I begin with two texts that take attention to the planetary in a literal sense. Lucy Lippard begins Undermining: A Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics, and the Changing West from 2014 with a discussion of gravel, the ubiquitous primeval element endemic to the United States southwest. She discusses the exploitation of gravel, adobe, and other natural resources in the Southwestern region, specifically New Mexico, and the abject dearth of sustainable practices and corporate land use protocols. The book’s content is just as interesting as its structure: half of the long essay is told through verbal language, and the other half is told illustratively through the use of her own and artists’ photographs. In a review in Art Forum she writes that the image and text that comprise the artist book-cum-investigative essay form a parallel narrative, two alongside each other, though I think the two registers are more codependent. The images’ consistent orientation in relation to the text, however, visually complies with her remarks on the duel narrative.
As attentive to the past as she is to the present, her investigation of land use (for example, fracking, land-taking, etc.) is informed by the built environment as well as its sustainability practices (or lack thereof) that are indigenous to the region, practices extant for centuries. She differentiates the phrase “land use” from other romanticized notions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century picturesque, which at first might sound less partisan but is in fact a rhetorical move with which she assails the lack of sustainable practices in and around her home town Galisteo, New Mexico. Thus, her investigation of land use in this context arrives at—yet disallows closure on—the impending, cataclysmic environmental violence, specifically and especially southwestern indigenous communities disproportionately affected by exploitative and violent mining and land-treatment practices. In some ways her essay suggests that sustainability is the new utopia.
In her book written three decades before, she draws the same relationship between art and life and their inseparability at moments in prehistory and in contemporary art. In Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, the “overlay” motif she uses demonstrates that inseparability. The relationship between art and life, according to Lippard, can range from the overlay of human inhabitation on the land, fertility, spirituality, urban on the rural, the knowledge of modern science on primeval forms (e.g., Stonehenge), and the overlay of human timescales onto the geologic and vis versa. At the time of her writing, she noted a trend, which she described as nostalgic: the reason contemporary artists at that time were employing prehistoric imagery into their work, (for example, Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim, Christine Oatman, Judy Varga, Ana Mendieta, Charles Simonds, Mary Beth Edelson, to name the first few she names), is due to a nostalgia for a time in which art and its practice was a secure affordance in the practitioner’s society. But this is not the only theme she investigates. From icons to motifs to monumental forms, she uses this book to ‘suggest the restoration of the symbolic possibility in contemporary art.”
Through she homes her investigation to her local and regional surroundings, specifically in the United States southwest for Undermining, and thematic regionalisms (such as feminism, time, ritual, etc.) for Overlay, one might find few objections to extend that accusation to land use practices in Undermining in the political protocols of oil-extraction in the Middle East. Though Lippard does not bring to light the homology between the exploitation of the gravel industry in her region and that of the oil industry in the Middle East, she does mention water and land theft in the Middle East and deforestation and desertification in Northern Africa. Indeed, she does argue that “local landscapes reflect global crises,” which implies an understanding of the metonymical understanding of the local and its relationship (or overlay) to the global. Similarly, this metonymical relationship between the local and the global (“global” being problematic), is part-for-whole a systemic implementation of micro- and macro-attention to discourse and aesthetic regimes. Her focus on the local, specifically her home in Galisteo, New Mexico, comes into play. I consider to be part of a larger philosophical enterprise that reckons with the valuation of the earth and its systems and processes. That philosophical enterprise, for the purposes of this paper, will be those investigating and imagining planetarity.
I read planetarity as the ability for an abstract concept, idea, or force to extend into space—and manipulate it—as a property of its materiality and a condition of its discursive power. In other words: planetarity and planetary models establish the necessary and sufficient conditions under which symbiotic relationships can form amongst entities and networks of “intended others.” As opposed to globalization and its universalizing and totalizing uniform forces, planetarity is not a methodology, and it is not an orientation; rather, it is a model of world-imagining that accounts for, for the purposes of this paper, substantive artistic and historical intervention across socio-temporal scales within the individually and collectively composed and composing world.
