René Baptist Huysmans’ EP: Dawn of the Anthropocene

With the new year there’s come a wave of releases of EPs, and amongst them a quite interesting one is René Baptist HuysmansDawn of the Anthropocene, issued a few days ago by the small Greek label Etched Traumas, and available on its Bandcamp page or on his own Soundcloud page: for the sake of convenience I’ll also embed it here.

The point of departure of this record, as stated by its title, is the epoch whose threshold we have scarcely gone beyond, even now, where the impact of technological enterprises has been heightened to such a degree that it’s not implausible to believe that an entirely new geological age has begun, during which the planet itself will be covered by a stratum constituted largely by human activity – though how long this age might end up lasting, is not the least of the grave doubts the development raises, as Huysmans intimates in his notes to the EP.

In this connection, one might recall how prescient Günther Anders was, already sixty years ago, about the escape of scientific experimentation from the confines of any definite laboratory: in the ninth section in his essay on atomic weapons in the Antiquiertheit des Menschen, he insisted of the latter that their Effekte sind so ungeheuer, daß im Moment des Experiments das „Laboratorium“ ko-⁠extensiv mit dem Globus wird.* How, in fact, would “the Anthropocene” – here I mean the period itself, insofar as the term may usefully denote a definite span of geological time – ever have commenced to begin with, were it not comprised of any number of “Momente des Experiments” in just that sense?

* “Über die Bombe und die Wurzeln unserer Apokalypse-Blindheit,” §9

(When – or if – the planet itself has in effect been remade into a single scientific laboratory, one might feel compelled to abandon or to forget the awareness that there is, or at least there was, a fundamental difference between truths and hypotheses; but I think one would be well advised to resist this temptation. As for the present essay, it advanced in – it’s advanced in a largely hypothetical and tentative mood.)

Probably it would be far-⁠fetched to claim that it was actually the point of the experiments to ascertain this, but nonetheless their result may be tending to reshape the planet into an ever less hospitable home for human beings, into an environment to which human beings are poorly suited, as though what was being sought were a new delineation of the potentialities of the species’ evolutionary adaptability – or rather, not so much its adaptability, strictly speaking, as more precisely that of its specifically metabolic interactions with others and with nature itself, interactions which comprise in the aggregate a particular capacity of species that’s of great importance in the theory of evolution. (In lieu of any discussion of this point, which of course would be out of place here, I’ll just note that, in the third chapter of On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s exemplifications of the workings of what his book variously termed the “economy” or “polity” or “web of complex relations” of nature – had he been writing in German, he would no doubt have referred to nature’s own “Kreislauf” and “Wechselwirkung” – accorded a prominent role to alimentation, while in the fourth chapter, amongst the “Illustrations of the action of Natural Selection,” some metabolic exchanges that are not solely alimentary were addressed.)

For his part, if one extrapolates from what he says in his text, which states that the EP is about metabolism and its potentialities, it seems likely that Huysmans has traversed these matters numerous times in thought. The three tracks of this release explore the human being as an extremophile organism, he writes, an organism testing the boundaries of what it is capable of digesting chemically, digitally and psychologically – a species, in other words, that is beginning to experiment on itself and on the adaptability of its metabolism in order to see how far they can be pushed: while it would be reassuring to add “before it would perish” to the foregoing, that guarantee is exactly what’s not provided, either explicitly or implicitly, by such experimentation conducted on a planetary scale. Nor – to survey this line of thought just a little – may we rest assured that through the course of this experiment, for however long it might last, the species conducting it will remain biologically singular: indeed, it’s as though the world is being primed for some sort of evolutionary splitting-⁠off to occur.

Yet, lest these ideas lead me too far afield too soon, for the moment I’ll simply immerse myself in the music; while listening to it one is struck by an overwhelming feeling of hearing what the biological process of digestion, or, if one prefers, of assimilation, must sound like from within, had one the aural organs requisite to register all the noises it emits inwardly (and, from time to time, we all witness in ourselves that it does make quite a few): thus, right from the start, these compositions place the listener at the centre of a metabolism in operation, which is nearly the very definition of a destructive environment or element, one wherein everything that enters leaves its own form behind and will become part of something else. So, in all three, though whether this applies to the third is not so evident, it’s the activity of this destruction, without which no biological species could possibly exist (for even the cryptoendoliths in their stony crevasses are involved in metabolic exchange with – including the ingestion of – their surroundings), that one is given to hear.

