suicide bombers, these are figures that show up a lot in that discourse.

So for me, the notion of the terrorist was a multi species designation that was essentially racialized in relation to the human, to the Anthropos. So this argument, of course, built on a huge literature that had come out since the early 2000s. People who studied the war on terror, so just to mention a few people Anjalee, Fatima, Raza Kolbe, Brian Massumi, Elizabeth Pavanelli, Neel Ahuja, Joseph Puglisi, Jasbir Puar. These were all people who really studied how terrorism was defined even though it was such an ambiguous concept and brought attention to how that definition was often in relation to ecological disasters, such as hurricanes or insect, swarms or viral disease, et cetera. So that was my first proposal.

My second proposal in the book is that the war machine that’s built to target the terrorist, most of whom, of course, are found or concentrated in the region in West Asia from Afghanistan to Palestine, the war machine relies on oil. And so it also happens that oil is concentrated in this region as well. So a large part of the book is dedicated to describing the cyclical process through which oil is extracted, pollutants are dumped, and terrorists are produced. So I don’t take the concept of the terrorists for granted. It’s an attention to how that idea is produced in relation to the Anthropos. So that’s the overall conceptual structure of the book.

And so now I’m going to give you a little bit of the meat of the book that holds up that structure. And in order to do that, as Stefania was saying, it requires talking a little bit about me. So in terms of my training, I’m an historian. I’m not a geologist. I’m not a military analyst.

And I spent some time talking in the book about what it means to speak about the Anthropocene as a non-scientist, of course, breaking down that dichotomy between art and science, but also how to speak essentially as a non-human, so as a racialized queer, transgendered, other, a Muslim, also most importantly, a person who was marked for eradication as a child living under a war from the age of 3 to 11. And the Iran-Iraq War was the precursor to the Gulf War and a precursor to the war on terror. So there is a lineage of those wars that I trace and track through my own biography in the book.

And so due to this personal biography, I talk a little bit about what it means to gain an esthetic education, gain a sensorial education in relation to war, and what it means to read the world through that sensibility. So it’s difficult to do. It’s hard to write from the personal in a political way. And so I developed three narrative strategies or maybe what I’ll call methodologies to do that work. And maybe there are more, but I’ll share these with you.

So first, how to look to one’s own experience. So inserted throughout the book are sections where I break with academic form. And I speak about my aesthetic education as a child of war what it means to be an auditor, for example, of war while you’re in a shelter, for example. And so these are instances in the book where I foreground experiential and embodied ways of knowing, which can be difficult to do when studying both war and also climate change.

So in the literature of the Anthropocene, one thing that’s often cited is how difficult it is to sense the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is not something you can just name. You can’t readily experience it. I mean, we can experience fires and hotter days, but it’s hard to have an individual experience that spans such a massive time scale. So by definition, the Anthropocene spans a particular time scale.

And so the concept of the Anthropocene is famously difficult to describe through aesthetic experience. So that’s one thing I try to do. And also the idea of– or the experience of war is also one that’s difficult to describe aesthetically because often, war leaves its mark on you through trauma. And trauma is famously absent from the aesthetic experience because trauma is when your sensory, your ears, your eyes, your other kinds of senses, have received an overload. And so that overload shuts down aesthetic experience.

So this is something I talk about in the book. So what does it mean to theorize a new notion of aesthetics through trauma? It’s a dichotomous concept thus far. So I’m hoping someone will maybe talk about the sublime and if not, we can discuss this in the Q&A. So, yeah, that’s one narrative and methodological difficulty that I had to navigate while doing that.

The second one was to look to intellectual and creative productions of others. So a lot of the artists that I look at in the book are people who I identified or gravitated towards in order to think through a shared experience. So Diana Al-hadid, Larissa Sansour, Morris Allahyari, who’s here in the audience– thank you for coming– Glad Gazeran, Fatima Al Qadiri, Alia Ali, Reza Negarestani, these are some of the artists who are in the book. And those who have showed up in my work prior to the book but who have contributed, people like Abbas Akhavan. Other artists, Ryan Tabet, Joumana Mana, these are people who I have been thinking with for over 10 years even if they’re not in the book.

And so these artists and their works really allowed me to understand my experience, my aesthetic experience, my aesthetic draws in a collective way. So whether or not I was successful, I really was trying, while I was writing the book, to push back against the role of the art historian or the art critic to write about an artist or to write about an artwork. So really my intention, again, whether or not it was successful, was to write with and to think with the artists that I was engaging.

The third strategy that I used was to look to the aesthetic capacity of inanimate things or entities. So what I sometimes call Terrance in the book, sometimes I call more than humans. And so one of the entities that I think with in the book more extensively is oil naturally. And so for that, I look to moments where one’s mine or an artist’s senses are intoxicated. So they come into contact with oil and gas. And so there’s a disorientation that happens, or there is a visionary moment that happens through that intoxication. So there’s a change, whether an enhancement or diminishing of perhaps an olfactory capacity that changes one’s way of sensing the world.

And so here, of course, I draw a lot on works of disability studies scholars who really have made ways to teach us how to think with senses that are not common, for example, to all, which is how aesthetic theory often talks about the sensus communis, which is what gives you aesthetic experience. So people like Mel Chin’s work, for example, really opened some avenues of thought for me in this realm. And I’m almost done.

So I also towards the end of the project– and it’s both a blessing and a curse that I came towards the end of my project– was to really draw on Islamic knowledge systems. And what drew me to some of that work was the way that Islamic cosmologies and ecologies really decentered the human. So it was a non-anthropocentric way of looking and perceiving and thinking about the world, a re– for me, it was a re-understanding or re-learning of what it means to think with sacred landscapes, what it means to think with theocentricity. And so you see some of that showing up in the introduction of the book but also throughout the book.

