Geophilosophy After Venice

Talk given at Pamela Rosenkranz’s show Our Sun, Swiss Institute in Venice, 2010

How is philosophical thought related to the planet upon which it takes place, to its territories, its topographies, its climates? Such is the question invited by the term ‘geophilosophy’.

It could be argued that the essence of philosophical thought is precisely to escape its earthly condition, to counteract the limitations on thought imposed by our terrestrial home and the biological heredity that binds our cognition to it; that the highest power of thought, following the logic of saintly mortification, consists precisely in becoming indifferent to its vehicle. According to the title of the volume of Collapse which preceded this volume on ‘Geo/philosophy’, we might call this the ‘Copernican Imperative’: that thought must hold to the deliverances of rational thought, even and especially when they contradict our most immediate intuitions . For these apparently immediate intuitions – like the belief that the sun turns around the earth – are in fact mediated by the contingencies of our earthbound existence.

Yet we did feel impelled to follow this previous volume on the ‘Copernican Imperative’ with a return to Earth, with a volume entitled ‘Geo/philosophy’ and which treats this question of thought’s relation to the earth in all its multiple dimensions. The multiple nature of this question, bringing philosophy into contact with geography, geology, cartography, ecology, etc, is certainly suited to a journal whose primary purpose is to take philosophical thought outside the bounds of its academic and scholarly solitude.

A journal usually begins by circumscribing its subject area in advance, so as to define the space into which all of its contributors must fall. This reflects a hierarchical model of the concept, and of the space of the concept. Collapse, instead, understands the concept as a chain in which contributions from multiple disciplines partially overlap, creating a connective tissue of thought which, for each reader, will lead them outside their own knowledge and interests.

The hope is that this connectivity is reproduced in the broad audience which Collapse brings together; that the ‘forced collaborations’ operated within its pages should find their counterpart in readers who, drawn in by one or two contributions appropriate to their interests, find themselves involuntarily introduced to writers and thinkers from entirely different perspectives. This in turn suggests a model of the concept according to which the latter resides, not in an hierarchical structure of progressive hierarchical generalisation, but in the transversal connections discovered, or produced, in the making, in the practice of the curation or editing of each volume.

The concept of ‘Geo/philosophy’ proved to be precisely suitable for this approach. It not only addresses the fact that philosophers have long used the geographical and cartographical metaphors to orient their thought; and that a philosopher such as Nietzsche suggested that thought must remain ‘true to the earth’, that thought too has its territories and its terroir; but also the fact that the practices through which the earth is carved up, organised, and divided – architecture, politics, warfare, communications – also produce philosophical concepts and come up against philosophical problems. It’s evident also that many contemporary artists are engaged in this ‘thinking through‘ the earth, in very diverse ways. And finally, there is a timely element to this question of geophilosophy. Right now the relation between thought and the earth could not be more stark: it is a question of the extinction of thought, and consequently a challenge to thinking to think its own contingency and its own potential absence.

From all this it should be evident that this show of Pamela Rosenkranz’s could easily form a further link of this conceptual chain, expanding the network-concept of ‘Geo/philosophy’ this volume proposes. Our Sun uncovers the most universal implications of a philosophy of the earth through an engagement with one singular geographical location, Venice. So we should begin by asking in what consists the geophilosophical figure of Venice?

Venice and Octavia: The Ecological Abyss

Octavia is one of the apocryphal cities that a fictional Marco Polo describes to Kubla Khan In Italo Calvino’s infinitely fanciful book Invisible Cities: the spiderweb city. Octavia’s only foundation is a network of ropes strung across a chasm between two mountains, the whole city and its inhabitants being suspended from this tenuous support. Thus ‘suspended over the abyss’, Calvino writes, ‘the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long’.

Like Marco Polo’s other ‘invisible cities’, of course, Octavia is Venice: as he tells the Khan, ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice’. Calvino thus rehearses the mythical geophilosophical image of Venice: a city in which the artificial life-support system of human civilisation is revealed in all its hubris and fragility; in which the quotidian joys, the passions of life and the intensity of commercial transaction, are played out within plain sight of their eventual extinction and submersion in forgetfulness: a city where human reality inhabits an infinite image-bank of its own contingency.

