What are the possibilities of imagining and knowing the planet? A symposium in Sydney addressed this question today at what it called “earth magnitude.” Can the planet be “sensed’? How do the new dynamics of human and non-human within globalized networks of communication change our understandings of life itself?
Ursula Heise drew on legends like Gilgamesh to show that we have always have been haunted by fears of mass extinction. She has developed the concept of “sense of planet” to supplement the better known assumption of “sense of place.” She has less interest in concepts of place, not least because as a German she is suspicious of the Nazi rhetoric of soil and locality. Her project promotes by contrast a concept of “eco-cosmopolitanism” in which our responsibility is to learn more about the way that others envisage place rather than cultivate our own gardens.
Her new project interestingly suggests that planetary awareness stems from databases. She argues that the database is the ”primary planetary sense organ,” building on Lev Manovich’s ideas that the database is “a cultural form of its own.” In this context, the database is a paradigm that generates narratives.
Such databases as the Census of Marine Life, the Catalogue of Life, the Encyclopedia of Life, and the Consortium for the Barcode of Life allow us a new means to create a planetary paradigm of life. Heise showed how artists like Maya Lin have created database-generated projects, like her What Is Missing? (Click the link to play). Indeed, the Taronga Zoo at Sydney that I visited yesterday is a form of living taxonomy of scarcity, in which the wall text next to animal enclosures highlights the extent to which the species is threatened.
Such archives oscillate between minimalist and sublime aesthetics. As an example of the former, Joel Satore photographs and displays endangered and extinct species in distinctly anti-romantic form. By contrast, the TV generated ARKive featuring David Attenborough uses a familiar info-tainment sublime by generating high-resolution full color images of rare animals with an aesthetic of imminent disappearance. For Heise, such projects are modern epics that acknowledge an inevitable shortfall in their efforts to capture the world-system. Such work sees itself as part of an epic struggle to preserve life itself, a recuperation of the heroic out of the horizontal. Here then we find the “great man” theory of history re-entering the database as an organizing principle.
Tim Morton talked about Avatar in the frame of his dark ecology. He stressed the way in which it addressed the need for an environmental politics without satisfying it. The Anthropocene provides a precision of dating that is uncanny in relation to geological time. Avatar is a fantasy of an organic Internet, an embodiment into the planet, which Morton calls “planet sense.” Ironically, present-day environmentalism shows precisely how we are necessarily always interactive with the planet. It’s worth remembering that the film centers on the desire for colonial mining, a representation of the existing global South. Avatar centers around such binaries, epitomized by Jake who is human and Navi at once.
For Morton, Avatar is an object in the sense of Object-Oriented Ontology, an animist vision making the film into a person. OOO places things at the center of its attention, a set whose members are not identical to themselves. Reality is, in this view, “profoundly disjointed.” It moves past the logic of non-contradiction. There is no vantage point outside the set, reality cannot be peeled away. Morton has a dense philosophical analysis that is hard to summarize, it must be said.
This sense that “we are not the world” troubles the relation between foreground and background: how can we bring together beings that cannot be reduced? There is no “world” in this view. So: doom. Doom is fate and a judgement, but it is also justice, the figure of deconstruction. Humans’s doom is to recognize the presence of the non-human.
Jennifer Gabrys talked about planet sensing in fieldwork she carried out in Lapland. Environmental monitoring takes place in the far North using computational sensors, where it is a key scientific activity. This sensing creates a database, rather than recording “how things really are.” She argues that there are many forms of sensing, quoting Alfred Whitehead
We are in the world and the world is in us.
The subject emerges from the world and vice-versa. Objects like rocks have experience insofar as they are affected by the world, and says Steven Shaviro
this being affected is its experience.
From this background, Gabrys argued for “citizen sensing” as a form of environmental monitoring and participation, using open-source software like Arduino. For example, Beatriz da Costa has used pigeons to monitor air quality in Los Angeles. Such projects questions who or what counts as a citizen, a question that resonates within the Occupy movement. Perhaps such environmental action might constitute citizenship, or becoming a sensing citizen?
Finally, Marco Peljhan presented his Arctic Perspective Initiative (together with many others) as a Constructivist Engagement. He noted that satellite sensing and its massive data sets are largely open source. He has used such data in the Makrolab projects that detailed migrations of capital and climate. Working with Inuit partners in the Arctic, however, it became clear that a longer-term approach was necessary. Under Stalin, the Arctic was part of the Gulag and subject to an “accidental” genocide. In Canada, major dislocation was common and culturally destructive. The theme became one of resilience, a key theme for life in the Arctic.
The Initiative created renewable and sustainable digital labs for the Arctic, including hydroponic gardens. The group offered local Inuit film makers courses in video editing using open source software, aerial maps, The current project is called Sinuni, a climate/weather and land recording device, using satellite imagery. This interface between indigenous oral knowledge and globalized digital military-industrial technology provides a means to repurpose military visualization for autonomous purposes.
Reflections to follow tomorrow with my own contribution.
[ps written on the fly so apologies for typos etc]