Geocentric Media Ecology

October 14, 2013 § 21 Comments

vh-page093[Photo: Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze]

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.

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§ 21 Responses to Geocentric Media Ecology

  • dmfant says:

    AR, when you talk here of the “Earth” what exactly is the subject; the geological materials, the seas, the atmosphere, life-forms, etc?
    Also not sure what would be lost to say that this kind of approach may well be a kind of project-ion on the part of humans (seems hard to get around us being the ones waxing philosophical) along the lines of Jane Bennett’s pragmatic/poetic take on a strategic animism, shouldn’t we take ethical responsibility for our musings/framings?

    • Adam Robbert says:

      This is precisely what’s complicated about the question.

      We can’t think of geological materials, the seas, and the atmosphere apart from all the life-forms. In the first place the geology is chemically altered (and produced) by the activity of organisms; the sea and atmosphere don’t just have a chemical composition that indicates the influence of life, but are both overflowing with microorganisms. We’re literally swimming in a sea of microbes even when we’re walking around in the open air, yeah? The air is its own living/non-living ecology. All of this aside from the geo-biological formation of fossil fuels that are currently helping shape a whole new epoch in Earth’s history.

      An Earth that never had life would not be anything like the Earth we have today.

      So if we’re talking about Earth the life/non-life distinction doesn’t really get us anywhere. Whatever Earth is it has to be about both. And in the case of the human role in this, Earth is also about the technologies and practices we’ve generated (and, at least in my view, the ideas and concepts we’ve unleashed). This means we have to think of Earth as a different kind of entity. It’s neither alive nor dead, and my point above is that it might not be a hybrid either; it’s some kind of third thing our language doesn’t allow.

      As for project-ion: Yes, of course we’re always subject to our projections, and we have an ethical responsibility for how we frame those and the effects they have. But in that respect I’m not sure thinking about “Earth” poses new problems that we don’t already have when thinking about friends, families, lovers, or enemies. Probably only humans philosophize; and they might be the only creatures that can think of Earth-as-planet-Earth, but I don’t think this negates what I’m saying.

      We don’t have to abandon what’s good about humanism for us to cultivate better concepts for thinking about the planet. For me deep ecology, the “gaia” discourse, etc. are all out. I think these ideas are better captured by people like Stengers (“cosmopolitics”) and Latour (“geostory”), which both come close to saying something more interesting: Earth is a more than human mesh composed of aesthetic (to borrow T. Morton’s term again) events that do not reduce the uniqueness of human capacities, but adds dimensions to them.

      • dmfant says:

        wasn’t trying to discount your essay just searching for clarity, that said the people that you have invoked can represent themselves to correct the course of our interactions and that seems to be a difference that makes a difference no?
        I think this has profound implications for decision-making/politics as I still don’t know how we decide who at the table speaks for the trees except via the all-too-human ways that Stanley Fish outlines in his Doing What Comes Naturally.
        How would your proposal play out say in the process of a public-hearing about an environmental impact statement or such, what would be different?

      • Adam Robbert says:

        I’m not sure what I’m doing makes a direct impact at the level of impact statement or public hearing. I’m not even sure that philosophy in general does — that seems to be something that comes much further down the line.

        What I do know is that in my work as an editor I am constantly reading new dissertations, mostly in psychology and the social sciences (fields that are driven by case study, empirical testing, etc.), and a strong majority of them all draw heavily from philosophy in the literature review and methods section. But they seem to take what they like, what’s useful to their projects, and leave the rest. I think this is as it should be.

        Philosophy doesn’t necessarily aim at immediate implementation through impact statement, but I think it has important value outside of that. Wouldn’t you say?

      • dmfant says:

        well I don’t know about “important”, can be a pleasure for its own sake I suppose like music appreciation.
        I’m more in the pragmatist camp with
        Stengers/Latour/Haraway/Rabinow, that in a time of engineered
        hyper-collapses there is some urgency/call to make things public but obviously that’s a personal preference.

      • Adam Robbert says:

        I don’t think we can separate out the two so easily, and in that sense I do know of philosophy’s importance beyond a pleasure for its own sake. Stengers, Latour, and Haraway are interesting and effective thinkers precisely because they are also philosophical thinkers (I don’t know Rabinow’s work, so can’t comment there). They would not have made the contributions they have without philosophical practice — each of them have directly commented as much. Philosophy isn’t an optional extra seasoning we throw on top of “important” work, it is foundational to responding to the kind of urgency you’re highlighting. I don’t mean that to sound defensive, I just happen to think its the truth.

