latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Notes towards a geological uprising by way of a dark feminism
Deep under the surface of the earth lie reservoirs of oil, corpses of ancient peat bogs pressurized over millions of years to form a potently energetic fluid - viscous and seemingly demonic in its effects on humanity, various ecosystems, geological stratifications and the atmosphere. The spectacle and horror of the force of oil (along with other hydrocarbons) manifests itself in its pernicious effects on human psyche – is there no better image or conceptual personae of ‘capital personified’ than the crazed oilman in the American West, exhibited in films like There Will be Blood? And yet – this horror is not simply contained in the human mind; it is a situational horror, one that results from both the slimy potential of oil itself and the unbinding effects of capitalist development and general equivalence.
The concept of an ‘oil reservoir’ is somewhat misleading, as most of us imagine a pool of liquid trapped somewhere underneath the surface of the earth. Most oil reservoirs are contained in porous rocks or sands, pressurized by a cap or seal that prevents the liquid from flowing out of a concentrated area. Conventional oil mining techniques ‘tap’ this cap in order to access the reservoir. With planetary oil supplies (seemingly) dwindling and oil prices stabilizing at higher levels than ever before, new mining techniques and areas are becoming profitable. ‘Unconventional’ oil reservoirs trapped in geologic formations and materials with low porosity, such as tar sands and oil shales, have recently become profitable through a confluence of political, economic, and technoscientific developments (Bridge and Le Billon 2013). Mining unconventional oil through hydrofracking and other methods has strange and sometimes disastrous effects on human social systems, health, global markets, moral economies, and spatial imaginations. Yet while hydrofracking evidences the horrendous effects of human activity, an understanding of the poromechanics of oil reservoirs also leads us not to a concept of the Earth that is sealed, pure, or lively, but somewhat porous, strange, and undead.
Much of contemporary environmental discourse relies upon the image of a Whole Earth, from the neo-Spinozist holism of Arne Naess’ deep ecology to hyperglobalist, cybernetic, or new-age theories of hyper-connectivity. Yet despite the ostensible interconnectedness (and thus all-encompassing naturalness) of such ecological imaginaries, humanity writ large is politically imagined as the main agent or actor capable of disturbing complex earth systems. Thus in its present configuration, the human species has proven capable of disturbing a system conventionally imagined as properly enclosed or stable, and thus the species has tumbled down a dark path towards a Fallen Humanity. It is against this discourse that I would like to position Ben Woodard’s On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy. In tapping into unstable geologic formations, for example, oil wells do not disturb a slumbering, dead and lifeless Earth, nor a shimmering vital underground ecology; Woodard’s work allows us to see instead how Whole Earth / Fallen Humanity philosophies ignore or exhaust the real potentiality of the Earth’s forces, materials and voids. On an Ungrounded Earth points instead to the manifold ways earth forces disturb us –beyond the conscious and instrumental capacities of thought.
On an Ungrounded Earth is a chaotic and difficult work, winding through labyrinthine analyses and critiques of political situations, contemporary ‘speculative realist’ philosophy, and horror films. Each of these situations demonstrates the necessity of positing the reality of the world in excess of the limits of human thought and discourse. Woodard adds to these themes an argument that the Earth (broadly conceived) is an ‘ungrounded’ force ridden with burrows, holes and dark passages by way of horror and science fiction in literature, cinema and video games. The book demands much from its reader, including a tolerance for conceptual leaps, loose ends, and plot holes of its own. Nonetheless, several nuggets and stray experiments are of singular significance to academics and non-academics alike interested in the Anthropocene, geology, geopolitics, science fiction, and feminism.
The ungrounded Earth is neither merely “a thing to be exploited” nor “an object of nostalgia” (2013: 2). Nor is the ungrounded Earth merely a dwelling place or homeland to be cherished or restored. Instead, for Woodard, the Earth is an unpredictable “materiality made of powers and flows” (2013: 28), that which exceeds thought’s very capacities. It is resolutely real and material, exceeding all idealisms. Furthermore, the Earth is temporally messy, stuck as it were between the living and the dead in a process of decay that produces proliferating permeable surfaces, twisting tunnels, wormy creatures, and gooey fluids. For humans, the temporalities and spatialities of the Earth are doggedly unknowable or undecidable and thus provoke horror and fear. In horror fiction, Woodard finds the most compelling images of the Earth, characterized by uncertain situations where “something has already happened and the current action is trying to discover what happened or whether what happened is going to happen again” (page 48). One immediately thinks of the current politics and science of climate change, where we find ourselves always already a step behind an apocalypse that has already occurred.
