Reflection by Devin M. Garofalo
From Orchids to Exoplanets
What would Charles Darwin say about exoplanets? Devin Griffiths’ The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature between the Darwins got me wondering. If the Anthropocene names the rise of humankind to geological power, it also marks an age of analogy. As Earth’s climate warms and terrestrial futurity darkens, some look to the heavens—and to analogical thinking—for an exit. Scientists search out Earth-like planets with increasing optimism, the Open Exoplanet Catalogue crowdsources a rapidly expanding inventory of “habitable zone planets,” and journalists chronicle possible off-Earth futures: “Proxima B: The Earth of the Future?”; “7 Earth-Size Planets Orbit Dwarf Star”; and—hauntingly—“NASA discovers a possible way out.” Analogies proliferate, testing out correspondences between an Earth that may soon be an Earth no more and exoplanets orbiting suns lightyears away. This is all to say that when Griffiths’ coda invoked climate science to posit “the twenty-first- century as an age of no analogy” (259), I was surprised. In some ways, Griffiths is right. The Age of Analogy proceeds carefully toward a concluding gesture to strategic presentism that probes the porosities between our moment and its nineteenth-century backstories. “[W]hat happens,” Griffiths asks, “when analogies fail, when no suitable model, no identifiable pattern of resonance is available?” (258). One solution is to “draw an analogy between the no-analog future and the no-analog past” (259). But another—as contemporary planetary science suggests—is to fight fire with fire: to proliferate analogies in hopes one might transform into a stairway to heaven. In what follows I explore how Griffiths’ study offers fertile ground for thinking across not one but two ages of analogy: the nineteenth century and the twenty-first. If analogy is “a tool that brings the relation between previous ages and the present into focus,” my attention to the legacies of nineteenth-century analogical thinking—to its contemporary possibilities and limitations, its imaginative capacities and imperial aftershocks—is an approach The Age of Analogy explicitly invites.
Having spoiled The Age of Analogy’s finale, I would be remiss if I did not give a glimpse of its plot. At the turn of the nineteenth century, analogy begins to shift from “an analysis of similarity” (14) into a “new habit of thought” that Griffiths calls comparative historicism (4). Coming to grips with “the explosive growth of natural history collections, a new generation of authors”—Erasmus Darwin, Sir Walter Scott, Alfred Lord Tennyson, George Eliot and Charles Darwin, among others—“rejected static schemas” (3), prioritizing instead “plots over plot, multiplicity over unity” (221). Over the course of the Romantic and Victorian periods, and across many genres, analogy metamorphosed to afford strategies for thinking across time while preserving historical and material alterity. Central to Griffiths’ argument is the distinction between two models of analogy: formal and harmonic. Whereas formal analogy denotes “a top-down, formal operation” (18) that is “directional” and “programmatic” (36), harmonic analogy “work[s] from the bottom up, exploring a pattern between two different sets of relationships” that is not predicated upon “the prearticulated features of what is already understood” (18). Unlike its formal counterpart, harmonic analogy “operat[es] in advance” of predetermined models of relation to “produce new forms and new kinds of contact” (19). Such analogies put into question “the given” (19), illustrating how “comparative inquiry” hinges on the recognition and preservation of difference—or, as put in Griffiths’ incisive account of Eliot’s disanalogies, on “the coordination of analogy with its failure” (197).
