Environmental Humanities on the Brink
The Vanitas Hypothesis
Vincent Bruyere



Of Skulls and Shells

The Anthropocene stands for many things. Some are as tangible as the plastiglomerates identified in 2014 on the beaches of Hawaii as a geological marker composed of melted plastic, sediments, basaltic lava fragments, and organic debris.1 And others, as intangible as a “scalar shift from the subject to the species [that] could make history a largely irrelevant pursuit.”2 For now—maybe not for long—the Anthropocene exists as a proposal to recognize the human species as a geological agent. It is at once a slice of geological time whose official existence rests in the hands of the subcommittee of Quaternary stratigraphy and an ongoing conversation about the contours of a present that one day will be legible as an age of mass extinction. Much of this conversation tends to revolve around neologisms: Thermocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Phagocene, and so on. There seems to be no end to the list of “cenes” (from the Greek kainos, which designates something new, recent, unprecedented).3 Each coinage contends with evidence that something of historical proportion is happening, while pointing in the direction of an emerging planetary archive to be reckoned with: global temperature charts, generalized social failure, crop monocultures, and sprawling landfills. It is at once a conversation that may be too political for the International Commission on Stratigraphy and yet not political enough for those who express wariness toward the generalizing focus on Anthropos as species.

This book is part of a related conversation about the foundations and the future of humanistic inquiry in the context of what geochemist Paul Crutzen has called the “geology of mankind.” The Anthropocene hypothesis offers a picture big enough to absorb and digest all the other pictures of the world, leaving nothing behind but a more or less sedimented deposit. That deposit may indeed be of interest to geologists of the future, who will find in it evidence that something of geological importance occurred at some point in time—or evidence to the contrary—but not so interesting to those of us stuck in the meantime, waiting for the grand flattening that will eventually turn millennia of civilizational record into compacted dust. The Vanitas hypothesis is my response to that state of affairs.

A vanitas image is the pictorial equivalent of an open landfill where heaps of meaningless and yet valuable things are laid to rest along with the worldly values attached to them for everyone to see. It is a mode of depositing value that turns displayed riches into a layer of stuff. Vanitas images downplay the attachment to the worldliness of the world by depicting, not necessarily the transience of life, as it is often said, but the emptiness and fragility of cluttered things turned into motifs (skulls, bubbles, tobacco, musical instruments, withering flowers, moldy books, etc.). Like the Anthropocene hypothesis in that regard, a vanitas image threatens the historical and visual record with indifference, but unlike geological projections it is designed to pay tribute to the day-to-day erasure of the world.

In the rigorist view, Rosalie Colie remarks, any image is a vanitas because the promises of images are empty as a matter of ontological principle. Some images are simply more intentional about their vanitates status.4 In still-life paintings of the vanitas variety, the soft tissues that make up the world of portraiture and historical scenes have given way to dazzling displays of mineral remains that continue to exist independently from their past owners: seashells and pearl necklaces, glazed ceramics and glassware, coins and clay pipes, the sand in an hourglass, and, of course, human skulls. This reversed correspondence between genres finds an echo in the historiographical tradition that situates the inception of still life in the margins of more ambitious compositions: as an arrangement of fruits, nuts, knife, and wine on a windowsill in Joos van Cleve’s Holy Family, at the Metropolitan Museum (1512–13), or as a partially dismantled human skull painted on the back of the portrait of Margaretha von Mochau (formerly identified as Gertraude von Leutz) by Barthel Bruyn the Elder at the Kröller-Müller Museum (1524).5 While the portrait side of Bruyn’s painting faces the world and seeks out recognition, the hidden vanitas faces the blind surface of the wall like bony remains in the sealed shell of a sarcophagus. Because of the reversible logic of the panel the likeness of the sitter (on the recto) is an image of life always already inhabited by death on the verso.

Janus-faced and split-faced ivory pendants from early modern Germany offer a three-dimensional rendition of the same play between portraiture and vanitas.6 One side of the pendant is still enfleshed, while the other is peeled away to reveal the skeletal structure underneath the facial shell of likeness. In these last two examples, vanitas is less an image—whether painted or carved—than a frame, that is, a mode of drawing lines between parts and wholes, recto and verso, face and skull, skull and shell. It designates the gesture of holding an image together while pointing at its fragile integrity. This means that the historical identity of the vanitas image is not necessarily in the repetition of a recognizable motif, skull, or shell but in the effort deployed by the image itself to both frame and query its avowed ontological slipperiness as a sign and a thing.

