On November 8, 2016 Donald Trump won the US Presidential election. Just under a month later, the US Army Corps of Engineers temporarily halted the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline following large protests heavily covered by the media. These events frame Shela Sheikhs essay Translating Geontologies, which contends with an emerging (or at least, for some, a newly visible) political landscape marked by an insidious violence that is more often than not environmental and affecting the bodies of racialized subjects.
First published in the issue And Nowof theAvery Review, Sheikhs essay considers Elizabeth Povinellis conception of geontology, or the regulation of distinctions between Life and Death/Extinction/Nonlife under late liberal governancea sort of updated version of Foucauldian biopolitics. Sheikh, following Povinelli, questions how to make struggles against environmental dispossession, in particular those of indigenous communities, legible and visible without either reducing them into a broad, global image of indigeneity or retreating into a complicit silence. In short, the essay interrogates the efficacy of our current political vocabularies, asserting the need for, and imagining the contours of, a new political language and praxis. Months after the essay was written, the Trump administration announced that construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline was moving forward, proving the urgency of this line of inquiry into the co-constitution of social, political, colonialist and ecological violences.
Translating Geontologies will be included in the forthcoming bookan expansion of the journal issueAnd Now: Architecture Against a Developer Presidency (Essays on the Occasion of Trumps Inauguration). The volume, which is edited by James Graham, Alissa Anderson, Caitlin Blanchfield, Jordan H. Carver, Jacob Moore, and Isabelle Kirkham-Lewitt, explores potential roles for architecture during the administration of a self-proclaimed Builder-in-Chief. How is architecture already complicit in neoliberal forms of governance? In the displacement and dispossession of peoples? For the editors, Naming these complicities and the injustices they perpetuate is a first step toward addressing them
The 52nd iteration of Archinects recurring series Screen/Print, recently expanded to include books alongside journals and magazines, features Translating Geologies.
November 8, 2016: Donald Trump wins the US presidential election. December 4, 2016: The US Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would temporarily halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to allow for an environmental impact review. Undoubtedly, these two dates mark events, the effects of which have resonated globally. In contrast to the former, the latter provided a moment of hope, a glimpse of effective alliance-building on a national and international scale that will need to be carried forward in the coming months and beyonda moment of effective, indigenous-led environmental protest. This protest did more than simply reject the Dakota Access Pipeline. Rather, in its rhetoric of protection, it sought to lay the groundwork for a future that has been precipitously threatened by Trumps open support for the pipeline and drilling for oil across US national parks, not to mention his private investments in the project and his public denial of the scientific facts of environmental violence and climate change.
Fig 1: Sitting Bull with protectors in Canon Ball, ND. Photograph by Joe Brusky.
But neither of these events came out of nowhere and as such are to be distinguished from a more philosophical definition of event, as marking an unprecedented rupture. Behind each is a long accumulation of grievances that allowed them to unfold. In the former case, speculation is rife regarding the persuasion of the electorate; behind the latter lies decades of what the anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli names quasi-events, which often elude our apprehension as ethical and political demands but which at times achieve the status of events through their amplification by the media. As we have seen in the case of Standing Rock, despite the initial lack of coverage by mainstream media, the campaign was exemplary in its garnering of both national and international support. These quasi-events take the form of dispersed violence, patterns of uneventful dispossession, or what Rob Nixon names slow violencetypically not even perceived as violence, attritional and of delayed effects, an insidious violence that is more often than not environmental and affecting the bodies of racialized subjects.
For many, the present moment calls for a new language: a new political praxis that entails effective communication on a municipal, national, and international level, through forums that would involve speaking with one another through antagonism and about uncomfortable matters. What, then, of our critical lexicon? What new terms are needed? What currency do the academic terms currently at our disposal, above all in the Euro-Western academy, hold? What formations of power and governmentality might we be overlooking?
