The Great Beyond?

bear to the moon

‘…when they looked up from the earth toward the skies, [they] could behold there a thing of their own making’ (Arendt 1958, 1)

The Human Condition begins with Arendt offering a commentary on the implications of the human race to space. ‘In 1957,’ she announces, ‘an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe’ (1958, 1). This moment brings to life what she refers to as the ‘commonplace’ feeling of human boundedness to the Earth as the experience of entrapment or ‘imprisonment’ (1958, 1). The drive to transcend our Earthly plane runs counter to our understanding of life (in which Earth provides the suitable habitat), and indeed signals a desire to reformulate the very conditions of being human. For Arendt the desire to leave the Earth signals, perhaps, a desire to reject politics, a fearful scenario for Arendt who regards political action as the most important realm in human affairs. Heidegger’s critique of modern technology for its effects on thinking are echoed by Arendt who says that in the contemporary desire to be ‘dwellers of the universe’ (only possible via modern technologies), we turn away from ‘the purest activity of which men are capable, the activity of thinking’ (1958, 5).

Anthropocentric climate change amplifies these discourses of Earth-bound limitation. The destruction of the ecosystem, the exploitation of resources to the point of complete loss, requires – so goes the argument – the discovery and settlement of a new planet. The desire to colonise the realms of outer space, the call for a new planet to house the future of humanity is, much like Arendt notes in 1957, commonplace in the 21st century. Take an episode of the Australian radio program, Future Tense, titled ‘The Future of Interstellar Travel’ aired in late February 2013. Detailed in this program is the possibility of developing a spacecraft capable of taking humans away not just from this planet to another, but into an entirely new star system. While the participants of the program, some scientists, some psychologists, others business entrepreneurs, all note this is a far-off possibility in terms of its realisation, thought has been put into various components of making it happen. For instance, Richard Obousy, the President of a major Interstellar Space Project in the United States, in response to the a question put to him regarding the limited availability of helium-3, an essential source of fuel used in the construction of spaceships, comments that the ship would be best be constructed off planet Earth, and that ‘you would mine the outer planets for helium-3’ (Fennell 2013). The inclusion of other planets as part of ‘our’ ‘standing reserve’ might stagger even the most enthusiastic supporter of technology and shock its more vigilant critics!

The rootlessness assigned in literature and popular culture and its implications for the mass movements of peoples around the world is transferred in other-worldly scenarios of mass exodus and/or mass extinction. Paul Virilio, for instance, has offered an engaging and provocative assessment of the impossibility of maintaining sedentary lives in the era of climate change (Virilio 2010). While the ‘political commitment’ (2010, 13) of the last century has been to ‘stationary settlement’ (2010, 2), Virilio can only imagine a future ‘culture of rootless rage’ (2010, 13). Culture is defined, and reduced to or essentialised as, without roots; ragingly without roots. The use of the term ‘rage’ needs to be noted. Rage refers, of course, to the presence of a violent and uncontrollable anger which may arise out of a context. If a river rages, it moves with such an intensity and force that it cannot be contained; it threatens to break the banks or levies. In this instance, rage accompanies generalised rootlessness, with the threat of breaking the boundaries of the Earth.

Virilio begins his theoretical journey by drawing on the Christian Aid 2007 Report Human Tide: the real migration crisis, a much discredited source in the academic and policy community for its generation of a moral panic unhinged from empirical findings. From this, Virilio extrapolates a future-oriented scenario involving the unregulated movement of one billion people. Many of Virilio’s arguments pivot around this imaginary of a billion mobile but directionless humans/’exiles’, and the subsequent ‘quest for an exoplanet’ to house the humans (2010, 6). Virilio’s commentary is not celebratory but dystopian with a decent hint of disgust. In an effort to do justice to his provocations, I will cite Virilio at length, followed by an analysis for its implications:

 

“Faced with this unprecedented migration crisis which is incomparably more serious than the immigration of the industrial age, and which is already being called the migration offensive of the third millennium, the issue of urbanization in the contemporary world might be seen in terms that undermine the customary distinction between sedentariness and nomadism.

