Cosmology and ethics in Etel Adnan’s poetry
In 1966, the American writer Stewart Brand petitioned NASA to release a then-rumored image it had photographed of the whole earth. He printed the question “Why haven’t we seen a picture of the whole earth yet?” on a series of buttons and pamphlets and distributed them around the country with the help of Buckminster Fuller. The campaign took off—and, in 1968, it led Stewart to start the Whole Earth Catalog, a countercultural journal that focused on space, ecology, and art and writing related to the environmental movement. NASA released the image and, for the first time, humanity had a full portrait of Spaceship Earth. Brand believed that the photograph would provide a universal image that might unify the world in efforts toward peace and environmental consciousness. (It is often remarked that Earth Day began only a few years after the release of the image.)
The image of the whole earth provided a counterpoint to the mushroom cloud, which had become “a symbol for the collapse of Western civilization,” as Anselm Franke points out in his essay for The Whole Earth, a recent exhibition inspired by Brand. Franke writes,
The blue planet, on the other hand, exhibits a completely different tendency for bringing about the end of history. It appears to transcend all frames, borders, and preconfigured notions of order, dissolving them into oceanic vertigo: the astronaut Russell Schweickart gave the title “No Frames, No Boundaries” to his memories of seeing the earth from space. Here, all antagonisms, borders, and conflicts “down below” fade into the background, and with them history with its contradictions and struggles.
Of course, the image’s appearance failed to bring about the end of history—or an end to conflicts “down below.” Rather, it presaged the globalist movement, which saw, in the smallness of the whole earth, a whole market, interconnected and easily reached. While the photo of the earth energized the nascent green movement, the blue planet—later downsized by Carl Sagan to a “pale blue dot”—remained mired in its countless contradictions and struggles.
As the 1966 campaign for an image of the whole earth began in the United States, the Lebanese poet, painter, journalist, and novelist Etel Adnan published her first book, Moonshots. In his introduction to Adnan’s newest collection, To look at the sea is to become what one is, Ammiel Alcalay writes that the moon was crucial to Adnan’s early work, particularly for its “virginity”—its remove from the human-caused death and disaster that marked the worldwide 1960s. Cold, beautiful, and lifeless, the moon is a specter that preemptively rhymes with those desolate places effaced by war and colonialism so familiar to Adnan. The moon offers an image of a possible earthly future where competitive forces of violence, particularly the U.S. and Soviet Union arms race, obliterate life on the planet. The moon is both an escape from and a realization of war and desolation, which were Adnan’s primary subjects throughout the 1960s and 1970s, from the Lebanese Civil War to Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the war in Vietnam. Paraphrasing the title of Adnan’s collection, “to look at the whole earth is to become what one is,” means to become big enough to understand one’s smallness, and the precarity of the ecological and political situation that characterizes life on Earth.