Today, environmental archaeologists entrust the ontological slipperiness that defines objects in their field to a notional distinction between artifact, “a relic of human manipulation of the material world,” and ecofact, “a relic of other-than-human engagement with matter, climate, weather, biology.”7 In that sense, the skull in vanitas painting is both an artifact—an image of death—and an ecofact—the by-product of organic decay. The early modern allegorical tradition relies on a different set of oppositions. “In allegory,” Walter Benjamin writes, “the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. History, in everything untimely, sorrowful, and miscarried that belongs to it from the beginning, is inscribed in a face—no, in a death’s head.”8 The hesitation between “face” (Antlitz) and “death’s head” (Totenkopf) should give us pause. “Skull” (Schädel) is perhaps too anatomical to be part of the picture being painted by the Trauerspiel. And yet, we are told that allegory (by opposition to the symbol) confronts us to “the facies hippocratica of history.” In medicine, the Hippocratic face describes the livid appearance of terminal patients. It inscribes the slippery moment when what’s left of the tissues that once composed a face lends some expression, as if by transparency, to an underlying skeletal structure, which would remain otherwise expressionless.

The anamorphic skull stretched out diagonally across the tiled floor in Holbein’s Ambassadors (1533) has been the object of extended scrutiny. In this paradigmatic example, it is the stretching of a form rather than the stretching of the skin that lends expression to the skeletal structure concealed in the painting. Here the Totenkopf is expressed in a different optical register than the rest of the painting. The anamorphic skull stretched vertically across a prognostic chart by the gravitational pull of mortality statistics in François Colos’s collage is certainly not as famous even though the article it illustrates has achieved the status of a classic in the literature on cancer survivorship.9 In the right tail of the curve, a shielded warrior defies the negative odds materialized by the looming skull crowned with a plume of mannerist smoke. Although he is on his knees, the shielded figure stands for hope in the face of glib statistical prospects confronting him (half of the patients diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma will die within eight months). Borrowing from the visual language of seventeenth-century vanitas, Colos’s illustration reinstates an allegorical difference between life and death in a space where bodies are made interchangeable by statistical aggregation. If statistical aggregation is a mode of depositing bodies and abstractions, a vanitas is a strange visual algorithm that solicits the totality of existence (“everything is vanity”; Ecclesiastes 12:8) while depositing all claims to it (everything is vanity). In a lecture he delivered in 1940, art historian Erwin Panofsky explained, “Man’s signs and structures are records because, or rather in so far as, they express ideas separated from, yet realized by, the process of signaling and building. These records have therefore the quality of emerging from the stream of time, and it is precisely in this respect that they are studied by the humanist.”10 Doubling down on the question of why we should be interested in the past, he offers a more suggestive answer laced with the language of vanitas and transience: “Because we are interested in reality. There is nothing less real than the present. An hour ago, this lecture belonged to the future. In four minutes, it will belong to the past. . . . To grasp reality we have to detach ourselves from the present.” The humanities do this, he explains, not by “arresting what otherwise would slip away, but [by] enlivening what otherwise would remain dead.”11 To enliven means connecting monuments and documents with each other to form an “organic” system where its constitutive parts owe their existence to an idea of the whole as a category, and in turn the very idea of the whole is made up of constitutive parts whose historical existence awaits qualification by a bigger picture to which students of the historical record can contribute to form and amend. The Anthropocene hypothesis is but a version of that “big picture,” but it is one that for better or worse originates from outside what has been understood as the humanistic domain of operation. Better, when it encourages scholars to diversify their historicist portfolios. Or worse, each time it leaves humanistic inquiry vulnerable to unsympathetic takeovers.

Figure 1. Colos, “The Median Isn’t the Message,” 41.

The life of monuments and documents Panofsky has in mind is a conceit that grasps at a void by entertaining the fantasy that objects having emerged “from the stream of time” are entirely made by us and for us, the living, as if they were not meant to survive their makers, beholders, and interpreters. Organic life is the trope that for centuries has allowed humanists to lay claim to the historical existence of artifacts and to the distinction between animal and human remains (and in an expanded temporal field that Panofsky does not seem to consider, between historical and geological remains).12 But it is a trope that is losing much of its metaphorical currency to the post-humanist rediscovery that “the notion of human exceptionalism was a lie and that in truth there is one life in which all the features that had once marked the human—knowledge, emotion, linguistic capacity, altruism, mind and community—are in fact present in all life.”13 Likewise, humanistic inquiry seems to be losing its edge in a context of ecocidal urgency.

