Depicting the earth: two items



Wired recently published some images of Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s new book Earth from Above. Arthus-Bertrand’s vivid, high resolution photos are dramatic, depicting an earth of stark, surreal contrasts: geometric angles of agriculture plots are cut through by a cerulean river or cut off abruptly by a sinuous coastline; a shot of Iran’s Dasht-e Kavir desert could be mistaken for a satellite image of Jupiter’s surface, until you realize that hair that strayed onto the camera’s lens is actually a road.

Arthus-Bertrand is a committed environmentalist and founder of the organization GoodPlanet. In many ways, the goal of the book seems to be to produce a new look at our often disastrous relationship to the earth. I haven’t yet had an opportunity to read the eleven essays that accompany the photos. They are written by the editors of the annual L’etat du Monde and apparently feature what Scientific American called “pretty dismal” descriptions of ecological trends. But viewed alone, the photographs risk a kind of extreme aestheticization. Like Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s Ruins of Detroit from a few years ago, Arthus-Bertrand’s images are beautifully compelling even – perhaps especially – when we may not want them to be. One of the twelve posted on Wired depicts a Chilean pit mine, one of the largest in the world. It’s combination of pastel colors and contrasting shapes is lovely to gaze on. Even a sooty black spot in the lower third of the image (an ore refinery perhaps) appears carefully placed for dramatic effect. Another image, of Fort McMurray, beautifully contrasts the fluidity of oil with the sharp angles of the raked over sandscape. I’m not sure if we end up with, as one poster in my Facebook feed put it, “Earth as fetish,” or merely a return to the 18th century concept of the sublime, this time a depiction of the horrors and harmonies not of ‘nature’ but of the Anthropocene.


In a post on Mediapart, philosopher Frederic Neyrat offers a reading of the film Gravity as a fable for the Anthropocene; a reminder that we need to learn how to re-envision and repatriate the Earth. Sadly for the Anglos, Neyrat writes primarily in French but for those who have yet to encounter his work, he is a prolific and compelling thinker of the Anthropocene. (With a pitiful command of French myself, I read – and translated pieces here of – the Mediapart post by putting the Google translated version alongside the original and working it out.)

In this short piece (which, beware, is full of spoilers) Neyrat argues that Gravity takes place “in a metaphorical space that reflects a projection of our world, of the part of ourselves that desires life above ground, in a world without gravity (‘relieved of context’)”. It is in this projected world, he suggests, that human life is rendered subject to “the fates of capitalism without respite,” in which technology delivers permanent changes from which there are no returns. But that is exactly what is needed for survival – a return despite the fact that there is no going back, no retreat into a pre-technological or nostalgic past. This “return to Earth” depicted in Gravity is, Neyrat argues, a “metaphor for change in relation to oneself and to the world – a conversion.” Gravity, in this case is to “know and accept the weight of things.” We cannot unsee the Earths that we have seen, unknow the Earths that we have known–including that Earth best associated with Promethean humanism built by technological mastery. Nevertheless, Neyrat suggests we still “must learn to repatriate the earth” in order to decide what “lifestyles and technologies will prevent the Anthropocene from turning the ecosphere into a space without gravity.”

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