Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Orbital Subject: On the Question of Planetarity

In Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010), Richard Elster evinces the definitive quality of the desert: “‘Time falling away.  That’s what I feel here […] Time becoming slowly older.  Enormously old.  Not day by day.  This is deep time, epochal time.  Our lives receding into the long past.  That’s what’s out there.  The Pleistocene desert, the rule of extinction’” (72).  The encroachment of matter, the gradual disappearance of the human against a backdrop of a landscape older than organic life.  The primary character in DeLillo’s short novel is neither the narrator nor Elster, but the earth itself.  The earth; not as a home, or even as a world, but as a planet.
            There is a growing trend in contemporary literary and philosophical circles toward planetarity.  I will attempt to better define, and understand, this term in a moment; but first, I want to highlight what I consider to be some examples of this trend.  In 1980, Deleuze and Guattari published A Thousand Plateaus, which featured the enigmatic “10,000 B.C.: the Geology of Morals” and their discussion of “strata”; in 1991, Jean-François Lyotard published The Inhuman, in which the essay “Can Thought Go On Without a Body?” explored the concept of solar catastrophe, and Jacques Derrida published “‘Geopsychoanalysis…’ And the Rest of the World”; Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: an Essay on the Necessity of Contingency in 2006 (published as Après la finitude), which explored the possibility of thinking the world before humanity, in the form of the “arche-fossil”; Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (2007) in which he takes up Nietzsche’s challenge to think through the problem of nihilism via Lyotard’s concept of solar extinction and Freudian trauma; Reza Negarestani’s meta-generic Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (2008), which imagines humanity as a blemish upon the age-old struggle between a rebellious earth and a tyrannical sun; in 2010, Eugene Thacker published In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. I, a text that pushes what it means to think of the earth as a “planet” as opposed to a “world”; and, in 2013, Ben Woodard’s On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy, which pursues an admirable combinatory approach that draws on several of the previously mentioned works.
            In literary circles, Susan Stanford Friedman’s 2010 piece “Planetarity: Musing Modernist Studies” sets forth a potential direction for assessing the chimera of modernism.  Near the conclusion of her essay, Friedman questions the role of the planet in modernist literary scholarship: “Planetarity in its very name evokes the Earth in deep time.  Does the planet have its own modernities, crises distinct from those of the human species?  The critical practices of re-vision, recovery, circulation, and collage can examine the meanings of the non-human world for the human and the interaction of human modernities with the Earth as a planet in the cosmos” (Friedman 493).  Friedman espouses a symbiotic modernism, one that takes the planet into account without abandoning the human; a modernism for humanity that retains the fragility and volatility of its home in the universe.  Friedman specifies that planetarity “is an epistemology, not an ontology” (494); she intends it as a broadening of traditional scopes, a re-framing that allows us to shape our knowledge of ourselves and our environment in, if not more objective, then more inclusive terms.  Friedman’s planetarity functions as an accommodation for the human; for its works of art and literature, for its politics and culture.
            Let us momentarily contrast Friedman’s perspective with that of Brassier, as expressed in Nihil Unbound:
[S]ooner or later both life and mind will have to reckon with the disintegration of the ultimate horizon, when, roughly one trillion, trillion, trillion (101728) years from now, the accelerating expansion of the universe will have disintegrated the fabric of matter itself, terminating the possibility of embodiment.  Every star in the universe will have burnt out, plunging the cosmos into a state of absolute darkness and leaving behind nothing but spent husks of collapsed matter.  All free matter, whether planetary surfaces or in interstellar space, will have decayed, eradicating any remnants of life based in protons and chemistry, and erasing every vestige of sentience – irrespective of its physical basis.  Finally, in a state cosmologists call “asymptopia”, the stellar corpses littering the empty universe will evaporate into a brief hailstorm of elementary particles.  Atoms themselves will cease to exist.  Only the implacable gravitational expansion will continue, driven by the currently inexplicable force called “dark energy”, which will keep pushing the extinguished universe deeper and deeper into an eternal and unfathomable blackness. (Brassier 228)
I’ll give everyone a minute to catch their breath and, hopefully, salvage some remnant of our fragile optimism before continuing.  Brassier’s glimpse of reality in the vast and distant depths of time – time beyond human experience – leaves little to the imagination; and yet, Brassier illuminates the moment when imagination is exactly what is no longer possible.  Brassier’s planetarity takes a more nihilistic stance, envisioning the extinction of humanity and asking his readers to think this extinction as a fundamental component of life itself.