In Huysmans’ sentence which I quoted above, the word “explore” is aptly chosen; the aural inventiveness that allows him to create this sonic likeness which sounds exactly right, is preceded by an effort of mind whereby he transported himself into that destructive element: an initial act of imagination in which the power of memory could have nearly no share at all, and which thus is virtually an instance of what Henri Bergson called l’acte originel et fondamental de la perception, cet acte, constitutif de la perception pure, par lequel nous nous plaçons d’emblée dans les choses* – and it’s to just such an exercise of “la perception pure” that these compositions first invite us, a mode of listening in which we are as far as possible unencumbered by our memories.

* Matière et mémoire, ch. i

Which is to say – insofar as the power of memory is also an essential part of the human being – while engaged in listening to this eerie intrepid music, we could almost become something other than human.

Yes, this EP is an exploration. The mode of acoustic perception it calls forth, as it sets out, could lead the listeners towards a more elemental awareness of biological life as it exists in its rapport to matter and space, along the lines sketched out in Bergson’s book – at least to a certain extent, for the specific situation of Matière et mémoire, or rather, of some of its ideas, those which are relevant in this context, was obviously very different. (These variances, which by the contrast may help to accentuate the profile of Huysmans’ music, should be readily apparent in what follows.)

That work is pertinent here not least because it too was concerned above all with a metabolic exchange – namely, the one that, in the shape of movement, appeared to Bergson to link the mind and matter. For the very last sentence* in his book was meant to be understood quite literally: L’esprit emprunte à la matière les perceptions d’où il tire sa nourriture, et les lui rend sous forme de mouvement, où il a imprimé sa liberté.

* Matière et mémoire, Résumé et conclusion

Thus the multitude of our perceptions, according to Bergson, also plays a role in the metabolism whereby the human being sustains itself in its life; for life-⁠forms of our kind, perception is not simply a receptive capacity (though of course this is how it mainly seems to function) but rather a participant in metabolic exchanges, insofar as without it we would not be provided with the power of free movement – we would be ill-⁠equipped, in other words, for action, which, when carried out, represents a specifically human donation to the material world – and hence might then cease to live altogether.

(If the foregoing paragraph seems to be more arid than it is interesting, one might want to think of music, this universally human activity, both as constituting one part of our metabolism with nature and as comprising just such a donation of movement by us back to the world.)

Early in the book, Bergson proposed the idea que mon système nerveux, interposé entre les objets qui ébranlent mon corps et ceux que je pourrais influencer, joue le rôle d’un simple conducteur, qui transmet, répartit ou inhibe du mouvement – linked, of course, to the brain, whose function, even earlier, he had compared to that of a bureau téléphonique central – and he continued: Ce conducteur se compose d’une multitude énorme de fils tendus de la périphérie au centre et du centre à la périphérie. Autant il y a de fils allant de la périphérie vers le centre, autant il y a de points de l’espace capables de solliciter ma volonté et de poser, pour ainsi dire, une question élémentaire à mon activité motrice: chaque question posée est justement ce qu’on appelle une perception.*

* ch.i

Of especial note in what Bergson claimed here, is that these perceptions which come towards me as so many questions posed by this or that part of space to me and encouraging me to move, were implicitly accorded an aural character, more than an ocular one (whereas perceptions were most often described in Matière et mémoire in such a way that they seem to be above all visual in nature); accordingly, though perhaps with some exaggeration, one might define music, at least all the kinds of music that actually or virtually invite one to movement, as a dynamic disclosure of space: and as for music that does not do so, it may instead appeal to one to revolve in one’s mind the question of how space has been constituted such that it could be disclosed in that way to begin with.

To my ears, Huysmans’ EP is an instance of the second kind of music, prompting as it does a train of thought in the listener (hopefully one which, for its part, is not all too immobile) concerning the dynamic constitution of space; but, concerning this point, his music, in its implicit content from which those thoughts take their bearings, seems to me to diverge widely from some of the presuppositions one may discern at work in certain parts of Matière et mémoire: and so I shall attempt with some care to put these differences into words.

