World Weary:
Cultures of Exhaustion

May 21–22 2020
University of York, UK

world weary visual cultures of exhaustion worm

How does contemporary culture make sense of weary worlds? Exhaustion can be used to describe both the depletion of planetary resources and a structural waning associated with the demands of neoliberalism, one which is magnified by socio-political and technological change (Schaffner, 2017). The burden of bodily and planetary exhaustion is increasingly justified by an ideology of commitment and resilience, even as its effects are carried disproportionately across populations. As of 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) formally recognises ‘burnout’ as an occupational phenomenon, appraising negative affects such as ‘cynicism’ and ‘negativism’ as formal characteristics of ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.1 Whilst the varied impacts of climate crisis are felt collectively, in public discourse the crisis is often bound to the wellbeing of individuals under the rubric of ‘climate anxiety’. Similarly, ethical consumerism uses market logics of ‘mindful’ consumption to frame individual action as a strategy for mitigating climate collapse. When it comes to conceptualising extinction, sequestration, burnout and loss, what do these terms tell us about the limitations of the imaginary of exhaustion itself and how are they extrapolated through visual, literary or theoretical modes?

Artists have long emphasised the importance of offsetting hazardous life-worlds, from the technological remediation of Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1991–93) to Amy Balkin’s Public Smog (2004–), an ‘atmospheric park’ constructed through trading and retiring emission offsets. More recently, Cooking Sections’ (Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe) Offsetted (2019) explored the legacy of Michael R. Bloomberg’s MillionTreesNYC initiative (MTNYC), a scheme ascribing trees with market value that was subsequently taken up by developers to ‘offset’ development in land-squeezed urban centres. As Cooking Sections observe of the neo-colonial logics at play within the financialisation of nature, a new reality is perceived whereby elites can simply pay to ‘neutralise’ their footprint via compensatory schemes.2 This quantification risks the displacement of vulnerable people from metropolitan areas, themselves in danger of being ‘offset’ by so-called ‘green assets’ such as carbon-sequestering trees and sidewalk planters which are installed by developers. Here, capitalist logics are extended to safeguard business as usual, absorbing rather than slowing structural operations.

The bleak reality of exhaustion has also been approached playfully: from the gallows humour video performances by the artist Stanya Kahn to the irreverence of contemporary ‘cli-fi’ novels like Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (2018), which casts a queer former sex worker and an extinct species of anemone as agents in reversing the destruction of the oceans in a post-apocalyptic Dominican Republic. Elsewhere, Yoko Tawada's The Emissary (2018) envisions an isolated Japanese state, in which soil contamination has altered the trajectory of life itself, rendering children feeble and bird-like and the elderly quasi-immortal. Language, so often charted in terms of linguistic development, is not unscathed by these events. Rather, The Emissary’s premise of ‘retired’ language highlights the intergenerational schism between two family members for whom ways of relating to the world are irreconcilable. Such examples counterbalance what often feels like the mandatory didacticism of many contemporary eco-fictions.

Theorists have similarly sought to understand how life-worlds become tangled in quantifiable systems: from ‘environmental gentrification’ (Gissen, 2013) to more recent attempts at particularising the Anthropocene, such as the ‘Capitalocene’ (Haraway, 2012; Moore, 2016); the focus on media relations via the ‘Anthrobscene’ (Parikka, 2015); indigenous and decolonial practices that emerge in opposition to extractive harm (Gómez-Barris, 2017) and the material inscription of anti-blackness in the geological origins of the Anthropocene, with attention to how racialised economies ‘live differently in the earth’ (Yusoff, 2018). Similarly the protracted characteristics of ‘crisis ordinariness’ (Berlant, 2011) as well as the temporalities of care within and around crisis (Baraitser, 2017; Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017) point to the uneven topographies of planetary degradation. An examination of artistic and social endeavours is critical for articulating vital interventions into living under and with depletion. The conference aims to respond to a need in scholarly investigation into exhaustion, as a term increasingly availed by public discourse to bridge the epistemological gap between subjects and hostile worlds.

1 ‘Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases’, World Health Organisation (WHO), 28 May 2019

2 Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe), ‘The Offsetted’, e-flux Architecture: Positions, 2019