Is the Earth a Medium?
—Situating the Planetary in Media Theory
‘But you would be wrong. You are a creature of the sun.’ (Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312, 3)
Is the earth a medium?
It is a medium long before it is our home, a ship, an ecosystem, a globe, Gaia, a blue marble, or any of the other popular figurations of the earth. The inflationary tendencies of media theory encourage us to think this way, yet the question is asked not with the intention of making our planet legible to media theorists but to situate the earth in terms of ‘the planetary’. The warnings of existential crisis put into wide circulation by the earth sciences—ozone holes, tipping points, planetary boundaries, the Anthropocene—compel us to think in these terms. These alarms are not simply opportunities to retweet crisis, advocate sustainability, or green the media, but to engage with the conception of ‘the planetary’ these warnings imply.
In this respect, the relationship of earth science and media theory does not reduce to questions of effective representation, public understanding, or the cultural politics of symbolizing the earth. To ask, ‘is the earth a medium?’, is to displace the authority of dominant figurations of environmental change. The earth sciences are not as legible to geographical, ecological, and geological figurations of environment as we might assume. A discourse intending to disclose ‘the planetary’ in concert with the earth sciences cannot derive its ontological categories from earthbound accounts of terrestrial environment or filter them through such disciplinary formations.1 It requires a broader geophysical view that retains the historicity of all those modes of planetary inquiry once called natural philosophy and today called earth systems science.
In recent years, the historical relationship of media and geophysics has come into clearer view. Anthropogenic global warming, a discovery driven by atmospheric and oceanographic fields of geophysics, has raised theoretical interest in less terrestrially biased phenomena, like the aerial and aquatic media (Shiga, ‘Sonar’; Jue, Wild Blue Media), and widened the temporalities that are studied (Parikka, Geology; Cubitt, Finite Media). The long arcs of Peters’ (Marvelous Clouds) civilizational account of media and environment, for example, bring the geophysical preconditions of media to our attention though natural philosophy. In his approach, the earth sciences are anticipated and shaped by the cosmological, theological, literary, philosophical and media systems that precede them. The clouds—those admixtures of earth, air and water that precede the human—emerge as media in Peters’ perspective. Clouds are portals to a different conception of environmental change, one figured in elemental durations that resist reduction to geographical, ecological, or extractivist terms.
If clouds are media, it raises the question of why stop there (is the moon a medium? is the sun?), but also a different sort of question. Do the planetary figurations of environment encouraged by earth science have a ‘medial a priori’? Are the conditions of possibility for ‘the planetary’ implicated in media techniques? I ask these questions with the provocations of Peters, Sybille Kramer (‘Cultural Techniques’), Anna Tuschling (‘Historical’), Sean Cubitt (Finite Media), and Janice Baker (‘Metal Fictions’) in mind, and to explore more complex approaches to duration. It is in this context that the question—is the earth a medium?—gains its wider significance.
Perth is a wonderful place to raise such questions.
The city is known to space geeks as the ‘city of lights’, a description it shares with the rather more narcissistic cities of the world. Paris, Los Angeles, and other pretenders claim this designation though ceaseless illumination of their modernity, polluting the night side of the earth and blotting out starry reminders of our cosmic condition. Telescopes must flee urban life to find cosmic light, and the leading 20th century observatories were ruined by this perpetual illumination (Walker, ‘Light Pollution’). An early example of the cartography of light pollution—a contour map of 1970s Southern Ontario, Canada, my neck of the woods—overlays a measure of nightly light intensity onto a geographical map. One result of this interest in light pollution is the creation of night sky reserves, parks, and the like; I know one was designated recently in Eastern Australia as well, in New South Wales I believe. Welcome to the dark sky movement.
Light pollution contours in Southern Ontario. Berry, 'Light Pollution', 112-113.
