Mapping the Planetary: Five Questions for Dipesh Chakrabarty

Black and white photograph of a man wearing glasses. Headshot of Dipesh Chakrabarty

From the United States “Space Force” to Elon Musk’s “SpaceX,” ongoing efforts to militarize and privatize outer space are now beginning to play a significant role in shaping contemporary imaginations of planet Earth’s ecological present and future. Responding to this increasingly urgent need to situate outer space as a site of environmental reflection, the Borghesi-Mellon workshop “Alien Earth: Introduction to Planetary Humanities” has organized a year-long speaker series dedicated to examining novel intersections of astronomical and environmental thinking.

On December 9, 2020, we met with Dipesh Chakrabarty to discuss two recent publications in the emerging field of “planetary humanities”: “The Planet: An Emergent Humanist Category” and “Conflicts of Planetary Proportions,” a piece co-written with Bruno Latour. Taking questions from workshop attendees, Dr. Chakrabarty discussed his proposed distinction between the “globe” and the “planet,” the role of affect in astronomy, and the ways “planetarity” asks us to challenge Eurocentric views of human history. The following five questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

1. In your article, “The Planet: An Emergent Humanist Category,” you write that Earth System Science “is a mode of looking at this planet that . . . necessarily has other planets in view.” It seems that we often understand the Anthropocene as a geo-social formation that centers humanity’s relationship to planet Earth, but perhaps there are also a number of ways in which it orients itself beyond Earth. In distinguishing between terms like “the planet,” “the world,” or “the globe” (as your article does), what role do you think the interplanetary might play? Doron Darnov

Image of planet Earth from space; a ball of blue and white swirls
Blue Marble, an image of Earth captured by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972. Photo courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2017.

In the way I draw the distinction between the globe and the planet, the Blue Marble photograph would fall under the “globe” side of the debate, because it is how human eyes would see the planet if you moved up into the sky. The planet that is the “Earth system” is only a construction, an abstract entity: you can’t visualize it. If you read any basic book on Earth System Science, you’ll find very diagrammatic images of how the planet works as a system. So the actual entity is not visualizable in the way our eyes would see it, whereas Blue Marble is how we would see Earth if you were an astronaut up in space. So, something that presents itself to our eyes as a self-made form, as it were, as a spherical thing “out there,” is a culminating point of “the globe.”

And secondly, its systematic nature is interplanetary. Ray Pierrehumbert has a book called Principles of Planetary Climate and there’s a chapter in the book on planetary warming, which makes the point that warming and cooling are processes that take place on other planets as well. That’s how I end up with the “planet” as something that has had a lot to do with the conditions that allow us to live, but that as an entity it is indifferent to our existence. Global warming today is historically connected to human institutions, but the planet has seen warming long before there were humans. When people ask the question “can there be life on other planets?” they conceptually project to other planets some of the things they see on this planet as providing for the basis of life, so in that sense the Earth System is inherently interplanetary in that it both draws on the experience of this planet and other planets as well as projects science onto other planets. But the globe, as I keep saying, is what humans have made—through the expansion of Europe, through empire-building, through colonization, through capitalism.

2. You mentioned that your work overlaps with other scholars who also take up the “planetary.” I am curious with how your thinking is—or is not—in conversation with Indigenous scholars like Zoe Todd, Jodi Byrd, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Kyle Powys White or scholars whose work centers Indigenous worldviews such as Marisol de la Cadena and Elizabeth A. Povinelli? What do we lose and what do we gain when we think of the planet as a concept created, analyzed, and mobilized through a western-centric view of the humanities, and how could this re-instantiate a US-European academic planetary view of “life itself?” I’m curious about our responsibilities as critical thinkers and scholars when we take up these concepts. Dr. Ruth Goldstein

Some of these colleagues I also read and benefit from, particularly Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and his notion of multinaturalism. I also find that Indigenous peoples’ philosophies are extremely important in going forward. And the most important thing is that the ancient religions of the world—Indigenous people and ancient African religions—don’t make humans special. Humans are there along with other creatures, other creations. I think one problem in the Abrahamic and some parts of my own Hindu traditions of thinking is that we are encouraged to think that humans are special, and that what we see around us was made for us.