Here is the dilemma facing environmental humanists. On the one hand, and as scholars, they take all the time they need to value the historical record while acknowledging, on the other, that time is running out. Most of the time, however, calls to act on this knowledge and to prioritize what’s left to be done over what has already happened are another way to declare the irrelevance of humanistic logics of inquiry: the Anthropocene present is not a time to indulge in interpretive niceties. There is simply no time for the ambiguities of figurative language. It is high time for a quantitative turn toward facts and data. Anything else, anything less than a full commitment to the urgency of the situation is complicit with wanton ecocide and denial.

Take the following example. Pteropods are very common planktonic sea snails that occupy a key position in the ocean food chain. A lot is at stake in the fate of these sentinel organisms. Because of their sensitivity to ocean acidification and because of the carbon-sinking capacity of their fragile shells, they have the attention of marine biologists studying the effects of climate change. The stakes of their afterlives in visual culture have been the object of Stacy Alaimo’s attention too. As a cultural theorist she sees in dissolving images of dissolving pteropods the promise of an immersive relation to environmental degradation and, thus, an alternative to the views from above that crowd Anthropocene visual culture. At some point in her argument, however, Alaimo steps aside to reconsider its investment in the power of an image to touch a public and alter its attitude toward ecotoxicity. Another thought crossed her mind: “The problem . . . is that contemplative or psychedelic practices have an association, in Western culture at least, with a navel-gazing, spiritual transcendence—the exact opposite of the sort of materially immersed subjectivity I think is necessary for environmentalism.” In the end, an image of dissolve courting an incipient environmental consciousness is “useless in terms of social justice and climate justice.”14 In itself this episodic admission of inadequacy is not pointless. It is propositional.

We know from lyric poetry that the trope of inadequacy can be an expression of a disappointed desire. Alaimo’s feeling for the uselessness of an exquisite image internalizes a widespread disinvestment in the value of humanistic inquiry. What if my investment in the visual promises of an image that could transform my relation to a world under erasure were as empty as the shell at its center? Why bother with climate justice if my engagement with the transformative value of the signifier leads nowhere and yields nothing? Why fund environmental humanities when toxic remediation or bioengineering could use more funding? The propositional and pedagogical dimension of that particular form of disappointment is what I designate by the Vanitas hypothesis.

Claims to historical continuity between baroque allegories of transience and marine biology are not what’s up for debate in the previous example. The point is not to make the time-lapse image of pteropod shells dissolving in acidic seawater more useful or less useless by calling it a vanitas, as if this were enough to substantiate the tenuous value of environmental claims issuing from humanistic inquiry. It is to recognize the volatility of the situation in which the claims of an image (or a text for that matter) to the world are understood to exist. Dutch still-life painting, in Norman Bryson’s argument, flourished during a period of transition between two modes of accumulating and spending: from a model of dealing with surplus mostly governed by seasonality and one in which surplus wealth called for new regulatory mechanisms.15 Still life is a site where historically the value and valuation of images, that is, the transfer of value, moral or otherwise, from things represented, whether humble or ostentatious, to the images that represent them—and vice versa—has been debated and experimented with. Calling a still life vanitas is to call out what’s unwarranted in it and about it. It is to divest oneself from the moral failings of representation in general. But it is also a way to reinvest meaning in an image that loves the “so what?”16 Still lifes are not really interested in telling a story and are entirely unafraid to do away with the human form along with the idea of a world revolving around the human form.

The Vanitas hypothesis is less about vanitas as object of inquiry located in a time and a place than about the feeling for a disappointing relation to images and other representations of the world. It is a feeling whose admission to pointlessness constitutes an ecocritical achievement in the Anthropocene present even though from the vantage point of a socially committed environmentalism the vanitas image is a bad object.17 Yes, the glimpse that the Vanitas hypothesis affords at a world of reflexive pointlessness will seem at odds with the urgency of our Anthropocenic predicament. But that too—the feeling that there is too much to lose in this very moment of ecopolitical precarity—is an affective marker and, as such, a marker of the present, whether or not you want to call it the Anthropocene present.18 The Anthropocene may be the geological age of humankind and an age of intensified environmental degradation, but from the perspective of the Vanitas hypothesis it might just as well be an age of indifference toward the life and death of texts and images and, by extension, toward the value of humanistic inquiry.

