Earth, by Dr David Jeevendrampillai, COSS Director
By ucsadje, on 24 September 2020
At its core, my academic work concerns the relationships people have to territory. I am interested in how people conceive of their relation to land in terms of how their sense of self, their identity, is tied to land, how they think through ownership, kin, belonging and politics. ‘Where are you from?’ is one of the most common questions one can be asked, how you answer this question expresses more than a geographic local but also how you think through your relationship to others, your sense of belonging and your sense of rights to place. Whilst in the past I have studied the anthropology of localism, in terms of people’s sense of relation and duty to their local area, I have wondered about the other end of the scale – the planetary.
In terms of the popular imagination, there has arguably been no more influential imagery than the photographs of the Apollo missions. On December 24th 1968, NASA astronaut Bill Anders, aboard Apollo 8, captured NASA image AS08-14-2383, a photograph popularly known as Earthrise. The image shows the ¾ illuminated Earth rising over the moon’s surface. It was described by nature photographer Galen Rowell as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”. The image is perhaps only matched by NASA image AS17-148-22727, or ‘The Blue Marble’, an image of the whole earth from 18,000 miles away, captured by the crew of Apollo 17 on December 7th 1972. These images of Earth are purportedly the most widely circulated and viewed photographic images in history (Poole 2008).
Whilst philosophers have long thought about the relation of humans to the Earth at the scale of the planet (see Oliver 2015) these images catapulted planetary thinking into the popular imagination, but not before they were altered slightly in order to fit particular psychosocial needs. As historian Benjamin Lazier (2011) points out, the original Earthrise image was orientated 90 degrees to the horizontal where the Moon loomed large to the right of the frame whilst the Earth was actually ‘setting’ behind the celestial body. This re-orientation of the frame places the Moon as a familiar terra, under the viewer’s feet and positions the Earth as coming into the light rather than disappearing from view. This reduces the disorientation that such images may engender in relation to established modes of thinking about dwelling on Earth, it places the viewer’s feet on the ground and privileges the Earth. The ‘Blue Marble’ image was also flipped so that Antarctica appeared at the bottom of the frame, not at the top as the original had it. This orientation and presentation of North reveals the preconditioned ways in which Earth is often viewed. These reorientations make the Earth familiar, palatable and usable in the mould of a particular Euro-American worldly vision.
Such thinking on the imagery of Earth has been recently discussed by political philosophers, geographers and cultural theorists. Gayatari Spivak (2003) counters the term globalisation with the term confronting the Eurocentric narratives of Earth the images afford. Whilst Jazeel, who problematises the universalisms implicit in the narratives of ‘all mankind’ that often accompany the images, writes that decentring these images is “a wilful wrenching away from the desire to know with any degree of certainty or singularity the object depicted in AS17-22727 [NASA’s Whole Earth Image]” (2011:89).
However, as an anthropologist, these texts and thoughts on such imagery serve as a starting point to another form of inquiry. I ask who took these pictures, who changed their orientation and controlled their distribution. How do images of Earth from space work today? Images of planet Earth is a captivating aesthetic yet very view people are able to go to space and take this image. It is an aesthetic that is still very much filtered through the few space agencies and companies that can actually create such images. I would like to know the processes, selections and thoughts behind seeing the earth. What do people think they are doing when they are selecting ‘good’ images of Earth? I can not think of another source of imagery that has such an effect yet is created by so few. This intrigue will form the basis of the research I will be conducting as part of the UCL ETHNO-ISS project, which I have just joined.
It is often said that one of the great outcomes of the Apollo images was less our increased knowledge of the moon but the cultural and social impact of seeing the Earth from space. As Lazier notes such imagery has given rise to ‘globe talk’ through concepts such as globalism, global climate change, and global citizenship. The Earth might seem like a counter-intuitive place to start when talking about outer space, but it is because of Earth that we can say that there ‘space’ – not Earth. In the opening of the Centre of Outer Space Studies, I have invited some critical thinkers whose work I deeply admire. All of them in their own way consider the Earth in their artwork, playwriting or geological practice.
The COSS CATALYST events are designed to provoke an open and fun conversation across different disciplines with each event having a simple, deliberately vague theme. Please engage with the content below and join us for the live event on the 5th October.
Jazeel, T. (2011). Spatializing difference beyond cosmopolitanism: Rethinking planetary futures. Theory, Culture & Society, 28(5), 75-97.
Lazier, B. (2011). Earthrise; or, the globalization of the world picture. The American Historical Review, 116(3), 602-630.
Oliver, K. (2015). Earth and world: Philosophy after the Apollo missions. Columbia University Press.
Poole, R. (2010). Earthrise: How man first saw the Earth. Yale University Press.
Spivak, G. C. (2003). Death of a Discipline. Columbia University Press.
Simon Faithfull: at UCL Slade School of Fine Art
Faithfull’s practice has been described as an attempt to understand and explore the planet as a sculptural object – to test its limits and report back from its extremities. Within his work Faithfull often builds teams of scientists, technicians and transmission experts to help him bring back a personal vision from the ends of the world.
Divya M. Persaud: at UCL Mullard Space Centre
Divya M. Persaud is a planetary scientist, writer, and composer. With an ongoing focus in remote sensing for planetary geology and geophysics, she is completing her Ph.D. on 3D imaging and visualisation of the Mars surface at UCL’s Mullard Space Laboratory.
Nicola Baldwin: at UCL Institute of Advanced Studies and UCL Urban Lab
Nicola Baldwin is a writer for performance. She creates work on commission, in collaboration, on her own initiative – about love, friendship, science, space, politics, history, and the stupendous crises of ordinary life. She writes for theatre, radio, TV, film, installation, abandoned spaces, for audiences.