            Both Brassier’s and Friedman’s visions of the planet as a thing separate from humanity, as a subsistent object, force a hard question: what is the point of thinking something that so resists our thought?  What room can we make for something we cannot speak with, something we cannot relate to in any cognitive manner?  How can we make sense of a planet that may not make sense?  And if its resistance overcomes us, then what point is there in persistence?  I want to take these questions seriously, but I do not intend to provide answers to them.  Rather, in the spirit of contemporary geophilosophies, radical ecologies, and planetary models, I want to suggest that we can begin to think seriously about pursuing these questions if we implement the model of a possibility space.  It must be grasped that there are no simple answers to these questions; this is the wonder of scholarly exploration.  Instead of looking for answers, our contemporary speculative epoch must instead seek out possible solutions to serious problems.  As Ralph Ellison’s narrator confessed in Invisible Man (1952), our world has “become one of infinite possibilities.”
            A possibility space is an abstract term that describes a contingent material situation, even if its unrealized possibilities remain virtual.  Basically, a possibility space contains a specific set of conditions and objects that, due to their position within the possibility space, attain quantifiable and testable character traits.  These traits may be in active use, or they may be latent (or virtual); but in both cases, these traits are real.  Even if a possibility is never actualized, it remains materially supported by the conditions of the possibility space.  So, as Manuel DeLanda describes (2011), a possibility space must be seen as verifiable and materially present: “an unmanifested tendency and an unexercised capacity are not just possible but define a concrete space of possibilities with a definite structure” (Simulation 17).  We can associate the shift toward planetarity with a corresponding shift toward an apprehension of global cultural systems and ecological phenomena as possibility spaces, as indicated by the increasingly speculative philosophical developments after the Second World War (poststructuralism, deconstruction, structural Marxism, schizoanalysis, etc.).  More specifically, we might say that the development of modernism – in the humanities and the sciences – coincides with a general critical mentality that perceives the global situation as fragile and contingent.
            This may sound like a plea for relativity, especially when we consider the manifestation of this mentality in the modern, and postmodern, novel.  However, I would contend that what appears as relativity (and, in some cases, rightfully may be called so) is more often a push toward thinking the unthought space of the earth itself; its existence, its relation to human bodies, its symbiosis with organic systems, its position in a solar system, a galaxy, a universe, etc.  This tendency heralds a major component of the modern posthuman epistemology, and we can find instances of this growing planetarity in the work of philosophers Brassier and Meillassoux, not to mention biologist Stephen Jay Gould (whose “deep time” signifies the geologic time of the earth’s accretion and existence beyond the Anthropocene).  In order to explore this effort of thinking the earth, or the shift toward planetarity, I want to turn toward the evocative short story “Human Moments in World War III,” also by Don DeLillo (1983).
            In this short story, two astronauts – the unnamed narrator and his partner Vollmer – orbit around the earth at a distance of 220 kilometers; the same distance that the International Space Station orbits, although their craft is never identified as such in the text.  As the story develops, the astronauts intercept unidentified signals that appear to be the transmissions of forty- or fifty-year-old radio programs.  The source of these signals is never revealed, and the story concludes with the narrator admitting that Vollmer has “entered a strange phase” (337).  By the close of the narrative, it is questionable whether the narrator and Vollmer retain their humanness. 
            Throughout the course of the story, DeLillo describes their subsequent views of the earth and affective (perhaps even physiological) response to their isolation.  In the opening lines, the narrator writes that Vollmer “no longer describes the earth as a library globe or a map that has come alive, as a cosmic eye staring into deep space” (325).  Vollmer’s former reaction to the earth – the way he sees it – it as something that sees him, that looks back.  It becomes a living map, which suggests an interesting conflation between the dead letter of topographical representation and the un-representable spontaneity of the organic.  The earth can never be observed in its totality since it explodes the boundaries of their portholes, since it always keeps one half hidden; and yet, the earth grounds the astronauts, despite their elevation: “To men at this remove, it is as though things exist in their particular physical form in order to reveal the hidden simplicity of some powerful mathematical truth.  The earth reveals to us the simple awesome beauty of day and night.  It is there to contain and incorporate these conceptual events” (327).  Day and night, the narrator tells us, are relative to one’s position on, or relationship to, the earth; but his words also hint at something beyond relativity, a mathematical consistency.
