Undermining the Ends of the Earth

In On an Ungrounded Earth Ben Woodard presents his “realist theory of ungrounding” (Woodard, 2013: 18) as a corrective to modern Continental philosophy’s tradition of appealing to the earth as the stable ‘ground’ for legitimizing metaphysical claims (to which geographers would readily add political claims), whilst assuming it to be little more than the inert stage for the drama of human existence - a “cold dead place enlivened only by human thought” (page 2). In contrast to the canon of Continental philosophy - which seeks to use the earth to “stabilize thought” and “add gravity to anthropocentricism” (page 6) - Woodard proposes what he calls a “realist geophilosophy” (page 14). This realist geophilosophy seeks to acknowledge philosophy’s disavowed dependency upon the Earth, or rather expose how it is embedded within the inhuman dynamism of this “glob of baked matter” (page 7). Rather than allow the Earth to remain in the position of a denigrated, albeit legitimating, ‘ground’ for philosophy, Woodard aims to show how the internal and external forces shaping the earth (its constitutive torsions and entrapment within the sun’s energy economy) ‘unground’ philosophy’s attempts to assume it as a solid foundation for human existence and an inconsequential backdrop for its own operations.

Ungrounding is the name Woodard gives to those processes whereby philosophy’s assumptions about the integrity, solidity and stability of the Earth are unsettled; where materiality eats away at the metaphysical metaphorics of ‘ground’ and open up holes in the “repressive wholeness” (Negarestani, 2008: 237) of the Earth, preventing its consolidation as a stable object of human knowledge and domination (page 30). If modern Continental philosophy has assumed the Earth as a metaphoric ‘ground’ for staking out, stabilizing and legitimating its claims, Woodard wants to stress how the material (and particularly geological) realities of the earth fundamentally condition philosophy. Whilst the earth has traditionally been considered subject to philosophy Woodard wants to make it plain that philosophy is subject to the earth.

The Earth, for Woodard, is not a static whole but “a stratified globule, a festering confusion of internalities powered by a molten core and bombarded by an indifferent star” – a planetary nugget subject to a plurality of forces that unground it from within and without (page 83). Internal ungroundings, he argues, emerge from within the “complex immanence of the Earth” (page 85), showing that what philosophy has taken for solid ground is in fact a putrid mass of decaying matter in a constant state of change. Rather than foreground volcanic eruptions and the violence of plate tectonics as might be expected, Woodard, following Reza Negarestani’s (2008) analysis of the earth’s “poromechanics” (page 12), evokes processes of decay, putrification and rot. These processes appeal not so much for their real geophysical importance within the planet’s dynamics, but as metaphors used to “denaturaliz[e] the earth,” to alienate it from metaphysical concepts of ‘ground’ (page 7). Indeed, Woodard adopts a hyperbolic rhetorical strategy based upon what he calls “exaggerated decay” (page 12), drawing freely on images from literature and cinema to make his case. He emphasizes in particularly the internal ungrounding enacted by the giant sandworms commonly found in science fiction; the monstrous writhing of these great invertebrates weaves a path of indistinction between the biological and the geological, the inside and outside, surface and depths, that leaves the earth’s supposedly solid ground corrupted by perforations.

The earth is also ungrounded externally. Woodard here focuses on human interventions in to - or against - the earth, highlighting ‘digging machines’ and ‘planet demolishing’ as its two leading forms. Whilst digging machines point obviously to the drilling, boring, blasting, mining and fracturing of the extractive industries, eager to unlock the solar energy archived in the earth’s carbon skin, Woodard looks once more to the realm of science fiction for examples, evoking tales of subterranean cities and missions to the core. Likewise he plucks his planet killers and doomsday machines capable of annihilating the earth in one foul swoop from Star Trek and Star Wars, fantasy worlds born of the Cold War, when the first images of the ‘whole earth’ emerged against the anxious black backdrop of a nuclear arms race.