And so it’s a blessing in that it is pushing me into a new direction for the new book project where I will certainly engage with Islamic cosmologies and aesthetics to think about biological ecological entities and their overlap. But the fact that I didn’t think with that from the start, I feel maybe the book would have been somewhat different had I done that since the beginning. So, OK, just by way of summary, just a few words, the book is really inherently anti-war. It’s anti-military. It urges an end, a divestment from military expansion, which, of course, all of that tends to rely on colonial exploitation, genocide, and resource extraction. So in this moment, it really urges an end to militarism, to genocide, and perhaps asks for ceasefire now. Thank you.


[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] Sugata Ray is Associate Professor of South Southeast Asian Studies and Architecture in the Department of History of Art and South Southeast Asian Studies and is also Director of the South Asia Art Initiative and the Climate Change Initiative at the University of California Berkeley. His research and writing focus on climate change and the arts from the 1500s onward. His recent books include Climate Change and the Art of Devotion, Geo Aesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1,550-1850. It was published in 2019 and awarded the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion and the American Academy of Religion and the Arts Book Award. And another book, Water Histories of South Asia, the Materiality of Liquescence, which was co-edited in 2020. He is currently writing a book on the question of the animal and animality in the early modern period and is co-editing Ecologies, Aesthetics, and Histories of Art that will come out in 2024.


[SUGATA RAY] Let me begin by thanking you for the kind introduction and for inviting me in this conversation. I’ll just begin. Capitalocene, plantationocene, technocene, homogenocene, corporatocene, eurocene, manthropocene, plasticine, thermocene, pyrocene, even white supremacy. Thanks, Nick Mirza, for that one.

Monica’s ad infinitum, the numerous designations that have emerged in the past 20 years or so to define our current geological epoch, the Anthropocene, as a period of cataclysmic human-induced climate change gestures towards the urgent imperative to reconsider the genealogies and the histories of our besieged now. But whose cene is the Anthropocene? If the suffix cene, connoting new, suggests that a recent geological epoch is the period of the Anthropocene, this cene we must also concede needs to be placed in a scene.

With its root in the ancient Greek scheme, a temporary dwelling used for dramatic performances, the term scene had entered the world of art writing as early as 1638 with the German philologist Franciscus Junius, the painting of the ancients in three books. While the word scene implied both a sequence of dramatic action and the area set aside or an arena where action unfolds, the way Junius used the term in his treatise on aesthetic principles, it is in this sense that we must also turn to the scene of the Anthropocene in Salar’s Terracene. But more on that soon.

Turning to the scene of Anthropocene visuality, Nick Mirzoeff had suggested in 2014 that the aesthetics of the Anthropocene emerged as an unintended supplement to imperial aesthetics. Anthropocene visuality, as theorized by many, is a top down modality of imperial aesthetics, the conquest of the planet by converting it into a picture that emerged with Europe’s early modern empires. For Mirzoeff, the scene is a port city in Normandy, heavy with smog produced by burning coal as seen through Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.

Anthropocene visuality as materialized in Western Europe in the works of artists, such as Monet, Mirzoeff argued, entailed both the naturalization and the aestheticization of colonial capitalist natural resource extraction systems based on industrial level consumption of fossil fuels, such as coal. The visuality might have been a supplement as Morozov rightly notes, but it completed the ability to rule. But we could trace the origin story of our current capital eugenic planetary crisis to the epistemic moment when our planet was discursively transfigured into a terrestrial globe with Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the Earth while attempting to search for a Western route to access spices from Southeast Asia. The world with its myriad life forms was, in the words of Heidegger, conceived and grasped as a picture in its totality thereafter.

In the Terracene, we turn to yet another scene of the Anthropocene visuality. As Salar notes, destruction stories are not all that there is to narrate. And on a personal note, it is really hard for me to address the question of terror after what’s happening over the last five months, the last 500 years. So I am tired, and I’m angry. And I will follow bell hooks and convert my anger into compost earthly matter. I’ll talk about Earth and earthly matter.

Radical in scope, Terracene holds space for other modes of planetary imagination that offer a rebuttal to the scientific technological notion of the Anthropocene. Origin stories matter. Today I want to think alongside Salar. Salar’s book begins with the following question, What is the ecological imagination of this creation story? How does it intervene in current scientific historiography, according to which we have entered the new epoch of the Anthropocene? How does engaging this story as a living knowledge system disrupt the hegemonic secular scientific worldview?

Indeed, our embattled ecological present requires new art histories aligned with other registers of thought beyond narratives that solely focus on the global history of post 1500 European imperialism that impelled the annihilation of human and non-human life on an unprecedented worldly scale. It is, I imagine, no coincidence that Salar begins Terracene with his personal retake on a creation story from the genre of Ajáib al-Makhlúqát, the Wonders of Creation, of which al-Qazwini’s work is the most famous example.

Salar tells us, “The world was once a flow that fused into a mass of rocks we knew as mountains. The mountains rested on two horns of a bull who stood on the back of a fish. The fish in turn balanced on the wings of an angel.” As Salar rightly notes, “One of the most striking aspects of this creation story is that its worldview does not revolve around the human yet the human cannot be dissociated from the long due history of ecological imperialism and climate colonialism in the Anthropocene.”

