earth, Ida Hiršenfelder

narrator Ida Hiršenfelder
term earth
affiliated institution MG+MSUM

Exhausted by the strange weather, I remember the warnings of climatologists from over 20 years ago that predicted that this part of the world is going to see excessive rain and floods and others will suffer from drought and it looks like we are going to see much more bad weather in the future. Bad weather is quite bad news for complex and larger organisms especially vertebrates that are unlikely to adapt to new climate conditions and will subsequently become extinct. And extinction is going to be a very messy business also for humans. Timothy Morton points out that the end of the world has already occurred. Instead of inhabiting a world, we find ourselves inside a number of hyperobjects, such as climate, nuclear weapons or evolution. Such objects put unbearable strains on our normal ways of reasoning and incapacitate us to imagine the world as a whole. My term for the glossary is Earth with a capital E. I’m still not quite sure if Earth is an entirely suitable term for talking about changing weather and global warming. While turning around notions like territory, Earth, Planet, Gaia the living organism, World, nature, environment, terrestrial, Globe, in search for a term that simultaneously bears in mind a planetary perspective while being grounded in the matter and striking a chord on the emotional level. I came across a very simple term Home with a capital H, because that’s what it is and we’re very unlikely to find anyplace else in the universe just like Home. I think this term might speak to those who have been dispossessed. As it was pointed to in Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime the dispossessed are on the one hand the migrants, asylum seekers, who’ve literally lost their homes due to conflicts connected to global warming and accelerationism and on the other the disappointed nationals who have been let down by the failed project of globalisation and are now in search to establish their sense of home, which means safety, familiarity, comfort, etc. Global ruling classes who decided to abandon all the burden of solidarity betrayed all those people.


In the media and popular culture, we now again see the idea of planet Mars coming to the centre stage. In the mid of the cold war as it was portrayed in the 1962 film The Day Mars Invaded Earth it was a metaphor for the red communist threat. Now, it is looked at as the solution of the absurdly rich to migrate to from a destructed home planet. But as a long account of a fiction trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars so well depicts, this species of primates will take all our petty disagreements and complex irreconcilable characters with them and the colonisation will cause the same problems of terraforming as it had on the home planet. Perhaps the reason why some may look for a solution outside of Earth is that climate catastrophe is a “super wicked problem” that can rationally be diagnosed but to which there is no feasible rational solution. This wicked problem is terribly difficult to anticipate, it is irreducible and indeterminable. If it gets solved, we will never know if it existed. If it doesn’t get solved, we will never be here to confirm its existence. And perhaps most importantly for politics, this wicked problem is alogical in the sense that solutions cannot be assessed as right or wrong. There is a sharp division between ethics and ontology here, one that we think we like, but that in practice we hate.


Jared Diamond in Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed maintains that civilisation commit an ecological suicide or ecocide by means of bluntly ignoring alarming factors like deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems like erosion or salinisation, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced invasive species, human population overgrowth, and increased per-capita impact of people. Eventually, the population decrease through starvation, war, or disease, and society loses the political, economic, and cultural complexity. Diamond shows on numerous cases through history that the societies which collapsed initially deemed their resources as inexhaustibly abundant, while the signs of their incipient depletion become masked by normal fluctuations in resource levels between years or decades. The complexity of ecosystems also makes the consequences of some human-caused perturbation virtually impossible to predict. That is this wicked question that makes it extremely difficult to get people to agree on exercising restraint. So restraint as anti-consumerism, veganism, zero-waste behaviour, lowering the birth rate, etc is not a question of convictions or choice because we have no choice. And while we may deliberate in exercising free will it is already too late.


So the question is, how to untangle civilisation before it falls under the networks it has webbed? Why I think searching for the right term for this planetary but situated perspective is worth an effort is because I came to believe that failure to identifying matter or object is the definite point in which the current political discourse – or lack thereof – is failing. I do so with the help of writers and artists who are trying to think wicked questions, often finding answers full of seemingly contradictory or dubious statements.


One of such mind twists is Donna Haraway’s "situated knowledges" arguing that “the partial is more credible than the unattainable totalised explanation” and that the question is “how to attach the objective to our theoretical and political scanners in order to name where we are and are not, in dimensions of mental and physical space we hardly know how to name… Objectivity turns out to be about a particular and specific embodiment and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility.” Her idea also resonates with Timothy Morton who says in Dark Ecology that “the whole is always less than the sum of its parts”. To put it more concretely Morton says: “If we want to coexist ecologically, which is to say animistically and anarchistically, we may need to accept the fact that, while they are physically massive, hyperobjects such as neoliberalism are ontologically small, always less than the sum of their parts.”


Karen Barad in her text Posthuman Performativity also calls for the return of the matter. She claims that language has been granted too much power that even materiality is turned into a matter of language or some other form of cultural representation, the matters of “fact” have been replaced with matters of signification. Language matters. Discourse matters. Culture matters. The only thing that does not seem to matter anymore is matter… What compels the belief that we have direct access to cultural representations and their content that we lack access to the things represented? Why are language and culture granted their own agency and historicity while the matter is figured as passive and immutable? And I think it is significant to say that Barad was trained in Quantum Physics.


Before examining the methods of how artists are dealing with the matter, I’d like to quote a definition of Object-oriented ontology, a metaphysical movement that rejects the privileging of human existence over the existence of nonhuman objects.  Morton says: “Ontology doesn’t tell you exactly what exists but how things exist. If things exist, they exist in this way rather than that. Object-oriented ontology holds that things exist in a profoundly “withdrawn” way: they cannot be splayed open and totally grasped by anything whatsoever, including themselves. You can’t know a thing fully by thinking it or by eating it or by measuring it or by painting it . . . This means that the way things affect one another (in causality) cannot be direct (or mechanical), but rather indirect or vicarious: causality is aesthetic.”


Artists are looking for methods of speaking about these issues and seek to surpass the mainstream notions of sustainability which does not challenge the notions that propagate the status quo. They are imagining our world that it is not limited to humans and speak from different perspectives from the point of the particular and concrete, the partial and specific, the direct and pessimistic, the holistic and ritualistic, with dissonance and assemblage, with poetic future scenarios.