Later in the book one comes across a passage in which the idea that perceptions are the questions which this or that bit of space addresses to us, was restated, in a considerably fuller manner. Nous avons montré en effet que les objets situés autour de nous représentent, à des degrés différents, une action que nous pouvons accomplir sur les choses ou que nous devrons subir d’elles. L’échéance de cette action possible est justement marquée par le plus ou moins grand éloignement de l’objet correspondant, de sorte que la distance dans l’espace mesure la proximité d’une menace ou d’une promesse dans le temps. L’espace nous fournit donc ainsi tout d’un coup le schème de notre avenir prochain; et comme cet avenir doit s’écouler indéfiniment, l’espace qui le symbolise a pour propriété de demeurer, dans son immobilité, indéfiniment ouvert. De là vient que l’horizon immédiat donné à notre perception nous paraît nécessairement environné d’un cercle plus large, existant quoique inaperçu, ce cercle en impliquant lui-⁠même un autre qui l’entoure, et ainsi de suite indéfiniment.* With this Bergson offered a concise summary: inside this area, defined by a horizon, distances in space may be understood as measures of distances in time, both of them being comprehended as indices of how long it will take, either for something to traverse this space-⁠time towards us, or for us to reach it. Thus our sense of this area assesses it primarily in terms of proximity and is practical and protective vis-⁠à-⁠vis such things as threats, promises, and the like, which is why it is circumscribed at all: for that boundary too may be taken as marking the extent of the scope of our precautionary power to scan this spatiotemporal environment; and evidently one has some degree of assurance that this arrangement will prove satisfactory.

* ch. iii

Now, from what source did that assurance derive if not from the sense that this realm is the domain which, over very extended periods of biological and geological time, the human species has become adapted to, with the result that, situated within it, one feels, even as an individual, roughly secure in the twofold likelihood that one’s species will continue to be fit for this space, and vice versa? And similarly, did not the massive accumulation of probabilities through our long epoch of natural history suggest that near-⁠nonexistence of the possibility that an utterly annihilating thing or force might be approaching as yet unperceived from some source beyond this realm’s spatiotemporal horizon?

This conception of Bergson’s, in short, was fortified in its presumptive plausibility by the theory of evolution, even to the point of depending on the latter; but in the new period breaking into the continuum of geological and biological history, as is averred by the notion of the nascent epoch from which Huysmans’ EP draws its title, many of those older near-⁠certainties would wither away: so what one now might choose to think about above all – and from his music one hears that Huysmans has devoted thought to the matter – is a novel disposition of our space-⁠time in which one can no longer take it for granted that the latter, as it were, addresses leading questions to us through our perceptions, and, in so doing, implicitly affords each of us some rough assurance that we, the species at least, will in all probability survive.

If, however, what we now dimly begin to see and, even more disturbingly, to hear all around us, is the “dawn of the Anthropocene,” then the rapport of our perception to elemental reality will increasingly be afflicted by a systematic derangement – an incipient dérèglement de tous les sens in comparison to which Rimbaud’s* will be proven to have been mere child’s play. From our surroundings henceforth, if that is the case, we can expect far less implicit practical guidance than ever before, and this at the very moment in which concerted human activity, with every tool and technology at its disposal, is beginning to operate on the face of the planet as a whole, infiltrating nature itself and transforming it more and more into an artificial construct.

See the letter to G. Izambard, May 13, 1871

Moreover: with this worldwide transition from the purely to the artificially natural, so to speak, the stage would seem to be set for any number of developments that were not anticipated – and these, one has good reason to fear, will prove to be anything but beneficial in general.

This too is a matter that Huysmans has thought about, to judge from the character of his music: for the EP does not only transport its auditors into the destructive element wherein alimentary processes occur, thus summoning us into the midst of a zone more or less entirely alien to our memories, and in so doing reprising what was in Bergson’s eyes “l’acte originel et fondamental de la perception” – no, at other moments his three compositions also manifest a musical dimension whose unfolding occurs in a more familiar, in a quasi-⁠narrative way, but one which may at the same time be even more unsettling to hear than was the other, perhaps precisely because while listening to it our memories, far from being suspended, are actually called upon and in response to this appeal they intermix themselves in and amongst our acoustic perceptions. This is a mode of listening occasioned especially by “Cryptoendolith,” the longest of Huysmans’ tracks and the centre of this triptych of an EP, and indeed more and more as its crescendo of tension mounts: and thus one of our main tasks in the effort of apperception will be to restrain our memories from overwhelming the perceptions as the latter present themselves to us.

Here I should note that the title of this track seems to me to be, well, cryptic, and perhaps even intended to serve as a kind of decoy – for what I hear in this composition is something like a kernel of a narrative about a subject rather different than the micro-⁠organisms which slowly carve out their tiny niches in the interior of rocks. Instead it’s the scenario rendered in music of a new species appearing quite suddenly, by means of a successful mutation or as a result of some other kind of exceptional evolutionary event, natural or artificial, and setting out from its place of origin on its long irrevocable and most likely havoc-⁠wrecking trek through the world – or, in other words, it is a composition that calls to mind the music of the many cinematic adaptations or permutations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the reference being nearly unavoidable in this context). Although, while it’s indisputable that this theme has proven to be inexhaustibly fascinating from the very moment she published her novel nearly two hundred years ago (and so this could conceivably represent an instance where my own memories are blocking the way of new immediate perceptions), on the other hand, in an age marked by an unprecedented efficacy of scientific experiment and technological action (whether one calls this period “the Anthropocene” or not), so many are the variations which may be explored once it is taken as the source of thematic inspiration, that all the influence it has already worked since 1818 may one day pale in comparison to the effects it is at present only but beginning to exert; and thus (and also to sidestep the by now scholastic debates about the role an author’s or artist’s own intention ought to play in any interpretation) it seems to me appropriate to situate this composition of Huysmans’ in that book’s lineage.

