Alien Weeds: The Origins of Life on an Uncanny Planet

Thinking about next week’s Post-Planetary Capital Symposium at the New School/Parson’s Center of Transformative Media reminded me of a short text I had included in a strange event/exhibition at Princeton’s Institute of the Humanities last May called The Secret Life of Plants. I didn’t get to see the exhibition and missed the event with Jane Bennett as I was not in town at the time but I’ve included my text below. It appeared with the image below enlarged on a wall (although I never saw images of it).

ALIEN WEEDS: The Origins of Life on an Uncanny Planet

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 In January 2013 it was reported in The Huffington Post that Chandra Wickramasinghe of the University of Buckingham, U.K. and a team of researchers at Cardiff University, U.K. had found traces of fossilized algae in a meteorite that landed in the Sri Lankan village of Polonnaruwa on December 29th the previous year. Although the results of their research were immediately disputed by other astronomers when published in the March 2013 edition of the Journal of Cosmology, Wickramasinghe and his team argue that their findings provide strong evidence for the existence of extra-terrestrial life and vindicate the theory of cometary panspermia, the idea that life spreads across the cosmos via comets and meteorites.

It has become increasingly common in recent years for Continental Philosophy to turn its gaze to the relationship between the human and the non-human and many thinkers of a materialist and post-humanist leaning have begun to interrogate the complex socio-ecological assemblages that bind them together. Arguably, this materialist, post-humanist turn has taken shape in response to the dramatic changes in the conditions of planetary life that recent scientific developments have both exposed and produced. These changes have driven Continental Philosophy, a field of thought long fixated on the social construction of the world and the centrality of human subjectivity, back to fundamental epistemological and ontological questions about the human position in a more-than-human world.

Yet whilst significant attention has been afforded the ways in which human life is entangled with animal life, technologies, geological forces, fossil fuels, atmospheric conditions and the planetary biosphere, the human relationship to plants has for the most part gone unexplored. Hence, recent attempts to explore this long overlooked relationship within Continental Philosophy, such as Michael Marder’s Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013), break important new ground. Coming to a better understanding of the mutually constitutive entanglements between human and plant life can play a crucial part in the wider philosophical project of reassessing the ontological position of the human with regard to non-human things, processes and relations and perhaps help unravel the nature/culture distinction that is so foundational to much modern social, and indeed environmental, thought.

However, is there something else, something darker, something weirder, that remains to be thought about plant life: something that does not simply concern its relation to human life but the planet as a whole, and even the cosmos?  The field of astrobiology and the fossilized algae identified in the Polonnaruwa comet by Chandra Wickramasinghe and his team suggests so.

The basic hypothesis of cometary panspermia is that life on earth may have originated from life forms found on comets or meteorites that arrived on earth either from other planets (interplanetary panspermia) or other solar systems (interstellar panspermia) rather than having been generated from chemical reactions between organic materials found on earth itself. The fossilized algae traces that Wickramasinghe’s team claim to have found indicate that such a scenario may no longer simply be the wild conjecture of galactic-Darwinians on the lunatic fringe of astronomy. They in fact appear to suggest that algae, or similar forms of microscopic plant life, may not only be the denizens of rock-pools and deep ocean trenches but the agent of a great cosmic fertilization from which earthly life was born.

But what might this mean philosophically? In one sense of course this (perhaps unverifiable) hypothesis simply adds an astrobiological spin to the Copernican turn. In another sense however, it is perhaps unavoidable that humans might experience this as yet another blow to anthropocentric consciousness from an indifferent cosmos. Yet perhaps cometary panspermia does more than deepen the narcissistic wound in humans’ sense of cosmological centrality. Given that these algae fossils do not simply decenter the human in relation to a more-than-human world but decenter earthly life in relation to a wider living cosmos, is it possible to argue that they produce a kind of planetary trauma? Cometary panspermia suggests not simply that the mysterious throb of some alien Other exists, but that its extraterrestrial pulse might lie at the very roots of planetary life. In this case life on earth becomes at once familiar and strange, worldly and alien, its genesis found in some form of cosmic contamination; this originary astral infiltration leaves our earthly home a stranger to itself and renders the planet uncanny. What we have known as earthly life can no longer be distinguished from an extraterrestrial Other but in fact comes to resemble the prolonged incubation of the alien within.