As the Indigenous epistemologist Doreen Martinez writes, “Climate colonialism forces a re-embodiment and relocation of how, why, and who is at fault who is responsible.” “Thus if one line of the Terracene takes us to a dystopian present, the ongoing world of terror, Salar writes, trapped between the double bind of neoliberal capitalism and colonization through artists, such as Diana Al-hadid, whose powerful mediation on oil is on the cover of the book, another line takes us to an eco aesthetics that can perhaps be best imagined as an aesthetics not in the enlightenment sense of a sensible cognition but through Guattari’s ethical aesthetics aegis of an ecosophy that enunciates the desires, aspirations, and optimism of living well despite catastrophes propelled by the ruthless forces of colonialism and neoliberal capitalism.”

It is this line of thought in the book that I want to foreground today, a world, as Salar writes, of earthly beings, of compost, of beings coming out of Earth, a narrative told from the perspective of Terrance, the creative multi-species inhabitants of militarized and extractive regimes who bear embodied scars of terror and who also propose and practice resilient strategies for life. While for the most part scholarship on the idea is resilience has centered around contemporary, civil, and political capacities to recover, the aesthetic imprint of imaginative practices can provide us with a lens to understand resilience as an embodied experience of living as resistance in the age of the Anthropocene.

The Terracene we learn requires that we think with ancestral knowledge. As Salar writes, “Some of those knowledges exist in ancient deities who have protected, devoured, destroyed, or delivered life disease, fires, earthquakes, floods, and cyclones. These deities appear here as creative and speculative knowledge holders.” And as Jessica Horton and Janet Berlo observe in a different context, once we take Indigenous worldviews into account, the new materialisms are no longer new.

Post-human critiques from disciplines, such as anthropology, have by now linked the geological non-life and the biological life to re-imagine the vitality of entanglements across life worlds. Along the same lines and entangled disposition to use Salar’s words, “From within art history promises to disturb the post-enlightenment foundations of the discipline that emerged from a specific Western bourgeois intellectual culture with roots in European global colonial expansionism.”

The globe, we must acknowledge, materialized in the age of the Weltbild or Heidegger’s modern world picture, think magazine. And in our pixelated age, as Gayatri Spivak wrote 20 years ago, the globe is on our computer. No one lives there. It allows us to think we control it. The planet is in the species of alterity belonging to another system yet we inhabit it on loan.

For Spivak, this global is indelibly connected to the alienation of neocolonial apparatuses that contiguously link post 1500s territorial empires to current transnational capitalism. In the wake of such long histories of global finance capitalism, Spivak proposed that alterity remains underived from us if we imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents, planetary creatures rather than global entities. And it is no coincidence that Spivak conceived of planetary as best imagined from the pre-capitalist cultures of the planet.

In the Terracene, artists from West Asia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Syria, Palestine are excavating pre-capitalist ontologies for our embattled now. For instance, the Mesopotamian deity, Huma, resurrected by the contemporary Iranian artist. There are other aspects to the book, the limits of archival retrieval, listening to the Terracene, the agency of crude oil, conceptual frameworks that will be key to current debates in art history.

But given that I have been allocated 15 minutes, I will leave you to follow these lines of thought. Neither do I want to rehearse the histories of matter, material and materiality, and imagination enunciated through images, films, intimate conversations, and archival research that Salar emphasizes. Rather as an art historian working on the early modern Indian Ocean world, I want to give a sense of how the methodologies of the book offer me and those who work in adjacent or not so adjacent regions and time periods modalities of rethinking transversal linkages between climate crisis and artistic practices, in other words, the book’s impact on current disciplinary questions.

Terracene inspired me to take a fresh look at one of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s political allegories where he stands on a globe shooting at the head of his enemy, Malik Ambar. I am currently writing a book on Jahangir. And for that reason, very self-interested one, I must admit that Salar’s retake on this old Islamic cosmological concept of the world fish on which the Earth rests through the intermediation of the cosmic bull intrigued me. Painted by Abu’l-Hasan in around 1620, in this instance, the cosmographic origin story shared across the islamicate Indian Ocean world that stretches from West Asia to South Asia is represented with the latest European scientific achievements, the globe, think Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, and the concomitant creating of the world as a picture.

The emperor stands on a terrestrial globe of the kind made in Antwerp around 1600. The globe is placed in turn on the back of a naturalistic bovine with its head turned in europeanised foreshortening. And both Jehangir and the bull stand on a fish, a nature study in the manner of Giorgio Liberale from Udine.

Art historians have read the celebrated painting as a visual testament to Western European science being appropriated outside Europe as a form of coeval global modernity or even a remaking of Western scientificism, science gone native, so as to speak. Even as such readings offer a productive history of global flows and modernities beyond the West, the overdetermined emphasis on scientific rationality in scholarship on this painting takes me to Spivak.

The globe is on our computer. No one lives there. It allows us to think we can control it. The planet is in the species of alterity belonging to another system and yet we inhabit it on loan. What does it mean to be a planetary subject rather than a global agent, a planetary creature rather than a global entity? I have been wrestling with this question of the species of alterity.

In the wake of totalizing accounts of global techno aesthetic connectedness fueled by a World economic order that has become the de facto story of our species level modernity or so it is claimed, Salar’s Terracene offers an art history that obscures the boundaries between art and the natural environment between animate being and inanimate matter. Salar’s propositions on the vitality of matter and material in a catastrophic time when environmental precarity has etched its mark on every aspect of life, I would argue, opens new passages for art histories, passages that take seriously intellectual traditions outside of post-enlightenment Western Europe where the fuzziness of human, non-human assemblages were commonplace.

And that is only one aspect of the Terracene. I invite you to explore the many other passages the book offers to provincialize the [INAUDIBLE] hyper-real Europe, that Europe, reified and celebrated in the phenomenal world of everyday relations of power as the scene of the birth of the modern. Thank you.


