Monday 3 March 2014

From the Earth/of the Earth; Earthling/Earthbound

Another really interesting post at knowledge-ecology on Kant, Sloterdijk, Whitehead and geocentrism.

I find 'monogeism' to be one of Sloterdijk's most useful coinages.  I don't think it's overstating the point to say that every philosophy must henceforth recognise the profundity of this condition: we are fundamentally bound to one planet, one earth; we are Earthbound, in Latour's terms.

And that very geocentrism is actually a necessary precondition of recognising the brutal indifference of the rest of the universe to us.  Planet Earth in its Gaian understanding is the only speck of existence that's even partially disposed towards our well-being - and its good favour is not guaranteed, indeed it's precarious.

That's not just an ecological or practical truth; any metaphysics that recognises life as something that figures on its register must now see that even if there is life 'out there,' or if, somewhere in the vastness of the cosmos, there is another celestial object that could possibly support life, it doesn't particularly matter.  Even if there are countless inhabited or potentially inhabitable orbs in existence the distance between them is almost certainly so vast that they effectively inhabit separate universes; and even if we find a planet or moon within a useful distance that has just the right mass, chemical composition, day and nighttime temperature, geological stability, shelteredness with regard to asteroids, etc. etc. Gaia-type theories tell us that even all this won't be enough to recreate another Earth.  And, regardless, we're now pressed into a civilisationary timescale where such fantasies as meeting aliens and colonising other planets seem utterly ludicrous and, worse, beside the point.

I think it says a lot that sci-fi is increasingly turning away from the old-school Star Trek groundplan of a lush, teeming universe towards an empty, impersonal universe, even one where the danger comes from exploration itself.  Gravity is an obvious case that springs to mind but there are more.  There are many, many differences between the original Battlestar Galactica and the remake but perhaps the most significant one cosmographically and dramatically is that the latter inhabited a largely empty universe without alien species, creating a feeling that was simultaneously claustro- and agora-phobic as the survivors cling to the insides of life-support systems that are always on the brink of failure.  Even the very Earth-like planet they colonise midway through the series is a harsh place unfit for much in the way of lifemaking.  Dr Who still operates in a lush, teeming universe but it realises a pure escapism; the TARDIS transcends time and space rather than travelling through it; it opts out of our situation rather than working through it.  Danny Boyle's Sunshine is an interesting one, too.  There's a moment when the crew are about to investigate an abandoned ship and are debating whether to split up or stick together; one of them says to another something along the lines of 'what, are you afraid we'll get picked off one by one by aliens?'  Obviously this sends up an old sci-fi cliche but, more than that, it demonstrates how far this universe is from the imaginaries of yore; the perils on which the drama hinges are technological, astronomical, elemental, psychological (and perhaps supernatural) but they are not alien.  Indeed, further on we learn that the central metaphysical question of the film itself (or at least of one of its characters) is that of human consciousness being universally sui generis and, consequently, imminent human extinction meaning the end of all awareness altogether.

It's a very different space we're in, these days.

I suppose it's the difference between being from the Earth and of the Earth; from being an Earthling and being Earthbound.