The result of the more common-sense position that the Earth is dead (that is, atemporal, unchanging, waiting to be commodified) is that digging, burrowing or mining processes (especially those proliferated by capitalism) tend towards ungroundings that now threaten the very existence of humanity itself. As touched on above, this should have profound effects for how we think about processes like hydrofracking, as well as in-situ uranium leach mining, carbon capture and storage, and landfill waste. In one of his most rewarding sections, Woodard examines the decrepit logic of geocontainment strategies for waste burial. The entombment of radioactive waste in sites such as Yucca Mountain in Nevada and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico seems to combine an ignorance and disregard for the forces of the Earth with an indifference towards future generations of humans or nonhuman animals (not to mention any potential alien visitors). “The infinite time of burial at Yucca Mountain functions to house human waste in order to guarantee the endless time of human thought” (Woodard, 2013: 68). A similar naïve idealist faith that objects, flows and semiotics will behave as we expect now threatens the material conditions of human life on Earth. In this discourse, everything is not connected. No equilibrium or whole earth provides a fallback or safety net for life; instead, many forces (and the Earth might be included here) are capable of detachment, extinction, and annihilation.
Speculative ventures underground harbor possibilities of a rethinking of the Earth, as well as our own porous and decaying bodies and political systems. No doubt these ventures provoke a certain kind of fanatic and hazardous study of the strange – “Underground human life often leads to demonology” (Woodard, 2013: 22). And any speculative politics of the Earth’s underground risks being overdetermined by a surface/depth distinction that easily resurrects modern binaries of nature/culture or aesthetics/technics (Williams, 2008). Woodard’s philosophy deftly avoids this danger through its ontology of holes. Yet can an ungrounded Earth only lead to horror and an ultimate sacrifice of human life, even if the situation of its decay is ultimately contingent? So it would seem -- for example, Woodard criticizes Jane Bennett’s tendency to “overwhelm [things] with human affect, or human fascination” (2013: 58). But On an Ungrounded Earth also exhibits its own human fascinations – with the trauma of a deracinated Earth and a cryptic struggle to find “some hope of desolation and pessimism” (2013: 94). What makes fascination human, while horror inhuman, and how is this decision reached? Is horror the only inhuman affect, or does the Earth also generate mystery, origin stories, reverence, a relation to ‘the dead’? What makes these affects mere somaticism, while horror is privileged? And finally, are horror and nihilism all that a decaying Earth has to offer – especially when the most horrific reality seems to be our position:
“that we are capable of creating and utilizing tools that go even further in ungrounding, or even degrounding, that very place (the earth) on which our feet happen to be more or less planted” (2013: 25)?
While it is not necessary nor desirable for every philosopher to present a ready-made political theory, my impression is that these questions may gnaw at many scholars interested in thinking ecology, geology, and materiality in order to salvage an alternative political project from an Earth capable of exhibiting its own temporal and spatial processes of ruination.
When we seek to blur the distinctions between Earth, matter, and bodies – as Woodard does so well – alternative political imaginaries are also created, ones that I believe have the ability to work against the fascism with which subterranean philosophy is so often accused. Georges Bataille, for example, was well aware that a political interest in base and lowly matter (what he called ‘heterogeneous reality’ or ‘subversive forms’) risked coming uncannily close to a creeping fascism. The subjective position of fascism is indicated by a fascination with bodily enclosure, one which staves off decay and all other effluent flows. A certain preoccupation with a radical ‘break,’ whether with the noble or the filthy, differentiates both revolutionary movements and fascist ones from the ‘homogeneous reality’ of democracy (Bataille 1985: 145-148). But unlike subversive activity, the fascist body (whether individual or social) must enforce its borders, build boundaries and walls, and prevent all flows (Theweleit, 1987). Some ecological thought displays a tendency to espouse a similar desire to bind and protect the Earth from improper interference as one would a body. In this way, aspects of contemporary ecological politics share a disturbing discourse or political imaginary with fascism (Linke, 1999).
