And the Earth Screamed, Alive

What if your guide to the world of media would not be the usual suspect—an entrepreneur or evangelista from Silicon Valley, or an aspirant from a management school hoping to catch up with the smooth crowd-sourced clouding of the network sphere? What if your guide  were Professor Challenger, the Arthur Conan Doyle character from the 1928 short story “When the World Screamed”? The story appeared in the Liberty magazine and offered an odd insight into a mad scientist’s world, with a hint of what we would nowadays call “speculative realism.” Professor Challenger, whose dubious and slightly mad reputation preceded him, offered an insight to what later philosophers such as the French writing duo Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari happily picked up on: that the earth is alive, and its crust is tingling with life. But the idea of the living earth has a long cultural history too: from antiquity it persists as the idea of terra mater, and in the emerging mining cultures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries becomes embedded as part of Romantic philosophy; later in the twentieth century the emergence of Gaia theories brings a different connotation to the holistic life of the planet.

The narrative of strata and geology starts with a letter: an undated letter addressed to Mr. Peerless Jones, an expert in artesian drilling. The letter is a request for assistance. The nature of what is required is not specified, but the reputation of the mad scientist, the slightly volatile personality of Professor Challenger, promises that it would not be a normal operation. In an atmosphere of suspicion and curiosity, it soon becomes evident that Mr. Jones’ drilling expertise is needed. In Sussex, U.K., at Hengist Down, Professor Challenger is engaged in a rather secret drilling operation; it is initially unclear what sort of a job the special drills are needed for. Even the sort of material to be penetrated is revealed only later to be different from what is usually expected from mining operations: not chalk or clay or the usual geological strata but more of a jelly-like substance.

The operation did not start with the undated letter. The Professor had been drilling deeper and deeper through the earth’s crust until he had finally discovered a layer that pulsates like a living animal. That the earth is alive, and that this vitality can be proved with experimental means, was actually the true objective of Challenger’s mission. Instead of drilling and mining for petroleum, coal, copper, iron ore, and other valuables for which men usually dig holes in the ground, Challenger’s mission is driven by a desire to prove a new speculative position that concerns the living depths of the earth: beyond the strata of “sallow lower chalk, the coffee-coloured Hastings beds, the lighter Ashburnham beds, the dark carboniferous clays, and . . .  gleaming in the electric light, band after band of jet-black, sparkling coal alternative with the rings of clay”[1] one finds unusual layers, which did not adhere to the classical geological theories of Hutton or Lyell. It seemed suddenly undeniable that even inorganic matter is alive: “The throbs were not direct, but gave the impression of a gentle ripple or rhythm, which ran across the surface,”[2] Mr. Jones describes the deep surface they found: “The surface was not entirely homogenous but beneath it, seen as through ground glass, there were dim whitish patches or vacuoles, which varied constantly in shape and size.” The layers, the core and the strata, throbbed, pulsated, animated. One need not go to the same lengths as Professor Challenger does, in one of the most bizarre rape-like scenes in literature, when he penetrates that jellyesque layer just to make the earth scream. This scientific sadism echoes in the ears of the audience and much further. It is the sound of  “a thousand of sirens in one, paralyzing all the great multitude with its fierce insistence, and floating away through the still summer air until it went echoing along the whole South Coast and even reach our French neighbors across the Channel.”[3] All this was observed and witnessed by an audience called by the Professor—peers and interested international crowd, by invitation only.

