“Islands are world models in the world” (Foams, 289).
Two years later and we’re still here. Still stranded. There is open space all around us, but we are left isolated, only venturing out of the house for sustenance and sunlight. We’ve been cast adrift in self-imposed seclusion amidst the sea of technological connection; a sea that should bring us closer to friends and family, but in reality has trapped us in our isolated bubbles. The future has never looked so deserted.
To philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, society has become—or perhaps always was—a collection of interconnected bubbles. They are the primary mode of being in our modern technological society. They represent the individual’s own personal spatial world, a world that is always both connected to and isolated from those around it. Bubbles exist in a state of co-isolation. All of us: isolated, trapped, surrounded. Much like the desert island.
This modern phenomenon of ‘co-isolation’ has forced us into a position where we must take the concept of desert islands seriously. An island may be solitary, or it may be part of an archipelago. It is defined by its unique place in space, but also by its potential for connection with the outside. In fact, John Donne is wrong in saying no man is an island—in the twenty-first-century desert islands are all we have
To Sloterdijk, the island metaphor digs into the heart of human society. For hundreds of years, humans have been curious about life on desert islands. He notes that since the publication of Daniel Defoe’s novel The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in 1719, Europeans, in particular, have conceded that humans are creatures who have business being on islands: “From this exemplary shipwreck onward, the island in the distant ocean served as the site of revision processes against the definitions of reality on terra firma” (Foams, 287).
The seafaring age brought new potential. Islands represented worlds-to-be-made. Isolated worlds that existed inside the world. But humanity has been drawn to islands since long before the time of Daniel Defoe. Desert islands have occupied a unique place in the history of thought and the development of human civilisation since the days of antiquity. They have become part of our heritage; a source of endless inspiration for poets and philosophers since the written word was in its infancy. We only need to look at the myth of Atlantis from Plato’s Timaeus to remind ourselves that the archetypal ‘lost city’ was also an island that sunk beneath the waves. We also mustn’t forget that Odysseus’s journey was characterised by strange encounters with exotic beings on remote outposts in the Mediterranean Sea. From Ithaca to Pharos, from Ogygia to Scheria, and from Aeaea to Thrinacia, the foundational epic of Western literature is essentially a tale of island hopping.
Islands emerge again and again in myths of classical antiquity, many of which deal with stories of creation and destruction in one form or another. In the famous war between the Olympians and the giants, the giants had sought to attack the heavens in order to avenge their Titanic brothers (the former rulers of the world who had recently been banished to Tartarus). Towards the end of the battle, both divine races fled back to earth and began ripping rocks from the ground and hurling them at one another, and many years later, as Robert Graves notes in his encyclopaedia of Greek Myths, these rocks would be transformed into the islands of the sea we now call the Mediterranean: “Athene threw a vast missile at Enceladus, which crushed him flat and became the island of Sicily. And Poseidon broke off part of Cos with his trident and threw it at Polybutes; this became the nearby island of Nisyros, beneath which he lies buried” (The Greek Myths, 132).
Islands have served as coffins for the heretics who dared to defy the Gods. They were the salty graves that housed the memories of immortals who failed to take heaven. But also islands have an interesting dualistic quality. As well as these morbid, destructive elements, they have also been seen as lands of fertility and creation. The volcanic birth of an island from the sea bed is a wonder that was immortalised in the mythological consciousness through the birth of Aphrodite from the foams of the sea on Crete. Hesiod saw Aphrodite (taking her name from aphros (ἀφρός), the seafoam) as the goddess of bubbles. The patron saint of the city which would become the cornerstone of one of the world’s most ancient civilisations was essentially an island deity.
In the twentieth century, the conceptual possibilities of island analysis didn’t go unnoticed. Gilles Deleuze took up this duality of creativity and destruction in his 1953 essay, fittingly titled, Desert Islands. Deleuze emphasises the difference between islands that are separated from a continent through the erosion of the sea, a process that isolates the individual island from the mainland (continental islands), and the creative emergence of an island that rises from the earth’s volcanic activity (oceanic islands). Through a brief analysis of famous island tales Robinson Crusoe and Jean Giradoux’s Suzanne and the Pacific, he concludes that desert island literature has become a reflection of the modern world, killing the mythical idea of the island. But, at the same time, it is also literature that serves as our modern form of myth-making. The history of literature is a story of picking up where mythology left off. But if the mythical island was dead in the minds of Deleuze’scontemporaries, he sought to revive it. He argues that:
Literature is the attempt to interpret, in an ingenious way, the myths we no longer understand, at the moment we no longer understand them, since we no longer know how to dream them or reproduce them … We have to get back to the movement of the imagination that makes the deserted island a model, a prototype of the collective soul. First, it is true that from the deserted island it is not creation but re-creation, not the beginning but a re-beginning that takes place. The deserted island is the origin, but a second origin. From it everything begins anew. … The second origin is thus more essential than the first, since it gives us the law of repetition, the law of the series, whose first origin gave us only moments. But this theme, even more than in our fantasies, finds expression in every mythology (Desert Islands, 12-13).
The curious thing about this description is how the young Deleuze used these islands as the metaphorical springboard from which he would develop the most important ideas in his expansive philosophy. Although the essay in itself has a touch of the esoteric, we can already see the beginnings of core concepts such as difference and repetition emerging in metaphorical form… The island then, to Deleuze, is a world that connects the mythological, the literary and the metaphysical. It is an idea that opens up new possibilities for thinking about the way that we, as humans, have to come to live.
