Vin­cent Bruyere

Abstract: Ter­raform­ing, or plan­e­tary engi­neer­ing, is a spec­u­la­tive domain of activ­i­ty enter­tain­ing colo­nial solu­tions to extreme dis­as­ter and sys­temic crises in the age of spa­tial explo­ration. Since the 1940s, ter­raform­ing has pro­vid­ed an extreme­ly fer­tile play­ground for sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers, whose ter­raformed worlds have blown up to plan­e­tary dimen­sions the his­tor­i­cal and nar­ra­tive con­tours of a nov­el­is­tic tra­di­tion born at the begin­ning of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry on Robin­son Crusoe’s island. It is my con­tention that the spec­u­la­tive exis­tence of ter­raformed worlds is always already informed by a cul­tur­al mem­o­ry of oikos—the inhab­it­ed world. No less exper­i­men­tal in tone and intent than ter­raform­ing itself, this paper seeks to trans­form ter­raform­ing into a crit­i­cal tool in visu­al cul­ture: a mode of han­dling texts and images whose tem­po­ral para­me­ters exceed that of tra­di­tion­al historiography.

Abstract: La biosphéri­sa­tion, ou ter­rafor­ma­tion, désigne le domaine d’activité sci­en­tifique qui se donne comme objec­tif d’imaginer des solu­tions colo­niales à des désas­tres extrêmes et à des crises sys­témiques à l’âge de l’exploration spa­tiale. Depuis les années 1940, les mon­des ter­rafor­més sont au cœur >de l’écriture de sci­ence-fic­tion, où ils don­nent une nou­velle dimen­sion à cette his­toire du roman ini­tiée au début du dix-sep­tième siè­cle sur l’île de Robin­son Cru­soé sous les traits d’un pro­jet colo­nial. En ce sens, l’existence des mon­des ter­rafor­més, bien que spécu­la­tive, est tou­jours déjà enrichie d’une mémoire cul­turelle de l’oikos—le monde habité. L’argument pour­suivi dans cet arti­cle, lui-même de forme expéri­men­tale, cherche à trans­former la notion de biosphéri­sa­tion en un out­il cri­tique qui servi­ra à approcher et assem­bler un ensem­ble de textes et d’images dont les ram­i­fi­ca­tions tem­porelles excè­dent leurs cadres historiques.

Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.OI.10.2.2 | PDF

World-mak­ing, “mak­ing things hap­pen,” is one of the things our species does, and enjoys doing. We also enjoy (in the strong sense) bring­ing the past along with us, an effort that also requires imag­i­na­tive activ­i­ty. (Fraden­burg 69)

Ter­raform­ing, or plan­e­tary engi­neer­ing, exists at the junc­ture of two forms of enjoy­ment: imag­i­na­tion and mem­o­ry. It is a spec­u­la­tive domain of activ­i­ty enter­tain­ing colo­nial solu­tions to extreme dis­as­ter and sys­temic crises in the age of spa­tial explo­ration (Sagan and Druyan 329-49). In its colo­nial incar­na­tion, ter­raform­ing envi­sions hos­pitable plan­e­tary sys­tems and con­vert­ed envi­ron­ments in prepa­ra­tion for a time where con­di­tions of life on Earth will have become impos­si­ble. Since the 1940s, ter­raform­ing has pro­vid­ed an extreme­ly fer­tile play­ground for sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers, whose ter­raformed worlds have blown up to plan­e­tary dimen­sions the his­tor­i­cal and nar­ra­tive con­tours of a nov­el­is­tic tra­di­tion born at the begin­ning of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry on the island of Robin­son Cru­soe (Heise; Pak).

Wal­ter Ben­jamin saw in the rise of the nov­el in Europe the “ear­li­est symp­tom [of the indus­tri­al trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety] whose end is the decline of sto­ry­telling” (87). In the spir­it of Benjamin’s ecol­o­gy of nar­ra­tive forms, what his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion shall we divine behind the incip­i­ent rise of ter­raform­ing in the his­to­ry of the nov­el­is­tic enter­prise?1 A geo­log­i­cal or deep-his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion per­haps, if, as Ben­jamin also argues, “one must imag­ine the trans­for­ma­tion of epic forms occur­ring in rhythms com­pa­ra­ble to those of the change that has come over the earth’s sur­face in the course of thou­sands of cen­turies” (Ben­jamin 88). As such, ter­raform­ing invites geo­log­i­cal time in the his­to­ry of mime­sis to open up a nat­ur­al his­to­ry of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Once again Ben­jamin can help us under­stand this exten­sion of nat­ur­al his­to­ry to the his­to­ry of mime­sis. For him, the dis­tinc­tion between Naturgeschichte and His­to­rie does not hinge on a dis­tinc­tion of agency (i.e., the idea that nature, rocks, sea­son, and so on have no agency, see Povinel­li 30-56). In this con­fig­u­ra­tion, nat­ur­al his­to­ry (Naturgeschichte) does not only refer to the dis­course of knowl­edge that emerged in Europe dur­ing the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry; but can apply as much to an expla­na­tion of those moments when human-made arte­facts are reclaimed by nature in the process of their ruina­tion (Sant­ner 16-17). Or when the work of mime­sis is less pred­i­cat­ed on the imi­ta­tion of forms than on the imi­ta­tion of a qua­si-geo­log­i­cal process deposit­ing time into human-made stra­ta. If there was a time when the “patient process of Nature … was once imi­tat­ed by men [in the form of] minia­tures, ivory carv­ings, elab­o­rat­ed to the point of great­est per­fec­tion, stones that are per­fect in pol­ish and engrav­ing, lac­quer work or paint­ings in which a series of thin, trans­par­ent lay­ers are placed one on top of the oth­er” (Valéry qtd. in Ben­jamin 92), today, the same dis­play of minia­tures, ivory carv­ings, and pol­ished stones, next to the intri­ca­cy of a print­ed cir­cuit board (PCB, com­pose a tech­no­fos­sil record: a pre­view of human­i­ty in its fos­sil state (Zalasiewicz et al.)