Perth is the ‘city of lights’ for a different reason. The city substituted a signal of planetary inhabitation for narcissistic self-illumination. I imagine you know the story. In 1962, as the Friendship VII orbited the dark side of the earth, all of Perth’s lights were illuminated to greet NASA astronaut, John Glenn. One small acknowledgment for humanity you say, yet a giant leap in media theory! The earth, as the medium of life, was the message. A first indication of planetary inhabitation via light processing. It is interesting that two years later McLuhan (Understanding Media) describes light as the medium par excellence (that is, a medium without content) and emphasizes how media introduce new scale into established senses of environment. (I’ll let you infer what you will, but please keep this information to yourself, as it is an act of treason in Canada to suggest anyone other than McLuhan discovered that the ‘medium is the message’.) Let the record show that this unexpected light was received warmly by Glenn—unlike other surprising illuminations that would trouble him and NASA.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that John Glenn and NASA’s other ‘civilian’ astronauts were trained as military pilots. I mention it because pilots are ocularcentric, unlike submarine captains. The original analogue for space capsule design was the submarine, but submarines have no windows. Military pilots refused this humiliating comparison to their seafaring brethren and demanded that light transparent materials be incorporated into the craft. It meant that Glenn had a window to see Perth, take photographs, and witness other things.
What other things?
NASA asks us to associate Glenn’s voyage with the brightly illuminated earth, offering this photograph in answer to their question, ‘what did John Glenn see?’:
'What did John Glenn see?'
This approach to imaging and its aesthetic are recurrent if not obsessive features of NASA’s approach to the popularization of planetary imaging. It is a problem. It relies on a conception of the observer that collapsed in western culture in the 19th century (Crary, Techniques), and is entirely untenable as a guide to off-planet observing, visualization, and imaging today. In The Vision Machine, Paul Virilio spoke of a ‘fusion-confusion of eye and camera lens’ (13), and it captures the conflation of lens and eye that NASA encourages. Yet, NASA’s answer is not simply wrong but dull, and this we should not accept.
Glenn saw unexpected and disconcerting lights during his mission. The Apollo mission crews did as well. Strange lights. Uncontrolled vision. Unreliable reports. Hallucinations. The further removed from the earth, the odder the vision. By Apollo 16 and 17, the situation was so troubling that astronauts had their eyeballs photographed and were given large cameras to wear on their heads. NASA hoped to ground the physiological misfiring that produced lights in their astronauts’ eyes by recording a material trace. They discovered an absence.
Fireflies, white flashes, clouds of light, not to mention the fireballs upon re-entry to earth, these are portals to an alternative account of earth observing, and to the conception of ‘the planetary’ it affords. The dissociation of human, technical and planetary light processing created disorders that illuminate interdependencies of body, technology and earth. These examples of ‘post-earth’ vision create ripples in our received histories of vision; they draw our attention to the hints found in this scholarship of how ‘the planetary’ would erupt into 21st century thought. They also disclose what our NASA-approved aesthetic for the planet does not: recognition of the earth as a medium.
If ‘post-earth’ vision is human and machine gathering of light from outside of the earth, then it is not very old. The approach is split from its inception in the late 1950s between military photography for observing the movements of inhabitants on the surface of the earth (CORONA) and civilian imaging of the atmosphere for observing cloud and weather patterns (TIROS). The Russian case is more complex as they forego the moon for an interplanetary interest in Venus. In any case, off-earth imaging by the US and Canada has always been fractured by globalist visions (observations made through the earth’s atmosphere to the terrestrial and aquatic, as if gazing at a globe from a position exterior to it) and planetary imaging (observations made of planetary atmosphere in its solar environs). NASA has typically mismatched its technical light processing (observing light in the atmosphere) with a popular aesthetic that draws the eye to the surface of the earth. The tendency is perhaps an artifact of the world-historical importance of walking the moon for NASA—the moon has little atmosphere, and so the approach to imaging and television during the Mercury and Apollo missions could dispense with these concerns. Vision is abstracted from the atmospheric.
In this context, we should be wary of reproducing what NASA says Glenn saw. It is better to examine records of what he and other astronauts saw. We can refer here to the transcript and audio-files of in-flight communication, the pilot’s briefing reports, some in-flight experiments, and the official reports summarizing their mission’s accomplishments.
