Thinking With the Planet: a Review of The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the Twenty-First Century
Thinking With the Planet: a Review of The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the Twenty-First Century
Using recent events of planetary significance as a point of departure, Jeanette McVicker reviews The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Amy J. Elias and Christian Moraru.
A review of The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Amy J. Elias and Christian Moraru (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015). By Jeanette McVicker.
As it happens, I write this review through a constellation of three significant moments of the past several weeks of autumn 2015 which impact my sense of the “planetary”: the discovery of a “new,” early human species, Homo Naledi, in South Africa (Wilford) that is altering views of evolution, the “discovery” of liquid water on Mars (Chang) that may reveal the existence of life “elsewhere,” and the dramatic ongoing story of human suffering—and resilience—as Syrian, Afghan, and African refugees fleeing war and economic devastation seek asylum in a Europe unprepared (and largely unwilling) to accept them (Reuters). There would seem to be no better time to address the urgent need for a “planetary turn” in the arts and social humanities that would help us respond to the interrelation of these events in the present, and imagine their entwined implications for multiple futures. The question of course is, what such a “turn” might offer that a critical cosmopolitanism, or other similar frameworks, has not. The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the Twenty-First Century, addresses this and other questions in a rich and often compelling set of meditations on the idea and practice of planetarity.
Comprised of twelve essays by a multi-disciplinary, international group of scholars, launched with a manifesto-like introduction by the editors, the collection seeks to establish a critical commons for a range of approaches to contemporary literatures, media, the arts, and politics in the wake of postmodernism and poststructuralism. At the same time, the contributors as a whole address the potential for a new paradigm that might move beyond the perceived limits of globalization, new cosmopolitanism and environmentalism. Elias and Moraru, whose previous scholarly interventions addressing literary and aesthetic postmodernism, world literature and the arts are well known, offer a definition of the “planet” and “planetary” as “a multi-centric and pluralizing, ‘actually existing’ worldly structure of relatedness critically keyed to non-totalist, non-homogenizing, and anti-hegemonic operations typically and polemically subtended by an eco-logic” (xxiii; their italics). As that definition suggests, they aim to bring into dialogue approaches articulating a “relationality” based in a new ethical framework that encompasses not only human culture, but planetary culture as inclusive of “the non-human, the organic, and the inorganic in all of their richness” (Elias and Moraru, xxiii).
Fellow Travelers of the Planetary
The twenty-first century has given rise to a number of neologisms for negotiating the global afterlife of postmodernism’s circulation of ideas, aesthetics and movements (see especially David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris’ 2015 collection, Supplanting the Postmodern: An Anthology of Writings on the Arts and Culture of the Early 21st Century, for a good review of these, which also includes essays by two of the contributors to The Planetary Turn). Many of these efforts to announce the end of postmodernism (e.g. digimodernism, cosmodernism, performatism) find a new framework in the planetary, particularly in connection to a spatial analytics focusing on “earth” (e.g. geoaesthetics, geomodernisms, geopolitics). As Elias and Moraru state in the introduction, “The planetary field’s most significant counter to the global—understood primarily as a financially, economically, and technologically homogenizing force—is its relationality model and return to ethics” (xvii). The “planetary” itself as a concept has also been circulating for awhile: the late Ihab Hassan was among the earliest to invoke the term. Elias and Moraru’s introduction references the volume’s significant points of departure as the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Masao Miyoshi and Wai Chee Dimock. A key touchstone for a majority of the volume’s contributors is Spivak’s Death of a Discipline (2003), in which she urgently called for comparative literature (the discipline in question) to reinvent itself as “planetarity” in order to prevent its further complicity with the forces of globalization, including a homogenizing cultural studies approach to reading literature. Spivak’s text, repeatedly cited in this volume, haunts it in fascinating ways: various theorists articulate their own perspectives, often against her signature poststructuralist one. Many frequently attune themselves instead to an approach to the planetary offered by Dimock (whose essay “Gilgamesh’s Planetary Turns” in the current volume offers a pertinent example of her own innovative method of reading the planet as “duration and extension,” as she put it in an earlier publication). The often heated debate with Spivak in some of the essays—Raoul Esherman is particularly emphatic about the need to distance criticism from what he suggests is her view of the human “as a mere effect of language or discourse” (102)—reveals a specific impatience with deconstruction’s focus on textuality, among several other legacies of postmodernism and poststructuralist approaches. John D. Pizer differentiates his idea of world literature from both Spivak and that offered by Franco Moretti (2000), aligning his approach more broadly with Dimock’s in his discussion of the eighteenth-century German debate on world literature. This tension with Spivak’s invocation of planetarity is one to which I’ll return.
