The geologic now: theorizing its sociable life


For next week we will be reading the following. (Note that I’ve decided to leave aside the DeLanda reading we had discussed at our meeting, and instead to begin working our way through Nigel Clark’s Inhuman Nature.) I’ll upload my notes on this past week’s class meeting shortly.

I’d appreciate if someone could volunteer to introduce the Clark reading! (If anyone would like to do that with Ellsworth/Kruse, please do that as well; but it’s more straightforward.)

1. “Introduction” from Making the Geological Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contempoporary Life, ed. by Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse (New York: Punctum Books, 2012). Please also poke around on this open-access book’s web page to get a sense of what riches lie within

2. Nigel Clark, Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet (London: Sage, 2011). Read Introduction and Chapter 1, “The Earth in Physical and Social Thought.” Note: Chapter 1 is available open-access. Print copies of the entire book are available through Amazon, the publisher (Sage), and other online booksellers. Participants in the class can obtain a copy of the book by writing to me.

3 responses to “The geologic now: theorizing its sociable life

  1. An Introduction to “Making the Geologic Now”

    For class this coming Thursday, we read the introduction to the book “Making the Geologic Now”, which contains a compilation of “responses to material conditions of contemporary life”. These responses encompass both written pieces as well as art, and are all targeted at exploring the idea of the Anthropocene, with particular emphasis on geologic time and deriving insight from the geologic past.

    In the introduction, the editors argue that the study of geology and the relevance of geologic concepts have suddenly become more widely applicable and interesting than ever before. The precarious situation that we humans currently find ourselves in (unsustainable population, dwindling resources, and widespread alteration of Earth’s surface) leads us to look to the past for insight and context. According to the editors, “there is an increasingly widespread turn toward the geologic as source of explanation, motivation, and inspiration for cultural and aesthetic responses to conditions of the present moment”. As a geologist myself, I find it both exciting and frightening that my discipline may be stepping into a spotlight it has never before enjoyed.

    An important recent trend has been one of acceleration in virtually all domains: human population, resource consumption, access to information/technology, globalization, and countless others. As shown by many natural scientists and social scientists alike, most of these parameters look like hockey sticks when plotted on a graph. In our modern “hockey stick” era, it becomes increasingly important to look to the past to understand the relationship between humans and the natural world. The compiled responses in the book “Making the Geologic Now” explore this geologic context, and what we can learn from it to take into the future, from a wide variety of perspectives.

    It is likely that art will be an increasingly important player in the dialogue surrounding the Anthropocene. Art is inherently more approachable and interesting than science to many people; it can evoke emotions more effectively than scientific data, helping the audience to identify with and feel strongly about the subject. While much of the insight about human modification of the natural world may be scientifically-derived, artist have the opportunity to act as a bridge between scientists and the public. This book attempts to intersperse art and writing in a seamless way.

    Overall, I look forward to delving into this book more deeply to see the diversity of ways in which people approach the topic of the Anthropocene. I also look forward to hearing perspectives about my discipline from people with vastly different backgrounds. Understanding geologic time may prove to be a crucial link in humanity’s ability to address its current predicament, and this book represents a first step towards making the vastness of geologic time accessible to a non-geologic audience. According to the editors, “this collection may be the first to offer early sightings of an emergent cultural sensibility: a geologic turn in contemporary ideas, architecture and design, and aesthetic work”.

  2. Since no one has signed up to introduce the Nigel Clark chapters (introduction and chapter 1), I’ll jump in here with some thoughts to get us going.


    The Introduction sets out the task of the book and its framing concerns. The Kantian project serves, for Clark, as a kind of definition of what we might call humanistic modernity (as opposed to scientific modernity; I’m distinguishing here between what scientists do and presume, which is the latter, and what humanists and social theorists do and presume, which is the former). Kant aimed to bolster the human subject by refocusing attention away from the world or cosmos in itself to our (human) interface with it. Social and philosophical thought has largely accepted that turn, but in recent decades has been increasingly questioning and moving beyond it.

    Specifically, social and cultural theorists have been moving beyond it toward a recognition of some form of heterogeneous relationality, that is, toward rethinking the human in terms of its/our relations with the nonhuman. But for Clark, this is not enough. He will insist that social scientists and humanists need to push through the “zones of inter-mixing of human and nonhumans” into those “regions” of reality “where we are absent” (xvii). Because (he will argue) it is when we recognize our vulnerability in the face of those regions and forces — our exposure, susceptibility, and precariousness in their midst, “our constitutive openness to a forceful cosmos” (xiv) — that we will be able to arrive at a means by which to rethink our position both vis-a-vis human others (in their vulnerabilities) and vis-a-vis nature.