As venetophile Josef Brodsky summed it up in his Watermark, for this Venice, ‘water is the image of time’. Today Calvino’s fable of Octavia takes on a more universal significance, as the image of the inundated city becomes a commonplace in global consciousness. Rising water is the image of an innocent era of prosperity threatened by the inexorability of time and nature; the waters of the earth are at once a vital sign and a memento mori.

It is as if Venice fulfills in thought the role that Gilles Deleuze allots to islands:

Humans cannot live, nor live in security, unless they believe the struggle between earth and water is over, or at least contained […] In one way or another, the very existence of islands is the negation of this point of view, of this effort, this conviction […] humans can live on an island only by forgetting what an island represents. Islands are either from before or for after humankind.1

But a lagoon is not an island – perhaps not even an inverse island. Lagoon, of course, is a geophilosophically interesting word, where a singular location – the Venitian laguna – has given its name to a general topographical feature. The etymology of the word sets it out as a lapse of oceanic memory: a laguna is a lacuna. But only a memory can be forgotten – it is a memory of the outside, of the sea.

In fact, like Deleuze’s island, lagoon life is only viable on condition of a forgetting, a repression, psychic and physical, of the main source from which it is drawn, and with which it still maintains a constrained communication. The MOSE system, protecting the lagoon against the ingress of the tides, is only the latest technological manifestation of this necessity to continually, militantly forget what it is a memory of, to suspend its return to the outside.

Understood as a figure of this necessity, the taut, finely-webbed skein upon which Octavia’s inhabitants go about their lives indicates a first sense in which, as Salvatore Lacagnina writes, Our Sun is ‘an exhibition of the surface … the surface being merely a thin film separating us from an abyss’. The anticipation of ecological catastrophe is, unavoidably, one of the horizons of Rosenkranz’s work in Venice.

Our Sun consists of an articulation of the duality of surface and abyss with the Venetian couplet of water and sun. For, if the acqua alta now preys on global consciousness beyond the Venetian laguna, the sun that glitters dazzlingly upon it is also charged with an unaccustomed menace. At the same time as the water rises, our protection against the sun’s fury is peeling away; the solar source of all life is revealed as a potentially annihilatory power.

Speculative Realist Geophilosophy

This awareness that ‘the net will only last so long’ need not imply that we subscribe to the most severe predictions of ecological scientists, or their amplifications by a media hooked on apocalyptic hysteria. Nevertheless, the very cultural presence of these possibilities, the faltering of this necessary repression, has irrevocably turned thought towards its material support, towards that tenuous network that temporarily suspends it above its object and stalls its descent into the abyss of indifferentiation. In the words of a popular book by Alan Weisman, describing in great detail how long it will take for each of the products of human civilisation to be absorbed back into the earth, we are forced to consider The World Without Us.2

There is surely some link between the historical fact of this uneasy consciousness and the return, in contemporary philosophy, to realism, particularly what has become known as ‘speculative realism’. The latter consists in a will to counteract the tendency in philosophy to concentrate on the human relation to reality, through the mediation of language, culture, or phenomenality, and the concomitant insistence that the world is only ever a human-mediated world. The ‘speculative realists’ instead ask how philosophical thought can access an utterly indifferent reality which owes nothing to the human thought, a real which precedes thought and will survive it – a world without us.

Pamela Rosenkranz’s interrogation of sun and water, I think, drew her toward this position. What is geophilosophical in Our Sun is that it addresses the way in which the earth – and the sun – exceed the roles to which our cultural traditions and our economic system have constrained them. It is, then, a speculative-realist geophilosophy that has developed in-between Rosenkranz and the philosophers with whom she has been involved, in a kind of catalytic reaction which is very much the type of process we are trying to create between philosophy, science and contemporary art in Collapse. Such a speculative-realist geophilosophy tells us: we can no longer trust domesticated models of our planet and the sun to orient philosophical thought: for we are only too aware that it is not our earth, not our sun.

