What a disorientating, exhilarating image that must have been the first time it was beamed back to Earth and then put out for general consumption, not just in the western world, but everywhere where there were television sets or newspapers.
Even the word has a dislocating, uncanny quality to it. Sunrise is a word, an image and an idea, which takes its place seamlessly in the framework of words, images and ideas with which we are well familiar. Sunrise; signifying the dawn of a new day, signifying the romantic contemplation of our relation to nature, signifying a precise moment in the morning, it contains a potential potency, albeit one that requires the poet or the artist to retrieve it from the anesthetising familiarity of its habitual usage. Earthrise, however, did not require the poet or the artist to exhibit it in its strangeness and singularity. It didn’t fit into any prescribed contexts of usage or practice, save from the imaginings of science fiction. Earthrise did not simply show the Earth as it had never been seen before, it showed the Earth for the first time; a whole, unsupported, sphere situated in… what? Space? Nothingness? The Solar System? Our central nervous system did not evolve to make sense of perspectives such as this. Here was visual evidence that we didn’t only inhabit London or Delhi or Mexico or China, but that we also lived on a terribly fragile looking planet, what Carl Sagan was soon to liken to a mote of dust.
And I imagine the moment when people from all over the planet first saw that image and were, momentarily, wrenched from the familiarity of the many and various worlds that they inhabited, both individually and collectively, captivated by the image of what, within a hitherto unknown way of thinking, might be considered home. Was there, in that moment, an acknowledgement, however fleeting, of the reality of the planet, of Earth and of space? And would not such an acknowledgement inevitably impel a radical relativisation of the systems of meaning in which people found themselves, be they religious, familial or nationalistic. Did this not represent a reality upon which everyone was compelled to agree?
I don’t know. Perhaps it was nothing like that. I was one at the time and so probably had different priorities. What is clear is that any force that the image once had has long since been drained away as it has taken its place in the field of images that we consume and discard in the traffic of our everyday lives. In fact, it is striking how, in the intervening period, interest in space exploration seems to have evaporated and we seem to be more entrenched than ever in the networks of meaning that constitute our various worlds, as if we were intolerant of the absolute non-functionality of this extra-terrestrial perspective on terrestrial existence.
What I find interesting about this is that the image of the Earth from space seems to represent the culmination of a process of mapping, rationalising and objectifying space that was set in motion at the start of the renaissance. This was the proof, that was no longer even required, that all of those maps really did represent an objective reality. And yet now, 40-odd years on, that proof no longer seems quite so incontrovertible and the rationalisation of space which it vindicated no longer seems quite so secure. What was dislocating about Earthrise was that it referred to an ungraspable, inconceivable reality in the face of which we could only wonder. Now, however, thanks to Google Earth, the updated version of Earthrise, the manipulable globe that shimmers on our screens is fully incorporated into the networks of meaning and significance that constitute our everyday lives. From planning holidays to zooming in on familiar places in our home-town, the Earth has been truly domesticated and assimilated into our mundane routines.
All of which raises the question of Earth and of World and the relationship between them. Is the Earth an objective reality upon which we can agree? Does the Earth take its place within the play of signifiers that constitute our world? Is our world grounded upon the Earth or is the Earth dynamised by the place it holds within our world? Can a sense of the Earth resist such assimilation?
Heidegger addressed this question in his article, The Origin of the Work of Art (1). For Heidegger the work of art provided the locus for a struggle between the antagonistic, but mutually dependant phenomena of Earth and World. In Heidegger’s account, ‘World’ is the less problematic of the two terms. World is concerned with human goals and meanings and constitutes a totality of such meanings. Put simply, it corresponds to our everyday usage of the term when we speak of the “world of work”, the “art world” or the “Islamic world”. In this sense we obviously inhabit multiple worlds all of which interpenetrate each other at various points. Importantly, such a notion, while being well understood, is not grounded upon, or dependant upon, any geographical, or objectively quantifiable idea of space. World, in this sense, is a world of significance and significations. From this point of view, we can rightly assert that the Earth exists as an object in the world, in so far as it, or at least its representation, its idea or its image, is operable within the flow of significations that constitute our world (in the worlds of astronomy, geology and climate studies for example). For Heidegger, Earth is the problematic term. While the work of art seeks to uncover a world, Van Gogh’s “A Pair of Shoes” evoke the world of the peasant who wears them, Earth is that which both provides the possibility for such an uncovering, being the material with which the painting is created, and that which resists human attempts to make it intelligible, to draw it into the web of human signification.
It is not my intention to engage with Heidegger’s terminology or use it in a way that remains faithful to his vision. It is enough, for my purposes, to point out that he is obviously not employing the term “Earth” in any of its habitual uses here. He does not mean planet or soil or anything that is immediately familiar to us and operable within the flows of human meaning. If he is not employing the term in a metaphysical sense, then it is always right on the edge of metaphysics in so far as it is that which resists assimilation into the networks of human meaning. For ‘metaphysical’, one could read ‘religious’ or ‘mystical’.
So much for Heidegger. But what do we mean when we talk about the Earth? Is it an objective reality? Does it provide the ground upon which, within which, we construct our various worlds? Is it an ungraspable something which resists our attempts to represent it and incorporate it into our worlds of significance and meaning? Or is it a perfectly functional concept which operates seamlessly within the everyday exchange of meaning? Is it possible that the reality of Earth as a body in space is achingly vast and exterior to any ideas that we might have about it? Earthrise, or Google Earth?
I don’t think this amounts to semantic quibbling. ‘Globalisation’ is a term that is exchanged freely and unproblematically. It operates seamlessly within our discourse, albeit a discourse dominated by the semantic fields of economics and global politics. Yet with what model of the globe are we operating here and what theory of space does it presuppose? If globalisation defines the new horizon within which cultural, economic and political meaning is articulated, then surely it is only natural that we should subject that horizon to some interrogation.
What is clear is that for virtually all of the natural history of human beings, there was no recourse to this idea of Earth as an objective reality. What’s more, there was no recourse to space and time as objective constants, independent of the lived reality in which people were embedded. Pre-renaissance maps of the world, such as the O-T maps of Christendom, were symbolic in nature. They didn’t presume to map an objectively existing space, but the symbolic world within which people orientated themselves. Hence the O-T maps always placed Jerusalem at their centre. The question that this raises is whether the geographically accurate mapping of space corresponded to an objective reality, or whether it represented the triumph of a culturally specific way of conceptualising the world, which proved to be a highly effective tool in the service of colonial and capitalist domination.
In the following series of postings, I want to explore the concept and phenomenon of globalisation, taking as my point of departure the rupture with the symbolic world of the middle ages and the production, at the time of the renaissance and the voyages of discovery, of universal and objective conceptions of time and space. I will then go on to consider how such conceptions are bearing up in the media saturated world of instantaneous electronic communication.