Tak­en out of its con­text with­in plan­e­tary engi­neer­ing and sci­ence fic­tion, ter­raform­ing becomes some­thing like a crit­i­cal tool: a mode of han­dling texts and images whose tem­po­ral para­me­ters exceed that of con­ven­tion­al his­tor­i­cal peri­odiza­tion and a way of query­ing lit­er­ary and visu­al sce­nar­ios of being his­tor­i­cal and hos­pitable in a time when both his­toric­i­ty and plan­e­tary hos­pitabil­i­ty are increas­ing­ly chal­lenged by, “anthro­pogenic expla­na­tions of cli­mate change,” which “spell the col­lapse of the age-old human­ist dis­tinc­tion between nat­ur­al his­to­ry and human his­to­ry” (Chakrabar­ty 201).

Fig. 1: Still from The Birds Alfred Hitch­cock, dir. US, 1963.

As an evo­lu­tion­ary pres­sure, long-term pat­terns of ris­ing tem­per­a­tures are cre­at­ing path­ways for fun­gus to col­o­nize warm-blood­ed crea­tures and, in the process, rekin­dling human inter­est in par­a­sitol­ogy and mycol­o­gy (Kupfer­schmidt). In Siberia, thaw­ing tun­dra pro­vides ancient microor­gan­isms trapped in per­mafrost with eco­log­i­cal oppor­tu­ni­ties to rise, thus break­ing new grounds for poten­tial­ly dis­as­trous out­break sce­nar­ios (Sirucek). In a scene, which, in ret­ro­spect, offers an image of uncan­ny resem­blance to these tales of dis­turbed and dis­lo­cat­ed fun­gi and microor­gan­isms in search of new homes, Alfred Hitch­cock con­cludes The Birds (US, 1963) with a depic­tion of qui­et evac­u­a­tion. As the sur­ren­der­ing sur­vivors make their way out of the sto­ry, they leave behind the land­scape of a world that does not want them in it. How­ev­er, until the end, the screen that con­tained their cin­e­mat­ic life, will remain framed by the assump­tion that there is still a world out­side Bode­ga Bay from which to watch and even mourn those who did not sur­vive the feath­ered assaults. In oth­er words, the world the evac­uees leave behind remains a screen upon which real­i­ty endures as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al prob­lem. There must be a world in which to reg­is­ter the loss of a par­tic­u­lar sense of dwelling as they knew it. What comes after or later—should the birds’ ram­page esca­late into a plan­e­tary crisis—is for anoth­er end­ing to tell. This end­ing is the start­ing point of Alan Weisman’s The World With­out Us (2007), in which a hypoth­e­sis hands over the world to a thought experiment—what would hap­pen to the Earth if all humans were to dis­ap­pear overnight?”—allowing for a ter­raform­ing sto­ry in reverse to be told. The tableaus with which Hitch­cock and Weis­man leave us look like a still life paint­ing by Balthasar van der Ast (1593-1657), in which crit­ters invade the frame to take pos­ses­sion of what was for­mer­ly a human domain of representation.

Fig. 2: Detail from Balthasar van der Ast, Still Life of Flow­ers, Fruit, Shells, and Insects (c. 1629). 7 1/8 × 29 1/4 in. (43.5 × 74.3 cm). Birm­ing­ham Muse­um of Art. https://​arts​b​ma​.org/​c​o​l​l​e​c​t​i​o​n​/​s​t​i​l​l​-​l​i​f​e​-​o​f​-​f​l​o​w​e​r​s​-​f​r​u​i​t​-​s​h​e​l​l​s​-​a​n​d​-​i​n​s​e​c​ts/; https://​com​mons​.wiki​me​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​F​i​l​e​:​S​t​i​l​l​_​L​i​f​e​_​o​f​_​F​l​o​w​e​r​s​,​_​F​r​u​i​t​,​_​S​h​e​l​l​s​,​_​a​n​d​_​I​n​s​e​c​t​s​_​-​_​B​a​l​t​h​a​s​a​r​_​v​a​n​_​d​e​r​_​A​s​t​_​-​_​G​o​o​g​l​e​_​C​u​l​t​u​r​a​l​_​I​n​s​t​i​t​u​t​e​.​j​p​g​#​f​ile

Comment­ing on Juan Sánchez Cotán’s still life paint­ing, Charles Ster­ling writes: “All Cotán’s bode­gones con­sist of sim­ple, whole­some food stand­ing on a still or held in the air by the hand of a geome­ter and poet adept at order­ing a world of mar­vels: did he not sus­pend a quince and a cab­bage at the end of a string, where they turn and glow like plan­ets in a bound­less night?” (95)

Fig. 3: Juan Sánchez Cotán, Quince, Cab­bage, and Cucum­ber, 1602, oil on can­vas, 68.9 cm x 84.5 cm. San Diego Muse­um of Art. https://​com​mons​.wiki​me​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​F​i​l​e​:​Q​u​i​n​c​e​,​_​C​a​b​b​a​g​e​,​_​M​e​l​o​n​,​_​a​n​d​_​C​u​c​u​m​b​e​r​,​_​b​y​_​J​u​a​n​_​S​a​n​c​h​e​z​_​C​o​t​a​n​,​_​c​.​_​1​6​0​2​_​-​_​S​a​n​_​D​i​e​g​o​_​M​u​s​e​u​m​_​o​f​_​A​r​t​_​-​_​D​S​C​0​6​6​2​4​.​JPG

Glow­ing plan­e­tary views released by ter­raform­ing pro­jec­tions com­pose some­thing akin to Cotán’s sus­pend­ed still life. In that regard, ter­raform­ing is a mode of assem­bling images of earth-like struc­tures to sim­u­late the allure and allure­ments of Venus or Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons), endowed with a breath­able atmos­phere. Dig­i­tal images of ter­raformed worlds trans­form inter­stel­lar chiaroscuro into a cin­e­mat­ic space: ter­raform­ing runs the tra­jec­to­ry of plan­e­tary life like a movie. And like a cin­e­mat­ic image, the plan­e­tary glow of ter­raformed worlds exists in a space of con­stant refer­ral and return to the big pic­ture: Earth.