In Glenn’s case, there was Perth’s signal of planetary inhabitation, and I’ll return to how the question of inhabitation is resituated from geographical and ecological frameworks to the plane of interplanetary light processing at the end of this discussion. There were also many experiments designed to record how human eyes work in space. Glenn tested his eyes using a dashboard eyechart, onboard flashlights, an eyepatch (for adjusting to dark from light), and performed ‘oculogyric’ tests to correlate capsule movements with eye movements and other sensations. Vision, it was assumed, was more crucial in space, as pilots could not orient by feeling the earth’s gravity as they would in a jet. In this sense, vision was abstracted from a fuller sense of embodiment, as the bodily was abstracted from the planetary.
Glenn had filters permitting him to gaze directly at the sun. He didn’t use them, which I find a delightful (if unwitting) homage to those scientists innovating in the abstraction of vision, especially Gustave Fechner, who stared relentlessly into the sun (Fechner was earthbound so he needed filters to let different pieces of the sun enter his eyes than our physiology and atmosphere typically permit). These reckless 19th century scientists would externalize the physiological conditions of vision, and Fechner’s work produced both blindness and evidence for the afterimage effect (when we see images of things that are no longer before our eyes). Glenn deserves a minor place in this pantheon of crazy men staring into the sun in search of radical alterity, a tradition ably advanced in Sunshine (writ. Alex Garland, dir. Danny Boyle), a film depicting the madness of approaching the sun with human oriented time-axis manipulation in mind. Glenn observed stars other than the sun in UV bands using cameras, an impossibility on earth, as our atmosphere prevents some wavelengths of UV light from reaching the ground (in the Holocene at least).
In addition, Glenn observed the earth’s clouds to compare human vision, photographic reproduction, and machine imaging. Glenn recorded his observations while taking photographs to describe the ‘same’ patch of atmosphere at approximately the ‘same’ moment as NASA’s TIROS satellites. The desire to correlate these different durations—of the eye, of the photographic exposure, and of the TV camera carried by TIROS—is clearly bound to a narrow and pragmatic conception of ‘the visible’, and the strange temporalities of the planetary remained exterior to the experimental gaze.
My point is that Glenn’s eyes were an object of scientific experimentation, tight discipline, and intensive preparation, and his field of vision was meticulously planned, simulated, and made operational for scientific, technological, and arguably military purposes. The desire to validate the risk and expense of ‘manned’ space travel played into this preparation and underpins some of Glenn and NASA’s recorded discourse. The deeper subtext, as always, was the cold war. The ‘clouding’ of his vision, of his photographic targets, and of TIROS observations was intentional; in making the illuminated atmosphere their object of vision, light itself was made an object of technical recording and the terrestrial was blurred. NASA’s imaging of the earth disclosed no inhabitants and this helped U.S. military and intelligence agencies disguise their terrestrial imaging capabilities. In short, the institutional approach to Glenn’s perceptual capabilities was highly rationalized: fields of view were anticipated, the types and duration of visual tasks were tightly scheduled, and the means of recording both practiced and disciplined.
It was surprising, therefore, when Glenn reported moving ‘slowly’ through a ‘cloud’ of fireflies while orbiting the earth (‘Pilot’s Flight Report’, 131). It was an event he analogized to seeing a star field and then described more analytically as thousands of small luminescent particles appearing before his ship (on three occasions). If Glenn’s discourse was faltering, the photographic apparatus failed entirely when the light of the purported particles was insufficient to capture on the film he was using (or vice versa). Hollywood has filled this archival void and given us the lasting image of Glenn’s encounter as immortalized in a 1983 film, The Right Stuff (dir. Philip Kaufman).
The Right Stuff (1983). Film still.
The film leaves Glenn’s vision unexplained but offers a quasi-mystical sensibility, as his encounter with the fireflies is bookended by images of indigenous peoples tending large bonfires that send sparks high into the night sky. The film invites a contrapunctual reading and we might juxtapose Perth’s hello to Glenn with these tribal bonfires to engage the colonial legacy of planetary imaging. The source text for the film, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, claims Glenn was open to true alterity in the cosmos. Wolfe plays briefly on the real tension between Glenn’s enthusiasm and NASA’s efforts to dampen it with repeated questions about the ship’s operability. The record of their in-flight exchanges reflects conversation on whether and how the fireflies responded to the craft’s movements. The tension was amplified considerably during Scott Carpenter’s subsequent mission, as his keen interest in solving Glenn’s mystery conflicted with NASA’s schedule for operating the ship.