The Solar Economy of Philosophy

This trajectory of thought begins with the return of an ancient duality, reflected in many religions, that of the sun as animator of all life, and as terminal, fatal destination.

Plato’s employment of the emergence from the bowels of the earth into the sunlight as a metaphor for the pursuit of wisdom implies that the crowning achievement of the philosopher would be to look directly into the heart of the sun: to ‘look upon the sun itself and see its true nature … and conclude that this it is that provides the seasons and the courses of the year and presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some sort the cause of all these things that they had seen’.3

But we know that the sun which illuminates the earth, and is venerated by the philosopher as standard of all life and all truth, is also to be feared as that which will eventually consume us. Thus, in the solar economy of philosophy, the absolute destination of thought is also its extinction.

Like the denizens of Octavia, crawling our spiderweb – as Nietzsche said of man, he ‘feeds off his own substance, which he then unspools in concepts like the spider making its web’ – we are suspended over an abyss; but this abyss is also our origin, our sustenance, and our enlightenment; the abyss is the sun itself.

The Solar Economy of Life

It is George Bataille who first proposes that we think a ‘solar economy’, according to which the most basic economic problem is not scarcity but the exorbitant excess of solar energy; all movements on this planet, from the basest physical processes through to the highest sophistications of life and culture, consist only in labyrinthine detours, calle e calleti, of one and the same vector – the profligate expenditure of energy by the sun. The secret of all apparently stable and economically conservative being, then, is that it is already pledged to solar abolition, it already belongs to the sun and its radical horizon of death. For Bataille, whereas sacrificial and potlatch cultures understood and ritually enacted their participation in this fundamental truth, western capitalist culture, in one sense the most profound celebration of this headlong rush into abolition through consumption, also disavows it through its ideal enterprise of endless accumulation.

Reza Negarestani’s essay, in the book which accompanies Our Sun, correctly aligns Bataille’s notion of the Solar Economy with Freud’s speculative thesis concerning the nature of organic life: In ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, Freud argues that the preservation of a lifeform in relation to the excessive energy source it draws upon, demands the sacrifice of a part of that lifeform: the creation of a mortified outer surface or crust – ‘a special envelope or membrane resistant to stimuli’ – that protects it from its exorbitant source of energy. Thus, the survival and individuality of an organic lifeform, biological, psychic or cultural, is based on the repression of an originary trauma in which it encountered, in all its naked power, the source of energy that would also be its death. Lifeforms are lagoons, repressed pockets of forgetting, temporarily protecting themselves against the outside that created them and will destroy them.

Thus we can say that all forms of life are solutions to the same problem; all their multiform characteristics are but methods of managing the excoriating excess of solar energy which will eventually consume them in death. As modes of life become more complex and more numerous, their dependence upon the excessive power source only grows stronger; as Negarestani argues, there is a mutually-reinforcing symmetry between the plurality of life and the monism of death. Another way to put this is that, from the point of view of the securitised individuated lifeform closed up against its traumatic encounter with solar excess, the sun inevitably becomes the single and absolute horizon or vanishing point for all life.

The Solar Economy of Capitalism

Now, this development of what Negarestani calls the ‘monogamous model’ of the relation between terrestrial life and the sun, is relayed in the cultural and economic forms of capitalism. Capitalism appears as a crazed thanatropic machine, unlocking the earth’s resources – in particular, the fossil fuels that were, in more optimistic times, referred to as ‘buried sunlight’ – to release them to their destiny of dissolution, and thus accelerating the consumption of the earth by the sun. As Weisman tells us in The World Without Us, in an image that would have pleased Bataille, ‘by tapping the Carboniferous Formation and spewing it up into the sky, we’ve become a volcano that hasn’t stopped erupting since the 1700s’;4 mankind is the first lifeform to contemporaneously communicate with geologic time; a gigantic volcano, a holocaust of consumption.

Yet this unbridled consumption also manifests itself culturally in an ever-increasing complexification and elaboration of multiple ‘ways of life’ and supposedly infinite possibilities and differentiation. A figure of this capitalist double-delirium, which runs through the book published to accompany Our Sun, is the electrical sunbed: considering the massively complex processes involved in the design, manufacture and operation of such a device, all in order to concentrate and reproduce artificially the energy thus consumed.