Now, some say, is not a good time for theory. For the time being, experiments in pointlessness will have to wait or remain suspended until further notice. This sentiment and the retreat from a formalist commitment to the life of representations and from the study of nonreferential language that it signifies amount to what Claire Colebrook has described as the triumph of nonnegotiable facts.19 In this post-theoretical state of affairs, the turn toward new realisms, such as Earth system realism and deep time realism, leaves ecocriticism very little to work with: “Science yields facts while the humanities trade in the effects and packaging of those facts.”20 And so environmental humanists trade facts for representations or representations for facts in an effort to make the study of representation more relevant, to catch up with the present in a move that belies the anachronism of literary studies in the research university.21

The ecocriticism that either resists or queries the straightforwardness of these transactions to better dwell with wayward figures could be described as ecocriticism in a minor key. The Vanitas hypothesis plays along these lines by harnessing “the aesthetic energies of close reading” and seeking out the volatility of representations.22 It accounts for the fact that texts, images, and, more broadly, artifacts do not exist in time outside the scenes, scripts, and scenarios that invest them with prospects of continuity and stability. The result is an ecocritical experiment in being stuck with a past that stays with us in its obsolescence, sometimes its toxicity. Stuck doesn’t mean indifferent.

This unorthodox approach to ecocriticism is likely to be greeted with some resistance, in great part because of its concerted move away from the promise of representation and continuity that the idea of precedence affords (in the form of environmental memories, for instance, as I explain in Chapter 2). When artists, writers, and scholars in humanistic fields are invited to have a seat at the table where environmental concerns are raised, debated, and policed, it is usually on the assumption that they have what it takes either to amplify calls for action or foster long-term thinking. Instead, this book invests in a future where early modern memories of the world deposited in allegorical engravings, still-life paintings, landscape paintings, chronicles, fairy tales, and lyrical fragments will continue to invite our attention, even when a scalar shift from the subject to the species will have made history an irrelevant project—to paraphrase Stephanie LeMenager. To be clear, the point is not to salvage these memories before they are all gone. It is to refine our understanding of what is entailed by their erasure in the Anthropocene present, including nondestructive forms of erasure that make a corpus of texts and image irrelevant, unrelatable, untimely, and out of step. It is precisely that feeling for quieter forms of destruction going unnoticed in the midst of the spectacular negative projections that saturates the Anthropocene present that the Vanitas hypothesis seeks to recapture.

From that statement, the reader will deduce that the Vanitas hypothesis is not a solution to ecopolitical impasse, only a source of non-indifference toward historical texts and objects that are neither entirely relevant to the representation of our planetary concerns nor entirely disposable. It is only an interpretive scenario in which the failure of an image to deliver on an impossible promise to undo, or simply correct itself, is not reason enough to rescind the initial investment in it and ditch representations for facts—even with the knowledge that facts are representations that have achieved a certain degree of stability.

In the realm of early modern vanitas images, the expression of contempt for the worldliness of the world doesn’t have to be incompatible with a loving investment in the naturalistic reproduction of the very object of contempt. In seventeenth-century Europe, for instance, seashells are both exotic naturalia treasured by wealthy collectors and objects of moral contempt indicted by emblem books as yet another example of vain pursuits.23 As such, valuable specimens are certainly not out of place in a tableau of discarded riches indicting the worldliness of the world and nacreous whorls.24 But if seashells are in their pictorial element with vanitas painting, it is also because their spiraled intricacies solicit the kind of dazzling realism that only a still-life painting can offer. Svetlana Alpers understands the mimetic achievements that characterize seventeenth-century Dutch painting as an aesthetic informed by scientific discourse and discoveries. For her—contra Roland Barthes’s observations on Dutch painting and its world of wares—still lifes do not display objects “for use, or as a result of it, but for the attentive eye.”25 If the exquisite image of the shell stands for something, it is first for an attentiveness toward a world exposed to the same inquisitive gaze that cuts into fruits, cheeses, and bursting pies; looks into toppled cups; and cracks open walnuts to reveal the cerebral structure of the meat within the shell in a miniaturized forensic ritual of sorts.