Masao Miyoshi’s “Turn to the Planet: Literature, Diversity, and Totality” (2001) is also noted by the editors (and several contributors) as a significant touchstone for the volume, sounding a critique of globalization and the neoliberal nation-state in one of the early calls for “planetarianism,” in his view the only appropriate goal for literature and literary studies in the current historical moment. The work of Emily Apter, Paul Giles, and Dimock (the latter two with essays in the present volume) is also noted as fundamental to the planetary turn. Dimock’s “trans-nationalist, ‘deep-time’ forays and conceptualizations of a new, planet-oriented scalarity and aggregation scheme in literary history have been particularly influential in this burgeoning planetary vocabulary,” according to the editors (xix). Giles is one of the few to adopt a cautionary note on this move to the planetary: “there is often an uneasy conjunction between the planetary and the parochial, a sense that the idealist rhetoric of planetarity serves to obfuscate narrower material or ideological interests” (144). His intricate analyses of Australian fiction here provide a counter to what he posits as a tendency toward an “abstract universalism of U.S. critical discourse on the planet” (147). Invoked by several contributors to the present volume, Apter’s compelling defense of “untranslatability,” countering what she sees as the too-easy commodification and emptying-out of the cultural and linguistic specificity of world literature, has affinity with Spivak’s use of the planetary to counter globalization and its reductive narrowing. These critical variations in conceptualizing the planet and adopting it as a reading strategy are felt throughout the volume by the present set of contributors, giving the collection a multi-faceted take on why and how planetarity matters.
To these important critics and theorists, one could also add the collective reworking of modernist literary studies by a diverse number of contemporary critics including but not limited to Jessica Berman, Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel, and Susan Stanford Friedman, who have contributed to a significant rethinking of modernism from a geoaesthetic perspective. Friedman’s contributions, starting with Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter (1998), a landmark essay on planetary modernism in Modernism/modernity (2010), and a new book published this year on that topic, are critical for humanities scholars contemplating the planetary in literary studies. Other scholars noted by this volume’s contributors as significant critical travelers of various trajectories of the planetary include Edward W. Soja, Paul Gilroy, Edouard Glissant and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari; the list is obviously much longer. The present collection builds upon this wide range of prior work, takes it in multiple directions, outlines a new paradigm and offers new methodologies: in others words, it calls into being the need for a new epistemology. As Moraru boldly puts it in his concluding essay, “No other chapter in history, I contend, has literalized the planet’s figure so extensively, making it so ineludible in its ubiquitous physical immediacy, so non-figurative in its concrete, geocultural presence, and so productive conceptually, so consequential for how one thinks—for how ‘immanent’ to thinking thinking with the planet has become of late across disciplines” (215; Moraru’s italics). The volume will no doubt be seen as a landmark effort in that endeavor.
Moraru and Elias, who each contribute an essay to the volume in addition to their critical joint introduction, capably frame the volume’s primary mission: “(1) theorizing the planetary condition; (2) devising and testing modalities of reading aesthetic and cultural symptoms of planetarity in a fashion germane to the planetary ethics of relationality; and (3) working out, albeit independently and, for the most part, inductively, a reasonably functional and sufficiently detailed model of the planetary aesthetic and its geocultural modus operandi” (xxvi). Actively cultivating a sense of stewardship in the “world commons,” understanding relationality as “bioconnective,” and “actively worlding the world” as a “world of relations” (xxiii-xxiv) are key aspects of their critical framework. Each contributor’s take on these aspects varies, of course; the effect is to create a multifaceted set of approaches to the question of what it means to think and act planetarily. Elias’s meticulous exploration of “The Commons…and Digital Planetarity,” asks how one’s virtual life is part of living in the planetary commons, and “what direction might be posited for commons life in this virtual, planetary space” (41). She demonstrates how the digital commons functions as “a social space that is organized neither on the nation-state model nor on the neoliberal global model” (41), aligning the internet instead as a “new planetary collective” that raises crucial issues of ethics. Tracing the need for a rigorous discussion of common pool resources, or CPRs, Elias draws on affect theory among others to posit ways that the digital planetary commons can participate in “worlding the world” in positive, ethical ways. Her work on the commons and the arts is part of a forthcoming monograph.