  • Michael- says:

    Great post Adam. I think we are all groping for some new terms of reference when trying to “face up to Gaia” as it were. And the ethico-political-practical dimension is ever-present as Dirk highlights. Not sure a new geocentrism does the trick though unless it is nuanced with incredible detail. Pinning the ontological character of things to any one strata is reductionist. Even “the Earth” is just an amalgam/hyperobject participating in all sorts of sub-systemic activities and dependent upon wider cosmic forces. Anything less than appeal to the emergent specificity of all actants within networks of networks would end up “silencing” the agency of nonhumans. I think an ecological wisdom ends up increasing the kinds of existing entities we are aware of. Thus all ‘centrisms’ must be rejected. There is no center that holds in the general push of things and time. We need a matrix-logic not a just hierarchy of being.

    • Adam Robbert says:

      Great comments, Michael. I think the difference for me is that highlighting one center (the geocenter) doesn’t prohibit the reality or importance of other centers. Geocentrism doesn’t have to be reductive. I’m more interested in a (foundationless) multi-centrism than anti-centrism. I want to add Earth to the list of “emergent . . . actants within networks of networks” rather than use it as an arche-term to silence the others (that’s where deep ecology goes wrong). Earth is both “above” the other entities and “below” them (as in Tarde’s monadology: the monad is always compound, an emergent complex, but also a reduction, a simplification, of its constitutive monads).

    • dmfant says:

      maybe it boils down to a difference in psychology/anthropo-logos, as I don’t think that we are largely organized around (act out of or on) Ideas, I think that as Noe, my fellow ne(ur)o-pragmatists, and others like the post-Wittgenstein enactivists have pointed out we are not the sort of critters who have a cognitive-behavioral umwelten, so philosophy/metaphysics cannot be foundational to human-being, at best it might provide pivots/hinges/metaphors/intuition-pumps (as any human endeavor might) for our gestalt switches.

      • Michael- says:

        the communicative action of materially potent (affective) bodies… ideas are not things but social-expressive and informational enactments: imagination pumps… This doesn’t mean that we avoid being swayed by ideology though. The semiotic environment has a powerful effect on our CNS and often influences and habitually primes or “programs” our cognition.

      • Adam Robbert says:

        Why is an “imagination pump” not a thing, again?

      • Michael- says:

        re: imagination pump

        Think of skier skiing through the mountains when she comes upon a cliff with what looks like very unstable snow covering its face. The skier sees the cliff and implicitly recalls in memory what could happen if she skis across the bottom of the face destabilizing the existing snow. Now the skier is reacting to the particular ecological situation via particular sensory and perceptual cues she has been previously primed to pick up. So as the skier thinks to herself ‘avalanche’ she never interacts with the idea-as-thing of an avalanche, but simply reacts to the empirical situation by conjuring up/recalling an temporary image (neuro-cognitive expression) which then generates a subsequent series associative and affective responses leading to a set of decisions. The recalled ‘idea’ of an ‘avalanche’ is only a passing neuro-cognitive activity activated in relation to objective conditions. It has no substantial (withdrawn) existence independent of the skier, the objective conditions and the socio-linguistic conventions that primed the skier. In this sense, the idea, or conjured image of an ‘avalanche’ is an ephemeral effect of substantial beings but never an entity as such. It is quite simply a phantasy. Through speech-acts and expressive interactions (communicative action) we can reference signs and previous imaging as a way to trigger/pump brains into imaginative acts, but the ‘pumping’ as such is not a thing but rather an activity.

        I believe that objects must have BOTH substantial location – even if it is massively distributed – and affective potency (in Spinoza’s sense), or structural/material efficacy. That is, objects must be capable of affecting and being affected. The recalled memory of an avalanche has no independent location nor is it capable of being affected. We cannot touch or dismantle an associative effect. We can touch and dismantle actual printed words or a pictures which activate the pumping/triggering of association and imagination. Hence the medium is the message.

        In the case of above there is the mountain, the snow and the skier forming a complex ‘situation’ or matrix (ecology) of things with a distributed capacity to generate an actual avalanche, and then there is the neuro-cognitive re-collection an avalanche image. The situation of composed of things whereas the ideas of the skier is a mere phantasmic reaction.

    • Adam Robbert says:

      Philosophy in my view is a practice, a set of exercises, not a foundation, and knowledge—ideas, concepts—are not things we use so much as things that use us, not intentionally (ideas don’t make decisions), but structurally insofar as ideas collapse certain potentials and open others, necessarily. The point is to consider knowledge as one of the “vectors” of transformation in practice and decision making alongside of all the other actants. How could it be otherwise? My position is closer to Latour’s, who seems to come a little closer to mine everyday: “objects and knowledge of objects are similarly thrown into the same Heraclitean flux.” From here:

    • arranjames says:

      I think one of the strengths of this terminology- the idea of a matrix- lies in both its reference to Merleau-Ponty’s “polymorphous matrix”, although that needs to be carefully treated because of its psychoanalytic overtones, but also because of its connection to anatomy and physiology.

      I’m not so much thinking of polymorphous from biology, but matrix itself- in bone. The bone matrix is produced via inter-and-intracellular activity and involves organic and inorganic components. I like this because it is a reminder that- just like the Earth itself- our bodies do not privilege animate or inanimate matter. The question of life and death is existential but not necessarily materialist.

