Issue 3/2020 - Post-Anthropozän

Geophysics after Life

On the Way to a Political Geology of the Anthropocene

Kathryn Yusoff

After a century of biologic thought, a sharp ‘turn’ is being enacted towards futures governed through and by geophysics. Given the centralisation of life as an organising concept within biopolitical thought, the consideration of political subjectivity in the Anthropocene could be pushed (if we were to take that geologic subjectivity seriously as expressive of political forms) to question what geopolitics after life might look like. Thinking with a geopolitics after life is also a political strategy to question the exclusivity with which accounts of life have been rendered as partial; historically based on a foundational biologism secured in racist propositions, sutured to normative assumptions and enacted by violent exclusions or necropolitics. Life as a biocentric proposition and the dominance of life as an organising concept, or a politics secured in the imaginaries of life, has consistently produced not so much understandings of what life is, but ways of organising hierarchies of life and its “others” (i.e. racialized, sexualised and gendered modes of ordering life). As Povinelli comments: “Biontology is the true name of western ontology. And the carbon imaginary is the homologous space created when the concepts of birth, growth-reproduction, and death are laminated onto the concepts of event, conatus-affectus, and finitude” (Povinelli 2017, 174). Whereas life maybe the central production of western ontology (and a particular exclusionary various of life at that), it is not the central concern of the cosmos, where forces more powerful than it organise and contextualise its appearance, and thus put pressure on the politics of life, as well as on its imagined arrangements. As Grosz comments: “Life is the provisional binding of an order of conceptuality with an order of organic cohesion, the temporary protraction and delaying of the forces of the universe itself” (Grosz 2012, 974). At the very least then, the Anthropocene as a political geological concept requires analysis of the relations between geologic forces and social practices in both the context of the earth and its inhumanities.
Awareness of how social worlds are an effect of and affect geology, rather than a world that is constituted through ‘our’ making (i.e. purely social and we might add, biological, as the social has been primarily conceived through particular versions of biological subjects and events), suggests an arrangement of power that is complicated by geologic elements. Identifying geologic force as a new regime of power brings the structures of exchange between geologic forces and social worlds into view. If power, according to Foucault, is a relation between forces, geopower is a way to conceptualizes how stratifications organize and capture geologic forces into political geology. As Nigel Clark comments, “[w]here as conventional geopolitics tends to restrict itself to human inscriptions on the earth’s surface, Grosz’s notion of geopower permits the dynamics of the earth to leave their mark on human and other bodies. Her work has always been characterised by its boldness in evoking difference—within and beyond that which we designate as our own species. […] Her developing fusion of Darwin and feminism has deepened conceptions of corporeal difference to encompass not only the differential forces of the sociocultural and the biological but also the enduring impression of earth processes on living flesh, which includes both incremental and more rapid impacts.” (Clark in Yusoff et al. 2012, 976). As Clark goes on to argue, it is the very differential forces of the earth that Grosz addresses that have been left out of accounts of all kinds of social difference and political geography. To put it another way, in order to construct a fully operative sphere for political thought and social action, the intransient forces of the earth have often become marginalised as a non-operative space for politics, and thereby excluded.
The concept of geopower can be used to examine the expression of social forms as a product of geologic forces that run through social and subjective formation, but are not contained by those forms, however they are understood to be constituted. Geopower, it could be argued, is a plane of social reproduction that both constrains and is expressive of possible modes of expression and thus of political freedom. That is, the social plane and the formation of subjectivity are constituted by more than social forces, and constrained (as much as enabled) by the geologic formations that underpin them. Before there can be an Anthropocene geopolitics as such, there must first be a conceptualization of geopower as a force that is implicated in the constitution of planetary (and cosmological) scale. Such a conception of geopower that extends beyond the boundaries of life would challenge the various formations of subjectivity in which “life” is construed as the organising locus of power and agency (and thus exclusion and subjugation). Such a geopolitics after life would present a challenge to the formation of planetary scale, where the “geo” does not just act as a descriptive material mode or spatial expander appended to politics, which allows geopolitics to look beneath the surface into the subterranean or up into the sky at the atmospheric (i.e. to mobilize the vertical or volumetric in geopolitics rather than the default horizontal of a flat planet or political stage) (Yusoff 2012, 981). Or a geology that is understood as a modifier to a “new” geopolitics that extends its purview and practice to encounter material difference (as the current elemental turn in geopolitics attests to). In these aforementioned formulations of geopolitics, geopower is taken as a self-evident descriptor of geologic forces (as opposed to traditionally conceived political or social forces) rather than as a question about the asymmetric organisation, the capitalisation, the temporal conversions and contraction of, and damn right radically impolitic nature, of inhuman matter and force.

