How to Turn an Image Into a Concept I: Living Earth, Composing, 28/06/2018

Jussi Parikka's book The Geology of Media is one of several books that have come out in the last decade exploring aspects of our global ecological crisis with an old image. The living Earth.

I’ve come across different aspects of this in Tim Morton’s work, as well as others in his broadly-related crew of thinkers – Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, Ian Bogost, a few others falling under the name speculative realists.* A variety of creative – and in Bogost’s case, delightfully bizarre – fundamental pessimists about the future of humanity.

* They all went to the same conference in 2007 that had “speculative realism” in the title, and appeared in an essay collection with that phrase in the title.

I hope the insane billionaires of the world will be happy to invest the
massive fortunes they've squired away in building inter-planetary
mining infrastructure by the end of the century. Because that's when
we're going to run out of all the metals that make computers work.
I mean, the most thoroughly absurd stance in ecological philosophy in the 21st century is optimism. So the image of a brutalized, raging, vengeful Earth – whether radically alien or hauntingly personal – is a constant.

But there are other, more impish, perspectives as well. I remember reading Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter during research for my last big book. She built a curious outline of an ontology she called vital materialism – major components were a return to vitalist biological theories and a quirky extrapolation of metallurgy.

Another book that delivered on almost all its potential, but petered out a little. Still excellent, if not quite great – fascinating ideas that weren’t tied together quite as profoundly as they could have been.

Parikka himself offers another set of sources for this image of the living Earth – an important one for him is the history of geology. Geology is, in the simplest terms, the historical investigation of a planet’s own development and the essential nature of a planet, along with the techniques for doing all that well.

It’s a science that could work on any planet made mostly of rock, but Earth is where we’ve done the most studies so far. Works just as well for other planets, moons, and asteroids – but for now such studies are prohibitively expensive, and getting there is a bit of a commute.

Throughout his book, Parikka turns to media theory and art for the
tools to turn the image of the living Earth into a philosophical
concept you can act on (and through). There are many hitches with
this decision, but one of them is that there have been so many
such images that focussing on a single one requires so much
justification that you spend all your time on it and not the analysis.
A lot of the first people to study geology shared a general, kind of vague image that served as their very rough framework for understanding how Earth worked as a system. Scratch that – it was a framework to understand THAT Earth worked as a system. This was the living Earth – that the generation and dynamic fluxes of Earth’s processes were its life processes.

Not as an organism like us. No one seriously thought they’d find igneous analogous to kidneys or lungs. If you describe these early geologists that way, you’re just doing it to dismiss their ideas from relevance by making their interpretive frameworks sound too plainly ridiculous.

Here’s how they thought, in brief. Having dynamic internal processes that generate themselves – one powers the other, the other powers the first – is a necessary and sufficient condition for being alive. For being a life.

It didn’t imply anything ontologically or physically – it didn’t mean necessarily that a planet would have a geological circulation like an animal’s cardiovascular system. The implication was ethical – that the Earth deserved the respect that you’d accord any living thing.

For example, take my personal favourite utterly barmy image of the
living Earth in popular culture – Mogo! The Green Lantern that's a
sentient planet! Mogo is pretty much the only thing I like about
Green Lantern proper, mainly because of its core premise that our
hero is a narc.
That’s different from the other common idea about respecting the Earth – philosophers use words like alienation and sublimity. Because the Earth is so much more powerful than a person – storms, floods, earthquakes, volcanos, massive mountain chains, vast oceans, etc – we respect it because it dwarfs us. We respect Earth because we’re so insignificant compared to it and casually destroyable in the face of it.

A geologically-inspired philosophy for our current crisis can’t inspire respect for the Earth through fear. Our processes – the grotesque pollution of mining and e-waste, the overflowing dumps of nuclear waste – are enough to strike fear into the Earth. We no longer need to fear the Earth – we need to fear ourselves.

That begins from understanding Earth as something which we harm. Not something we wreck, the way an angry toddler wrecks a plastic toy or a train set. You wreck something, and all that matters is the money to replace it and the mess you made. Earth is something we harm, the way a psychotic toddler yanks a kitten’s tail or pulls her ears to hear it scream.

Harm is to inflict suffering. And we need to learn how to understand the Earth as something we can inflict suffering on. Not suffering like an animal – any more than the Earth has blood and breath. No – There is suffering. Earth suffers.

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