We owe to Carpenter’s minor insubordination another explanation for the fireflies. Illusion and cosmic alterity were displaced by an environmental account. Glenn did not hallucinate but he was wrong about the nature of the light. It was not emitted, as with a star, firefly, or micro galaxy, but reflected. The ‘fireflies’ were ‘frostflies’, or more colloquially, snowflakes. In moving from intense light to cold dark to intense light as the quickly orbiting capsule did, frost formed on the ship, flaked off, and was illuminated by the sun. If you take an interest in this question, you find Glenn’s body implicated in these explanations, with his urine and sweat creating vapor shunted outside the capsule that turns to frost.
In seeking cosmic difference, Glenn misrecognized himself. Is this not an apt result for those racing to the moon, a chunk of rock broken off from the earth? Yet, it is worth emphasizing the alterity of the durations experienced by astronauts. Glenn’s quick orbits produced shorter days, of course, and it also let him see light that was untouched by any atmosphere. Yet, in moving quickly from light to dark, in switching almost instantaneously, it is not surprising that he would struggle to form coherent visions.
The incident raised questions about the reliability of post-earth vision that intensified during the Apollo mission. The passengers of Apollo 11, famous for the moonwalk, saw flashes of white light. Glenn and Carpenter had witnessed strange light with open eyes through the window of his capsule. The moonwalk astronauts, the inhabitants of Apollo 11 through to Apollo 17, saw light flashes regardless of whether their eyes were open or closed, and regardless of where they were positioned in the ship. This was not urine mistaken for beings of pure light. When dark-adjusted, when fully enveloped by the void of space, the astronauts saw light without source and content. These were episodic spots of light, described as a kind of photographic flashbulb, streaks of light, or clouds of light filling the peripheral vision of astronauts.
NASA responded with body worn cameras: the Apollo Light Flash Moving Emulsion Detector (ALFMED) experiment. Astronauts brought a head-sized camera with them (see figures 6 and 7), and while Apollo 17 is remembered best for photographing the whole earth, it also addressed the light flash phenomena. The ALFMED cameras were worn on one’s head, effectively blinding the camera’s inhabitant, yet designed to record physical traces of the flashing lights. In brief, you wore the camera for an hour, documented any light flashes observed visually while wearing it, and then returned your report and the camera to NASA scientists once on the ground. In addition, pre-flight and post-flight photographs of eyeballs were taken. In this way, the physiological and technical recording of the post-earth condition was aligned to explain disorders wrought by the dissociation of human and planetary light processing.
ALFMED camera. Inside view, and as worn during flight.
Sullivan, Catalog, 131.
The Abstraction of Vision
The disorders of post-earth seeing might be situated as effects of the abstraction of vision. This approach allows us to register ‘the planetary’, not with respect to gravity as Glenn’s oculogyric experiments did, but with regard for how light enframes us.
The abstraction of vision refers generally to the dislocation of seeing from human beings to the technological plane. It results from a complex series of historical processes that congealed in 19th century efforts to externalize the physiological preconditions of sight through scientific and technical means (Virilio, Vision Machine; Crary, Techniques; Kittler, Optical Media; Parikka, What). The externalization of biological and physiological preconditions for vision is linked historically to injuries that damaged or disabled human bodies. Much of this incapacitation was self-inflected, in the interests of science, and others produced through the viciousness of modernization and war. These injuries created sensorial, nervous system and cognitive disorders that illuminated the conditions of possibility for ‘normal’ functioning. Technical prosthetics, supplements, or augmentations were developed in this context, and the resulting media were understood as externalizations of bodily processes that had reconstructed vision to ameliorate and overcome the fallibilities implied by disorder and disability. Technical media, in this sense, tuned the senses and expanded one’s sense of surrounding or environment.
McLuhan’s brilliance was to compress this broad history to describe media technology as prosthetics or extensions of man; that is, the contingent historical dynamics of this moment were fused into an evolutionary dynamic, and he interpreted its significance through the physiological research paradigm of his era (see Kittler, Optical Media). The vocabulary of amputation, prosthetics, irritation, and numbing are part of this metaphorical transfer between physiology and media technics. It makes sense given this approach to offer a photograph as evidence of what John Glenn saw (see figure 2 above).
