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In light of the recognition of the Anthropocene – a geological epoch of our own making – this chapter asks how well anthropology is equipped to deal with the challenge that the recognition of human geological agency presents to our time perspectives. It offers two theoretical starting points to initiate the conversation between anthropological theory and the history of the encounter with deep time within Britain: the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard and the geologist James Hutton. This discussion introduces three key questions for an anthropology of deep time: what is the relationship between human rhythms and the rhythms of the more-than-human world within which humans live? What is the significance of our time horizons, their proximity or distance? And whose time is deep time?
This chapter explores the particular significance of the present, and the ways in which anthropology has approached ‘presentism’ as a metaphysical claim, a sociological description, and a means of analysis. While recognising that an analysis of the conditions of presentism is crucial for understanding contemporary social life, the central argument here is that any attempt to embrace presentism as a methodological tool or even metaphysical truth risks distorting human activity in a disastrous way by abstracting it from the material environment that makes such activity possible. The chapter concludes with a reflection upon the relationship between time and mystification in order to understand temporal disjuncture: conditions of life which obscure – and at the same time are violently dissonant with – the temporality of the ecologies and geologies which make that life possible. The task for anthropology is to analyse the conditions of this extraction from deep time, not to replicate it.
What underlies the English rural idyll? This chapter explores the relationship between stratigraphy, economy, and sense of place, taking as its primary focus the chalk hills of South Cambridgeshire, the ‘great croprolite boom’, and the significance of cement production. Yet in exploring the way in which social and economic change delves into geological history, it challenges chronotopes that emphasise continuity and consonance within the landscape, focussing our attention instead on temporal disjuncture, displacement, and a geology in motion.
Ground that was once the floor of the sea; sea rising up and snatching away ground. Folding hills, coastlines shaped and reshaped. There is nothing static about the terrain upon which we live and on which we depend.
This book seeks to understand human life in relation to these deep-time movements. It sets out to explore the way in which social rhythms interact with ecological and geological rhythms. Yet in the course of such a task, dislocations become apparent – the tension between the short-term orientation of contemporary life and the vast span of the physical processes on which that present draws. What are the horizons of a society’s sense of time? This is a question of enormous significance for anthropological analysis, as I intend to show.
Recognising that our maps of deep time are themselves products of the entangled relationship between the biographical and the geological, this chapter takes inspiration from the ‘biographical geology’ of the Scottish stonemason and geologist Hugh Miller. Turning our ethnographic focus to the Orkney Islands, where Miller hunted for fish fossils within the Old Red Sandstone, this chapter considers the ways in which deep time protrudes into the present. In particular, we consider the dynamics of erosion (and the role of concrete defences in holding the line against erosion) and the impact of the discovery of geological resources – particularly oil and uranium – as they shape people’s identity in relation to time and place.
This concluding chapter locates our present geological moment politically and economically, arguing that the major ecological degradation which has been made visible at the level of geological time is a result of the Lockean designation of ‘unused’ land as waste to be made productive. And crucially, this designation of land as waste goes hand in hand with the extraction from deep time: it involves bracketing out the long-term history of the landscape and its ecological future for the work of extracting economic value in the now. To expand our time horizons is, in fact, to recognise the contemporary relationship with deep time as wastage.
Taking as its focus the drained peatlands of the East Anglian fens, this chapter examines the formation and wastage of peat as a particular case study of human geological agency; a particular instance of the global transformation of a net carbon sink into a net carbon source. Here we see lived encounters with time depth that bring us face-to-face with temporal disjuncture: in particular, we see how the fenlands today find themselves locked-in to a present from which variation becomes unthinkable.
The work of mapping the processes of geological formation is entangled with the process of extraction from deep time – a conquest figured in relation to the coal measures. Building on Alfred Gell’s approach to the relationship between time and the ways in which it is culturally constructed, this chapter addresses the question ‘Whose time is deep time?’ through a consideration of the politics of marking the boundaries of time in nineteenth-century Imperial Britain, with a particular focus on the Cambridge geologist Adam Sedgwick.
Beginning with an ethnography of controversy in the representation of time at the Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim, this chapter focuses on the role of catastrophe as rupture in time, confronting us with the transformative potential of events that render planetary history radically discontinuous. Yet while in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century history of the earth sciences catastrophism became displaced as orthodoxy by uniformitarian explanations, becoming a shadow mode of explanation associated primarily with Christian Biblical literalism, the significance of catastrophe in earth history has re-emerged in a distinct form through the recognition of mass extinction events. Indeed, it has a particular contemporary significance, as we increasingly recognise our own extractive relationship with time as catastrophe: vectors of a mass extinction event, the likes of which have occurred only five times in the last 540 million years or so.
In the face of debates about the Anthropocene - a geological epoch of our own making - and contemporary concerns about ecological crisis and the Sixth Mass Extinction, it is more important than ever to locate the timeframe of human activity within the deep time of planetary history. This path-breaking book is a timely critical review of the anthropology of time, exploring our human relationship with the timescale of geological formation. Richard D. G. Irvine shows how the time-horizons of social life are a matter of crucial concern, and lays bare the ways in which human activity becomes severed from the long-term geological and ecological rhythms on which it depends.