Untamed Worlds: Towards Planetary Heritage

Presentation for the annual Cambridge Heritage Research Centre Symposium

Confronting Uncertainty: Heritage Pasts and Presents in Flux

19-20 May 2022

Paper Abstract

The planetary turn has impacted on various strands of critical and creative discourse in recent years. Responding to the uncertainties and radical discontinuities of the climate crisis, writers and theorists as diverse as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Achille Mbembe, Jennifer Gabrys, Joanna Page, Tariq Jazeel and William E. Connolly have all highlighted the importance of the planet to contemporary social, historical, aesthetic and political thought. Drawing on the foundational work of Gayatri Spivak, Chakrabarty for example sketches out the profound difference that separates the planet from earlier notions of World, Earth or Globe. At the core of this argument is the idea that, while the planet provides the conditions for human existence, it remains profoundly indifferent to that existence, operating on scales that far exceed human awareness or experience. As Chakrabarty concludes, the globe is an anthropocentric construction; the planet, or the Earth system, decenters the human. In so doing the planetary also unsettles familiar notions of universalism and globalisation – two ideas that have been central to the emergence and spread of ‘world heritage’ (and have been thoroughly challenged in recent heritage literature). Much of this work responds to the suggestion that the Earth itself is now in need of ‘stewardship’ – a proposal that expands familiar debates around environmental care, management and conservation to hitherto undreamed-of scales. Sketching out the main dimensions of what we might call ‘planetary heritage’, this talk aims to situate critical heritage thinking and practice as a vital interlocutor in these discussions. Moving beyond cosmopolitan worldviews on the one hand and critically engaging with the idea of planetary stewardship on the other, the talk will argue that thinking with the planet in heritage praxis can help to underline the need for radical alterity and humility in the face of an inherently untamed (and untamable) world.