2016 Virtual Edition: Elena Glasberg

Postscript to The Last Place on Earth: Antarctica and Virtual Capitalism

The Future On Ice

Looking back on my 1998 article and thinking about what survived and what did not puts me in mind of life with my ex, a highly successful academic. Her boot prints are all over its pages, especially in the over-the-top Works Cited. But in the long trek between grad school and first academic job, the article’s key terms, “modernity,” “capital,” the “virtual,” “transnational,” seemed necessary freight, like the 35 lbs. of specimen rocks British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his team, dying of starvation and over-exposure, man-hauled back from their futile quest to be first at the south pole in 1911. Scott has used scientific field research to justify his shaky mission to a seemingly profitless place — and in a way, so had I. Antarctica was not exactly at the center of American Studies scholarship in the 1990s. As one senior academic put it to me, not too unkindly, “no one is exactly waiting for the next book on Antarctica.” Nor was anyone really waiting in fall 2012 when that book, Antarctica as Cultural Critique: The Gendered Politics of Exploration, Science, and Climate Change, finally arrived.

Glasberg photo 1

Antarctica as featured in an IBM ad, 2000 (photo taken by the author)

Today with all eyes trained on global climate disaster, the article’s ephemeral object, a 1994 print ad for Chrysler touting the car maker’s exemplary response to emission-caused ozone-depletion, seems quaint — and yet, also prescient. (Indeed, the ozone hole has turned out to be the least of the signs of the Anthropocene, perhaps due in part to industry-led self-regulation.) Chrysler’s ad strategy demonstrates the logic of what Naomi Klein in 2007 named “disaster capitalism,” the ability of capital to profit from the damage and failure it structurally sustains, even bad air, and now, melting ice. The space between disaster capitalism and the relentless search for conditions of “primitive accumulation” has often been filled by Antarctica ice. Ice turned up as an invitingly blank background for a 2000 full-page newspaper ad for IBM reading, “What a great place for an e-market.” IBM struggled into the 21st Century, despite attempts to redirect attention from present failures to future triumphs on the virtual territory of Antarctica. And in 2008 Chrysler ironically required a rescue of its own in the form of a taxpayer bailout.

In a 2009 ad campaign in the DC Metro, transnational weapons-makers Raytheon and KBR competed for the prestigious (if not strictly lucrative) NSF contract to support its ever-expanding science operations in the Antarctic. The ads’ clean white and blue colors and rugged adventure scenarios extended US national parks aesthetics to Antarctica, and further suggesting that state-corporate stewardship of the environment would be ongoing in the same way that war has become a permanent feature of the world system. The corporate-run supply chain is the lifeblood of the proxy war of representation that “runs the ice” under the sign of international science.

The inviting cartoon of the Chrysler ad presaged the uptick in popular films about Antarctica’s threatened wildlife. 2006 Academy Awards winner for best documentary, March of Penguins, showed how anthropomorphizing penguin behavior has never required cartooning, just a narrative voiced by Morgan Freeman celebrating the “family values” inherent in male emperor penguins’ efforts to keep eggs warm.

Animated features Happy Feet (2005) and Madagascar (2006) offered more nuanced understanding of the entanglements of global climate change. Madagascar depicts a film crew purposefully setting in motion the plot in which the adolescent penguins reverse the direction of Scott’s heroic trek to the south pole, in order to discover the human agents causing the destruction of their habitat. As cameras pursue the penguins to the ends of the earth, “disaster tourism” in Antarctica has brought with it media responses from Stephen Colbert, whose 2008 “The Colbert Report” sketch featuring Antarctica did more to publicize the proto-militarist competition and neo-imperial bluster of much national presence on the continent than all the academics in the world combined. Colbert protégé John Oliver, host of “Last Week Tonight,” in a 2014 sketch took direct aim at disaster tourists, who in their ill-conceived avidity for bonding with penguins threaten to “love Antarctica to death.” His smirking message to Antarctica’s yearly 13,000 neo-explorers: “Please don’t go.”

But more important than how many visitors the ice can sustain, is the issue of who gets to visit.