In his essay “Decompressing Culture: Three Steps toward a Geomethodology,” Christian Moraru makes moves toward a topological and relational geomethodology, wherein the topological is the spatialization of the world and its “aesthetic routine;” the relational is planetary inscription, wherein the part-to-whole relationship unfolds into a coherent, co-imagined “here.” As the antithesis of globalization, “planetarization works through, brings about, and … ‘appears’ as a trans-territorialization—dislocation, reallocation, and novel aggregation—of space and its meanings on earth,” (though it is unclear at this point if he means on the earth’s surface (part of the earth) or the earth itself (the whole to which the part belongs). For Christian Moraru, planetarization is “what ‘appears’ and what one makes out from the physical-intellectual distance that brings into relief, without always rendering ‘evident’ the cross-territorial, integrative-interlinking, and world-systemic operations.”
To illustrate the power of metonymy as the main operative function in picturing of Worlds-within-the-world, I will demonstrate the weakness within a metaphorical function. Moraru opens his discussion toward a geomethodology by investigating what we mean by the “face” of the earth: “How is the earth’s face revealing [to] us something that globalization often obfuscates and stymies while planetarity forefronts and nourishes?”
Spatial metaphors are a convenient and often appropriate short cut to conceptualize the abstract through the vehicle of physical space, the turns spatial, semiotic, linguistic, and so on. A turn indicates an intellectual movement or trend that focuses its attention on its eponymous cause, a systematic taxonomy of discursive behavior. He writes:
“If the ‘spatial imagination’—across the humanities as well as across the world “out there”—is older than postmodernism, the ‘spatial turn’ has undeniably and dramatically picked up speed during the Cold War’s last years to culminate, inside the academy, with a ‘hyperspatialization’ of postmodern theory through interventions by topo-theorists [(remember: those who study the spatialization of the world and its aesthetic routine)], ecocritics, and literary topographers […] and outside, with a planetary spatialization of the postmodern paradigm itself.”
Though not necessarily totalizing, a term like “turn” suggests a generalization of whole or part of its respective discourse. The misdirected metaphor undermines the initiative under which it assumes position.
What is the role of metonymy in the arts? How does metonymy function in this context, and why is it necessary to conceive of planetarity through the operative metonym “worlds-within-the-world?” Whereas a metaphor linguistically establishes an equitable relation between two dissimilar entities made similar through the verbal declaration, a metonym establishes a similar relationship through inequitable scales between a part of an entity and its whole. Unlike metaphor with simply a bi-directional relationship, a metonym’s functional power is radial, extending to other scales. In her book on the topic, Denise Green finds metonymy to be the operative function in some contemporary art (through the writing of Indian poet Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan, which she calls only by his last name). Through his poetry and narrative, she demonstrates how metonymy is performed in her narrow context as a “non-linear and non-sequential” illumination of the outside by the inside in a concentric nesting of ideas. A common metaphor for metonymy is that of a container, in which the components thereof are related.
Returning to Spivak’s introductory remarks on planetarity, we now observe the significance of the metonymical function in her definition: Spivak’s “worlds-within-the-world” functions with metonymic operatives—it is nearly in the name. In fact, Smith’s reifies the multi-scalar dimensionality of Spivak’s phrase, which encapsulates the local, regional, and international. An unrequited relation in referring to it as a method without methodology, feudality without feudalism, and so on.She borrows Richard Dawkin’s metaphor of DNA, where DNA stands in the place of the whole carbon-based life form (or as he would argue, the other way around). She argues, “Each individual organism should be seen as a temporary vehicle, in which DNA messages spend a tiny fraction of their geological lifetimes’ [She sites from Dawkins, Blind Watchmaker, 127]. This, too, is a ‘dogmatic’ thinking of planetarity.”The term “vehicle,” typically used in the contexts of defining “metaphor,” might be significant. Stressing the necessity of thinking of the earth planetarily, not simply as stewards of the planet that is “other” in respect to humankind, she stresses in this text and in Death of a Discipline that as humans we are “intended to the other.”
If humankind and our discursive and artistic practices are on and of the earth, then how exactly can we conceive of the discursive commentary thereon and -of as a “turn to?”
