They penetrated to the bowels of earth and dug up wealth, bad cause of all our ills.
This is an essay about not only the anthropocene but the anthrobscene. It responds to past years of discussions in media arts, cultural theory, and philosophy about the geological underpinnings of contemporary media culture. In short, the anthropocene has been the focus of intense debate and variation: finally, one felt, a concept to describe the effects of the human species and its scientific-technological desires on the planet. And yet it is a concept that also marks the various violations of environmental and human life in corporate practices and technological culture that are ensuring that there won’t be much of humans in the future scene of life.
In any case, the notion of the anthropocene was preceded by notions of Gaia and even the nineteenth-century concept of the anthropozoic age. Antonio Stoppani stands as one of the early formulators of the idea that humans initiated a specific geological period. His 1870s visionary accounts painted a picture of the various strata of the earth. But for Stoppani, in Corso di Geologia (1873), such layers derived not only from earth’s prehistory but were attributes of a planet unearthed by human technologies and then covered with the ruins of those inventions. The earth feeds that process and disappears under it:
Rival of the potent agents of the internal world, man undoes what nature has done. Nature has worked for centuries at agglomerating in the bowels of the earth oxides and metallic salts; and man, tearing them out of the earth, reduces them to native metals in the heat of his furnaces. In vain you would look for a single atom of native iron in the earth: already its surface is enclosed, one could say, within a web of iron, while iron cities are born from man’s yards and float on the sea. How much of the earth’s surface by now disappears under the masses that man built as his abode, his pleasure and his defense, on plains, on hills, on the seashores and lakeshores, as on the highest peaks! By now the ancient earth disappears under the relics of man or of his industry. You can already count a series of strata, where you can read the history of human generations, as before you could read in the amassed bottom of the seas the history of ancient faunas.
Stoppani imagines the future fossil layers of technological rubbish: paleontologies that deal not only with the earth but the earth after the appearance and effect of modern science and technology. His views express a curious theme of the nineteenth century, all the more relevant now. As John Durham Peters argues, the century of the sciences of geology and evolution theory, from Charles Lyell to Charles Darwin, was also relevant to how scientific thought implicitly perceived the earth as media. In these disciplines the earth was a sort of a recording device. The new discoverers of astronomy gradually perceived the cosmic dimensions of space and time in mediated ways. Such sciences were mediated by their instruments. In addition, geology and astronomy are, in Peters’ words “always also media studies; they necessarily study not only the content, but signal and channel properties as well.” They allow us to imagine time-space relations far beyond what Harold A. Innis initially included as part of his pioneering media history.
In the context of recent media theory we are already aware of the work by Bruce Sterling (dead media, media turned paleontological) and Siegfried Zielinski (deep time of the media). The geophysical sphere features as an growing part of art festivals, such as recently at the transmediale Afterglow-festival (2014) in Berlin. Even entering the Haus der Kulturen der Welt conference venue opens a view of several pieces of survey equipment, reinstalled to function as peephole-style viewing devices—but not to the geological landscape: instead, they present media landscapes, measurement of online activities and processes. The Critical Infrastructure project by Jamie Allen and David Gauthier is emblematic of this drive toward geological and geophysical metaphors in media arts and technological discussions. In addition, it is complemented by the constantly growing interest in electronic waste and energy issues as well as larger questions of energy. One can start reading history of media and technology before media becomes media. Even statistics about minerals tell this story: the increase since the 1990s in the consumption of indium, peaking in 2008; the growing numbers for import and consumption of silicon since the 1950s; a similar increase in consumption of rare earth minerals since the 1950s. Of course, not all minerals are meant for media technologies—far from it (although media culture is the focus of this essay).
Whether or not they are perceived in terms of media, deep time resources of the earth are what makes technology happen. The emergence of geology as a discipline since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as the techniques of mining developed since then are essential for media-technological culture. Institutions such as the U.S. Geological Survey have gradually grown to be about much more than “just” geology: they are sites of transformation where the earth becomes an object of systematized knowledge and the knowledge thus created of the earth’s resources is mobilized toward technological production, governmental geopolitics, and increasingly a global survey of the minerals of the earth.
