This article was written on 18 Jun 2015, and is filled under New Ecologies, Performance.

Numeracy and the Survival of Worlds

Photograph reproduced with permission courtesy of SLUB Dresden / Deutsche Fotothek / Fritz Eschen.

Photograph reproduced with permission courtesy of SLUB Dresden / Deutsche Fotothek / Fritz Eschen.

My post today includes the writing of two guests: Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, whose long-awaited Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies went live today. Scroll down for “Numeracy and the Survival of Worlds,” an excerpt from their introduction to the volume, “Art & Death.”

For those of us not among the select few to receive an invitation to participate in The Breakthrough Institute’s recent closed-door and agenda-driven dialogue on “The Good Anthropocene,” the occasion of the publication of Art in the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press) should be more than a small consolation. (That’s a huge understatement; check the table of contents.) Over four-hundred pages of open-access essays, conversations, projects, and poetry will radically expand the scope of the dialogue: this is the good, the bad, and the ugly Anthropocene. As the editors write,

We certainly didn’t set out to contain the discourse of the Anthropocene, nor is it not our intention to exhaust the potential lines of flight it provokes; the book is an intellectually dissipative structure, operating as a conceptual centrifuge for further speculation and future action.

As the Anthropocene imaginaries continue to go feral, it is no coincidence that some of its most compelling articulations are emerging in conjunction with the rise in open access publications of the #radicalOA ilk. For the Anthropocene is a period of open materials: open geology, open biology, open climate. By the time that the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy decides to formalize (or not formalize) a name for a new geological epoch, it will have mutated into many different forms, a number of which are collected in this volume, from Donna Haraway’s Lovecraft-inspired Cthulucene to Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr’s #misanthropocene. Regardless of the title given to this new historical understanding, keeping these discussions and imaginaries in play, without agenda (for the moment at least), is most crucial. And perhaps no book yet has done more in this direction than Art in the Anthropcene.

In the following excerpt from their introduction, “Numeracy and the Survival of Worlds,” editors Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin consider the problem of numeracy in a time of ecological emergency, by which they mean “the seemingly endless flow of numbers within the hyper-mediated spectacle of terminal capitalism.” What does 350 ppm of atmospheric C02 mean? 400 ppm? What sea level rise will an average global temperature rise of one degree Celsius trigger? Five degrees? How many billions of climate refugees will this create? What biodiversity loss will constitute The Sixth Extinction? The question of survival of life on the planet must begin from the standpoint of our collective innumeracy. And the urgent need, for any movement of social emancipation, to become numerate. In dialogue with the writings of Shiv Visvanathan and The Invisible Committee, Davis and Turpin conclude with a question:

What world does this scientifically supported numeracy of revolt encounter among allied epistemologies and diverse insurrectionaries; and, perhaps most importantly, what worlds does it imagine?

Numeracy, they propose, is a way of encountering epistemological diversity rather than a reductive means to foreclose it. And in the celebration of epistemological diversity, and its underpinnings in open access, the following is an excerpt from their “Art & Death: Lives Between the Fifth Assessment & the Sixth Extinction.” More information on the volume (as well as its predecessor Architecture in the Anthropocene) is available here:

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Numeracy and the Survival of Worlds

One two three four five six seven eight nine
What I use in the battle for the mind. —Chuck D [1]

 Within the global political economy, numeracy has become an increasingly valuable form of knowledge. We don’t only mean the vicissitudes of the stock market, the parameters of predatory algorithms, or the veracity of the latest polls within our failing democracies; in fact, these representations don’t matter so much in the Anthropocene. Instead, we mean the seemingly endless flow of numbers within the hyper-mediated spectacle of terminal capitalism: 400 PPM of atmospheric CO2. Seven billion people. “One in eight birds, one in four mammals, one in five invertebrates, one in three amphibians, and half of all turtles facing extinction.”[2] Consuming 400+ years of planetary biomass per day as fossil fuel. The future, too, is also increasingly represented as a long string of numbers: a global temperature rise of plus or minus two degrees Celsius, or plus or minus three degrees Celsius, or plus or minus six degrees Celsius, by 2100. Or 2050. An ice-free Arctic in the next ten years, maybe as soon as 2020. We also mean historical numbers as the means to anticipate the future of the Earth System: “The long-term sea level that corresponds to current CO2 concentration is about twenty-three metres above today’s levels, and the temperatures will be six degrees Celsius or more higher. These estimates are based on real long-term climate records, not on models.” [3] And: “This planet has not experienced an ice-free Arctic for at least the last three million years.”[4]

