An intertwined analysis of visual imaginations of the Earth and geopolitics of climate emergency.
Different philosophical and visual imaginations of the Earth reflect different geopolitical arrangements and translate into different geophysical and biochemical realities on the planetary scale. Following in the footsteps of science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, the philosophical endeavor of studying and comparing these kinds of imaginations, as well as preparing their alternative articulation, might be called comparative planetology, argues philosopher Lukáš Likavčan.
His book Introduction to Comparative Planetology, published by Strelka Press, presents an intertwined analysis of visual cultures of imagining the Earth and geopolitics of climate emergency. It compares different “figures” of the planet—the Planetary, the Globe, Terrestrial, Earth-without-us and Spectral Earth—in order to assess their geopolitical implications.
These implications are then mapped on respective prospects of these figures in developing an infrastructural space for planetary coordination of our design interventions against runaway global heating, and ultimately against mass species extinction.
The book looks at the way we envisage our planet through cultural artifacts, in order to ask questions such as “For what Earth do we design?” or “What geopolitical tendencies does our imagination of Earth endorse?”
By examining existing intuitive conceptions of the planet and proposing new ones, comparative planetology contributes to the emergence of a solid theoretical conceptualization of the planet in contemporary thinking about politics, media, design, and architecture.
The e-book version of Introduction to Comparative Planetology is available on Amazon.
Below is an excerpt from the book:
The central figure of comparative planetology is that of the Planetary—the cosmogram that presents Earth as an impersonal, geophysical process in which humans play the role of temporary mediators. This figure is informed by contemporary ecology and climate science, and in terms of its visuality, it emerges out of the practices of sensing and modelling Earth that these scientific projects are accompanied by. In these scientific projects, we observe the proliferation of tiny, partial abstractions of the planet, in the form of satellite imagery, computational models, and data visualizations produced by different Earth-sensing infrastructures. According to Jennifer Gabrys, these abstractions can also be found in the “studies of seismic activity, the health of forests, maps of contaminant flow, and the tracking of organisms from dragonflies and turtles to seals and elephants” (Gabrys 2016, 30). We casually stipulate these idealized counterparts in place of the real Earth: either as aesthetic gestures, or in order to measure the dynamics of ocean currents, ice melting, or the distribution of particles of greenhouse gases. Other times, we instrumentalize these models to assess risks related to tropical storms or the spread of dangerous viruses, among many other applications.
IMAGINATIONS OF THE PLANETARY
In opposition to early photographs of the planet —such as Earthrise (1968), the iconic picture of Earth rising from the moon’s surface, or Blue Marble (1972)—different visual imaginations of the Planetary share two peculiar qualities. First, they are largely of non-human origin, produced by mechanical apparatuses. They resemble what Harun Farocki called phantom shots: “... film recordings taken from a position that a human cannot normally occupy” (Farocki 2015, 659). These images are thus produced indirectly—while older photographs of Earth from the 1960s onwards were results o f direct observation of the visual profile of Earth’s surface by means of optical instruments such as cameras, the imageries of the Planetary are reconstructed from raw data on opacity, reflectivity, or the properties of light emitted by objects under the satellite’s gaze, broken down into individual wavelengths in the color spectrum.
The indirect production of these imageries means they are also synthetic, assembled through the labor of computational algorithms. This applies, for example, to the stitching together of satellite footage into the planetary patchwork of Google Maps. Many times, these images remain invisible to us, and they serve instead as inputs for further algorithmic operations— they cease to function as representations and move into the register of Farocki’s operative or operational images: images that “do not represent an object, but rather are part of an operation” (Farocki 2015, 660). They become interfaces, or diagrammatic surfaces, that actively hide some algorithmic processes in order to make other algorithmic processes visible. They mediate information flows and data transactions, and as little machines, they serve various purposes in machine-to-machine interactions, such as identification, authentication, validation, authorization, or tokenization. Such a rotation towards a non-human mode of visual production is one of the many instances of the contemporary shift towards more-than human visual cultures, exemplifying the widespread automation of image-making (as one of the effects of the emergence of planetary-scale computation). These visual cultures are well-suited for capturing phenomena beyond the range of our human sensibility—be it a long durée of climate patterns and geological movements or the slow violence of environmental catastrophes. Thus, they facilitate evidence for the current Anthropocene discourse—which is intertwined with the temporality of deep, geological time— and hence they give us access to the figure of the Planetary.
Concerning its philosophical articulation, there exists an inconsistent body of work on the Planetary, scattered across several traditions —post-Marxism and post-colonial theory (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Achille Mbembe), anthropology (Anna Tsing), Deleuzian revivals (William Connolly), critical theory of digital technologies (Jennifer Gabrys), or design theory and media theory (Benjamin Bratton). In general, one can distinguish two broad avenues that this concept can be treated through: Earth-system perspective and critical-subjective perspective. Both have very different points of departure, but under closer scrutiny they seem to yield very similar results with respect to the position of the human in the planetary assemblage.
