In searching for a cultural history of the Anthropocene, one path would lead us back to Sergei Eisenstein’s notion of “nonindifferent nature.” This term names the ability for aesthetic experience to facilitate “the mutual absorption of man and nature one into the other.”[i] This interpenetration of the human and non-human entails the ecstatic overcoming of natural limits. Distinct boundaries between self and other, foreground and background, evaporate, as all elements within an environment experience a shared unity.
Nonindifferent nature is a counter-response to the standardized forms of industrialization. It arises from humanity’s technological domination of nature, yet seeks to overcome that exploitation. We could see something of ecological consciousness in this ecstatic immersion in the natural world, even as Eisenstein’s concept remains rooted in the modernist celebration of surpassing natural limits. However, the nature he invokes is not untouched wilderness; rather, it is a natural world perturbed and unsettled by humanity. This is “nature” in the epoch of the Anthropocene, where non-human nature everywhere bears the trace of human intervention. In the Anthropocene, as Bruno Latour has said, nature displays its sensitivity to our actions.[ii] It is “nonindifferent” in other words.
A contemporary version of Eisenstein’s concept can be seen in Alex Garland’s science fiction film Annihilation (2018). In the film’s mysterious alien zone known as the “Shimmer,” everything interacts with everything else; irrespective of human and non-human boundaries, the Shimmer prismatically refracts all matter (plant, animal, human) and thereby produces hybridized forms that co-evolve into non-distinction. This “self-dissolution in nature,” as body and environment become indistinguishable, entails “self-annihilation.”[iii] In one scene, Josie (Tessa Thompson) elects to surrender to her own self-disintegration. She walks among human-shaped flowering plants and then disappears, becoming part of that humanoid vegetation. Though it is not an allegory for environmental crisis, Garland’s film is nonetheless concerned with the self-destructive aspects of humanity, its drive toward its own annihilation. Eisenstein’s modernist filmmaking registers this self-dissolution as an ecstatic experience, but Garland’s film shows a more troubling image of humanity unbound by its forces within itself that it cannot contain. In this, we can see how the Anthropocene casts doubt on the mastery of nature inherent to the modernist project.