Friday, June 17, 2011

Seeing The Dead Planet: What Is Mars to Us? On de Lane, Geographies of Mars

 It's the same old story: band has a hit (not that, this), corporate money comes calling, and the band falls out, perhaps over the royalties, perhaps something more personal. And for five years I was left searching Youtube for this. Now, I  hear that there are more productive ways of finding music on the Internet, but I don't know about these ways, and I wasn't that motivated. The charm of ephemera is of things gone, and perhaps even coming back, however little you deserve them.
There is a sense of loss to the western homesteader. Life calls you away, to war or to work, and a return home might not be possible, because that home might not be there any more. It was staked somewhere that was green for a season, and then the water failed, and now there is nothing but bleaching boards and abandoned dreams. A science fiction novel that struck me deeply as a youth, Kate Wilhelm's Juniper Time, had that happen to the entire West. At the end, the protagonist returns to the old homestead and finds its old, perennial stream still flowing amidst a stand of junipers in the midst of continental desolation.

Well, I think that's what happened, because it's been a long time since I've read it. Maybe I'm making it up, because I was brought up in a Western stock raising family (in a very minimal way), and our old family homestead has a perennial spring in an arid environment. When the doom comes for us, we'll have water for our horses. The rest of you are on your own.

 Or, that's one attitude, one that the United States Reclamation Bureau was set up to fight. I'd like to tell a story about how Percival Lowell looked down from Flagstaff Mountain at the canal system spreading across Arizona, even as he looked up and imagined that he was seeing canals on Mars. Only I can't. Lowell's Flagstaff Observatory isn't on a mountain. It's on a mesa. It's a big mesa, but still a plateau, flat, and more than big enough for the whole town of Flagstaff. Lowell's observatory was a "comfortable" walk from downtown and the rail station, as K. Maria de Lane points out in her Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet.  I'm embarrassed. That was my mental image of the Lowell Observatory. And I make such a big deal about distinguishing mental geographies from geographies as they actually exist. I'm going to petulantly blame Lowell for misleading me, and, according to de Lane, I have a point. Lowell, and astronomy in general, was a located science, in which the place that it was performed in was partially determinative of the observations made. And when talking about imagined entities such as the canals of Mars, an imagined geography was even more epistemically productive. And that's de Lane's point.

It's crazy, but it's true. For about twenty years on the outside, and, at the core of things, for about 10 years around the turn of the century, the world believed that it was a settled fact that there was an advanced civilisation of aliens living on Mars. The evidence for this was the very visible polar ice caps of the planet, which waxed and waned with the seasons, and changeable dark blotches across the planet, suggesting vegetation. According to Spenser's nebular hypothesis and the common sense of physics, Mars ought to be  a very dry planet, although it was probably originally as wet as Earth. The scenario here was of a residual hydraulic cycle supporting residual life.
And when Milanese astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli drew a map of the southern hemisphere of Mars and filled it with regular features that he called "canali," the scenario was refined to include canal builders. Intelligent Martians were fighting the desertification of their planet with a globe-spanning network of canals.

This is, in itself, a defensible hypothesis. It's not the most likely one, but it is certainly the most sensational. Its success is usually taken as a cautionary tale of space science, which has been on the hook for irresponsible speculation, especially about alien life, before and after this. For Katherine Maria de Lane, currently assistant professor of Geography at the University of New Mexico, it is also a cautionary tale for geographers. De Lane argues that the myth of a decontextualised, unlocated science is so far at variance from its bench-located nature that the field is open to a range of illicit epistemic strategies drawn from geography.

These include the inherent claim to authority that even the most spurious map of a claimed "real" place acquires by association with accurate maps; the afore-mentioned power of the scientific site, all the more illicitly powerful because all productive value is denied to sites a priori. Lowell's practice of eliding the distinction between a high altitude site and an actual mountain top is hardly unique, although he carried it further than most. What could be a more powerful knowledge-producing entity than a sage on a mountain-top. And that's where, in general, astronomical observatories were. And Flagstaff was high up, and near mountains. Thus, it was on a mountain! And Mars, like a mountain-top, was distant, cold, and arid. So it was as true as the facts produced at mountain-top settings!

Deconstructing this chain of claims is far harder than it looks. It implies tying science to the benches at which it is done. And while that sounds innocuous enough, it implies locating the production of scientific facts within a social network. Not all labs are equal. Some are more authoritative than others. And in this early modernist's view, accepting this detaches "science," in its mid-Nineteenth Century sense, from its crucial role in Protestant apologetics.

Moreoever, the production of geographic knowledge was already being reflexively employed to justify imperialism and gender in the late Nineteenth Century. Seeing, possessing, and knowing were already being conflated to justify the imperial project, and Mars provided a convenient discursive object in this practice. Talking about Mars produced "knowledge" about the imperialised object of this-worldly potential conquests.

