Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem for Late Liberalism, Duke University Press, 2016, 232 pp., $24 (paper) $85 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-6233-3
The nomination of the geologic age of the Anthropocene has provoked intense debates about the geologic, atmospheric, ecological, social, economic, political, and philosophical implications of the term and the climactic (and potentially apocalyptic) implications within both the social and physical sciences. In Geontologies: A Requiem for Late Liberalism, Povinelli (2016) invokes the crises of climate, capital, and culture and embarks on a project to unsettle the governance of the ontological difference between Life and Nonlife, or geontology, which she identifies as the organizing logic of late liberalism. By doing so, Povinelli brings her critique of the governance of difference and the limits of multicultural recognition into conversation with the governance of markets in the Anthropogenic age of extinction and extractive capital, thereby opening an inquiry into how late liberalism uses different ontologies of human and nonhuman arrangements of existence to both celebrate and discredit certain economic and cultural practices in order to facilitate the entwined logics of extractive capital and settler liberalism.
Povinelli defines geontopower as that which, unlike biopower, “does not operate through the governance of life and the tactics of death but is rather a set of discourse, affects, and tactics used in late liberalism to maintain or shape the coming relationship of the distinction between Life and Nonlife” (4). The introduction of geontopower is not meant to replace the operation and concept of biopower; indeed, “biopower (the governance through life and death) has long depended on a subtending geontopower (the difference between the lively and the inert)” (5). In previous works, Povinelli theorized the biopolitical cunning of multicultural recognition, which sorts settler societies into those who are autological subjects, or future-oriented self-made individuals, and those who are members of the genealogical society, or subjects of descent who are socially determined and constrained by their traditional obligations to the past and to each other (2002, 2006). Introducing geontology allows Povinelli to clarify the governance of difference in late liberalism, as it is autological subjects who also “abide by the fundamental separation of Life and Nonlife,” and are thus the “stakeholders” and “sovereign people of geontopower” (2016, 35). Povinelli argues that the Anthropocene places geontology in sharper relief, as western philosophy, settler governments, and markets seek to make sense and make most of the crises of current modes of accumulation and forms of cultural recognition.
As a compliment and repost to Foucault’s four figures of biopolitics, Povinelli proposes three figures of geontopower: the desert, the animist, and the virus. The desert is a site that once had life and now has none; it is the scene of extractive exhaustion, and its central image is that of the carbon imaginary. The animist, conversely, is the figure of vitalism, and is thus one who collapses Nonlife into Life; Povinelli points to the Aboriginal as the archetypical animist. The final figure, the virus or terrorist, is the antagonist who disrupts this boundary, mobilizing and troubling the difference between Life and Nonlife to further its own propagation. Povinelli identifies Ebola, the Islamic Terrorist, and her own work with the Karrabing Collective as iterations of the virus. Perhaps surprisingly, Povinelli does not use these three figures to structure the book. Instead, the figures flicker in and out of her engagement with the Dreamings of the Aboriginal Belyuen, just as they stand huddled “inside the door between given governance and its otherwises, trying to block entrance and exit and to restrict the shape and expanse of its interior rooms” (16).
As Geontologies unfolds, Povinelli places biology, semiosis, theories of vitalism, pragmatism, and object-ontology, and other iterations of western philosophy in conversation with Tjipel, tjelbak snakes, and other Dreamings and their human kin in and around Belyuen. In so doing, she seeks not only to provincialize Western thought, but to provincialize language and the concept of Life itself. In the first encounter Povinelli poses, the totemic dreamings of Two Women Sitting Down and Old Man Rock trouble the underlying biophilosophy and biontology of western philosophy and the sciences. Povinelli argues that settler Australians desire stories about totemic Dreamings, not because they challenge the ontological presumptions of settler governance, but because they exemplify a performance of difference that sorts humans into those who do or do not differentiate between Life and Nonlife. This sorting is predicated on the propositional hinge of the carbon imaginary that also structures the humanities and sciences of the western academy. Thus Agamben’s biopolitics and Bennett’s vitalism risk “reiterating rather than challenging the discourse and strategy of geontopower” (55). She therefore pushes philosophy and the western academy to question their theoretical dependence on Life and instead face the challenge that Nonlife poses, something she argues is necessary to confront the governance of geontopower and resource ways of being and living otherwise .