Capitalism, therefore, relays into the cultural sphere the ‘monogamous’ model according to which there are multiple forms of life but all are pledged to the singular fate of the solar abyss. As Negarestani suggests, all the diversity of life-under-capital, like the diversity of organic life, only corresponds to the fact that the monogamous relation between earth and sun has restricted life and thought to a single economic model.

Now, in regard to both life and capitalism, water acts as a kind of relay; it is the sun’s representative on earth, the angelic secondary medium through which the solar economics of life is manifested. Although ideally-speaking everything and everyone may as well be launched directly into the sun, trapped on the planetary surface, the circuitous extravagances of life and capitalism are determined by following where the water is. It is to this affinity with water that capitalism owes its quasi-natural status and its potency as a new ‘force of nature’ churning and reterritorialising the planet. Water is that which allows the creation of the great human settlements, but it is also that which allows the commodity to travel, and thus accrue value in differentiation. The purest form being, of course, tourism, in which wealth is created through movement alone.


Rosenkranz’s interrogation in Our Sun knits together, under the sign of Venice, the dialectic of sun and water, their complicity and their connection with life, capital and thought. For the celebrated aesthetic phenomenon of sunlight and water now appears as a kind of seductive sensory propaganda for this planetary conspiracy between capital, water, and the solar empire.

The ‘life support’ of Venice is constituted more than ever by the tourist industry, and this is a tourism of water, either directly, in spectacle, or indirectly, in taking in the decaying legacy of thallassocratic wealth and splendor. But what would this be without the sun, whose splendor makes the spectacle possible.

Let’s suppose that the ultimate significance of our visual fascination for the sun lies in the rediscovery of an originary trauma; the sun is the abyss towards which we are impelled to return, but which threatens our existence. What better thing, then, than to see it reflected, in water … As in Plato, where one of the intermediate steps leading to the fatal communion with the sun is to contemplate ‘likenesses or reflections in water … ’5

The ingenuity of Rosenkranz’s use of emergency blanket foil in Bow Human and Stretch Nothing is that it renders these reflective, dazzling surfaces, and the whole aesthetic tradition dedicated to them, inextricable from the fundamental ambivalence of life towards the sun: the return of light to the eye, beyond its shimmering sensory appeal, speaks of a protective role – protection against an immense energy that cannot be afforded by any form of life; at the same time, the material suggests the accumulation through which capitalism desperately tries to forestall the inevitable, to harness and store a tiny part of this excess energy, to bury sunlight in gold – from the scintillating gold of the Basilica with its threefold glorification of the Christian god, the sun god and the money god, to its millions of cheap imitators hawked by the surrounding tourist stalls; or, on the other side, so to speak, the silver placards in the streets of Venice dedicated to the public display of political propaganda.

In the Stretch Nothing series, vaguely human forms are reduced to a thin layer of skin smeared across this reflective foil, and trapped under glass, as in a greenhouse. Like these paintings, Bow Human can be understood as positing the human form in relation to this solar economy, whether we understand it as the victim of some geographical catastrophe, one of the female beggars who bow over their collection tins by the Venice canals, or a devotee of some ancient cult prostrating themselves before the sun.

The relaying of the solar economic model from the biological to the capitalistic is then poetically distilled in the unsettling correspondence Rosenkranz sets up between what is apparently the most triumphant demonstration of the infinite absurdity of commodity-logic – branded, bottled water – and the human diversity and individualism celebrated by capitalist culture. Impeccably-packaged but viscerally unsettling, Firm Being recalls George Orwell’s reminder, at once ghoulish and irrefutable, that ‘a human being is primarily a bag for putting food in’. Food and water … The organism – let’s repeat the banal fact that our bodies, far from ‘firm being’, are in fact seventy percent water – uncannily anticipates the commodity, and the commodity perfects the trauma-driven encapsulation of sunlight in a bio-degradable membrane, with a sell-by date – ‘the surface [quoting Lacagnina again] being merely a thin film separating from an abyss’.

