Critical Zones : The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth

Critical Zones : The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth
Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Editors

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2020
Co-published with ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe
560 pp. Trade, $65.00
ISBN: 9780262044455.

Reviewed by: 
Jussi Parikka
June 2021

Critical Zones : The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth is the edited volume emerging from the ZKM (Karlsruhe) exhibition of almost the same name, “Critical Zones: Observatories for Earth Politics”. While the book is edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, the curatorial team of the exhibition included also Martin Guinard and Bettina Korintenberg with Jessica Menger. The exhibition, even if hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and thus mostly shown online, gathered a lot of attention in its own right as it featured several exciting projects on mediations of nature, entanglements of technosphere and the biosphere, and different aesthetic responses to the Anthropocene.

The whole project (the book and the exhibition) carries with it a strong commitment to the belief that art-science collaborations can act as techniques of complexification: Critical Zones announces that we need “a new earthly politics” thus echoing Latour’s past years’ of work. In this case, “earth-bound” becomes specified however through the critical zone that itself emerges outside the art-curatorial-Latour complex of thinking as “the invention of a few scientists, mostly from the Earth sciences and geochemistry, as a way to bring different disciplines together in order to refresh the study of the think skin of the living Earth.” Gaia is never far away in this discourse, but the most interesting part is not the terminology but the focus on particular thickness of a surface of the earth as a dynamic zone and its different manifestations from research on expeditions (Humboldt) to theorisation of the biosphere (Vernadsky).

The collection argues that the critical zone is a perspectival space – even a material texture – that is epistemologically significant. It is pitched as a way to break down “the cartographical view of planet Earth” while it is also meant to interrupt “the legal and political unity of any global view.” In an apt formulation that captures the link between material formations of the so-called nature and technological infrastructures “the figure of a globe doesn’t unify what it registers: it simply points at some dataset.”  In this description of worlds of environmental data, and environment as data, the book’s several approaches are hard to summarise in one go. The range of works and texts is overwhelmingly large which leads also into the usual point about edited collections: they can be somewhat uneven. Here, though, the different length texts are probably meant indeed as snippets of work in progress, as catalysers of particular ideas that can be followed up outside the book proper. The eight sections of the book (Disorientation, Disconnected, Critical Zones, Gaia, Terrestrial, Divided, Depiction, Suspended) are all rich entities but with the book close to 500 pages and designed as massively heavy, large coffee-table type of an entity, this reviewer was left wondering if other formats (e.g. three or four shorter books) could have been an option.

The book is useful as a repository of texts, ideas, interventions: some more useful than others, some more to the point than others. The interview with Dipesh Chakrabarty is very good in many of its themes and the ability to capture aspects of the historical production of planetary/Earth. Indeed, “the planetary is what the Earth comes from. The global comes from a historical process that includes European expansion and the development of a technology that can connect the sphere we live on into a globe for us.” For Latour and Chakrabarty, this leads into a recursive definition of the global and the planetary, the one discovering the other in an operative chain of techniques; billions of years of planetary time are included in the negotiation of what counts as “historical”.

It also triggers questions of politics and how to model a subject where the stakes are in dealing with (or to get rid of) the Lockean legacy: if not the white European property-owning subject, what then is the “agent of history”? Although, in this bit of the conversation, when Latour responds that “political thought has not tried to build any links between humans and these larger complexes of which humans are also a part”, one has to ask: really? In other words, decades of new materialism, (feminist) STS and science fiction, and critical posthumanities have been among the voices (among others) that have offered much input to also political thought. But this hiccup is balanced with the chapters in the book that in more detailed ways show some of the historical aspects of these questions. A short text by Donna Haraway ends the collection written as a letter to Latour (and “In honor of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home”): “Also, we live in times of extraordinary Afro-futurist and Indigenous futurist fiction that is changing the shape of sf for everybody. My puzzlement is why you have not turned to science fiction early and often!”

The spatial concepts, metaphorics, but also concrete (design, epistemic, architectural) models underpinning the book are especially interesting. This includes Jan Zalasiewicz focusing on the “Anthropocene Square Meter”: a sort of “thought object” formulated as a terrarium that shows the continuum across “natural” and “artificial” from soil and mud to building concrete and plastics. Bubbles, structures, and bubble structures – such as Biosphere 2 – are part of the architecture of the zones too. And critical zone itself is a term that specifies materiality into “a composite, heterogeneous environment” of “soil, gas, water, cells, genes, all connected” but also which triggers the design question: how do we model it (and renew the maps, so to speak). This is why some of the interventions concerning art and (data) visualisation hold an important part in the book, including for example Alexandra Arènes’ chapter and visualizations. And besides critical zone, of course another key example is the site of the “observatory” as it recurs in curatorial practices and metaphors of knowledge concerning the Anthropocene. It is a particular architectural “site” or more like perspectival knowledge that is aesthetic and epistemic; it comes as images and as data. The awareness of this spatial metaphor – and concrete exhibition architecture – is articulated in Guinard and Korintenberg’s chapter.

The statistical awareness of global abstractions and their materiality are tightly entangled.  Or to quote Pierre Charbonnier: “there are territories that can be drawn on the basis of economic and ecological data” leading into the current dilemma of “two territories” that defines the current problem: “the legal and political territory of the national state, and the ecological and economic territory defined by the space required to mobilize the goods we consume.” This indeed is then the long-term perspective of colonial and imperial ties that define the logistical underpinning of the “earthly” and its unevenly distribution of resources. One can also then read this into the current and emerging forms of ethnonationalism that will be building their border policies based on the design of the territory outside (from where resources can be extracted) and the territory inside (where a tightly filtered population enjoys legal and other privileges).

Many inspiring chapters and texts could be mentioned.  Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha on water and wetness is excellent. Simon Schaffer’s perspectives through history of science are always articulated with flair. Jonathan Gray’s take on “datafication of forests” is a useful overview that alongside for example Jennifer Gabrys’ text on sensors/sensing helps to understand the earlier mentioned themes of environmental data. Joseph Leo Koerner’s “Nature Painting” was another text where historicity of representations of nature is brought back to questions of Humboldt’s expeditions. John Tresch on cosmograms is always enjoyable to read. These are only a couple of examples of the many interesting contributions.

To return to the curatorial context, the ZKM (and the Latour-Weibel partnership) has a long tradition in these large art-science exhibitions. One could say that they were never meant as single exhibitions but aimed to create territories of discussions. Remember for example Iconoclash and Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy both from early parts of 2000s as examples of similar methods that have been then carried forward to Critical Zones too. At least two kinds of questions are triggered by such shows: how they have shown ways of incorporating (interdisciplinary humanities) research in art exhibitions, and how the art exhibition has become one major way for scholarly work to reach the broader public. And even more so, how can the exhibition act as more than just dissemination where the artistic work can be exhibited in terms of demonstrating method and process? (Here I am also thinking of Lia Carreira’s ongoing research project on the question of curatorial shift towards the emphasis on “labs”).  The perennial question that follows is how these buzzing ideas exhibited in space are continued and supported outside the exhibition as an event so that art-science-ecology does not merely become integrated into the spectacle of contemporary curating? One of the main issues is then to avoid the air of solutionism of art-science and to emphasise these shows – and the books that come out from them – as creating interesting problems, without however also fetishizing the idea of a problem in ways that becomes a continuous self-referential meditation. In other words, how to build from such interdisciplinary curatorial set ups more than a reflection of topics but also reflection of modes of curating for example in terms of questions of sustainability of the institutional context: energy, travel, logistics, etc.