The interest in “the bowels of the earth”[4] was not restricted to fiction writing and the vibrant language of Conan Doyle.  Professor Challenger was predated by nineteenth-century fiction characters, like Heinrich in Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1800/1802) asking “Is it possible that beneath our feet a world of its own is stirring in a great life?”[5] The poetic thrust toward the living pulsating earth opened it up: for coal, for minerals, for precious material. The earth had become a resource anyway. earth metals and minerals were tightly linked to the emergence of modern engineering, science, and technical media. Metals such as copper were a crucial material feature of technical media culture since the nineteenth century. A lot of the early copper mines, however, were exhausted by the start of the twentieth century, leading to new demands both in terms of international reach and in terms of depth. New drills were needed for deeper mining, which was necessary in order to provide the materials for an increasing international need for wires and network culture. The increasing demand and international reach of the industry resulted in the cartelization of the copper business from mining to smelting.[6] Indeed, beside such historical contexts of mining, where Challenger’s madness starts to make sense, one is tempted to think of imaginary horrors of the underground, as depicted by writers  from H. P. Lovecraft to Fritz Leiber. Leiber preempts a much more recent writer of the biopolitics of petroleum, Reza Negarestani, both highlighting the same theme:  petroleum is a living subterranean life form.[7] One should not ignore the earth screams caused by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) that, beside the promise that it might change the geopolitical balance of energy production,  points toward what is often neglected in the discourse of geopolitics: geo, the earth, the soil and depth of the crust that leads to the bowels of the earth. By pumping pressurized water and chemicals underground the procedure forces gas out from between rocks, forcing the earth to become an extended resource. Rocks fracture, benzene and formaldehyde creep in, and the earth is primed to expose itself. Fracking is, in the words of Brett Neilson, perfectly tuned to the capitalist hyperbole of expansion across limits: “Whether it derives from the natural commons of earth, fire, air, and water or the networked commons of human cooperation, fracking creates an excess that can be tapped.”[8]

Inside the earth, one finds a metallic reality, which feeds into metal metaphysics and digital devices. Besides the speculative stance, one can revert back to empirical material too. In short, of direct relevance to our current media technological situation is the reminder that according to year 2008 statistics, media materiality is very metallic: “36 percent of all tin, 25 percent of cobalt, 15 percent of palladium, 15 percent silver, 9 percent of gold, 2 percent of copper, and 1 percent of aluminum”[9] goes annually to media technologies. We have shifted from being a society that until mid-twentieth century was based on a very restricted list of materials (“wood, brick, iron, copper, gold, silver, and a few plastics”)[10] to one in which a computer chip is composed of “60 different elements.”[11] Such lists of metals and materials of technology include rare earth minerals that are increasingly at the center of both global political controversies over tariffs and export restrictions from China. They are also related to the debates concerning the environmental damage caused by extensive open-pit mining massively reliant on chemical processes. Indeed, if the actual rock mined is likely to contain less than a percent of copper[12] it means that the pressure is on the chemical processes to tease out the Cu for further refined use in our technological devices.

The figures about metals for media seem astounding but testify to another materiality of technology that links with Conan Doyle but also with contemporary media arts discourse concerning the deep time of the earth. I will move on from Professor Challenger, however, to Siegfried Zielinski the German media studies professor, and his conceptualization of deep times of media art histories. In short, and what I shall elaborate in more detail soon, the figure of the deep time is for Zielinski a sort of a media archaeological gesture that while borrowing from paleontology actually turns out to be a riff for understanding the longer-term durations of art and science collaboration in Western and non-Western contexts. I want to argue, however, that there is a need for a more literal understanding and mobilization of deep times , in terms of depth as well as temporality, in media technological discourse and in relation to media art histories too. Professor Challenger is here to provide the necessary, even if slightly dubious, point about geological matter as living: this sort of a media history is of a speculative kind. It refers to a completely different time-scale than is usually engaged by our field. It borrows from the idea of dynamics of nonlinear history that Manuel Delanda so inspirationally mapped in terms of genes, language, and geology but which in this case can be approached even more provocatively as not just thousands, but millions and billions of years of nonlinear stratified media history.[13] Media history conflates with earth history; the geological material of metals and chemicals get deterritorialized from their strata and reterritorialized in machines that define our technical media culture.

