A Riposte to Jeanette McVicker's Thinking With the Planet

A Riposte to Jeanette McVicker's Thinking With the Planet

John Bruni

In response to Jeanette McVicker’s review of The Planetary Turn, John Bruni examines what it means to theorize a sense of the planetary.

To start, Jeanette McVicker gives us a widescreen view of a “sense of the ‘planetary,’” presented in three instances in the fall of 2015. They are situated in historical time, (the evidence for a new early human species), on Mars (the possibility of water that could sustain life), and on the political stage (the ongoing refugee crisis). Not only does the opening of her review set the scene; it presents a compelling argument for the relevance of the book that goes beyond narrow academic criteria—this “planetary turn” may indeed help to intellectually equip us for an impending time of crisis that demands our immediate attention.

Situated in the arts and social humanities, the book aligns itself most strongly with McVicker’s third image of the sense of the planetary, the political, which is shaped by the specter of ecological collapse and resource scarcity. Stated bluntly, the planet cannot sustain the global acceleration of consumerism: we are very close to, or perhaps even beyond, the point of no return.

Flint, Michigan, which is a few hours away from where I live, has critically become a local site for how these global issues are being experienced. The state’s governor supported the writing of legislation necessary for the takeover of Flint, an impoverished city with a 57% black population. After the city was taken out of the hands of local leaders, the management, appointed by the governor, decided to save money by switching the city’s water supply to the Flint River. The water from this river was not treated with anti-corrosive chemicals. Consequently, the water leached lead from the pipes that carried it. The governor then tried to cover up the lead poisoning of the city’s residents. In the resulting political fallout, three lower-level city employees were charged. There is currently a drive to collect signatures for a petition to recall the governor.

The ongoing situation in Flint concretizes the ways in which the planet, under the aegis of the ideology of private ownership, has been and is being carved up by corporate interests. Water has become a key bargaining chip in geopolitical negotiations that reinforce the ongoing transformation of the legalistic language of rights and privileges. In the neoliberal logic that regards cost-benefit analysis as the foundational form of realpolitik, Flint is, we might say, a feature, not a bug.

To be sure, the potential for using the planetary turn to monkey-wrench the corporate machinery—operating beyond national borders—that has run amuck is not hard to see. But, what exactly, does it mean to theorize a sense of the planetary? Because, at the moment, any answer can, at best, appear provisional, McVicker remarks that a pervading sense of transition, of uncertainty, adds a forceful charge to the discussion. What is thus at the heart of the book and the review is speculation about what comes next. That is, in her words, “The question of course is, what such a ‘turn’ might offer that a critical cosmopolitanism, or other similar frameworks, has not.”

It is a mighty large question for any project to answer, and I get the impression that the editors, Amy J. Elias and Christian Moraru, hope that, by the end of their book, a sufficient response—based on a “critical consensus” will be evident. McVicker historicizes such an inquiry as taking place in the “wake of postmodernism and poststructuralism.” Certainly, a position can be taken, as Elias and Morau do, that postmodernism has “never severed its compromising ties to late socio-aesthetic modernity, market globalization, and the society of spectacle, simulation, and empty pastiche” (xi).

To further elaborate on this position, we might look at Jeffrey T. Nealon’s Post-Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (2012), which Elias and Morau approvingly cite. Early on, Nealon asserts that “in making post-postmodern sense (which is importantly different from postmodern ‘meaning’) of our situation, it’s a very bad time indeed to give up on the discourses of theory” (xii). Is there a place for postmodern theorists in the post-postmodern age? Nealon would answer yes; his book includes Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari, the latter two whom the contributors to The Planetary Turn, as McVicker notes, list as proto-planetary thinkers.

McVicker then takes up a critique of poststructuralism in the services of tracking the concept of the planetary. Furnishing a litmus test for the different perspectives on the planetary is Spivak’s Death of a Discipline (2003) and Dimock’s essay, in the volume, “Gilgamesh’s Planetary Turns.” According to McVicker, Dimock’s mode of planetary interpretation, built off of Dimock’s emphasis on “duration and extension,” becomes seen as a corrective to Spivak, whose poststructuralist approach draws fire from several essayists in the book for its deconstructing the human as a materialist entity. As might be expected, deconstruction is linked to and further discloses the apparent obsolescence - and, as stated later in the review, “the perceived exhaustion and negation/negativity” — of poststructuralism and postmodernism.