[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] So Mayanthi, Mayanthi Fernando who is here from Santa Cruz who came for this event is Associate Professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, where she’s also provost of the Kresge College, a living learning community for undergraduate students. Her research interest include Islam and secularism, human, non-human entanglements, and more than secular multispecies ecologies, histories of the body, liberalism and the law, and gender and sexuality. Her first book, the Republic Unsettled, Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism Duke University Press 2014 examined the intersection of religion and politics in France, alternating between an analysis of Muslim, French politics, ethics, and social life and the contradictions of French cellularity laicité that this new Muslim subjectivity reflects and refracts.

She is currently working on a second book titled Beyond the Anthropocene Secular on the imbrication of cellularity in the Anthropocene and how secular moderns might conceptualize and cultivate multispecies world making otherwise. She has held residential fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton and the School of advanced studies in Santa Fe. And she has published in a wide array of academic journals in non-academic venues. So thank you. And I leave this to you.


[MAYANTHI FERNANDO] So first let me thank Salar, Julie, and Charles for this invitation to comment on Salar’s wonderful book Terracene, A Crude Aesthetics. It is a particular pleasure for me because I first met Salar and encountered this work many years ago at the Center for Cultural studies at UC Santa Cruz. And one of the great pleasures of being a scholar, because it’s certainly not the salary, one of the great pleasures of being a scholar truly is witnessing a fellow scholar’s project move from its initial stages to book form. So I’m really thrilled to be here commenting on Salar’s work in final form.

Though final form is perhaps a misnomer since one of the things that Salar does so beautifully in this book is open up rather than definitively answer a set of important questions. What exactly is the Anthropocene? And what political work is that term doing? To what or whom does Anthropos refer? How might we imagine the human differently more capaciously? Or is the human too racially overdetermined a concept species? With what new terms should we reimagine and remake the world? And what about the scene in Anthropocene? How do we better account for and listen to the existence in this scene? This geological time space, the terrains of this playing on cene, C-E-N-E, and scene, S-C-E-N-E, might we approach the Anthropocene as a work of art as well as of history.

What would an aesthetic approach to the Anthropocene look like? Or importantly, since one of Salar;s key contributions is to emphasize the sensory, what would an aesthetic approach to the Anthropocene, one that accounted for terrains, humans, and more than humans, too, what would an account– sorry, what would an aesthetic approach to the Anthropocene feel like?

Salar has already laid out the book’s major interventions and arguments. So what I’m going to do in my comments is pick up a few threads to riff on. I’m inspired here by Salar’s own poetic imagination and the connections made across objects, theories, and histories. So I want to start where Salar started with that creation story from the 13th century Islamic text known in English as wonders of creation and oddities of existence.

And this is a quote from the manuscripts in English. “The world was once a flow that fused onto a mass of rocks we know as mountains. The mountains rested on the two horns of a bull who stood on the back of a fish. The fish in turn balanced on the wings of an angel.” What is the purchase of opening with that particular story? Mameni notes that creation stories like this rupture linear time and confront our attachment to logical schemas according to which historiography is organized.

This creation story thereby opens a path for Mameni’s subsequent discussion of the deep time of oil and with it a temporal imagination that exceeds the temporality of the human of Anthropos. Creation stories like this also compel us, Mameni continues, to contemplate our ongoing existence in relation to species and environments they conjure. And in so doing, these stories interrupt the hegemonic, secular, scientific worldview of the Anthropocene without offering in its place a comprehensive, totalizing narrative.

But why begin with this particular story drawn from the Islamic world? Mameni notes that the book engages numerous disqualified sites of knowledge as relevant to the environmental discourses of the Anthropocene. And obviously, there is also Salar’s own history with stories like this. But I think opening this way with this story from this religious tradition from the Islamic tradition also does profound and important political work. After all, Islam is not usually understood as good to think with by most secular moderns, including in the academy.

Many academics writing about the Anthropocene and the more than human tend to see the world’s monotheisms, and especially Islam as a sterile dead end. And I’m constantly struck by the casual Islamophobia and some of this work. And they have turned instead to indigenous ontologies as our best hope out of the Anthropocene. This is not in and of itself a problem. As Mameni also shows, indigenous traditions and indigenous scholarship offer valuable critiques of the Anthropocene and vital modes of thinking and being differently.

But in the West, when certain others are designated as saviors, it usually means others are designated as monsters and terrorists. Michel-Rolph Trouillot called this duality the West’s Janus-faced other. And it has a long history, starting with Jesuit priest Bartolomé de Las Casas’s distinction between Indians to be saved and Moors already damned. These distinctions have little to do with the actual populations interpolated into this geography of imagination, but they have endured.

In contrast, Mameni refuses this Janus-faced other. In fact, critically turns those two sides– the fantastical noble savage and the phantasmagoric terrorist, turns these two sides to face one another, to speak to one another as more than just fantasy and phantasmagoria. Mameni does this by tacking back and forth in the book between Islamic, pre-Islamic, and indigenous ontoepistemologies to help us think the world anew. Again, in this day and age, this is an incredibly important, critical, analytical move.

Let me return to the creation story of the world held up by bull, held up by fish, held up by an angel. As Mameni writes, and I quote, “One of the most striking aspects of this creation story is that its worldview does not revolve around the human. In fact– and I’m still quoting– the counterintuitive order in which the world is stacked in this creation story also asks us to contemplate the limits of rational thought and by extension human mastery over the workings of the cosmos. This creation story refutes the humans’ ability to fully grasp the world through verifiable knowledge. Instead, it appeals to our poetic, speculative, imaginative intelligence through which we can grasp what is known about the world,” unquote.

