It came out of the Blue: Fragment of comparative planetology

written for "The Most Beautiful Catastrophe" exhibition @ CSW Kronika Bytom, curated by Jakub Gawkowski (01.12.2018-04.01.2019)

By way of an accident, COP24 in Katowice takes place almost exactly on the fiftieth anniversary of the very first publicly released pictures of the Earth, which were made by a crew of Apollo 8 astronauts on their mission during Christmas time in December 1968. One of the most iconic of them is called Earthrise – an image of Earth on the horizon of lunar landscape. According to theorist Benjamin Bratton, this picture stands for the first successful attempt at capturing the “formal coherency of Earth as one geophysical unit.”1 Complementarily, curator Anselm Franke interprets an appearance of these pictures of Blue Planet as one of the focal turning points in development of late modernist version of universalism, which reverberates in our academic, social as well as everyday life until today.2 Another scholar, Bruno Latour has recently adopted presumably anti-universalist (at least in the old sense of top-down universalism) concept of Gaia in order to replace both old modernist notion of nature strictly separated from the realm of culture, and the imagination of the Earth as Globe or Sphere – a visual metaphor frequently criticized also by one of Latour’s intellectual buddies, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.3

What I will do in this essay is an exploration of the conceptual terrain circumscribed by these propositions, in order to answer one apparently very simple question: “What do we talk about when we talk about planet?” To answer this question, I will engage in a philosophical endeavour that can be in the vein of science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson called comparative planetology. As we will see, our period is marked by confusion about the meaning of the term “planet”, resulting from competing imaginaries that struggle to take the position of authoritative interpretation of the planet as a philosophical concept.

Globe

Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) stands in Peter Sloterdijk’s interpretation for the first big literary metaphor of capitalist modernity, understood here as the project of the global acceleration of the mobility of commodities, capital and labour force.4 The hypermobility of basic elements of this version of modernity is not a mere consequence of technological change – it is logically preceded by the transformation of our conception of the very space in which the movement of bodies and things is realized. It is precisely this transformation that describes, according to Sloterdijk, the term globalization, which is not a recent event, but the procedure systematically developing ever since the dawn of Western philosophy in ancient Greece. This procedure advances in three phases. The first one is a cosmological, or metaphysical globalization, characterized by development of the aesthetic image of the totality of the world in the form of a perfectly smooth Sphere. Here, the concept of the Globe is born. Its early articulations can be found in Pythagorean and Platonic cosmological imagery, or in Parmenides' description of Being from the poem Περὶ φύσεως (On nature), which describes Sphere as the finest of all shapes that belongs to Being as such.5

The second phase is terrestrial globalization, in Sloterdijk's words practically realized by sea transport as the technology of commercial, political, cultural, scientific and military dominance of the West. Naval conquests of new continents also coincide with dawn of modernity and is tightly connected to slow injection of philosophical conceptualization of Sphere or Globe as a self-contained whole into the centre of actual large-scale social, political and economic practices of the West, as well as into daily experience of privileged Europeans. For the first time, the world is not only theoretically, but also practically taken as a finite, unified and intelligible whole. Here, the spatial profile of modernity adopted by cosmopolitan bourgeoisie is also gradually translated into vocabulary of capitalist universalism.

Lastly, the third (and current) phase of globalization is electronic, which begins with a peculiar synthesis of cybernetics and ecology in Californian counterculture of 1960s.6 One of the main artefacts of this countercultural “movement” is Whole Earth Catalog, published between 1968 and 1972 by Steward Brand. On the pages of this pamphlet, DIY culture meets psychedelia with the most advanced computers of the era and sense of ecological awareness, many times appearing in spiritual aura of peak hippie / early New Age environmentalism: everything is interconnected in sacred web of life. The front cover of each issue dominates a picture of the Earth taken from space, to underscore the basic universalist assumption of the culture the Whole Earth Catalog advertised. These pictures mark here the symbolic disappearance of the outside – suddenly, we can contain whole Earth in one photographic frame.7 The world is no longer “out there”, but here in our hands. For this reason, Franke points out that California has become “the site at which Western colonial expansion reached its natural terrestrial limit, and thus changed its direction, from outward expansion to inner intensification.”8 After astronauts launched into outer space comes another wave of psychonauts propelled by LSD into inner universe, and subsequently also a movement of pioneers of cyberspace that opens up new genre of intensification of global reality by digital networks.