The Earth-system perspective is deeply entwined with the history of Earth-system sciences, developed in the second half of the twentieth century. It treats the planet as a series of complex adaptive systems that embody evolutionary processes on different spatial and temporal scales. Take the example of the mountain valley. It contains many elements: herbs, grasses, trees, different kinds of mammals (bears, deer, lynxes, rabbits or hares, mice, hedgehogs), birds (eagles, sparrows, falcons), insects (bees, bugs, mantises, ladybirds), spiders, atmospheric gases, several types of soil, minerals and stones, bodies of water and underground flows, and so on. As a whole, they present an ecosystem—an open system in which organic and inorganic inhabitants as well as their collectives metabolize flows of energy, material, and information. This heterogeneous ensemble creates a system of interactions between all of its elements, capable of absorbing and responding to external and internal influences (catastrophes, epidemics, changes in populations, etc.). What is more, ecosystems embody various interplays of successive adaptations between their elements (a canonical example might be the interplay between populations of predator and prey species, e.g. lynx and hare). Crucially, these elements should be understood as media (or transitory stages, if you will), not as goals of evolutionary processes, because individual species are nothing but freeze-framed pictures of the continuous flow of evolution. We thus arrive at a processual picture of the planet, one in which inorganic objects, biological species, and geographical territories are approached equally as media for torrential forces, packing and unpacking themselves on various scales.
Conceptualization of the planet as an interrelated complex adaptive system can be treated as a secularized version of the Gaia hypothesis, one stripped from the metaphorical ascription of life to the planetary “organism,” but still retaining a holistic perspective on the planet. This perspective sees the planet as a process channelled through a shifting landscape of systematic and nested feedback loops interacting in a non-linear manner. For this reason, 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” (Connolly 2017, 7).
With respect to the position of humans in this cascade of complex adaptive systems, Connolly insists that we are inhabited by the forces of the world, rather than being its primary subjects and masters. Take as an example the work of Jussi Parikka, who invites us—while stating that “human history is infused in geological time” (Parikka 2015, 6)— to imagine media technologies as accomplices in the slow crime of the continuous reassembling of the uppermost crust of Earth, where by the lithium batteries powering our smartphones or europium-rich touchscreens turn into temporary crystallizations of deep time: they emerge out of Earth and they turn back into Earth once they become disposable from the human point of view, eventually rendering the planet itself a sort of geological machine. As we carry these devices around the planet, we mediate the process of the depletion of their deposits, but we simultaneously enact their accumulation at new sites which might become deposits of yet unknown rare earths of the (post-)Anthropocene in the very distant future—just as ancient biomass turned into fossil fuels enables the movement of contemporary biomass which might one day end up fossilized as well. The figure of the Planetary radicalizes this perspective, treating elements of human socio-economies and the planet’s ecosystems not as mere particles to be metabolized, but as media metabolizing one another.
Meanwhile, the critical-subjective perspective approaches the conceptual terrain of the Planetary through the critical reconsideration of subjectivity within this field. It departs from a critique of globalist abstraction, but attempts to reconstruct the planetary scale otherwise, preserving space for new cosmopolitanism. This tendency is apparent in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s treatment of the Planetary.
In her reading, the Planetary brings gestures of disenchantment and the defamiliarization of the home (Spivak 2003, 77). It is a figure of alterity that points towards an “impossibility of grounding” in some particular place or tradition, (Spivak 2003, 82) and she claims that the appropriate register of imagination of the Planetary is to be found in pre-capitalist cultures relating to the nomadic past of the human species, e.g. in the Islamic cosmopolitan ideal of Ummah. Spivak’s discourse on the Planetary develops within a specific theoretical and geopolitical context. For the theoretical part, she departs from the fields of literary and post-colonial studies and focuses on the migration of non-Western writers, together with the ways their uneasy movements on Earth’s surface get translated into their writings (uneasy especially because of nation states and their constraining geometry of borders). The geopolitical context is one of extensive migration on a worldwide scale, which forces especially the white European subject to approach its colonially and racially constructed “Other” anew. Spivak’s Planetary thus requires a re-examination of subjectivity—hence it is labelled a critical-subjective perspective, because we need to “re-imagine the subject as planetary accident” (Spivak 2012, 337-338).