Fig. 4: Kevin M. Gill. “A Liv­ing Mars,” (2012). https://​www​.flickr​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​k​e​v​i​n​m​g​i​l​l​/​8​1​6​5​9​0​9​516

Ter­raform­ing an unhos­pitable plan­et con­sists in edit­ing out the plan­e­tary scenes that do not add up to Earth-like con­di­tions, thus leav­ing an infi­nite num­ber of extrater­res­tri­al sequences to a dark­est night of pos­si­bil­i­ty. In that sense, ter­raform­ing images col­o­nize what was sub­lime in Immanuel Kant’s night vision of a star-stud­ded sky: “If we call sub­lime the sight of a star-stud­ded sky, we must not base this judg­ment on a notion of the stars as worlds inhab­it­ed by ratio­nal beings…. We must instead con­sid­er the sky as we see it, as a wide vault that con­tains every­thing” (Kant qtd. in De Man 126). Ter­raformed worlds turn the vault­ed night con­tain­ing Kant’s mus­ings about a world poten­tial­ly emp­tied from human mean­ing and oth­er teleog­i­cal pro­jec­tions into a mon­u­ment to world-mak­ing, whose design would be entire­ly ours.

If there is a cin­e­mat­ic terraforming—a space of con­stant refer­ral and return to the Earth—there is too, at least as a the­o­ret­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty, an “acin­e­mat­ic” coun­ter­part to it (Lyotard, “Acin­e­ma”). In this pyrotech­nic ver­sion of plan­e­tary engi­neer­ing, images of ter­raformed worlds glow in a bound­less night but by burn­ing through the trans­for­ma­tive poten­tials of imag­i­nary worlds. This ver­sion of ter­raform­ing speaks to a cer­tain expe­ri­ence of the world at odds with the image of the “Blue Mar­ble,” of the Earth as con­tained sphere, as form of con­tain­ment, where pre­cise­ly “what is con­tained is explo­sive and meta­mor­phic” (Pinkus 66). Or to para­phrase Jean-François Lyotard: acin­e­mat­ic ter­raformed worlds glow like an incan­des­cent match­stick that a child ignites gra­tu­itous­ly (Lyotard, “Acin­e­ma” 350), for noth­ing, for the heck of it (“pour des prunes”), with noth­ing in return but the sheer visu­al plea­sure to see and be affect­ed by a vision.

Between 1986 and 1991 with Lime Hills, Naoya Hatakeya­ma pho­tographed lime­stone quar­ries in a rec­og­niz­able land­scape for­mat, where rock for­ma­tions stand still even if con­spic­u­ous­ly carved, dis­placed, and remod­eled by human activ­i­ty. With stun­ning images of pro­ject­ed rocks and debris in sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion, the series Blast con­sti­tutes a fur­ther devel­op­ment in Hatakeyama's land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy reach­ing a point where it will seem quite appro­pri­ate to ask what is left of the land­scape, both the for­mat and the sur­face, or whether we have moved beyond it. The ques­tion reads at mul­ti­ple lev­els by virtue of the seman­tic and his­tor­i­cal lay­ers of the term “land­scape,” but the para­dox remains that, no mat­ter how dam­aged or sul­lied the rep­re­sent­ed sur­face is, a blast­ed land­scape remain a land­scape (Mitchell, “Impe­r­i­al Land­scape” 15). What ends up being blast­ed by Hatakeya­ma is the his­to­ry of land­scape as an inter­face between land and a cer­tain way of life. With Blast, the sub-sur­face sur­faces in an extrac­tive present that marks the pas­sage between sur­faces in the same way that in Émile Benveniste’s lin­guis­tics the present as tense marks the pas­sage from past to future, and the coin­ci­dence between “the event described [and] the instance of dis­course that describes it” (227). The extrac­tive present is the oth­er side of the exhaust­ing present. It des­ig­nates the fact that ongo­ing extrac­tion is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a dis­play of tech­nique and mas­tery, but a state of affairs in which solu­tions are not sought, where a present dis­pens­es itself from hav­ing to change by keep­ing on drilling and fracking.

Fig: 5: Naoya Hatakeya­ma. Blast #15 from a series of 17 chro­mogenic prints. 8 in. x 10 in (20.32 cm x 25.4 cm). San Fran­cis­co Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, promised gift of Kuren­boh © Naoya Hatakeya­ma, cour­tesy Taka Ishii Gallery. https://​wsimag​.com/​a​r​t​/​1​8​4​9​5​-​t​h​e​-​s​h​o​w​-​t​h​a​t​-​l​o​s​t​-​i​t​s​elf

For anthro­pol­o­gist Anna Tsing, the future of the land­scape also lies in its blast­ing. It per­tains to a pos­si­bil­i­ty to form trans­for­ma­tive rela­tion­ships across species (pon­derosa pines, mat­su­take mush­rooms, and humans), across scales (atmos­pher­ic, dias­poric, and envi­ron­men­tal), and across ter­ri­to­ries (Japan, Fin­land, and Oregon)—this pos­si­bil­i­ty can be tox­ic or benef­i­cent, depend­ing on the cir­cum­stances (Tsing 87-88). The blast­ing is thus a modal­i­ty of what Lyotard calls the “dépayse­ment” (Lyotard, L’inhumain 194)—literally “unland­scap­ing,” and ren­dered as “estrange­ment” in trans­la­tion (Lyotard, The Inhu­man 183). This un-land­scap­ing is the con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ty for land­scape inso­far as it brings forth a mate­ri­al­i­ty that is not nec­es­sar­i­ly that of the place—the face of a moth­er, for exam­ple, can be a land­scape for her baby (Lyotard, L’inhumain 199)—and puts a place, a sur­face, a mat­ter, an entire geog­ra­phy, out of reach.