If alliances across national borders between seemingly independent strugglesexemplified in the support for the water protectors at Standing Rockare necessary not only for the achievement of short-term goals but also for the building of public consciousness regarding those struggles interconnectedness, then so, too, are alliances across disciplinary borders. For a start, as is applicable to mobilizations like the one at Standing Rock, as Rob Nixon and others have suggested, North American environmentalism and post/decolonial/indigenous studies must join forces, making way for what has been termed postcolonial ecologies. In their accounting for the manners in which certain bodies are culturally and politically constructed as disposable or sacrificeable, above all in the context of climate and environmental violence, scholars of postcolonial studies teach us valuable lessons. These lessons are all the more urgent in the context of the unabashedly racist, xenophobic, and misogynist rhetoric unleashed during the entirety of the Trump presidential campaign.the present moment calls for a new language: a new political praxis that entails effective communication on a municipal, national, and international level
Likewise, key figures in indigenous studies and anthropology (notably Povinelli and Glen Sean Coulthard) have made use of postcolonial theory to expose the cunning of state-sanctioned, late liberal politics of recognition and multiculturalism in governing difference and maintaining structures of subjugation beneath the veneer of rights and reconciliation. This work also points to an imperative to examine not simply primitive accumulation but also original accumulationthe dispossession of indigenous or Aboriginal land. Here, the resulting extermination of life and lifeworlds functions, once again, through the mechanisms that render certain bodies and forms of life sacrificeableexposed to the abovementioned quasi-events at best, genocide at worst. And it is precisely this eventfulness and legal categorization of various intensities of violencetheir visibility and assignability, as well as their extricability from environmental violencethat is at stake here.
The work of postcolonial ecology is already well under way, and it is becoming all too clear that this must be supplemented by decolonial, indigenous, and feminist critiques of Anthropocene discourse, as well as of the attendant posthumanism that seeks to counter the Anthropocene industrys prevailing anthropocentrism. But even beyond this, as William E. Connolly articulates in his forthcoming Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming, additional borders require dismantling: the aggregate of postcolonial ecology in and of itself is not enough. Rather, this must dialogue more forcefully than ever before with eco-movements and with new practitioners of earth sciences. In other words, the lessons learned from the anti-colonial or anti-imperial ecological struggles that have taken place outside the old capitalist centers and in depressed urban areas within them demand to be translated into what Connolly names a cross-regional pluralist assemblage, one that presses states, corporations, churches, universities, and the like from inside and outside simultaneously. Furthermore, for such lessons to be effective in our contemporary climate, attention must be paid to the geological. While a partial response to this can be located in something like geographer Kathryn Yusoffs theorizations of geologic life within the geological epoch of the Anthropocene, the recent work of anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli is particularly useful here. Though she may not explicitly use the term postcolonial ecology, Povinelli implicitly offers much for a necessarily postcolonial conceptualization of eco-movements and eco-activism (above all where each is concerned with aesthetic strategies and creative practices), precisely in her foregrounding of the relationship between Life and Nonlife, the biological and the geological, biopower and geontopower, under the conditions of settler late liberalism.
Fig 2: Elizabeth A. Povinellis Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Published by Duke University Press, 2016.
Povinellis latest book, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, was published in September 2016, simultaneous to the growing mobilization against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Recapitulating earlier presentations on the same topic, Geontologies at once forms the third part of Povinellis trilogy on late liberalism (which includes the Empire of Love  and Economies of Abandonment ) and also revisits her reflections on governance in settler late liberalism begun in her 1993 book Labors Lot. Geontologies is a dense work that resists being described in telegraphic terms, based as it is in dazzling and far-reaching theoretical and philosophical readings. But Povinellis key concepts of geontology and geontopower are an invaluable contribution to our much-needed critical lexicon, evoked above, and reading her work from this perspective suggests that the concepts and modes of engagement presented in Geontologies, though firmly rooted in the experience and particular governance of Australian late-settler liberalism, demand to be taken up and translated in other contexts. When Povinelli speaks of late liberalism in Geontologies, she is specifically referring to the strategies of power that took shape in the late 1960s and early 1970s that exposed the emerging politics of recognition and open markets as methods of conserving liberal governance and the accumulation of value for dominant classes and social groups rather than as means to ameliorate social and economic injustices (169). In her earlier Economies of Abandonment, she elucidates the way that late liberalism refers to a strategy for governing the challenge of postcolonial and new social movements, with Geontologies demonstrating how this governing takes place precisely through the management of the perceived relationship between the biological and the geological. Despite this specificity, the offerings of Geontologies call to be translated, both geographically and conceptually, and provide a lens through which to read the protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline or other instances in North America, where the residues of settler colonialism persist, even ifcruciallythis persistence is often denied. critical theorists struggle to maintain a difference between all forms of Life and the category of Nonlife
As a consequence of attempts to grapple with the reality and concept of the Anthropocene in recent years, ontology, as Povinelli notes, has reemerged as a central problem across disciplines: philosophy, anthropology, literary and cultural studies, as well as science and technology studies, for a start (14). Hence the rise of posthumanistand, we might add, more-than-human or multispeciespolitics and theory. But critical theorists struggle to maintain a difference between all forms of Life and the category of Nonlife, with the crumbling ontological distinctions between biological, geological, and meteorological existents opening up onto the proliferation of new object ontologies (new materialisms, speculative realisms, and object-oriented ontologies) (14). A posthuman critique is giving way to a post-life critique, being to assemblage, and biopower to geontopower (14). This might not sound like news to readers who follow these theoretical debates, but what is novel about Povinellis analysisand indeed what makes it so prescient for the United States context with which we beganis the mode through which geontopower is analyzed, or, rather, the manner through which the experience of geontopower is framed and narrated, made visible.