Perhaps then the fossilized algae traces Wickramasinghe and his team claim to have found imply that plant life is located in a liminal position with regard to earthly life as a whole: that planetary life as we know it is in fact the outgrowth of alien weeds. Might these crystalized formations suggest that plant life is not something that can simply be cozied up to via some post-humanist blurring of the nature/culture binary but rather that plants are already simultaneously much more intimate and alien than such a conceptual gesture would presume? Indeed, this peculiar intimacy is perhaps why plant life is so often approached with a degree of anxiety. There is a sense that the scent-filled blossoms and Triffid-like tendrils of the plant world give direct expression to a vital excess of life that not only encompasses a vivid cornucopia of vegetal becoming but places them in uncomfortable proximity to contingency, decay and ultimately death, their indifferent and ceaseless growth bordering on a mindless organic death drive.

This sense is perhaps strongest when confronted with those forms of life such as algae, fungi, slime molds, photosynthesizing bacteria and viruses that squirm loose from the classification tables and upset the stable taxonomies of being with which we try to separate our selves from other living things and them from each other. It is perhaps no surprise that thinkers associated with Speculative Realism have found the dark vitality of these ambiguous life forms so aesthetically compelling: think for example of Graham Harman’s Lovercraftian Weird Realism, Reza Negarestani’s ontologies of putrification, Dylan Trigg’s “alien phenomenology” or Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics. Read in light of recent findings in astrobiology the unsettling indeterminacy that characterizes the boundaries of plant life evokes a secret affinity between the domestic pot-plant and the alien imbroglios from which life on earth may have emerged.

So in what new directions might the evidence of cometary panspermia bend the crooked timber of philosophical inquiry? Perhaps the possibility of an alien origin to earthly life – even if recent findings can not be verified – requires us to radicalize and intensify the lines of materialist thought and post-humanist philosophy, to not only decenter the human in relation to the non-human (animals, computer technologies, tectonic plates, cloud patterns, distribution networks, microbes, and yes, plants), but decenter the conditions of planetary life in relation to the cosmos. Maybe these crystalline remnants of past life demand that we think beyond the bounds of the ‘blue marble’ and open our thought to the complex contingencies of the cosmos, including those shards of matter surging through the black eternity of space along trajectories wholly indifferent to earthly life. The Garden of Eden has been choked in alien weeds. In cultivating them in thought we can better understand our rootedness in the cosmos.

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Upcoming Talks: ‘Post-Planetary Capital Symposium’ at Parsons & ‘After 400ppm’ Conference

A busy week coming up with a number of exciting events a couple of which I am speaking at.

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First up is thePost-Planetary Capital Symposium’ at the Center for Transformative Media at the New School/Parsons Design School in New York organized by Ed Keller (the center’s director) and Ben Woodard (whose work myself, Kai Bosworth and Harlan Morehouse recently reviewed at Society and Space) I’ll be speaking alongside a great line up of artists, architects, designs, media theorists and philosophers, many of them friends, including Kai, Julieta Aranda, Ben Bratton, Keith Tilford,MacKenzie Wark, Amanda Beech, Deneb Kozikoski, amongst others. Ed and Ben have put together a great program around a really exciting topic. The event is free requires tickets, available here, and the description written by Ed and Ben is below: 

As the dull glow of nationalism and cold war politics has faded from governmental space programs it is little surprise that space exploration has undergone widespread privatization.Yet it is only recently that potentially massive profitability has accelerated off-planet projects, replacing narrower and perhaps unrealistic dreams of space tourism with asteroid mining (purportedly a multi-trillion dollar industry) and long term Mars colonization. Such projects present an odd combination of new technologies (especially advanced robotics) and lower cost older technologies (rocket propulsion) deployed in unfamiliar and lawless territory. While much has been said regarding the internal limits of capital, much yet remains to be said about how capitalist imperatives can be taken off-world, questioning whether capital[ism] has external limits as it begins to spread across the solar system and out into space. Is the fact that asteroid mining extends an old logic of environmental degradation rendered moot by its non-terrestrial location? Does off-world colonization by non-governmental entities lay troubling ground work for the advent of mega-corporations and unregulatable capitalism? Furthermore, the complicity between capitalist expansion and space exploration which centers upon large-scale collective action potentially questions stock oppositions between capital and ecological betterment, technological progression and radical politics, as well as space travel and non-national collectivity. This one day symposium aims to address the potential strategies and claims surrounding these issues. 