Moraru’s contribution, “Decompressing Culture: Three Steps toward a Geomethodology” concludes the volume. Drawing on material from his forthcoming book, Moraru plays with the metaphor of the planet’s “face” increasingly “turned” toward “us,” a “development [that] is […] bringing about a ‘discontinuity’ in how we understand ourselves and others and, in that, has all the makings of an event” (213). How does one “read ‘with’ the planet” in an ethically informed manner? he asks. In a performative reading that includes an eclectic range of critical encounters with post-Cold War fiction as well as contemporary theory, Moraru’s essay also serves as a meditation on Heidegger’s “Age of the World Picture” and “The Question Concerning Technology.” It goes without saying that Heidegger will come up short of the ethical bar the volume seeks to establish; in fact, Moraru, (via a critique he adopts from Michael Lang in 2003) seeks a way to detach from what he calls the “Heideggerian-[David] Harvey line of thought.” In Moraru’s reading, the legacy one needs to overcome or distance oneself from is a Heideggerian “technology” that “de-spatializes”—and that “does so unethically” (238). Instead, Moraru turns toward Levinas, whose “completely different” understanding of technology from Heidegger’s, “spatializes ethically” (238; Moraru’s italics). Levinas’ “ethics-before-ontology argument,” Moraru suggests, offers a strategy for articulating a geomethodology that “decompresses” the topological, the “structural, or relational,” and the ethical (216-217), areas that Heidegger’s ontology served to “compress” (Lang’s term, adopted by Moraru). This methodology, he suggests, makes possible a reading “with” the planet that also becomes a reading “for” the planet.
Together with Elias and Moraru, the additional ten contributors—John D. Pizer, Laurie Edson, Hester Blum, Paul Giles, Robert Tally, Jr., Alan Kirby, Terry Smith, Bertrand Westphal, Dimock and Eshelman—offer a dynamic, multi-layered conversation on what it means to engage the planet digitally (Elias, Kirby), to figure its recent appearance in visual culture (Edson, Eshelman, Kirby, Smith, Tally, Westphal) and contemporary literature and theater (Giles, Moraru, Dimock, Pizer, Kirby), and to consider the implications of that encounter historically (Blum, Dimock, Tally, Pizer). As Giles suggests, drawing on recent Australian fiction and its locational complexities, “The most fundamental thing to say about a planet is not that it is a finite resource, a scientific hypothesis which may or may not be true, but that it is by definition always in rotation. A greater recognition of how planetary perspectives are inherently mutable and shifting might thus help to reorder the idea of the planet more within a material force field” (145). A similar idea is expressed differently by Blum, writing on the terraqueous: “An oceanic standard helps … to give new meaning to the figure of the ‘turn’ in thinking of planetarity, as well as in the many turns of recent decades (the transnational, the linguistic, the temporal, the spatial, and the hemispheric, among many others)” (34). The wide range of texts, locations (e.g., White Sands, NM, in Westphal’s compelling reading of the “white globe”) and histories illustrates the pervasiveness of this turn toward the planet on the part of contemporary artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians and others, and repositions historical texts, from Gilgamesh to Moby-Dick, Chocolat to Babel, contemporary Romanian and Australian fiction to the famous “Earthrise” photo captured from space, in significant new ways.
Collectively, these writers affirm an alternate way of looking at and relating to the planet, no longer as static object, but as a potentially vibrant and active participant in a present dialogue. Affirmation is a strong theme in this collection, and each writer contributes uniquely to exploring why and how this matters. Among its many connotations, the planetary “turn,” one could say, is a turning away from the perceived exhaustion and negation/negativity of postmodernism and poststructuralism. The contributors take up this task in quite nuanced ways: Tally’s affirmation of the “alterity of fantasy” (not fantasy as a genre, he stresses), “[i]n theory and in practice […] makes possible new ways of seeing—and by the same token, of interpreting and perhaps changing—the world-system forming the untranscendable horizon of all thinking today” (195). Westphal’s remarkable extension of his own “geocritical” approach to “the white globe” offers the principle of “transgressivity, which does not correspond to a ‘transgression’ in the moral sense […] but to a state of cultural and social mobility” (166). Despite the continual efforts to close off such mobility - the refugee crisis is but the most obvious current example—Westphal concludes that, “The globe is battered but, ideally, it can be rethought, emptied of its non-sense.[…] Without a doubt […] the spiritual state is often a prelude to the state of things. This idea is refreshing, and given our present circumstances, not at all negligible” (172). In a different register, Smith offers a “host of actions” he calls “connectivities” as part of a strategy of “world-making, or worlding” that “does not begin from the image of the globe, or that of a map of continents, but of course includes them within a broader pictorial imagining of worlds-within-the-World that now stretches through more space and more time and in more differentiated ways than hitherto imaginable” (188). Perhaps more tentatively, Kirby’s “digimodernism” “appears as the possibility of a planetary cultural practice, its potential prompt, mediator, and platform: its impulse toward either a ‘global’ or ‘planetary’ scale is relentless but ambiguous both structurally and ideologically” (78). Edson’s close reading of Claire Denis’ Chocolat provides a suggestive reading that embraces but moves beyond cosmopolitanism, which, she reminds us, “can still be, as it has been at various moments in its history, ethnocentric.” Practicing the ethics of relationality outlined as one of the volume’s goals by the editors, Edson offers her sense that “Planetarity is thus an epistemological as well as an ethical project geared toward this relational ideal, a way of thinking that necessitates thinking-in-relation, where the terms themselves are not already marked in advance according to value or hierarchy” (122). Collectively, these essays carefully gesture toward a mode of addressing contemporary cultural production and its planetary implications that potentially offers a way out of what many have perceived as the impasses not only of postmodernism and its affiliation with globalization but of poststructuralist methodologies, particularly deconstruction, psychoanalysis and neomarxism.