One illustration will I hope suffice to concretise that claim. At approximately the 7:21 mark, after tense minutes of ominous rumblings, a different sort of sound is heard; it juts out of that acoustic continuum, jolting forward as though it were the initial noise of something finally vitalised into existence and henceforth able to move by its own power: thus, listening hard to this scene of a strange birth, it’s difficult to avoid feeling that here some new life-⁠form is raising itself from the table on which it was made, then taking its first unsteady steps around its natal chamber – the floorboards are creaking under its weight – before departing from the room, slamming the door shut forcefully behind itself.

Well, in this sonic passage listeners may or may not hear this or something similar, but the evident fact that these aural likenesses, as they pass by, constitute the successive elements of a story, can turn one’s train of thought in a rather different direction, leading it to attend again to the organs of perception themselves. Thus one might discern an opportunity to think about the difference in perceptive capacity between the eyes and the ears – to ponder the variances of their respective powers to register the meaningful signals emitted by our surroundings – and to consider both, each understood as an adaptation shaped into its present form during immense lengths of our evolutionary history, in their different potentialities for further adaptability to the new circumstances for which nearly nothing has prepared them or us.

This is the place, accordingly, to round off briefly the foregoing treatment of a few of Bergson’s ideas.

Early in Matière et mémoire one encounters a concise statement* of the results his philosophy, in its move to reach, uncover, and re-⁠establish le caractère véritable de la perception, actually had in view to bring about: montrons, dans la perception pure, un système d’actions naissantes qui plonge dans le réel par ses racines profondes: cette perception se distinguera radicalement du souvenir; la réalité des choses ne sera plus construite ou reconstruite, mais touchée, pénétrée, vécue; et le problème pendant entre le réalisme et l’idéalisme, au lieu de se perpétuer dans des discussions métaphysiques, devra être tranché par l’intuition. Now, though these objectives were admirably concrete, one comes to a halt at this last notion, “l’intuition”; without delving into an exegesis of it, what ought to be noted is the share that ocular perception seems to have in this mode of apprehending reality, if only for the reason that the particular constitution of the sense of sight would, more than those of the other senses, most readily seem to permit one to distinguish between perceptions and memories: but then, vision’s special distinction notwithstanding, the difficult situation in which the senses find themselves, if they are faced with surroundings that cannot any longer be assumed as guiding their human inhabitants by means of the leading questions – or, if one prefers a different term, the clues – posed to the latter through their perceptual apparatus, would envelop the power of intuition as well and confound it with an analogous uncertainty.

* ch. i

Reflecting a bit further on the privilege accorded to vision by Bergson – while leaving to the side his particular debt on this point to a venerable philosophical tradition – one might conclude that here too a close filiation with the theory of evolution is evident, insofar as the very existence of such a superlatively complex organ as the eye in its most developed forms, represented both a difficult challenge to the explanatory ambition of that theory and also a source of wonder to its propounder; that this organ exerted an especial fascination upon Darwin is clear from the pages he devoted to it in relation to his theory (under the heading “Organs of extreme perfection and complication” in the sixth chapter of his book): and the exceptional status it enjoyed in the context of evolutionary biology would then, some decades later, be matched by the central importance accorded to vision in Bergson’s ideas concerning the nature and function of “l’intuition.”

However, when nature itself – or whatever else it is that human action has begun to substitute for it – has ceased to co-⁠operate, the pre-⁠eminence of the eye would seem to come to naught, just as do the perceptive capacities of the other senses, insofar as their function generally is to transmit questions or clues from the human being’s surroundings to the mind, so that the latter may undertake free movement in response. And yet, could not the eye’s higher degree of fixity as an organ (insofar as the greater the “extreme of perfection and complication,” the more fixed and relatively final will be the form the organ has developed through the course of natural history) render it less potentially adaptable and hence also less serviceable, in the midst of just such an environment which furnishes little or no implicit guidance to us, than is its closest relative and rival amongst the human organs of perception, namely, the ear?

