Geocentric Media Ecology
October 14, 2013 § 21 Comments
Media theorist Jussi Parikka has a very interesting essay published in The Atlantic on the geology of media. The essay is part of the ongoing series of “Object Lessons” edited by Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg. In the essay Parikka draws our attention to the relations between media technologies and geological elements — for example, to the copper, gold, lead, mercury, palladium, and silver deposits that are transformed into the components of electronic devices. By foregrounding the relationship between material resources and communication technologies, Parikka’s essay offers an important commentary on the geopolitics of media. While this is certainly a worthwhile call to attention, the second half of the essay continues into equally important, though less explored, terrain. On the communicative agency of the Earth Parikka writes
By realizing the geological importance of the Earth for media culture, we might also acknowledge that the Earth is a communicative object itself. Not only that we keenly visualize, talk and imagine the Earth as an object through media representations — but that there would not be any media without the resource base offered by its geology. Even that the Earth as living creature communicates via the assembled resources it fashions and provides.
Half of this statement is practically self-evident. Humans need Earth’s finite, geological resources to produce technology — a claim no one would dispute. The second half, on the other hand, will strike some people as entirely credulous. The objection might goes something like this: First, Earth is not a subject, it has no intentionality, let alone the ability to communicate anything; it’s an inert, intention-less sphere of rock spattered with a thin, fragile layer of lifeforms. Second, while Earth may create the possibility for lifeforms such as ourselves to emerge — and is certainly subject to the effects wrought by those lifeforms — Earth is not itself one of those intentional creatures. To think otherwise would be simple, unjustified anthropomorphism. It seems this is the only legitimate response to such a provocative statement, but this is not the case. There is another sense in which Parikka’s claim is entirely justified, but we have to wrest ourselves of the idea that all beings fall along a single, bifurcated axis between subjects and objects — or living and dead things — for this option to come into view.
What do I mean by this?
We want to know, following growing interest in earth system science (itself spurred on by the work of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis), whether Earth is alive or dead. The consequences of this question are straight forward: If Earth is alive we also want to know if it has some kind of subjectivity — something we can respond to — while if it’s dead we feel a bit better about doing with it as we please. But what if this is entirely the wrong spectrum of questions? What if what Earth is has nothing to do with being alive or dead, intentional or inert? I want to suggest that as long as we conceptualize Earth along this axis of concepts — as alive or dead, as subject or object — we will never really get a good grasp on what this thing we’re all standing in is. After all, what justification do we really have that subjects and objects are the only kinds of things out there, anyway? We need greater diversity in our descriptions of the kinds of entities that exist in the cosmos.
Parikka starts to get at this problem when he suggests Earth is a communicative entity. If we think of Earth outside the living-dead, subject-object straightjacket the idea of its communicability becomes more interesting and plausible. Earth communicates, but not like any human or other intentional subject. Earth has agency, but it’s not really a living being — nor is it a zombie (“charnal ground”), a cybernetic system (“self-regulating machine”), or mythic god (“Gaia”). Though each of these descriptions may have some truth to them, the point is these are all hybrids based on the same faulty ontology. I for one would prefer a strict dualism to such an awkward and noncommittal compromise. But if Earth is neither subject nor object, neither alive nor dead, what is it? I have started to sketch out an answer. In a talk I gave earlier this summer I suggested that media ecology needs to head in a new direction. In that paper I argued we need to develop a geocentric media ecology, which I later suggested could be part of a larger turn to a new geocentrism.
A key element of geocentric media ecology is attending to the relations between geology, media, and politics. This kind of analysis is already underway in science and technology studies, actor network theory, and political ecology, and is also noted by Parikka in his essay. With Parikka I am interested in developing the connections between geology and media, and also improving ways to conceptualize Earth’s communicability. Where I may differ from Parikka is in my conception that Earth is itself a kind of medium; in other words, Earth is not just what makes possible the production of media technology, it is itself an independently aesthetic entity — a planetary medium — and its geoevolutionary processes are driven in large part by aesthetic values. We can arrive at this impression through the work of Alfred North Whitehead. In one of my favorite passages to quote Andrew Murphie writes:
Whitehead presents a little remarked upon but comprehensive “media theory” that resituates media in the world (that is, media events are not “bifurcated” from the rest of the world, in for example a “signal versus noise [world]” configuration). More dramatically, Whitehead writes of the entire “world as medium.” Whitehead’s philosophy here pre-empts significant aspects of McLuhan’s media theory. The medium is the message indeed, but the medium is also the world. So the very complex signal mixing that is world is the message. In Whitehead’s media philosophy, there is no “bifurcation” between different types of signal (technical or natural, for example). It is all world(s) as medium.
Earth is a kind of medium, and we are inside of it. We are not just dependent upon Earth for its resources to produce media technologies, Earth is itself a medium involved in terrestrial evolution. As is the case with all ecologies, there is here a breakdown between structure and content — organisms are not evolving on Earth; rather, Earth is both condition and participant in what evolves. By thinking of Earth outside the subject-object ontology, we are freed from relating its identity to our own; Earth does not have to be anything like humans for us to treat it as an entity in its own right, issuing its own unique imperatives.
That’s not a full answer to the question of what Earth is, but it marks a direction worth pursuing and I’m glad to see others like Parikka pursuing it along similar lines.