Notes on an Unconditional Geopoetics

Lots of people in my various social media feeds are talking about the new book from Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes, which promises to rewrite the “origin stories” of the Anthropocene.

A summary of the book from University of Minnesota Press reads:

Kathryn Yusoff examines how the grammar of geology is foundational to establishing the extractive economies of subjective life and the earth under colonialism and slavery. She initiates a transdisciplinary conversation between black feminist theory, geography, and the earth sciences, addressing the politics of the Anthropocene within the context of race, materiality, deep time, and the afterlives of geology.

I’m interested to read it and will hopefully pick it up soon but I was also interested to read this essay for Verso from McKenzie Wark.

The essay was sent over by Robin and there were no surprises as to why, with much of what Wark explores echoing Robin’s own research and interests.

Indeed, this geological thread is central to a lineage that runs prior to, after but also straight through the Ccru, with its shades of Nietzschean materialism, Bataillean gnosticism, DeleuzoGuattarian schizoanalysis, Landian catastrophism, Negarestanian terrestrial apostacism, and Robin’s continuing study of geotraumatics through which he has continued to mine the earth to even greater depths of geopoetic resonance.

Wark writes:

What Yusoff advocates as an alternative is undoing geopolitics through geopoetics. Maybe there is another writing of the earth, against or outside the division of matter into active and passive, where the active includes only whiteness and the passive reduces Blackness to the status of thing or instrument. “A new language of the earth cannot be resolved in biopolitical modes (of inclusion) because of the hierarchical divisions that mark the biocentric subject.” (56)

What’s interesting is that, following this, Wark points out, albeit in their own flawed way, that there is no political guarantee to any of this. But isn’t that precisely the point already? Such is the primary lesson of schizoanalysis in A Thousand Plateaus, as that which avoids our persistent tendency towards “reductionist modifications which simplify the complex.” Wark continues:

This counter project has a delicious name: “there is a need to de-sediment the social life of geology, to place it in the terror of its coercive acts and the interstitial movements of its shadow geology — what I call a billion Black Anthropocenes…. There is an invisible agent that carries those Golden Spikes, in their flesh, chains, hunger, and bone, and in their social formations as sound, radical poetry, critical black studies and subjective possibility realized against impossible conditions: there are a billion Black Anthropocenes that are its experiential witness…” (59-60)

So far so good, and very intriguing. But Wark then summarises:

Yusoff: “Geology then becomes a spacing in the imagination that is used to separate forms of the human into permissible modes of exchange and circulation. This is the geotrauma of a billion Black Anthropocenes.” (84) This is to be a speculative geology of geotrauma. Although one has to point out that as form or style or genre this poetics is not necessarily always on the right side of any history. Nick Land favors a poetics of geotauma too. Forms of knowledge don’t in and of themselves act as political guarantees.

Indeed, so much of Wark’s essay hints at an attempted course-correct of the kind that is central to so many ostensibly left-wing political philosophies in recent years. Points are highlighted in quotations and then the subsequent readings of said quotations betray a thinking that the quotations themselves hint at a counter to.

For example, ultimately, the Landian scare-flag Wark is raising here does more harm than good and, in fact, moves contrary to the general project which Yusoff just described, because such a new writing of the Earth as that which Yusoff supposedly calls to seems to be one which mitigates the hangups of walking over a contemporary landscape of political eggshells. It returns to the foundation, highlighting the ground on which these eggshells are sprinkled on, often despite themselves.

The real tension here comes from differentiating between the senses of the “new” being deployed — in the sense that one of them is not all that new at all. Writing from present articulations of ideas in the common nomenclature of our ideological era or in a newly decolonised language does not make the ideas and concepts and science themselves new and, in fact, that seems to be precisely what Yusoff is calling to.

This is to say that, whilst the “new” is not new to thought, its present representations certainly are. And surely the point is that much of the real story of geology exists beyond representation. And so, to handle the Anthropocene with nothing but the naive enthusiasm of a new art world trend, as Wark inevitably does, is a regression regardless of the shiny new political subtext. (That is why, we could argue, the Ccru prefer to use numerology to sketch out these cryptic contours.)

Of course, you can’t hold your breathe on issues such as this from the University of Minnesota Press, who are best known in these parts as the publishers of Dark Deleuze — a paradoxical attempt at diversifying a discourse through a reductive reading — and so it remains unclear here, without having read both texts, who is really guilty of the conceptual flub — Yusoff or Wark.

At present, though, Wark feels like a very safe bet…

To me, the way that Wark frames A Billion Black Anthropocenes makes it sound strangely like a rewrite of Cyclonopedia for our present moment, albeit in the poetic stylings of Fred Moten rather than Gilles Deleuze (to match current trends). For many, that is worthwhile in itself — usurp the white canon — although this is made more complicated by Reza’s appropriation being so embedded within his own cultural background: diversifying rather than decolonising Deleuze.

