Beyond Rocks: Architects (and everyone else) Living the Geologic
02.19.2012, 7:01 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

In Miyako, Japan people went to high ground to escape the 1700 Cascadia tsunami. Their flight is reported in this book of government records from 1700, from the USGS publication, “Surviving a Tsunami—Lessons from Chile, Hawaii, and Japan.

We just returned from the Making The Geologic Turn symposium at the University of Michigan.  The new ideas and colleagues we met there encouraged us to renew and update our ongoing siting of “a geologic turn“—and get clearer about why, at this moment, “the geologic” seems so compelling.

The Taubman College symposium was curated by Etienne Turpin, and designed to explore a “productive new alliance” that is forming between architecture and geology.  Participants came from design disciplines, visual arts, and theoretical humanities, and traced geology’s increasing influence in their disciplines.

Two of the presenters, Seth Denizen and Paulo Tavares, spoke directly to an idea that FOP has been working with over the past year.  Namely, the hunch that a new cultural sensibility may be in the making.  Architects, designers, artists, philosophers, journalists, and urban planners seem to be turning toward the geologic for help in understanding and responding to conditions of contemporary daily life.

Seth’s presentation suggested that a new “geologic aesthetic” might be emerging.  And it takes the form of the ubiquitous hockey stick-like exponential curve.

“The material phenomena responsible for the reassessment of our present geological epoch, as one which is for the first time driven by forces of human origin, are understood empirically as exponential.  Whether it’s population, ocean temperature, energy consumption, or atmospheric gasses, the speed of the material relations of human life find themselves ultimately approaching an asymptote.”

Seth offered a litany of graphs, similar to these, to illustrate his point:

from NASA

European Environment Agency


image SUSPS

Union of Concerned Scientists

Seth projected numerous graphs of today’s material and geologic conditions of life on Earth, and said:

“The strange thing about these curves, is that the farther along the curve one projects the present, the shorter the time interval between successive points, until time all but stops, in the midst of an immense acceleration.  At this point, the world becomes defined not by a time, but by a speed.  This is the point at which the world can no longer be imagined as merely an extension of our own, as a difference in degree, but ultimately something which takes on a difference in kind:  another sea, another wind, another world at right angles with our own.”   

In the wake of Seth’s presentation, we couldn’t help wondering:  Is the speed of change in the material realities of life on the planet outpacing our ways of knowing?  Everything we humans think we know about living on Earth, and everything we thought was useful for life here, was invented by ancestors who lived during times when the hockey stick graphs were relatively “flat.”  But, as Seth put it, we’re now living at right angles with that (former) world.  We’re now living on a qualitatively different planet.  While that doesn’t necessarily mean that human knowledge needs to start over, it does mean we need to rethink, reconfigure, and reinvent “what we know” from an entirely different angle (the vertical, accelerating rise).  And we need to do that quickly.

image courtesy Paulo Tavares

What sorts of inventive thinking are possible and called for in response to new conditions of the Anthropocene?  São Paulo and London based architect, Paulo Tavares, offered a compelling example.  In 2008, he said, Ecuador adopted a new constitution.  It granted inalienable rights to nature: “Alongside the fundamental rights attributed to the citizens of the State of Ecuador, the constitution establishes fundamental rights to natural communities and eco-systems, inscribing nature as a subject of the national legal code.”  Paulo went on to lay out the difference that such a legal innovation makes in formulating responses to events such as the 2010 Gulf oil spill.  It’s worth quoting at length from a version of Paulo’s presentation published online by Critical Legal Thinking.  It’s entitled Common Rights:  Humans as Nature, Nature as Human:

In 1990, with the publication of The Natural Contract, Michel Serres was already anticipating the consequences of this new socio-geological order we have created. As he wrote, humanity has become “physical actors in the physical systems of the Earth”. . .  nature could no longer be understood as inert resource materials available for limitless appropriation. Instead, ecosystems should be conceptualized as living and vibrant agents with which humans were co-existing in constant and delicate interactions. . .

Michel Serres philosophical speculations gained a real dimension in 2008, when Ecuador adopted a new constitution in which nature is granted inalienable rights. . .

… being attributed with definitions ordinarily bound to citizenship, non-human natural communities abandon the status of property – even of “common property” – to become bearing-rights entities. At the same time, nature ceases to be framed as an object of which forms of possession and use should be regulated by government in order to be presented as a form-of-life whose right to existence should be guaranteed and protected by the State.

