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To See the Earth as Other
The Ethics of Earth Art by Amanda Boetzkes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Pp. 248. $75.00 cloth, $25.00 paper.

Assembling a powerful corpus of research and theory, Amanda Boetzkes argues in The Ethics of Earth Art that earth art provides a sensible surface upon which subjects can form an ethical relationship to the earth based on its radical alterity to the body. Boetzkes’s book is of major importance to artists, historians, and ecophilosophers, but its methodology and dense academic presentation make such strenuous demands that I consider the workings of this ethical relationship to be far from settled.

Boetzkes begins by defining an ecological stance as that which “involves revealing the limits of an anthropocentric worldview and recognizing these limits as thresholds to the excess of the earth” (3). Ecological ethics commonly revolve around human ecology; Boetzkes quickly separates her project from anthropocentric ethics, focusing instead on the place where “nature exceeds the scope of human knowledge and systems of representation” (3). Boetzkes notes that, since the 1960s, artists have initiated an ethical engagement with the earth and its ecology to offer a surface upon which viewers can access the “elemental.” The artwork reveals how elementals overwhelm the senses, “and specifically how nature troubles representational form” (4). The simultaneous aesthetic excess and withdrawal from representation create “the conditions of possibility for the earth to appear at [End Page 699] the limits of intelligible form and to deliver a sense of it at the point at which it overflows the field of perception” (4). The perceiver is thus put into a relationship with the earth that Boetzkes will characterize as marked by recessive ethics (4).

Defined as “a stance of retraction from and receptivity to the earth,” the recessive ethics that figure in contemporary art combat two misguided relationships towards the earth (4). According to the “instrumental view,” humans mine the earth’s resources strictly to reproduce an anthropocentric hegemony. Equally problematic, the “romantic view” imagines a “return to a state of unencumbered continuity with nature” (4). The encounter with earth art frustrates both instrumental and romantic views by proffering an already withdrawn earth. As a recessive other, the earth’s relationship to the artgoer is likened to the ethical relationship between a subject and his sexual other, which Luce Irigaray outlines in An Ethics of Sexual Difference (1993). Boetzkes identifies two characteristics of Irigaray’s ethics of difference as particularly important to the ethics of earth art. Irigaray’s ethics are driven by a problematic that is born only when one recognizes the other’s sexual difference and ponders their irreducible, interstitial distance. Crucial to this recognition is the physical encounter with the other, through which both subjects open into and onto the other, “through an open and receptive mode of touch that does not attempt to enclose but reinforces the parameters of difference” (21). Earth art, Boetzkes argues, provides a medium through which the human subject develops a similar ethical position by sensing the radical otherness of the earth.

Fundamental to Boetzkes’s project is John Sallis’s philosophy of the elemental. Boetzkes interprets the elemental as “irreducible”: “An elemental cannot be analyzed by dividing it into constituent parts, nor can it be summarized as a single entity” (15). Unable to “deliver [an elemental’s] sensual fullness” (20), contemporary artists struggle “to make the earth visible” (18) while revealing “its resistance to signification” (18). Boetzkes, therefore, distinguishes between the earth (for Edmund Husserl, the Ur-Arche), which defies representability, and the linguistically, culturally, and historically inscribed world.

Chapter 2 submits Robert Smithson’s work as evidence that earth art insists on the unrepresentability of the site. Boetzkes draws attention to the way that Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), an artwork that exists in diverse documentary and material forms, conjoins vision and language. To do so, she retraces the arguments of Craig Owens’s influential essay, in which the latter argued that the totality of Spiral Jetty always exceeds any [End Page 700] single documentary record (e.g., a photograph or a film). Owens determines that the work exists allegorically, with narratives retrospectively supplementing the limits...