Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Opaque Planet

Airplanes are not supposed to disappear into thin air in 2014. We live on a planet subjected to the most sophisticated networks of surveillance, mapping, and tracking that have ever existed, in which every corner of the globe is scanned by satellite, radar, or drone-based mechanisms of visualization, detection, and location. And yet, for the past ten days, the world media has been puzzled by what seemed unthinkable: that no one knows where a boeing 777 flying from Malaysia to Beijing is. Twenty-six nations, including the United States and China, have been searching for traces of the plane over a huge area stretching from the Himalayas to the southern Indian ocean, to no avail. The inability to locate the plane or its traces has triggered all sorts of debates and speculations, from geographical discussions of the overlapping territorialities mobilized by the search to popular references to the TV series Lost, the Bermuda Triangle, or alien abductions. Yet what these debates take for granted is that the disappearance of the plane, and its resulting human tragedy, is also a story about the profound opacity of planet Earth: the fact that the multiplicity, vastness, and textures of the global terrain often elude human coding.
The fascination with, and fetishization of, technologies of global location and surveillance often makes us forget that, for all their sophistication, we live on a planet riddled with opaque zones that will always erode the power of human-made systems of orientation, for the simple fact that no such system (contrary to what the NSA seems to believe) will ever manage to create an all-seeing God. This opacity is intrinsic to the textured, three-dimensional materiality of the surface of the planet, and is especially marked in the liquid vastness of the ocean. I’ve been interested in the concept of terrain for quite some time, which I’ve tentatively analyzed here as the manifestation of the pure multiplicity of space in its immanence: that is, of the tangible space of this world. This non-representable multiplicity ranges from the verticality of mountains to the striated density of cities to the ever-mobile, liquid space of the ocean the plane probably fell into. This is why the disappearance of flight MH 370 is both a tragedy and a story about the all-too human limits of satellites, radars, drones, and Google Earth to master the spatiality of the planet: a reminder that the Earth will always confront our bodies as an immense, often haunting void.