March 28, 2013 5 Comments
This essay is premature. In part it is an eulogy, a post-mortem for something that is not yet out of the exuberant play-pen of adolescence, and still has a rich, fruitful life ahead of it. But, perhaps, there is some merit now in anticipating its eventual decay, and pondering the potential pitfalls of a developing body of thought at its initial flowering. Here I want to write a prospective obituary for the ‘geological turn’.
As regular readers will have noticed, I’m happily locked into a geo-materialist groove at the moment, revelling in opportunities to contribute to a weird realist embrace of the not-quite-so-inert-as-we-think-of terra firma. My aim is not to ‘call time’ on this fertile outpouring, rather to deliver up a snapshot of this tendency, and to ponder where – for good and ill – this summoning of rock, earth and metal, and their co-option back into cultural discourse, might lead (degeneratively or otherwise).
Starting at the end: geo-porn
Sitting in York University’s new law building yesterday I noticed two dull forms, each presented in a ceramic tub filled with buff stone chippings. The forms were squat lumps of grey rock, jutting up about a metre beyond the tub’s fill line. Imagine denuded stone cacti and you get the idea. One of these artefacts was stowed away behind a staircase, wedged in between photocopiers, notice boards and desks, as depicted in the photo above, giving every appearance that the staff working here have no use for (and find not stimulation from) this feature.
These dull rock ‘plants’ annoyed me. What were they there for? What box did they tick in the designer’s checklist of contemporary sensibilities? Were these intended as echoes of contemplative Zen gardens, something to get keen student minds churning but yet through the pragmatics compromises of procurement rendered to a scale of portability that made them both incidental, anonymous and easy for the porters to shunt around as just so much more furniture?
If they were intended to focus the minds of passersby upon the other-than-human enormity of rock and its deep time then they had the opposite effect for me. Like the corporate appropriation of lumps of rock to adorn the forecourts of business parks, these modest chunks left me cold. A lump of rock dumped amidst an otherwise manicured lawn says nothing about the meagreness of human presence upon the Earth or within Earth-time. In fact it shows the opposite, it affirms human dominion, crying out: “Look – we found this whilst developing this site. We moved it here with our diggers and have bent it to our will and design-purpose. We are the rock-kings. We tamed this place. Behold our rock zoo!”
To my mind this is geo-porn, rock commodified for low engagement aesthetic instant gratification, a muted trope perpetuating for reasons now forgotten across the development landscape, finding its worst expression in simulated stone circles at retail parks and roundabouts. One step short from the total embarrassment of Spinal Tap’s polystyrene menhirs.
And my fear would be that the geologic sensibility emergent in areas of social theory and contemporary philosophy may ultimately blossom and then dissipate into a diffused mundane earthy trope: rocks, mud and other hard stuff being dropped in as a matter of stylistic course to all ‘with-it’ discourse. For that would return us – full circle – to a lame co-option of the geologic as metaphor and instrument for business-as-usual human ends.
The playful perils of posthumanism
As things currently stand the geological turn is anything but cuddly and co-opting. Many of those engaged in writing in its vein, do so from post-human positions, the extremity of which is Nietzsche’s declaration that:
“The earth has a skin; and this skin has diseases and one of them is man.” (2003: 153)
I find the yearning nilhilism of the extinction fetishism found in some quarters unsettling and don’t subscribe to an eradication agenda. We are human and whilst there is much human hubris to bring down to size, we are not external to nature and the Earth. As Jane Bennett (no relation) puts it:
“we ourselves are geo-creatures – Earthlings” (in Ellsworth & Kruse 2013: 244)
So, for me the strengths of the geologic sensibility are its decentring of the human from thinking about the material world, and the playful ways in which writers seek to foreground the geological realm and to destabilise our knowing of it, thereby reminding us of its power, its permanence and of our own incidentality. It is a concern, as Bennett puts it, “to theorise a kind of geological affect or material vitality” (2010: 61) in the face of encounters with eruptive geologic power – and whether global warming, Icelandic volcanoes emptying air lanes or the random violence of a fatal Florida sinkhole. For me this sensibility is about humbling us in the face of what surrounds us (the “vast entourage of nonhumans” as Bennett (2010: 108) puts it), as a prompt to reconnection with the inevitable materialities and consequences of our daily lives, it is not about finding the best seat in the house from which to revel in the end of the human.
