On An Ungrounded Earth By Ben Woodard

Introduction by
Various Authors

Ben Woodard’s On an Ungrounded Earth is an innovative work of philosophy with a powerful aesthetic allure. It is also a timely book situated at the intersection of two emerging trends in contemporary thought: so-called ‘speculative realism’ in Continental philosophy, and the ‘geological turn’ in the humanities and social sciences.

Woodard leads his readers into dark and circuitous corridors, at turns subterranean and cosmic, through the Naturphilosophie of the German idealist F.W.J. Schelling, the mutant philosophies of Georges Bataille, Nick Land and Reza Negarestani, and the uncanny worlds of science fiction populated with Lovecraftian horrors and alien death stars, before resurfacing at a rather unsettling terminus: a planet Earth which is neither ‘whole world’ or secure ‘ground,’ but a clump of decaying matter, enslaved to the sun’s energy and indifferent to the plight of humanity.

On an Ungrounded Earth presents alternative, perhaps even heretical, ways of ‘thinking the planet’ making it of clear relevance to critical Geography, which has long understood that idealized and homeostatic conceptions of Nature are incapable of accounting for the radical uncertainties of the planet’s material contingencies. However, whilst Woodard is content to pursue these lines of thought into the abyssal, inhuman depths, few geographers seem willing to follow (Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff being notable exceptions). Yet, the organizers of this forum maintain that the discipline of Geography is well positioned to respond to, if not take the lead in, contemporary developments in geophilosophy, the area to which Woodard’s book makes such an important contribution.  Indeed, they hold that radical changes in the relationships between human life and the Earth raise profound philosophical, ecological and political questions that make an engagement with geophilosophy important for the future of Geographic thought.

In what follows the organizers – three emerging scholars working along the borderlands of Geography and Continental Philosophy – critically assess On an Ungrounded Earth in loosely defined geographical terms. Leading off the exchange, Kai Bosworth engages the speculative tenor of Woodard’s work, suggesting that the proclamation of a decaying planet can serve to uncover an alternative politics of the Earth with liberatory potentials. Following this, Harlan Morehouse situates Woodard’s work within the vein of cosmic pessimism, and examines the risks and rewards associated with this mode of thought. Rory Rowan takes up Woodard’s notion of ungrounding, examining its role in the critique of anthropocentric metaphysics and exploring its political and ecological stakes in light of the book’s grim conclusion. Concluding the forum, Ben Woodard offers a generous response, laying out a serious of clarifications about the relationship between ontology and politics, the role of aesthetics in his work and the necessity of squarely facing dark horizons of thought that offer little scope for comforting existential or political self-confirmations

Review by Kai Bosworth 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...

Review by Harlan Morehouse In an era where the conditions of life appear under threat by the destructive workings of a civilization hell-bent on securing its own future on this planet, why turn from vitality and towards decay? Ought we not instead reassess civilization’s relationship to its own life-support systems and aim towards a kind of recuperative and harmonious means of coexistence with the things of this world?...

Review by Rory Rowan 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.” In contrast to the canon of Continental philosophy—which seeks to use the earth to “stabilize thought” and “add gravity to anthropocentricism”—Woodard proposes what he calls a “realist geophilosophy.” 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"...

Response by Ben Woodard The central barb or question of these reviews concerns my missing politics or at least how the work of On an Ungrounded Earth could be utilized for political means. The problem of proscribing or even suggesting a politics based on the basis of an ontology seems, at least to me, more potentiality disastrous than the aesthetic tone of an ontology. The need or desire to ontologize politics appears to stem from the desire to grant automatic political purchase to our theoretical musings or, less unfortunately, to use theory or philosophy writ large as a tool to unite disparate ontological movements and histories (one can easily see this in the work of Badiou and Žižek where political events or acts are variations on philosophical themes of the event and the Real). The obvious counter-claim here would be to assert that one cannot separate theory and practice and that writing is always a political act...

In addition to this forum, Jordan Skinner offers a philosophical topology to locate the genealogy of Woodard's ideas and forms.

Jordan Skinner, A Philosophical Topology Near the end of his life, Schelling criticized the varieties of Post-Kantian philosophy (including his own early work) for privileging the perspective of thought and reason over and against the actuality of the world of nature. In his famous 1809 essay Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom he argued that  “the entire new European philosophy since its beginning with Descartes has the common defect that nature is not available for it and that it lacks a living ground” (Schelling, 2007). By contrast, Schelling sought to understand the element of ground “that precedes all thinking” (Unvordenkliche). The material ground, he believed, had a substantial influence on western thought and the material force of grounded nature both gave rise to our human subjectivity and provided the conditions for the evil, decay, and disease...

essays in this forum

Review by Harlan Morehouse

In an era where the conditions of life appear under threat by the destructive workings of a civilization hell-bent on securing its own future on this planet, why turn from vitality and towards decay? Ought we not instead reassess civilization’s relationship to its own life-support systems and aim towards a kind of recuperative and harmonious means of coexistence with the things of this world?

Review by Kai Bosworth

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.

Review by Rory Rowan

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).

Response by Ben Woodard

The central barb or question of these reviews concerns my missing politics or at least how the work of "On an Ungrounded Earth" could be utilized for political means. The problem of proscribing or even suggesting a politics based on the basis of an ontology seems, at least to me, more potentiality disastrous than the aesthetic tone of an ontology.