Smith on Baucom, 'History 4° Celsius: Search for a Method in the Age of the Anthropocene'

Ian Baucom
Sean M. Smith

Ian Baucom. History 4° Celsius: Search for a Method in the Age of the Anthropocene. Theory in Forms Series. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020. 152 pp. $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0839-2; $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-0787-6. 

Reviewed by Sean M. Smith (Rice University) Published on H-Slavery (April, 2021) Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)

Printable Version:

In History 4° Celsius: Search for a Method in the Age of the Anthropocene, Ian Baucom draws on a broad range of theorists from Immanuel Kant to Paul Gilroy and Achille Mbembe to propose a new means to study the entangled relationship between people and their environment. Baucom positions History 4° Celsius as both a sequel to his Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (2005) and a response to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History: Four Theses.”[1]

In “The Climate of History,” Chakrabarty challenges humanists to expand their methodologies and their timelines in response to the realization that anthropogenic climate change means the end of the distinction between human history and natural history. History 4° Celsius replies that we cannot and should not abandon the human versus nature frame even as we reconceptualize it as one of a number of other temporal and methodological frames that seek to investigate the intrinsic interconnections implied by the Anthropocene between people and their environment. In Baucom’s words, “our understanding of the force of human politics, history, and culture must be held in interpretative tension and dialectical exchange with what we are discovering of the forcings of climate change as we address the fully planetary condition of the Anthropocene” (p. 8).

Baucom’s proposed methodology, History 4°, calls for a recognition of the multiple orders of time, cultures, and ontologies that make up our Anthropocene world. This methodology and its name arise from Baucom’s reading of “The Climate of History” through the lens of Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000). In Provincializing Europe, Chakrabarty defined History 1 (an Enlightenment-derived progressive historicism of the emergence of rights-based freedom) and History 2 (a subaltern historicism that challenges History 1’s assumption of a singular human experience and ontology), and he demonstrated how History 1 and History 2 were not opposite but rather intermeshed conceptions of freedom and progress whose entanglement expressed the complexities and incompleteness of supposedly universal Enlightenment principles and democracy.

Baucom draws on these categories to define History 3 as Chakrabarty’s thesis from “The Climate of History” that humans acting as a geological force in the Anthropocene must be studied as a species, a form of being beyond immediate experience. Crucially, Baucom believes this turn to the species-level thinking of History 3 eclipses Chakrabarty’s earlier insight that humanity has never been singular. Baucom therefore proposes History 4° as an entangled, relational mode that encompasses all of the temporal scales and multiple humanities of Chakrabarty’s three Histories without dismissing the existence of multiple ontologies or accepting the inability to experience species-humanity. Essentially, understanding humanity as a geologic force does not mean we can no longer understand humanity as one or more cultural and political categories. For Baucom, this reorientation importantly circumvents the problem posed by Chakrabarty that in the Anthropocene the history of freedom has become a history of gaining geologic power and thereby realizing the consequences and limits to that freedom. Rather than realizing humanity does not have the freedom to escape its conditions, Baucom believes we should refocus on a freedom to rethink the cultural and geologic frontiers of humanity, a “freedom toward” rather than a “freedom from” (p. 33).

For all of Baucom’s intellectual work to keep multiple humanities while also expanding our scale to account for geological and biological scales, he does not deeply engage the two most common frameworks attempting to do that: the “Capitalocene” and the “Plantationocene.” The Capitalocene has been championed by Jason W. Moore (edited collection Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism [2016]) to indict people with capital (mostly white westerners who profited from imperialism) rather than all of the human species for causing climate change. The Plantationocene emerged out of a panel featuring Donna Haraway and Anna L. Tsing, among others, as they linked the Capitalocene to longer-term trends in which people altered the Earth through the forced relocation of plants and animals.[2]

Baucom does mention the Capitalocene parenthetically once as a sort of synonym for Anthropocene, and it appears again in a quote from Paul Gilroy. However, its further meaning and potential usefulness are disregarded, while the Plantationocene is ignored altogether. Perhaps Baucom simply considers these terms to be synonymous with the Anthropocene and its links to capital, which he otherwise acknowledges, and in the case of the Plantationocene, he may not agree with historiographical framings of the plantation as proto-capitalist if not fully capitalist. But the audience is left to guess. Whatever Baucom’s reasons, both the Capitalocene and the Plantationocene seem existent ways to consider the uneven causes and impacts of anthropogenic climate change alongside the multiplicity of human experiences and ontologies. This seems especially true when Baucom offers readings of Gilroy and Mbembe to argue that “we must read the contemporary discourse on species as raced” because humanists are using the Capitalocene and the Plantationocene to do just that (p. 23).

Ultimately, History 4° Celsius is a complexly argued book that adds to the many interesting humanistic perspectives on the Anthropocene circulating today.


[1]. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197–222

[2]. Donna Haraway et al., “Anthropologists Are Talking – About the Anthropocene,” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 81, no. 3 (July 2016): 535–64.

Citation: Sean M. Smith. Review of Baucom, Ian, History 4° Celsius: Search for a Method in the Age of the Anthropocene. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL:

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