When first published in 1990, Rosalind Williams's Notes on the Underground was widely, and on the whole enthusiastically, reviewed. Since then it has become something of a classic in our field. But it has been out of print for some years, and MIT Press has seen fit to publish a new edition. This should be taken with a grain of salt. The main body of the text is a facsimile of the first edition; only a new seventeen-page afterword justifies the suggestion of novelty.
Notes on the Underground is a complex and ambitious book that purports to explore the significance of spaces below the surface of the earth, for primarily late-nineteenth-century science, technology, and the imagination. Chapters are devoted to emerging "earth sciences" like geology, archaeology, and anthropology; to ambitious underground civil engineering projects like tunnels, sewers, subways, and bomb shelters; and finally to portrayals of the underground in "fantastic" popular literature by the likes of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. It remains a fascinating—indeed sublime—book, but like some earlier reviewers I feel that the awesome breadth of Williams's subterranean sleuthing does not in the end provide a coherent conception of the nineteenth-century underground.
Williams uses her new afterword to make amends—of a sort. Rereading Notes, she identifies five "bedrock passages" that purport to reveal the book as a genealogy of environmental degradation—and of the fantasized sublimation of that degradation—in late-nineteenth-century France and Britain. On this view, Notes was a prescient historical survey of technologies, knowledges, and fantasies that, since the book's publication twenty years ago, have starkly revealed themselves as the scaffolding of global climate change. Williams opens with a passage showing that the "underground" in Notes was never simply a physical location under the surface of the earth, but rather a catchall trope for "human built," highly technological environments. This "underground" excluded, repressed, and even extirpated nature and in this sense also entailed a fantasy of human victory over nature—including victory over death. The question was now where the surface was located. In a striking citation from the final pages of the 1990 edition Williams shows herself arguing that by then we were no longer living on the surface of the earth above some metaphorical "underground," but that we ourselves had become the troglodytes. The surface of the earth had moved up to the outer limits of the atmosphere, and we, like Captain Nemo, were living "underground" at the bottom of that vulnerable and increasingly threatened sea of air. The remaining passages make it clear that escape from [End Page 761] this novel predicament is no foregone conclusion. It will be necessary to repudiate "Baconian Science" along with the rapine technologies it fosters and to embrace an "Arcadian Science" informed by ecological sustainability. However, this is a slim hope. Another ominous "bedrock passage" suggests that the despoiling of nature may be a cultural and political reflex aimed at keeping nature's subversive capriciousness at bay and that we are thus inevitably doomed to destroy the ecological underpinnings of our brave new "undergrounds."
Williams devotes the rest of the afterword to tracing the genealogy of a new, robust, interdisciplinary "cable of inquiry" into our neo-troglodyte environmental predicament, to considering how humanistic threads in that cable might help us to come to terms with collective grief over the loss of nature, and finally to musing on the advantages of the essay form in writing about the underground. And then she arrives at death's door. Why, she asks herself, has she been so blind to the evident links between death and the underground? With a tacit nod to Freud and Mircea Eliade she wonders if collectively going "underground" is not a kind of expatiatory "death cult" rooted in rage against our inevitable personal mortality. The bitter truth is that "environmental sustainability requires that humans regularly die." This leads Williams to the revealing conclusion that her book is actually less about a...