Christi­na Olson com­ments on the ter­raform­ing prop­er­ties of Andrew Wyeth’s famed paint­ing: “Andy put me where he knew I want­ed to be. Now that I can’t be there any­more, all I do is think of that pic­ture and I’m there” (Olson qtd. in Grif­fin 36). There in Christina’s World (1948), she finds her­self immersed rather than stand­ing in the won­der­ful­ly tex­tured grass­land that occu­pies most of the pic­to­r­i­al space under a nar­row sky­line. But Wyeth didn’t just vic­ar­i­ous­ly give her the world sur­round­ing her farm­house, which a form of mus­cu­lar atro­phy par­a­lyz­ing her low­er body pre­vent­ed her to envi­sion as land­scape. He designed for her a pic­to­r­i­al pros­the­sis to make a genre acces­si­ble visu­al­ly and affec­tive­ly, chart­ing a space of oth­er­wise in the midst of a dis­abling environment.

Terraform­ing, rede­ployed as a crit­i­cal tool, is a mode of try­ing on and test­ing out the pow­er of images on defin­ing a rela­tion to the world. In an oth­er­wise periph­er­al scene lost in a cor­ner of the mon­u­men­tal col­lec­tion of the Jesuit Rela­tions and Allied Doc­u­ments, edit­ed by Reuben Gold Thwait­es, a mis­sion­ary ter­raforms the plan­et on which he has land­ed. Jean de Brébeuf writes in his 1635 report to Father le Jeune, sent from the vil­lage of Ihonatiria in the Huron country:

Et quand nous leur preschons vn Dieu, Cre­a­teur du Ciel & de la terre & de toutes choses; de mesme quand nous leur par­lons d’vn Enfer & d’vn Par­adis, & du reste de nos mys­tères; les opini­as­tres respon­dent, que cela est bon pour nos­tre Pays, non pour le leur; que chaque Pays a ses façons de faire : mais leur ayant mon­stré par le moyen d’vn petit globe que nous avons apporté, qu’il n’y a qu’un seul monde, ils demeurent sans réplique. (Brébeuf 119) And when we preach to them of one God, Cre­ator of Heav­en and earth, and of all things, and even when we talk to them of Hell and Par­adise and of our oth­er mys­ter­ies, the head­strong sav­ages reply that this is good for our Coun­try and not for theirs; that every Coun­try has its own fash­ions. But hav­ing point­ed out to them, by means of a lit­tle globe that we had brought, that there is only one world, they remain with­out reply. (Brébeuf 120)

The image of the globe—the orb—is the ulti­mate rhetor­i­cal move, to the point that what Brébeuf dis­plays in the end is less the author­i­ty of a con­ver­sion nar­ra­tive than the silenc­ing pow­er and “dis­pos­sess­ing evi­dence” of an image (Slo­ter­dijk 26). But the con­ver­sa­tion is not over. The absence of a dia­logue on the plu­ral­i­ty of worlds and the dif­fer­ence between globe and plan­et defines the bor­ders of an ongo­ing zone of con­flict we call the present. The con­clud­ing clause, “Ils demeurent sans réplique,” marks the spot left by a miss­ing the­o­ry of the world. More­over, it sig­ni­fies to a the­o­ry of the world its lim­it, with­out log­i­cal tran­si­tion, and indeed with­out a reply, with­out an image of the globe; for anoth­er trans­la­tion might read: “They dwell with­out replica”—a propo­si­tion that cen­turies lat­er in the con­text of post­colo­nial the­o­ry speaks to Gay­a­tri Spivak’s own anthro­pol­o­gy of dis­pos­ses­sion by the globe:

I pro­pose the plan­et to over­write the globe. Glob­al­iza­tion is the impo­si­tion of the same sys­tem of exchange every­where. In the grid­work of elec­tron­ic cap­i­tal we achieve that abstract ball cov­ered in lat­i­tudes and lon­gi­tudes, cut by vir­tu­al lines, once the equa­tor and the trop­ics and so on, now drawn by the require­ments of Geo­graph­i­cal Infor­ma­tion Sys­tems… The globe is on our com­put­ers. No one lives there. It allows us to think that we can aim to con­trol it. The plan­et is in the species of alter­i­ty, belong­ing to anoth­er sys­tem; and yet we inhab­it it, on loan. It is not real­ly amenable to a neat con­trast with the globe. I can­not say “the plan­et, on the oth­er hand.” When I invoke the plan­et, I think of the effort required to fig­ure the (im)possibility of this under­ived intu­ition. (72)

What the Jesuit mis­sion­ary claims to have fore­closed with a portable image of the world, a minia­tur­ized ver­sion of total­i­ty, defines a dis­cur­sive space present­ly occu­pied by ecol­o­gy and con­ser­va­tion biol­o­gy, cli­ma­tol­ogy, plan­e­tary engi­neer­ing, design the­o­ry, envi­ron­men­tal ethics, cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gy, preda­to­ry cap­i­tal­ism, and even to some extent com­par­a­tive literature—each of these fields rais­ing the ques­tion of how many worlds the globe can accommodate?

Under what con­di­tions does an image, a sur­face, or a vol­ume become a territory?

BPA, or bisphe­nol A, is an organ­ic com­pound used to pro­duce sol­id trans­par­ent plas­tic. Patri­cia Hunt iden­ti­fied its endocrine dis­rupt­ing prop­er­ties in the late 1990s, when a con­trol group of mice she used to study chro­mo­so­mal anom­alies in eggs start­ed to present a high rate of chro­mo­so­mal abnor­mal­i­ties that could only be explained by the plas­tic envi­ron­ment in which the con­trol group was con­di­tioned (Lan­deck­er). The dis­tur­bance reg­is­tered with­in the exper­i­men­tal set­ting at the lev­el of the dis­tinc­tion between back­ground and fore­ground, that is, between what is inert and what is active (Csor­das). It revealed the neu­tral space of the lab—a space with­in which objec­tiv­i­ty depends on stan­dard pro­to­cols of isolation—to have its own envi­ron­men­tal dimen­sion as a milieu of life. But it also revealed that the plas­tic con­sum­ing con­trol group out­side the lab set­ting is yet anoth­er test group enrolled in an open-end­ed exper­i­ment where tox­ic modes of belong­ing give to the float­ing world of its refuse the con­sis­ten­cy of a territory.

