Claire Colebrook

December 2020

Who Does the Earth Think It Is?

Soils Habit Plants

Too Close, Too Far

To ask this question – ‘who does the earth think it is?’ – is to inhabit and solicit the drama of the end of the world. When, today, we talk about the ‘end of the world’ what is really at stake is the end of a formation where the question of ‘who is thinking?’ is essential. The end of the world is the end of the question of ‘who thinks.’ This world-forming question of who is thinking is theological, ontological and existential.


Imagine, first, a God who simply is, and who – being God – is already fully knowing, fully existent, complete and without any distance or division. There would be no question of the ‘who’ and certainly no question of asking who one is. This God, who has not yet created what is other than God, despite being infinite and absolute has less allure (at least for us, we in the world) than a God who creates a being who – not being God – can ask about itself, can think about who it is. In the Judeo-Christian tradition there is not merely a valorization of a God who creates in order to generate the distance that produces thinking, but the impossibility of contemplating an earth without self-interrogating thought. The world, the end of the world, but not the Earth, are events bound up with Job-like modes of questioning. Without the possibility of asking the question of – who do I think I am? – there would be no world. The world is an open horizon of sense, the possibility of asking a question. To ask who the earth thinks it is, is to give a certain theology to the Earth – as though without the human the Earth might not simply exist, but might take up a relation to itself. Theology might find itself refigured, not as God creating the Earth and humanity, in order that God might be expressed, revealed and thought, but rather as an Earth that lives and forms itself through all the odd ways of life that that allow earth to be Earth. If we exist theology in this way – no longer God creating in order to be reflected and expressed – but an Earth that lives in order to take up a thought of itself – we arrive at ontology.

From Job to Hegel

One might think of asking who one is as the question of Judeo-Christian theology, of knowing one’s task in the world. Living well requires that one might not merely exist, but that one asks how one ought to live. One might think that this question is ecological; to understand who one is, requires understanding one’s place in the cosmos. But this question also turns one inward and away from the cosmos with the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. One’s success in the world will supply the answer to who I think I am: if I have fared well in this world, then I am one of those to whom life is fully given. This takes us from theology to ontology, from Job to Hegel. The question is not a sign of being cut off from the infinite, but gives us the very sense and value of our being. To be human is not simply to be of the Earth, but to carve out a world. If there were no question then all we would be left with is the silent not-quite being of the Earth. It requires spirit to be different from itself, to ask the question of identity. Pure identity or a simple thisness would not amount to a world, earth but not the Earth. Hegel will argue that history and the world begin with the negation of simple plant life or the placid timelessness of soil-habit-plants. However, this is a relation that does not know it is a relation. What is required is a thinking that knows it is thinking. The question of ‘who thinks’ begins with animality and with the Earth-negating relation to life, but becomes fully unto itself when human existence knows it is not merely on the Earth, but is what the Earth must generate in order to think. Human existence is the Earth’s capacity to think itself. Without this being who thinks and asks the question of thinking, the Earth is mere earth. Soil, but not habit. Habit is the taking up of rhythm or relation, a being in place that marks out an ethos. And so, we have gone from a theology, or a God who creates the Earth in order that divinity be expressed and revealed, to ontology – where it is being as such that could not be if there were not the thinking of being. From earth and plant life that does not know who it is, it is consciousness that allows life to think of itself, to ask who it is. We have gone from theology (or a God who must create the Earth in order for life to know itself) to ontology. Earth without thought would not be the Earth, and could not think of itself. This brings us to the existential.

If one is already committed to theology then it makes sense to value a world of thought insofar as it allows creation to reflect upon and express itself; if there is a God then such a divinity would flow forth into creation and self-reflection. If one is committed to ontology it makes sense to recognize reason and thought as the means by which being comes to know itself. For Hegel this requires the history of reason coming to recognize and know itself. For Heidegger, it is not that being happens to be revealed and lived through time, but that there ‘is’ nothing more than this history of revealing. However, what might it mean to ask what these questions from the point of view of the Earth, and not the philosopher or the theologian, or even the human being who – thanks to theology – can only imagine the world as a horizon of sense, meaning and reflection? More importantly what might it mean to abandon the valorization and fetishization of the question?

Such questions are, ultimately, cinematic and existential at one and the same time. Faced with the destruction of what has come to be lived and known as the Earth it might make sense to pose the existential question: knowing what we now know, living at a time when this long history of industrialization and colonization has rendered the Earth less habitable for the Anthropos who never took time to think beyond itself, might the Earth have been better off without us? By ‘us’ one cannot quite mean the human species, but rather that specific and sovereign subject of philosophy, technology and theology who elevated itself as the means through which the earth might truly live and have value. Would the Earth be better off without us? To ask this question is to attribute ‘being better off’ to a being that almost certainly possesses no sense of what would count as a state of betterment. Would the Earth be better off without those beings who emerged to pose questions and ask about life, and the good life? Would things be better if we humans had not been? It makes no sense to pose such questions, because questions inhabit the domain of sense, and then that brings us back to where ‘we’ are – we humans who however harshly and irresponsibly we have treated the Earth are perhaps (perhaps!) the only beings who might bear a sense of responsibility, or pose the question of the limits of responsibility. To ask, colloquially, ‘who do you think you are?’, is a moral accusation: you think you have some right, some privilege that would exempt you from the burdens the rest of us carry.