But how do we rocket from here to exoplanets? From nineteenth-century to twenty-first- century cultures of analogy? Orchids are our launch pads. In his gorgeous reading of Charles Darwin’s treatises and notebooks, Griffiths draws out the figurative possibilities of analogy, exploring how literary and aesthetic production contributes to—and bears consequences for—our knowledge of the world. The material “purchase” of aesthetic figuration on the “real features of the world” is evident in the third edition of On the Origin of Species (1861), which defines “natural selection” as “a ‘metaphorical expression’ that ‘personif[ies] the word Nature’” (qtd. in Griffiths 41). As it deploys “the language of natural intent,” natural selection also draws an analogy between “human intent” and nonhuman agency (214). Querying “what specific adaptations are meant to do” (245)—“what flowers and insects mean to do”—Darwin’s writings on natural selection and adaptation posit biological processes and nonhuman beings as “intentional” (214). This, as Griffiths argues, is emphatically the case with orchids. Reading the coevolution of flora and fauna—the “exclusive relationship[s]” (248) between orchids and moths that unfold through “mutually beneficial adjustments” (249)—Darwin traces how flowers, like humans, “interpret the world around them and react” to it (238). Such analogies are “unsettling,” according to Griffiths, because of how they redistribute intentionality, locating in nonhuman life forms an uncanny “sentience” that is familiar and also unnerving (238). What I find most compelling about Griffiths’ reading of Darwin’s orchids is its attention to how analogy might defamiliarize, decenter or, perhaps, disfigure the human by revealing unanticipated “sympathy” between the human and nonhuman. The coevolution of flower and insect affords a beautiful example of how nineteenth-century analogy insists upon difference while at the same time clearing the way for unexpected and often unruly kinships. As Griffiths argues, such analogies might anthropomorphize—Darwin’s theorization of natural selection hinges upon the “project[ion of] human motivations onto nature”—but not necessarily in service of anthropocentrism (254). Instead, analogy makes visible how the human is disarticulated and reconstituted by nonhuman forms and forces—by intimacies that anthropomorphize the nonhuman and, in so doing, zoomorphize the human. At its most provocative, Griffiths’ study shows how nineteenth-century thinkers discovered a world crisscrossed by “exclusive relationships” and wayward analogies that do not revolve around or reflect the human back to itself.
Such anthropocentric analogies are epidemic at present. Thus, even as Griffiths’ book claims the twenty-first century is an “age of no analogy,” it helps us read the present in precisely the opposite way. If the nineteenth century marks the rise of a dynamic, supple, differentiated form of analogy, the twenty-first century denotes the resurgence of an older, top-down model. The intensifying mania for exoplanets illustrates precisely this point. Lisa Messeri’s recent book, Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds, studies how planetary scientists now “positio[n] Earth not as a singular blue marble floating in a sea of darkness but as one planet among many on which humans might be capable of living” (2). Here, Earth functions as the model against which any number of newly detected planets are tested for their earthliness. Griffiths’ theorization of formal analogy elucidates how, as scientists use the Earth as an analogical base for “scal[ing] down the cosmos to the level of human experience,” multitudes of worlds are reconstituted “asplaces that relate to our own” and “invite being” (Messeri 2)—a kind of being that is emphatically human and which makes an anthropomorphic similitude of the cosmos. As Elizabeth Kolbert puts it: “Instead of adjusting to life on Mars, humans will adjust Mars to their needs.” The Age of Analogy helps render visible how humans are already making precisely these kinds of adjustments by way of analogy and its figures. Analogy has a dark side and figuration is a part of that story. This is not a story The Age of Analogy tells, but it is one to which Griffiths gestures when he observes that analogy “naturalized social norms” in the Victorian period in ways that “influenc[ed]” our “thinking about humanity and its social relations” to “disturbing” ends (5). Analogy’s dark side is palpable in a tension that emerges between the language of surface in Griffiths’ study—which he uses to theorize how harmonic analogy “flatten[s] previous distinctions” to make possible “new modes of relational analysis”—and the homogenizing impetus into which this “great leveling” might all too easily slip (15). It may also lurk in Griffiths’ turn to “sympathy as a critical lens,” which mandates that we humans “read ourselves into nature” such that analogy might verge into anthropocentric and colonial territory (255). Are we experiencing at present the nineteenth-century analogical imaginary’s most “disturbing” extremes and imperial legacies? What might we gain by recovering nineteenth-century models of analogy and their figural resistance to the given? Are we too Victorian or not Victorian enough? The Age of Analogy affords rich terrain for thinking through the possibilities and challenges of strategic presentism—of the analogies we make between a nineteenth-century past, our present, and an (inter)planetary future that looms increasingly large.
Additional Work Cited:
Chang, Kenneth. “7 Earth-Size Planets Orbit Dwarf Star, NASA and European Astronomers Say.” New
York Times. 22 February 2017.
Flam, Faye. “Proxima B: The Earth of the Future?” Hartford Courant. 27 August 2016.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Project Exodus.” The New Yorker. 1 June 2015.
Messeri, Lisa. Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds. Duke University Press, 2016.
Steinbuch, Yaron. “NASA discovers a possible way out.” New York Post. 22 February 2017.