There are visual circumstances in which the rotating views of the same object, or same class of objects (walnut, glasses, seashells, etc.), afford fuller access to the object represented, and others yield opposite outcomes. In five of the still lifes painted by Sebastian Stoskopff, the aggregate of glasses, some intact and others damaged, composes a crystalline bouquet, sometimes surrounded with shards of glass by way of fallen petals.26 Stoskopff’s glasses are artifacts aspiring to ecofactuality. His glasses are unmistakably glasses, and glasses of the finest craft, but they are arranged in such a way that they become almost floral. The number of cups that the composition manages to cram into a basket implies sociality. In a sense, there is no surface more social than a table laden with glasses. And yet the attention to transparency seems less convivial than elemental, or even phenomenological—very much in line with the constitution of a visual field where “wood is shaped, paper curled, stone is carved, pearls polished and strung, cloth is draped, . . . metal is imprinted . . . fashioned . . . sharpened, . . . turned . . . or molded.”27

Stoskopff’s rendition of transparency is an elegy to glass. However, unlike the glass elegy composed by Pierre de Ronsard in 1555, it has shed its lyrical trappings.28 His bouquet of cups is no longer the instrument of gathering and quenched thirst but a burst of transparency that lets light and darkness through but resists Ronsard’s insisting apostrophes (“O joly verre . . . Verre joly . . . Toi qui . . . Toi qui . . . Toi qui”). In Stoskopff’s still life, the poet and the painters may have claim to the glass, both the object and the substance, through its representation in verses and in painting, but their transparency is not theirs and will never be. So much then for the fantasy of a world entirely within reach and fully humanized. In “The World as Object” (1953), Barthes explains that still-life painting in the Low Countries belongs to a postmedieval world made of tangible things and made tangible by the things it depicts as either consumed or consumable.29 The essay is essentially a meditation on what it meant for the Dutch painters to imagine themselves as if they were, in Descartes’s dictum, “the lords and masters of nature” and as if painting were one of the “devices which would facilitate [their] enjoyment of the fruits of the earth and all the goods we find there.”30 In it, Barthes seems disinclined to engage with the omnipresence of vanitas motifs as if the focus on the ontological and stylistic emptiness of the objects populating still lifes was enough. He doesn’t engage either with the seashell motif—with the exception of the less mysterious shucked oysters. Is it because the usefulness of the shell eludes human interest? The shell provides an inside in which to take refuge, but the mineral interiority it offers will likely seem too baffling for modern subjectivity to feel at home in it, even when nautilus shells are carved and mounted to become a contrived sea chalice. It remains undomesticated.31 In a visual field where everything can be accessed as a surface, the shell, whether it is made of wood, metal, glass, or calcium carbonate, is both an opened form and a form with an opening. Nested between coins and the coils of a pearl necklace, a pocket timepiece in Adriaen van Utrecht’s Vanitas Still Life with Flowers and Skull opens like a clam.32 The books displayed next to a skull and a precious seashell in Harmen Steenwyck’s vanitas at the Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden become by contamination shell structures emptied of their legible content.

Figure 2. Sébastien Stoskopff, Corbeilles de verres (1644). Oil on canvas, 52 × 63 cm. Strasbourg, Musée de l’œuvre Notre Dame de Strasbourg. Photo Musées de Strasbourg: M. Bertola.

In Barthes’s essay, Dutch painting occupies a liminal position. It is both inside historical time and on the precipice of something else that is yet to be named: it was once a new development in the history of representation (“where once the Virgin presided over ranks of angels, man stands now, his feet upon the thousand objects of everyday life, triumphantly surrounded by his functions”) and at the same time a terminal projection in which humankind “know[s] no other fate than a gradual appropriation of matter. [There are] no limits to this humanization, and above all, no horizon.”33 On the other side of still-life history and in lieu of a temporal horizon, the horizontal untitled assemblages of plastic cups imagined by Tara Donovan (born in 1969) finds a past in Stoskopff’s baskets of glasses. Plastic cups have a future. In fact, their social and single-use life is but a small segment of a much longer useless elemental life as trash and pollutants. Our thirst and our celebratory gatherings are not their destiny. They have an existence of their own as a temporal mass that clogs the future. Their unwanted endurance is such that, to a certain extent, they are the future in the present. Whether they hang from the ceiling like a foamy cloud or rise from the floor like a translucent topographical membrane, Donovan’s installations are the allegorical counterparts of a plastic duration beyond sociality and conviviality. While still-life rendition of shells in seventeenth-century painting is born from the asymmetry between the exoskeletal function of the seashell and its afterlives as a delightful naturalia, her aggregates of cups occupy the asymmetry between object and usage in a world where the endurance of suffocating stuff is less mineral than plastic—and toxic (more on that in Chapter 3).34

This dialogue between objects that art historical categories and literary periods have kept separate is at the heart of an argument that favors experiments in temporal cohabitation between diverging temporalities. It is a way for me to explore what lies beyond the presentism of environmental humanities and the controversial assignation of a geological present to the age of humankind. It is also my way of confronting the role assigned to the study of the early modern past at a time where the Anthropocene hypothesis urges us to assign a role to nonhistorical time in the study of the past and field pressing questions: What are the narrative forms and other forms of durations that are available to us to feel historical in the Anthropocene present? How do we let a disjunctive temporality that projects both the erasure and the legibility of the historical record into the study of the historical record without destroying by the same account all interpretive efforts? What does it mean to remember the claims of early modern depictions of the world in a world where glaciology and geochemistry also “remember” the world, although in other terms and by different means? How do we keep on reading and bear with the work of representation in the light of extinction?

