2015 May 12 / 16:30
Round Table
Gloria Meynen

Black Paradises of the Anthropocene.
A Critique of Calculability

The Anthropocene, whose onset Paul Crutzen locates in the late eighteenth century, regards the world as a closed system, to be understood in terms of its limits. At about the same time as the Anthropocene’s beginnings, the economist Thomas Malthus also attempted to calculate the limits of the world. His law of population held that while populations would grow exponentially, doubling every 25 years, growth in food production would be linear. The limits to growth would be reached when the entire world was put under cultivation. In this way, in opposition to the “white paradise” of the Creation story, Malthus foresaw the emergence of a “black” paradise. Eve was not needed for humankind’s Fall: it came upon the world simply through the existence of limits.

Alan Turing, mathematician and inventor of our computer architecture, argued that we can only calculate a phenomenon if we can translate it into a finite number of processes. Calculability necessarily requires finitude and a limit. In the first report of the Club of Rome, “The Limits to Growth” (1972), the Malthusian concept of limit reappeared in the form of analyses run with the Monte Carlo algorithm. However, conceiving of the earth as a closed system and as paradise is only a first step. To enable digital calculability and planning, the earth’s non-finite processes and characteristics must all be reduced to finite processes. But how can we transpose these models back onto the world itself, and how are we to enrich them with the dirt and soil of the analog world?

By way of the limit, thus, my talk will first discuss the trajectory of the idea of a “black paradise,” before turning to the concept of limit itself, using it to think through questions of calculability, interrogating the uses we make of limit metaphors, narratives and scenarios, and asking if there are alternative cultures of sustainability, beyond notions of calculability. What scenarios are there, in other words, beyond the white and black paradises of calculability?

Video 1:33:49


Gloria Meynen is a scholar of cultural and media studies. After studying German literature and philosophy at Cologne, Bonn, Bochum, Konstanz and Berlin, she completed her PhD in 2004, under the supervision of Friedrich Kittler and Thomas Macho at the Department of Cultural Studies at the Humboldt University, Berlin. Between 2004 and 2011, she was a researcher and lecturer in the “Image-Script-Number” research group at the Helmholtz Centre for Cultural Techniques at the Humboldt University in Berlin, at the University of Basel’s “Image Criticism” (Eikones) research hub, at the ETH in Zürich and at Zürich College of Arts. In 2011 she was appointed chair of media theory and cultural history at Zeppelin University at Lake Constance. In December 2014, along with Bitten Stetter and Katharina Tietze (Zürich College of the Arts), she founded the “Office for Useful Fictions.” As well as publishing on the media theory of technical images, her research addresses the cultural and media history of moon landings and the theory and history of islands and globalization.

1) Heinrich Berghaus, Karte vom Großen Ozean (Mare Pacifico) zur, Übersicht der Strömungen und Handelsstraßen, Gotha, Perthes, 1837
2) Flussdiagramm des Weltmodells, Dennis Meadows: Limits to Growth, 1972