But summoning the potency and longevity of the geologic does lend itself to images of death and disaster, of working with powerful cultural tropes deeply embedded in mainstream entertainment culture, and by which we already know that we are not masters of the world in which we dwell. As Ben Woodward puts it in characteristically cataclysmic tone, there is a lazy somatic view of the Earth, for which we already have the tools for unlocking:
“[It is] images of Earth as both dead body and mute cradle that we set out to destroy with digging machines, massive energy weapons, and total ecological collapse. These images perform a dual criminal function: one, to stabilize thinking, and two, to give gravity to anthropocentric thinking and being.” (2013: 6)
Woodward then co-opts tropes of decay, giant worms, whirlpools and the Star Wars Death Star (amongst others) to summon forth destabilized, ‘ungrounded’ ways of thinking about the Earth and its materialities and its “poromechanics”(12). And like Graham Harman and others, Woodward summons the uncanny horror of H.P. Lovecraft in support of his antagonistic reading of (un)dead geology. Through such geomancery a creeping, shifting, unpredictable and fundamentally unknowable world is summoned, a world in which the human feels anything but omnipotent, a world comprised of a fleet of “hyperobjects” (Morton 2010) – issues of scale and temporaily beyond human grasp: radioactive decay, global warming, tectonics and so forth.
In my recent pieces on nuclear waste repositories and deep time (my blog piece on site warning markers here, and my companion PopAnth.com essay here) I’ve been trying to think through the ways in which human attempts to intermix with the geologic (both the rock and its timescales) shows us the limits of human time-perception and mastery of matter. My PopAnth piece is subtitled ”Why it’s difficult to think like a mountain” and includes the following paragraph:
“In his seminal book A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopard urged generations of future US environmentalists to “think like a mountain”. Reflecting on this in his 1995 book A Moment on the Earth, U.S. eco-optimist journalist Gregg Easterbrook remarked on how Leopard’s 1948 call had actually left unexplored precisely how a mountain might indeed think. Easterbrook took up that challenge and co-opted mountain-think in his presentation of a counter-reading of environmental change and nature’s resilience that was distinctly geologic in its perspective. For Easterbrook the key point was that a mountain exists across an entirely supra-human timescale. If a mountain could think, it’s horizon of consideration – the timescales that would be of concern to it – would be the truly long term, for rock is born, exists and eventually decays in ‘deep time’.“
In that piece I then go on to consider how specifically in the geologic timescale of nuclear waste disposal, human time perception and attempts to truly ‘think like a mountain’ fail. Yes, we need to try to think like a mountain – it is humbling to do so and puts us back in our place – but a mountain is a mountain and we are human. There are limits to how much we can grasp the full reality of being a mountain, no matter how hard we try.
Timothy Morton – following Graham Harman’s object oriented ontology – can help illustrate these cognitive limits. In a splendidly playful passage, Morton laboriously charts the futility of attempts to fully know a breeze block (a concrete construction brick – a cinder block in the US):
“Maybe if I sit here and wait patiently, I will see the real block. I wait. I become impatient. I develop all kinds of contemplative practices to stay here looking at the block. I become enlightened. The block still refuses to spill the beans. I train a disciple to take over from me when I die. She sees nothing of the real block, which now has a large crack across the top, inside of which you can see right through it. She starts a religious order that carefully transmits my instructions about how to monitor the block. For tens of thousands of years, cultures, peoples, robots study the block, which is now looking pretty gnarly. A hundred thousand years later, a fully enlightened robot sits monitoring the faint traces of dust hanging in the air where the block used to sit. Still no dice.” (2013: 28)
And in contemplating a succession of human and other sentient observers of the cinder block over this expansive time period we start to glimpse the reversal that Jane Bennett denotes as ‘mineralization’:
“In the long and slow time of evolution, then, mineral material appears as the mover and shaker, the active power, and the human beings, with their much-lauded capacity for self-directed action, appear as its product.” (2010: 11).