Let us rewind a little
In the wake of the events of 9/11, the crash of financial markets, and the ongoing, spectacular manifestations of Anthropogenic climate change (all visible crises), much of critical thought has, understandably, focused on sovereignty and the relationship between biopolitics and biosecuritya manner of thought that includes variations such as necropolitics, thanatopolitics, neuropolitics, and so on. But as Povinelli argues, this focus has obscured the systematic re-orientation of biosecurity around geo-security and meteoro-security: the social and ecological effects of climate change (19). This is not to say that biopolitics should be entirely replaced by geontopower but rather that biopolitics, as Kathryn Yusoff has shown, is increasingly subtended by geology (14) and geontopower. Thus, our preoccupation with the image of power working through lifea preoccupation that perhaps doubles as a typical definition of biopoliticshas, in fact, obscured the revelation of formation that is fundamental to but hidden by the concept of biopower (4). This newly revealed formation is what Povinelli terms geontological power or geontopower. Unlike biopower, geontopower does not operate through the governance of life and the tactics of death but is rather a set of discourses, affects, and tactics used in late liberalism to maintain or shape the coming relationship of the distinction between Life and Nonlife (4). The terms geontology and geontopower thus intensify the contrasting components of nonlife (geos) and being (ontology) currently at play in the late liberal governance of difference and markets (5).
To return to my evocation of translatability: central to Geontologies, and indeed to Povinellis broader practice as an anthropologist, is the specific rootedness of her work in the fragile coastal ecosystem of Northern Territory of Australia and the allegiances staked with my Indigenous friends and colleagues (13). The concept of geontopower presented in Povinellis text arises first and foremost from the perspective of the Karrabing Collective, a grassroots, supermajority indigenous alternative media collective and social project of which Povinelli is a member. The work of the Karrabing Collective emerges from and elucidates the experience of the massive neoliberal reorganization of the Australian governance of Indigenous life (24) and the slow, dispersed accumulations of toxic sovereignties (27) against the backdrop of, among other things, indigenous land rights claims over mining leases. Geontologies is structured around the Karrabings engagement with various modes of existence, often referred to as Dreaming or totemic formationsa rock and mineral formation; a set of bones and fossils; an estuarine creek; a fog formation; and a set of rock weirs and sea reefsas well as their desire to maintain them, and their challenges to the states violation, desecration, or misrecognition of each respective formation.
Film still from Wutharr: Saltwater Dreams by the Karrabing Film Collective, 2016. Courtesy of the Karrabing Film Collective.
Here, it is not humansper sethat have exerted such a malignant force on the meteorological, geological, and biological dimension of the earth but only some forms of human sociality (13)just as it is not humansper sewho bear the brunt of this or of Anthropocenic climate change. Hence the critiques of Anthropocene discourse and the inadequacy of the Anthropos as a universalizing species paradigm: taking the general category of the human as a framing device conceals the distinctions between those people who drive the fossil-fuel economy and those who dont, between those populations engaged in colonial-slash-imperial agendas and those on the receiving end. But just when we attempt to distinguish between different modes of inhabiting the planet in order to identify those culpable, we find that our gaze cannot remain localized. From the Northern Territory or Dakota, we must look further afield (Povinellis metaphor moves between the telescope and binoculars): following the flows of toxic industries and their by-products means stretching the local across seeping transits, suspended between the local and the globalhereish, to use Povinellis term (13).