Following in the steps of Aranye Fradenburg and Carla Freccero’s search for an alternative ethics of history, what early modern stands for in this book is not indexed on the position of objects from the past in a time line where they tell the story of how we got where we think we are now (on the other side of modernity, in an impasse, on the cusp of something else, cautiously confident, or bitterly deflated) but a “zone wherein we can open ourselves to finitude, to new and rich relationalities.”35 The Vanitas hypothesis takes the risk of sourcing alternatives to indifference and erasure at the limit of the historical record, in places where historiography meets projection modeling (Chapter 1), climate time (Chapter 2), toxicology (Chapter 3), biodegradability (Chapter 4), Earth system science (Chapter 5), and tissue engineering (Chapter 6).

Each chapter finds its bearings through a series of stretching exercises that explore on a trial basis what it means for the Anthropocene hypothesis to create both conditions of obsolescence and flourishing for humanistic inquiry. Each presents a repertoire of gestures and concepts that have for centuries underwritten the recording of the world (as still life, landscape, allegory, travelogue, etc.) to the test of having to account—and to fail to account—for the unraveling of the world in the Anthropocene present. In this method, the past I have in mind is less an untapped source of wisdom than a reactive agent that strategically downplays the posthumous legibility that the Anthropocene hypothesis promises on the other side of time and probes the idea that only geological time can accommodate the legibility that a geology of humankind demands from the world. The resulting reactions are observed through the lens of a motif in the Anthropocene vanitas that I paint: Canvas, Debris, Toxics, Paper, Ark, Meat, and Light.

Chapter 1 locates a desire for non-indifference toward the historical record in an attempt to think differently about the omniscience of projection models that let the future into the present while generating as their by-product a past that never was and thus cannot be remembered. Thus, difference will be recovered in the form of memories of the world. That is, as projections from the past with temporal ambitions of their own—starting with a seventeenth-century canvas painted by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts to give the illusion that the image is about to peel away from the frame underneath and eventually self-destroy. The projections gallery also includes Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here; Steven Pacala and Robert Socolow’s stabilization wedges diagram paired with Alan Weisman’s ecocritical fantasy The World without Us and Balthasar van der Ast’s Still Life of Flowers, Fruit, Shells, and Insects; and Galle/Stradanus’s Allegory of America paired with the Orbis hypothesis.

Chapter 2 focuses on the notion of environmental memory, which I understand as a way of letting planetary time enter the historical record. Environmental memory hypothesizes that in its stillness landscape painting, for instance, bears witness to something it did not know it witnessed. If the belated negative knowledge that comes with this postulate can be retrieved as information by historians and ethnographers, it can also bring to the fore temporal relations and debris that will not be fully reabsorbed by environmental history but lend themselves to unanticipated interpretive articulations extending the reach of early modern landscapes—and icescapes—into the Anthropocene present.

Not all alternative ethics of history are life affirming. The emergent temporal relations Chapter 3 grapples with are mostly toxic. The toxicity it seeks to describe is at once chemical and affective, anecdotal and systemic, spectacular and hard to assess, forensic and fabulous, measurable in soils and bodies contaminated by a banned pesticide and deposited in their stories and the stories of other bodies before them. It is a toxicity whose future needs to be written by litigation and practices of environmental remediation, but whose past I reclaim in the early French Caribbean chronicles written by Jean-Baptiste Labat outside the purview of modern toxicology.

Vanitas painting has a thing for paper. It has an intuitive understanding of its medial properties as exoskeleton of knowledge, wealth, and sociality. Vanitas paper is at once a bearer of legible signs in the form of an opened folio, a notarized deed, a music sheet, or an almanac, and a foldable surface whose temporal existence is impenetrable to meaning—the rolled-up document in David Bailly’s Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols (ca. 1651) has the same mineral density as the clay pipe with which it is visually rhyming. In other words, it is at once a matter of interpretation and conservation. Interpretation and conservation are usually kept separate so as to let interpretive practices invest objects and stories with full confidence that they will be available to interpretation at any given future point in time. Chapter 4 turns to texts by Jean de Léry and François Rabelais that may not be so confident in matters of continuity and durability and recovers their lack of confidence as a mode of engagement with a different relation to the historical record and its medium. With this stretching exercise, I argue that it is not only possible but somewhat urgent in the Anthropocene present to consider what an old media—early print culture—has to say about a temporality of the trace that is not necessarily the one humanistic inquiry has traditionally envisioned in philological terms.