Against this formation, Woodard argues that “bodies themselves are completely envoided, swirlings of matter and forces, and, in a philosophical sense, messes of onto-epistemological indistinction” (2013: 86). In contrast to ecological politics, this argument resonates with some important works in feminist thought, which have emphasized a volatile ontology of the body not enclosed and fortified, but ridden with holes, subject not just to decay but even extinction. The possibility for a kind of excessive synthesis with this strain of thought – ranging perhaps from Julia Kristeva and the aforementioned Theweleit to more recent works by Stacy Alaimo and Claire Colebrook – is ripe. The upshot of connecting with feminist thought is that each offer theories of the poromechanics of earth forces and our differential and effluent bodies, respectively. If as Kathryn Yusoff has recently argued (2013), geologic forces are something not always separate from human being, but forces that we share and in which we partake, then attention to both geologic and biologic forces of decay is warranted. It might be that our bodies share with the Earth not so much a crust or strata, but a somewhat horror-provoking uneven and ‘undercover softness,’ to borrow Negarestani’s phrase (2010). A ‘dark feminism’ might explore the uses and limits of horror, ecological or geological threat, and extinction in aesthetic production and politics - in relation to a body which can only superficially be called ‘one’s own.’ It might also explore the uncertainty that comes with being future victims of an apocalypse that seems to have always already occurred. But any dark feminism would have to work through these moments to a realization that there is nothing left but to giving political meaning and action to a fragmentary insurgent vulnerability (Alaimo, 2009) through excessive generosity (Clark, 2010).
If a similar ontology informs Woodard’s thought, a conversation between these theoretical movements might begin to uncover alternative politics of the Earth. In order to get to a heterogenous or differential Earth, anti-fascist thought must traverse nihilism and horror. Only then can we find the burrows and holes that the Earth offers us as gifts: dim passages that harbor secrets and produce secretions, oozing non-utopian political possibilities for a ‘geological uprising’ to come (Bataille, 1985: 35).
 For descriptions, images and critiques of the Whole Earth or Gaia Complex (and its political and ontological shortcomings), see Colebrook (2012), Diederichsen and Franke (2013), and Negarestani (2008).
 Woodard has a tendency to gloss through critiques that might cause some pause. For example, throughout the book, Deleuze and Guattari are accused of idealism or ‘somaphilia,’ which “reduces nature to a collection of objects, wherein the earth becomes a place or set of places, instead of a materially vital life/thought engine” (2013, page 6). Deleuze’s supposed idealism is assumed, which might give many contemporary geographers and anthropologists much to grumble about. For example, throughout his corpus Deleuze emphasizes that thought itself is the product of material and bodily encounters and becomings – Ergo Woodard’s claim that “For Deleuze, thought does all the digging: dynamism is contained within the idea” (2013, page 8) seems profoundly disconnected with Deleuze’s oft-quoted quip that “something in the world forces us to think” (Deleuze 1994, page 139). I am wary of arguments that assume panpsychism or idealism in Deleuze –the supposed ideal role of the virtual in Deleuze’s thought is the subject of much debate. Yet there are other readings of Deleuze, especially those associated with Marxist, materialist, feminist, and queer thought that reject any such idealism. The richness of Woodard’s work of course exceeds these conceptual quibbles.
 As the geologist and stratigrapher Jan Zalasiewicz speculates, “The least worst option is to place [nuclear waste] deep underground, as a very distinctive gift to the geologists of the future: whatever shape these beings take, they will likely treat high levels of radiation with respect” (2008, page 169).
 Peter van Wyck has explained one of the shortcomings of this discourse well: “Once we say that everything is connected in this fashion, we mean that everything is, if not already, then at least potentially integrated into a framework of understanding. And it isn’t. To make everything connected is to see the fissures and cracks rendered by ecological threats…as a kind of recompense for a failure to have properly understood the connections” (Van Wyck 2005, page ix). Ecological or geologic dangers, threats or catastrophes impinge upon us not due to a lack of understanding or thought by humans, but due to a surplus of potentiality exhibited by the Earth. In order for this surplus to exist, it must not be essentially connected to every other part of the earth system.
 See especially Bataille’s essays “The ‘Old Mole’ and the Prefix Sur in the Words Surhomme [Superman] and Surrealist” and “The Psychological Structure of Fascism” in Visions of Excess (1985).
 On the idea that we are already living in a post-apocalyptic world (which requires an explanation of the unevenness of this apocalypse, see Calder-Williams (2010) and Van Wyck (2003). The statement comes in part from the fact that the effects of climate change, nuclear waste, and the other ecological threats of the Anthropocene are often felt well after the event that provoked them.