The attention to disorder remains interesting—a point I return to below—yet media histories of vision in the wake of McLuhan inevitably circle the question of how humans are related to technology. Virilio, Crary, and Kittler document conclusively the exhaustion of McLuhan’s ‘extensions’ approach. There are endless examples of vision becoming completely unmoored from the concerns, capabilities, and bodies of human observers. As Crary’s urgent warning puts it, ‘the historically important functions of the human eye are being supplanted by practices in which visual images no longer have any reference to the position of an observer in a “real”, optically perceived world’ (Techniques, 2). Technical media, at one time, captured primarily visible light, and while photographs have long required chemical and machine processing, its observations involved durations that were reasonably legible to the human sensorium.
In the 20th century, according to Virilio, Kittler, and Crary, this is less often the case. The recording and processing of light is no longer modelled on or even all that accessible to the physiological processes of embodied humans. The technical recording of light casts its net more widely to capture physical effects that are imperceptible to humans if not biological systems more generally. These records are subject to calculation and processing that is largely inaccessible to the human, involving computational operations that are conducted at durations exceeding human involvement, yet that are increasingly important in ordering our apprehension of our surroundings.
To be sure, there is theoretical differentiation among these accounts. Crary, unlike Virilio and Kittler, refuses a technological explanation for this historical condition, and Kittler (unlike Virilio or Crary) has few qualms about it. Still, each scholar situates the relentless abstraction of vision in machinic terms, as if light processing is completely technical once dissociated from human biology. The upshot is that the interesting theoretical questions tend to be posed within frameworks assuming the co-constitution of embodiment and technics: extension, alienation, supplementation, augmentation, grafting, substitution, intermediation, etc., are conceptual expressions of bio-technical arrangements for imaging and observation.
Why prioritize these ‘old head’ accounts given the many innovations of posthuman thinking? They contain hints of something that is irreducible to biological or ecological horizons. Crary refers frequently to Turner’s painting as expressing a new relationship to the sun, one that integrated new scientific ways of using telescopes to process sunlight. Kittler offers Fechner as a central figure in media history. Fechner stared relentlessly into the sun by disabling how physiology and atmosphere typically regulate our exposure to light. Virilio’s emphasis on speed in war and politics is well known, yet these effects are consequent on exploiting the scientific conception of light as electromagnetic radiation. If gathered together, these hints suggest conceptions of light processing that exceed biologically articulated modes of theory.
The machinations of war often assume a central role in the abstraction of vision, as the technological exploitation of light recording, storage, and processing affords such clear advantages for maintaining military domination that war and imaging technology begin escalating in concert. This ‘war answer’ to media evolution is not taken very seriously today. It is often viewed as an artifact of earlier styles of technoscientific theory, expressing an overwrought concern with military machination that is simply one aspect of the bigger picture (see Winthrop-Young, Kittler). However, it is valuable in this context for linking the abstraction of vision to the environmental churn occasioned by 20th century war. In most cases, the planetary constituents of lived environments change so slowly as to remain invisible; glaciers flow, but at one time seemed immobile. These durations can exceed the expanse of time that humanity has dwelled the earth (we have experienced very few of the planet’s ice ages). War, however, churns environmental stability. In this respect, the churning environments of 20th century war require the abstraction of vision discussed by Virilio and Kittler, and the modern earth sciences (not just modern telecommunication) are constituted within this historical arc, particularly those approaches to environment favouring physics over biology (Doel, ‘Constituting’; also, see Winthrop Young, Kittler).
Is it possible that the abstraction of vision is linked to war only contingently? If so, the idea of the planetary that emerges from this historical arc need not reproduce ‘the war answer’ horizon to media theory, but might resituate it as a special instance of a broader dynamic. Let’s see if this is viable.
