Earth As Its Own Memory, Composing, 08/07/2018

Philosophical writing at its best walks a dangerous wire. Well, several such wires, really. The more wires you walk in your writing, the better your writing can be when you pull everything off. Of course, the more wires you walk, the riskier it is that you’ll succeed.

Acknowledging a truth doesn’t make it any easier to handle.

There's a curious image that appears in Jussi Parikka’s The Geology of Media – the Earth as its own memory. It’s an evocative image, and would be an impressive, brilliant image and metaphor when used in a literary context. If I ever write a sequel to Under the Trees, Eaten, I might use such a metaphor myself.

It's one thing to imagine walking in the earliest days of Earth. It's
another entirely to know walking in those days, living as much as
you can the real ancient past.
But in a philosophical context, such an evocative metaphor can be dangerous. The literary power of metaphorical imagery rests in its ambiguity. Metaphors can create an atmosphere for thinking and contemplation, expose a relationship that a write wants to examine.

But a metaphor resists any attempt to pin down its specific meaning for good. Its purpose is to open a spiral of interpretation – you’re meant, as a reader, to lose yourself in it. Metaphor paints thought, gives it a character or a general direction, a tendency. Yet it strays too far from the concrete to be philosophically productive.

Philosophical writing needs specificity – a philosophical concept is widely applicable, but very precise. Like a blueprint or a plan. Or an OS designed with intricate detail, which can then do a huge variety of different things – but a different sort of variety that you’d get with another OS.

No, those are all metaphors, similies. Images and comparisons, not the actual conceptual structures.

And there you have a demonstration of why metaphor isn’t very philosophically useful.

So does Parikka’s image succeed? Is it a philosophically interesting component of a planetary-centric way of thinking? Or does it only evoke?

I think it succeeds, anyway. For one thing, it relies on a conception of memory as a form of consciousness of history. You experience knowledge when you learn something for the first time, of review it, cementing it in your memory. So memory itself is an experience of learning and engaging with history.

This isn’t a purely discursive history – this concept of history leaves no risk of reduction to current human discussions. You aren’t left open to that juvenile interpretation of history as discourse about the past. You aren’t left wondering if history is only talk about the past, with the grittier, complex accounts no better than the empty exaltations.

Here is a concept of history as the material reality of the entire past, the persistence of past presents, events, and processes into the current time.

A piece of Earth, flying through space.
The material reality of the past is, geologically speaking, the crust of the Earth itself. Geological strata and the transitions between them reveal the actual development of Earth, the planet itself over time.

We can analyze rocks to reveal chemical, atmospheric, and geological conditions of the planet up to 4.4-billion years ago. The literal preservation of the most ancient past of this planet. Becoming conscious of this history, investigating and learning about these astronomically ancient conditions is an act of memory.

We are part of the same 4.4-billion year process of development of the giant ball of matter that we call Earth. We’re very strange, innovative parts – even sending little pieces of Earth far into the vastness of interstellar space.

We think of ourselves as separate from the planet. The planet is a giant thing that I live on. I personally pay a sum of money every month for the right to reside on a particular patch of the planet Earth.*

* When you explain rent and mortgages this way, it makes our entire civilization’s economy sound absurd and ridiculous. I think we should each do this regularly, to give ourselves a sense of perspective.

Now think about the history of your development. The web of causes that have produced your life so far. Causally, we’re part of Earth because the same processes of growth and decay continue as we’re born, eat, shit, die, and are eaten by bacteria, insects, and worms.

A few traces of the earliest days of Earth exist as they once were. All the other traces of the earliest days of Earth exist as they are now.

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