A Geophysics of Power
Part of the impetus for engaging with an analytic of geopower is to think about the pre-operative conditions in the realisation of power (and ‘it’s’ others, i.e. pleasure, intensification, excess, abjectification, violence), and to address the forces that maintain, feed, and transform this biopolitical life in the full arena of its constitution. In other words, to understand that there is not just a geography of power, but a geophysics of power. And, in apprehending a geophysics of power there is a need to ask the question about what forms of geopower or arrangements of earth forces make territorialisation possible in the first instance? (i.e. what are the conditions that take place?) This is to suggest that political geography has a missing terrain (Clark 2012) that has an agency and volatility all of its own, that is not so easily marshalled into the decisive acts of capture performed by classical (or even critical) geopolitical actors. If the story of politics starts with the earth and the forces underpinning the very possibility of life forms and forms of life, then this is not to institute some form of geological determinism, but to recognise the prepolitical conditions of territorialisation as a harnessing of nonhuman powers of the earth that have a determining force in politics. These questions are not mute in the face of political struggle, because they frame political geography in the specificity of its actualisation as a material practice enact within geosocial formations. What are often considered as spatial divisions in the conceptualisation of political geography, and in particular the formation of planetary politics or planetary scale, are actually a question of material ontological division or ‘matter fix’ that designate the location of agency on the side of biocentric life (which cleaves to a particular politics of life).
It is the spatial arrangements of the divisions of materiality agency that organise an understanding of the arrangement of power. As Povinelli argues through her analytic of “geontopower,” it is precisely the Life/Nonlife arrangement that organises certain modes of acceptable social death and not others within policies of the state. As well as the more finely tuned decisions about what gets to survive or gets extinguished. It is the very ontological formulation of materiality as matter in all its incarnations (as lively, inert, dead, brute, inert, lacking in agency) and the connections of that matter (as Life or Not) with perceptions of the earth (as territory or earth) that produces forms of political subjectivity (as possessed or disposed). We only need to think of the scenes of subjectification in slavery to understand how bodily matter rendered as flesh is used to obfuscates the responsibilities to recognise subjecthood, and instead transforms that nonrecognition of life (or production of life as nonlife) into a commodity (Hartman 2007). Similarly, it is the recognition of the energetic power of this “nonlife” in the plantation (this is where the term ‘factory’ derives from) as a unit of energy that inspire and transform the modes of subjectivity in the industrial revolution, as both dependent on those earlier form of precapitalist modes of production and underwritten by the energy of that labour (developed through the infrastructures of modernity that are financialized by abolition compensation and as “sugar in the bowl” of working class labourers). While much attention is given to the physics and biopolitics of Blackness, understanding how race became a production that was proceeded, in the first instance, by the extraction of mineral wealth from Brazilian mines along the Atlantic coast in 1518 is crucial to understanding contemporary forms of racialized geology. The fact that the Gold Coast of Ghana was called “The Mine” during the slavery boom extrapolates on the material bond between geological and human extraction (Hartman 2007 51; 111). There was the gold of Africa, and then there was the black gold of slaves (Hartman 2007, 44). Mineral and subjects changed place at alarming rates because of how the classifications of inhuman matter were enacted.
As Grosz elaborates, “the relations between the earth and its various forces, and living beings and their not always distinguishable forces, are forms of geopower, if power is to be conceived as the engagement of clashing, competing forces. This means that before there can be relations of oppression, that is relations between humans categorised according to the criteria that privilege particular groups, there must be relations of force that exist in an impersonal, pre-individual form that are sometimes transformed into modes of ordering the human.” (Grosz 2012, 975).
The organisation, extraction and capitalisation of the material geopowers of the earth arrange particular and historically enduring forms of oppression in both the extraction of those forces and how the quality of those forces are deployed and understood as relations of wealth and productions of subjectivity. That the difference between a slave and a piece of gold was established elided as materially equivalent entities to the Crown was testament to how the coding of matter arranged political geographies and how geology became part of the spatial and subjective expression of colonialism.
It is important to note that only by introducing the Earth as dead matter (Wynter 2003, 267) or inert force, that is of a matter ontologically different from that which defines the biologism of the colonial political subject, could colonialism make its political subjective moves to subjugate others as mobile, commodifiable units of flesh that had no geographical or kin relation. (This is precisely why Frantz Fanon invokes the The Wretched of the Earth and why Native Americans are interned on the poorest land in reservations, and why the legacy of slavery is to Lose Your Mother (Hartman 2007), or the migrant has no possibility of ever going home). It is only by inserting this chasm between the biopolitical and geopolitical basis of being that such coloniality of the world as a global territory of (exclusionary) humanity can be achieved. While Povinelli draws our attention to the provinciality of Foucault’s project in its conceptualisation of a western European genealogy (Povinelli 2016, 3), Sylvia Wynter, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Achille Mbembe have all shown how that genealogy was underscored by the racial division of life and nonlife articulated as a material division. Arendt in a similar fashion