Geontologies: a requiem to late liberalism.
Elizabeth Povinelli 2016
Duke University Press, Durham & London, 218pp, ISBN 9780822362333 (pbk)
Reviewed by Eve Vincent, Macquarie University, <email@example.com>
Geontologies' main chapters are each organised around a form of existence. Two Women Sitting Down is the place where bandicoot woman and rat woman quarrelled, their spilt blood forming the manganese outcrops now extracted as a critical component of various commodities; a durlgmo is perhaps best described as a sea monster bone or perhaps as a plesiosaurus fossil, and is also a Dreaming; Tjipel is a costal tidal creek that was once a young woman who dressed as a man; a rolling wet fog, or the tjelbak snake, has come to smell astringent and look strangely greenish, composed as it is from new, potentially toxic materials.
The central questions in this book pertain to these forms, which I have already suggested are manifold in nature. Geontologies asks not so much how we should represent them in language, but how we are to live with and respond to them. For Povinelli, the question of what entities are and what they do has become defining of the present, as an absolute and stable distinction between the category of life and the category of nonlife becomes increasingly untenable to maintain within late liberal 'geontopower'.
What is geontopower? At once exercised, described as a 'social project' and attributed a 'purpose' (p.173), as well as a term used to gloss the epoch we live within (for example, p.86), geontopower is the name Povinelli gives to a particular concept of power, which was arrived at through her long-term relations and collaborations with Indigenous people who mostly reside at Belyuen on the Cox Peninsula in the Northern Territory.
Povinelli begins by narrating a brief history of power as (re)theorised by Foucault, then refined by many others, including Agamben and Mbembe, and the urgent necessity of retheorising it again. For Foucault the 'population' was the living vitality that a form of power he called biopower 'conjured and then governed' (p.132). Biopower signalled a shift away from sovereign power, the ancien regime's power to kill and let live, and could be seen to emerge in the late eighteenth century.
Povinelli is not, however, narrating a chronology whereby geontopower is coming now to displace the workings of biopower, and she gives no clear sense of its origins. Instead she outlines that biopolitics, which rests on the difference between life and death, has become such a familiar concept that we have 'missed the emergence of new problems... strategies and concepts' (p.4). Later, she clarifies that what seem like 'new' problems have long been evident in settler colonial spaces but are becoming more acute and dispersed as our agitated planet heats: the protagonists in this contemporary ecological and social drama seem only to proliferate as it threatens to engulf all of us, even if its effects are so unequally distributed.
Geontopower then is co-present with other forms of power but refers more specifically to the way the relationship between capital 'L' Life (bios) and capital 'N' Nonlife (geos) is governed in late liberal societies, which are currently faced with crises arising from the hegemonic organisation of the order of relations between these two categories. Geontopower thus maintains, shapes and governs a separation of life from nonlife. In order to probe the consequences of and challenges to geontopower, Povinelli engages a dizzying array of interlocutors to help rethink the nature of substances and entities--philosophers such as Deleuze, Jane Bennett and Charles Peirce, among many others, and most importantly and productively 'Karrabing analytics'.
'Karrabing' is itself a carefully chosen appellation: this is not the name of an Indigenous social group defined in the past-perfect terms demanded within settler colonial recognition-era polities. Karrabing is, in one sense, the title of a largely Indigenous media collective, whose creative ventures Povinelli materially supports and is centrally involved in; their hopes, creative process and films are also analysed throughout. This designation then foregrounds a shared set of commitments, as well as a set of relations that are certainly kin-based but are highlighted as contingent and activated rather than sedimented. Ever more insistently than before, Povinelli asserts that she is not in the business of producing 'ethnographic texts' and that her 'object of analysis' is not 'them' (Indigenous Karrabing) but 'settler late liberalism' (p.22-3) and the forms of power belonging to it.