            The earth, he claims, circumscribes day and night as they are known by humans.  This duality conditions the frame of human knowledge, but the earth presents a perspective that contains this duality, presents it in its objective regularity apart from the subjective experience of it on the planet’s surface.  The earth occupies a space from which certain phenomena, which we assume to be fixed and natural but whose occurrence we can only induce, appear in their objective cosmic structure:
            “‘I still get depressed on Sundays,’ [Vollmer] says.
            ‘Do we have Sundays here?’
            ‘No, but they have them there and I still feel them.  I always know when it’s Sunday’” (326).
Vollmer’s elevation obliterates his experiential relationship to the days of the week, but provides a different form of connection to the concept “Sunday.”  He comprehends the material quality of Sunday as an event coinciding with a real relationship between the earth and the sun: “‘The whole day was kind of set up beforehand and the routine almost never changed.  Orbital routine is different.  It’s satisfying.  It gives our time a shape and substance.  Those Sundays were shapeless despite the fact you knew what was coming, who was coming, what we’d all say’” (327).  Orbital Sundays, in contrast to terrestrial Sundays, attain a broader objectivity that allows observers to comprehend their cosmic materiality.
            Throughout the story, the astronauts circle the earth, but it is not only a gravitational center.  It is also a narrative center, a center that fixes a specific meaning for the characters.  I am interested here primarily in the figurative language, the imagery, of orbiting.  We can think of this term narratologically, in the sense that plots typically orbit around certain diegetic objects or characters, actions or events.  I would compare the novelistic text to a text that has become conscious of its existence as an assemblage of textual raw materials that logically orbit around a gravitational-narrative center.  In some cases, this center may be difficult to identify, or it may be a collection of objects; but the novel of the mid-to-late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries reflexively presents itself as a singularity, and here we reencounter the notion of the possibility space.  As a singularity, a novel comprises a possibility space; that is, a novel partakes of a set of material conditions (other singularities) that come together to introduce a possibility space: “a given emergent effect involves describing not only a concrete mechanism but also the singularities structuring the possibility space behind the stabilizing tendencies manifested in those mechanisms” (DeLanda, “Emergence” 389).[1]  We must here resist our temptation toward a tradition, that of comprehending the novel as something linear.  No linearly interpreted meaning inheres in a novel, since linearity necessitates the temporal participation of a normative reading subject.  Opposed to linear interpretation, we must push in the direction of a new conception of reading; something along the lines of Franco Moretti’s distant reading, or N. Katherine Hayles’s hyper reading.  Following in the vein already established by terms such as “singularity” and “possibility space,” I want to venture a label for this new kind of interpretive method: emergent reading.
            Emergence affords the only possibility of registering planetarity in any productive way.  In order to account for the majestic scale of the planet and the cosmos it inhabits, we must contextualize it within scientific concepts that exceed the scope of the human: deep time, light years, gravitational singularities.  We must elevate ourselves so that, like Vollmer, we might begin to observe the earth beyond our grounded subjectivity.  Planetarity demands thinking the earth in various contingencies, within and beyond human thought, and as something that subsists without human beings but that achieves its planetarity through the perception of humans.  This reflexive relationship approximates a dialectical model, but also introduces a new way of thinking dialectics; one that complements our invocation of emergence.  On a planetary scale, we must envision dialectics as feedback loops.[2]  In moving beyond conceptual human models, we entertain the vast organicism of a world not-for-us, a world replete with mutual symbioses, life threatening the differentiation of embodiment, deterritorialized in Deleuzian flux, a bio-cybernetics of always-already technologized vitality.  If we assume a planetary position, the earth begins to look not only like something that conditions our existence, but as something that reacts to us.  The earth has thoughts of its own.
            Reza Negarestani imagines a thinking, reacting earth is imagined in his Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials.  Negarestani’s Lovecraftian tale portrays the earth in revolutionary resistance against the sun, a struggle that has conditioned human history in everything from mystery cults to political conflicts:
[P]etroleum and fossil fuels exemplify another Telluro-conspiracy towards the Sun’s solar economy: trapping the energy of the sun accumulated in organisms by means of lithologic sedimentation, stratification, anaerobic decay and bacteria in highly stratified sedimentary basins.  In this sense, petroleum is a terrestrial replacement of the onanistic self-indulgence of the Sun or solar capitalism.  Earth dismantles the hegemony of the Sun on a subterranean (blobjective) level. (Negarestani 19)
Reading Negarestani’s novel (if it can be described as such) takes effort, but yields rewards for those who abandon traditional expectations of reading.  Cyclonopedia presents a complex of meaning that does not surface through linear narrative, but only as a whole; through beginnings that must be revisited upon finishing the text, and through various plot elements and “( )hole complexes” that only volunteer meaning through recodification.  Like the earth itself, seen from Vollmer’s orbiting space station, the text of Cyclonopedia cannot be seen in its entirety, and it remains conscious of this fact.  One must “read” the text not from start to finish, but from middle to finish, then back to start; or leap from the introduction to the conclusion, then fill in the beginning; or choose chapters at random.  If read as a traditional novel, Cyclonopedia appears as something strange and obscure, as a manuscript that might be discovered in the depths of an Umberto Eco novel; but this manuscript offers little explanation as to its purpose.  Cyclonopedia, to the contrary, comments on its existence as an example of “hidden writing.”