argues that Race “is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end […] not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death” (Arendt quoted in Hartman 2007, 157). Race names the point of quarterisation between the inside and outside of (Colonial) Life. This schism between inhuman matter and inhuman subjects cleaves apart the biological and the geological using the signifying practices of race as a discourse located within particular bodies, but not in the genealogy of the earth. This enables global geography can be claimed as Global-World-Space; an exclusive domain that does not have to admit those that are not represented by the preferred figure of biologism (the Humanistic subject). So, the imperative to introduce a geopolitics that goes beyond a biologism divorced from the earth and its interrelation to forms of life must be a compelling project for any anti-racist practice that seeks a new world through a decolonization of the New World. Part of this reoccupation of the relationship to the earth and its geopowers, or a move from a biocentric paradigm to a geocentric one, includes rethinking how the social and political configurations of subjectivity have been thought and experienced in relation to the earth. This is why the future in Afrofuturism is cosmic. This is why Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation imagines possibility through the earth (2010) and why, according to Angela Last, Caribbean geopoetics can undo geopolitics (2015; 2017).
By thinking about the “geo” as a power that both incites and generates particular historical forms, Grosz offers an alternative to the critical modes of geopolitics which often either frame materialism as an inevitability within power relations (i.e. the resource curse) or entirely ascribe the production of power relations to the variously chosen agentic centres, whether individuals or structures (i.e. white privileged men, state forces, genocidal maniacs, juridical systems etc.). Both these approaches partake of a restricted economy in the appreciation of the virtualities of material forces within and beyond political worlds that inform the very material basis of practices in the exercise of power through the classification of matter. Geophysics is a determining force in the realisation of more “local” forms of power on the surface, but equally there must be attention and critical languages for how those forces and flows are arranged (as actuality and potentiality), and what they do in their own terms.
Extending her understanding of the engine of difference beyond social forms, Grosz recognizes the work of difference in opening up human identity, by way of the cosmos, to the outsides of the forces that both produce and constraint those identities, and importantly allow the possibility for them to be otherwise (Grosz, 2011: 91). This is not about some thinly veiled return to determinism, but it is about recognizing the potentialities of the cosmos and its production of difference through all the life and nonlife forms that constitute the planet, and seeing that as a political resource to overcome the violence of their present incarcerations. Destabilizing the ground of identity and agency, Grosz argues, is a means by which to destabilize the claims made on behalf of that agency and to open up that possibility to social transformation. As Grosz eruditely puts it “The ‘geo’ is an inversion of the ‘ego’!” (Grosz 2017, 132). Thus geopower (Grosz 2017, 134) in one sense, offers a way to go further than the ego and undo the exercising of biopower (understood as the social regulation and positionality of bodies from the outside). “To see life as coming from the earth and its forces—gravitational, magnetic, electrical and so on—is perhaps the most powerful and direct way to destabilize our concepts of identity and agency. If the earth is riven by agents, acts and events—if it is not inert and passive—then life cannot be understood to master itself; life must look outside itself to attain the possibility of continuing itself and knowing itself.” (Grosz 2017, 132) While biopower might be thought of as an enclosure (and sometimes as a disciplining and regulatory force), geopower has no such outside, according to Grosz it is the outside! But geology is also inside too, the materially communicative nonlife that makes life possible, an inclusionary exteriority that ties internal forces to the outside and offers a potential for resisting biopolitics (Grosz 2017, 135–6). At the same time this unregulatory force belongs to the earth and this is the very reason that instigates biopolitical controls. As Grosz suggests, “the inhuman, as resistance, is always to some extent and in some way beyond biopolitics. It is important to seek out these sites of resistance at whatever level and manner they occur. These sites are those that must be left aside in the rational and economic management of ‘things’. But there is something left over that remains resistant, that wants what it wants, before and beyond biopower” (Grosz 2017, 137). In this excess of geology and its cosmic instantiations within life, geopolitical and geopoetic potential resides.
To study the geosocial matrix as it pertains to both power and possibility is not to add the geologic (or inhuman) as a supplement to an already existing biopolitical conceptualisation. Rather, it is to register that the geologic is a mode of material expression and ontologically produced category that is already active within these formations, yet often bracketed out, and its political potential as a dynamic power within socialities, underplayed. If we are to speak of the Anthropocene and with it a notion of geologic subjectivity—that I am calling, Geologic Life—there is a need to: 1) substantiate the inhuman in political terms as constitutive of biopower; 2) examine modes of inhuman subjectification or the intimacies of the radical impersonal (not just as a category of differentiation but as differentiated category) that demand a conceptualisation of geopower, which includes biopower, but is not confined to the category of life. The first task is a local task of decolonialisation (of languages, categories, ontological determinism); the second task is nonlocal, as is extends beyond any formation of the human into a poetics of relation with the cosmos and the earth.

The full-length version of this essay was first published in Geographies of Power. Ed. Mat Coleman and John Agnew (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018).

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