UW News

October 10, 2023

“Ways of Knowing” Episode 1: Reading

What marks the start of the Anthropocene – the geological epoch marked by human impact on the planet? The debate hinges, in part, on how we define “signature events,” the important information left behind as clues. But finding signature events transcends the study of the Anthropocene; it’s how we read to make meaning of a text, a collection of data, even a piece of art.

Click to see the full transcript of the episode

Ways of Knowing

Season 1: The Humanities

Episode 1: Reading




Sam Harnett: On the first day of his environmental humanities class at the University of Washington, English Professor Jesse Oak Taylor has his students do a thought experiment. Imagine alien geologists come to Earth in 100 million years. What evidence would they find of human impact on the planet?


Jesse Oak Taylor: Everyone can look around and see that humans are a major force on humans today, will that still be legible in 100 million years? The alien stratigraphers arrive at Earth 100 million years from now arriving on Earth, and what would the traces look like? What traces might be preserved?


SH: Maybe it’s nuclear radiation, fossil fuels, trash residue, or a wave of extinctions.


JOT: There’s two key criteria that have to apply there. One is the trace has to be durable. The other thing is it that has to be globally synchronous, they’re looking for a trace that appears everywhere on Earth at once.


SH: Geologists have been doing a similar thought experiment. They’re trying to determine at what point humans changed the planet so much that it counts as a whole new geological age. An age they’re calling the Anthropocene.


[drilling sounds]


SH: Over the last decade, geologists have been drilling core samples, searching for traces that can pinpoint when the Anthropocene began. In 2023, they found an answer. It lay in the rock strata beneath a shallow lake in Ontario.


[water sounds]



SH: Crawford Lake is a rare meromictic body of water. That means its layers of water never mix. They’re stagnant. Any sediment deposited in the lake settles uniformly on the bottom, which makes the lakebed very good at preserving history. The lake was first formed some 10,000 years ago, and it’s been keeping record of changes on Earth ever since.


[underwater sounds]


SH: In the lake you can see records of early agriculture, logging and milling, the introduction of the combustion engine, and shifts in biodiversity. Geologists propose that the most fundamental change to the environment by humans happened in the mid-20th century, when globalization and nuclear activity began leaving a dramatic signature in the lake bed. For them, this is the start of the Anthropocene.




SH: The debate doesn’t end here, though. Really, it’s just the beginning.


The geological start date of the Anthropocene is just one fact. It needs to be fit into a larger narrative, and the narrative we settle on will determine how we understand and react to the way humans have changed the planet. This can’t be done by just running the right tests or gathering more data. It’s a monumental interpretive challenge. The kind of challenge that the analytical methods in the humanities are very well suited for.


JOT: How do you tell a story, how do you identify what are meaningful traces, how do you interpret something and ascribe meaning to it, how do you identify where the inflection points in history are? Once you start leaning on these questions of how do you identify a trace, and correlate it to the causes, then you really are deep into the weeds in some level in the kinds of discussions that happen in literary studies in literary theory.


SH: Scientists do this kind of interpretive work every day. Natural disasters are a prime example. Whenever there is a large wildfire or aggressive hurricane, a major goal for environmental scientists is to try and determine how much of it is related to human activity. They use the term “signature” to describe when human involvement is measurable. That term caught Jesse’s attention.


JOT: They’re trying to correlate a signature to an event and put it in context, that takes us right back to this Jacques Derrida essay that we all read in graduate school called “Signature Event Context” that’s about how do you identify the trace, and what counts as a signature.




SH: Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher and literary theorist credited with deconstruction. In this essay, he’s presenting a new theory on one of the most basic acts in the humanities: reading. Derrida theorizes that a reader must first identify what in the text counts as a signature — a valid piece of evidence — put that signature in context, and then determine its possible meanings.


For instance, let’s say a stratigrapher notices a layer of sediment in London with industrial waste from the year 1790. The signature –– the tangible evidence –– is the industrial waste. The event could be pollution from a certain group of factories at the time. And the context would be the Industrial Revolution — everything from the kinds of factories to where they were located, and what they produced. If you didn’t know the context –– that the Industrial Revolution ever happened –– you might misread the significance of this industrial waste. You might think it was an isolated feature at an isolated time in London, not part of a larger story.



The more Jesse and his collaborator Tobias Menely looked at scientific papers on the Anthropocene, the more they encountered this kind of analysis — Derrida’s way of reading.


JOT: And it was kind of an exciting moment for us, at least for me, because I had had to read all this Derrida in graduate school, it was really confusing. People like to beat up on Derrida as evidence for the irrelevance of the humanities, and suddenly here we have this problem, coming out of the sciences, and here we were suddenly coming right back to Derrida.


SH: To try to understand the Anthropocene, scientists are reading the environment in the same way Derrida says to read a text. They’re searching for signatures, connecting them to particular events, and interpreting their meaning in a greater context.



[person reading a title of an academic paper]


“Signature of Ocean Warming in Global Fisheries Catch”


SH: These are titles of recently published research papers.


[person reading titles]


“Fingerprint of Climate Change in Precipitation Aggressiveness Across the Central Mediterranean Area”


“A Multi-Millennial Climatic Context for the Megafaunal Extinctions in Madagascar”


“Ocean Color Signature of Climate Change”


“Human Fingerprint on Structural Density of Forests Globally”



SH: Derrida’s way of reading is not just important in the Anthropocene debate. It’s essential throughout the sciences.