Given that the main concern in this context is the transmission of perceptions, one should not neglect also to consider the interval which was already traversed before the latter could even possibly arise at all, namely, the medium between the “things themselves” and the human organism, or in other words – when one is focused first and foremost on the eye, vision, light – the atmosphere; and, with such a focus in mind, it is not difficult to notice that the latter would seem to play, or to have played, a twofold role in the course of our evolution, for, on the one hand, it would be to the atmosphere of the planet, as a medium by which light itself as a great intensity is modulated and for the most part made safe to view, that the eye, the human eye in the form with which evolution stamped it, is correlate, constituting its native element, while, on the other, the atmosphere would also often serve to shield particular organisms from being observed too closely, and in so doing contribute something to their, to our survival, actual or potential, individually and as species. So, in neither respect should the Earth’s atmosphere be forgotten as a co-⁠constitutive factor in having guided human beings implicitly by means of those suggestions which Bergson termed perceptions.

Matière et mémoire was published at the end of the nineteenth century; a couple of decades earlier, one meets with an awareness of the twofold condition of all environing atmosphere in an essay by a thinker whom one usually reckons as a sharp critic of the assumptions underlying the theory of evolution: there Nietzsche went so far as to insist, albeit in words that were themselves geheimnisvoll and thus perhaps to be taken neither quite literally nor quite figuratively, that no life could live for long in the absence of a refractive layer around it. Alles Lebendige braucht um sich eine Atmosphäre, einen geheimnissvollen Dunstkreis, he wrote, and, in part on account of the pre-⁠eminence that this thought seems to accord to the sense of sight (for here the question of survival is above all a matter of seeing and being seen), it appears likely that in this instance too (much as I said before à propos Bergson) Darwin was mitgedacht – an affiliation which shimmers through even more when Nietzsche stressed that this “Atmosphäre” represented one of the conditions for the flourishing but also for the propagation of anything that lives: wenn man ihm diese Hülle nimmt, wenn man eine Religion, eine Kunst, ein Genie verurtheilt, als Gestirn ohne Atmosphäre zu kreisen: so soll man sich über das schnelle Verdorren, Hart- und Unfruchtbarwerden nicht mehr wundern.

* Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, ii: Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben, 7

Desiccation, hardness, and sterility: Nietzsche’s diagnosis would apply not only to the organisms or creatures who for want of such “atmosphere” have begun to scrutinise and to be scrutinised beyond the limits prescribed for them by their respective pre-⁠histories (here I shall leave to one side his sense of the way in which this “atmosphere” itself evaporates under the ever more searching stare of scrutiny during the modern age), but also to the material environment, which would grow increasingly inhospitable in its absence.

All is not lost at this point, however, for the human ear, so obviously different in its mode of operation, that is, in its scope, acuity, and circumperceptivity, than its counterpart the eye, is likewise not so exclusively restricted to the atmosphere – however literally or figuratively one takes this term – as its sole possible medium: this is as evident, fortunately, as the fact that solid things too may transmit sound; but what’s of most interest to me here, is the chance that the sense of hearing could prove a better guide than sight in the midst of the incipient guidance-⁠free zone which “the Anthropocene” has yet to fully unfold.

Listening to the third and last of the tracks on Huysmans’ EP, “Oligotroph,” I suspect that this possibility interests him likewise, for here we are jolted suddenly from a laboratory of Frankenstein to – to where, exactly? In this composition (as it registers in my ears) we’re given to hear sounds within a thin perimeter beyond which one has a sombre feeling that there’s nothing but a void traversed by bursts of radiation and the blinding flashes of light that appear suddenly, emitted over immense distances of time and space by stars without atmosphere; it seems plausible therefore to say that the scene has shifted to an enterprise of human exploration of outer space – a vastness which surely qualifies as an extreme environment, where the margin of error for ill-⁠advised actions is almost nil, and in the midst of which, moreover, the explorers in their capsule are bereft of nearly all assurance that somehow, in some manner, the surroundings will encourage them in advance to desist if need be.

What the explorers do have to rely on, one imagines, are control-⁠panels of electronics and computers and communication devices – a range of equipment bearing some likeness to what is currently available to the professionals in the sound studios around the planet; and so, towards the interstellar ending of Huysmans’ eerie EP, one comes to wonder whether music such as this, in opening our ears to what is perhaps now first announcing itself all around us, may be unfolding before anyone who cares to listen hard a sonic-⁠schematic map of our near future? – a minimal one, surely, and no replacement for nature’s age-⁠old guidance, but a map all the same.