It is one thing to look past the book’s hedging its bets somewhat on the question of the legacy of postmodernism; it is quite another to disavow the “negativity” of poststructuralism. For, when it comes to realizing Elias and Morau’s mission statement — from which McVicker quotes — to take seriously “the non-human, the organic, and the inorganic in all of their richness,” I think poststructuralism has an absolutely crucial role. Cary Wolfe would be the first to agree, arguing, in What Is Posthumanism? (2010), that Jacques Derrida, as a poststructuralist philosopher, focuses “on the ‘infernal’ and ‘monstrous’ conditions created for animals in product testing and factory farming […] that have reduced the animal to a mere vehicle for products and commodities” (97). And Derrida’s work exemplifies a productive negative critique that deconstructs the apparent differences—based on a given list of capabilities—between humans and animals, to insist that the critical question, previously asked by Jeremy Bentham, is “Can they suffer?” Derrida finds that the question is disturbed by a certain passivity: “What of the vulnerability felt on the basis of this inability? […] Mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that brings us to the very finitude of life, to the experience of compassion” (396).

The ethical issues about sharing the planet with non-human life forms are categorized, in the book’s introduction, as the “bioconnective.” Yet the book repeatedly stresses the need for an expanded perspective. Elias, for instance, proposes, in her essay, to regard the Internet as a digital planetary commons. Which is fine, of course, until she confronts the premise that this commons would be constituted through communication systems that, as Stefan Herbrechter points out, are “not based on a previous distinction between humans and nonhumans” (201). Her response is to rather flatly state that a systems-theoretical position taken up by Richard Grusin, with whom she dialogues, “sees little emancipatory potential in such a commons” (57).

Now, I do not want to single out Elias here, even if such talk about emancipation echoes, as Nealon might put it, “the vanguard resistance to totalization that you used to be able to count on from any concluding paragraph of virtually any essay in the era of big theory” (182). There appears to be a critical disconnect between the admirable objectives, stated in the introduction, to examine the previous theoretical imperatives that have shaped our understanding of planetary relations and a tendency to reify these same imperatives. Perhaps the most significant example, quoted by McVicker, is the statement found in Paul Giles’s essay, “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.”

I feel obligated to ask that, if planetary finitude “may not be true,” then isn’t much of the urgency removed from the book, much less from ecological activism? It seems to me that what The Planetary Turn most vividly registers are the challenges of doing theory, not just in the wake of postmodernism and poststructuralism, but in that of traditional humanism. In particular, Herbrechter comments, what must be addressed is humanism’s “deficit” that “lies in its ideological belief in an essential humanity that might stand outside historical change” (47).

As McVicker is therefore right to draw to our attention, what is “largely absent” in the book is “the question of subjectivity,” in both humanist and posthumanist registers. Still, I wonder if her criticism comes as a bit too little, too late. The elision of subjectivity would seem to me a glaring omission — in particular, with regards to McVicker’s closing suggestion for alignments with the plantetary turn that embrace “posthumanism and its articulation with the post-anthropocene, among them Clare Colebrook, Cary Wolfe, and Donna Haraway.”

When Moraru, for example, puts forward, in his concluding essay, Emmanuel Levinas’s model of ethics, he opens himself to Wolfe’s critique, in “Before the Law” (2013), of the 

underlying assumption about who can be party to an ethical relationship. In Levinas, as we know, such relations concern only those with a “face,” and the animal has no face because it has no awareness—no concept, if you like — of its own mortality. (22-3).

But here, we recall that the ability to think about one’s own mortality, as a determiner of ethical treatment, would only apply to a view of human-animal relations based on the capability model that Derrida has challenged. Therefore it becomes difficult to completely think through Moraru’s proposal to, as McVicker states, consider “the planet’s ‘face’ ” as part of an “ethically informed […] reading ‘with’ the planet,” when such a reading would potentially foreclose the interests of the animal lives that reside there.

Despite the book’s impressive range, spanning from digital engagements with the planet to historical analysis of encounters with the planetary, I would have to hesitate from completely agreeing with McVicker’s claim that the book “will no doubt be seen as a landmark effort” in charting an emergent planetary thinking. The book, above all, has to feature the Gaia hypothesis, arguably, the foundational model for thinking the planet, that would also shed light on McVicker’s closing thoughts. She highlights Susan Stanford Friedman’s “articulation” of “planetarity” that would serve as a consensual point of view for The Planetary Turn: “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.” It may, of course, be hard not to disagree with Friedman’s definition. Looking, however, for any citations, in the bibliography, of Lynn Margulis or Dorion Sagan, who have done particularly searching work on just these sorts of epistemological concerns, or Bruce Clarke, a particularly astute reader of Margulis and Sagan, will be in vain. This is unfortunate—because the one thing that would further any concept of the planetary turn is an account of the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of biotic, abiotic, and meta-biotic systems that the Gaia hypothesis provides.

Works Cited

Clarke, Bruce. Neocybernetics and Narrative. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow).” Trans. David Wills. Critical Inquiry 28.2 (Winter 2002): 369-418.

Elias, Amy J., and Christian Morau, eds. The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the Twenty-First Century. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press, 2015.

Herbrechter, Stefan. Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan. What Is Life? Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. Post-Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2012.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Wolfe, Cary. Before the Law: Animals and Humans in a Biopolitical Frame. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

—. What Is Posthumanism? Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.