[person reads titles]


“The Phosphoinositide Signature Guides the Final Step of Plant Cytokinesis”


“The Chlorine Isotope Fingerprint of the Lunar Magma Ocean”


“Filaments of Galaxies as a Clue to the Origin of Ultrahigh-Energy Cosmic Rays”


“Synovial Signatures Signpost Arthritis”


“Universal interferometric signatures of a black hole’s photon ring”



“A Globally Coherent Fingerprint of Climate Change Impacts Across Natural Systems” 


SH: Fingerprints, signatures, context, clues…This is what scientists reason into a coherent story.




This is the story of how one species changed a planet…


SH: This is a three-minute video that was shown at a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Jesse shows it to his students every year.



New artificial fertilizers meant we could feed more people. Population rose rapidly. But this was nothing compared with what was to come…


JOT: I often show this video on the very first day of my introduction to environmental humanities class.


SH: It presents the Anthropocene as a clear narrative that begins with the Industrial Revolution and marches forward toward modern-day climate change. As if that’s the objective, universally agreed-upon story.




Temperatures are increasing…We have made a hole in the ozone layer…



SH: But that’s not true. There are lots of ways to tell this story. Instead of the Industrial Revolution, you could decide to construct a narrative that goes back 12,000 years to the advent of agriculture. Or you could start with modern globalization. How you tell this story depends on what you think the causes and potential solutions are to the way humans are changing the planet.


JOT: People have proposed renaming it the Capitalocene, like it’s not humans, it’s capitalism; the Plantationocene, that would connect to the questions of empire and slavery; there’s the Technocene, the Wasteocene.




Welcome to the Anthropocene.


SH: Whatever you decide to call it, the same kinds of questions need to be addressed: What counts as evidence, how does it fit into a bigger picture, and then how do you communicate that to others? At its root, we’re talking about something humans have been doing for a really long time: reading. We’ve been reading texts for over 3,000 years, pictures and symbols for millennia before that, and the clues in our environment for the whole history of our existence.


JOT: It’s the hallmarks of you know, introduction to humanities as academic discipline. It’s also like the hallmark of humanity. If you think about…Imagine a prehistoric hunter tracking game, and saying OK, I have to understand this track in the mud and connect it to a story that helps me understand where that creature is going…Those types of interpreting traces, you know we do it, other animals do it, right? They’re doing it all the time. They’re trying to kind of interpret signs of danger, signs of food, you know sexual attraction, like all these things. Interpreting the world is a kind of basic condition of conscious life, that then plays out in this very particular way in what we do in the humanities.


SH: Whether you’re analyzing literature, a painting, a movie, or data from an experiment, you’re doing the same thing. You’re reading. Reading is not just about decoding and interpreting lines of text, but the greater process we discussed in this episode: identifying what counts as a trace or signature, learning how to gather meaning from that signature, and then organizing it into a coherent narrative. Reading is the primary way of knowing in the humanities, and is important in the sciences as well. One could argue reading is the main way we make sense of things in our everyday lives as well. Each way of knowing that we introduce in this audio series is built on this foundational analytical tool. Over the course of the series, we will learn how to read different materials, from poetry and comic books to music, photographs, monuments, and landscapes; and how these forms of reading, or ways of knowing, can enrich our understanding of the world.



At the end of each episode, we’re going to provide you with some resources –– a little bibliography –– in case you want to know more about the topic of the episode.  So, here are five texts about reading and the Anthropocene.


A History of Reading” by Alberto Manguel


This book is exactly what the title suggests: a history of humankind’s relationship to reading, from the first extant texts to reading on digital devices.


The Birth of the Anthropocene” by Jeremy Davies


This is a great introduction to the concept of the Anthropocene, the history of how humans have changed the planet, and current debates over what’s causing that change.


The Earth After Us: What Trace Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?” By Jan Zalasiewicz


This book is the source of that thought experiment about alien geologists trying to reconstruct the story of how humans shaped the planet. It’s a great example of the process of trying to identify what counts as a valuable signature or trace that can be read to build a larger narrative.


Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times” edited by Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor


This collection of essays fleshes out Jesse’s insight: that literature and the analytical methods in the humanities are essential to understanding and addressing the way humans have altered the planet.


“Signature Event Context” by Jacques Derrida


It’s not an easy read by any means, but here it is if you want to get your hands on the source material for Derrida’s analytical method. You could also read Simon Glendinning’s “Derrida: A Very Short Introductionor watch the 2002 film “Derrida.”


SH: Just for kicks, here’s a very short passage:


[person reading]


Now, the word ‘communication’ which nothing initially authorizes us to overlook as a word and to impoverish as a polysemic word, opens a semantic field which precisely is not limited to semantics, semiotics and even less to linguistics…



SH: Not for the faint of heart.



Chris Hoff: Ways of Knowing is a production of The World According to Sound. This season is about the different interpretative and analytical methods in the humanities. It was made in collaboration with the University of Washington and its College of Arts & Sciences. All the interviews with UW faculty were conducted on campus in Seattle. Music provided by Ketsa, Chad Crouch, John Bartmann, and our friends, Matmos.


SH: The World According to Sound is made by Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett.





Jesse Oak Taylor, associate professor of English

Jesse Oak Taylor, associate professor of English

Jesse Oak Taylor, associate professor of English at the University of Washington, uses a video about the Anthropocene to explain signature events to students, and how reading – finding those clues – is a fundamental analytical tool of both the sciences and the humanities, helping us to better understand our world. 

This is the first of eight episodes of “Ways of Knowing,” a podcast highlighting how studies of the humanities can reflect everyday life. Through a partnership between The World According to Sound and the University of Washington, each episode features a faculty member from the UW College of Arts & Sciences, the work that inspires them, and suggested resources for learning more about the topic. 

Next | Episode 2: Close Reading