This way, the transformation of Earth into its ideal model of the Globe – first conceived by Parmenides – is completed; the Earth becomes a Buckminster-Fullerish glass dome levitating in the cosmic void; all regions of this frictionless space manifest identical universal qualities. The masses of commodities, which make for the only wealth of this cold world, can move above its surface with vertiginous lightness, and the eye of the capital rotates above this perfect shape. The event of climate change, however, collapses this imaginary – the chthonic forces of the planet awaken, and the certainty of the firm soil below ceases to be absolute. The system of production of capital flows' abstract territories hangs upon the massive extraction of fossil fuels, which veil everything in clouds of dust and smoke. This fog is about to give birth to a brave new world of global injustices.

Gaia

It is the event of climate change as a result of global expansion of capitalism that makes Bruno Latour to claim in his most recent book Down to Earth (2018) that “[t]here is no planet to house the Globe of globalization.”9 According to him, the figure of Globe is guilty of top-down universalism that is actually nothing but an ambitious extension of very peculiar niche imagination (in this case, of Californian counterculture) on the whole planet. And for Latour, this is disqualifying trait of any vision of totality that generates universalist narrative. So what figure Latour proposes to replace the Globe with?

His bet is to embrace the concept of Gaia, originally envisioned by Lynn Margullis and James Lovelock in 1970s. The intuition that lies behind the “Gaia hypothesis” comes from observation of other planets of the solar system. Latour focuses solely on Lovelock’s development of the concept and points out how he got to this idea while speculating about what traits in atmosphere of some planet could ground a suspicion that that world bears life – namely its chemical (dis)equilibrium. According to Latour’s interpretation of Lovelock’s discovery, the Gaia hypothesis begins with assumption that Earth should be for outside observer easily distinguishable as a “living planet”, since its atmosphere is not in state of chemical equilibrium, which points at presence of metabolic activities by some specific agency that other planets are missing – i.e. “life” (although Latour – contrary to eclectic Lovelock – does not rush to identify this agency with life from the very start). The original version of Gaia hypothesis describes Earth as superorganism capable to sustain homeostasis in complex web of life.10 However, Latour tunes down Lovelock’s bombastic claims and tries to reconstruct more humble conception of Gaia.

Unfortunately, the list of features of Gaia in Latour’s account is never ending and frustrates clear understanding of how exactly Gaia should be thought about. It is cunning and terrifying, and full of contradictory attributes;11 it is not figure of harmony, it does not bring peace and unity, but only chaotic multiplicities;12 it is a process that equals to unfolding of history;13 it is neither an organism (at least not in standard account of organism composed of parts that create a whole), nor a system, and it cannot be accounted for in vocabulary of complexity and feedback loops.14 To untangle this dizzying enumeration of more or less useful metaphors, let us focus on two focal characteristics Latour highlights:

“[F]irst, that it is composed of agents that are neither deanimated nor overanimated; then, contrary to what Lovelock's detractors claim, that it is made up of agents that are not prematurely unified in a single acting totality. Gaia, the outlaw, is the anti-system.”15

For the first part, agents of Gaia are never set in advance, they slowly emerge and disappear as an effect of their collective or network. As Latour repeats through most of his career, agency is always distributed, uneven, it cannot be localized at once place and one time – at least that is the credo of his signature actor-network theory.16 In such networks, there are strictly speaking no parts, since they are not arranged from specialized functional clusters that create a whole. Such a formatting comes only after network actually acts – the model of functional composition is special effect of network’s agency, that is moreover diverting our attention from its ontological substrate, which remains functionally underdifferentiated. Hence the second part of Latour’s characterization of Gaia under discussion: if there are no parts, there are no wholes because organisms are integral and undetachable from their surrounding environments, which they moreover actively transform.

In the end, Gaia is treated in Latour’s account as thin “perishable envelope”17 of life-sustaining processes that covers the surface of the planet, which finally sheds some light on what exactly this mystical, yet secular entity is: an attempt to replace old Nature/Culture distinction with a notion better suited for an epoch of Anthropocene. However, by stacking one description on another, Latour produces only a sense of confusion – which might be actually his only real take-away: perhaps we should treat Gaia as a symptom of our conceptual disorientation in the age of ecological emergency. For this reason, we must look for the meaning of the “planet” somewhere else.

