The Anthropocene Reviewed
written and narrated by john green
4 out 5 famous authors insisting to the night sky that ‘I matter!’
History is always renewing itself. Sometimes, on slow afternoons, I wonder how the present will look a century from now, and which events from my life will stand out in the history books/screens/mindmelds. 9/11, school shootings, occupy, black lives, internet, factory farming, the slow dawn of climate change awareness. And what’s to come that might eclipse everything so far---cyberdogs programmed for maximum cuteness, perhaps? Annihilation by AI? Projections like these are occasionally comforting---why worry so much when so many daily fears and tribulations will be smoothed away in retrospect---but usually it pins me to the floor, makes me small compared to the enormous tide of events stampeding past the window. And for now, we’re all still attached to the current, but it won’t last. History, the uncaring bastard that it is, will move right along. But even in the face of an indifferent eternity, when any one of us may not make a dent, collectively we’ve become a planet-altering force. Hence the proposed name for the current geologic era: the anthropocene. The apes are now in charge of the monkeyhouse.
It is precisely this tension (person vs people) that’s captured so well in the anthropocene reviewed. Each episode reviews ‘different facets of the human-centered planet on a 5-star scale.’ It’s written and narrated by author, youtuber, and noted hair-model john green. The scope is unlimited, and in general seems to be an excuse for green to talk about whatever’s on his mind lately (sort of like another review organization I know). So far, we’ve had velociraptors, the taco bell breakfast menu, love at first sight, and the seed potatoes of leningrad (dibs for punk band name), among others. The whole shebang hinges on green’s person, an oddly pleasing mix of earnest and bleak. He approaches each topic with a recipe of part historical fact, part autobiography, and part internal musings. For instance, the bonneville salt flats (3 stars) are described via their real life appearance(‘a thirty thousand acre expanse, far flatter than a pancake, snow white, the ground cracked like dried lips, and utterly empty.‘) green’s flair for being lonely in a crowd (‘I was one of several people trying to angle a selfie to make it look like I was alone.’), and his history of uncharacteristic chattiness when gambling (‘In every other environment I am extremely averse to strangers...but put me at a three card poker table and suddenly I’ve got more questions for margerie than robert mueller has for donald trump’). Everywhere, green grapples with the contradiction inherent in being a small person in a big wide world.
Starting a podcast is a trendy choice for an author. Along with green, there’s malcolm gladwell and michael lewis (plus others, I’m sure) who both have taken their brands of nonfiction onto the air. Green himself, however, is both old fashioned manuscripts (faults in stars, turtles all the way) and mimetic internet culture (vlogbros, crash course). Long before gladwell hit record, green was rallying nerdfighters and using his youtube cash to sponsor lowtier soccer teams. This shows up in the narration: lean and hemingwayish but with a dash of that schizophrenic brand of online hopscotchy humor. Hawaiian pizza is a front for the columbian exchange; the movie harvey an exploration of mental illness. It’s charmingly ridiculous to set all these disparate subjects against each other on the same 5-star scale, but somehow appropriate, in an internetic way (kinda like seriously reviewing silly stuff like, oh, the pythagorean theorem, e.g.). Just as the web fractures, blends, and exaggerates culture, the a.r. haphazardly mixes the sub- and objective.
Its genius is in realizing that legitimacy is evolved, not inherited. Consumer reports and roger ebert can claim ‘expertise,’ but their worth as reviewers comes from the trust we bestow onto them. Even if they maintain a veil of objectivity, their defining feature is their relationship with us, not their supposed cultural vanguardhood. Green’s reviews are personally biased (‘this is what this thing means to me’), but for twenty minutes’ listening we can be him. His is an appeal to empathy, not correctness. As mr wallace observed, we are literally self-centered: ‘there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world...is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you.’ Listening to the a.r. is an experience of the world being there in front of john green, and he’s a totem---it could be any of us. So say no to objectivity, toss off the bonds of imaginary platonic ideals, and embrace discussions of prom’s cultural relevance by way of green’s teenage dandruff.
Abandoning illusions of impartiality allows the ‘cast to set tone up as the star, while fact plays bridesmaid. And as you might suspect, the mind behind the fault in our stars isn’t exactly mr sunny. Green’s world is grim, and the few injections of levity are tiny bubbles of carbonation barely disturbing the overall glass of half-empty. He can be genuinely funny, enough for outloud chuckles, but gloom comes more naturally. Bizarrely, I usually feel better after listening to green’s somber narration, but I’ve always been a sucker for eeyore and his humdrum, melancholy romance. Listening to the a.r. is like watching the rain trickle down a windowpane.
There are some pessimistic folks who would correct anthropocene to something like capitalocene or imperialocene or skynetocene. The terminological battle is fierce---I like to imagine roving packs of geologists clashing in the streets and writing idealogicocene4eva in their enemies’ blood. These bespectacled gangsters contend that the defining feature of the age is not humans but systems. And they may be right: you can’t so much as buy a coffee without the great google spider sensing the plucking of algorithmic threads, racism is so much a causal agent it may as well register to vote, and the upshot of the anthro might be the robo. It’s an old question dressed in new clothes: can an idea be an agent? Hubris says no, rationality says yes. Are we oedipus, unknowingly manipulated by forces unknown? Or are we achilles, singlehandedly swinging the battle? I suppose in the face of apparent AI apocalypse it’s better to record a podcast than curse the radioactive silence.
*DFW quote from this is water. To anyone tired of the incessant foster wallace references on this blog: tough titty said the kitty.