I, personally, wouldn't go on too far about this aspect of de Lane's project. Late Nineteenth Century imperialism was overdetermined in the sense that I keep wanting to use the word. It already has so many causes that finding another one won't help explain it more. As for gender, it's hard to imagine a subject that we're all so persistently obsessed with not getting into a subject. (I'd link to a Monty Python "wink, wink,  nudge, nudge" sketch, if I hadn't already. Oh, heck, no-one reads those posts, so why not.) That being said, when we move on to something that I am interested in, the rise of a historically-situated "Martian" knowledge of desertification and social decline, we do find the imperial (and human) project staring back at us.

Leaving that to hang for a second, I'll move on to de Lane's final line of argument the "cultural geography" of Mars. Here, she ties ideas about Mars to ecological determinism and finds key differences between English and American views of the allegedly superior, highly organised Martians. For Lowell, as I've already noted, the visual evidence of the canal network constitutes a decisive argument that the Martians possess these properties. They have organised their entire planet to deliver water to where it was needed. How could they not be advanced? The cool, cold, arid climate of Mars is a challenge, and evolution, whether it be physical or social, is a response to challenge. Lowell did not hesitate to follow this line of thought into Turner's "Frontier Thesis" and claim that just as American individuality is a response to the frontier, so Martian technocracy is a response to the Martian climate.

At the same time, there are limits to individualism, symbolised by the efforts of the Reclamation Bureau. Just as Turner's thesis was as much about the closing of the frontier and the inevitable changes in American society that must ensue, so the physical story of the canals and dykes of the American West is one of rugged individualism giving way to collective endeavour. Here is the new challenge that American society must meet.

From the British perspective, challenge is not met with response, but rather failure. Quoting the unlikely sage, Alfred Wallace as her quintessential British viewpoint, de Lane presents a strong argument against Mars having advanced life at all. Just as some of my earliest stirrings of skepticism were triggered by the suspicion that the society of this planet should have evolved into being dead, as opposed to this, Wallace modestly proposed that if life were so hard on Mars, perhaps it shouldn't be at all. Without intending to do so, he perhaps presents a justification for imperial rule in India. The Punjab didn't spontaneously self-organise to irrigate itself. It needed the Raj.

I would, however, add that in a perfect world, de Lane's "cultural geography" would have included a survey of a  non-English speaking literature or two.

With that reservation, this is a powerful book. It isn't driven by the outrage and relevance of its most obvious predecessor, and thus probably won't find the readership, but that doesn't make it any the less important. The "imagined geography" of Mars resonates through multiple high modern intellectual projects, with continuing, deleterious effects. The idea of a continuing, one-way secular increase in aridity was taken over by the emergent science of (imperial) forestry, and has been used to justify massive intervention in the lives of peoples on the margin of allegedly "desertifying" or eroding landscapes from the Mediterranean to the Sahel to Appalachia. The idea that local forest cover affects the microclimate, so that cutting trees down causes droughts, as well as erosion, has been turned into a powerful argument against any forest harvesting at all in some regions. Which becomes a little silly when we're saving trees by using more crude. I would even go so far as to suggest that the attempt to impose this junk science on Appalachia has played its part in the pushback against climate change amelioration.

Beyond that, we have projects such as Wittfogel's "hydraulic civilisation," essentially an exercise in bringing Lowell's Mars to life in ancient history. Related to this, and to Lowell, is Douglass's  dendochronological project. As useful as dendochronology has been, we are still dealing with the legacy of the supposed global "Medieval Warm Period" and Early Modern "Little Ice Age." Taking the bit in their teeth, the historical school of climactic determinism has proliferated its claimed civilisation-ending warm and cold spells interminably; and the project has even come back to its roots in one of Imperial forestry's original projects with the claim that the Late Bronze Age collapse was precipitated by the destruction of Cyprus's entire forest cover.*

This one is a small deal compared with the deployment of "erosion" in our objectification of Appalachia, and of the Little Ice Age to do away with the Greenland Vikings, but it's dispiriting in that it is so common sensically wrong (compare the centuries-long history of the Wealden iron industry) and so easily, and yet so rarely, refuted. By contrast, the historian's ability to close the curtains on the Greenland Vikings on the one hand, and deny  subjectivity to the peoples of Appalachia on the other, is disquieting, for reasons that I think are important, and linked.

But that's still a case to be made here.

*(If you don't want to follow the links, between 100 and 300 trees per acre in a Mediterranean type forest; 170 and 500 pounds of charcoal per tree [admittedly in my source a Nigerian one, but still]; 9700  BTUs per pound of charcoal; 30-40 million BTUs per ton of copper refined in a reverberatory furnace. Thus, twelve tons of copper per acre felled. Guys, Google means you can't pull these claims out of your rear any more.)

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