Earth System Science talks about the climate of the planet as a whole and how it is affected by parts of the Earth of which humans have no experience—for instance, deep inside the oceans, continental drift, tectonic shifts. I learned from Earth System Science that what they call “the modern atmosphere of the planet” has been more or less in this state for about three hundred seventy-five million years, which means it was not made with us in mind. Earth System Science does for me what Indigenous philosophers also do: not make humans special, not make the story completely anthropocentric. I think there’s something to be learned from Indigenous people, which is that they’ve actually lived for much longer than modern societies have, with their outlook, by not creating a society-nature distinction.

3. As I was reading for this workshop today, I came across an article about the fact that on December 21st, 2020, Jupiter and Saturn were closer to one another in the sky than they have been since the year 1226. The way the article translated this for those of us who are not scientists or astrophysicists was that this is the “Christmas Star”—some even called it the “Star of Bethlehem.” I was really fascinated by this mapping of a human affective cosmology on this event that is about a planetary system outside of our own human temporal scale. And so my question is whether one of the things you see humanities scholars doing in thinking about the globe versus—or with—the planet has something to do with affect. Where does affect come in, in the planetary in particular?Dr. Lisa Cooper

black sky with Saturn in the background and Jupiter in the foreground
The “great conjunction,” when the planets Jupiter and Saturn appear close together in the sky. Image by KSPFanatic102, 2020.

Affect is very important, and we have the capacity to make stars and planets very personal or cultural objects. The people who settled the Pacific were basically navigating the seas by stars. The stars are sign systems. We read them for telling futures, for agriculture, for all kinds of things. What’s fascinating about this reconstructed Earth-system-as-planet is that once the scientists have constructed it, they themselves respond to the object of their own construction with recognizable affect—for instance, with concern and anxiety. And that’s why they write about it for us.

For example, one aspect of the debate on geoengineering—whether humans should spray aerosols in the stratosphere to reflect some of the sunlight back—is something scientists themselves point out: that with scattered light, the sky will be permanently white. Do you want to live with white skies? You can’t imagine human action on climate change without affect.

There was a very well-known Indian scientist called Sir C.V. Raman who used to study spectroscopy. He won the Nobel Prize in 1930, and that year there was a total solar eclipse as well. A New York Times journalist had been to Calcutta to interview him when he discovered that Raman was performing some Tamil Brahmin rituals having to do with the solar eclipse. And he said to Raman, “You’re a scientist, you know what’s going on up there. So why are you doing all this?” Raman said, “What happens up there is astrophysics and astronomy. But a total solar eclipse is personal.” When a science speaks to urgency, it has to go beyond science—and that’s the humanities. So I think the question of affect is absolutely important.

4. I wanted to quote one sentence from your text, “Conflicts of Planetary Proportions.” You write: “It is by causing a crisis in the critical zone—that is, by breaching its boundaries—that humans encounter the planet.” And in your introduction to the workshop, you also used the word “encounter.” For the last 30 or 40 years, most dominant interventions in the environmental humanities have stressed inter-relations between humans and nonhumans, emphasizing that we share the same substance. I think that your theoretical intervention differs from this trend. Your article foregrounds a separation between human beings and the planet, and therefore creates a possibility for “encounter” or “crisis.” My question is about this split between human beings and the planetary: is it possible to say that there is also something inhuman in the human? Dr. Frederic Neyrat

Spiderweb diagram depicting nine dimensions of planetary boundaries
“Planetary boundaries” as described by Earth System Scientists. Image by Felix Mueller, 2009. Click image to enlarge.