The Planetary

In this concluding chapter, I would like to explore an alternative view on the planet that avoids the figure of Gaia. It consists in an imperative to stick to the concept of planet and to try to refine it. The most significant among these attempts is the concept of the planetary. For example, William Connolly defines the planetary as

“… a series of temporal force fields, such as climate patterns, drought zones, the ocean conveyor system, species evolution, glacier flows, and hurricanes that exhibit self-organizing capacities to varying degrees and that impinge upon each other and human life in numerous ways.”18

What is important here is that the planetary is not necessarily associated with vitalism, understood as a metaphysical doctrine that endows objects with essential quality of “life”. Rather than understanding planet in its (in)capacity to harbour organic matter, the planetary has an (often unactualized) potential to turn towards geophysical first and to abandon distinction between the organic and inorganic. At least that is the promise of the planetary.

According to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's reading, the planetary includes a gesture of the defamiliarization of the home, rendering planet uncanny (in Freudian understanding of Unheimlich).19 It is a figure of alterity that points towards an “impossibility of grounding”,20 and she claims that the appropriate register of imagination of the planetary is to be found in pre-capitalist cultures.21 What is especially valuable about Spivak's proposition is the possibility of principal alienation of the human from the planet, which is in her conceptualization unfortunately quickly foreclosed by employing the planetary as a figure that opens up new ways of being human. Spivak appreciates the planet insofar as it is articulated in psychoanalytic discourse as the impossible Other upon which new subjectivity can be constituted. In other words, the planetary is still human all too human.

My bet would be to stick to the vision of the planetary but evacuate it out of the vector of humanism. Such an inhumanist22 position would mean to remove human agency from the centre of planetary processes: seeing humans as medium rather than prime movers of the planet, accompanied with radical reconsideration of the very meaning of the concept of “human” (which might result in its ultimate deconstruction or fragmentation). Such a conceptual rotation invites humans to approach the problem of the planetary response to climate change in an ethical and political gesture of humility on species level. As climate emergency of the Anthropocene shows us, the ultimate horizon of our activities has always been the terrestrial arc. Worse still, the anthropos in Anthropocene denotes medium of geological change that humans are, rather than humans being the primary cause of this change. It is our energetically expensive and futile compulsion to place us at the centre of this process that makes Anthropocene an era of climate emergency. What brought us here is not that much a mastery over nature, but our primitive urgency to control uncontrollable. So what shall be call post-Anthropocene suggests removal of human autonomy from centrality of planetary forces. The post-Anthropocene here stands also for the post-climate change era, which will be, hopefully, also post-capitalist.

  • 1 - Benjamin Bratton (2016). The Stack. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, p. 300.
  • 2 - Anselm Franke (2013). Earthrise and the Disappearance of the Outside. In Anselm Franke – Diedrich Diederichsen (eds.). The Whole Earth. (pp. 12-18). Berlin: Sternberg Press, pp. 12-14.
  • 3 - Bruno Latour (2017). Facing Gaia. [e-book]. Cambridge: Polity; Peter Sloterdijk (2013). In the World Interior of Capital. Cambridge: Polity.
  • 4 - Peter Sloterdijk (2013). In the World Interior of Capital, pp. 36-38.
  • 5 - Parmenides (1892). Poem of Parmenides. [online]: http://philoctetes.free.fr/parmenidesunicode.htm.
  • 6 - Fred Turner (2006). From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
  • 7 - Anselm Franke (2013). Earthrise and the Disappearance of the Outside.
  • 8 - Ibid., p. 14.
  • 9 - Bruno Latour (2018). Down to Earth. Cambridge: Polity, p. 5.
  • 10 - Bruno Latour (2017). Facing Gaia, pp. 237-238.
  • 11 - Ibid., p. 211.
  • 12 - Ibid., p. 211, 354.
  • 13 - Ibid., pp. 257-258.
  • 14 - Ibid., p. 222, 236-238, 249, 346-347.
  • 15 - Ibid., p. 222.
  • 16 - Bruno Latour (2005). Reassembling the Social. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 46.
  • 17 - Bruno Latour (2017). Facing Gaia, p. 219.
  • 18 - William Connolly (2017). Facing the Planetary. Durham: Duke University Press, p. 7.
  • 19 - Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2003). Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 73-77.
  • 20 - Ibid., p. 82.
  • 21 - Ibid., p. 101.
  • 22 - Reza Negarestani (2014). The Labour of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman. e-flux journal 53.