To ask, ‘Who Does the Earth think it is?’, might be uttered by humans, at the moment of the Anthropocene, when the Earth may finally appear to be taking on a life of its own, showing its wounds after centuries of abuse, refusing to give up its riches. The imagination of such a question might, finally, move towards a point of view other than the human, even if it does so in a tone of resistance to such an idea. Could the Earth think if ‘we’ – Anthropos – were not there to articulate the time of Earth’s life? Such a question is cinematic.

If it makes sense to entertain the idea of the Earth thinking this is because one of thought’s capacities is to imagine modes of existence other than itself. This capacity is given exemplary form in cinema. The camera, as Gilles Deleuze argued in his second volume on cinema, frees images from the movements and interests of the human organism. The cinematic eye produces movements and temporal sequences that are out of this world, and released from the point of view of the located human observer. It is possible, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, that one might think of all art as the detachment of qualities from lived experience, allowing percepts and affects to stand alone. Even though they use the modernist concept of the ready-made to explain the art object as cut off from the lived, their account of art is inhuman: the stagemaker bird who assembles the colors of leaves is individuated by its selective and non-functional relation to the forces of its milieu. Such a move is, to use Bernard Stiegler’s phrase, ‘arche-cinematic’ (although Stiegler will situate this moment of inscription as the beginning of the human). By marking out a space where qualities take up a repeatable pattern that can be inscribed and experienced beyond the individual’s own time, the bird – like humans who produce artifacts – has externalized thinking, allowed an intentionality or desire to exist beyond its own time.

This returns us to the existential problem of who the earth thinks it is, which is also the problem of cinema. Would it be possible to imagine the Earth without us? If today Hollywood cinema is obsessed with the end of the world, this is really not the end of thinking, but the end of a certain type of non-thinking. End of world cinema rehearses the disappearance of a small pocket of stability that has been made possible only through a silencing and erasure of the Earth. Blockbuster cinema, especially in its disaster-epic mode, can only depict the end of ‘us’ as the end of all possibility and sense. Even so, in its broader potentiality – beyond post-apocalyptic epics – cinema has the power to create forces and images that take thinking beyond the human. It is almost impossible to will one’s non-being, to arrive at late-stage Anthropocene awareness and accept that a world without us might have enabled an Earth of richer thought. But cinema does have a power to come close to a thought of the Earth beyond the world.

One might think of cinema, following Deleuze, as bound up with the end of the world and becoming-animal. The power to cut and paste images beyond the human horizon of sense yields a thought of the Earth beyond that of the human subject whose world is bounded by identity, interests and functions. To arrive at these perceptions and affections that are not one’s own one might explore cinema as a mode of becoming-animal and then becoming-imperceptible. Rather than filming an animal as an object within a scene of our own, where the eye of the camera operates to explain the animal’s world as akin to our own, one might follow the animal across a path. Becoming-animal is not a copying or mimicking of the animal as object, but the intuition of the perceptions and affects that unfold by moving across the Earth in a certain way. A dog meanders across a plateau in mountainous space, its paws feeling the cooling temperatures of leaves and the crisp yield of vegetation, the sounds of the earth below are acute and yet there’s ambient overhead noise, but what is closest to the Earth offers the richness of fascination and difference. Kant had argued that the human capacity to look up to the starry heavens with wonder enabled ideas of the infinite, along with the sublime sense of what cannot be given to the senses. To follow becoming-animal is to find fascination with the infinitely small, the nuances of each leaf and earthy odor. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze describes a difference between the infinitely large irony of Hegel versus the infinitely small humor of Leibniz. Hegel will follow and intensify Kant’s sense that the trajectory of reason ought to be all-encompassing; it will be Reason itself that brings the Absolute to self-recognition. But Deleuze will increasingly favor the depths of humor, looking away from the encompassing point of view of the Absolute towards the cosmos of the infinitely small.

The dog that smells and feels the earth, that allows its body to meander with the smallest inflections of sound and odor, does not look up to the heavens – to the noise of technology making its way across the sky. Were technology in its globe-surveying grandeur to come to its end we might have reached the end of the world and the beginning of the Earth. What might be thinkable in an age where the depletion of resources no longer allows for the elevated point of view of global media? We would have to rethink the human elevation of thought as a form of totalizing speculation. We would be oriented to becoming-animal, to tracing the rhythms of the Earth.