In Virilio’s work, war suffuses landscapes and urban design. His histories of vision unfurl how lived spaces that reflect the phenomenology and lived dynamics of human inhabitation give way to anticipations of combat. The aerial assaults of the 20th century are frequent examples. Bombing reduces inhabitation to rubble; these ruins no longer conform to the human scales, inhabited dynamics, or cartographies ordering human vision. New imaging capabilities are needed to observe the churn and fog of environments that have dissolved geographically and ecologically into geophysical elements. In this respect, lived environments are not merely churned and rendered unfamiliar; they are ‘abstracted’ into their geophysical constituents, the observing of which creates new accounts of our surroundings. It is this logic that drives Virilio to say photography displaces the priority of cartography in the conduct of war (driving geographers mad, I’m sure). In brief, war disables living environments, and brings their geophysical constituents to the surface; is this analogous to how bodily injuries externalized the physiological conditions of sight?
To summarize, the abstraction of vision is expressed physiologically and technically, but its evolutionary dynamics are tied in churning of natural environments. The physical effects of light are shaped, stored, and processed by bodies and technology, to be sure, but planetary light processing is prior and encompassing of these accomplishments. The upshot is that the splitting of human and machinic vision isn’t as absolute as Virilio, Crary, and Kittler sometimes suggest. Yes, optical technologies can record and process light in the absence of an observing, embodied subject, and we might analyse these examples to determine whether technology supplements, displaces, or renders obsolete human modes of observation. Yet, the planetary gathers light in the absence of the embodied and machinic recording. The duality of human and technology that structures our accounts of the abstraction of vision is viable only when the temporal spans gathering our attention fail to let ‘the planetary’ shape our thinking. If we relax this restriction, it is evident that the abstraction of vision is a planetary accomplishment, and not simply because planetary materials are needed to produce technology, although, as Baker, Gabrys, Cubitt, and Parikka illustrate so ably, planetary durations are embedded in these technologies.
The planetary is mobilized in many disciplinary formations, yet registered most directly in media theory by Virilio’s account of ‘big optics’, and in his concern with the consequences of conceptualizing light in terms of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. The technical deployment of light is felt most evident in the speed of signal-processing (the use of telecommunication to improve the efficiency of war), yet has profound consequences for the imaging of our surroundings as well (the use of earth observing to improve observations of environment).
Human vision, on this approach, is but a partial slice of the EM spectrum, and our ability to record a wider range of light from sites that are uninhabitable to humans expands the imaging techniques used to create observations of our surroundings—a process Virilio has called the ‘electromagnetic conditioning of territory’. Humans do not register much of the EM spectrum because its light never reaches us (the earth’s atmosphere keeps it from the earthbound, like the UV light of stars that Glenn ventured forth to record). In addition, we haven’t the physiological capabilities to sense these wavelengths if it does. We might bring these points together and speculate that the planetary has preconditioned the evolution of physiological and technical capacities for gathering and processing light. If we mess with the light processing of the planetary, if we permit unfamiliar light to inscribe itself on us, then disorder ensues: Ozone holes, for instance, are largely imperceptible, yet legible in the form of wrinkles, cataracts, skin cancers, etc., a point to which I return.
Virilio is unhappy with the way that big optics, as a technological paradigm for ordering light, annuls the priority of human phenomenology, but let’s pull these disparate reflections together and return to our confused astronauts to see if a more optimistic approach is possible.
As I mentioned a moment ago, the earth’s atmosphere processes light in varied and complex ways that the inhabitants of the earth’s surface are rarely concerned with. Much of this light—cosmic and solar radiation if you prefer—never reaches the surface of the planet. We live in concert with planetary light processing and depend upon it, and its complex workings have remained relatively stable into the 20th century, aside from the dimming effects of volcanic eruptions, the occasional solar storm, eclipses and the like. These were fleeting instabilities.
When we depart the earth to enter the void, when we abandon the constitutive condition of human vision from time immemorial, and when planetary light processing no longer conditions our own, the situation is different. The cosmos permeates you. The post-earth condition is not an empty abyss or limitless void. It is a vast light show. A solar system. It is replete with bending light that offers up the planets, stars, and even galaxies as lenses (gravitational rather than optical lenses perhaps, but still). Our cosmic condition is registered optically as flashes of light without apparent source or content. Abstracted from the planetary, human eyes cannot ‘see’ nothing or register an empty void because the earth doesn’t wander an abyss. We exist—humans, machines, planet—in a cosmic light show.