This creation story and Mameni’s reading of it and also Mameni’s insistence that we must attend to the sensory aspects of what it is to be a Terran reminded me of another story told by another group of Muslim philosophers, the Ikhwan al-Safa or brethren of purity, a group of 10th century Muslim philosophers. The Ikhwan authored a 52-volume encyclopedia on the mathematical, natural, and psychological sciences that included an epistle, the longest, called the case of the animals versus man before the king of the jinn, in which animals contest humans claims to mastery over them in the court of the jinn.

The Ikhwan, ventriloquizing the animals, spend a great deal of time on animals distinct physical form and sensory capacities. The epistles fourth chapter called on the acute sense of the animals holds that there are many animals with finer senses and sharper discrimination than humans, such as the camel who finds his footing on the most punishing and treacherous pathways in the dark of night. And I’m quoting here, “or ewes who can birth multiple lambs in one night or those lambs who each finds its way to its dam without any doubt by the mother or confusion by the young in contrast to humans, say, the animals, for whom a month or two or more must pass before they can distinguish their own mother from their sister.”

Other chapters go into great detail about the physical form of various creatures, like the long tusks and great bulk of the elephant or the delicate wings and tiny proboscis of the gnat. Yasuda, leader of the bees, carefully outlines the intricate and ingenious body and wonders form of his species which enable them to build dwellings more aptly and skillfully than your, i.e., your humans artisans better and more ingeniously than your builders and architects. And different animals rely on different senses for their well-being. And I quote, “Some like hawks and eagles rely on their keen vision and powerful flight. Others like ants, dung beetles, and scarabs have a powerful sense of smell. Others are led to their needs by their sense of hearing as are the vultures. And some are guided by their sense of taste as are fish and other aquatic animals.”

In arguing their case, the animals also insist that although their every movement is worship and praise of God, humans do not understand much of what animals do or say. At one point, the nightingale exclaims, and I quote, “We praise, sanctify, celebrate, and exalt God morning and evening although these humans do not comprehend our songs of praise.”

Earlier in the trial, the parrot has made a similar point. If you could follow the discourse of the birds, they say to the humans, the anthems of the swarming creatures, the hymns of the crawling creatures, the hosannas of the beasts, the meditative murmur of the cricket and treaty of the frog, admonitions of the bulbul, homilies of the larks, the sand grouse lauds and the crane celebrations, the cock’s call to worship, the poetry doves utter in their cooing and their soothsaying, and the soothsaying ravens and their croaking, you would realize that among these throngs are orators and eloquent speakers, theologians, preachers, admonishers, and diviners just as there are among the sons of Adam.

Why can’t humans follow the discourse of the birds, the anthems of the swarming creatures, the hymns of the crawling creatures and so on? Because humans, too, have very specific sensory capacities and incapacities as underscored by Islamic scholar Muhammad Assad. In the message of the Quran, Assad discusses the jinn, explaining that the term jinn signifies beings that are concealed from man’s senses, i.e., things beings or forces which cannot normally be perceived by man but have nevertheless an objective reality of their own. Assad, like the Ikhwan, emphasizes human’s perceptual incapacities and our limited knowledge as humans in accessing the cosmos and its many worlds. And in so doing, he defines the human as an ontoepistomological limit. Our inability to know our epistemological threshold is an effect of our bodies, our biophysical makeup or ontology as Homo sapiens.

So I want to think Mameni alongside Assad and the Ikhwan with regard to Mameni’s emphasis on the sensory aspects of the Anthropocene and how we might cultivate a post Anthropocene ethics and politics for the amalgamations of humans and other than humans inhabiting toxic and militarized wastelands. “Knowing the Anthropocene essentially, Mameni continues, would require sensing ourselves as part of a multispecies environment across large stretches of time. Such an experience is difficult to fathom,” unquote. And yet there are many parts of the book when such a sensing across species in ways that exceed what we have come to think of as human sensory capacity comes into view.

In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of Terracene is how Mameni attends to the soundscapes and feltscapes of the Anthropocene where the sound of aerial bombardment travels through the gut bypassing the ear completely where sense organs are overloaded in war zones, punctuated by loud, screeching, buzzing, or humming sounds. Mameni mostly focuses on human sensibilities. But we might extend that frame of analysis to more than humans as well to the carrots wilting and pungent soils, the cats quivering under awnings, the goats lacking calcium, as Mameni describes in another chapter, the interspecies experiences of land and aerial bombardment of the Iran-Iraq War.

In another chapter on Fatima Al Qadiri album Desert Strike, Mameni wonders if what the artist has composed is the sounds of the Terracene and notes that, quote, “Her work moves our bodies in vibrations the way an earthquake would,” unquote. Vibration, of course, is how many creatures sense the world and their way in it. I wonder too whether the sensory overload of trauma that Mameni describes by exceeding the capacities of the five senses of secular modernity might bring us closer to the heightened and even synesthetic capacities of many of our non-human cohabitants.

Mameni then seems to be gesturing to a embodied interspecies kinship of feeling with that the Anthropocene perhaps inadvertently produces. At the same time, as Assad and the Ikhwan insist, our bodies and senses are constitutive of ontoepistemological limit as humans. I read Mameni’s emphasis on bodies, vulnerable porous bodies in a similar vein as both possibility and limit and as part and parcel of Mameni’s insistence akin to Assad’s and the Ikhwan’s on the limitations of what it means to be human. All three refuse human mastery as both an ontological reality and an ethical political stance as the only way forward to live ethically in the cosmos.