In fact, after the pluralist era of sustainable staying-put in the different neighbourhoods of registered urban land – a form of stationary settlement that once, in antiquity, introduced the notion of ‘citizenship’, as deriving from political localization, and with it, ultimately, of the ‘legally constituted state’ of nations – the era of habitable circulation is now dawning with the transpolitical delocalization that is now overturning the geopolitics of settlement in the age of globalization” (2010, 2).

 

And a little later:

 

“Emergency exit: If the major event for anthropologists of the moment is demographic growth over the past century or so – from one and a half billion individuals in 1900 to six billion in the year 2000 – when this is coupled with the boom in instantaneous transmission and supersonic transport, the result will be one billion displaced persons tomorrow, deportees everywhere you look. We’ll need to somehow rehouse these people and we’ll need to do so in less than half a century. This seems quite impossible to achieve, unless we abandon the city, the semi-autonomous town, and go back to camps, and the precariousness of ‘tent cities’” (2010, 7).

 

One implication of this acceptance or diagnosis of ‘rootless rage’ (2010, 13) as the defining characteristic of contemporary and future existence, is glossing over the particularities of peoples’ and communities’ experience(s) of climate change on their livelihood and sense of belonging, their diverse experiences of migration/mobility, home, relocation, and participation in their worlds; in a sense, the unmaking and remaking of their ‘social texture’. Another implication is the failure to get theory a little messy in its mixing with the ‘empirical’ – the vast and complicated world of inter/national policies, non-government organisational field work and reports, legal reforms, social and cultural narratives and discourses which are emerging in response to the effects of climate change. In this mess we might begin the work of ‘regrounding’ (Ahmed et al 2003). The ‘impossible’ task of rehousing the homeless, stateless, dispossessed and exiled may us turn toward the necessary imperative to critique existing ‘camp’ structures (proliferating as they are), imagining alternatives to the expansion of shanty towns and slums, and critically engaging with the fact of past, present and future dispossessions. The risk inherent in Virilio’s analysis is also one of constructing a new binary in which Earth-bound political and ethical inquiries are seen as too ‘rooted’ on this planet, while flights of fancy into the outer-realms of the universe encapsulate the politics of an inevitable rootlessness-as-future, or futuristic rootlessness.

Despite the unstable or unreliable grounds upon which Virilio makes his argument, his predictions and theoretical formulations contain some significant insights. Take for example the title: The Futurism of the Instant: Stop-Eject. The function of a title, as Derrida tells us, circumscribes, borders, orients, locates, and contains; it becomes ‘a code of legibility’ (Derrida 1986, 197). When we give something a title, we attempt to centre the capacity of the author to determine meaning in the content (for Derrida, an impossible task). In a word – ‘anchored’, ‘unanchored’, ‘home’, ‘bounded’, ‘horizons’ – the author can ease the reader into a text, give them a sense of meaning and purpose. Virilio’s title is disorienting and disturbing. The ‘instant’ is precisely that: an unsustainable moment in the double sense of time and place, a flash, the fleeting ground of the moment, immediately lost to groundlessness; to the next moment. This is a terrifying ‘future’ of mass dislocation and despair. Designating the future as both groundless and unsustainable may have some critical purchase in that it opens onto the question of contemporary political, economic and social existence, a moment which keeps slipping away from us but out of which we must act.

What does it mean, politically and ethically, to seek some sort of ‘grounding’ for political action and ethical decisions today? Do we have to come back down to Earth before we can formulate an ethico-politics?

References

Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Fennell, A. (2013). ‘The Future of Interstellar Travel’, Future Tense, Australian Broadcasting Authority, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/futuretense/the-future-of-interstellar-travel/4514402

Derrida, J. (2011 [1986]). Parages. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Virilio, P. (2010). The Futurism of the Instand: Stop-Eject. London and New York: Polity Press.

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