Regard­less of its con­sis­ten­cy, motil­i­ty, and dimen­sions, the Garbage Pacif­ic Patch achieves a form of ter­ri­to­ri­al­i­ty when an unmap­pable sub­stance, trapped by the North Pacif­ic Gyre, appears embed­ded in the bird’s rem­nants pho­tographed by Chris Jor­dan. It becomes ter­ri­to­r­i­al when alba­tross­es at Mid­way Atoll feed their chicks with plas­tic pel­lets and DDT and PCB-laden food (Van Dooren 21-44).

Fig. 7: Chris Jor­dan, Mid­way: Mes­sage from the Gyre, 2009. http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/midway/#CF000313%2018x24

What does it mean,” asks Adri­ana Petry­na, “to be alive in a heav­i­ly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed envi­ron­ment con­trolled by sci­ence and the sov­er­eign pow­er of the State?” (196). She recalls the sto­ry of how she met Anna and her fam­i­ly while con­duct­ing field­work in south­west­ern Ukraine in 1992. She lis­tens to them in their small kitchen as they rehearse for her the sto­ry of how the Cher­nobyl inci­dent entered “the his­to­ry of their own mor­tal­i­ty” dur­ing a trip to Kiev in May 1986 (214). Their his­to­ry tot­ters through a space of dis­junc­ture opened between a demand for truth and account­abil­i­ty (exac­er­bat­ed by the volatile nature of radi­a­tion) and a demand to live, or in oth­er words, a demand to learn from the past that is also a demand to live with it. Then comes Petryna’s turn to nar­rate and bear witness:

Anna told me that the num­ber of sui­cides occur­ring off the bridge by local inhab­i­tants had risen that year from one to ten. She explained that most of those indi­vid­u­als were old­er and, in her opin­ion, could not cope with the unpre­dictabil­i­ty of the future and their lives any longer. The moon was full. As we con­tin­ued walk­ing, Anna start­ed to repeat in Eng­lish, “I am crazy, I am crazy.” This star­tled me, but she was unaware of my reac­tion and began telling me dreams of launch­ing into flight. She loved to fly, she said, as she float­ed her hand over the bridge and in the night air. My eyes moved rest­less­ly, not know­ing what part of Anna’s body to look at. Maybe her eyes, because here was the linch­pin of a spe­cif­ic kind of ratio­nal­i­ty and assur­ance that would at least get us off the bridge and back into this world—this world changed by radi­a­tion whose untame­abil­i­ty had so baf­fled ear­ly researchers… I was ask­ing her to trust me (to believe in my belief that it is pos­si­ble to live in a place where uncer­tain­ty of this kind can pre­vail), to locate her will­ing­ness to live in me, at least momen­tar­i­ly, so that we could get off the bridge. (211-12)

In this pas­sage, the notion of ter­raformed world becomes a the­o­ret­i­cal proxy in Adriana’s bridg­ing address (“I was ask­ing her to trust me”) for how rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al objects and for­mu­las add up to some­thing quite brit­tle, both mate­ri­al­ly and affec­tive­ly, and yet stur­dy enough to be held in, or to hold on to, in a tox­ic envi­ron­ment that does not want her—or any of us for that matter—in it, even if it is only pro­vi­sion­al­ly or vicariously.

Gabrielle Roy’s nov­el The Tin Flute (Bon­heur d’occasion, 1945) con­tains a two-page, semi-grotesque pas­toral fan­ta­sy that re-roots the gener­ic premis­es of the French-Cana­di­an colo­nial nov­el (“roman de la terre”) in the urban waste­land of 1940s Mon­tre­al. Set in the mid­dle of a nov­el of social exhaus­tion and impov­er­ished agency, this fan­ta­sy tells the tale of a pieced-togeth­er world of trash, sal­vaging in the process left­over nar­ra­tives of a good life:

C’a été un temps qu’y avait un vrai vil­lage là-bas : un ramas­sis de bâtiss­es un peu plus hautes que des nich­es à chien. T’avais pas besoin de deman­der un per­mis pour te bâtir ni de chercher des planch­es bien longtemps. Mon vieux, c’était une vraie béné­dic­tion tout ce qu’y avait su la dompe de matéri­aux: des mon­tants de lits, des morceaux de tôle, pis du gros car­ton pas trop sale. Tu rapail­lais là-dedans, à ton choix, une feuille de tuyau, qua­tre plaques de tôle pour la cou­ver­ture, et tu choi­sis­sais un lot à une place pas trop puante, drette au bord de l’eau. (274-75) Those days there was a whole vil­lage in that place, a col­lec­tion of shacks about the size of a dog ken­nel. You didn’t need a build­ing per­mit and you didn’t have to look far for boards. I tell you, you can’t believe all the mate­r­i­al there was at that dump: bed frames and sheets of gal­va­nized iron, and heavy card­board, not too dirty. You’d piece togeth­er bits of pipe, four sheets of tin for the roof, and you chose a lot where it didn’t stink too bad, right down by the water. (307-308, mod­i­fied translation)

The tale func­tions as a pro­vi­sion­al and pre­car­i­ous trans­la­tion of the rhetoric of home and set­tle­ment with­in a world of indus­tri­al dis­place­ment and waste. It pays off its debt to an affec­tive geog­ra­phy of belong­ing and agency show­cased in an ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion of nov­els like Antoine Gérin-Lajoie’s Jean Rivard, Set­tler (1862), in which a self-made, ax-wield­ing, and able-bod­ied hero leaves the ploys of the urban bil­dungsro­man behind to find in wood­lands his way to domes­tic­i­ty and reproduction.

