Written on the Sky: Inscription, Scale, and Agency in Anthropocenic Semiotics


  • Zachary Horton University of Pittsburgh


Anthropocene, climate change, sky writing, scale, David Antin, scalar collapse


This essay explores the sky as a surface of inscription in two principal forms: the speculative discourse of geoengineering as a technoscientific fix for climate change and artist and poet David Antins 1987-88 diptych Sky Poems, elemental poems printed against the sky over hours of time.  I argue for a revised model of Anthropocenic semiotics that actively incorporates what I explore here as the problems of surface, scale, and writing.  While the dominant form of Anthropocenic semiotics treats atmospheric signs as scientific data to be explained to the public by scientists, I here draw upon both the insights of poststructural literary theory and materialist media theory to figure the sky as both receptive surface of petro-capitals devastating inscriptions and as contested site of meaning-making.  The dominant model of technoscientific semiotics relies upon scalar collapse to reduce the inscriptions of non-human scales to human-size meaning, leading to an epistemic condition in which the human has become a geo-scale inscriptor without being able to read its own writing.  As geoengineering discourse demonstrates, this semiotic model severely circumscribes the possible interpretations of and responses to climate change.  Instead of attempting to scale-down the atmospheres signs, David Antins works point the way toward a scaling-up of human subjectivity toward collective and discontinuous forms of reading that could, I suggest, close the circuit between species-scale writing and elemental reading.

Author Biography

Zachary Horton, University of Pittsburgh

Zach Horton is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is Director of the new Vibrant Media Lab.


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