Even if media theory might have partly forgotten the existence of the earth as a condition of media, the arts did not. In addition to the history of media derivable from the earth sciences, artistic practice from sculpture to painting to (for instance) the chemical worlds of photography has had a close relationship to earth’s materials. Art has turned chemicals, clays, pigments into expressions of not only any romantic artistic spirit but the existence of the earth: an understanding of the earth’s tendencies to create sound, light, and more.
This is one interesting way to understand the Deleuzian emphasis on the earth picked up by Elizabeth Grosz. The link between the earth and art is fundamentally conditioned by the existence of inorganic life: the fact that the earth is anyway, already, expressive in an ontological sense. The emergence of sexualized life on earth is one feature that carries forward the expressive qualities of matter. Grosz maps Gilles Deleuze’s focus on the architectural as taking priority over the body, and makes the case that this territorial impulse defines our relation to the earth. It’s this architectural angle that feeds forward to architectures of the technological kind: computational architectures, planetary architectures of technology (“the stack” in Benjamin Bratton’s coinage), and other similar frames that take advantage of the inorganic life of the earth. This is not the full story. In the Deleuzian framework, further reworked into a creative feminist mix with Darwin, Grosz reminds us that art and the earth are producing in excess—not merely for functional ends and definitely not mainly for the convenient pleasure of technological corporatization of the planet as part of the further layer covering the soil.
Artist Robert Smithson spoke about “abstract geology,” referring to how tectonics and geophysics pertain not only to the earth but also to the mind; abstract geology is a field where a geological perspective is distributed across the organic and inorganic division. Its reference to the “abstract” might attract those with a Deleuzian bent and resonate with the concept of “abstract machines.” But Smithson’s interest was in the materiality of the art practice, reintroducing metals (and hence geology) back to the studio. What’s more, Smithson was ready to mobilize his notion, emerging in the artistic discourse of land art in the 1960s with a conceptualization of technology that we can say was nothing less than anti-McLuhanian: instead of seeing technology as extensions of mankind, technology is aggregated and “made of the raw materials of the earth.” From our twenty-first-century perspective, approximately fifty years after Smithson’s practice, it starts an imaginary alternative media theoretical lineage that may not include McLuhan, Kittler, and their like, but instead writes a story of materials, metals, chemistry, and waste. These materials articulate the high-technical and low-paid culture of digitality. They also provide an alternative materialism for the geophysical media age.
This short essay works in the context of deep time. It discusses Zielinski’s inspiring archaeology-related notion of media but insists that it become deeper and more material and reach to further time scales: millions of years of variantological media history. Hence I am using the notion of an alternative deep time. The text is a precursor to a longer project, a short of a teaser or trailer: it asks how to think about the underground in the age of resource depletion, a Cold War–style energy race, and the investment in the bottoms of the seas. It proposes the depths of mines as essential places for the emergence of technical media culture—from the entertainment sector to the military.
But why the anthrobscene? Why not just adapt to the normalized use of the anthropocene? In short, the addition of the obscene is self-explanatory when one starts to consider the unsustainable, politically dubious, and ethically suspicious practices that maintain technological culture and its corporate networks. The relation of the mineral ore coltan, essential in cell-phone manufacture, to the bloody civil war in Congo and the use of child labor has been discussed now for some years in cultural theory. In media arts, pieces such as Tantalum Memorial (2008, by Harwood, Wright, Yokokoji) represent projects relating to the mineral politics of media. We can remind ourselves of the environmentally disastrous consequences of planned obsolescence of electronic media, the energy costs of digital culture, and, for instance, the neocolonial arrangements of material and energy extraction across the globe. Jennifer Gabrys is one of the inspiring writers who have pointed out the need to start from the other side—the electronic waste and the accident—in order to grasp the full picture of media-cultural materiality. To call it “anthrobscene” is just to emphasize what we knew but perhaps shied away from acting on: a horrific human-caused drive toward a sixth mass extinction of species. To go underground is an analytical but also an ethico-esthetic choice. To investigate the geology of media is a theoretical contribution to the analysis of this situation of the anthrobscene. This essay is a preamble to a forthcoming book titled “A Geology of Media.”
