Object Earth

By | April 12, 2017

The following is adapted from Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton's Earth, now available from Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series.

Earth is a home, a limit, and a recurring challenge.

Humans have long struggled with their desire to view the Earth from its outside — as if we could depart the only dwelling we have ever possessed, the place of our birth, and turn back to see that world as a whole. We imagine such a view to be radiant, a revelation, and forget how much it obscures. Only recently has this singular Earth been reduced to one celestial body among billions in a universe indifferent to its splendor and unconvinced of its uniqueness. For a long time we thought the universe revolved around our globe. We now speak of a Copernican Revolution that jarred us away from this anthropocentricity. Yet we remain in some ways deeply Earthbound.

The desire to encompass the Earth through a vision that offers a discrete object, a total picture viewable from its exterior, may be as old as the realization that dreams free us to wander, to create new relations to what we imagine we’ve left behind. Through technology and the imagination we attempt escape the planet’s gravity to attain a comprehensive perspective, looking down from far above, a vision of the Earth denied from its expansive surface. Girdled first by wooden ships and now by urban lights, airplanes and the Internet, the Earth seems to have shrunk into Google Earth, a tamed and domesticated thing, a human commodity rather than a luminous celestial body that defies full knowing. But the image of the Earth as spaceship or marble is still framed from a human point of view. The image leaves much to shadow and obscurity, including the interior. It is easier to reach Mars than our own planet’s core. The Earth is too large, too old, too inaccessible to our senses for us to fully apprehend it all at any one time. We live within the limitations of our human selves, making it difficult for us to contend with global-scale issues and events, like space travel and climate change. We look at images of the Earth and see at once a cosmic globe and a planet we have altered: oceans, flora, fauna, and atmosphere have all felt our heavy hand. Creativity and imagination enable us to push against these limits and disjunctions, though, and perhaps to see ourselves as having enough agency and breadth of vision to face such difficulties of vision, apprehension and action.

Very few humans have ever beheld the Earth in its entirety. Yet as ancient texts attest we have long imagined attaining that perspective, whether in sleep or in death or as an astronaut. We begin this book by acknowledging that a desire to imagine ourselves looking back upon the only home we have ever known as if we were at its outside, gazing at Earth become object, recurs across history. Yearning to behold the planet from some point of view more comprehensive than the fragmented perspectives we possess living along its surface — to see snowy mountains, torrid deserts, and roiled seas resolve into a singular sphere — is an enduring aspiration, and a ceaseless prod to creativity. We imagine ourselves leaving our terrestrial habitation to perceive in one instant its vexing expansiveness, to gain a total picture — to know the Earth, and maybe even to love it.

Earth is a problem. If the Earth is a singular object, how do we observe it? How do we know it? How does knowing the Earth challenge what knowing means in the humanities? In the natural sciences? How do the stories humans have long been telling about the Earth inform and interact with the Earth we apprehend from our expanded technological capabilities? Why do we so ardently desire to be able to look at the Earth as if we no longer stood upon its rough surface? Can technology intensify how we feel about the Earth? How are recent space craft and satellite derived images of the Earth that represent the globe suspended in the immensity space connected to an ages-long impulse to imagine what the Earth looks like when viewed from a great distance? Within such a perspective are we looking back or looking out? Why does the urge to explore drive us away from the only home we have had? Is Earth’s gravity as metaphorical a force as it is physical, and if so can we ever escape that pull? Do we travel into space (through probes or through story) only to discover the past or the future of the Earth? Or to try to discover if we are alone?


EarthJeffrey Jerome Cohen is Professor of English and Director of GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University, USA. He is the author or editor of 11 books, including Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (2015).

Linda T. Elkins-Tanton is Foundation Professor and Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, USA. She is the author of The Solar System, a six-book series: The Sun, Mercury, and Venus, The Earth and the Moon, Mars, Asteroids, Meteorites, and Comets, Jupiter and Saturn,Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and the Outer Solar System.

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