Soils Habits Plants

Cinema is bound up with the end of the world, becoming-animal and becoming imperceptible. The camera invites the thought of images released from the lived, and this in turn allows for the thought of living-otherwise, of imagining the Earth as earth, as bearing the potentiality for movements and rhythms beyond the sensory motor apparatus. To track the perceptions of a dog feeling its way through a plateau, takes us to soil, and soil’s own rhythms. Soil may be thought of as a habitat, an assemblage of minerals and microbes that enable the growth of trees. Such a thought – soil as the foundation for upward growth – might still tend towards the Anthropocentric sense of value only residing in the upward emergence of complexity from the entropic chaos of the earth. Becoming-earth would take us to rhizomatic thinking. Rather than think of soil as habitat that generates the upward growth of trees (that might then in turn provide the environment for human life that becomes increasingly technological in its maturity), one might begin to think of the greater intensity and complexity of the pre-technological, with technology deadening and drowning out the forces of chaos. The cosmos is to be intuited not by tracing the upward arc of the tree, to the flights and elevations of human reason, but rather through a destructive vision moving towards the habits of soil. Habit, and not habitat: soil as the bearer of thousands of unlived potentialities – only one of which is the upward growth of Anthropos. From becoming-animal, which allows the perception of the Earth in its dense complexity beyond the elevations of technology, soil takes us to becoming-imperceptible. If movements and rhythms were not those of a recognizable and individuated ‘I’, if there were ever-shifting, ever-varying, branching and fractal changes of path and direction, perception would not be grounded in a point of view. One might arrive at the cinematic as the inhuman, the intuition of the Earth as rhythm without body, dancer without dance.

Habits are often seen to be less human than reasons, automatic rather than autonomous. If one repeats due to habit one is allowing the rhythm of the unthought and undecided to govern one’s movement. One breaks habits in order to be oneself, to take control, to become human. The breaking of habits is perhaps definitive of Anthropocene humanity: the ‘we’ forged through the Anthropocene has not allowed the Earth, the soil, the plants and all that is ‘poor in world’ to map its movement. Anthropocene humanity forges the world in its own image, managing habitats, and becoming the master of habits. It is cinema, though, that tears the human – as breaker of habits – asunder. The cinema is at once a machine allowing greater reach and mastery of the human eye, and yet the industrialization of cinema creates the human as a habit machine: addicted to the grand sensations and visions of a world threatened and then saved. Hollywood blockbuster end-of-world cinema is revelatory of a habit that has become an addiction: show the world on the brink of destruction, show the world saved, and then return to the habits of the human. But cinema, also, in its capacity to track the sounds and rhythms of the soil opens out to the habits of the Earth, the light, water, sound, wind, heat and growth that have far more complexity than the narratives of the world.

Back to the existential question: the human is a habit.

Like the compulsive gambler or drinker who knows all too well that the habit has taken over the body and become automatic rather than autonomous, discourses of the Anthropocene come close to intuiting that the drive to save the world is a habit that has taken over who ‘we’ are. There is no ‘we’ outside this addiction to saving who ‘we’ are. What breaks the habit of the human-become-automata? If there is something cinematic about folding the world around the managerial ‘I’ and eye of the human being whose only way in the world is increasingly technological maturity and global subsumption, then another cinema – one in which the eye moves away from the grandeur of the whole to the intensity of the molecular – could make way for the Earth.

We might think of two modalities of the question, ‘Who Does the Earth Think It is?’ The first might be uttered by the outraged and benighted humanity of the Anthropocene, whose mapping and mastery of the Earth, has now generated a more volatile and less hospitable habitat. Who are you to render the life of the human so fragile? Another modality of the question might be more profoundly cinematic. From the habits of the mineral Earth one might imagine all the possible futures that could unfold. Becoming-soil would be a thinking of earth, an intuition of the cosmic complexity of an Earth that has been subsumed by the global habits of the world.

Too Close, Too Far

Intuiting the intense differences that have been reduced by the cinematic panorama of the human world, requires an aesthetic of close range. Cutting into the near at hand at once parcels the world into all those beings that compose a human habitat. Look again when those things that make up our world are no longer – like Heidegger’s stone – worldless. Let us begin by being poor-in-world, in not having the global sense of who ‘we’ are in the grand scheme of things and history of the world. Let us go from the grand narratives of technological maturity to the infinitely small, to the worlds that open from the everyday. An aesthetics of close range is not at all a Romantic return to the innocence of the pre-human, not at all a nativism or primitivism of who we properly are prior to the time of history. Cutting into the whole opens up the thousands of worlds of inhuman things, including the habits and rhythms of the supposedly human world we inhabit.

The closer we move to who ‘we’ are the less human, less autonomous, less worldly ‘we’ become. Things fall together and whatever ‘we’ thought of as ‘us’ falls apart.

When Deleuze and Guattari ask the question, ‘what is philosophy?’, they align it with the question of what counts as art and what counts as science. It turns out that all three of these seemingly grand human endeavors are not ours, not human at all.

Philosophy, creating concepts, amounts to producing an orientation that takes thinking out of this world. You do not know what habits are until you stop looking at definitions and everyday usage and become absorbed, dumbfounded, rendered speechless by a habit. You do not know what art is until you leave the gallery, watch a bird make a nest, watch a dog traverse a space moved by the sounds and textures of what is under paw. You do not know what science is until you close a book, leave the microscope behind and attend to the rhythm of the molecular in itself. Looking closely at something requires leaving it behind, and then narrowing one’s perceptions until the thing disappears becoming a cinematic phantasm, something that cannot be seen without a thousand tiny and inhuman reverberations and refractions.