Given the very different disciplinary traditions these three figures across time, the Ikhwan, Assad, and Mameni– given the very different disciplinary traditions of these three figures across time, I want to end with a question to Salar about how to approach the secular more robustly and richly as analysts. And this is a very selfish question because it’s one I’m really struggling with as I write the second book.

What Salar points to is how cellularity and the Anthropocene are imbricated. And as Stefania noted, I call it the Anthropocene secular in the book I’m currently finishing or not finishing. The Anthropocene secular is premised on a fantasy of human mastery over nature, time, death, bodies, and so on. This is the secular in its major keys, let’s say. And Salar’s analysis of the Anthropocene is both discourse and practice critically analyzes these major keys.

But what about the secular in its minor keys, the moments, spaces, and sensibilities that do not adhere to secularities, distinctions, between science and superstition, mind and body, and so on? The reason I ask is that most of us in this room are secular moderns. How could we not be? And yet, I imagine, that many of us are like Salar compelled intellectually and effectively by the non secular tradition Salar is taking up to imagine the world anew. Our bodies, animal bodies, as they are, are vulnerable to the vibration of earthquakes, bombs, and other sonic modalities of destruction, creation, and communication.

As Salar writes, that first creation story about the mountain on the bull, on the fish, on the angel appeals to our poetic, speculative, and imaginative intelligence. I suppose I’m asking about secularity as a substrate of ethical sensibilities, attitudes, and dispositions that are distinct from the scientific secularism of Crewdson and the like. Minor more dissonant dispositions and sensibilities that remain open to the poetic, the speculative, the imaginative.

I don’t mean this as an apologetics– #notallsecularmoderns– rather to think analytically about how the secular is constituted by both major and minor keys. And to better attend to these minor keys is to hold open the possibility– as Salar does in this book– to hold open the possibility of finding common cause across a diverse range of struggles religious, secular, non-secular, asecular that could usher in more generous, more ethical modes of interspecies cohabitation. Thank you. And thank you to Salar for this amazing book.


[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] It’s yours. Now this is– now, I’m going to invite Salar to respond or to add whatever he wants to add. And then we’ll decide.

[SALAR MAMENI] And then we’ll decide, OK. Thank you so much. Such rich responses. It’s really incredible. So I think I’m going to start by not answering but engaging Mayanthi your question around the secular.


Yes. I think so. So how to approach–

Not too much? Yeah, OK.

That’s fine? OK. So how to approach the secular more robustly. So I think, for me, the first way that I would think about this question, obviously not answering it but the first way of engaging with the question is to think about famously religion as a category is the invention of secularism. And so that dichotomy between the religious and the secular religious benefits the secular to define itself as the secular.

And recently, I’m going down some rabbit holes, and I’m reading people who were writing around the Islamic Revolution and who were thinking about what it meant to engage Islam in the ’60s and the ’70s at a moment when Islam was totally discredited as a possible thought system to engage. And some of the proposals that I’m reading are questions around how we might think humanism, so liberal humanism, as a project that comes out of Greek modes of thinking gods.

So liberal humanism takes up a particular relationship between the gods, Greek gods, and the human as defined in polytheistic modes of thinking. And so the person I’m reading is talking about how within the Greek theology, the gods are forces of nature and by definition, antagonistic towards the human. And so liberty, this idea of liberalism, freedom, comes out of getting the gods off your back and becoming independent and so on.

And so there’s a particular way of thinking the theos, the god that creates the antagonist human who is trying to become liberated. And that is what remains with us in terms of liberal humanism in terms of the materialism of secular thought. And so this person is proposing that Islam does something distinctly different in that there is no original sin in the way that Christianity takes up from Greek thought. But what Islam does is to– I mean, so there are so many other ways of thinking about this but to allow the human to build different relationships with “the god.” So it’s not necessarily an antagonistic relationship. And so what does it mean to take on that responsibility?

And alongside that, I’m reading Anna Gaid who writes about ecology and Islam. And she talks about passages from the Quran where the mountains are offered to take care of the world. The other entities are offered that by God. And the mountains say, this is too much. I’m not doing this. The mountains are like, this is actually a huge responsibility. And so the human is the foolish one who says, OK, maybe I’ll do this.

So I think, for me, as someone who was more of a vernacular Muslim and now is trying to be more of an educated Muslim, one of the takeaways for me always from Islamic thought was the limitation of the human, so the fact that rational thought only takes you so far. And so this hubris of the human, I think, inherently for me is not within Islamic thought, which– yeah, so I guess, there might have been different kinds of interpretation of that over the years.

So maybe I don’t know how to segue that into Sugata’s really wonderful reading of the book. But one thing that you said that really stuck with me was this idea of the resilience of the living. And so at this moment, for the terror and for the non-human for the amalgamation of multispecies beings that are deemed terrorists, living is an act of resistance, which is food for thought. It makes me think about how we define living, how we define resistance, how we are, of course, the liberal humanist horror when it

comes to–

–active resistance to give up life–

–are basically based on this redefinition of what it means to be a living organism. The continuity between living and non-living, these are some of the things I talk about in the book, I think, in relation to Sansour’s work and her reading of that gray area or the rethinking of what it means to be a living being. So, yeah, should I ask questions?

No, I–

If you have questions–

If you have questions, you should ask questions. Otherwise [INAUDIBLE].

[SALAR MAMENI] Let me think about questions.

And I will take that privilege before [INAUDIBLE].

[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] I wanted to go back to something you said when you said I hope someone is going to speak about the sublime. And rather than speaking about the sublime, it’s in the part of the book, which is more precisely about the crude aesthetics. And on the question of what might be an aesthetic, which is not fascist, is if I can go back to what Benjamin was citing, from Benjamin at the beginning, which you cite at the beginning of this part, and ask you to say a little bit more about this because it is a thin line.

