GeoSemantics / An Interview with Elizabeth Grosz: Geopower, Inhuman Memories, and Extractivism / Azucena Castro and Estefanía Bournot

Railroad Workers: Mocha, 2016, Folded Hand-Cut + Collage, Archival Inkjet Photographs by Karina Aguilera Skvirsky.

In Latin America, as well as in many places in the Global South, old extractivisms for fossil fuels are intersecting with new green extractivisms for critical metals and minerals in the so-called transition to post-fossil societies. This shift, rather than combatting the displacement of vulnerable populations and the devastation of the earth, merely contributes to it from another source. Elizabeth Grosz’s feminist engagements with art and “geopower” have opened new pathways for thinking about the relations between body, earth materials, and geology in extractivist contexts. 

The definition of geopower as a force that traverses the possibility of politics has fostered new discussions about the emergence of cosmopolitics and nonhuman temporalities that modify the social relations and linear trajectories of capitalism. Among her publications, Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (2005), Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (2008), Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics and Art (2011) have been fundamental to rethink, from a feminist philosophy, the role of art in the context of extractivism and modernity—in particular, Global South modernities. 

Azucena Castro and Estefanía Bournot

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Azucena Castro and Estefanía Bournot: In your book Chaos, Territory, Art, we find that art experiments with openings to the material and immaterial substrata of the earth, openings that can connect humans with the ancient forces of the planet, a geopower, beyond human power. How can this opening create a sensible connection with those materials and forces to counteract capitalism’s craving? to continue excavating and unearthing materials from the earth? What might an idea of geopower offer in terms of dynamizing a ‘geo’ in politics and justice that counters the long extractivist logics in the Global South? Coming from Latin American and Global South cultural studies, we would like to ask if you consider there are different aesthetics/politics of geopower? 

Elizabeth Grosz: Although I  do not know much about geology, I have become interested in both the earth in its relations to life of all kinds (through Darwin and his accounts of the variability and mutability of life on earth) as well as the earth as a resource, one which is the condition of both commerce and capitalism on the one hand, and on the other, art of all kinds (which  is  linked to commerce and capitalism now but need not be, depending on who one is, where one is, and what and how one produces). I have used the concept of geopower from Foucault, who mentions it in Discipline and Punish and Security, Territory, Population. Foucault himself is primarily interested in the ways in which disciplines, such as architecture, engineering, agriculture, surveying and so on mark territories, transforming various sites on the earth into cities, states, nations, colonies, and empires. Foucault is interested in the human forces that transform the earth according to our given forms of knowledge and enactments of power, and what modes of resistance, pockets of shelter and loci of alternative knowledges and practices. We can now clearly see that the capacities we as humans have to alter the earth, to excavate it and extract from it what we believe we need have led to global catastrophes, climate change, an ever-growing gulf of wealth between nations, races, and classes, and differential impacts on different geographical locations. The Global South has suffered from the transformations of the earth disproportionately to the extent that it is the site of historical colonizations that have destroyed native habitats and species, forests, arable lands, and waterways.

In my understanding, geopower is not only the power of privileged nations, classes, industries, and individuals, a power over the earth, for that is only half (or less) of the story: it is also—and primarily—the power of the earth itself, a differentially spread out yet overlapping series of forces, materials, pressures, intensities, operating at different locations, speeds and densities throughout and across the earth. The molten inner core of the earth (which recently has begun to change direction, according to geologists) has yet to be capitalized, but extractive economies do not work on passive objects, an inert hole, dirt or a mere cave, but objects and processes created over eons by slow accretion and fast seismic upheavals, by accumulation and disruption They work against the earth’s forces to release minerals, oil, chemicals which transform the geopower from which they were taken, creating (known and knowable) causal effects—pollution, the transformation of landscapes, resources for production and building and so on. These extractive logics persist, even in the by-now clear recognition of their global effects, as well as the local pollution they produce in and around sites of extraction. 