Woodard’s aim in detailing these ungroundings is to disrupt the “earth-anchoring of thought” (page 6), to emphasize the instability and dynamism of an inhuman earth that is at once integral to human existence and philosophical knowledge and non-reducible to either. In this he is undoubtedly successful. Nonetheless, it might be asked why Woodard uses fantasy and metaphor in making his case rather than established geological or geophysical studies, especially when one of the book’s principle aims appears to be critiquing the disregard for material realities in modern Continental metaphysics’ superficial metaphors of ‘ground’. Woodard’s realism is undoubtedly closer to Graham Harman’s Lovecraftian ‘weird realism’ than to scientific positivism, but it remains unclear what really sets his ungroundings apart from Martin Heidegger’s ‘groundless ground’ if not for the fact that he claims to have some traction on inhuman geophysical realities independent of human knowledge and phenomenological experience? This is not to suggest that the book’s central claims regarding the anthropocentric eclipse of the earth in Continental philosophy are faulty, but that Woodard’s appeals to science fiction as opposed to science may not in fact strengthen his arguments philosophically regardless of how much they enrich it rhetorically.[1]

What might the stakes of Woodard’s ‘realist theory of ungrounding’ be beyond the critique of philosophy’s use and abuse of the earth as ‘ground’? What use might it be for ecological and political thought? How might it speak to what Woodard brilliantly calls the “slumification and slimification of the capitalized earth” (page 94)? This is where the book is of greatest interest to my own concerns but also where I find it presents a number of questions.

Drawing on the work of the French classist, Pierre Hadot (2008), Woodard mounts a sharp critique of the two dominant tendencies in understanding nature in the Western philosophical tradition; tendencies that he argues continue to shape contemporary ecological thought and popular culture alike. On the one hand there is what he calls an ‘Orphic’ tendency that sees nature as “a thing to be worshipped” and on the other a ‘Promethean’ tendency that sees it as “a thing to be exploited” (86). He faults both views on two counts: firstly because they offer a “false choice between capitalist Cartesianism and neo-pagan Spinozism,” or what we might consider techno-social globalization and nostalgic localism; secondly because they both assume that “nature is a thing ontologically separate from humanity” (page 2). What this distinction between Orphic and Promethean tendencies lacks in rigorous differentiation it makes up for in sheer schematic force and Woodard’s critique of the underlying anthropocentric distinction between human and nature shares much with recent work in ‘social-nature’ geographies, various strands of Continental philosophy, and the work of new materialist feminists, as well as the emerging interdisciplinary discussions of geo-social relations in the Anthropocene (including in the work of all three reviewers here).

Further, Woodard develops an interesting critique of contemporary ecological thought by examining the eco-aesthetics of the Black Metal bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room. Woodard argues that certain strands of Black Metal harbour the “fantasy of complete ecological reversal” and a return to a “pre-Oedipal dream-harmony with nature” (page 87). These bands hold out the “possibility of a purely earthly (non-artificial) production and form of life,” one based on the “miraculous reversibility of capitalist energetics” and a return to “the Earth as ordinary arche” (page 87). Here Black Metal aesthetics resonates with wider Orphic tendencies in contemporary ecological thought which seek a return to a supposedly stable human/nature distinction that has been disrupted by capitalism and technology, and mobilize the ‘Earth’ as a symbol of stable, ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ forms of human life now lost. Woodard’s vision of an ungrounded earth is clearly opposed to any such ‘regrounding’ of the distinction between humans and nature, but it is less clear what resources it might provide for thinking about ecology in other terms, for example within a socio-ecological framework that might be considered ‘inhuman’ and ‘unnatural’. Indeed, whilst his critique of Black Metal aesthetics clearly reveals his rejection of Orphic imaginaries, it is less clear what Woodard’s position on Promethean imaginaries might be. For example, whilst hydraulic fracking might serve as a particularly raw example of the ‘digging machines’ that undermine the earth as metaphysical ground, it is not clear if the concept of an ungrounded earth provides a basis for a critique of geological extraction in ecological or political terms. Although the book seems to present rich veins of potential for ecological thought this is one area where clarification would be welcome, especially as a sort of nascent dark ecology seems to be worming away within his thought even if its contours remain indistinct.