It is Pierre Nepveu’s con­tention that “Mod­ern Que­be­cois lit­er­a­ture was born the moment it could say: In the begin­ning we do not exist” (100). The pos­si­bil­i­ty to say “Nous,” to map its locus, to mourn its sov­er­eign­ty or to die in its name, orga­nizes a dis­course of lit­er­ary his­to­ry into cat­e­gor­i­cal oppo­si­tions between nov­el and poet­ry, epic and lyri­cism, his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness and the temp­ta­tion of mythology—between poems by Paul Cham­ber­land, Gille Hénault, and Gas­ton Miron that, in the mid 1960s, dreamt of foun­da­tion­al nar­ra­tives and sto­ry­telling, and nov­els that tried to recov­er the evoca­tive pow­er of the myth. Look­ing at the open­ing para­graph of Anne Hébert’s nov­el Les Fous de Bas­san (trans­lat­ed as In the Shad­ow of the Wind), we might say that at the begin­ning there was no nar­ra­tive: “La barre étale de la mer, blanche, à perte de vue, sur le ciel gris, la masse noire des arbres, en ligne par­al­lèle der­rière nous” (9) [“A strand of sea poised between tides, white, as far as the eye can see, and against the gray sky, in a par­al­lel line behind us, the black bulk of trees.”]. In this syn­tac­ti­cal envi­ron­ment no verb floats above the pri­mor­dial waters. No pred­i­cate con­firms an attach­ment to the lit­toral streak.

At the begin­ning of the film Pour la suite du monde (1963) was the word of Jacques Cartier:

Mes petits amis, après avoir lu les grandes aven­tures de Jacques Carti­er, dans son voy­age de 1535, j’ai trou­vé un bout que je crois qui va vous intéress­er. Donc je vas essay­er de vous le lire le mieux que m’en pou­voir par rap­port qu’il est écrit sur le vieux français: Le six­iesme jour dudict moys, avecq bon vent, fismes courir amont ledict fleuve env­i­ron quinze lieues, et posasmes à une ysle, qui est bort à la terre du nort. Icelle ysles con­tient env­i­ron quinze lieues de long et deux de laize. Et c’est une fort bonne terre et grasse, pleine de beaux et grantz arbres de plusieurs sortes. Et entre aultres, il y a plusieurs coul­dres que nous trou­vasmes fort chargez de nois­illes et pource, la nomasmes YSLE ES COULDRES.”

My dear friends, after hav­ing read the great adven­tures of Jacques Carti­er, in his voy­age of 1535 I found a bit that I think will inter­est you. I’ll try to read it to you as best as I can as it is writ­ten in Old French: “On the 6th day of the said month, with a fair wind, we made our way upstream for about 15 leagues and land­ed on an island off the north shore. This island is about 3 leagues long and 2 leagues wide. The land is good and fer­tile full of beau­ti­ful and tall trees of many kinds. And, among oth­ers, there are many hazel­nut trees that we found heav­i­ly laden with hazel­nuts. And for that rea­sons, we named the place ‘Hazel­nut Trees Island.’”

Fig. 8: Still from Pour la suite du monde. Dir. Michel Brault and Pierre Per­rault. ONF-NFB, 1963.

A voice, a word, a world, and its image come togeth­er in a pow­er­ful car­to­graph­i­cal effect that, on the one hand, locks up the island in its insu­lar­i­ty, but on the oth­er, “baits us to pon­der the fact that who we are or whomev­er we believe our­selves to be depends, whether or not our locus is fixed or mov­ing, on often uncon­scious per­cep­tions about where we come from and may be going” (Con­ley 3). A fold on that map, the elu­sive bel­u­ga-whale func­tions as a col­lec­tive bait for nar­ra­tives of ori­gins: who is behind the inge­nious yet defunct mode of cap­ture reen­act­ed in front of Pierre Per­rault and Michel Brault’s cam­era to give birth to Que­be­cois ciné­ma-vérité? Opin­ions on the sub­ject diverge and clash. For Alex­is Trem­blay, one of the elders of the insu­lar com­mu­ni­ty, it is a First Nation lega­cy. Leopold, his son, cred­its ear­ly Nor­man set­tlers for the inven­tion. To set­tle the debate, the father turns to an ambigu­ous pas­sage in Cartier’s account much to the dis­be­lief of the son. The “fish” remains elu­sive until its cap­ture by the inge­nious struc­ture made of thin and long wood­en sticks plant­ed in the sand to cre­ate a sol­id lit­toral net redefin­ing the bor­ders of the island.

In Mar­guerite de Navarre’s Hep­taméron (1551/1552), water exists in two states. It is a heal­ing ele­ment whose prop­er­ties dri­ve a cos­mopoli­tan crowd to ther­mal baths in south­west­ern France. But it is also a destruc­tive force that leaves ten trav­ellers strand­ed with many sto­ries to tell each oth­er on the premis­es of Gio­van­ni Boccacio’s Decameron. Indeed, the return from the heal­ing waters is inter­rupt­ed by the surge of water. Streams turned tor­rents redraw topogra­phies and rewrite the Scriptures—”il sem­bloit que Dieu eust oublié la promesse qu’il avoit faicte à Noé, de ne destru­ire plus le monde par eau" [“it seemed as though God had for­got­ten the promise He made to Noah nev­er to destroy the world with water again”] (1). Heal­ing waters are also at work in the essay Mon­taigne devotes to his kid­ney con­di­tion (II, 37). But in “Des Can­ni­bales” (I, 31), water exists as a geo­mor­pho­log­i­cal force that shapes and reshapes embank­ments and erodes estates:

Quand je con­sidere l’impression que ma riv­iere de Dor­doigne faict de mon temps vers la rive droicte de sa descente, et qu’en vingt ans elle a tant gaigné, et desrobé le fonde­ment à plusieurs bas­ti­mens, je vois bien que c’est une agi­ta­tion extra­or­di­naire: car, si elle fut tou­sjours allée ce train, ou deut aller à l’advenir, la fig­ure du monde seroit ren­ver­sée. Mais il leur prend des change­ments: tan­tost elles s’espendent d’un costé, tan­tost d’un autre; tan­tost elles se con­ti­en­nent. Je ne par­le pas des soudaines inon­da­tions de quoy nous man­ions les caus­es. En Medoc, le long de la mer, mon frere, Sieur d’Arsac, voit une siene terre ensevelie soubs les sables que la mer vom­it devant elle.