If the task, as articulated by Nixon, is to render the grievances of slow violence legibleto find forms through which to aestheticize and narrate the quasi-events of, for instance, environmental dispossessionthen in the case of geontopower, it is preciselythroughthe late liberal governance of difference and markets that geontology can be best revealed. This late liberal model of governance works only insofar as the distinctions between the vital and inert, Life and Death/Extinction or Nonlife are maintained (9). And here, the lessons offered by the settler colonial Australian context are in many ways applicable to the United States. Geontology and geontopower, for Povinelli, are conceptsmeant to help make visiblethe figural tactics of late liberalism as a long-standing biontological orientation and distribution of power crumbles, losing its efficacy as a self-evident backdrop to reason (56, emphasis modified). More specifically, just as necropolitics, openly operating in colonial Africa, subsequentlyrevealed its shapein Europe, so geontopower has long operated openly in settler late liberalism and been insinuated in the ordinary operations of its governance of difference and markets (5). To quote Povinelli at length:
All sorts of liberalisms seem to evidence a biopolitical stain, from settler colonialism to developmental liberalism to full-on neoliberalism. But something is causing these statements to be irrevocably read and experienced through a new drama, not the drama of life and death, but a form of death that begins and ends in Nonlifenamely the extinction of humans, biological life, and, as it is often put, the planet itselfwhich takes us to a time before the life and death of individuals and species, a time of the geos, of soulnessness.(89)
Industrial capital depends upon the separation between forms of existence in order to implement certain forms of extractionRecalling the question of lexicon that we began with, for Povinelli, the termsgeontologyandgeontopowerare intended to highlightthe difficulty in finding a critical languageto account for the moment in which a form of power long self-evident in certain regimes of settler late liberalismis becoming visible globally (5, my emphasis).
Let me be clear: it is neither my intention here either to carelessly reduce the specificity of the Australian settler late liberalism from which Povinelli writes to the system of governance of the United States, nor to make such a crude move as to put forward a blanket, global conception of indigeneity and indigenous lifeworlds, and thus to betray the very specificity ofPovinellis work that I am here celebrating, even if my gesture is to stress its partial translatability. Rather, my point is to emphasize the potential usefulness of Povinellis analytics and vocabulary in the context of the impending populism and even nativism of the United States and to stress that the still all-too-tangible residues of North American settler colonialism (as well as what decolonial thinkers would term coloniality) not be left out of our myriad political conversation. As Povinelli herself stresses in a recent discussion about settler colonialism in Palestine, the identity of settler indigenous populations is a conscious, visible part of everyday national politics in Canada and Australia, while in the United States this is far from the case.
To clarify yet another aspect of translatability (and in allusion to the postcolonial or indigenous ecology signaled earlier), it is precisely through a colonial mind-set that late liberalismand indeed liberalism of all sorts across the globe, not to mention capitalism more generally and the impending Republican administrationreacts so violently to maintain the distinction between Life and Nonlife and to police and to manage those whose lifeworlds presume otherwise. Industrial capitalthough one could also refer to something like the Dakota Access Pipeline more specificallydepends upon the separation between forms of existence in order to implement certain forms of extraction (20). In the context of settler liberalism, the belief that Nonlife acts in ways only available to Life must be contained in the brackets of the impossible if not the absurd (21) and the attribution of aninabilityof various colonized people to differentiate the kinds of things that have agency, subjectivity, and intentionality of the sort that emerges with life has been the grounds for casting them into a premodern mentality and a postrecognition difference (5).
Povinellis concept of geontologies provides a timely addition to current theorizations and diagnoses of power and governance, between human and nonhuman, Life and Nonlife, in the settler colonial context of both Australia and the United States. But it is Povinellis book, in its architectural framework (each chapter derives from a vignette, a narrative of the Karrabings analytics and engagement with respective forms of Dreaming), itself derivative of her anthropology of the otherwise, that provides most currency for the political tasks that lie aheadabove all where this concerns the move from academia to (postcolonially informed) socially engaged praxis and back again. For while the mobilizations at Standing Rock drew a staggering number of gestures of solidarity (in situ or otherwise), from an academic perspective, the warnings posed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her seminal 1988 essay, Can the Subaltern Speak? prove as prescient as ever, albeit relating to different forms of subaltern. Beyond the Indian subaltern woman who is at the center of Spivaks original essay, we now see the dangers of mis-representing and speaking for not only indigenous subjects, whose worldviews/lifeworlds often remain stubbornly (and productively, one might add) untranslatable or incommensurable with the prevailing mind-set of both late liberalism and neoliberalism but also nature itself, or the nonhuman more generally. In other words, the conundrum remains as to whether any form of representation, however well-intentioned, necessarily involves at least some form of colonization: a rendering passive or mute. Hence the necessity of vigilance when faced with the impossible necessity, to use Astrida Neimaniss term, ofengaging withthose who more often than not bear the brunt of the slow violence and quasi-events with which we began.