This brings me to the question of politics. Solar extinction – the greatest planet killer of them all – provides the horizon in which the book’s more political conclusions are framed. My fear is that by shaping his reflections in this way Woodard may unnecessarily limit ungrounding’s purchase on political thought. Building on the work of Ray Brassier (2010) and Negarestani (2010) on solar extinction, and the earlier reflections of Georges Bataille (1991), Nick Land (2011) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (1992) on the same, Woodard argues that to conceive of human existence as ‘earthly life’, i.e., as inherently bound to the terrestrial globe and its dependency on the energy economy of the sun, is to surrender humanity to extinction and the nihilistic loss of all meaning. He follows Brassier’s argument that the inexorable cosmic processes drawing the earth towards eventual annihilation are such that we might consider ourselves, like everything else “dead already” – all meaning dissolving in the knowledge of this inevitable extinction (page 90). Indeed, Woodard argues that solar extinction renders all forms of optimism “pointless,” the best we can hope for in fact being “desolation and pessimism” (page 94). In his bleak assessment of humanity’s future Woodard argues that the inescapable “gradual thinning of the self-conscious biomass called humanity” (page 95) on the earth means that the only hope for humanity is to leave behind “all sense of at-homeness”  (page 95), jettison terrestrial, and indeed even stellar, confines and seek out a new earth in the barren cosmos, even as we remain aware of the futility of this pursuit (page 95).[2]

So, what does this mean for politics? Must its affective spectrum be reduced to the poles of blind optimism and inhuman dejection? Must the likely illusory pursuit of an exo-planet capable of sustaining some future form of human life be the sole project to which humanity is committed? Woodard does not engage the political ramifications of ungrounding directly, and this is of course not the aim of the book, but his commitment to extinction as the frame in which the future of humanity should be conceived seems to effectively bracket much of what might be considered politics. This seems a missed opportunity to extend the critique of grounds from the realm of metaphysics into political thought in a more effective manner, and indeed to examine the stakes of binding the political to an inhuman geophysics rather than an all too human metaphysics. Indeed, it might be asked whether or not it matters politically whether existence is robbed of ultimate meaning by solar extinction, or if nihilism has political salience? I would hazard that it does, especially insofar as it can play a useful role in undermining any attempt to ground political power in metaphysical certainty. Nihilism has a wonderful capacity to render contingent forms of power that presents themselves as ‘natural’ or otherwise necessary. However, this is the type of ‘ungrounding’ that thinkers like Gianni Vattimo (2007) already do on the basis of Heideggerian and Nietzschian tropes so it is not clear what exactly Woodard’s geophilosophy might add here. Of course there are constructive as well as critical dimensions to political thought but again it is not clear what role ‘ungrounding’ might play with regard to constructive political projects - projects that are likely to involve ‘regroundings’ of some sort, even if these posit plastic platforms rather than ‘natural’ foundations.