When I con­sid­er the inroads that my riv­er, the Dor­dogne, is mak­ing in my life­time into the right bank in its descent, and that in twen­ty years it has gained so much ground and stolen away the foun­da­tions of sev­er­al build­ings, I clear­ly see that this is an extra­or­di­nary dis­tur­bance; for if it had always gone at this rate, or was to do so in the future, the face of the world would be turned top­sy-turvy. But rivers are sub­ject to changes: now they over­flow in one direc­tion, now in anoth­er, now they keep to their course. I am not speak­ing of the sud­den inun­da­tions whose caus­es are man­i­fest. In Médoc, along the seashore, my broth­er, the sieur d’Arsac, can see an estate of his buried under the sands that the sea spews forth. (151)

In the con­text of the still recent dis­cov­ery of the Amer­i­c­as, whose rumored mar­vels per­vade the essay, ero­sion sig­nals the emer­gence of a world that resists appro­pri­a­tion and even Montaigne’s call for topog­ra­phy: “Il nous fau­droit des topographes qui nous fis­sent nar­ra­tion par­ti­c­uliere des endroits où ils ont esté” [“who would give us an exact account of the places where they have been”]. Here, topog­ra­phy is not sim­ply a descrip­tive and nar­ra­tive enter­prise. It is a response to the per­ceived plas­tic­i­ty of the surface.

What it means for the earth to slip under one’s feet is brack­et­ed in the first sen­tence of the essay:

Quand le Roy Pyrrhus pas­sa en Ital­ie, apres qu’il eut recon­neu l’ordonnance de l’armée que les Romains luy envoy­oient au devant: Je ne sçay, dit-il, quels bar­bares sont ceux-ci (car les Grecs appel­loyent ain­si toutes les nations estrang­ieres), mais la dis­po­si­tion de cette armée que je voy, n’est aucune­ment barbare.

When King Pyrrhus passed over into Italy, after he had recon­noi­tered the for­ma­tion of the army that the Romans were send­ing to meet him, he said: “I do not know what bar­bar­ians these are” (for so the Greeks called all for­eign nations), “but the for­ma­tion of this army that I see is not at all bar­barous.” (150)

What Pyrrhus sees and rec­og­nizes, the dif­fer­ence between what he sees and rec­og­nizes are rela­tion­al propo­si­tions con­tin­gent upon the lex­i­con avail­able to him to des­ig­nate for­eign­ers. The foot­ing Pyrrhus finds in lan­guage is posi­tion­al. Through­out the essay “Des Can­ni­bales,” Mon­taigne describes old and new worlds at war, from the mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tion of Tupi soci­eties in Brazil to the civ­il unrest in six­teenth-cen­tu­ry France. Ero­sion is a dif­fer­ent kind of war that entails a dif­fer­ent form of geopolitics—a pol­i­tics of stra­ta rather than a pol­i­tics of ter­ri­to­ry (Clark 2830). Or in Jus­si Parikka’s words: “The water that was under­stood as anom­alous, or dif­fi­cult to con­trol and define in the polit­i­cal space of old Europe, becomes once again a deter­min­ing fac­tor of the geopo­lit­i­cal Earth, but this time because ris­ing ocean sur­faces flood coastal areas and metrop­o­lis­es” (37).

Plastiglom­er­ate is an emer­gent geo­log­i­cal for­ma­tion com­posed of melt­ed plas­tic, beach sed­i­ment, basaltic lava frag­ments, and organ­ic debris (Cor­co­ran et al.). An inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of geol­o­gists iden­ti­fied plas­tiglom­er­ate among spec­i­mens col­lect­ed on Kami­lo Beach in Hawaii by as a poten­tial mark­er of the Anthro­pocene. By con­trast, the geol­o­gy that sub­tends the world of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry French nov­el­ist Emile Zola is emer­gent by virtue of hav­ing entered into the con­ver­sa­tion it keeps on inter­rupt­ing. Min­er­al­i­ty is every­where Ger­mi­nal (1885), deposit­ed, extract­ed, and vapor­ized in the form of coal dust that coats every inner and out­er sur­face of the nov­el. It sur­faces in the inau­gur­al dia­logue between Eti­enne, a vagrant look­ing for a job, and Bon­nemort (lit­er­al­ly “Good-death”), a retired coal miner:

Une crise de toux l’interrompit encore. – Et ça vous fait tou­ss­er aus­si ? dit Éti­enne. Mais il répon­dit non de la tête, vio­lem­ment. Puis, quand il put par­ler : – Non, non, je me suis enrhumé, l’autre mois. Jamais je ne tou­s­sais, à présent je ne peux plus me débar­rass­er… Et le drôle, c’est que je crache, c’est que je crache… Un raclement mon­ta de sa gorge, il cracha noir. – Est-ce que c’est du sang ? deman­da Éti­enne, osant enfin le ques­tion­ner. Lente­ment, Bon­nemort s’essuyait la bouche d’un revers de main. – C’est du char­bon… J’en ai dans la car­casse de quoi me chauf­fer jusqu’à la fin de mes jours. Et voilà cinq ans que je ne remets pas les pieds au fond. J’avais ça en mag­a­sin, paraît-il, sans même m’en douter. Bah ! ça con­serve ! (9)