The ark of Chapter 5, arca in Latin, is at once a place of death in the form of a box large enough to bury a body—a coffin, for instance—and a place of refuge. It is also by creative contact with an oil painting by Isabella Kirkland in 2004, the shallow recess of a still-life painting dedicated to extinct species. The Ark motif solicits memories of fragility and thriving deposited in a fairy tale—Charles Perrault’s version of “Puss in Boots” (1697)—in an attempt to read the geoengineering manifesto behind the Pleistocene Park project in Siberia as an experiment in storytelling. The point is neither to aggrandize a fairy tale nor to belittle the ambition of a geoscientist. Rather, it is to challenge what it means for scholars of the premodern past to engage with ecology and environmental discourse as something other than a gateway to modernity for stranded knowledge retrieved just in time to achieve relevance and save the future.

Chapter 6 proposes to stage one more encounter between a twenty-first-century project and early modern objects to paint a still life with in vitro meat. IVM, also known as lab-grown meat, is a prospective source of animal proteins that looks like meat, has the potential to taste like meat, and is healthier and cleaner than meat (because it leaves out the messy parts). IVM is meat in every respect but for its memory of animal death. It is consumable flesh reduced to its protein structure. For now, IVM exists mostly as an image and is consumed as an image, or, on the occasion of highly mediatized taste tests, as a prototype. It projects a future in which meat could be consumed without afterthoughts, consumed like an image but outside the history of its representation. The ambition of this last chapter is to trade IVM claims to futurity for memories of painted flesh offered to image theory in the form of trompe l’oeil painting and Netherlandish still lifes featuring meat and butchered animals next to living counterparts.

Finally, a brief candlelit Epilogue brings the book to a flickering end by soliciting memories of extinction deposited in crepuscular tableaus painted by French Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard. Again, the unity between this wide-ranging collection of verbal and visual objects is not located in the past where early modern sources and their claims to the world originate (and are destined by history to return eventually) but in the present in which they survive as cultural objects rather than as statements about Nature (and the nature of things, the toxic nature of certain relations, the temporal nature of a landscape, etc.). Remembering the world through them in the Anthropocene present is not an inconsequential gesture. It is a recognition that the forms and narrative and visual forms deployed by environmental activists, glaciologists, geoengineers, and tissue engineers to reinvest a world on the brink with a sense of continuity have created conditions in which to engage anew conventional modes of relating the world to its representations. It is these conditions that the formulation of a Vanitas hypothesis sets out to explore.


1. Corcoran, Moore, and Jazvac, “An Anthropogenic Marker Horizon,” 4–8.

2. LeMenager, “Humanities after the Anthropocene,” 473.

3. Steven Mentz lists and explains twenty-four neologisms in a chapter of Break Up the Anthropocene appropriately titled “The Neologismcene.”

4. Rosalie Colie, “Still Life: Paradoxes of Being,” in Paradoxia Epidemica, 274.

5. Stoichita, The Self-Aware Image, 21.

6. See objects from the Pierre Berger collection in Tapié, Vanité, 89–91.

7. DeSilvey, Curated Decay, 28.

8. Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 174.

9. Gould, “The Median Isn’t the Message,” 40–42.

10. Erwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline,” in Meaning in the Visual Arts, 25.

11. Panofsky, “History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline,” 23–24.

12. Panofsky relays a Kantian understanding of the humanities as a relationship to traces. In the appendix of The Critique of Judgment, “On the Methodical Doctrine of Taste,” Kant explains that the Humanities (Humaniora) are called humanities “presumably because humanity signifies on the one hand the universal feeling of taking part (Teilnehmungsgefühl), and on the other, the power of being able to impart oneself (mitteilen) in the most inward and universal manner; which properties in combination comprise the sociability of human beings, by which they distinguish themselves from the limited character of animality.” Cited in Weber, Institution and Interpretation, 143. Panofsky chimes in with the beaver example: They “build dams. But they are unable, so far as we know, to separate the very complicated actions involved from a premeditated plan which might be laid down in a drawing instead of being materialized in logs and stones.” “History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline,” 5.