I’m really glad to have a chance involved in this conversation as I’ve had plans for a project on the extra-planetary geopolitics and the philosophical questions about the future of space exploration for the last 18 months or so but have not had time to dig in to it yet. I’ll be writing a chapter around this material for Capitalism and the Earth, a book forthcoming from Punctum and edited by Nigel Clark, Arun Saldanha and Kathryn Yusoff that I mentioned here before. This will give me an opportunity to lay out some initial lines of inquiry although nothing is worked out as yet. I’ve included my abstract below (the ‘beyond the beyonds’ of the title being an Irish phrase for something rash, excessive and irrational):

Beyond the Beyonds: The Political Horizon of Extra-Planetary Expansion 

Any ‘true to the planet’ thinking must recognize the earth’s inherently post-planetary condition. Whether we consider its dependence on the sun’s energy or the more speculative thesis of cosmic panspermia, it is clear that life on the terrestrial nugget is constitutively entangled with inhuman forces beyond. Indeed, since the development of the Cold War space programs, human activity has been shaping the nature of this post-planetary condition, and has intensified to such an extent that the prosthetic halo of satellites orbiting the planet has not only become integral to the operation of global social systems (communications, logistics agriculture, finance, infrastructure, warfare), but also their convergence with the earth’s natural forces, molding the contours of the Anthropocene and forming an extra-planetary strata that dilates the ‘planet’ beyond the bounds of its atmospheric membrane. Yet today we appear on the cusp of a new ‘frontier’ of expansion in extra-planetary activity, defined not only by familiar patterns of techno-military competition between states, but the emergence of commercial actors speculating in off-sourced extractive industries and the colonization of astral bodies. Such ventures have a long history in cosmic speculation but have taken on new significance in light of increased technological viability and an awareness that capitalism is fast bringing the planet to the point of ‘burn out’. This paper seeks to question some of the geopolitical implications of this ‘second space age’. Is it likely to simply mark the further extension of existing patterns of inter-state competition and capitalist accumulation into extra-planetary space, or rather might it radically transform existing relations between space and the political, both on and off earth, reformulating the economic, ecological, and juridical bases of governing geopolitical formations? This paper will argue that if we jettison the terrestrial myopia in which so much of our thinking is mired then the latter is a clear possibility – the question then becoming how to steer the development of extra-planetary activity and its feedback effects on earth. The fact that those driving recent developments appear to aspire to little more than the astral expansion of capitalist accumulation as a sort of spatio-energetic fix to stave off economic collapse and mass extinction, should not deter us from embracing the transformative potential of this new horizon and imagining the possibility of post-capitalist futures for the post-planetary condition. The paper will nonetheless conclude by highlighting some of the fundamental challenges that face any attempt to think politically within the unpredictable horizon of future space exploration, a domain in which conceptual frameworks, founding principles and guiding programs formulated in relation to centuries-old, earth-bound social forms may no longer be adequate.  

This is followed the next day by another event at the Center of Transformative Media, Function: Decomposition, Localization, Abstraction, a workshop on functionalism in philosophy with Ray Brassier, Reza Negarestani and Daniel Sacilitto. Reza and Ray write: “This workshop will try to unravel the metaphysical, epistemic, and engineering aspects of functionalism by developing themes from the work of philosophers including William Bechtel, Robert Brandom, Wilfrid Sellars, and William Wimsatt.” Its the first time Reza and Ray will be speaking together in NY since they spoke together at the event I organized last summer with Jenny Jaskey at Miguel Abreu gallery. Its not an area I know much about but which I keen to learn more about given that these ideas play an influence role in the philosophical underpinnings of Reza and Ray’s work and in the discussions around accelerationism thought more broadly.

