Planetary Alterity: Thinking with Thacker
A few months ago I had the opportunity to begin reading Eugene Thacker’s After Life, a book I found highly compelling, but was pulled away from prematurely by other commitments. A few weeks later, as part of research for another project on political ecology I had begun, I delved into his work The Global Genome, another impressive text which I am still pouring over. Most recently however, I ordered a copy of In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1, another slim volume from the always fertile Zero Books Publishing House. This work is stark, original, and intelligent. But perhaps best of all, the writing is clearer than a blue sky and the motifs are central to our current cultural epoch.
“The world is increasingly unthinkable,” begins Thatcher, “a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction” (p. 1). This world-description which starts Thatcher’s little tome comes off as exotic,threatening, even apocalyptic. But when one examines this motif of an “unthinkable world,” one uncovers a truth that is as startling as it is urgent: these global events are not exotic, nor are they rare. Such unthinkable events have shifted categories without notifying us, the people of Earth. What was once a suitable theme for a Hollywood summer blockbuster, or a threat delivered from on high by a religious text, has now become a common feature of mundane existence. We are witnessing the normalization of global disaster, and this, I think, is precisely the “unthinkable” event which Thatcher is raising to view.
Thatcher immediately introduces us to three different modes of thinking about the world. He tells us we ought to consider a “world-for-us,” a “world-in-itself,” and a “world-without-us.” He simplifies these categories by appropriating three commonly used labels: “World,” “Earth,” and “Planet,” respectively (pp. 4 – 6). Each of these correspond to different possibles ways of conjuring up the immensity that is the ground beneath our feet. Roughly speaking, “World” corresponds to phenomenological experience, “Earth” to the collection of objective knowledge gathered from the sciences, and “Planet,” the most interesting of the three, corresponds to the domain that is not revealed by experience or by objective sciences.
These three worlds (the first two of which are interpenetrating, while the last is infinitely beyond access) form the basis for what Thatcher calls a “cosmological” view, enabled by a culture that has moved beyond more traditional frameworks such as the “mythological,” “theological,” and “existential”; each of which has occupied the worldview of humans at various points through out history (p. 7). But we ought not consider this cosmological view to be an addition to its predecessors, since what characterizes this cosmological schema is precisely the unthinkable notion of this “world-without-us.” Of course, as Thatcher points out, the unthinkable is precisely that, unthinkable. The thought of the unthinkable is what makes the horror genre such an appealing vehicle to move Thatcher’s philosophy, where he asks us to consider that “horror be understood as being about the limits of the human as it confronts a world that is not just a World, and not just the Earth, but also a Planet (the world without us)” (p. 8).
For Thatcher “anything that reveals itself does not reveal itself in total…In a literal sense the Planet moves beyond the subjective World, but it also recedes behind the objective Earth” (p. 7). I’m quite fond of contemplating this notion- our Planet is an occult, hidden entity; it ruptures forth in our senses and secretes itself through our scientific instruments, yet there is a remainder, a lingering spectre looming somewhere in a non-space, enduring somehow in a non-time. This is very similar to what I argued in my essay on Object-Oriented Ecology, where I wrote:
Scientific knowledge, in the context of an object-oriented ecology, then, recapitulates epistemologically what vicarious causation and the strange stranger have already demonstrated ontologically and ethically. Scientific knowledge does not approach the withdrawn core of an entity any more than art, religion, or philosophy do.
I am in strong agreement with Thatcher’s arguments here and find it quite compelling, as he does, that it is at the same instant in which the world swells with strangeness that it demands to be understood and recognized the most. This radical alterity of what Thatcher calls “Planet” must somehow be accepted without being able to be thought. As Levinas so rightly said “infinity overflows the thought the thinks it.” Indeed, the face-to-face encounter we have been so ignorant of is a face-to-face encounter with the radical otherness of our own home world. And yet, we might find strange comfort in the thought that this alterity is within us as much as it is without us, or as Thatcher notes:
“Scientists estimate that approximate[ly] ninety percent of the cells in the human body belong to non-human organisms (bacteria, fungi, and a whole bestiary of other organisms). Why shouldn’t this be the case for human thought as well? In a sense, this book is an exploration of this idea - that thought is not human” (p. 7).
Irreducible strangeness is, at the end of the day, perhaps what we all have in common. I’ll be posting more on this text as I have the time.