Expanding further the potentiality of NonLife in the chapter “The Fog of Meaning and the Voiceless Demos,” Povinelli explores tjelbak snake Dreamings to challenge Kohn’s extension of semiosis to nonhuman entities and question the applicability of Ranciere’s politics of phonos (noise) and logos when grappling with the obligated orientations of human and nonhuman arrangements of existents. Once again, Povinelli finds that Kohn’s semiosis and Ranciere’s logos fail to allow tjelbak, Two Women Sitting Down, and other Dreamings to provincialize humans and unsettle the “foundation of human, articulate language” (142). The question, she argues is not whether “meteorological and geological forms of existence are playing a part in the current government of the demos,” as these theories seem to suggest, but instead “what role has been assigned to them as they emerge from a low background hum to making a demand on the political order?” (142). Moving away from the division of Life and Nonlife and its attendant forms of governance and extraction means not asking how this hum of noise becomes logos but rather how logos “must first be decentered by noise in order to become something else” (143). The Life/Nonlife divide no longer provides easy answers, so we must create a new way to adjudicate and privilege certain assemblages over others, and ask “what formations we are keeping in existence or extinguishing?” (28).
From her first book, Labor’s Lot (1993), through Geontologies, Povinelli makes clear what arrangements of existence she and her Belyuen colleagues are struggling to maintain and the embodied and embedded nature of those obligations and arrangements. Her analytical framework is as much of and from a particular place as her commitments; as she states in the introduction to Geontologies, “geontopower is not a concept first and an application to my friends’ worlds second, but a concept that emerges from what late liberal governance looks like from this cramped space” (2016, 6). Povinelli not only writes from a particular place but also speaks to a very particular strain of western philosophy. As such, it is surprising how few nods Povinelli gives to the rich body of literature coming from Indigenous studies, African American Studies, Black geographies, anthropology, and other fields relating to the limits of liberal recognition (Coulthard, 2014; Nichols, 2013, 2014; Simpson, 2014), the elucidation of multiple or alternative ontologies (Blaser, 2014) and the provincialization of the western philosophical canon (McKittrick, 2013, 2015; Weheliye, 2014). Given her interest in proliferating different “stanzas” or research interventions relating to geontopower and the governance of late liberalism, it would be interesting to see Povinelli engage more deeply the work of other researchers thinking from settler colonial or post-colonial societies in future work.
Povinelli frames Geontologies as a requiem for late liberalism, a work meant to rebuke liberalism’s promise that under the threat of climate change and cultural conflict we can “change and be the same, nay, even more of what we already are” (29). In critiquing the vigorous policing of the boundaries between Life and Nonlife that prop up this promise, we might expect Povinelli to leave us with the trouble, to raise the spectral figures of the desert, the animist, and the virus and refuse to adjudicate between competing ontological claims. This is not what she does. Life, she posits, “is not the miracle-the dynamic opposed to the inert of rocky substance” (176). Instead, it is to Nonlife that we should look for the “more radical potential,” as it is Nonlife that “created what it is radically not, Life, and will in time fold this extension of itself back into itself as it has already done so often and long” (176). Nonlife becomes the primary site of emergent potentiality: “Life is merely a moment in the greater dynamic unfolding of Nonlife” (176).
Befitting a requiem, Povinelli ends Geontologies on a somber and sardonic note: “Get out the musical instruments. Put on the robes. Say a mass of remembrance for the repose of the souls of the dead. Cling to life if even in the form of its mass extinction” (177). While Povinelli is referring here to the end of Life as a concept held in opposition to Nonlife, rather than absolute extinguishment of all carbon-based living beings, she is clearly playing with the blurred threat and troubled affect of this proposition. Povinelli’s forceful turn to Nonlife in (and at) liberalism’s wake is an effort to provoke our withdrawal from the logics of late liberalism and its promise that we can change while staying the same, without making any guarantees about the shape or success of alternate endeavors.
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