The universalism implicit in the anthro- of Anthropocene has led Donna Haraway to offer instead the term “Capitalocene” to mark the era of industry-caused climate disruption, whose worst effects are visited upon the regions and populations least responsible and yet least able to protect themselves (2015). Participation in Antarctic science by nations of the global south (a geo-concept that excludes Antarctica) such as Malaysia and India has declined since the 1980s, while since 2000 China strategizes for 2048, the year Antarctica’s mineral ban will be up for renegotiation, by massively increasing its presence on the ice.

What the years since Chrysler’s anti-emission protocols indicate is that industry regulation and techno-fix alone cannot repair disrupted geo-economic systems. Capital, virtual and material in its practices, continues to create class distinction and inequality in how it recognizes much less addresses the effects of industrialization. And yet the response, pace Oliver, cannot be to limit access to the ice or to attempt to reinstate Antarctica’s former isolation. Antarctica does need rescue and a big part of that rescue needs to be from the very tropes and images that have thus far sustained its myth as isolated, free of humans, and unconquerably frozen. People are now in and of Antarctica. More people every year. Humans and their effects cannot be disentangled from the ice. The future requires new partnerships and tweaked missions.

“We’re going to Mars” begins Nikki Giovanni’s 2002 poem “Quilting the Black-eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars)” — by way of Antarctica — “for the same reason Shackleton was enchanted with penguins.” For Giovanni, the ice is not melting, but more sliding into place through the tectonics of Afro-futurism, a cultural movement that reinvests African displacement and quite literal alienation as otherworldly potential[1]. In the poem’s unabashed celebration of NASA’s defunded manned space program, Giovanni rides the very science that played its part in conscribing her historically and ontologically, deadpanning, “NASA needs to call black people,” since the descendants of those who endured the middle passage of the slave trade might well be those most suited to survive the physical and spiritual punishments of space flight. It may be NASA that is more in need of rescue than black people and it is fascinating to contemplate alternative partnerships and historical healing, not completely subsumed into neoliberal logics. The defunding of NASA is of a piece with other forms of neoliberal government abandonment that more directly hurt those populations structurally excluded from government support. The wealthy can sign up for space flight through private carriers.

But without NASA and its national promise, how can less advantaged populations ever take flight? How can they too share in the promise of futurity?

The poem ends with the explorers on the brink of contact with awaiting Martians, who are “quilting the black-eyed pea,” in an image that grafts West African and African-American plants and food ways onto rocket science. Quilting as a technology redirects rocket science into a hybridized, layered network of passage, repair, seeding, and coding. The quest for the south pole, to survive alienation, or to see and save the penguins is multiplied, layered, and collectivized: quilted. Giovanni is more canny than necessarily star struck by astronauts or by explorers of the Heroic Age. She wants in on the power and prestige that still clings to their storied sacrifices. Her ancestors already bought the ticket.


[1] Conventional exploration history contains far fewer non-white European explorers than it excludes. One of the few (somewhat recognized) black explorers was Matthew Henson (also referenced by Giovanni in the poem), likely the first to near the North Pole as unofficial second-in-command in Robert Peary’s (much disputed) 1909 expedition. Rather than reify a past of concrete limits, artists retrofit both the structure of the past as well as methodological approaches to it. Mojisola Adebayo’s multi-media performance Moj of the Antarctic: An African Odyssey (2006-8) reroutes the narrative of Ellen Case, a US 19th Century escaped slave, through time and across continents to disrupt limiting conceptualizations of the past and to give ongoing meaning to liberation.


Giovanni, Nikki. 2002. “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars).” In Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems, 1-4. New York: Harper Collins.

Glasberg, Elena. 2012. Antarctica as Cultural Critique: The Gendered Politics of Scientific Exploration and Climate Change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6: 159-165.

Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York, NY: Picador.

Elena Glasberg is an essayist and speaker interested in questions of nation, literature, and science, as well as how people relate to place and territory. She earned her PhD in American Studies from Indiana University in 1995. She currently teaches at New York University.