The politics of rights implied here is drawn from the right of rather than the right to the environment. Not the rights that attempt to grant equal and just possession of nature, but the rights that nature itself possesses.

Seth’s and Paulo’s presentations performed, right there in the auditorium, responsive, pragmatic, consequential turns toward the geologic.  Each took up the geologic as a partner to humans.  Each turned to the geologic for assistance in the task of designing thoughts, objects, systems, and experiences capable of responding to the accelerating change and qualitative, material difference that has become contemporary life. Each considered the geologic from new angles—from points along the exponential curves of “now.”  Along those curves, what used to be defined as the study of the origin, history, and structure of Earth takes on new meanings, questions, and approaches.

Of course, “the geologic” continues to consider rocks, tectonics, and brute forces of our planet, including deep time.  But Paulo’s references to Serres hints at what geology might become, as we struggle to understand and meet new and unprecedented material realities of Earth and life on Earth.

Tokyo subway map

Our experience of the symposium led us to experiment with a passage from Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory.  It’s an experiment that helps us imagine an expanded field of geology beyond the realm of rocks.  We took the liberty of appropriating Latour’s efforts to redirect “sociology”  into the messy realm of “the social” (which is always entangled in associations) for our purposes.  In the following passage, when we substitute “geology” for “sociology” and “the geologic” for “the social,” we get:

“Even though most geologists would prefer to call ‘the geologic‘ a homogeneous thing, it’s perfectly acceptable to designate by the same word a trail of associations between heterogeneous elements. Since in both cases the word retains the same origin—from Latin root geo—its is possible to remain faithful to the original intuitions of the geologic sciences by redefining geology not as the ‘science of the geologic‘, but as the tracing of associations. In this meaning of the adjective, geologic does not designate a thing among other things, like a black sheep among white sheep, but a type of connection between things that are not themselves geologic.” (Experimental reading of Latour, adapted from Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory, pg. 5)

It’s a lively outcome.  One that springs geology into the realms of everyday actions, movements, associations among humans and nonhumans.

Jane Bennett urges us to consider thinking of the geologic not in terms of objects, but in terms of volatile and vibrant relationships.  She would see “the geologic” as specific types of connection between things geologic and things not geologic.  Doing this, she says, we would gain “new confederates to work with, new actants to make things and processes with, and new capacities to learn from.”  Such ways of thinking ask us to get creative.  They require us to “devise new procedures, technologies, and regimes of perception that enable us to consult nonhumans more closely, or to listen and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies and propositions.” (Bennett, from Vibrant Matter, p. 108)

Few would deny that nonhuman aspects of “the geologic” have been objecting, testifying, proposing, and breaking out.  And doing so with growing intensity and human consequence.  In FOP’s call for contributions to Making a Geologic Turn, we chronicled some of the recent incursions that geologic forces have made into human life and affairs.  And we pointed to signs that individuals and fields of thought are beginning to reframe the geologic—as a condition of contemporary life.  In that call, we focused on how new technologies for visualizing earth forces and materials on a global scale and across deep time are give humans qualitatively different sensibilities about geologic dynamics.  And, how the densities and locations of human habitation on Earth, especially in highly technologized urban areas, make humans vulnerable to and aware of geologic forces and change in new ways.

Our experiences of last week’s symposium in Ann Arbor have been clarifying.  We’re able to describe a bit more fully the ideas and events that fall within our framing of the still nascent geologic turn.

If we were asked: ” what is propelling a geologic turn?,” we would list the changes we describe in our call for submissions.  For us, changes that propel a geologic turn include:  recent geologic events and their impact on human life and infrastructure; new visualizations of the scale, movement, and time of geologic forces; and qualitatively different scales of human population’s exposure and vulnerability to the geologic, which make the geologic a condition of contemporary life. 

light reflecting from a piece of space junk traveling NW-SE, July 2010, image Bob MacInnes

But now, we would add several more.  A geologic turn is being propelled, as well, by changes in:

  • . . . what we count as “the environment.”  In the 1970s, the environmental movement focused its concern on the surface of the earth—on the soil, water, living organisms, and atmosphere that compose the thin layer that is the biosphere.  This is now changing.  We’ve gained new understandings of the figurative and literal depth of the enmeshment of the bio and the geo.  It’s now difficult to hold onto previous distinctions between animal, vegetable and mineral.  Current understandings of earth cycles show that the bio is instrumental in the composition, history, and future of the geo.  We now know that  solar flares, asteroids, and supervolcanoes can alter and have altered the course of biological life on earth in a matter of seconds.  This awareness extends what we consider to be our environment far beyond Earth’s surface.  The soci-geo-bio “order” that we live today draws all things on Earth—human and nonhuman—into relation at a much vaster breadth and depth than acknowledged by the environmentalism of the 1970s.  When we think across the geo and the bio, we arrive at much thicker accounts of “the environment.”  The landscape or surface that architects design for and build upon has shifted.  It can no longer be taken to be that single, thin, folded surface depicted by computer aided design software. Today, the geologic counts as “the environment” and extends it out to the cosmos and down to the Earth’s iron core.
view from “North Mound” at Freshkills, a 200ft. hill of garbage with methane gas vent, FOP 2010
  • . . . what we count as the geologic.  The theory of plate tectonics is barely 60 years old.  Until recently, geology was nearly synonymous with the study of rocks and the reading of sediments—often in pursuit of resource extraction.  Today, the global flows of resources, wastes, and fuels create complex, moving entanglements of earth materials, geologic events, technologies, objects, chemicals, weather, information, people and other living things.  Over the past couple of years, FOP has attempted to express and visualize “the geologic” as interwoven with the rise in global populations; nested within the challenges of nuclear waste storage; enfolded in carbon emissions; caught up in the rise of tsunami waves; orbiting the planet as space trash, stuck in the stagnant center of the vortex that is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and fermenting in the hills of the Freshkills landfillThe geologic “now” is a teeming assemblage of exchange and interaction among the bio, geo, cosmo, socio, political, legal, economic, strategic, and imaginary.  The geologic lives in our bones (as calcium) and our cell phone screens (as indium tin oxide). The geologic “now” in which we live, and for which we design urban spaces and infrastructures, is an ongoing procession of assemblages that were formed in the deep past and are arriving into the present. The geologic passes through our time as the materials and forces that compose us, and that we transform to compose our world.  Geo-bio-socio assemblages reconfigure and ramify geologic materials and forces, with growing consequence, into the stuff of deep futures.  What if we designed for that?  What if we made art about that?
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano (under the Kan government) on Japanese television March 15, 2011, image midorisyu
  • . . . how we relate to the geologic.  In Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett urges us to understand “the geologic” as a vital force and active agent in daily life.  It would be advisable, productive, and even ethical for contemporary philosophers to “theorize a kind of geological affect or material vitality” that recognizes the “shimmering, potentially violent vitality intrinsic to matter” (Vibrant Matter, p. 61).The Japanese earthquakes and tsunamis of 2011 exceeded humans’ best attempts to anticipate and temper the potential impact of the geologic-as-actant on highly technologized daily life.  The shattering of these best architectural, infrastructural, and engineering attempts has opened up new potentials.  Humans must now invent and actually adopt new modes of action at the intersections of the human and the geologic.  We can no longer relate to the Earth as brute, static material:  rocks, mountains, canyons, continents.  Mountains are in constant motion.  The stuff of rocks is in continuous transformation.  The Earth’s crust is a conveyor belt that digests continents and regurgitates new land masses. Earth has a finite life span constrained by its cosmic environment. New understandings of the power of relatively ephemeral geo-bio-socio assemblages have altered our sense of the geologic.  The Earth is no longer the inert matter outside of ourselves that is there to support us and our buildings.  The geologic is a cascade of events.  Humans and what we build participate in their unfolding.
micrometeorite, image Ryan Thompson, 2011
  • . . . how we cohabit with the geologic.  Making a geologic turn, we create an opportunity to recalibrate infrastructures, communities, and imaginations to a new scale:  the scale of geologic time, force, and materiality.  Scaling our designs and desires to the geologic would require us to assemble responsively with the non-human scale of geo-forces in play on this planet.  Such a move has the potential to turn us (once again?) toward what is most real about human life on this planet:  we are not simply “surrounded” by the geologic.  We do not simply observe it as landscape or panorama.  We live within it.  This means that humans are always forced to come to terms with the geologic, eventually.  But it can mean more than that.  Perhaps the qualitatively new and different cultural sensibility  that is signaled by those making a geologic turn is this:  as the very tissue of human existence, geologic assemblages are vibrant forces, and they are capable of instructing not only contemporary life, but architecture and design practices as well.  

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