Much technopolitical vocabulary has emphasized other sorts of things. The immaterialization of digitality as a service on the cloud has forced us to consider that we need new political vocabularies thataddress the double bind of technical materiality and conceptual immateriality, as Seb Franklin argues. But despite the social media industry–driven marketing campaigns for the cloud, we are as necessarily in need of technopolitical vocabularies of the geophysical and the underground, even in the context of clouds and data. The physicality of the internet became increasingly visible during 2013. In the wake of revelations of the NSA’s spy program PRISM, the images of lonely data servers in the middle of nowhere gained new political currency; similarly, images of intelligence agencies such as depicted in Trevor Paglen’s art became ways to imagine and investigate the global infrastructures of institutions whose own physical existence was confined to silent concrete buildings.
But after Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing what also surfaced was the case of Brazil: why was Brazil so much on the map of the surveillance operations of the American agency? The reason was quickly exposed: it was about the submarine cables. The paranoid surveillance mechanisms of the post–9/11 world of U.S. terror also highlight the extensive infrastructural arrangements of networks on the physical level. One of the main lines, Atlantis-2, connects South America to Europe and Africa, allowing for a crucial interruption node to exist when data arrives ashore, to put it poetically. No wonder this has quickly spurred plans “to lay an undersea communications cable from Lisbon to Fortaleza” just to bypass American interception.
We need to look at the underground realities as well as the submerged ones: not that different from the laying of the Atlantic cables in mid-nineteenth century. Back then the submerged media was escorted by an enthusiasm for interconnectedness. Now it is a secret enthusiasm for inter-ruptedness. The grounds, ungrounds, and undergrounds of media infrastructures condition what is visible and what is invisible. This is a question of power relations and contested territories in a way that makes the geo- in geopolitics stand out. The earth is part of media both as a resource and as transmission. The earth conducts, also, literally, forming a special part of the media and sound artistic circuitry. It is the contested political earth that extends to being part of military “infrastructure”: the earth hides political stakes and can be formed as part of military strategy and maneuvers.
- Antonio Stoppani, “First Period of the Anthropozoic Era,” trans. Valeria Federeighi, ed. Etienne Turpin and Valeria Federeghi. In Making the Geologic Now: Responses to the Material Conditions of Contemporary Life, ed. Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse (New York: Punctum, 2013), 38.↵
- John Durham Peters, “Space, Time, and Communication Theory,” Canadian Journal of Communication 28, no. 4 (2003). http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/1389/1467.↵
- Sean Cubitt, “Electric Light and Electricity,” Theory, Culture & Society 30, no. 7-8 (2013): 309–23.↵
- Historical Statistics for Mineral and Material Commodities in the United States. U.S. Geological Survey Data Sets 140, <a href="http://minerals.usgs.gov/ds/2005/140/"http://minerals.usgs.gov/ds/2005/140/.↵
- Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 10.↵
- Benjamin Bratton, The Stack (forthcoming, MIT Press). Michael Nest, Coltan (Cambridge: Polity, 2011).↵
- Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (1968; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 101. Of course, the resonance with Gregory Bateson’s ideas from the 1960s and 1970s are explicit and thus a link to Guattari would be also interesting to map. See Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (St. Albans: Paladin, 1973).↵
- Cf. Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 10.↵
- Jennifer Gabrys, Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011).↵
- See also Jussi Parikka, “Insects and Canaries: Medianatures and the Aesthetics of the Invisible,” Angelaki 18, no. 1 (2013): 107–19.↵
- Seb Franklin, “Cloud Control, or the Network as a Medium,” Cultural Politics 8, no. 3 (2012): 443–64.↵
- On bunkers, besides Paul Virilio’s work, see also John Beck, “Concrete Ambivalence: Inside the Bunker Complex,” Cultural Politics 7, no. 1 (2011): 79–102.↵
- “What the N.S.A. Wants in Brazil,” The New Yorker, July 24 (2013). http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/07/why-the-nsa-really-cares-about-brazil.html.↵
- Robin Emmott, “Brazil, Europe Plan Undersea Cable to Skirt U.S. Spying,” Reuters, February 24 (2014). http://www.reuters.com/.↵
- On sea cables and infrastructural (in)visibility, see Nicole Starosielski, "‘Warning: Do Not Dig’: Negotiating the Visibility of Critical Infrastructures," Journal of Visual Culture 11, no. 1 (2012): 38–57 . See also Ryan Bishop, “Project ‘Transparent Earth’ and the Autoscope of Aerial Targeting: The Visual Geopolitics of the Underground,” Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 7–8 (2011): 270–86.↵
- Douglas Kahn, Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2013).↵