The difficult question of universalism also rears its head form the mud of Woodard’s ungrounded earth. Whilst humanity as a unified whole might be discussed relatively unproblematically in the realm of biology – where questions of extinction apply to species (or genetically localized subsections of biomass if you wish) – it is much more complicated in the realm of politics. Politics after all is a field defined by the antagonisms, struggles and complex forms of power that operate between and across different social collectivities. This is not to suggest that universalism has no room in politics, but rather that it must be articulated with existing forms of political difference if it is to gain any critical or constructive traction. Starting from a universal humanity formed in relation to solar extinction makes such engagements difficult to say the least. Further, this is not to suggest that extinction is a purely biological rather than a political question. On the contrary, anthropogenic climate change, rather than the life cycle of the sun, is making human extinction a very real possibility and one that needs to be addressed politically given that it is shaped by social forces. Hence, the fact that species extinction may, at least in part, depend upon socio-ecological entanglements means that it may become the terrain of political struggle, a situation in which the question of universality takes on a new political urgency. However, this does not mean ecological crises provide a short circuit between species extinction and a universalist politics of some sort. Rather, the fact that anthropogenic climate change is bound up with historical, current, and likely future, forms of political and economic inequality means that any universalist politics forged in relation to the horizon of human extinction can only gain traction (and indeed meaning) in crossing the difficult terrain of political difference. Abstracting the question of human extinction from the field of social forces and posing it in relation to solar death serves only to depoliticize it. Rather than approach the question of universality from the perspective of biological death it might be more productive to ask how we might better live in common, politically and ecologically, so that we don’t void our own existence long before the sun possibly could.

In the book’s conclusion Woodard appears to succumb to the aesthetic temptations of catastrophism, focusing attention on the spectacle of sublime annihilation rather than the difficult labour of constructing possible futures. This unfortunately restricts the potential his concept of ungrounding might afford ecological and political thought. The productive possibilities of the ‘powers and flows’ percolating through the book’s early chapters are eclipsed by the emphasis placed on the loss of all human life and meaning with the sun’s eventual blackening. In shifting register from the clamorous contingencies of a planet-as-process to a single, inescapable cosmic event Woodard risks leaving his ungrounded earth to the vultures that feast in catastrophism’s wake: melancholic paralysis and reactionary restoration. Nevertheless, his geophilosophy speaks strongly to the entanglement of socio-political difference with the unstable dynamics of the earth, even if it may need to be expanded upon in subsequent work. The challenge might be to examine how the concept of ungrounding not only allows a critique of Philosophy’s anthropocentric presumptions about the earth’s inert stability, but also how it might worm its way through the foundations of ecological and political thought producing new possibilities for understanding the ‘messes of onto-epistemological indistinction” between bodies geological and politic and burrowing a greater number of new paths into the uncertain horizon of future life (page 86).[3] 


[1] Further, there is a need to distinguish geophilosophical speculation from geophysical analysis. Woodard notes in the opening pages of his book that, “in order to unground the earth in philosophical and folk thinking” we “require the services of a geophilosopher (or geophysicist),” signaling from the get go a certain problematic slippage between them (page 1-2). An approach that appreciates each mode of conceptualizing the earth in its own domain would seem better placed to understand their potentially productive complicity.

[2] An interest in space exploration is also found in Negarestani’s work (2010) and finds a prominent home in the emerging debates around ‘accelerationism’ with which he is associated. Indeed for thinkers such as Benedict Singleton (2013) and Alex Williams (2013) it forms a crucial part of a new political platform that aims to escape the limits of existing Left politics by embracing a technological path to a viable, and egalitarian, collective future for humanity. Their suggestions here are perhaps actually somewhat less radical than Lyotard’s (1992) vision of a silica-based substrate that could sustain human thought outside the sun’s energy economy, focusing more on something like a supped-up version of Soviet cosmonaut-futurism. That said these visions do have undoubted aesthetic appeal and display an admirable willingness to countenance humanity’s ability to successfully engage in the type of large-scale, collective projects that any response adequate to planetary climate change must surely require.

[3] It should be noted that this criticism by no means assumes that space exploration might not, or should not, make up an important part of the future of human life or that the latter should be necessarily limited to the terrestrial globe. Rather it is simply to point out that limiting the future prospects of human life to the search for exo-planets seems both unwarranted and politically irresponsible as it dodges the question of what social structures might be in place between now and such time as ‘humanity’ might leave the earth behind, nevermind those that shape the decision on who constitutes the ‘humanity’ fit for any possible extra-planetary survival. 


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