I think I agree with you. Think of it this way: there are some staggering facts about humans. It took us about 300,000 years to get to the figure of one billion human beings. Around 1900 we were 1.6 billion. But by the end of that century, in 2000, we were about six billion. Everything grew in the 20th century because of the availability of oil. Now we are close to eight billion. But the price has been the disruption of what are called “Earth system processes”—the nitrogen cycle, the water cycle, the carbon cycle—which is why planetary scientists have this notion of “planetary boundaries” that we should not break. The question is, how do we pursue autonomy or freedom, however we understand it, vis-a-vis the non-human, without the assumption of abundance? This goes back to the question we were discussing before: what humans can do is dependent on human affect.

I’ll give a very practical example. Last year when there were fires in Australia, Australia decided to cull 10,000 feral camels because in the drought, the camels were competing with some humans for water. So when you face the fury of the planet, the planet reduces you to a creature. You are just another creature on the planet alongside other creatures. There’s nothing special. You have the instruments to kill the camels so that you get the water, not the camels. And that’s why, in a sense, you don’t want to be reduced to your “creaturely” life. But your creaturely life is planetary. The planet makes us with very ancient materials including some very, very ancient molecules that some people call “stardust.”

5. I want to push a little bit on the distinction between “the planet” versus “the planetary. ” One of the benefits of science is that it helps us understand this thing (the planet) versus something which is an epistemology (the planetary). As an epistemology, the planetary is a way of looking at not only the planet but the interplanetary and, I would add, the quantum. So the planetary has the possibility of going outside the human; I’ve only started to work on that recently because the planetary, first of all, meant to me getting outside Eurocentrism and the idea that the West invented modernity. I wonder if you’ve also been reading the new materialists and cosmology. It seems to me that one way of using a planetary (as opposed to global) consciousness to think about the planet is to work with cosmology, spacetime outside of human consciousness. And Ruth Goldstein’s invocation of Indigenous thinking here is very interesting, because some of these ideas about cosmology are very much a part of some Indigenous thinking. So I wanted to ask how you might work with a contradiction of an epistemology of the planet (the planetary) against thinking about the thing itself, which is not a part of human consciousness.Dr. Susan Friedman

I do read people like Jim Hansen—the godfather of climate science here in this country. And you can ask, why do people write about the climate crisis for the general reader? I see people in Australia, Germany, France, America, and England doing it. But in India, there’s only now one or two books being written on climate. And in my work, I’ve been thinking, why is there this gap? I think it’s partly because Western universities still have a habit or capacity to sustain the posture that they are thinking on behalf of everybody, even when they don’t represent everybody. So planetarity for me is a perspective on human history. I go to subjects like evolutionary biology or geology for the way in which they automatically decenter the human, because in their stories the human comes so late. The book I’ve just finished is more of a philosophical history, but my attempt now is to think, “how do I operationalize this perspective? How do I bring it back into the histories that me or my students would usually write?” So for me planetarity is really a perspectival question and is open to the uneven nature of the globe that humans have made. It’s one reason why I make use of Adorno’s concept of “negative universal history.”

Scale is absolutely important, both of space and time, in the way that power structures are organized. And there is a question of affect for individual human beings, because we make decisions roughly within the time-horizons of our own lives, and at most we think of the next generation, if we can afford to. That completely decides the kind of actions we can take against problems that may actually unfold over thousands of years beyond the human scale. And for me, that is an intrinsic part of the predicament we’re in.

Featured image: Headshot of Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty. Image courtesy the University of Chicago.

Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the College at the University of Chicago. He has posed crucial interventions in the environmental humanities, especially on the ways that climate change asks us to rethink the project of studying history. Chakrabarty is a founding member of the editorial collective of Subaltern Studies, a consulting editor of Critical Inquiry, a founding editor of Postcolonial Studies, and has served on the editorial boards of the American Historical Review and Public Culture. Website. Contact.

Doron Darnov is a graduate student in the Literary Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he participates in the university’s Constellations program as a Mellon-Morgridge Graduate Fellow in Planetary Humanities. A previous member of the Edge Effects editorial board, his research interests include space travel, environmental humanities, and digital media. His most recent contribution to Edge Effects is “What Happens When Gamers Become (Digital) Geoengineers? (June 2020). Contact.