From the Series: An Anthropogenic Table of Elements
It’s hard, when among ice, not to hunt for melt. In our Anthropocenic epoch, ice is an element that is steadfastly bound to descriptors like fragile and in retreat (Carey 2007). A "hot" natural solid—one that hovers close to its melting point—ice becomes, in its dissolution, emblematic of humanity’s impact on the planet. While sailing through the Svalbard archipelago on an artist residency last autumn, I experienced just how potent the lure of melt was.1 Filmmakers and glass blowers, painters and sculptors, writers and photographers attempted to capture the essence of the ephemeral material. Stilled by the Arctic light and the colors, bobbing among bergy bits, we coveted sightings of calving glaciers. We watched, in horrified awe, a natural process that marked the human-induced acceleration of geologic time. Ice—bubbling, rotting, crashing—was imbued with human agency. But historically, ice has not always been seen as something so temporally urgent nor so submissive to humanity. For nineteenth-century natural philosophers, ice brought into sharp relief the slow and laborious processes of the earth. Ice was an element that could easily engulf humanity.
Of course, there is no doubt that in the twenty-first century ice is vanishing. As glaciers retreat, sea ice thins, and ice shelves crumble, ice becomes a symbol of rapidity and an apt chronometer for our current moment. But the fixation on this fast, human-enhanced time diminishes the temporal complexity and vital agency of ice, limiting its analytic and conceptual power. One danger of the Anthropocene is to place humans (once again) at the center of the narrative. In Svalbard, gazing at glaciers in the hope of witnessing a display of rapid decay, we did just that. The ice collapsed, and we were the cause (the totalizing we of humanity is problematic, but for those of us on board Antigua, the we felt literal: our ship ran on diesel). Focusing on this human-driven acceleration, the geohistory of ice and the weight of deep time remained elusive.
What does the slow, geologic time of ice look like? And how might it help us to decenter human agency in the Anthropocene? Staying within the paradigm of western science that gave us the word geological, the slow time of ice can be seen vividly in the nineteenth century.2 Naturalists were faced with physical puzzles that the long-absent element had left in its wake: erratic boulders, deeply striated rocks, strangely smooth land. That the land had once been covered in giant sheets of ice seemed an outrageous claim, but as evidence mounted that “god’s great plough” had shaped the surface of the earth, familiar landscapes became discernible as spaces with complex prehistories, and into deep time homo sapiens fell.3 With the acceptance of an icy past came a sobering prospect: over huge swaths of geologic time, what could melt could also amass. One day, ice would be back. Victorians thus found themselves to be “interglacial beings,” existing fortuitously in a brief and unreliable moment of melt (Wood 2018).
This confrontation with deep time had broad cultural ramifications, manifesting in literature, art, and psyches. Ice was seen as an encroaching enemy, not a fragile victim. In his 1911 “Notes on a Case of Paranoia,” Sigmund Freud (1979, 190) describes a man obsessed with a world-ending catastrophe, which he imagines will be caused by “a process of glaciation owing to the withdrawal of the sun” (Beer 1996, 226). For these interglacial beings, the deep time of ice was thus a fundamental decentralization of the human. Ice was a planetary threat that could quite literally subsume their meagre human time-scape.
On board the Antigua in Svalbard, we knew that for millennia, ice sheets and glaciers have shaped the surface of the earth; that the biosphere exists upon the negative imprint of an immense melted fossil was a banal truism. The deep time of ice was an unremarkable backdrop. But paying close attention to the deep geologic time of ice, to its capacity to erase, reshape—to literally move mountains—usefully complicates the temporality of the Anthropocene, and helps reveal the humanness of that rapid, tripping time. The multiple times of ice help us attend to what Lisa Messeri (2016, 30) calls “double exposure”: the juxtaposition of different temporalities and spatialities superimposed on one environment. Perhaps this double exposure can help us make kin with nonhuman, nonliving elements, as Donna Haraway (2016) argues we must.
Juggling the rapid and the slow is conceptually challenging and could arguably be depoliticizing: the speedy retreat of ice is such an easy icon for demanding action in the face of global warming. But by holding the deep time of ice-mass up against the rapid time of ice-melt and engaging with the confounding possibility of this double exposure, the capricious agency of the nonhuman comes to the fore. The deep time of ice helpfully humbles and subsumes us. As an element, ice—sticky yet slippery, deceptively transparent, solid yet fragile, timeless and time-stressed—allows us to see the multiplicity of times that can both define and disrupt the Anthropocene.
1. The artist and scientist residency, called “The Arctic Circle,”
undertakes two expeditions a year—one at summer solstice and one in the
autumn. Participants spend two and a half weeks living onboard a
barkentine tall ship, sailing around Svalbard, and landing twice daily
to explore the landscape and create art.
2. There are, of course, many different non-Western modes of seeing time through ice.
3. Louis Agassiz (1886, 99), who popularized the theory of a glacial epoch, famously described ice as “god’s great plough”: the quote was taken up widely in the popular press, for example in "A Continent Covered in Ice" (Woman's Journal 1872).
Agassiz, Louis. 1886. Geological Sketches. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
Beer, Gillian. 1996. Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.
Carey, Mark. 2007. “The History of Ice: How Glaciers Became an Endangered Species.” Environmental History 12, no. 3: 497–527.
Freud, Sigmund. 1979. The Interpretation of Dreams. The Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 4. Translated and edited by James Strachey, Alan Tyson, and Angela Richards. London: Penguin Books.
Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Messeri, Lisa. 2016. Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Woman's Journal. 1872. "A Continent Covered in Ice." Woman's Journal 15, no. 24: 190–91.
Wood, Gillen D’Arcy. 2018. “Interglacial Victorians.” In Victorian Sustainability in Literature and Culture, edited by Wendy Perkins, 220–27. London: Routledge.