At the outset, I suggested that this notion—of the earth as a medium—is worth pursuing because it situates the earth not with respect to our usual figurations of environmental crisis, but with regard for the conception of ‘the planetary’ underpinning the warnings circulated by the contemporary earth sciences. We might approach these sciences as end users by giving wider dissemination to their results, or query their growing authority and institutional entanglements, yet in steering discussion to the medial a priori of their inquiries, a different relationship is possible. Interest in the medial a priori of the planetary involves acknowledging the technological infrastructure that makes planetary observation, visualization, and imaging possible, yet refers in this context to problems of temporality and duration, and to planetary light-processing that exceeds embodied, technical, and computational modalities of apprehending the earth.
The warnings of existential crisis circulated by planetary scientists gain their significance and novelty in this context. Their symbolic and cultural dimensions are old and anticipated in theological and cosmological systems, as Peters (Marvelous Clouds) illustrates, yet the questions of inhabitation concerning geographical and ecological thought are moved decisively to the plane of interplanetary light-processing, and pursued through epistemological frameworks that prioritize, formalize, and systemize the study of planetary light (see, for instance, Hans J. Schellnhuber’s (‘Earth System’) ecstatic celebration of light-processing and earth system science).
The stark dissociation of human and planetary light processing afforded by astronauts offered a hint of things to come. The planetary, in this respect, is registered in terms of bodily disorder, and filtered through concerns with the physiology and subjectivity of vision that were characteristic of mid-20th century approaches. The distorted vision of Mercury and Apollo mission astronauts were minor problems, of course, and reflected popular discourses on vision. Today, however, they are evidence of the limitations of registering disorder primarily in terms of the bodily, as the technological apparatus capturing the material effects of interplanetary light processing (ALFMED) was not constructed on the model of the human perceptual apparatus. It enframed the head with growing awareness of a cosmos suffused with light. The space capsules carrying astronauts were not sealed ships utterly dissociated from the void they traversed; these temporary inhabitations were surrounded by and transparent to the light of the cosmos. The circling of sunlight that structures our sense of day and year had given way to other durations of light; it became clear that planetary light processing conditions inhabitability, and the sciences of planetary crisis assumed this perspective with growing authority in years to come.
The ozone hole, the sudden and surprising insertion of industrially produced matter into the order of planetary processing of light, was also registered popularly in terms of the visual and physiological disorders found in human populations that were now bathing more regularly in the damaging wavelengths of UV light (skin cancers, cataracts, etc.). Understood in these terms, the problem was reasonably legible (and predictably racialized). Yet, its resolution involved not simply the retrofitting of valued bodies with UV proofed lenses, clothing, lotions and aging creams, but managing the chemical constituents of planetary atmosphere. One could say the Montreal Protocol inserts human agency into the processing of planetary light. Body, technology, and planet are realigned, yet the observations compelling this realignment are hardly a result of a global ecological consciousness. Popular images of the ozone hole (figure 8) are simply concessions to a model of observation that holds little scientific relevance to problems of planetary light processing. The concentration of stratospheric ozone is not ‘observed’, as an eye or machine might detect it, but calculated from records of light as it reflects, refracts and diffracts in the atmosphere. Put simply, we take pictures (spectrographs) of light passing through the atmosphere and compare records of UV reaching the ground with the UV light bouncing off the planet to infer what the earth’s atmosphere is composed of and how it is changing over time. The shield to damaging forms of UV light, stratospheric ozone, is calculated in this way; if its concentration dips below a certain threshold, we compose a hole over the earth in pretty pixels (figure 8). Programmable pixels double the programming of planetary light processing.
Ozone hole 2013. Visible Earth, NASA.
The scientific study of climate change is often understood as a question of planetary light processing, and Dipesh Chakrabarty (‘Climate’) has emphasized the interplanetary perspective of scientists interested in this problem. The rapidity with which many disciplines have engaged the planetary, and grounded the significance of their cultural, historical, and theoretical inquiries in environmental concerns is impressive, and is owed to a broader interest in climate change. It is perhaps possible to recuperate scientific forms of climate change from the standpoint of ecology and geography, but there is reason to doubt that the enormity of this effort has been fully realized.
