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Cosmos as Commons: An Activation of Cosmic Diplomacy


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It would likely be the last time that the medium of motion picture film would be used to record the transit of Venus across the sun—and Venus would once again elude technology’s grasp. As artist Simon Starling narrates from his position amongst astronomers prepared worldwide to document the event, Venus approaches the limb of the sun—then appears to drop a bit, frustrating attempts to measure the star by the planet’s progress. No imaging technology had ever duplicated its own results or any other’s in showing what had just happened. And this year’s cosmic misbehavior was occurring in 2012, with all the energies of the Mauna Kea Observatories trained upon it—not in 1613, when a young Jesuit transcribed the sun spot onto a paper screen for the first time; nor in 1769, when Captain James Cook was dispatched to Tahiti to supposedly make his own observations of the transit of Venus, with similar results when compared with the figures of others: as Starling notes, this was an experiment that was to “prove the inadequacy of astrological measurement … for refining the mean earth-sun distance … [despite] vast international collaborations.” But Cook would discover that the expedition was a cover: secret instructions from the Crown instructed him to journey on from his observation post to continue the search for Terra Australis Incognita. When he did finally land at Botany Bay in 1770, claiming the territory for England, the transit of Venus would have been fresh in the minds of the aboriginal peoples he encountered there, who for reasons not understood then or now were little surprised by the sudden appearance of the Endeavor … Analysts intrigued by what Starling’s film is doing turn to other sites, including parallels with French astronomer “Pierre-Jules-Cesar Janssen who brings together the study of astronomy and the medium of film, just as Starling has done.” Or to the artist’s own voiceover: “In the universe, there are no ephemeropteraic moments—events go on forever, travel everywhere, are everywhere and everything.”

But of course, the field is infinitely open. For example, Black Drop’s long sequence showing Starling painstakingly cutting and splicing film strip suggests its own ruse of recovering materials of colonial archiving not only “for the last time,” as he tells it, making a contribution to the “black drop effect” of celestial cinema, but perhaps to witness with his own eyes the blot on the British Empire’s “sun which never sets.” In one shot, Starling’s own eyes screen the event in reverse as he is shown gazing at the images he is editing: his dark irises are two black “suns,” the sun reflected in his eyes two tiny spots of light. “Being there” as part of a technoscientific media event implicates the artist in a cosmopolitical distortion of Aboriginal “worlds of vision” (as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro terms the cosmologies of Amazonia.) And as some Aboriginal peoples regard the planet, Starling as implicitly Cook was enjoined to mark with them by other means and names the tenuousness of any natural future for knowledge: from northeastern Arnhem Land, a Dreamtime narrative tells how the star Barnumbir lives on the Island of the Dead, and is so afraid of drowning as she travels across the sea from morning til night that two old women must hold her on a long string, pulling her back to shore at dawn and keeping her tucked into a basket during the day.

This is Povinelli’s message for approaching “geontologies.” As she tells it when describing her collaborative project to produce digital archives with the Karrabing of Australia for a “living library,” the work is to hold for the future images of local lives in tension between colonial-induced poverty, and the invisible heritage of Dreamtime productivities—as it were, placing these on a long cyberstring controlled locally, for managing states of fear. The fears she articulates are many: of drowning in the forces of violence that are overtaking local communities; of drowning in feeling helpless to protect their natural cultural orders; of drowning in climate change creeks and beaches like that of Chepal—not just a resemblance to an ancestral woman, but an event site of a rape that must not be forgotten; Chepal who still lies there, “bioforming the subjectivity of the Karrabing,” and further, “mark[ing] a legal border, [as] a legal relation”—in these two capacities supplying a “pathway for public affect”—generating what I think of as a warm commons that does not deny access to market capital. Both rape and healing take many forms, after all, literally and figuratively.

This complex geontological diplomacy, which conveys terms of reference for worlding otherwise than by dominant ways of knowing, enjoins us to hear not only what natural entities might have to tell humans in their own terms, and vice versa, but to study how nature-culture differences might be scaled to the purpose. Further, the apparatuses of diplomacy at any site call for consideration of how knowledge exchange might be warmed to the project—might employ affective onto-dispositifs: devices which incline worlding ways to warm protentively to others’.

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