Despite the persistent sense that the planetary turn is generally an affirmative one, a trace of anxiety or tension somehow remains as a discordant thread in this volume. One way of thinking of that tension might be framed as ontological; Elias for one indicates that “if stewardship of the planet is to be the goal of the new planetary commons—and I think it is the only option linked to human survival” then there needs to be a discussion of an “operational commons […] supplemented by some kind of discourse—philosophical, religious, affective—that posits a way to fashion its ethical keystone” (60-61). There’s a strong desire announced variously by the contributors to rethink the ontological, and specifically, to retrieve it from the “thanatological” that is perceived as the legacy of Heidegger (and still active in the work of Giorgio Agamben among many others) as part of their call for a new ethics of the planetary, a desire that has not as yet been adequately articulated here. Elias suggests that a rethinking of humanism may well be in order. I would agree, and also agree with her that a critical posthumanism such as that articulated by Rosi Braidotti (and additionally by Stefan Herbrechter, who seeks to think in common with “ ‘feminist’ materialist theorists such as Braidotti, Vicki Kirby, Karen Barad, and others” ), offers important opportunities for a generative dialogue between those attempting to develop this new paradigm of posthumanism with those attempting to articulate the planetary. The question of subjectivity is one that is largely absent in the present volume; rethinking the relation of human—and posthuman—subjectivity in relation to the planet seems an important task.
Further, the tension with and in several cases, outright rejection of, Spivak’s approach to planetarity seems to mask a discomfort with her “utopian” feminist reading process through which she articulates this concept (via Freud and Derrida) in the third chapter of Death of a Discipline. Although nearly every contributor cites the chapter in some way, not one comments on the substance of the chapter which seeks to articulate “planetarity” through encounters with the work of Luce Irigaray, Toni Morrison, Diamela Eltit, W.E.B. DuBois, Jose Marti, and others.
Can the foothold for planetarity be located in the texts of these spread-out sectors of the world’s literatures and cultures? Perhaps. The new comparativist is not obliged to look for them, of course. One cannot adjudicate the task of an entire discipline, in spite of the efforts of the world literaturists, the Encyclopedists. I think this drastic epistemic change must be imagined by Comparative Literature. But I cannot will everyone to think so. (Spivak 87)
Of course, few contributors to the present volume are comparativists, so they cannot be held to such a measure. Still, I wonder at the way in which some contributors articulate more of an affinity with Spivak’s reading, while others seek to distance themselves as strongly as possible. It’s a tension that seems to reveal some of the fault lines in planetary thinking at this moment, one could say. Most of the literary scholars in this volume would likely feel more at home with Susan Stanford Friedman’s articulation of her differentiation from Spivak in using the term “planetarity”:
I use the term planetarity in a different sense than Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in Death of a Discipline…where she invokes “planetarity” as a utopian gesture of resistance against globalization as the geohistorical and economic domination of the Global South. Terms such as planet, planetary, globality, globalism, world, worldness, worlding, and worldliness abound in cultural theory without stable meanings; they are often utopic or dystopic, typically connoting a transnational consciousness or world system beyond the national paradigm, though seldom denying the continued significance of the nation-state. I use the term planetarity in an epistemological sense to imply a consciousness of the earth as planet, not restricted to geopolitical formations and potentially encompassing the non-human as well as the human. (“Planetarity” 2010; 495).
Friedman’s definition suggests other alignments as well, for example with those embracing posthumanism and its articulation with the post-anthropocene, among them Claire Colebrook, Cary Wolfe, and Donna Haraway. The planetary turn offers worlds-within-the-World for reimagining and an arena for thinking with many other critical interrogations of our contemporary moment. As we struggle to find adequate theoretical frameworks for addressing the still-too-human degradations of the implosion of nation-states under global capitalism, while also imagining new futures in dialogue with a reconceptualized way of “being with” the planet, this significant collection points us in multiple, fruitful directions. It is destined to have lasting impact on how we engage in that process.
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