Just who was watching who here? An omniscient onlooker would see perhaps the cinder block summoning to audience a succession of reverential companions, the observers thus seeming to become the subject of their object…
Making stuff talk
In its own terms Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory is pretty heretical position when viewed against the canon of mainstream social theory – but set against the machinations of the hardcore posthumanists it starts to looks rather tame (and surprisingly sane and practical). Like Morton, Latour finds cause to meditate upon bricks, as part of his attempt to reinsert matter into social theory. Starting with the simple (but still quite challenging for the vested interests of conventional social theory) observation that the process of building a wall entails the intermixing of the social and the physical, Latour moves on to note that the physical dimension is a mute one, particularly after the construction phase has ended:
“Once built, the wall of bricks does not utter a word – even though the group of workmen goes on talking and graffiti may proliferate on its surface” (2005: 79)
The task therefore (for ANT) becomes one of how to:
“make them talk, that is, to offer descriptions of themselves, to produce scripts of what they are making others – humans or non-humans – do.” (2005: 79 – emphasis in original)
Meanwhile for the posthumanist / OOO brigades this entails what Ian Bogost calls ontography:
“…writ[ing] the speculative fictions of their processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger.” (emphasis in original)
For Latour this summoning of objects may be achieved imaginatively through the arts, but it can also be achieved via more traditional interpretive routes:
“when objects have receded into the background for good it is always possible – but more difficult – to bring them back to light by using archives, documents, memoirs, museum collections etc., to artificially produce, through historians’ accounts, the state of crisis in which machines, devices, and implements were born.” (81)
As Latour then argues, it is not lack of data that prevents us from studying objects and their network relations with us humans, but rather a lack of will. Perhaps in the geologic turn we see some sign of a resurgent will within the humanities and in social theory to engage with attempts to know – albeit inevitably in an incomplete way – the nature and influence of the not-quite-so-mute, (un)dead earth beneath us.
Let’s give almost the last word to Graham Harman, a master of colourful metaphors that – like this – often mix vivid images with gritty eruptive reality:
“Human theory and human praxis are both prone to surprises from sudden eruptions of unknown properties from the chair-being of the chair.” (2012: 15)
This winds us down, out of apocalyptic revere, but leaves us no less unsettled as readers. What if my chair did suddenly break whilst I was intently reading or writing?
Well, I would be pulled up. I would be forced to engage with the disruptive potentiality of dumb, brute matter and how I was relying upon it.
At its best the geological turn has this ability to force attention towards the taken for granted physicality of the world, and a troubling sense of its potency can be brought home. So, even if I can’t cultivate my geological affect by staring at lumps of rock in tubs, potentially I can get it from the seat or the floor as I sit and stare. As Bennett (2010: 108) puts it, what is being sought here – sometimes via kooky or anti-human seeming depictive means – is something quite practical:
“new procedures, technologies, and regimes of perception that enable us to consult nonhumans more closely, or to listen to and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies and propositions.”
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter – a political ecology of things, Duke University Press: London.
Bogost, I. (2012) Alien Phenomenology, or What it’s like to be a Thing, University of Minnesota Press: London.
Easterbrook, G. (1996) A Moment on the Earth, Penguin: London.
Ellsworth, E. & Kruse, J. (2013) Making the Geologic Now – responses to material conditions of contemporary life, punctum books: New York. Available for free download at: http://geologicnow.com/
Harman, G. (2012) Wierd Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, Zero Books: Winchester
Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social – An introduction to Actor Network Theory, Oxford University Press: Oxford
Morton, T. (2010) The Ecological Thought, Harvard University Press: London.
Morton, T. (2013) Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality, Open Humanities Press. Available for free download here: http://openhumanitiespress.org/realist-magic.html
Nietzsche, F. (2003) Thus Spoke Zarathustra (trans R.J. Hollingdale) Penguin: London.
Woodward, B. (2013) On an Ungrounded Earth: towards a New Geophilosophy, punctum books: New York. Available for free download here: http://punctumbooks.com/titles/ungrounded-earth/