Against this kind of colonization, Povinellis intention is not to represent anyone, let alone to allow the nonhuman modes of existence to speak (26). Rather, we might say that she aims to stand with rather than speak for, and she situates the genesis of her claims in the effects of late liberal forces moving through that part of our lives that we [Povinelli and the Karrabing collective] have lived together (23). Such an approach provides a useful point of orientation for those of us who find ourselves caught in the discomforting space between, as Neimanis puts it, a representationalist rock and a hard place of complicit silence.Geontologies, writtenwithPovinellis indigenous colleagues-slash-family, provides just one example of the vital work being done by scholars and activists across the globe, as the Mtis scholar and artist Zoe Todd puts it, to decolonize and Indigenize the non-Indigenous intellectual contexts that currently shape public intellectual discourse (including, Todd adds, the discourse of the Anthropocene).
Film still from Wutharr: Saltwater Dreams by the Karrabing Film Collective, 2016. Courtesy of the Karrabing Film Collective.
How, then, might this project of making visible proceed? One possibility can be found in the films created by the Karrabing collective itself. As Povinelli notes, the various forms of critique that have attempted to tackle the theoretical challenges inherent to this age of the Anthropocenequestions of multiple ontologies, the difference between Life and Nonlife, our coming post-extinction worldhave tended to lag behind fiction (14). The aesthetic objects that are the Karrabings films operate through an improvisational realism or improvisational realization. As much an art of living as an artistic style, the genre, if we can call it this, seeks to manifest reality (a realization) through a mixture of fact and fiction, reality and realism (86) that makes visible or illuminates the quasi-events that occur within the cramped space in which my indigenous colleagues are forced to maneuver as they attempt to keep relevant their critical analytics and practices of existence (6). But this making visiblethis translation or rendering legible across registersoperates precisely through a certain illegibility or incomprehensibility: a stubborn resistance that explicitly rejects the representations from withoutthe demand for a certain (global) (self-)image of indigeneity, or indeed the demand of the anthropological imaginarythrough which authentic indigeneity is managed, marketed, and circulated. As such, read through the polysemy of translation, the productive paradox here is that this filmmaking practice is effective in its revealing the functioning of geontopower precisely through its partial untranslatability and incommensurability Rather than providing a representation of their lives, the films are intended as a means of self-organization and analysis, revealing new forms of collective indigenous agency precisely in relation to various Dreaming formations. Crucially, the films function as a constantly improvisational response to the suffocating state management of such relations.
Despite the increasing solidification of global borders, epitomized by the rhetoric of the Trump campaign, members of the Karrabing Collective have nonetheless recently been able to acquire passports in order to travel to participate in international screenings and discussions. But beyond this, platforms running supplementary to mainstream media (evoking Nancy Frasers subaltern counter-publics, here digital) provide crucial means for the virtual translation of what, as evoked above, functions precisely through a certain level of stubborn opacity. Explicitly rejecting state forms of land tenure and the politics of recognition, with membership that elides blood ties, the composition of the Karrabing Collective resonates with the gestures of solidarity from the diverse constituencies who traveled to Standing Rockgestures made in the face of the United States mainstream medias attempts to reduce the claims and representational practices of indigenous struggle (their attempts to communicate) to mere incommunicable noise. While the Karrabing Collectives practice elucidates and narrates the dispersed quasi-events brought about by toxic sovereignty and geontopower, this elucidation is far from a straightforward translation. Nonetheless, there is an urgency to translate geontology across todays multiple and overlapping crises, especially as these pertain to colonial or imperial debris: (settler-)colonialisms ongoing effects of ruination.
Sheila Sheikh is a lecturer at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London, where she convenes the MA Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy. Prior to this, Sheikh was research fellow and publications coordinator on the ERC-funded Forensic Architecture project based in the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths. She is currently working on a book about the phenomenon of the martyr video-testimony, read through the lens of deconstruction; and a multi-platform research project around colonialism, botany, and the politics of the soil. As part of the latter, Sheikh is co-editing, with Ros Gray, a special issue ofThird Texttitled The Wretched Earth: Botanical Conflicts and Artistic Interventions.
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For this issue, we featured “Translating Geontologies” fromAnd Now: Architecture Against a Developer Presidency (Essays on the Occasion of Trumps Inauguration)
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Screen/Print #52: Shela Sheikh Searches for New Political Vocabularies in ‘And Now: Architecture Against a Developer … – Archinect