The extension of life to inorganic processes follows from Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy. Life consists of dynamic patterns of variation and stratification. Stratification is a living double articulation that shows how geology is much more dynamic than dead matter. This is obviously an allusion to the reading one finds in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, in which the whole philosophical stakes of this enterprise are revealed. The intensities of the earth, the flows of its dynamic unstable matter, are locked into strata. This process of locking and capture is called stratification, and it organizes the molecular inorganic life into “molar aggregates.”[14]

To ask a minor rhetorical question that detours via Deleuze and Guattari: what if we start our excavation of media technologies and digital culture not from Deleuze’s often-quoted Control Societies text, but from Deleuze and Guattari’s joint texts on geology and stratification?[15] This is the implicit task of this text, with a focus on the emerging critical discourse of resource depletion and minerals, and a harder materiality than hardware. Hardware perspectives are not necessarily hard enough, and if we want to extend our material notions of media thoroughly toward deeper materialities and deeper times, we need to be able to talk of the matter that contributes to the assemblages and durations of media as technology. This comes out most clearly in two ways. First, the research and design, fabrication and standardization of new materials that allow media processes and high technology processes to emerge. This relates to the history of chemistry as well as product development of synthetic materials as well as metals like aluminum that characterize modernity, alongside the work on material sciences that enabled so much of computer culture. Silicon and germanium are obvious examples of discoveries in chemistry that proved to be essential for computer culture. More recently, for instance, the minuscule 22 nanometer transistors that function without silicon are made of indium gallium arsenid; they demonstrate that a lot of science happens before the discursive wizardry of creative technology discourse.  The MIT research project is allowing “evaporated indium, gallium, and arsenic atoms to react, forming a very thin crystal of InGaAs that will become the transistor’s channel.”[16] This short quote suffices to show that materiality of media starts long before media becomes media. Second, in a parallel fashion, we need to be able to discuss the media that is not media any longer. This is the other pole of media materiality: less high-tech, defined by obsolescence and depletion:[17] the mined rare earth minerals essential to computers and advanced technology industries from entertainment to the military, as well as, for instance, the residue products from the processes of fabrication, like the minuscule aluminum dust residue released from polishing iPad cases to be desirably shiny for the consumer market.[18]