Later in the week I’ll be speaking at the ‘After 400 ppm: Science, Politics, and Social Natures in the Anthropocene’ conference at Rutger’s University in New Jersey. I’m excited to take part in this event as I don’t know many of the other speakers, so it should be a good opportunity to meet some interesting new people with shared concerns. Sarah Whatmore of Oxford University is the keynotes speaker on Thursday and it will be good to see her talk – her work on non-human geographies had a big influence on me some years ago, as did Political Matter, the book so co-edited some years ago with Bruce Braun. I’ve included the abstract of my paper below, which will be a version of the short text, ‘Notes on Politics After the Anthropocene’ I published recently in Progress in Human Geography.

 Politics After the Anthropocene?

 The Anthropocene is not a problem for which there can be a solution. Rather it names an emergent set of geo-social conditions that already fundamentally structure the horizon of human existence. It is thus not a new factor that can be accommodated within existing conceptual frameworks, but rather signals a profound shift in relations between social and earth systems that puts these very frameworks in question. The Anthropocene is therefore not simply a disputed designation in geological periodization but a philosophical event that has powerful reverberations in the field of political thought. In contrast to ‘the global,’ which suggests a relatively flat, anthropocentric conception of the earth focused on social relations on the earth’s surface, ‘the planetary’ points to a more complex, volumic, stratified understanding of an earth constituted through dynamic geo-social entanglements. Accordingly, the Anthropocene creates opportunities to develop forms of thought in which the planet itself is a key player in the drama of human politics rather than simply its stage. This paper seeks to examine some of the challenges this rendering of the Anthropocene might present to political thought, and what forms of politics might be adequate to face them? It focuses on three broad areas: the relationship between the scale and form of politics; the subject of the Anthropocene; and the relationship between technology and politics. In so doing it seeks to examine how the messy geo-social entanglements of the Anthropocene may question existing understanding of the political whilst opening new terrains for political struggle. 

Recent Publications: Schmitt and Space & Politics and the Anthropocene

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Quick update on two papers that I recently had published in Progress in Human Geography.

The first, The Question of Space in Carl Schmitt, co-authored with Claudio Minca, provides the first overview of the role of space and spatial concepts throughout Schmitt’s work. This prefigures some of the work that we will expand in our forthcoming book On Schmitt and Space (Routledge), and some of the material I will be developing in forthcoming papers around Schmitt’s ‘geophilosophy’ and his eschatological theories of spatial history. I have included the abstract below:

In this paper we present an analysis of the German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt as a spatial thinker whose work contains many elements relevant to the concerns of political geography. In examining his fundamental concern with how to ground modern political order without theological foundation, we identify a conceptual matrix between space, political order and conflict that underpins his thought. Charting the development of his spatial theory across his work, we focus on two key spatial moments from immediately before and after the Second World War: first, his theory of Großraum (‘greater space’) order as a reformulation of global order after the eclipse of the state and its complicated entanglements with Nazi spatial thinking and expansionism in eastern Europe; second, his notion of nomos, developed after the war to embrace both a geo-elemental spatial ontology and an account of the rise and fall of Eurocentric global order. We conclude by noting Schmitt’s failure to move beyond an understanding of order grounded on spatial division and his increasing retreat into eschatological fantasy as global spatio-political relations became increasingly more complex in the late 20th century.

The second, is a short piece ‘Notes on Politics After the Anthropocene’ that appeared as part of a forum, After the Anthropocene: Politics and geographic inquiry for a new epoch, edited by Harlan Morehouse and Elizabeth Johnson. The forum also includes work by Simon Dalby, Jessi Lehman and Sara Nelson, Stephanie Wakefield and Kathryn Yusoff, emerging from the Critical Climate Change conference at the University of Minneapolis (organized by Jessi and Sara) last April and the series of sessions around the Anthropocene that Elizabeth and Harlan organized at the American Association of Geographers in L.A. immediately afterwards. This is my first published work on the political dimensions of the Anthropocene – the over-arching concern that has been driving much of my work after the Schmitt project –  hence I’m very excited to see it come out, especially in such good company.