In their recent book, To Our Friends, The Invisible Committee condemns these numbers, along with the hubris of the Anthropocene, writing:

At the apex of his insanity, Man has even proclaimed himself a “geological force,” going so far as to give the name of his species to a phase of the life of the planet: he’s taken to speaking of an “anthropocene.” For the last time, he assigns himself the main role, even if it’s to accuse himself of having trashed everything—the seas and the skies, the ground and what’s underground— even if it’s to confess his  guilt for the unprecedented extinction of plant and animal species. [5]

They continue emphatically: “But what’s remarkable is that he continues relating in the same disastrous manner to the disaster produced by his own disastrous rela- tionship with the world. He calculates the rate at which the ice pack is disappearing. He measures the extermination of the non-human forms of life.”[6] And, even more to the point, “He talks about it scientifically with numbers and averages. He thinks he’s saying something when he establishes that the temperature will rise by so many degrees and the precipitation will decrease by so many inches or millimeters. He even speaks of ‘biodiversity.’ He observes the rarefaction of life on earth from space.”[7] But who is this Man? Can we be so sure that the scientific study of climate change is a mode of excluding the “sensible experiences” of the birds, insects, and plants that confirm, at least to these authors, that changes are really happening?

Science is, at least in this depiction, a dissociated and all-too-abstract realm, igno- rant of the smell of the soil and the taste of the breeze; but will attacks on mere caricatures emancipate the misplaced assumptions of technoscientific culture? Science is maybe nothing more than the formalization of communities of sense experience, however expensive or technically sophisticated the extensions of sense that make these experimental experiences shareable.[8] From this perspective, it is not the construction of communities of shared calculation, measurement, and visualization that requires redress, but the modes of interaction among other communities of sense, both human and non-human.[9] As Lindsay Bremner makes clear in this volume, the technologies of uncertainty that characterize contempo- rary technoscientific culture are caught up in what Karin Knorr Cetina has called a “synthetic situation.” For Bremner, what is vital to understand about the failed search for the missing Malaysian Airways Flight MH370 is that it reveals the limit condition of contemporary human knowledge. Gloria Meynen identifies this “prob- lem [as] based in multiple translations: the world simply cannot be incorporated.”[10] Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix of MAP Office also consider the role of in- visible territories in shaping knowledge and sensation through a series of projects documented in this collection. Meanwhile, Karolina Sobecka traces the contours of a Borgesian paradox at the heart of scientific observation: perhaps we only really “see” what we are paying close attention to, yet we are frequently subject to inattentional blindness. How do we address these subjective, affective structures of perception that pattern and animate scientific objectivity? In our conversation with Peter Galison, we also discuss the technologies of the self that reformat the very concept of subjectivity, the very possibility of knowing oneself. To dismiss these technoscientific modes of co-producing selfhood, an agenda put forward by Martin Heidegger, forecloses any attempt to think through the implications of the massive technological transformations that characterize the macro and micro scales of the Anthropocene. Thus, like Smudge Studio, who propose a new series of specifications for design in the Anthropocene, we are interested in another line of engagement, one that doesn’t so easily dismiss science, protocols, or numbers, which are signs that can also enable a common language of mutual aid; with all due respect to our invisible comrades, then, we don’t want to give up our numbers so quickly.[11]

