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  • Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism by Elizabeth A. Povinelli
  • Andrea Muehlebach
Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 232 pp.

What if we thought more about those weird kinds of bacteria that do just fine in environments deprived of oxygen because they breathe rocks? What if we thought more about rocks like manganese, which some geologists say are the byproduct of bacteria and which in turn allow for life to thrive because they are essential to plants and to all organisms that process elemental oxygen, including humans (43)? We would, then, need to rethink the distinction between the geochemistry of Earth and the biochemistry of Life, between geos and bios, and think co-composition rather than opposition. Biological and geological substances are not external to each other; the living and Non-living breathe in and breathe out together.

What, then, of our attachment to the distinction between bios and geos? Should we really be asking how Life on earth emerged out of rocky, soulless Nonlife, how an inert planet became a lively one, how something emerged out of nothing (44)? Or should we be wondering whether the miracle was not Life, but in fact Nonlife: a form of existence that had the potential not merely to be denuded of life, but to produce what it is not, namely life? Elizabeth Povinelli poses these questions in her masterful new book, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism—a book that is an ode to "Nonlife" and a requiem to the irrelevant enclosure of Life from Nonlife.

Opening our field of vision this way means exploding the enclosure of the Foucauldian biopolitical distinction between Life/Death or making live/letting die and provincializing it via a critical, pragmatist re-reading of the new post-humanisms and materialisms. Indeed, theories of biopolitical power have been blind to the silent modality of power that preceded bio-political power: the geontological distinction between Life/Nonlife. Life/Nonlife [End Page 451] preceded the partitioning of Life/Death and created the grounds upon which biopolitical power emerged. This, argues Povinelli, is in fact the real equation: "life (life {birth, growth, reproduction} v. Death) v. Nonlife" (9). Late liberalism must, thus, not only be conceptualized as an attempt to manage the governance of difference and markets (an argument Povinelli made in her previous work) but, much more foundationally, as an attempt to manage geontopower, i.e., the formation of power that operates through the difference of Life/Nonlife and that today poses a new, deadly kind of planetary challenge.

We know that Povinelli has listened to people listening to rocks for a long time. We see her drawing on this long history of listening to push current post-humanist thinking towards a brink; a brink that forces us to think of Nonlife not as inert and in contrast to intentional, miraculous, bootstrapping Life; and to think of life not as self-oriented, self-reproducing, and sovereign but as profoundly non-sovereign vis-à-vis its Others. After all, it is only from the vantage point of the skinned, membraned, epidermal existent that sovereignty can be thought. But the Anthropocene (that realization that the force of a particular human–non-human arrangement—capitalism—has begun to overwhelm all other biological, geological, and meteorological forms) has made skins and membranes (and thus sovereignty) unstable like never before. The more we press on the skin of life, the harder it has become to maintain Life as distinct from Nonlife.

What if we were to move beyond the perspective of epidermal enclosure of bodies not in-themselves, but as always beyond-themselves? Take the human body. If we begin not with its skin, but with the lung (the most appropriate organ for the Anthropocene "because it points to the openness of all beings to their surrounding [51]), the distinctions between subject and object, sovereignty and unfreedom, Life and Nonlife become undone. Take manganese again, essential to life and yet toxic when absorbed in large quantities, such as when 1,300 Chinese children suffered serious lead poisoning from fumes released by a manganese smelting factory (44). This rock does not abide by the distinction between...


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pp. 451-456
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