In this pursuit, she is motivated by particular legal and political dilemmas, stemming from a situation of increased and involuntary human migration. She asks: “How can we justify care as a basic human right and responsibility?” For Spivak, this can be achieved only if the space of human habitation becomes the planet itself. There is no place one literally comes from; there is only the past of departures and the future of arrivals, followed by even more departures. Humans in this view are treated only as custodians of the planet: care and hospitality towards the Other becomes the utmost responsibility —be it a migrant human, the flow of a river, or the yearly reproductive cycle of a tree. Spivak breaks with the human as the conceptual site of mutual responsibilities, i.e. the principle that brings heterogeneous modes of existence into the relation of care. Instead, the Planetary becomes this site, extending the scope of the “Other to care about” to include various genres of non-human existence, whether mountains and rivers, forests and coral reefs, animals and plants, or perhaps even technical objects. All of these elements and dimensions comprise the endless Planetary, the figure of ultimate alterity.
What is really precious about this attempt is the possibility of the alienation of the human from the planet. One might criticize Spivak’s figure of the Planetary for remaining too human a concept—one which cannot be employed on the level of large-scale, supra-individual climate emergency geopolitics, since it deals only with the possibility of a new structure of individual identity and becoming. However, in the spirit of Mignolo’s analysis of Western modernity/ coloniality, we need to carefully trace potential junctions between body-politics and geopolitics, in order to open up new geopolitical registers. This is evident also in the work of Gabrys, who elaborates on Spivak’s approach. She further expands on becoming-planetary as praxis, presenting a mode of understanding and intervening in medias res, i.e. from within the planetary. Rather than endorsing an outside view of the planet, which according to her leads towards a false picture of humans as stewards of Earth, the Planetary can guide us towards inhabiting the planet otherwise.
MEDIA PERSPECTIVE ON THE HUMAN
At this point, comparative planetology aims to synthesize certain productive aspects of both the Earth-system and critical-subjective perspectives. Despite the latter sometimes explicitly opposing the former (e.g. when Gabrys criticizes environmentalism driven by Earth-system sciences as being guilty of promoting a fictional, totalitarian outside perspective on the planet, together with colonial universalism), both approaches converge in the understanding of the human as a medium of alterity, following a line from Holly Herndon’s song Extreme Love (2019): “We are completely outside ourselves, and the world is completely inside us.” Connolly talks about humanity inhabited by forces of the world, Parikka sees media artefacts of human species as geological agents, and we can see in Spivak’s reflections on the Planetary glimpses of a similar commitment to alterity as something genuinely outside of the human: “If we imagine ourselves as planetary accidents rather than global agents, planetary creatures rather than global entities, alterity remains underived from us, it is not our dialectical negation, it contains us as much as it flings us away” (Spivak 2012, 339).
Call it nature or not, one can spot in the discourse on the Planetary the existence of alterity, which manifests itself as a procedure of the unfolding of path-dependencies (mutually dependant and irreversible evolutionary trajectories) that were here before humans and can very well continue—through finding new media channels—after the end of this species. This media perspective on the human is pushed to its limits in German media theory, especially by Friedrich Kittler, who developed—with his notion of technological, historical a priori —a peculiar non-human media perspective: “the human being is primarily a ‘so-called Man’ formed as an after effect of media technologies” (Parikka 2015, 2).
Going back to the geology of media, where humans and their technologies are simply a continuation of impersonal geophysical torrents, such a Kittlerian approach invites another force to the company of alterities mediated through humans—the evolution of the technosphere.
Here, it is crucial to maintain the somewhat counter-intuitive interpretation of technical evolution crafted by Gilbert Simondon. It starts with the recognition that through the process of the evolution of technical objects, mediated through human invention, technical objects gradually acquire a status of freely operating, independent agents—computing machinery being one example. After explaining that technical objects emerge through the process of artificialization —a human gesture of abstraction that renders a natural object technical and sets it on the course of technical evolution (e.g. by processing monocrystalline silicon from quartz and turning it into a computer microchip)—Simondon proceeds to claim that the “evolved technical object comes closer to the mode of existence of natural objects” (Simondon 2017, 49). The “mode of existence” of these evolved technical objects “is analogous to that of natural spontaneously produced objects,” and for this reason, “one can legitimately consider them as one would natural objects” (Simondon 2017, 50). The evolution of a technical object is then an independent evolutionary trajectory stemming from the Planetary and coming back to the Planetary after it passes the full arc of its genesis. It eventually confronts us again as a natural object, external to the medium of the human that initially tilted its development towards this path.
“THE BECOMING ENVIRONMENTAL OF COMPUTATION”
Consequently, the evolution of technical objects provides us with the possibility of including the technosphere in ecological thinking, surpassing the original intention of the figure of the Planetary. We can even claim that based on these Simondonian assumptions, one can think about general ecology, avoiding dualities of organic and non-organic, or natural and artificial— an ecology of “natural-technical continuum”, (Hörl 2013, 128) where technology becomes a carrier of general environmentalization, or even better a general explication of interiority.
This idea follows remarks on the becoming environmental of computation by Jennifer Gabrys, who also draws from Simondon’s philosophy of technical objects. According to her, thanks to the scientific projects of ecology and climate studies, digital technologies—in the form of infrastructures o f or sensing and modelling Earth— become the general infrastructural background not just of scientific inquiries regarding our planet, but also of our everyday activities.