We need to be more attuned to the forces embedded in and comprising geopower. Yet the techniques of science, and the modes of extraction technologies that have been developed, have had to consciously bracket out the usually visible effects of their techniques—the destruction of habitats and species, the failure to clean up and restore landscapes after extraction has ceased, and no doubt many other long-term effects. This means that we must listen to and learn from indigenous subjects, those who have lived on the land and with it for far longer than we have, who have a more traditional, pre- or non-capitalist understanding of habitats and the plants and animals that occupy them. How we do this, whether we have the capacity to properly hear what they might impart, is less clear to me, especially as time is running out for various large locations, most obviously the destruction of the Amazon, and the rising of sea levels for various islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans. 

And one last addition: I don’t know that ‘justice’ is ever possible with actions and effects that are impossible or extremely difficult to undo, a justice that actively restores the crime committed. We cannot restore the earth to the condition it was in before extraction: there is no possibility of returning to the earth what we have taken from it. There is only the possibility of a compensation, a partial and provisional restoration, which we cannot accomplish without relying on the forces of nature as well as our own capacities.

AC/EB: You have also reflected on temporality in relation to the ontologies of life and power from feminist and queer perspectives in, for example, Time Travels, and even in Becomings. For an approach to extractivism in the Global South, temporality is crucial to think of the confluence of diverse types of violence in marginalized bodies (female, soil, workers). How can art as a cultural production communicate a sense of the temporalities of the nonhuman, the deep time of geological bodies, lifeforms, fossils? If the temporalities of “the living” [lo viviente] are always exposed to the coopting attempts of capitalism, how can a renewed sense of futurity that does not rely on the evolutionary line of biology render other perceptions of relationality and shared vulnerability? What can an approach to nonhuman temporalities unravel in terms of connections between extractivist violence and gender violence?

EG: Temporality is both what must be thought and what cannot be directly thought. It is a kind of nothingness, unobservable, knowable only indirectly through the passage of things and events in time, an ether that holds things but has no force of its own, or only the force of a passive wearing away. Following Bergson (who follows Darwin), temporality, or as he calls it, duration, is that which transforms itself into spatial form to the extent that it is counted, measured, divided. We live in time, but we cannot control its inevitable passage, nor what it produces in us. We cannot know time except by abstracting it into numerable or measurable form, by imposing an order, perhaps even, for us, a necessary order, in what is the condition of order yet entirely uncontrollable by us. We live it as surprise, upset, transformation, unpredictable in any detail. And this may be why we create dreams, wishes, and perhaps all the arts, from storytelling and literature, which passes time in its telling and reading, to the visual and performative arts, which momentarily and subjectively arrest time, or hold our attention without division. But most strikingly, all the arts are of and from the earth, either directly or in a mediated form: the colors of paint, the textures onto which paint may be laid or cast, the materials from which sculptures are formed, the glistening and glittering of minerals and gems from the earth, are part of every culture, though in highly variable forms, and part of every form of art. The arts attest to the excess of the earth over our mere needs: they demonstrate how life, human and animal, is directed to pleasure, to contemplation, to immersion in textures and fabrics, narratives and poetry, which intensify feeling, sensation, or affect. 

If art comes from the earth, from what it provides by way of surfaces, pigments, ochres, sticks, brushes, rocks, minerals, it is also imperiled by climatological upheavals and catastrophes that have measurably and perceptually altered the earth since the rise of industrialization. I think that art has always been involved in a ‘deeper time,’ that is, a time that cannot be predicted or regulated from the forces of the time in which it was created. It has a ‘long durée’ that extends beyond the life of the artist and perhaps even beyond the life of a culture, as the world of antiquities demonstrates.

