Eco-Media Studies: A Review of Jussi Parikka’s A Geology of Media

A Geology of Media. Jussi Parikka. U of Minnesota Press, 2015. pp. 224. $25. ISBN: 978-0-8166-9551-5

Jussi Parikka’s A Geology of Media is a rough, sometimes precariously constructed, yet urgently needed manifesto about practicing media studies in the Anthropocene. Parikka radicalizes Friedrich Kittler’s claim that human beings are extensions of media, which is itself a post-structural inversion of Marshall McLuhan’s understanding about media as extensions of the human. In doing so, A Geology of Media presents a crucial piece of what I see as an emergent field: eco-media studies. Eco-media studies includes several forthcoming or recently published books: McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: an Ecology of the Inhuman, Eugene Thacker’s recently completed Horror of Philosophy trilogy, and John Durham Peters’s The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Peters’s description of his book lays out a clear sense of what I consider to be the stakes of eco-media studies in the description of his forthcoming book. “[T]hough we often think of media as environments,” Peters’s argues, “the reverse is just as true — environments are media.”

This may seem like a typical Kittlerian dialectical shift, but Parikka powerfully illustrates its consequences in his book — an argument which I admit is still percolating in my mind. “[H]ow does a media theorist turned pseudo-geologist operate? To where does such a hybrid scholar turn?” Parikka takes these hyphens quite seriously, moving from geological surveys to media art to political economy to science fiction novels and back again — proving that what we consider to be the simply the domain of the sciences is also becoming “an essential part of global geopolitics.” Indeed, these politics are not just global they are interstellar, a point Parikka makes with a powerful reading of the Voyager I space-probe which “will become spacejunk by 2025, when it runs out of energy and slowly drifts outside the heliopause as a silent reminder of what happens when technology stops working and media stop mediating.”

Geology isn’t just “the ground beneath our feet.” Parikka shows us how the material bits of Asia and Africa (as well as their products of sweatshop labor) are ever-present in our smartphones, laptops, and e-readers. Satellites passing in geo-synchronous orbit above our heads constitute a new “extended geological ‘layer'” circulating parts of the earth while also delivering surveillance information to the NSA. Our bodies, themselves, are geology since they “still carry traces of DDT and other chemicals that have not been used for decades but linger as part of the environmental chains linking humans, animals, soil, and earth.” We breathe geology in the pollutants, dust, and oxygen molecules saturating our world. Parikka’s imagery in the book is as instructive as it is lyrical — reminding us of the importance of nineteenth century authors like HG Wells and resurrecting what (for me) was a particularly fascinating and perplexing aspect of Deleuze and Guattari’s work: their discussion of metallurgy. Metallurgy displaces thinking as “a cognitive faculty restricted to already formed subjects,” becoming “a movement of multiplicities that pertains to territories.”

Parikka’s book is filled with an overwhelming set of these multiplicities. I found my brain teetering on the edge of understanding while contemplating all of his hyphens and conjunctions. A Geology of Media reads like an endless series of neologistic hybrids, geological cyborgs, and ecological monstrosities. When I read the Forerunners title that served as a preview of Parikka’s new book titled simply The Anthrobscene, I remember feeling that distinct revulsion that one can only experience when coming upon yet another new neologism. Of course, the ecological criticism surrounding the Anthropocene has a number of its own neologisms. Jason Moore has argued that the term Anthropocene “makes for an easy story” that “does not challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power and production,” while preferring “Capitalocene” for highlighting an era “privileging an endless accumulation of capital” (2). Donna Haraway, a thinker who figures prominently in Parikka’s text for her understanding of medianatures, has spoken about the “Cthulucene,” citing the work of H.P. Lovecraft as someone who expresses the horror but also wonder of existing bound up with other beings – as an epoch that will hopefully exist “after” Moore’s Capitalocene. Dana Luciano, in a brilliant review essay calls these neologisms as failing “on aesthetic grounds,” while suggesting that “[t]he contradiction that some have seen in the name of the proposed epoch—that the ‘Anthropocene’ was not brought about by all members of the species it names—is precisely the problem it is now up to us to solve.”