On the contrary, Shiv Visvanathan postulates that numeracy is a critical element of contemporary social emancipation.[12] In his remarkable essay on the scientist and engineer S.V. Seshadri, “Between Cosmology and System: The Heuristics of a Dissenting Imagination,” Visvanathan explores the relationship between energy and justice in the context of postcolonial India. His observations are especially valuable when trying to grasp the scale of the Anthropocene: “numeracy is the ability to see discrete entities in a connected whole or continuum. Those lacking in numeracy usually present two kinds of deficiencies. The first is the inability to see discreteness in continuity. The second is to see only discreteness and not to perceive the continuum at all. Both deficiencies can create survival problems in a developing society.”[13] Yet, he continues: “One must emphasize that innumeracy is not just a lack of arithmetic skill. It is a tacit knowledge, the awareness of a re- source limitation.”[14] Visvanathan describes “a feel for quantity and its allocation” as an absolute, essential survival skill “linked to time in a significant way. ‘Time is an essential constituent of numeracy, in fact time is the prime numeraire.’ This problem of time, science, and development constitutes one of the fundamental issues of exploitation.”[15] In this sense, not only is the epistemological element of numeracy critical for understanding resource depletion and its consequences, and not only does it allow for more considered and emancipatory social relationships, it is also a means to transform the very work of science, “to create a science that thought with its hands, a science that was more sexual and sensual, a science that was sensitive to suffering.”[16] Such an approach to numeracy unfolds as an ecology of knowledge practices, not technocratic administration; in this view, understanding numbers has a close affinity with struggle and a sensitivity to suffering.

Numeracy is thus a way of encountering epistemological diversity, not a reductive means to foreclose it. As Boaventura de Sousa Santos, João Arriscado Nunes, and Maria Paula Meneses write in their introduction to Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies, “The ecology of knowledges is an invitation to the promotion of non-relativistic dialogues among knowledges, granting ‘equality of opportunities’ to the different kinds of knowledge engaged in ever broader epis- temic disputes aimed both at maximizing their respective contributions to build a more democratic and just society and at decolonizing knowledge and power.”[17]

In this context, then, “Epistemological diversity is neither the simple reflection or epiphenomenon of ontological diversity or heterogeneity nor a range of culturally specific ways of expressing a fundamentally unified world. There is no essential or definitive way of describing, ordering, and classifying processes, entities, and relationships in the world. The very action of knowing, as pragmatist philosophers have repeatedly reminded us, is an intervention in the world, which places us within it as active contributors to its making.”[18] So it is that we might, in the end, agree with The Invisible Committee, who go on to propose that, instead of denigrating calculative reason and its multifarious numeracies, it might be of some value as a mode of engagement: “Obsessed as we are with a political idea of revolution, we have neglected its technical dimensions. A revolutionary perspective no longer focuses on an institutional reorganization of society but on the technological configurations of worlds.”
They continue:

In other words: we need to resume a meticulous effort of investigation. We need to go look in every sector, in all the territories we inhabit, for those who possess strategic technical knowledge. Only on this basis will the passion for experimenting towards another life be liberated, a largely technical passion that is the obverse, as it were, of everyone’s state of technological depen- dence. This process of knowledge accumulation, of establishing collusions in every domain, is a prerequisite for a serious and massive return of the revolutionary question.[19]

Once the posture of the revolutionary is overcome by the movements of her body in coordination with other bodies, times, and relationships, it is no longer a question of blaming numbers, scientists, or technical systems. In fact, among all the compet- ing scientific models attempting to describe the numeracy of the present and its probable trajectory—that is, the recognition of the limitations of continuity—we can even discover one call for open revolt.[20] In her discussion of Brad Werner’s presentation to the American Geophysical Union in 2012, “Is Earth Fucked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism,” Naomi Klein notes that among the various scenarios run in his model of complex system interaction, only one factor made enough of a difference to allow human life to continue given the direction of contemporary capitalism. Klein writes, “Werner termed it ‘resistance’—movements of ‘people or groups of people’ who ‘adopt a certain set of dynamics that [do] not fit within the capitalist culture.’ According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes ‘en- vironmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by Indigenous Peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups.’”[21] Similarly, in her “Minoritarian Manifesto for Re-occupying the Strata,” Kathryn Yusoff lists ten demands, the tenth of which asks us to “Rethink the revolutionary subject in the context of the earth.” [22] This task—of reimagining revolutionary subjectivization in the context of our geological reformation—is perhaps the most compelling and necessary of our current era. What world does this scientifically supported numeracy of revolt encounter among allied epistemologies and diverse insurrectionaries; and, perhaps most importantly, what worlds does it imagine?



