Howard Caygill “Planetary Aesthetics”

Fall 2021

by Dimone Long, II, Cohort ’21

In the first of the fall lecture series, “On the Anthropocene: Either/Or,” Professor Howard Caygill presented on the concept of Anthropocene which at its root identifies humanity’s comprehensive impact on the environment. Seemingly, scholars draw concern to the idea of the Anthropocene and its interrelatedness to visual arts, aesthetics, and art theory because of its cognizance to the more popularized ideas of sustainability and science. In his compelling lecture, Professor Caygill introduces the concept of Planetary Aesthetics to not only expose its relevance to aesthetics, but to disinter the importance of human’s perception of earth, how these viewpoints condition behavioral actions, and the harmonious solution that can only be achieved through art practice. 

Caygill’s ideology of planetary aesthetics is associated with the Kantian thought of the transcendental illusion of metaphysics which is to “take a subjective necessity of a connection of our concepts…for an objective necessity in the determination of things in themselves”. According to Kant, human’s quest for understanding the objectification of an entity is bound to its evolution. However, this idea bridges a cause for the consequential issue of systematic observation as this quest degrades the planet to be viewed as an object of manipulation for the advancement or preservation of life rather than the natural state of a cybernetic system. The idea of systematic observation constitutes the practices of humanity and its obsession with geological manipulation. As a result, the concepts of synthetic and synechic become of importance. Synthetic refers to the constitution of objects being industrial or chemically developed, while synechic concerns the lines of stress between opposition or opposing forces. Caygill uses the example of the “Earthrise '' photo taken in 1966, to provide an explanation of how constituting the planet as an object has direct implications for geological weaponization. 

Earthrise 1966. Image Credit.

However, let us use a more cynical reference point with the 1969 moon landing, captured in the photo is Astronaut Neil Armstrong with the American Flag placed on the moon. 

Buzz Aldrin. Apollo 11. ‘Flag on the Moon, 1969

There is a historical commonality within this photograph that can be directly correlated with war. When a neighboring or foreign territory is captured, a flag is hung to communicate the authority of that area. Through this action, it is understood that man developed a sense of ownership which ensued the objectification of earth and the cosmic space. Humanity’s conviction of ownership has constituted the overall willingness to govern the people through environmental modification techniques if it is justifiably for the preservation of life. Nevertheless, Caygill explains that this synthetic viewpoint is filled with contradiction as life itself does not begin or end with man. Further, from this action the two planetary aesthetics: Planetary objects & the systematic global knowledge of their objects juxtaposing the object and knowledge of environmental art practices emerge. 

Art is the synthetic provocation because it introduces a viewpoint of knowledge that surpasses the conditional outlook of the earth. Through environmental art practices, earth is understood as the first performative artist and is understood to communicate a different aspect of knowledge that is cybernetic, an idea that highlights its autonomy, i.e., the synechia. Moreover, the synechia is achieved through the elucidation of stress and its connection that is not viewed from the inception but observed by highlighting its components, ultimately contributing to the knowledge constitution of the survival of all forms of life. This concept can be seen in “The Earth has a deadline” by Gan Gilman and Andrew Boyd. 

Earth has a deadline - 2. Image Credit.

These two planetary aesthetics remain in relation as neither has the capability of existing without the other. The moon landing image of 1969 is without a doubt a constitutes the earth and its outer surrounding as an object which thus the exploration and contention for weaponizing the planet. Caygill concludes by asserting the planetary aesthetic of environmental art practice explores fault lines rather than objectification, which serves as the perfect solution because it is guided by the end of enhancing, extending, and embracing the feeling of life.