In Program Earth (2016) she revisits a 1999 article in Businessweek imagining that the twenty-first century will give Earth an “electronic skin” consisting of “thermostats, pressure gauges, pollution detectors, cameras, microphones, glucose sensors, EKGs, and electroencephalographs.” Earth-sensing apparatuses becomes more obvious if we consider recent planetary monitoring projects such as HP Labs’ Central Nervous System for the Earth, or Planetary Skin—the collaborative project of NASA, Cisco, the University of Minnesota and Imperial College London. They emerge out of older meteorological and climatological systems, developing a coherent knowledge infrastructure, or—to employ Paul Edwards’ description—a vast machine that can be described as a planetary sociotechnical system comprising “robust networks of people, artifacts, and institutions that generate, share, and maintain specific knowledge about the human and natural worlds” (Edwards 2010, 17).
Observing the consolidation of this vast machine also makes clear why comparative planetology pays close attention not just to philosophical conceptualizations, but also to visual imaginations of Earth: Earth-sensing infrastructures that produce imageries and models of the planet are the driving force behind the becoming environmental of computation; they are not only knowledge infrastructures, but properly speaking visual infrastructures. And what is more, they become a paradigmatic way of governing the affairs of the Planetary: “environmental sensing systems variously undertake a project of instrumenting or programming Earth,” leading to a situation in which “the planet might be understood as an entity to be sensed and transformed into data,” (Gabrys 2016, 36) i.e. understood as a governable entity.
Now, to push our intuitions further and distort our initial understanding of the Planetary even more, we can observe how the inclusion of the technosphere unfolds in Benjamin Bratton’s model of the Stack. As an armature of planetary-scale computation, the emergence of this “accidental megastructure” concludes the becoming environmental of computation. The Stack involves many elements, from minerals and fossil fuels to city grids and graphic user interfaces to populations of autonomous machines and agricultural drones. To distinguish its constitutive aspects, Bratton divides the Stack into six layers: Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, and User. Earth stands for the energetic and material substrate of computation; Cloud provides a basic computing infrastructure, and is populated by platforms that show simultaneous tendencies for integration and distribution; City represents the site of the deployment of computational infrastructures and of the materialization of apparatuses of sensing, modelling, and enacting platform protocols, while being at the same time the natural habitat of their users; Address systems deliver basic protocols of identification of individual elements that are accounted for in the given platform ontology; Interface covers all of the ways that user-to-user or user-to-platform interaction can be facilitated; and finally User stands for all of the human and non-human, individual as well as aggregate users of platforms and computational apparatuses in general. Each of these layers is in theory replaceable, and their order is not strictly set. Instead, the Stack comes as a generalization of the architecture of the internet, as expressed by OSI or TCP/IP network protocols. As far as the Stack articulates an entanglement between human, media, and geological history into one coherent theoretical edifice, comparative planetology treats this model as a comprehensive ontology of the contemporary era.
The reading of the Planetary through the prism of the integrative model of the Stack pronounces an extended media-infrastructural understanding of the planet, in which computational technologies stand for silent partners of geological and evolutionary processes: “The world remaking itself in waves, bit by bit and pebble by pebble” (Bratton 2015, 29). The Stack underlines in this reading an interplay between the physicalization of abstraction and the abstraction of physicalization that takes place in its Earth layer. This layer contains “wet economies of energy, water, arbitrary valuation, remote capture, and geographic chance” (Bratton 2015, 81) which feed the digestive system of the Stack, “drinking and vomiting its elemental juices and spitting up mobile phones” (Bratton 2015, 83). In these processes between technology and geology, bipedal featherless mammals (i.e. humans) play the role of mere mediators of evolutionary change, since an infrastructure of planetary-scale computation is an accidental megastructure and its accidental nature prevents any attempt to frame it as a result of historical process driven by some particular species.
The consolidation of this accidental megastructure broadly follows the Simondonian line of the evolution of technical objects, although it breaks with the centrality of the human as the media of this genesis. In the Stack, the planet itself is the principal accomplice in the evolution of the technosphere as an autonomous dimension of the Planetary, which arrives at the stage of full realization in the moment the planet becomes a computable whole. As a result the human ceases to be not only the main actor, but also the main medium of planetary history. It suggests the Anthropocene is an energetically and materially intensive—but not particularly temporally extensive—geological epoch. Bratton speculates about the coming post-Anthropocene, in which the planet enters the stage of planet-wide reverse prostheticization and “the human figure is set in motion from some other position in the field; the subject becomes object, self becomes substance, body becomes metabolic reserve, food machines consume you” (Bratton 2015, 274). It is the promise of the post-Anthropocene, and of the new figures of the planet it comes with, that comparative planetology subscribes to.