Media theory recommends itself, I dare say, in illuminating the medial preconditions that structure the questions of temporal duration and interplanetary perspective identified by Chakrabarty; it allows us to resist the anticipatory synthesis that Chakrabarty’s otherwise impressive approach adopts when he explicates the consequences of the earth and planetary sciences for humanists.
Climate change, as we know, is highly contested terrain. Yet, the empirical basis of its geophysical conception is derived in general terms from studies of paleo-climate, computational modeling, and contemporary earth-observing systems. The orientation of these respective fields to past, future, and present is perhaps obvious, yet if we assimilate these fields quickly into a generalized ‘earth system science’, we elide their historicity, their vexed relationship to ecology, and the diverse medial systems in which they are implicated.
Paleo-climatic records, for instance, comport well with inscription-based paradigms of media analysis, while the models, projections, and simulations of future climate change are highly computational in nature. Earth observing, a third source for contemporary conceptions of the planetary, offers planetary light-processing as a primordial process that exceeds inscription and computational paradigms for media theory. Debates abound within media theory regarding the priority of writing and its shaping influence on computational paradigms (Hansen, ‘Symbolizing Time’; Peters and Russill, ‘Looking’), yet even among advocates of media as inscription there are concerns that computation subsumes the concept of media entirely. By insisting on the independence of light-processing from inscription and computational paradigms, media theory retains distance from those contemporary approaches to data processing that overwhelm how we conceive the planetary.
Consider the concept of planetary light processing as a computational process, an idea found occasionally in thinkers like Kittler and George Dyson (Turing’s Cathedral), and discussed more recently in Benjamin H. Bratton’s The Stack. Kittler’s account is the most adventurous. He anticipates a digital figuration of light yet to come, one in which the diffraction of light is already a form of natural computation, and in which the highly inefficient conversion of light transmission to electrical switching in digital computers is superceded by systems processing light simply as light (Optical Media, 229). Computation continues its abstraction from biology to silicon to become implemented through light; or perhaps it has always been this way. If the quick equivalence of digital bit and discrete photon is rather convenient for his story, we still owe Kittler for posing the question of planetary light processing within a conceptual framework that affords antagonism, namely ‘the world war between algorithms and resources’ (230). Dyson, for his part, elides all politics in proposing the atmosphere might itself become a distributed planetary computer, one coupled to and processing ‘the real physical energy flux’ (Turing’s Cathedral, 173) in a way affording new modes of climate control.
Finally, in Bratton’s approach, planets reduce to interstellar standing reserve: ‘The universe could, in principle, disassemble one astronomic body and build a couple [of] others out of the raw material, and in fact, in astronomic time, that is more or less how planets are made’ (The Stack, 300). It is a chemist’s conception of the planetary, yet oddly congruent with contemporary models of digital computation. My use of ‘processing’ throughout this discussion is intended less as a concession to this mode of thought, of which Bratton is clearly critical, and as contributing to a conception of the planetary in which light precedes, preconditions, and powers the much narrower forms of duration and recursion afforded by contemporary forms of computation. The planetary might be increasingly contested on this terrain.
Based on a paper originally presented at the Ctrl-Z research symposium, geo- (the earth and the earth sciences in humanities inquiry), Curtin University, Perth, November 28-30, 2016. I owe a special thanks to the participants at the geo- workshop, and especially to Robert Briggs for inviting and encouraging these remarks. I would like to recognize Sean Cubitt, Melody Jue, Jeremy Packer, John Durham Peters, Rafico Ruiz, John Shiga, Nicole Starosielski, and Liam Cole Young for ongoing conversations and their inspiring examples of inventive-critical approaches to environmental media.
1. I recognize that geography and ecology are complex knowledge formations, and that brilliant scholars have unravelled their colonial legacy, conceptual tensions, and politics to chart alternative approaches to environment (Cosgrove; Heise; Ingold, among others). I encourage the opposition to conceptions of environment as standing reserve that often animates this work, and nothing said here is intended to undermine political opposition to colonialist or extractivist economies. #back
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