To Sloterdijk this kind of island analysis has never been more relevant than it is today. His work takes a large inspiration from Deleuze’s ideas on relationality and difference which first came to fruition in Desert Islands. Indeed, Sloterdijk alludes to Deleuze’s essay when he states: “Human sojourn on the island occupies the philosopher to the extent that the island embodies the dream domain of humans” (Foams, 288). This dream domain, therefore, reaches beyond the mythical and metaphysical and into the political. The desert island, from the dawn of our civilisation, has been the world we imagine for ourselves. So, if we take seriously his statement that ‘Europeans see humans as creatures who have business being on islands,’ then perhaps it’s no surprise that European culture, which has its foundation on the isles of the Mediterranean, should be so indebted to the islands there.
However, outside of Europe, other island nations have also been drawn to those rocky outposts floating in the sea. In the 20th century, the literary sons of what is now the wealthiest island nation on earth, Japan, also took great inspiration from the birthplace of European civilisation. In Sun and Steel, Yukio Mishima described a visit to Greece as reawakening his sense of beauty as an aesthetic concept inherently tied to the body and its ideal image. His trip to the Greek islands also provided the inspiration for his novel The Sound of Waves which describes a remote Japanese island unaffected by the adoption of modern capitalism; it served as a romantic vision of the traditional Japan that Mishima thought was lost. Similarly, towards the end of the century, Haruki Murakami spent time living and working on the Greek islands, developing a minor obsession with the region which resulted in the naming of the characters in his sprawling Wind-up Bird Chronicle after the islands of Crete and Malta. The names of Murakami’s characters were chosen to embody aspects of their own islands’ history. The ‘island sisters’ are both eccentric and ex-centric in nature; their clairvoyance isolates them in their own world, a world detached from the collective reality of the mainland.
Perhaps then, the civilisations developed on islands have always been drawn to one another. Maybe island civilisations always project a kind of fantasy; an ideal world separated from the confines of the continent. But of course, the projection of a fantasy island is nothing new. Any discussion of Utopia has always been a discussion of islands. After all, is Utopia not, by definition, the place that doesn’t exist? The ‘no-place?’ Thomas More’s original Utopia was an island nation that must be created. Even from the 16th century, the desert island was seen as a model for the creation of an entirely new world.
Sloterdijk also recognises the utopian element that is inherent in the discussion of islands, but to him, this represents something far more than fantasy. It has become the paradigmatic representation of the modern epoch:
the denizens of the Modern Age would see more clearly with each new generation that a nesopoietic model was inherent in the ‘project’ of modernity – that is, the tendency to translate the island (Greek he nesos) from the register of the found to that of the made. The moderns are island-writing, island-building intelligences that presuppose what could be called a topological declaration of human rights: it links the right to isolation to the equally original right to interconnection (Foams, 293).
And thus to our current situation, our current dystopia, and the post-dystopian world we are wading into. If the moderns were island-builders then what of the postmodern era? Perhaps we, as Bruno Latour argues, have never been modern. Our contemporary world is a multiplicity of islands being constantly created by volcanos and destroyed by the sea. In the age of the Anthropocene, it has become necessary to, as Sloterdijk writes, understand “how island-dwelling creatures transform into humans through the unprecedented effects of their isolation” (Foams, 333). And after all, what is earth if not a giant island floating in the sea of infinity? Are we not stuck on Buckminster Fuller’s ‘spaceship earth,’ in eternal orbit around Helios’s chariot? If we are formed by isolation, then we must ask ourselves what comes after isolation? As we emerge from the pandemic, we have to decide what kind of islands we will choose to live on in the future. The effects of the last year, this extended period of isolation, will have a profound effect on the world we will come to live in, but it is up to us what kind of world that will be. As Byung-Chul Han wrote in an early pandemic piece:
The virus isolates and individualizes us. It does not generate any strong collective sentiment. In some way, each cares only for his own survival. The solidarity consisting in keeping our distances mutual is not a solidarity that allows us to dream of a different, more peaceful, and just society. We cannot leave the revolution in the hands of the virus.
So, as the world begins to open up, perhaps it is time for us to take the words of the island theorists seriously. The world ahead of us is an open sea of potential. We are all isolated on our own islands, enclosed by our own bubbles, but we are connected through this isolation. The virus that has plagued our lives over the last years has only served to make this co-isolation more evident. Whether or not we think in terms of revolution, there are new worlds already appearing on the horizon. As of right now, the new world we will choose is only a mirage, a projection, a fantasy, but we must keep sailing this ‘spaceship earth’ towards it. As Deleuze wrote, the desert islands we exist on are not creation but re-creation, not the beginning but a re-beginning, a reality that is always also a fantasy. The pandemic has brought to light the idea of a second origin, the potential for a collective new beginning. To put it simply, the islands we create are the islands we inhabit. It’s time to choose between dystopia or utopia. It’s time to choose our own desert islands.
Deleuze, G. (2004). Desert Islands and Other Texts. Trans. M. Taormina. D. Lapoujade (ed.). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Graves, R. (1992). The Greek Myths. London: Penguin.
Han, B. C. (2020). The Viral Emergenc(e/y) and the World of Tomorrow. Trans. R. J. Bowling. El Pais. Available at: https://pianolaconalbedrio.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/the-viral-emergence-y-and-the-world-of-tomorrow-byun-chul-han/
Sloterdijk, P. (2016) Foams: Spheres III. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Header image by Alberto8833.