After the Sun

But Negarestani’s text does not rest with describing the solar economy of life and thought, it sets a tremendous task for geophilosophy: to break thought out of its capture by the monogamous model, even though, as we have seen, the propaganda of the solar empire runs through the entirety of biological life and human culture! To rescind the status of the sun as sole ‘image of exteriority’, as ultimate singular horizon for all life. For in fact, as Negarestani argues, the sun is not the absolute or the abyss, but only a local blockage, a restriction, a blind spot that obscures the opening of the earth onto a more general cosmic economy which produced it and which will consume it, along with the sun.

In 3.5 billion years, the core of the aging sun grows hotter, causing a severe greenhouse effect that sterilises the entire biosphere; its outer surface cools, expanding to engulf the inner planets. In 7 billion years, the earth slips out of orbit but, outside the small chance that it could be flung out into the ‘icy desolation of deep space’, is dragged into the core of the Sun to be evaporated, its only legacy a small amount of fuel for the red giant’s farewell glow. The sun becomes a ‘small block of hydrogen ice’; 100 trillion years into the future, all the stars go out, followed by an era populated only by the ‘degenerate remnants’ that survive the end of stellar evolution. 10[40] years, the cosmic catastrophe of proton decay ushers in the era of black holes, where the only stellar objects left are black holes ‘convert their mass into radiation and evaporate at a glacial pace’, and then the scarcely-conceivable ‘dark era’ populated by atomic waste products entering into desultory, increasingly rare and fruitless chance encounters.6

The cosmic abyss is deeper than the solar furnace. Earth’s monogamous relationship with the sun is just one chapter in a weird epic narrative that does not find its climax in annihilatory conflagration.

To contemplate these icy, inevitable vistas of cosmic time is in a sense already to go ‘beyond geophilosophy’ – to evacuate the anthropic and terrestrial point of view. The viewpoint of an ecology radical enough to take in these extra-solar eschatologies not only breaks through terrestrial concerns, but also through the ‘solar horizon’ that has governed our thought on and of the earth.

As Negarestani says ‘to be truly terrestrial is not the same as being superficial’ – to be truly terrestrial is to embrace the physicality and perishability of the earth, and its implication in the universe, outside the local economics of the relation between the sun and the surface; to replace the monogamous relation between a contingent earth and the necessary and absolute sun around which its planetary path winds, with a relation of multiplicity between this planetary body and the cosmic contingencies which led to its formation, and which form its dissolute destiny beyond the sun.

The web which suspends us – temporarily – over the cosmic abyss, consists not just our own natural and technological environment, but of the knitting together of a history of cosmic contingencies; not only the earth, but the sun too, is a part of this temporary web of circumstances.

Opening the Collapse ‘Geo/philosophy’ volume, mediaevalist scholar and philosopher Nicola Masciandaro recalls Dante’s discovery that the way to wisdom lies, not in an upward, heavenly flight – Ulysses’ folle volo – but in a way that returns, that passes through the earth. Here, the Copernican Imperative to evacuate the immediate evidences of terrestrially-domesticated sense meets with geophilosophy, in a continual interrogation of the history and future of the earth: The revolutionary image bequeathed us by Copernicus, it turns out, only threatens to in a new, solar, parochialism. In Loop Revolution, the video work which presides over Our Sun, it is earth that sheds its light on the individualised and encapsulated forms below; in its artificial revolutions, its surface churns, splits open, falls apart, as it searches itself. Such is the reflection on the earth that is geophilosophy: To get beyond the sun, one has to pass through Earth, but it is a world without us, no longer recognisable as our earth.

  1. G. Deleuze, ‘Desert Islands’, in Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974. Cambridge, Mass.: Semiotext(e), 2004.
  2. A. Weisman, The World Without Us (London: Virgin Books, 2008)
  3. Plato Republic Book VII 516b-c.
  4. Weisman, 39.
  5. Plato Republic Book VII 516.
  6. F. C. Adams ‘Long-term astrophysical processes’, in N. Bostrom, M. M. Cirkovic (eds.) Global Catastrophic Risks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).