You talked about visions when you were speaking. And yet the visions that you’re talking about are visions that are not visions that could be understood in the terms of the Kantian Sublime because you say in the book, that the Kantian Sublime is an approach to aesthetics that is calming or that inscribes the possibility of a distance, which eventually would lead to the position of the viewer of the one who experienced or who has an aesthetic experience in terms of contemplation.

And you are not speaking of an aesthetics of contemplation. And you are not even using the word resistance. You’re not using the word resilience. You’re not using any of those words. You are speaking about a being impressed in the sense– I mean, not just in the metaphorical sense, in the literal sense of impression by events. And that’s how you go to trauma. You go to beyond the pleasure principle in Freud. And you go with Freud and beyond Freud in asking the question of what does it mean to be invaded by sensory experience that it is overwhelming and that makes it impossible to think. But then you also want to say that beyond thinking, there is something else, which is not the sublime. And so if you can tell us more.

It has to do with oil. It has to do with dissolution. It has to do with form and distortion and deformation. And it has to do with the creation myth. It has to do with creation. So tell us more.

[SALAR MAMENI] Yeah, thank you. Yeah, I mean, when you think about aesthetics so often there are these available concepts that come from enlightenment aesthetic theory. So sublime was or is a concept that is everywhere in the Anthropocene literature because it speaks to that experience of awe. And so the Anthropocene is a disastrous globe. And so you in awe. And so that’s the concept that’s used often to describe the Anthropocene.

Weirdly, it’s also the concept that’s used to describe war. So a lot of the literature I cited in the book talk about 9/11 as a sublime moment. And so I found that to be extremely problematic. And it assumed a particular viewer, not– it wasn’t just useless for me to work with because it was within the humanist and anthropocentric mode of thought, but it was also thinking of a very particular– well, I guess, yeah, a particular kind of human who could stand at a distance and not be affected by the disaster that was happening.

And so for me, I wanted to theorize an engulfment and potential destruction by the event, so what happens in those moments. And so I think both of you actually offered us these alternatives, you talking about anger turning one into thinking with dust and with mulch perhaps. And you’re talking about the limits of the five senses and how the five senses is itself that kind of a construction. So I think at the time, I was really struggling with how to do that. But once I got over it, I– I feel like there is so much possibility for thinking outside of the enlightenment discourse of aesthetics. And I know you do this kind of work.

As you know, I read that section of your book where you talk about the jinn over and over again when I was writing about Morrison’s work because there’s something about these kinds of entities, such as the jinn, that put pressure on what it means to limit the sensory to the visible world. And so it forgets about many other modes of being the ontology of what we might call a human that has more to it than just the material world. And that’s another Islamic cosmological worldview that I thought was important. Should we open?

[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] Yes, we should open. It’s not just– it in such a way that you become– So now I’m going to take questions, comments. Comments, if you want to make comments, you can also make comments. It doesn’t have to be a question and for the three of them. And so please-

How much time do we have?

We have about half– 20 minutes.

Yeah, but [INAUDIBLE].

OK, we’re over.

Yeah, it wasn’t 36?

No, it goes until 5:30. So we– I mean, obviously, if you have to go, you have to go. But we’ll close out in about 10 minutes just because that’s the sane way to do it.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] First of all, congratulations on this amazing book. And it’s so wonderful to celebrate with you. And I had a question about your methodology and how it relates to the thematics of the book that you’re trying to work through. I was struck by you were saying something that really resonates with me, too.

You’re trying to write a book not about writing about art or writing about artists, but to write with them or to think with them. So were you thinking of your relationality as a critic with art and artists in parallel and related ways with the rethinking of ontologies and relations in the rest of the material here between the human and the non-human? Is there like– if you’re moving towards a human unexceptionalist ontology, here are– you also simultaneously moving toward a decentralizing of the critic, too. As part of that project of the humanist perspective, the critical perspective, how are those two things linked for you?

[SALAR MAMENI] Yeah, thank you, Long, for the question. Yeah, absolutely. I think being the objective observer of anything or being– sometimes I talk to students about hovering above and looking at the world from above forgetting that you might fall. So having that perspective that’s holistic, I think, never served my project, and it was not something– obviously, feminist scholars, queer scholars do this.

But in terms of art history in particular, I really didn’t feel like I had too many methods for not doing the kind of thing where you write about art. So that was a real struggle. How do you not do that outside of doing the anthropological version of it where you interview your artists and you show that dialogue? So I think what I ended up thinking was– what I’m providing is a theory of a particular shared experience that is not homogeneous.

So there are aspects of these artworks that are speaking to the same situation that I found perhaps myself in or I want to think with. And so then I gravitated towards those moments. And I think a part of it was also thinking about my selection of the works. What kind of curatorial process goes into selecting not just artworks but also your citational practice? And who are the scholars you think with and, et cetera? And so all of that required that kind of a perspective where you’re thinking of yourself as one amongst many.

[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] I think what we can do now maybe is taking a few questions, and then you will just respond to a group of questions.

And for the panelists, too.

Yeah, or from the panelists as well. Oh, for the panelists, yes.

It’s OK. You’re the star.

Yes, please.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hi. Thank you so much for speaking. OK, thank you. I guess I have a question about the variations in the creation stories based off of the images that we saw. So I’m curious whether the order of all of the different components are– is it static? Are there different versions of the creation story that are floating around? Is this the first time that you saw these particular orders of the creation story? Yeah, I’m curious about the variation between those images and how you’re thinking about that. Yeah, thank you.

