Note — Feb 20, 2022

How to Develop a Planetary Consciousness

It’s a fail on my part that I have yet to pay close attention to philosopher Achille Mbembe, who seems to be thinking in directions very relevant and overlapping with this newsletter. Here he’s interviewed for Noema by Nils Gilman and Jonathan S. Blake on the word “planetary,” which Mbembe uses to describe the current state of world-scale interconnection. For him, it “immediately evokes a connection between life and its futures on the one hand, and the Earth on the other hand.”

They look at three “mega processes”: the growing power of high-tech corporations and finance, “technological escalation” (how computation is changing the way we experience the world), and the “contradiction of living in an era of unprecedented mobility and interconnection that is also an era of enhanced borders.” The conversation also covers subsidiarity, nation-states, global governance options, the techne, and risk.

I want to note three things. First, Mbembe, who has a PhD in history at la Sorbonne, talks of “the archive” to refer to the history and culture of the animist metaphysics of precolonial Africa and of “the archives of the whole world, not just the archives of the West.” I don’t know if it’s a typical framing in some fields, but I love it. Second, I’ve recently paid some attention to indigenous futures and indigenous peoples more broadly, which has often related to North America and Australasia specifically. There is, of course, quite a parallel with the precolonial archive of Africa by way of a sensibility to the non-human. Third, while he’s not talking about precisely the same thing, it’s also helpful to attach this piece to Benjamin Bratton’s Planetary Sapience (also at Noema) for planet-scale visions.

Planetary politics should be connected to a politics of life, to a politics of the Earth. That includes all creation: all the people of the world; the creations or works of humanity; the mass of things we have invented; animals, plants, microbes, minerals; and mixed bodies (which is what we all are). In other words, the whole physical universe, all of reality, including (since I’m drawing from the African pre-colonial archive) spiritual and biological energies consistent with the definition of the living world. […]

“The nation-state is contingent: It is not imperative or necessary. It wasn’t always there, and nothing says it will always be there.” […]

How do we live with irreconcilability? What kind of life is likely to emerge out of conflictive opinions and positions that will never be reconciled? And how can we live with them without opening up the doors to civil war? A civil war not only within specific nation-states, but a civil war at a planetary scale. […]

The French term for knowledge is connaissance, a word that literally means “being born together.” We have to institute an act of radical decentering that forces us to be born together again. It seems to me that that’s what a new planetary consciousness forces us to undergo — and I believe it is possible.