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  • Exterranean: Extraction in the Humanist Anthropocene by Phillip John Usher
  • Antónia Szabari
Phillip John Usher. Exterranean: Extraction in the Humanist Anthropocene. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019, 207 pp.

Phillip J. Usher's Exterranean asks readers to reflect on our entanglement with what we extract by taking them on a detour through the French-, German-, and Italian-speaking cultures of mining in the sixteenth century. It also nudges scholars in the environmental humanities to turn their view to the multiple voices of earlier humanisms. The ontological turn, proposed by contemporary ecological thought including French écopensée (Stéphanie Posthumus's term), Timothy Morton's ecological thought, and Jane Bennett's vibrant matter, Usher signals, is not entirely new. It has been preceded by an ontological ambivalence in the early modern era.

Usher follows the lead of scholars Louisa MacKenzie and Jean Céard, who have asserted that early modern people saw the physical world as agential and inherently metaphysical. This increasing interest in materiality without the Cartesian dualism of inert matter and active mind brings early modern humanists to an intimate closeness with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's non-totalitarian concepts, Michel Serres's philosophy of science, and Bruno Latour's interventions in the field of Science and Technology Studies. Usher repeatedly and masterfully traverses the historical gap between these [End Page 372] twentieth- and twenty first-century authors and early modern ones. He coins "exterranean," a neologism that serves as a way of directing our attention to the fact that the extracted remains in relation with "Terra," which replaces "earth" to resist our totalizing tendency.

Three chapters in Section One center around three sets of early modern texts, Paulus Niavis' Judicium Jovis (ca. 1490), Ronsard's "Hymne de l'Or" (1555), and texts on mining in the New World by Sebastian Münster, Michel de Montaigne, and Bartolomé de la Casas. Niavis's play depicts Terra at Jupiter's court, pointing to an emerging awareness of humans' terraforming activities. The next chapter shows that Ronsard takes the entanglement between Terra and human activity further, as Ronsard reminds his readers that gold ensures the vitality of the human world, including the existing political order, books, medicine, and poetry. The third chapter functions as a critical counterpart of sorts to Ronsard's celebratory hymn, providing perspective on European mining in the New World by zooming in on the fact that "exterranean fantasies" serve a "colonial impulse" (61). Indeed, chapters two and three open up a political relationship within the humanist understanding of the vitality of gold, of the physical world, by revealing that this vitality can be enjoyed in different ways and exploited by regimes of oppression. Terraforming thus simultaneously shapes human relations (and human bodies), as in the most glaring case of indigenous miners forced to work and die in the silver mine in Potosí, Peru, from Théodore de Brye's America (1590–1634). Usher evokes Montaigne's account of Inca roads to remind us that human terraforming has a complex history, including the engineering feats of indigenous civilizations.

In Section Two, chapters 4 and 5 explore early modern treatises by pro-mining authors Georgius Agricola, Paracelsus, and François Garrault. Humanists like Agricola defended mining but produced books (together with illustrators) that taught readers to read hillsides in ways to see the devastation caused by mining. Agricola's earlier On Subterranean Creatures (1549) prompts Usher to ponder the author's fascination with "the vibrancy of the subterranean spaces" (100).

The third section is devoted to limestone and salt as "bits-taken-from-earth" that humans engage with. Chapter 6 takes the reader on a tour of the city of Caen in Normandy, where Charles de Bourgueville, sixteenth-century regional historian, serves as our guide. Chapter 7 takes us to evaporation ponds and elite cultures of salt consumption exemplified by Benvenuto Cellini's salt cellar. The author probes the degree of awareness of early modern consumers of the "lithic memory" that sandstone and salt hold even before [End Page 373] the discovery of the Caen crocodile fossil in 1817 (a vestige of the tropical climate that produced the sandstone) and the scientific confirmation of...


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