[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] Are there are other comments so that– as I say in my class, we have very few minutes. So, yes.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] One other little thing out, Sugata’s list of all of the scenes from earlier– yeah, I guess, maybe it’s almost a question to the entire room about what– is it now that scene becomes synonym for thinking ecologically and then we attach capital? Or is the scene the same thing as a suffix in all of these? Yeah, I just start to wonder about the proliferation really.

But not everyone’s done the reading, right.

Yes, it’s true. It’s true.


And we just have a few minutes, so we’ll just maybe take these two.

I didn’t want to silence anyone.

[SALAR MAMENI] So with these ones– both of you have seen these two. Yes, there are many other variations. And you can already see that. I think we saw three. And all three are different. I like that. I think there’s something really interesting about that. And when I was writing my own creation story at the beginning, I did my own version of it, my own translation of it because it’s a living story. And so I think living stories lend themselves to variation. And so it’s not a fixed idea.

And so with Jahangir’s, I think that’s the first one I ever saw. And with that one, of course, the emperor–


–the emperor is standing on top of the globe. So he’s actually creating a anthropocentric version of something that was not anthropocentric to begin with. So I think–

He becomes the angle.

He becomes the angel. Do you want to say more about that?

[SUGATA RAY] Therefore, I think what Salar’s work does is opens up this question because when we think of imperial systems, we think it’s around the figure of the ruler, the emperor, monarch, or whoever. But when I read this, and I read go back to that, it opens up ways of thinking alterity. And I think that’s the productive aspect of this creative myth that it’s unlike things that are fixed once, they are written. Cultures in pre-modern cultures are circulated. And even contemporary culture, it circulates across.

And things change. Translations happen. Different iterations happen. And that gives it the flexibility to have different meanings, whether it’s– and you see it across. You see it in Southeast Asia. You see it in Central Asia. You see it– so, yeah, so I think that’s the creative part. And I think what Salar does is opens up a way of thinking about the Terracene in that way provincializing the figure of the emperor as well.


Did you want to say something about it?

Me? So I think all of us are trying to think about the scene through two words. One is the cene as the period, the Anthropocene, the Holocene. And the other word is the scene as S-C-N-E. That’s what we were after, the scene. So I was talking about the scene as a space where theater happens. So if you look at the definitions, everyone is OK with the C-E-N-E. And everyone wants to change the first part of it. So whether it’s the white supremacy or– comes up with crazy ideas– or the Anthropos, or–

Yeah, but I think what is important also for this is to complicate the scene, not just the agent here, the agent, whether it’s the white man, or whether it’s colonialism, or whether it’s climate change. So all of these assume that the scene is universal. And I think that’s the interesting part about, again, going back to this book is questioning of where is the scene of the Anthropocene. And what does that mean to think about the scene of that? [INAUDIBLE]

[SALAR MAMENI] Why am I answering your questions? Well, and I think– sorry, where are you–

No, no. Go ahead.

I think most of the coinages probably other than Haraway’s thylacine think about the perpetuator of climate change, so capitalism, et cetera. So I think this one does both. But I felt like it was also important to think about this new era, this new geological era from below and not to always superimpose the Anthropos by another name at that beginning.

[MAYANTHI FERNANDO] And I think the other thing you can go back to some of those, the angel on the bull on the– that whole thing is that what you also see there with the disappearance of the human or the lack of appearance of the human, a lot of these kinds of creation stories, I don’t know, call them mythological– whatever you want to call them, also presuppose that these non-humans have relationships with one another that are imperceptible to the human.

And that, I think, is also really interesting to think with alongside the concept of the scene because, again– and I think this is what this book really does is try to– what does it mean to think from below? And it also means that we are not part of many of these scenes. And so what is that Then how do we begin to think about that? I think that there are interesting ways in which those two questions are actually linked. And I think your book just does– what I love about it is that it really does take humans also as bodies in a really profound and fundamental way. So what are you?

Yeah, yeah. One more, Allen.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Yeah, I was curious about whether the scene– and looking at the images that you’ve all been showing, whether the scene is cosmology, so the cosmic or the universe? And I’m struck with these images of the Christian renditions of these that the Cardinal points– the missing one is the lion, which is Leo, Saint Mark. The fish is Pisces. The bull is Taurus. And so they’re all different apostles who represent the Cardinal points. And the angel is Matthew, so those correlations and so these mystic traditions, I guess, across different religions and different recreations of scenes as cosmologies.

This is the last time, and then we’re done.

[SUGATA RAY] So I think what the interesting part here– yeah, the interesting part I’ll just add very quickly with Salar’s point is that– so what it does is that you’re right. I mean, it’s a shared tradition. It’s a shared tradition in terms of either whether you go about the text or even actual live practices across, let’s say, what is called the Middle East, what is called South Asia, what is Africa, where you have these shared connectivity. But I think, which also goes back to your point, it’s the question of capital.

I mean, that is that red line that creates the Anthropocene in that sense. And I would also like, to your question, would add bring in the point of secularism is also a product of capital formation. So how do you then Anthropocene? Of course, the formation of capital.

So you have Christian. And most scholars would say that medieval cosmography– Heidegger would also say that– medieval cosmography is whether it’s Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist have these potential that then get reduced to the world as a picture, precisely with imperialism. So I think the point is, Where do you draw the line in terms of the loss of our gods and the creation of the world as a grid? And that’s a secular capital conjoining as well.

Yes, although I wouldn’t– I mean–

I don’t know, yeah.

To be continued.

To be continued.

So I’m just–

OK, on that note,

[STEFANIA PANDOLFO] We’ll be continued. It will be continued.





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