So the world ended, or at least stood somewhat still for a split second, and in this moment, however minuscule or brief it may have seemed, time fluctuated. If the Covid-19 pandemic made anything clear, is that the political spirit has indeed left the building, “reducing the resulting realities to natural fluctuations”, where time and space twist and bend around statistical equations and projections. It’s all about flattening those curves.
In a similar vein, oil prices dropped to the point that they became negative as demand plummeted and the procurement of sufficient storage space became a costly measure – the capitalist annihilation of space momentarily reverted (perhaps even marking the latter’s revenge) and the figure of the “world as archive or database, whose components are separated from each other and carefully stored, waiting to be called to action”, suspended in time.
Or at least so it seemed for a brief moment. Since in peak fever of hot takes and manic news cycles the fluctuations that one could be most certain of were also those of perception: our imaginary pulled and stretched in every possible direction, leaving us couch-ridden and anxious with nothing but a vague, claustrophobic image of the world (either too small or simply too crowded for comfort).
Within this figure, the human ceases to be an agent of planetary processes and is seen more as their accident or aftereffect, a mere medium among other mediums. The same can be said for the technology that it utilises, now seen as an extension of the geophysical processes (in regards to its high consumption of rare minerals, fossil fuels, etc.) and their evolutionary trajectories.
How we see our planet, what epistemic tools we use to visualise it, imagine it, think it, is no less a political, existential, and at times even personal issue than it is a scientific one – the recent pandemic made that clear enough – and navigating the complex perceptive intertwining of its many dimensions can be a tricky endeavour. Luckily, there might be a map.
In his recent philosophical work The Introduction to Comparative Planetology, Lukáš Likavčan approaches this very conundrum. Drawing inspiration from science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson and his notion of comparative planetology, Likavčan takes on the task of celestial comparison, albeit shifting the focus from the many celestial bodies and their varying compositions to the already abundant figurative diversity surrounding a very particular one, that we inhabit.
In a way, the book is as much about preparing the grounds for a comparative study of the many figural processes that shape our seeing and understanding of the planet (the way we envisage it through concepts, theories, maps, paintings, etc.), as it is about creating a sense of orientation amidst a “war of perception” over earth imaging (i.e. between different cosmological imaginaries). As Al Gore argued in his 1992 manuscript The New World War, these perceptions are exactly the sites of conflicts that determine the future of human civilisation as well as the earth system sustaining it.
The book proposes five figures of Comparative Planetology – the Planetary, the Globe, the Terrestrial, Earth-without-us, and Spectral Earth –, each presenting a model of metaphysical organisation as it pertains to our imagining of cosmological totality. These figures are essentially reconstructions of our planetary imaginations, the process of reconstruction (their articulation) carried out through abstraction, which Likavčan approaches in a nuanced manner, recognising that even though existing abstractions of Earth tend to be problematic (due to their ties to alienation and violence), it is still within abstraction that concepts emerge, mutate and evolve, which is to say, it is within abstraction that a transition towards the new is possible.
As such they have less to do with the topographic consistency of geometric models of the planet – for instance, with the conceptual implications of the move from the geometric principle of circularity to the ellipticity of the globe – and more with intuitive conceptions that shape the very foundations of what is deemed possible or impossible within the projected horizon of reality. This is not to imply that these intuitive conceptions are uninformed by such topographical concerns, but that they far surpass the limited scope of their prescribed epistemic use, opening them to the influence of various factors, be it economic pragmatics, societal anxiety, etc. So that at a time when collective imaginations run rampant, when the factual meshes freely with the conspiratorial, even the very image of the planet, however fixed and stable it may seem, becomes an object of contestation, bringing back fringe or long forgotten imaginations of the planet as a whole (one may only think of the activities of the Flat Earthers society) that altogether question and undermine (legitimately or not) the self-evident character of what could be the future of the planet we inhabit and our role in it.
Out of the five figures, the Planetary serves as a central contemporary figure, a sort of crossroads between the figures of the past and the figures yet to be. It presents Earth as an impersonal, geophysical process, shaped by imaginations that do not simply mimic the surrounding visual reality but are instead reconstructed from raw data collected by satellites (and other Earth-sensing infrastructures) as well as processed through the labour of computational algorithms (out of images that are synthetic and operative). What comes to the forefront with this figure are hence processes that surpass our human sensibilities, whose temporality is rather that of deep, geological time, of alterity, which Likavčan frames as the unfolding of “path-dependencies (mutually dependent and irreversible evolutionary trajectories) that were here before humans and can very well continue […] after the end of this species”.