            The genre of hidden writing embraces codification as a means of appearing to write about one topic while actually writing about something else.  It is a subsurface text, a subtext, and Negarestani compares this subterranean meaning-complex with the ritualistic penetration of the earth itself: “For an archeologist who reads the site through inconsistencies and through the profound defectiveness of what is available through the surface, the cenotaph, as an empty tomb, presents a hole in the story which points in an exact and unmistakable direction: the entrance to the warren compound of the necropolis or the real underground network” (64).  The hidden component of the text derives from the simultaneity of a geo-cosmic system, an atemporal body that resists linear interpretation.  It is composed of layers, and penetration to the core reveals no secrets.  The analytical process must be simultaneous and omni-topic; the singular occupation and comprehension of an entire spatial system.
            In Tom McCarthy’s Men in Space, Anton Markov begins to understand the implications of this system: a system that spans countries and continents, aesthetics and ideologies.  Held in question over charges of murder and possession of a stolen painting, Anton begins to see hope for his release: “[…] Anton can see that if he can just get to that point, feel out its axis, pull the strands in a particular direction, in particular directions around it, then a turning force will be produced, a moment, and the leverage will spread a change through the entire network: everything will move together in a way he wouldn’t ever have thought possible, until now” (174).  McCarthy’s surrealist novel (and yet not so surreal as its predecessor, Remainder) explores the complexities of global relationships in the aftermath of the Cold War, and the aforementioned quote expresses the dynamics of these relationships in explicitly spatial language.  The planet takes precedence over human subjects as the stage for this emergent system of relationships to develop, and this planetary language is reinforced through McCarthy’s use of orbital imagery.  As artist Ivan Maňásek works to copy a painting, he imagines himself as a satellite: “He pictures himself in the air again, gliding along the groove of an invisible ellipse, or higher, out in space, a planet orbiting a sun around a ball of intense, burnished gold” (127).  Descriptions of orbits occur multiple times in the novel, illuminating a model of interacting bodies that comprise an always-changing system; a system bound by material laws, physical laws, but at work on a plane of sublation, of aesthetics and affect.  A language of planetarity.
            Human bodies thus find comparison to terrestrial matter in McCarthy’s novel.  When the unnamed investigative character pursues several of his targets late in the novel, McCarthy conflates bodies with a dug, perforated earth: “He stopped in front of Subject and showed him the spade.  Spades are for digging holes, and mouths are holes.  Ears too, with inner and outer compounds.  Why do I write this?” (229).  Like Negarestani’s plot holes of hidden writing, McCarthy’s holey surfaces reveal layers and vast networks, multiple planes of interpretation, particularly as they orbit the central image of the novel: a mysterious icon painting that defies traditional iconography.  Meaning fluctuates and mutates through human interlocutors, but it would fail entirely without its center of gravity, the planet that rotates and revolves beyond human scales of time and narrative.
            These various manifestations of planetarity – DeLillo’s Point Omega, Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, McCarthy’s Men in Space – all were published within the past decade (DeLillo’s “Human Moments” was published in the ‘80s, but informs much of his later fiction).  These examples point toward a trend that I am identifying as a subsumption of the human; not a resistant to the human or a rejection of humanity, but a reframing of humanity within a nonhuman scope.  These texts interrogate the production of meaning as a fundamentally material process, and attempt to understand how thought, ideas, and meaning can separate themselves from their material origins.  As long evolutionary consequences of earthen matter, human bodies (along with animals, vegetables, and microbes) are circumscribed by the accretion and existence of the planet.  Human meaning can never exceed its historical conditioning as an inhabitant of a planet whose contingent development supports life (of a sort).  Meaning thus only ever exists in a kind of feedback loop: a symbiosis between humanity and the planet it inhabits.  Like symbiotic relationships on the purely biological level, meaning must be rendered in terms of matter and materialism.