  • Michael- says:

    would argue that pan-centrism (the center is everywhere) and anti-centrism (the center is nowhere) are the same thing… If something is everywhere it is also nowhere…

    For me cosmic complexification radically challenges any appeal to reduction. Each strata ‘transcends and includes’, as Ken Wilber has argued, that which is prior. The inclusion part is best captured with appeals to an immanent plane of consistency – which I choose to call ‘matter-energy’ in order to connect it with scientific and empiricist discourses – whereas the transcending aspects can be coded via reference to emergence and novel properties, and ultimately the onto-specificity of things. The principle of onto-specificity is a radical call to reject the privileging of any layer of reality over another such that each situation or object-assemblage has its own ‘agency’ or affective potency, while at the same time as emphasizing the very hyper-conditions (network, or as I prefer matrix) of production/generation supporting any particularly achieved assemblage.

    • Michael- says:

      I guess what I’m trying to say here is that a radical decentering opens up the field of consideration to consider each object and layer and all complex flow exchanges on their own terms as they relate the general field. The general field being the hyper-reality/matrix of time-space emanation. Avoiding all centrisms thus short-circuits our tendencies for under-mining and over-mining (and duo-mining), to use Harman’s concepts, by requiring us perpetual shift attention and consideration between all the actants within a given network. Each to their own and in good measure, so to speak.

  • Adam Hudson says:

    Admittedly… I did not read all the comments, but I suppose the Earth is much like a layered envelope. I can’t help but want to add Teilhard’s insightful conceptions about spherical development which in some strange yet overwhelmingly coherent way moves from super heavy, dense and hot to ever increasing moments of freedom, lightness, and the consciousness found in biotic organisms. Foundations are the facts of structure and provide safe harbor for the creativity of flight.

    Anthropomorphic qualities are extensions of subjectivity – ok. I believe mirrors are valid sign posts to understanding, but I like the move away from binaries if they’re not creative. The move away from life/death, subject/object is still tricky, but provocative. I would imagine that when the spectrum is view from the vantage of timelessness life and death fade from relative coherence. You receive an-other sort of gesture, a closeness or sense. When ontology fades under the weight of time what will be left?

    Perhaps Earth is so deeply alive we wouldn’t even recognize it as life, per say. There’s a great analogy that comes to mind about a guru and a student. The student tells the guru that he wants to achieve enlightenment. The guru says that when he achieves enlightenment, the self that desired enlightenment will not exist.

    I say all that to say… I’m sure I’m more a poet than a scientist because I think I’ve placed a hunch that the fulfillment of science ends in aesthetics.

  • arranjames says:

    Don’t have time to expand on it just now but I wanted to pick up on the ‘Earth is a kind of medium, and we are inside of it’- it strikes me, from a corporealist perspective, that all bodies are mediums in precisely the sense that McLuhan argued- extension of other bodies.

    The “Earth” is an agency because it is the medium that other bodies move in, through and across. If the Earth weren’t a populace medium then what would it be? It’d be nothing. Isn’t that the sense in which we’re saying that it is no one of its strata can stand separate of or as the emblem for all the others?

    As a communicative agent the Earth is a bit odd. In what sense do the Earth and I share a common system of expectation, vital to communication? I don’t think that we do. The danger of talking about the Earth as a communicative agent is that we return to some primordial narcissism in which we think we’d even show up as worth communicating to. If the Earth “speaks” to us it not via some shared assumptive world- if it did then the problem of the autonomy of values wouldn’t appear because we’d already be in the same evaluative framework. If the Earth communicates, it is probably to itself. (Similarly, an animal body doesn’t communicate with bacterial flora- although it might scratch the surface of its skin because a change in that flora triggered a histamine response).

    For us- if we’re sticking to the communicative aspect- the Earth’s resources allow for communicative agency in humans, sure. But the Earth is the medium for that communication. Maybe this is stretching the verbal metaphor a bit, but this starts to make earthquakes seem like the Earth “talking to itself”.

    I don’t want to dive completely off the deep end, as I’m not really sure what this would mean, but it suddenly popped into my head- an Earth talking to itself? Such a populace medium, so full a body, and yet so lonely. Perhaps even, and I mean this strictly metaphorically, a psychotic Earth? But again, this last paragraph is more an elliptical thoughtspasm than an actual thought.

    • Adam Robbert says:

      Hey Arran — this statement, “it strikes me, from a corporealist perspective, that all bodies are mediums in precisely the sense that McLuhan argued- extension of other bodies” is precisely what I am driving at. The medium is the message here on a planetary scale, and it’s in that sense that we might consider Earth ‘communicative.’

  • arranjames says:

    I’ve just started going over some McLuhan precisely because of this “body as medium”- although it’s with Deleuze that this is most potently phrased (the BwO is nothing if not populace media).

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