Within this figure, the human ceases to be an agent of planetary processes and is seen more as their accident or aftereffect, a mere medium among other mediums. The same can be said for the technology that it utilises, now seen as an extension of the geophysical processes (in regards to its high consumption of rare minerals, fossil fuels, etc.) and their evolutionary trajectories. Likavčan draws from the work of Gilbert Simondon for whom the “mode of existence” of evolved technical objects “is analogous to that of natural spontaneously produced objects”, and most importantly Benjamin Bratton, whose model of the Stack is considered by Likavčan as a comprehensive ontology of the contemporary era that allows comparative planetology to present an “extended media-infrastructural understanding of the planet, in which computational technologies stand for silent partners of geological and evolutionary processes”.
How we see our planet, what epistemic tools we use to visualise it, imagine it, think it, is no less a political, existential, and at times even personal issue than it is a scientific one […]
What seems to draw him to Bratton’s work is the importance given to infrastructural space, that he understands as the defining characteristic of Modernity. “Modernity is a deeply logistical affair”. Vast logistical networks reinforce the ubiquity of nation-states and simultaneously mark their obsolescence, giving rise to what Bratton calls “accidental megastructures” (an agglomeration of computing machines into platform systems that not only reflect, manage, and enforce forms of sovereignty, but generate them in the first place). Such conception of space might be thought of as indistinguishable from the impersonal, process-focused perspective of the Planetary, yet it can be traced to imaginations preceding the figure as well. These vast logistical networks are not unlike those established around fossil fuel extraction, intrinsically tied to the logic of globalisation that defines the planet as a “perfectly smooth sphere” – which happens to be a particular Western conceptualisation of the planet, bringing together abstract principles of interiorisation and extractivism, that “[render] whole continents as free for appropriation and resource extraction”).
This would be the figure of the Globe, of course, which Likavčan in contrast to the contemporaneity of the figure of the Planetary presents as an influential – but foremost destructive – historical artifact. As it turns out, the same claim for possession that these imaginations allow over land and its resources apply also to populations inhabiting them, exposing them to colonial and racial violence. The smooth sphere, shaped and polished by the “imagination of seascape as omnidirectional space” (as free space), is thus not as smooth as expected: its clear surfaces are dotted with islands of plastic and rubber boats, with displaced people and matter caught in the lethal streams of ubiquitous yet failing nation-states. It is only a question of time when these nautical dots would begin to form their own lines, intersecting and interrupting the free flow of commerce – revealing themselves as displaced yet not disposable.
For now, it is safe to say that all this undermines the long-term sustainability of this model. The problem is not so much that the Globe and its perfectly smooth surface are an abstraction, but that they are a very “poor abstraction”, incapable of grasping the reality of the climate emergency, of what Likavčan refers to as “the politics-to-come”. This leads him to propose two additional figures, the figure of Earth-without-us and the figure of Spectral Earth – one being complementary to the other. Both further open the imaginations of Earth to the exteriority and alterity that were deemed all but lost with the figure of the Globe, showcasing the planet as an inhuman site, where the human loses its central status even when it is considered as a mere medium of the forces of alterity. This loss of central status should not be confused with a certain call for a return back to nature (to the mystical pre-Anthropocene), though. Likavčan recognises that certain ubiquitous infrastructures (the computation apparatus, for example) cannot simply be dismantled: they can end in internal reconfiguration or their own ultimate catastrophe. Either way, we are faced with a future in which we will actively have to deal with them, so instead of reflecting on possible alternative realities in which they have never come to exist at all, we are better of speculating about possible creative interventions that could steer us towards different ecological governance, “one that does not rest on a necropolitical regime of colonialism, extractivism, and racial violence.”
That said, the loss of central status does involve coming to terms with our inevitable extinction. What inevitably defines Likavčan’s position is that climate emergency does not seem to fall within the conceptual and ethical binary of life and death, where life stands for good and should thus be preserved by any means, while death represents that which is bad and should thus be desperately avoided – as the common outcry: “we are killing the planet!” so often implies. One could imagine the planet replying: “sure, life could be considered as part of my processes, but fixating on it sounds more like a ‘you-problem’, than a ‘me-problem’.” As much as Earth is inhuman it is also inorganic, an agnostic attitude, which for Likavčan means that “life is more probably a prosthesis of non-life, […] not a triumphant apex of planetary evolution”. Neither life nor death, optimism or pessimism, can bring us out of this mess.