13. Colebrook, Extinction.

14. Stacy Alaimo, “Your Shell on Acid: Material Immersion, Anthropocene Dissolves,” in Exposed, 166.

15. Bryson, “Abundance,” 96–135.

16. Bryson, “Chardin and the Text of Still Life,” 228. In Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age, Julie Hochstrasser puts a different spin on the vanitas effect by reconstituting the hidden human cost extolled by the valuables represented in still-life painting.

17. Focusing less on the admission of pointlessness and more on the stark visualization of transience it affords, vanitas painting is for Victoria Herrmann—president of the Arctic Institute in Washington, D.C.—the “unconventional aesthetic intersection” between two visual memories of September 2007, The Age of Rembrandt exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and renderings of a dramatic loss of Arctic sea-ice loss seen from space. Herrmann, “Arctic Vanitas.”

18. Here I adopt Lauren Berlant’s central claim in Cruel Optimism that “the present is perceived, first, affectively: the present is what makes itself present to us before it becomes anything else, such as an orchestrated collective event or an epoch on which we can look back” (4). In Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton offers a theologico-political variation on the vanitas hypothesis: “The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars. . . . It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, turning off the air conditioning, or signing a treaty. The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead” (23).

19. Cohen, Colebrook, and Miller, Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols, 94.

20. Colebrook, Extinction.

21. See Paulson, The Noise of Culture, ix: “The study of literature can . . . be seen as a survivor of an earlier intellectual mode in which all study was essentially the study of texts, in which the written word was unquestionably taken to be a reservoir of knowledge. The discussion of literature’s status as object or reservoir of knowledge, the attempt to bring insights from scientific disciplines to bear on cultural questions—these cannot be understood without reference to the history of literature’s place in an increasingly divided world of knowledge.” On the critical trading between representations and facts in ecocriticism, see Nersessian, “Literary Agnotology,” 355.

22. Freed-Thall, “Thinking Small,” 229. For other compelling examples of ecocriticism in a minor key, see Anne-Lise François, “Chastity Belt for Trees,” in Open Secrets, 34–38; Ronda, Remainders; and Nersessian, The Calamity Form.

23. Bergstrom, Dutch Still-Life Painting, 15.

24. On the whorled shell as image of the world in the baroque tradition, see Leonhard, “Shell Collecting,” 1:182.

25. Alpers, The Art of Describing, 95.

26. Corbeilles de verres et pâté (ca. 1630–1640), oil on canvas, 50 × 64 cm, Strasbourg: Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame; Corbeilles de verres (1644), oil on canvas, 52 × 63 cm, Strasbourg: Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame; Corbeille de verres (1644), oil on wood, 49 × 60.3 cm, private collection; Corbeille de verres et pièces d’orfévrerie (ca. 1650), oil on canvas, Karlsruhe: Staatliche Kunsthalle; Nature morte à la corbeille de verres et aux bouteilles (after 1640), oil on canvas, 122 × 99 cm, Berlin: Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz. See Sébastien Stoskopff 1597–1657.

27. Alpers, The Art of Describing, 103.

28. Ronsard, “Elegie du verre,” 165–171.

29. Barthes, “The World as Object,” 3–4.

30. Descartes, Discours de la méthode, 192. On the Cartesianism of still-life Dutch painting and the Dutchness of Cartesianism, see Martin, “Bubbles and Skulls,” 559–584.

31. On the enigmatic interiority of seashells in “shell-life” painting, see Bass, “Shell Life,” 87–93.

32. Adriaen van Utrecht, Still Life with Bouquet and Skull (ca. 1642), oil on canvas, 26.3 × 33.8 in., private collection.

33. Barthes, “The World as Object,” 3–4. On the absence of horizon in still life, see Grootenboer, The Rhetoric of Perspective, 76–80. Barthes’s later work on non-appropriative forms of knowledge has recently been the object of an ecocritical reassessment—by Freed-Thall, for instance. It is worth noting in that regard the concerns for appropriative aesthetics in “The World as Object.” Environmental Humanities on the Brink extends this reassessment to the work of other literary and cultural critics from Barthes’s generation such as Louis Marin, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel de Certeau, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.

34. For another reading of Donovan’s plastic cup installations, see Morton, Hyperobjects, 114.

35. Fradenburg, “So That We May Speak of Them,” 215–216. See also Fradenburg and Freccero, “The Pleasure of History,” 371–384. Another source of inspiration for the dialogue between modern and early modern visual culture is Knight Powell, Depositions.