            This is what the language of planetarity offers.  It affords us the opportunity to approach meaning in a modern, materialist sense.  Here we revisit our two unintuitive claims: a) that meaning, that which is traditionally considered idealist, is in fact materialist, and b) that the earth, cosmic matter itself, that which serves as the original source of meaning, must also serve as its destruction.  As Deleuze and Guattari argue in Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980), matter continuously drives toward disorganization, deterritorialization; a complete dismantling of any interpretive effort.  However, while Deleuze and Guattari encourage the schizophrenia of their philosophy, our language of planetarity does not abandon the temptation, attraction, necessity of meaning; and this is the strength of planetarity, the reason for its appearance in recent literature, and Friedman’s emphasis on it as a kind of modernism.  In the wake of Deleuze and Guattari’s ruthless deconstructivist breakdown, contemporary writers have attempted to salvage the lure of meaning but without reverting to Kantian transcendentalism.  For these 21st-century authors, meaning subsists; but it can be explained as a material, not transcendental, phenomenon.
            There is nothing in the universe that we are not meant to know.  To make such a distinction is to remove the notion of meaning from the realm of material possibility; that is, something beyond knowledge deems it appropriate for us to know.  This is to relinquish meaning to the sphere of the ineffable and the absolute.  It is to make meaning necessary, rather than contingent on material circumstance.  Social systems of meaning and value are emergent phenomena that arise from complex arrangements of material components.  Meaning appears in relation to the possibility space created by its material source, and crystallizes into apparently abstract, free-floating essences.  But meaning is only free-floating in retrospect; as it actually unfolds in material reality, meaning is only ever a singular manifestation within a possibility space.  Envisioned as temporal progress, meaning appears inevitable; but reconceived within a nonlinear possibility space, meaning emerges as a contingent phenomenon.  It is a consequence of endless feedback between organisms and the material forms that condition their perception of the world; between conscious life and the planet to which it clings.  Is this not a way for us to approach Friedman’s planetary modernism?  Is this not a method of comprehending the importance of planetarity for modern thought?
            The language of feedback loops and symbiosis fills the void left by transcendentalism and metaphysics – the language of biology, geology, and planetarity.  That meaning arises from the relationships between organisms and their environment; and here, finally, we must acknowledge the final turn of the screw.  The importation of these terms – feedback loop, symbiosis – also take the place of one of the most important methodological concepts in literary history: the dialectic.  The interaction of thesis and antithesis serves as the abstract model for the material processes that we are identifying here.  Dialectics must be retrieved from the realm of ideal abstraction and implemented on the level of the material; on the plane of the planet.  Once we reposition ourselves as human subjects in constant symbiotic mutuality and parasitic struggle with the earth-as-planet; only then can we begin to conceive of meaning as simultaneously material and indispensable for our existence.  Meaning is the screen of language, ideation, and representation that mediates the impossible void between the planet and its conscious subjects.  Planetarity, as a methodology, must consistently and critically contextualize meaning itself as part of a process occurring between not only human subjects, but between human and planetary subjects.
Works Cited
Brassier, Ray. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. London: Palgrave Macmillan,           2007. Print.
DeLanda, Manuel. "Emergence, Causality, and Realism." The Speculative Turn. Eds. Levi R. Bryant, Nick Srnicek, Graham Harman. Melbourne:, 2011. 381-392. Print.
-. Philosophy and Simulation. London: Continuum, 2011. Print.
DeLillo, Don. “Human Moments of World War III.” American Gothic Tales. Ed. Joyce Carol      Oates. New York: Plume, 1996. 325-338. Print.
–. Point Omega. New York: Scriber, 2010. Print.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Planetarity: Musing Modernist Studies.” Modernism/modernity. 17.3             (2010): 471-499. Print.
McCarthy, Tom. Men in Space. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.
Negarestani, Reza. Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Melbourne:,      2008. Print.

[1] This quote is taken largely out of context, but I unfortunately don’t have the space to go into a deep discussion of DeLanda’s notions of emergence and singularities.  For more information on these complex terms, see DeLanda’s illuminating material on the subject (cited below).
[2] This comparison has been made by Hadi Khorshidi and Marzieh Soltanolkottabi in their “Hegelian Philosophy and System Dynamics.”

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