ABSTRACT

The polar regions of our planet were long considered inhospitable and inaccessible, but in the media age, they have become highly visible nonetheless. Representations of the Arctic and Antarctic provide us with historical, political, and ecological frames of reference for broader epistemological insights, from heroic seafaring to climate science, from Nanook (dir. Flaherty, 1922) or Scott of the Antarctic (dir. Frend, 1948) to works by DJ Spooky and Werner Herzog, and from travel documentaries in the era of adventurous exploration to installation art using live feed in the age of GPS and webcams. 1 While thinking in terms of globalization places the accent on how economic change brings about a homogenization that in turn impacts the cultural sphere, the concept of “the planetary” emphasizes constellations and positions that problematize knowledge of our whole world, with its rising sea levels, species extinctions, and climate change. This chapter traces the multiple cultural implications of two pivotal infrastructural shifts: a redeployment of military capacity towards exploration at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century and, later, a shift from big science collaborations to using the power of the media to help foment a planetary perspective or world picture. Moreover, the sheer inaccessibility of the North and South Poles makes them a crucible for the persistent questions of access and data visualization that characterize the information age. Planetary discourse is thus neither simply the consequence nor a facile critique of the history of colonizing the planet; as its etymological roots suggest, the planetary is transient, capable of unmooring fixed positions but by the same token expanding the frame of reference.