A spasm of cough­ing inter­rupt­ed him again. – “And that makes you cough so,” said Eti­enne. But he vig­or­ous­ly shook his head. Then, when he could speak: – “No, no! I caught cold a month ago. I nev­er used to cough; now I can’t get rid of it. And the queer thing is that I spit, that I spit…” The rasp­ing was again heard in his throat, fol­lowed by the black expec­to­ra­tion. – “Is it blood?” asked Eti­enne, at last ven­tur­ing to ques­tion him. Bon­nemort slow­ly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. – “It’s coal. I’ve got enough in my car­cass to warm me till the end of my days. And it’s five years since I put a foot down below. I stored it up, it seems, with­out know­ing it; well, it embalms! (6, mod­i­fied translation)

Min­er­al­i­ty is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly extract­ed, reab­sorbed, and spit out again—whether by the indus­try it fuels or by the coal-cough­ing crea­ture it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly kills and keeps alive. It marks the soil to form yet anoth­er lay­er and cre­ates anoth­er set of rela­tions between cohab­it­ing forms of life, between organ­ic life and min­er­al life alive of a life that threat­ens to turn organ­ic life into its archive. It is in that sense that occu­pa­tion­al epi­demi­ol­o­gy and geo­log­i­cal med­i­cine doc­u­ment­ing tox­ic forms of min­er­al expo­sure (pneu­mo­co­nio­sis) too could be under­stood as the sites of emer­gent geologies.

In “Con­ser­va­tion and Col­or,” Lyotard remarks that in prin­ci­ple, in the con­fines of a muse­um, “posed paint will not ‘pass,’ it will always be now” (Lyotard, The Inhu­man 144). In the Las­caux cave, how­ev­er, this present is at risk. Its pale­olith­ic paint­ings are threat­ened by algae devel­op­ments and cal­cite recrys­tal­liza­tion. The threats can be linked to the mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the gaseous com­po­si­tion with­in the cave fol­low­ing the inten­sive touris­tic exploita­tion of the site since 1948. Now that Las­caux cave paint­ings are fac­ing extinc­tion, as a head­line found on the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mit­tee for the Preser­va­tion of Las­caux (ICPL) web­site sug­gests, they come to life, “not just as an object of descrip­tion … that comes alive in our perceptual/verbal/conceptual play around it, but as a thing that is always already address­ing us (poten­tial­ly) as a sub­ject with a life that has to be seen as ‘its own’ in order for our descrip­tions to engage the picture’s life as well as our own lives as behold­ers” (Mitchell, What Do Pic­tures Want? 49). Breath is both a con­t­a­m­i­nant and a port of entry into the his­tor­i­cal exis­tence of pre­his­toric paint­ings whose very “sur­vival” is a mat­ter of inten­sive care. Air fil­tra­tion devices, fungi­cides, bio­haz­ard mit­i­ga­tion pro­to­cols, and an ongo­ing repli­ca­tion process medi­ate the rela­tion of tox­ic co-pres­ence between the paint­ings and the CO2 releas­ing now: Las­caux 2, a par­tial three-dimen­sion­al repli­ca, opened in 1983 on the same hill as the orig­i­nal cave. Ini­ti­at­ed in 2012, Las­caux 3 is an itin­er­ant, inter­ac­tive, and inter­na­tion­al exhib­it of mov­able pan­els repro­duc­ing some of the cave’s most famous paint­ed scenes. The lat­est of the Las­caux avatars—Lascaux 4—proposes a com­plete repli­ca of the cave and its paint­ing; but it also mim­ics the sen­so­r­i­al qual­i­ties of a sub­ter­ra­ne­ous atmos­phere. The pre­his­toric images are safe. They sur­vive else­where under var­i­ous for­mats. Their rela­tion to time, to loss, and to trans­for­ma­tion might be what is present­ly endan­gered. They sur­vive in a ter­raformed state thanks the dema­te­ri­al­iza­tion and recom­po­si­tion of geo­log­i­cal struc­tures afford­ed by cave repli­cas. Is it anoth­er case of reverse ter­raform­ing? Here, it is not the future that con­ser­va­tion efforts seek to engi­neer, but rather a past exposed to the vagaries of an unhos­pitable present—a ter­raform­ing present, as it is, defined by con­tact, gaseous exchange, and a dark, damp, and muf­fled assem­blage of car­nal relations.

No less exper­i­men­tal in tone and intent than ter­raform­ing itself, this paper has sought out to reg­is­ter ter­raform­ing projects that are not nec­es­sar­i­ly locat­ed in a future plan­e­tary state of affairs but in a mem­o­ry of the inhab­it­ed earth at odds with lin­ear and devel­op­men­tal nar­ra­tives of set­tle­ment. For the spec­u­la­tive exis­tence of ter­raformed worlds is always already informed by a cul­tur­al mem­o­ry of oikos—the inhab­it­ed world, the world one longs to return to, or for Eugene Thack­er, the “world-for-us” (by oppo­si­tion to the world-in-itself and in ten­sion with the word-with­out-us) (Thack­er 4-5). But what is ter­raform­ing if not a pros­thet­ic mem­o­ry of oikos—that is, a mode of curat­ing prospects of con­ti­nu­ity in the present that dis­pos­es of them like end credits?

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  1. Ben­jamin equates the decline of sto­ry­telling in indus­tri­al soci­eties to the dis­rup­tion of a frag­ile ecosys­tem: “the more nat­ur­al the process by which the sto­ry­teller for­goes psy­cho­log­i­cal shad­ing, the greater becomes the story’s claim to a place in the mem­o­ry of the lis­ten­er, the more com­plete­ly is it inte­grat­ed into his own expe­ri­ence, the greater will be his incli­na­tion to repeat it to some­one else some­day, soon­er or lat­er. This process of assim­i­la­tion, which takes place in depth, requires a state of relax­ation which is becom­ing rar­er and rar­er. If sleep is the apogee of phys­i­cal relax­ation, bore­dom is the apogee of men­tal relax­ation. Bore­dom is the dream bird that hatch­es the egg of expe­ri­ence. A rustling in the leaves dri­ves him away. His nest­ing places—the activ­i­ties that are inti­mate­ly asso­ci­at­ed with boredom—are already extinct [aus­gestor­ben] in the cities and are declin­ing in the coun­try as well” (Ben­jamin 91). ↩︎