I have presented a brief survey of authors writing on planetarity from the prospective of two editors, Elias and Moraru. These editors and their contributors have set out to define systems of aesthetic and literary regimes that reckon with objects of inquiry and their extension into space and onto the surface of the planet. At the risk of belaboring the point, I continue to emphasize compositional strategies to of course, understand the order of operations via metonymy under which of planetarity yokes its discursive force. This is to say, through a self-aware and self-composing close reading of planetarity through figurative language, (that is, metonymy), we can better understand how world-picturing generates more world-picturing. Secondly, my self-aware close reading was to demonstrate, or at least make transparent, the function of figuring through one idea that figures and configures a piece of this world.
Is it possible to conceive of planetarity outside the ubiquitous discourse of nation-states, capitalism, politics, or border-drawing? That planetarity was born of a literature-based discipline it of little surprise in this case: Comparative literature’s focus on the functions of language, language’s composition, and its imperative to compose almost outlines itself. Similarly, Terry Smith considers this procedure of composition in relation to artistic practice. He discusses contemporary art through its propensity to ground itself, so to speak, through a cycle of reciprocal creation without beginning or end. In his words, “every art medium has a history that acts both as spur and constraint,” and this composition requires what he calls an “affective substrate” through which the act of artistic creation takes its shape. This “affective substrate” provides the platform through which an art object takes form—or figures and configures. To perform an art history that considers contemporary composition thus requires a specific attention to materiality, to the “affective substrate,” or contextual impetus.
In his short book The Contemporary Composition, he writes:
When it comes to contemporary composition, however, nothing begins ab initio. There is always, already, something there, an anticipatory formlessness awaiting the opportunity to take form, along with other forms; to achieve figure (actually, to configure); to compose and be composed; to become, in a word, a composition. Taking form along with other forms, the working toward a work of art beginning to work, these early moves occur in the act of taking up a preliminary plane, a ground of possibility, a setting for the creativity to come.
For a work like William Lamson’s A Line Describing the Sun from 2010, During twelve hours of daylight, Lamson inscribed an arc in a dry lake bed somewhere in the heat of the Mojave Desert. To do this, he used a wheeled, rolling contraption fashioned with a Fresnel lens that concentrated the light to such a degree it melted a line in the lakebed.
Fresnel lenses, originally used in lighthouses, afford a wide aperture with a narrow focus, which allows an intense concentration of light within a small surface area. For A Line Describing the Sun, this ratio permitted a temperature of up to sixteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit, which, when fixed on the arid, lakebed floor, caused a chemical reaction, thus forging a black, glassy arc in the dry mud. As we saw briefly, the thirteen-minute-and-a-half minute video documents this day-long performance through two frames oriented horizontally, that is, side by side. At moments during the film, especially in the first shot, it appears he is showing two different times of day, sunrise and sunset. These two temporalities manifest in motifs throughout the short film, and because we have little means of finding our east-west bearings in this vast space, it is at times impossible to discern the time of day at all. Indeed, he bookends his film with seemingly clear east and west shots, ambiguously cueing the beginning and end of the day. However, his reluctance to demonstrate time explicitly during the remainder of the film allows us to instead meditate on the slow and transient passage of time itself.
It is in this way I understand Smith’s foregrounding of the phrase “material support” over the term “medium,” which will help demonstrate the complexity and difficulty of identifying and ascribing this work a single medium. A Line Describing the Sun shares criteria of aesthetics with performance art, cinema, and photography though it is difficult to prescribe a taxonomic qualifier to it. It shares a performative endurance with performance art; its sophisticated cinematography and duel presentation (amongst other aspects) suggests a sophisticatedly mediated artistic sensibility; and it also performs a documentary service toward the creation of the work that would otherwise never be seen.
If, as Lippard argues in Undermining, “local landscapes reflect global crises,” then through an attention to world-imagining through processes of inscription, whether verbal or imagistic, we can begin to think of planetarity as having its force within discursive metonymical practices.
At some interstitial point in the process of composition, there is a ground, so to speak, on which artistic and historical intervention unfolds, adding to the composition something that was not there before. However, because the intervention itself was informed, at least in part, by the process of composition, at the moment of intervention something was added to the process of composition that was already always there. The process of composition is part a feedback loop and part system of accretion. Through artistic and historical intervention, the information therefrom metonymically expands into discursive and visual knowledge.