This essay contends that planetarity may be insufficiently divorced from globalization—its putative opposite—to provide a critical lens for understanding and countering its effects: specifically, anthropogenic climate change and global economic inequality. The argument begins by documenting the affinities between planetarity's redemptive, world-building ambitions, on one hand, and both Kantian cosmopolitanism and turn-of-the-twentieth-century articulations of “planetary consciousness” (as particularly evident in speculative fiction) on the other. The common denominator of these discourses (explicit in the earlier texts, oblique in the later ones) is a logic of global improvement, control, and growth precipitated by an existential threat. In both H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds and Dipesh Chakrabarty's seminal “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” for instance, a suddenly changed Earth galvanizes humanity into collective existence, converting discrete individuals into a species aligned, paradoxically, both with and against the planet. The essay then considers the violent histories associated with such attempts to meet global problems with global solutions, asserting that the difficulty inheres in the planetary scale itself. Concluding that all contemporary planetarities—like their early twentieth-century equivalents—are at least partly attempts to remake the world in our preferred image, the argument closes by considering a humbler alternative inspired by fleeting moments in Jack London's socialist fiction: a general strike that would withdraw our maintenance of the world in favor of more plural and livable affiliations; a nonapocalyptic end to the world that might offer a means of surviving the Anthropocene.
At Land's End: Novel Spaces and the Limits of Planetarity
matthew a. taylor is associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of Universes without Us: Posthuman Cosmologies in American Literature (2013). He is currently at work on two book-length projects, one on how extreme spatiotemporal scales affect ethical and political possibilities at the turns of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; the other on figures of biological life in pulp fiction, American pragmatism, and biopolitics.
Matthew A. Taylor; At Land's End: Novel Spaces and the Limits of Planetarity. Novel 1 May 2016; 49 (1): 115–138. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-3458277
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