For Povinelli, the significant features of 'Karrabing analytics' are, first, that the settler state does not attribute to them a normative force and they do not compel action. Second, if only they did, Karrabing ethics of attentiveness might teach others to relate to existences differently, even seeing them come to make a 'demand on the political order' (p.143). When Karrabing meet a site akin to Two Women Sitting Down, when a durlgmo decides to show itself to someone, when contemplating Tjipel's future and when noting tjelbak's changed form, the crucial question is to think about how each existence is responding to particular human presences and how humans might respond in turn. For Karrabing, continuing existence is only ensured through 'an effort of mutual attention'; that is to say, things are not born and nor do they die, 'they turn away from each other and change states' (p.28). Karrabing strive to discern the 'way these existences are' (p.123) and why.
As well as making visible what she sees as a longstanding feature of power, Povinelli brings into view the hidden 'spaces of savagery that constitutes [the] conditions of possibility' of 'civilised' society (Hage 2017:66). Even the highly constrained space of possibility within which impoverished Indigenous Karrabing members manoeuvre is itself revealed to be made possible by hard-to-see violence. In a riveting chapter, 'Downloading the Dreaming', dedicated to Karrabing's enmeshment within informational capitalism, Povinelli mulls over the fact that Karrabing desire to experiment with transmedia platforms using GPS-enabled technology. This vision is unrealised but if it were to be funded its viability relies not just on a global supply chain underpinned by the cheap child labour used in Congo cobalt mines but also the network of satellites that festoon Australia's militarised northern skies and the voluminous energy expended cooling data storage.
Povinelli conceives of Geontologies as returning to themes pursued in her 1994 Labor's lot, that rich account of embodied action and how country responds to sweat and smell. But Geontologies also follows up on theorising pursued in other works: this book makes even clearer how a particular 'mode of analyzing the historicity of existence [was] transformed into a cultural repetition machine' (p.173), deserving of recognition by virtue of it indexing ' Indigenous difference'. While Povinelli's 2002 Cunning of recognition closely analysed the process and costs of that transformation, Geontologies elaborates the mode of analysing existence, highlighting problems that recognition cannot solve. Further, ordinary forms of human enduring, of persisting in being 'otherwise', were key to the 2011 monograph Economies of abandonment; in Geontologies, Povinelli extends this argument in a new direction by considering how other forms of nonhuman existences might endure, flourish or wither.
Finally, as a reviewer I have been asked to comment on the audience for this book. And this bears some careful consideration. Reading it, I developed a heightened awareness of this book as a thing. This object--with its words that exerted a force, demanding my close attention and setting off reactions--was also brought into being by dense entanglements: felled trees; the conglomerate of additives that make ink stick; the fossil fuels consumed as Povinelli maintains close relations with her Karrabing family on the other side of the planet; the possibility that parts of the proofreading process were outsourced to precarious, racialised workers in another part of the world. Given the conditions that bring books into being, then why write a book using a highly specialised language that only a very specific public will be able to understand? I found it dense and overly theoretical in parts, and I am someone who reads and writes for a wage. If one's labour is absorbed in the hard work of caring for kin and in keeping everyday life going, then this is not the kind of book I could easily imagine one reading. I don't actually have a preformed reactionary Aussie 'theory is for wankers' kind of answer to this question but it seems especially pertinent to pose it because Karrabing analytics drive the inquiry. All this is a long-winded way of saying: my undergraduate students would struggle with this material but it is no exaggeration to say that for some advanced undergraduate students, postgraduate readers and scholars, Geontologies may well inspire new possibilities for thinking, relating and being.
Hage, Ghassan 2017 Is racism an environmental threat?, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, and Maiden, MA.
Povinelli, Elizabeth 1994 Labor's lot: the power, history, and culture of Aboriginal action, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
--2002 Cunning of recognition: Indigenous alterities and the making of Australian multiculturalism, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
--2011 Economies of abandonment: social belonging and endurance in late liberalism, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.