    A question I have, at this point, is whether “pushing through” to those “regions where we are absent” will simply render us present in them, and thus push the inhuman — that from which we are absent — further away from us. There’s an ambiguity here between that which we’re absent from because we haven’t affected it (with our actions, technologies, waste products, etc.) and that which we’re absent from because we haven’t encountered it in our thought yet. The Kantian “correlation” — the inability to think the world without thinking our relationship to it — is about thinking, not about affecting, but if we “push through” to think about these things, then haven’t we simply made them part of the correlation? Should we differentiate between thinking them “for themselves”, as it were, and thinking them as objects to be observed, measured, and made sense of (as science can and has been doing)? Or is Clark just calling for humanists and social scientists to catch up to scientists? Isn’t there more at stake here?

    Chapter 1

    Chapter 1 is the first of two that focus primarily on social theory (which makes them a bit more abstract than the ones that follow). Here it’s worth recapping a little bit of the history of the mainstream of cultural theory in the twentieth century. The main watershed of the past 50 or 60 years has been the “cultural turn” — the turn toward treating culture, language, and discourse as fundamentally constitutive of reality, and as rendering that reality mutable, unstable, and ultimately indeterminate (or at least underdetermined) and indefinitely negotiable. As a result of the cultural turn (and French poststructuralism, which is not exactly the same thing), culture is widely recognized now as the terrain in which we define ourselves and our world, and in which we negotiate and contest these definitions indefinitely. (Thus all the “culture wars” we’ve gotten used in the U.S. and other countries.)

    Ontologically, this turn has resulted in something we might call (though Clark doesn’t) an ontology of flux or indeterminacy. In the last couple of decades of the 20th century (and into the present century), however, an increasing number of social and cultural theorists grew unsatisfied with that reigning paradigm, and pushed into studies of embodiment, materiality, performativity, affect and emotion, and so on. Others developed relational ontologies (e.g., Latour and actor-network theory) or ontologies of abundance and affirmation (e.g., Nietzsche, Bataille, Deleuze).

    Clark, it seems, will be drawing from the latter — especially the various forms of enactive, co-constitutive relationality between the social and the material (Latour’s and Deleuze’s in particular) — but challenging and pushing beyond them.

    His positioning of Derrida is interesting and a little ambiguous at this point, and it’s one I’ll end my comments on. While he’s commonly — and superficially — thought of as a social or linguistic constructionist, Derrida’s fundamental move, in his critique of Husserl, was to destabilize both ends of the Husserl’s dichotomy of science (knowledge) versus experience (i.e. the phenomena themselves). Both the scientific objectification of the earth — the earth turned into a knowable, measurable, and manipulable object — and Husserl’s phenomenological retrieval of the earth of our experience — the “supportive and sustaining” “ground beneath our feet” — both of these, for Derrida, ultimately withdraw from us, retaining the “secrets of their own emergence, continuity and destination” (6). As Derrida put it, “preculturally pure Nature is always buried.” Not that it doesn’t exist, just that we can’t get to it as a place of rest, of foundational and guaranteed stability: the ground beneath us (our experience) is disturbed by the sky above (scientific “knowledge”), and vice versa. Derrida’s is an ontology of indeterminacy that is not necessarily correlational, since it’s an ungrounded indeterminacy, an ontology that recognizes contextual grounds, ultimate groundlessness, and the dynamic movement between them. (But I should admit that what I’m really describing here is my own Tiantai Buddhism, which I tend to read into Derrida. Tiantai Buddhism, in a nutshell, proposes a “threefold truth”: (1) provisional or relative truth, which is conventional and locally coherent; (2) ultimate emptiness, or global incoherence, which is most Buddhists’ ultimate truth; and (3) non-duality, which is the dynamically simultaneous truth of both provisional truth and ultimate emptiness.)

    Let’s bring this thought back to our conversation from last week about the “crease in time.” For “ground” and “groundlessness” (or “local coherence” and “global incoherence”), let’s substitute “everyday time” (the time of our days and lives) and “geological time” (the time of aeons and epochs revealed through geological study of rocks). To them let’s add “capitalist time” (the time of our speeding up toward we-know-not-what). Then to that trio let’s add non-duality (or non-trinity, as it were), i.e., the dynamically simultaneous truth of each of these. Let’s call this an ontology of oscillating nonduality: there is (1) an everyday, conventional “ground beneath our feet”; (2) an ultimate emptiness of the sky above us (sure, it’s measurable, but it’s ultimately meaningless, the “eternal silence of these infinite spaces” that Pascal described); (3) the train-speeding-toward-a-cliff ground-becoming-groundless of capitalism; and (4) the both-and/neither-nor movement between them all.

    There’s a thought to keep you from sleeping… 🙂

  3. Pingback: Acceleration & the short/long/annoying Now | A(s)cene·

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