Instead, Likavčan proposes a retirement of the human: for the human to become somewhat more “metabolically and thermodynamically constrained.” As already mentioned, he argues, that it is neither completely possible nor advisable to dismantle what could be summed up as the technosphere, yet also that there is already a congruence of technologic and geophysical processes, so the only thing that is left is to figure out how to partake in their metabolic nexus: how to adapt our imaginaries to better move with the indeterminacy of planetary processes, not against it. This means reimagining what it means for us to operate. To ask ourselves, whether the epistemic responsibilities for climate emergency can be redistributed in a way that would more actively involve the computational infrastructures. Whether we could take advantage of their embeddedness in geophysical processes (their access to data unavailable to our simple sensing organs as well as their processing power surpassing the cognitive apparatus of the meager humanoid), give up the futile strive for control over Earth processes, step back, and perhaps even let AI take charge. In other words, whether we ourselves could become a little more like viruses, hidden agents, whose limited foresight does not prevent them to adapt to the dynamic and contingent nature of their surrounding environment.
Is there any other choice? Could aligning our imaginaries with the operative images of computational megastructures be our last chance to successfully traverse future climate unpredictabilities? Maybe the answer could be to become as “Viruses-to-come”, “to opt-out from prevailing imaginaries of the interior, containment, and encapsulation, and to inhabit with our instruments the terrain of the great outdoors as a population of hidden agents, just like Viruses do; pulling the strings of contingencies in conspiratorial alliance with the intractable realities of Earth-without-us.”
In fact, Likavčan’s comparative planetology itself holds a rather peculiar epistemic status. The project congeals the many figural instances from theoretical, cultural, infrastructural projects that it canvases, moulding them into discernible figures, with whom one might better traverse the complex conceptual/visual terrain of thinking or imagining our planet. Throughout this, a consistent conceptual line begins to emerge, further unpacking the geopolitical implications that planetary computation and its impact on Earth imaging might hold for humanity in the age of unprecedented climate emergency. While this ties in with some of the figures or cosmograms that he is proposing, and opens up space for criticism of others, it most importantly sets the ground for the creation of new, future ones. In this sense, however, comparative planetology does more than merely congeal, mould, and comparatively discern. It creates, “subscribes to”, even “bets on”, and all this in its own seemingly autonomous and impersonal voice, falling somewhere between an outline of a discipline, method, or program, while at times even performing like a conceptual malware or bot.
The text first appeared as Nafukovací čluny a ostrovy plastu at ‘Artalk.cz‘ magazine.
 Salemy, M., 2016, “An Introduction to the Cybernetic Science Non-fiction of Contemporary Geopolitics”; in: Bohal, V., Breitling, D., Janoščík, V. (eds.), 2016, Reinventing Horizons. Display Association for Research and Collective Practice, Prague, p. 70.
 Likavčan, L., 2018, “Technologies of Abstraction: On Fossil Fuels and Cosmopolitan Capital”. Artalk Revue 1 (Winter 2018).
 “Unrest is in the soul, we don’t move our bodies anymore.” Grimes, Darkseid (from the album Missanthropocene, 2019).
 Likavčan, L., 2019, Introduction to Comparative Planetology. Strelka Press, p.10.
 Ibid., p. 9.
 Russill, C., 2016, “Earth imaging: photograph, pixel, program; in: Monani, S. and Rust, S. (eds.) Eco‐media. Routledge, New York, p. 242.
 Likavčan 2019, p.14.
 Spivak, G. C., 2003, Death of a Discipline. Columbia University Press, p 72.
 Likavčan 2019, p. 29.
 Simondon, G., 2017, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Univocal, p. 50; via Likavčan 2019, p. 30.
 Likavčan 2019, p. 34.
 Ibid., p. 48.
 Bratton, B., 2015, The Stack, On Software and Sovereignty. MIT Press, p. 8.
 Likavčan 2019, p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 51.
 Ibid., p. 40.
 Ibid., p. 58.
 Ibid., p. 74.
 Ibid., p. 80.
 Ibid., p. 90.
 Ibid., p. 99.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Ibid., p. 70.
|Title||Introduction to Comparative Planetology|
|Index||Domen Ograjenšek Lukáš Likavčan Strelka Institute Strelka Press|