Even so, Luciano is begging the question. Who is this “us” who would care to pick between these neologisms if not a group of pedantic academics implicated in the obscenity of anthropogenic capitalism, while also trying to employ a term to deny that implication? By reducing the Anthropocene to capitalism, or an “inhuman humanism,” or the geological traces of the slave trade, much of the literature surrounding the Anthropocene comes off as a form of disavowal that is all-too-academic. Humanists can continue with business as usual while watching the world burn. For me, this is the reason why Parikka’s “Anthrobscene” is so compelling. In addition to admitting the obscenities of endless accumulation bound up with capitalism, Parikka adds a crucial footnote.  Here, he explains that the Anthrobscene can be read as a theoretical, linguistic, and material implosion of many different sources, including:

the myths of immateriality [that] support the engineered depletion of crucial resources, energy crisis, and the corporate mobilization of the earth as part of the circuit of medianatures. The pornographic is evident primarily in the manner in which nature—ecology is viewed as a corporate resource, exposed down to its molecular intensities. The obscene is both a mode of explanation and an epistemological framework. However, I want to underline that there should be no nostalgic longing for a connection of the earth in the mythological or Heideggearean sense but rather in a different sense of ecosophic relation across the spheres of economic, social, and environmental engineering and production.

The intricacy, intellectual care, and frustrating complexity of this footnote are typical for A Geology of Media. They almost make me want to ask why such a crucial portion of the book was seen as secondary to other material. Parikka’s endless appeal to one more “and,” and another “and,” then one “yet,” an “also,” and an “however,” also demonstrates the humbling experience of confronting eco-media studies in the Anthropocene. As he argues, “[w]e need to be aware of how carefully grafted concepts are able to catch the variety of practices that work across traditional disciplines and connect issues of nature and culture.” The obscenities of capitalism and climate change infiltrate every possible mode of materiality in ways that are disturbing and completely unexpected, and as Parikka so astutely demonstrates, we must engage all of them to respond to this call of Being.

And our response can still be, and probably will be, completely inadequate. Parikka, for instance, calls the turn towards “non-corellationist philosophy” inadequate. In his reading of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Parikka rightly points out the importance of Haraway, Michael Serres, Rose Braidotti, and Manuel Delanda in complicating the distinction between human and non-human. To be sure, things exist that are anterior to human consciousness. Yet humans, as Parikka points out, aren’t simply “thinking beings” but also exist in multiple temporalities – most of which are physically and physiologically invisible to us. Similarly, “the ways in which we have thought and acted in the world have had a definite impact on the future fossils that are material supports for something else.” These nonhuman things “are compilations of heterogeneous transformations as part of temporally formed sediments. The soil is part of the gradual formation of deeper layers of the planet.” In the process, Parikka coins the (again unwieldy yet also oddly compelling) term “media-arche-fossils” as “the media technological stratum, which is irreducible to the human and yet partly supports and conditions it alongside various aspects of the earth and its outer space geological layers.” We exist not only in opposition to non-human objects that we can never know, but we also don’t know how each of these entities already make up the part of an “us” that we don’t recognize. And, perhaps even more bewildering and horrifying, we don’t know exactly how what we are doing today with these unrecognizable parts has already impacted a future thousands, millions, or billions of years into the future. Timothy Morton has used the term “hyperobject” to explain this strange awe felt in the face of something massively distributed in space and time, like climate change. But the stranger reality is to recognize our implication and responsibility in constructing a media technological stratum that unknowable yet part of us, and over which (paradoxically) we have no control.

The tension between implication and loss of control over a mutating complexity permeates Parikka’s book, and perhaps constructs both the difficulty of reading A Geology of Media and its urgent necessity. In the introduction, Parikka argues that he’s attempting to pin down “the often rather broad notion of ‘nonhuman’ agency to some case studies concerning the assemblages in which the grounds of media are [materially] ungrounded.” Parikka’s interest in materializing the abstract notion of the nonhuman in real geological objects parallels his critique of the cyberpunk ideology of immaterial information: both are used with far too much comfort in a world that is growing more complex and environmentally toxic with every passing year. Parikka’s A Geology of Media lacks Kittler’s characteristically provocative tone, yet it throws a more daunting gauntlet. We must start exploring the material implosions of politics, media, geology, and ecology into the worlds we inhabit beyond the half-hearted appeals to hermeneutics, screen-essentialism, and quasi-mystical revery common to the humanities. A Geology of Media shows us just how powerful a rigorously interdisciplinary and materialist approach to work in media studies, media archaeology, eco-criticism, geology, biology, astronomy, literary studies, and the digital humanities can be in beginning to address the multiple challenges of the Anthropocene.

 

 

 

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