How can art foreground deep time?  How can it address geology, fossil life, and what is extinct? Well, this is a difficult question, one that artists around the world are addressing in video form, through exhibitions in museums of extraction (geological museums, mining museums), in the arts of painting, photography and prolifically, in literature. But what addresses these questions most directly, in my opinion, is indigenous art, an art that is distinctly modern in so far as it is subject to continuous change but is also informed by a deep and direct knowledge of the land, of the history of a particular location or region and a particular people, and by dreams of the future. We must learn to listen to what they say! And how they live with the earth.

AC/EB: Let us quote a passage from Time Travels on the relation between subject and force:

Rethinking the concept of subject and the subject/object relation in terms of force means profound transformations in all related concepts—of objects, of the social, of action and agency. It is no longer a subject that takes before it an object on which to enact its desire or will; rather, forces act through subjects, objects, material and social worlds without distinction, producing relations of inequality and differentiation, which in turn produce ever-realigning relations of intensity or force. They constitute an inhuman, subhuman field, a field of ‘‘particles’’ or elements of force which are only provisionally or temporarily grouped together in the form of entities and actions. This field is itself an individuality without individuals, a singularity without identity”, Chapter “(Inhuman) Forces: Power, Pleasure, and Desire”.

Based on that provocative thought that we should not talk about subjects but forces, we would like to ask: What does a perception of a subject in terms of geological/inhuman forces (“ever-realigning relations of intensity or force”) offers for an understanding of memory beyond the human? What could inhuman/earthly memories entail for a theory of art that grapples with extractive violence and its related forms of violence?

EG:  Our perception of inhuman forces, which only really occurs directly when we are subjected to emergencies or geological forces, such as in an earthquake or a volcano, in insufferable weather such as extreme heat or continuous rain (extremes that are occurring with increasing frequency) are usually threatening and unconducive to art at the time of their occurrence. But after catastrophes of this kind, there is time to reflect and collect oneself and to produce art. The earth remembers, but even more significantly, it preserves everything. Like time itself, in which nothing is lost even if it isn’t signified or represented. The earth and what occurs below its surface is another kind of memory, a preserved memory that is punctured and ruptured by the technologies of extraction and clearing. In preserving itself, the earth preserves its history, the material traces that this history of events leaves on and in the earth, a history that scientists—and artists—are learning to ‘read’ more carefully and beyond the interests of mining and extraction. 

I would think that not only can we learn from deepening our understanding of, and our capacities for art, from what composes the earth, above all, we can learn from indigenous and outsider artists, we can learn from scientists and geologists, we can learn from those who know elements of such a history of the earth, both biological and geological. But we must also remember that there is much about and of the earth that will forever remain inaccessible to us, either because of extreme conditions (the center of the earth is so hot it will melt any measuring tools) or because our knowledge systems remain limited and we persist in seeking a history of ourselves rather than a history of what surrounds and sustains us. This task of accessing inhuman or prehuman memories is perilous, prone to projection and human narcissism. We must be wary of any totalizing account of the earth as much as of any totalizing account of life. There are many earths, in my opinion, as many as there are species. No-one knows the earth in toto but each knows it to the extent that it survives, reproduces, mutates, transforms—each species, including the human, knows only part of the earth, that which it requires, uses and makes its own. Each species helps to transform the earth by leaving its traces behind to add to the earth’s capacity to reconstitute itself. The earth carries in itself its history, the upheavals, transformations, collisions, encounters with other planets, and the history of its own inhabitants. It is just that we humans have yet to learn the means by which we might be able to read this history and to find our small place in this vast array of life and non-life that surrounds and sustains us.

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Elizabeth Grosz has taught in Philosophy, Gender and Literature programs at Duke, Rutgers, SUNY Buffalo and SUNY Stony Brook in the United States, and at The University of Sydney and Monash University in Australia. She is the author of The Incorporeal. Ontology, Ethics and the Limits of Materialism (Columbia University Press, 2017), The Nick of Time. Politics, Evolution and the Untimely (Duke University Press, 2004), and Chaos, Territory, Art. Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (Columbia University Press, 2008).

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This is part of the cluster GeoSemantics. Read the other posts here. 

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