Project (2015)

Archives in the Anthropocene

Within a thousandths of fraction of the earth’s deep history we have begun to fundamentally alter the composition of the planet to the degree that any vestige of the non-human “natural” is now fugitive in all but the most nanoscopic and axiomatic of the sciences. These human-induced transformations are so significant that scientists suggest humans have initiated a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Taken seriously, the Anthropocene hypothesis suggests that the cultural has insinuated itself so thoroughly into the natural that any notion of an objective, unhumanized record of the Earth will no longer be tenable. At the same time, the Anthropocene proposal may also suggest a novel historiographical challenge: Are there any implications for how the history of science is written when our own cultural narratives are so inextricably melded with that of the Earth itself—not as a stage or substrate, but as a geological extension of our own activity?  The Anthropocene’s framing of the human and its history within a geological context of deep time presents an opportunity to reconsider the significance of writing of history at this particular moment in history. Are there novel complexities, opportunities, or responsibilities inherent in historical studies of science—the past authored in the present to become archival documents for an uncertain future? Or does the Anthropocene concept betray a contemporary form of anthropocentrism with little to offer or to influence the history of science today? The aim of this project was to further develop and examine these ideas by considering the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science as a site of study. As an international center for the history of science the Institute is itself an archive in the Anthropocene. Its archival knowledge is not only located in its documents and databases, but just as significantly in the form of its researchers in residence who are "embodied archives" active in the creation of the historical. Pursuing this line of inquiry, a primary research method for the project was interviews with scholars at the Institute concerning the practice of history of science in the Anthropocene context.