Thursday, December 22, 2011


In 2012 we mosaiced a newly minted quarter into the greenhouse bottle wall as a date stamp. A patina dulls its shine from the accumulated touch of fingers, cat faces, and weather. As "the visible surface of a temporal depth"* this layer of grime lets you see that life happened. The 2X4s that framed the greenhouse window-walls rotted out, the old wood door decayed, and the greenhouse bubble is no longer a sealed up atmosphere, but patina lives on. It is the mark or scar of survival.

By 2012, potential catastrophes like food and water scarcity from climate change, or pandemics from chickens or pigs, had settled over the present as a nebulous threat. An ominous future saturated the moment with "affective facts,"* virtual events (at once real and/or imaginary) that demanded response and preparedness. Every year some wave of destruction crashed down on large populations, like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Plant meltdown in northern Japan, famine in East Africa... Such events drove new anxieties, moralities, ethics, and changes in ordinary habits. They saturated political and environmentalist discourses with what Susan Harding and Kathleen Stewart identified as a "pervasive apocalyptic sensibility"—a voice in American politics and publics that "mixes horror and hope, nightmare and dream, destruction and creation, dystopia and utopia."*** Some final retribution or redemption loomed.

Cosmic agents of planetary destruction also troubled people with fantasies of unavoidable ruin. The Biblical apocalypse had become unmoored from any savior's return. An asteroid might hit the planet and kick off a new ice age. The Mayan calendar ended December 12, and some New Agers thought the world would end with it in a final meltdown. The 2009 movie 2012 was a disaster spectacle released in time to rake in some money just in case its plot came true. Wild stories circulated on conspiracy radio: Planet X, a.k.a. Neburu, a hidden planet with hordes of demonic aliens, was swinging into orbit to enslave Earth. Or the billionaires behind the New World Order would massacre the masses, first weakening us with chemtrails. Why even get up and go to work?

It was as if the bleak future had concretized in the present, the concerns of one or five generations down the road urgently pressing on us now. Happening to us yesterday, not in a decade. The sky itself had a patina, the atmosphere smudged with greenhouse gas emissions. But somehow humanity survived in the billions. The catastrophists warning about Earth's peak carrying capacity maxing out by 2020 were as surprised that so many humans were still around as the 1970s' Casandras had been when we hit the year 2000. Certain ways of living had died. The fate of other species was also a different story, but genetic engineering made their final endings uncertain.

In those days the apocalyptic atmosphere felt like a homogenizing mood. After the world failed to end so many times, the post-apocalypse became a kind of patina, the visible surface of damage suffered that leant a gloomy beauty to what survived.  Patina's aesthetic quality suffused old things, worn infrastructure, and ragtag DIY techniques, giving them the queer charm of the survival circus. Rust was both inevitable and pretty.

We repaired the greenhouse bottle wall in 2023, embedding pennies in the mortar in a spiral shape. I patched a broken wine bottle with a smaller one cut down in length to fit. The clear gallon jugs cultivated a little habitat of mold mottled green, brown, and black. One penny popped off but I shine up the others with a scouring pad on a day with nothing better to do.


*Madalina Diaconu, "Patina-Atmosphere-Aroma: Towards an Aesthetics of Fine Differences," Handbook of Phenomenological Aesthetics, (131-148), 132. Like patina, "the atmosphere [can also] be defined as a precipitate, as a cluster that brings together and condenses quasi-immaterial, invisible particles of inhabitants, that are at the same time highly personal and impersonal... The most common reaction to atmospheres encountered in public or private places consists in a spontaneous attuning or homogenising of moods" (137).  While patinas are aged skins, "the atmosphere is spatially open and itself opens moods and life-worlds... By experiencing an atmosphere spread out by a place, the contemporary perceiver is brought nearer to the anonymous succession of all those persons and generations who ever lived and left their olfactory traces there, and becomes himself part of an enormous collective organism. In this respect, feeling an atmosphere is a matter of symbiosis with nameless and faceless bodies" (137).

**Massumi, Brian. 2010. “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.” In The Affect Theory Reader, Melissa Gregg, Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010: 52–70.

***Harding, Susan, and Kathleen Stewart. “Bad Endings: American Apocalypsis,” Annual Review of Anthropology 28 (1999): 285-310.

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