[1] “Shut ’em Down,” Public Enemy, The Enemy Strikes Black (1991) [Album].

[2] Rachel Nuwer, “Extinction Rates Are Biased And Much Worse Than You Thought,” www.

[3] From a briefing document provided to the U.N. Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen (2009), quoted in Eric Zuesse, “Global Warming Is Rapidly Accelerating,” 31 December 2013,

[4] Evolutionary biologist Guy McPherson, quoted in Dahr Jamail, “Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” 22 December 2013,

[5] The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2015), 32.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 32–33.

[8] This modest conception of scientific inquiry has a strong affinity with McKenzie Wark’s persuasive reading of Alexander Bogdanov’s vision of science; see Wark, Molecular Red, 3–61.

[9] On experimental cultures in science, see the conversation with Peter Galison in this volume; see also Peter Galison, Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997), and Peter Galison, How Experiments End (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

[10] Gloria Meynen, “Think Small,” Grain, Vapor, Ray: Textures of the Anthropocene, ed. Katrin Klingan, Ashkan Sepahvand, Christoph Rosol, and Bernd M. Scherer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 64.

[11] See smudge studio (Jamie Kruse & Elizabeth Ellsworth) in this volume.

[12] This discussion of numeracy is completely indebted to the work of Visvanathan. See especially Shiv Visvanathan, “Between Cosmology and System: The Heuristics of Dissenting Imagination,” in Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies, ed. Boaventura de Sousa Santos (London and New York: Verso, 2008), 182–218; and Shiv Visvanathan, “From the Annals of the Laboratory State,” Alternatives 12 (1987): 37–59; a special thanks to Nabil Ahmed for sharing these works at an early stage of research for this book.

[13] Visvanathan, “Between Cosmology and System,” 213. 91

[14] Ibid., 214.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 190.

[17] Boaventura de Sousa Santos, João Arriscado Nunes, and Maria Paula Meneses, “Opening Up the Canon of Knowledge and Recognition of Difference,” in Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies, ed. Boaventura de Sousa Santos (London and New York: Verso, 2008), xx.

[18] Ibid., xxxi. On pragmatism, rationality, and art, see Giraud and Soulard in this volume.

[19] The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, 95.

[20] Ibid., 96.

[21] Naomi Klein, “How Science Is Telling Us All to Revolt,” New Statesman, 29 October 2013,; see also Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Kathryn Yusoff, “Project Anthropocene: A Minoritarian Manifesto for Reoccupying the Strata,” www.geocritique.


  1. Scott Sorli
    June 28, 2015

    Thanks for your excellent review. One small typo, in the spirit of numeracy, that I’m obliged to point out: It’s: Consuming 400+ years of planetary biomass per year, not day, as fossil fuel. Still incomprehensible except as a number.

    • Jason Groves
      July 30, 2015

      Thanks, Scott! I’ll look into this more and update the number.

  2. gestion e-reputation
    July 2, 2015

    Man claiming to be a geological force is a belief that can be found within all of us to some degree, we inherit it from our culture and surroundings. What a shock it will be to truly realize we are simply a byproduct of the earth. One degree hotter, one degree closer to the sun, and life as we know it is impossible. Destroy the earth? Maybe the way an ant gnaws at a rock. Unfortunately, I know us by reputation, and it will take something big – read a major cataclysm – for us to awaken to the idea we are simply fruits of the tree, not the tree itself.

    • Jason Groves
      July 30, 2015

      Agreed- our anthropo-narcissism is legendary. But isn’t the fruit of the tree also part of the tree?