  1. Arthur Conan Doyle, “When the World Screamed” (1928).  http://www.classic-literature.co.uk/scottish-authors/arthur-conan-doyle/when-the-world-screamed/ebook-page-10.asp.
  2. Ibid., http://www.classic-literature.co.uk/scottish-authors/arthur-conan-doyle/when-the-world-screamed/ebook-page-11.asp.
  3. Ibid., http://www.classic-literature.co.uk/scottish-authors/arthur-conan-doyle/when-the-world-screamed/ebook-page-14.asp. The allusion to rape is made even more obvious when considering the long-term mythological articulation of the earth with the female. The female interior of the earth is one of valuable riches. Steven Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 52.
  4. Doyle, “When the World Screamed,” http://www.classic-literature.co.uk/scottish-authors/arthur-conan-doyle/when-the-world-screamed/ebook-page-14.asp.
  5. Novalis quoted in Theodore Ziolkowski, German Romanticism and Its Institutions (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990), 31.
  6. Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, Greening the Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 55.
  7. Fritz Leiber, “The Black Gondolier,” in The Black Gondolier and Other Stories. E-Reads (2002). Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (Melbourne: Re.Press, 2008). Eugene Thacker, “Black Infinity, or, Oil Discovers Humans,” in Leper Creativity (New York: Punctum, 2012), 173–80.
  8. Brett Neilson, “Fracking,” in Depletion Design, ed. Carolin Wiedemann and Soenke Zehle (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures and xm:lab, 2012), 85.
  9. Maxwell and Miller, Greening the Media, 93.
  10. T. E. Graedel, E. M. Harper, N. T. Nassar, and Barbara K. Reck, “On the Materials Basis of Modern Society,” PNAS, October 2013, early edition: 1.
  11. Ibid. See also Akshat Raksi, “The Metals in Your Smartphone May Be Irreplaceable,” Ars Technica, December 5, 2013, http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/12/the-metals-in-your-smartphone-may-be-irreplaceable/.
  12. Brett Milligan, “Space-Time Vertigo,” in Making the Geologic Now: Responses to the Material Conditions of Contemporary Life, ed. Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse (New York: Punctum, 2013), 124.
  13. Manuel Delanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Swerve/MIT Press, 2000). Delanda’s argument for a geological approach to human history stems from an understanding of self-organization as the general drive behind how matter and energy are distributed. In this way, he is able to argue provocatively that “human societies are very much like lava flows” (55), referring to their nonlinear patterns of organization. In addition, he does well to shed light on the aspects of historical character in which there can be seen extensive continua between geological formations and what we tend to call human history—for instance, that of urbanity. Indeed, the processes of mineralization some 500 million years ago give rise to the endoskeleton and materiality of the bone affecting the processes crucial for the birth of humans (and a range of other specific types of bony organic life), as well as later affording a range of other processes. Indeed, Delanda talks of the exoskeleton of urban cities as being made possible by this same process, and tracks how metals, for instance, play their parts in the formation of urban centralization and clustering. We could in this vein argue that the processes of mineralization extend to the current computer age too, in terms of how the sedimented but deterritorializing layers of geological time are making possible a further exoskeleton—an argument that has its implicit resonances with the way in which, for instance, Bernard Stiegler has pitched the various externalizations of human memory, leaning on Edmund Husserl and Gilbert Simondon.
  14. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 40. They are adamant in emphasizing that this is not a matter of substance and form (the hylomorphic model persistent in philosophy), the dualism usually haunting the linguistically modeled idea of meaning. Instead they want to introduce a geologically driven idea of the materiality of signification, including asignifying elements. The double nature of the articulation is expressed as follows: “The first articulation chooses or deducts, from unstable particle-flows, metastable molecular or quasi-molecular units (substances)upon which it imposes a statistical order of connections and successions (forms). The second articulation establishes functional, compact, stable structures (forms), and constructs the molar compounds in which these structures are simultaneously actualized (substances).In a geological stratum, for example, the first articulation is the process of ‘sedimentation,’ which deposits units of cyclic sediment according to a statistical order: flysch, with its succession of sandstone and schist. The second articulation is the ‘folding’ that sets up a stable functional structure and effects the passage from sediment to sedimentary rock” (40–41). A good and necessary philosophical reading of the geological is Ben Woodard’s On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy (New York: Punctum, 2013). It offers a critique and expansion of the Deleuze-Guattarian perspective. Also important is Manuel Delanda’s earlier text “The Geology of Morals: A Neomaterialist Interpretation,” Virtual Futures 95 (1995). http://www.t0.or.at/delanda/geology.htm.
  15. In short, in A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari pitch the idea of geology of morals (a reference to Nietzsche) as illuminating an idea of stratification as a double articulation. Endnote 30 clarified this aspect. Such a process, however, is not restricted to geology, but allows Deleuze and Guattari to talk of geology of morals. In my further development, geology of media is, besides a philosophical figure and a nod toward A Thousand Plateaus, an emerging perspective of the careful selection and sedimentation of certain material elements necessary for the consolidation of functional media technologies. Such technologies express continua between nature and culture, or what I have called medianatures, which often signal themselves through ecological implications, or to be frank, problems—energy production, waste, and so forth. For Delanda, the Deleuze and Guattari geological model provides a new materialism of stratification that as an abstract machine runs across various materialities: “sedimentary rocks, species and social classes (and other institutionalized hierarchies) are all historical constructions, the product of definite structure-generating processes that take as their starting point a heterogeneous collection of raw materials (pebbles, genes, roles), homogenize them through a sorting operation, and then consolidate the resulting uniform groupings into a more permanent state” (Delanda, “Geology of Morals,” 62). On “medianatures,” see Jussi Parikka, “Media Zoology and Waste Management: Animal Energies and Medianatures,” Necsus-European Journal of Media Studies 4 (2013), http://www.necsus-ejms.org/.
  16. Sebastian Anthony,  “MIT Creates Tiny, 22nm Transistor Without Silicon,” Extremetech, December 11, 2012. http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/143024-mit-creates-tiny-22nm-transistor-without-silicon.
  17. See Wiedemann and Zehle, eds., Depletion Design (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures and xm:lab, 2012).
  18. Jussi Parikka, “Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism,” Ctheory, October 2, 2013, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=726.

Copyright © 2014 by Jussi Parikka