This makes it resemble something of a DeleuzoGuattarian schizoanalytic project in its a knotted tackling of issues of geo- and biopolitics and their inherent entwinement with one another, and it likewise echoes an argument had on Twitter the other week between @wokeytliberal and those Hysteric Bad Marxists Who Shall Not Be Named, with the latter seemingly misunderstanding what an “immanent critique” is in trying to discuss the inherent “whiteness” or “blackness” of capitalism. (The immanence of the critique holds the two in tandem — or it should and many now go further in this than Marx ever did in Das Kapital to more widely implement his own theory.)

Before we explore this in more detail, however — a caveat: I’m reminded at this point of a discussion had on the latest edition of Novara Media’s #TyskySour YouTube show in which Ash Sarkar and Kehinde Andrews discuss the “Decolonise The Curriculum” movement — starting at the 55:47 mark if you’d like to see it for yourself.

Both make the point that you can “diversify” a curriculum but not “decolonise” it — the academy is too far gone. James Butler then goes on to make a comparison between the contemporaneous campus “free speech” war of the last couple of years (which loudly decries complaints of curriculums being too white as being typical of millennial snowflakery) and the “theory wars” of the 1970s and ’80s, in which attempts to diversify curriculums to include queer, feminist and other perspectives were dismissed as “faddish or trendy obscurantism” in much the same way.

The danger, I think, of present discussions around geopoetics is that they fall somewhere between the two sides of this argument due to the very nature of what is being discussed. Some — a minority; not all — loudly left-wing writers and theorists do deploy an obscurantism relative to the scale of the subject at hand, because the argument for diversification is precisely the result of a thought that “poeticises” the findings of a science like geology — poetry, here, perhaps best understood in the Blanchotian sense, as that which births philosophy; as that which cannot ordinarily be put into words — the effect of which is, first and foremost, a humiliation of the human subject.

This subject is, of course, stratified and a focus on the more minoritarian strata is endlessly illuminating but to lose sight of a geopoetics’ wider implications in its response to these findings is to lose the essence of its immanent critiques.

I’ve been writing about this for myself elsewhere, particularly in orbit of a line from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques in which he writes how Freud, Marx and the science of geology all “demonstrate that understanding consists in reducing one type of reality to another; that the true reality is never the most obvious; and that the nature of truth is already indicated by the care it takes to remain elusive”. (This is a central part of Landian thought too, we should note, regardless of what you think of his personal politics.)

As I see it, so much of the discourse around the Anthropocene as an art world fad is — quite literally — related to its myopic concentration on one strata at the expense of the broader understanding that was its original intent. This is why a “geology of morals”, then — as Deleuze and Guattari call their preliminary excavation in A Thousand Plateaus — is far more than a Nietzschean genealogy, which reveals to us, relatively superficially, where we are now. The intention is always to go deeper.

All of these anthropocentric texts arguably share this same goal, which is to raise consciousness to a planetary scale (or rather, I’d argue, given this geological scale: to raise an unconsciousness) about the present conditions of reality. Geology — and geopoetics — exert a particular influence due to the fact they might just help us predict what comes next; predict the next steps and ruptures within the earth’s primary process. They might just help us find the fault lines and make ourselves ready for when the ground underneath gives way under the constant strain of our political processes.

This is to say that it speaks to a larger unconscious but also — further removed than this — an “unconditional” process which runs underneath the chattering of political disputes, in precisely the same terms as those described by an Unconditional Accelerationism.

To quote Vincent Garton:

The problem has been muddied by its own continual posing in humanist terms, which have provoked a refusal to understand the enormity of the issues at stake. From this perspective of humanism, thought is assimilated entirely to the objective of negotiating the problems that are held to confront humanity. Philosophically, it is concerned with epistemological understanding founded implicitly or not on the centrality of a coherent human subject; critically, it reduces the world to the relations of power practiced by humans towards humans; politically, it immerses itself in defining and putting into motion a better human society. Thought is rendered finally as a series of technical questions that constitute the tactical mapping of a topography whose ultimate form is placed beyond dispute.

U/Acc’s controversies continue to quietly bubble away at present but, to me, this seems to be the same point inferred by Ash Sarkar when she dismisses the haranguing of school children concerned about climate change that we have seen from the Boomer contingent of the Right in the UK and in the US over the last two weeks. Sarkar says, with incredulity: “What is identitarian about not wanting the planet to die?” Glibly put, but the underlying point resonates. The politics of climate change can quickly (and perhaps should be encouraged to) become unhumanist, and yet we continue to see such issues discussed in identitarian terms by both sides of a political divide. (The benefits of the Right’s patronising posturing is that it shows just how moronic such a position is to the benefit of a climate-change-affirming left.)

So, Wark’s pointing to Land as a kind of warning is surely a moot point. Land’s — and, by extension, early Negarestani’s — favouring of a geopoetics is not a sign that geopoetics is politically promiscuous but rather that it is ostensibly cryptic, in much the same sense that Lévi-Strauss describes, and so it must be understood as being riven with veins for the mining of many properties. As Robin likewise made clear years ago: “The theory of trauma was a crypto-geological hybrid from the very start.”

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