Rocks Have History
From the Series: Geological Anthropology
“In the desert you always walk with the ancestors,” doña Carmen told us around a wood fire on a cold November night in the Salar de Atacama, the Atacama salt flat in northern Chile. “They are always by your side,” she continued, “they are everywhere. In the air, in the dust, in the mountains, in the soil. Rocks have history.”
What does it means for a theory of the geological to say that rocks have history? I posed this question after walking 250 kilometers to heal the Salar from damage inflicted by lithium mining. We were an assorted collective led by doña Carmen,1 Atacameño healer and central figure in the Indigenous defense of the Salar. Spending time with her, and as I was sensually attracted, and repulsed, by the extreme conditions of the desert, I got to understand that critical theories on the geological might still perpetuate a colonial epistemology if withdrawness becomes the chief heuristic to think our engagements with the geos.
Current geophilosophies have argued against co-constructionism by working around what could be glossed as the analytics of withdrawness (Clark 2011; Yusoff 2013; Harman 2017). The narrative of withdrawness takes the geologic as a reminder of what is radically outside the parameters of relationality—the radically impersonal “that is bracketed out of the sociality” (Yusoff 2015, 206). Tectonic plates, volcanic magma, and salt flats make us aware that the world exists completely indifferent to the human: aloof, insensible, and even violent, the Earth’s deep, dark interiors are experimentally inapprehensible and fundamentally non-relational. The geological is inhuman. Hence the geological-as-withdrawness, calling into attention that matter is not always in extension to “life,” offers a poignant alternative to Western biocentric ontologies and a powerful analytic to think the Salar.
The Salar—the territory around which Atacameño communities have organized their agricultural, economic, and cultural life for the last twelve thousand years—is under serious threat. It holds the largest reservoirs of lithium in the entire world, the “white gold” of green transition. Lithium brine forms under highly specific conditions, namely, Quaternary endorheic basins subjected to precipitations over large geological periods followed by fast evaporation, and proximity to hectorite clay found in supervolcanic chambers, or what is known as large caldera systems. In the Salar, lithium brine has been accumulating for the past 2.6 million years—and extracted intensively in the past two decades. It has been estimated that for every ton of lithium about two million liters of water, extracted from the very same salt flat, are needed to evaporate. Water scarcity, contamination, and biodiversity loss are some of the damages to the Salar ecosystem that are yet to be fully assessed.
So we walked—from the southern border of the salt flat to Antofagasta, through the world’s driest desert. The action was intended to attract political interest. But we also walked as a ceremony for reparation. Walking in the desert is transformative, explained doña Carmen. On your own, surrounded by immensity, across the Earth’s most hostile environment, you denude yourself from your “little me,” from your fantasy of individuality. And it is in and through that disconnection that you are able to connect with mountains, aquifers, and volcanic calderas—and to heal them in the process of healing you with them. Traversing through the desert, geological things are conveyed as abuelos, ancestors with spiritual and affective trajectories, to receive their wisdom and to reestablish, even if for an instant, a non-anthropocentric balance between the ground, the sky, and the human. Through walking, geology becomes concurrent.
I’m interested in this concurrency. I wonder how what I learned with doña Carmen connects with the geological-as-withdrawness, particularly in the perspective of interrupting what Kathryn Yusoff (2019) calls “White Geology.” I wonder about the onto-epistemic short-circuits at play when thinking the salt flat as an inhuman entity and as an abuelo, for in our walk the salt flat confirmed its non-relationality, but also exceeded it (cf. de la Cadena 2019).
In the first day of our walk, just before dusk, three of us walked north through the Salar to reach a small hill from which lithium extraction operations could be photographed. Calculations proved wrong. The hill was higher than expected and what was supposed to be a two-hour mission became a five-hour walk through the Salar in the dark. At one point, tired, cold, confronted by the animosity of the Salar, I thought I could die, and not metaphorically. I felt the profound incompatibility between the Salar and my humanness. Sheer hostility.
Once back at the camp, doña Carmen was drinking tea. “The desert always confronts you with death,” she told me. “And that’s good. It’s a guide. The desert builds your personhood. When in the desert Death appears to you, say your name, out loud, remember who you are.”
This episode aroused my imagination. Maybe the Salar is in excess to relationality, but without foreclosing its possibility. Always radically other, outside control and thought, but also always at hand, ethically present, offering solace and help. So perhaps resisting White Geology begins by resisting the universalization of the geos, in whichever form, including the geological-as-withdrawness. Perhaps it entails asking, precisely, in what world the world conforms to a distinction between nonlife and life, the geos and the bios—in what world salt flats are withdrawn, cut off from its complex exchanges with the stars, and cattle, and waters, and our dead ones, and our dreams, and our crops, and our health. In what world a salt flat “withdraws or is withheld from any access or relation whatsoever” (Harman 2017, 181). And importantly, it entails asking what is and who does the labor (Povinelli 1995) of geological description, prospecting, and reparation. Who does the history of the Earth. The decolonization of geology requires stopping endless semiotics and extractivist economies, but also recognizing that only in some worlds geology is about distant and indifferent things, and done by geologists. In some others, geology is done by walkers, and it is about tutelar beings and family. In some worlds we are with geology: geological things partake as teachers and carers in and with social life, sentient beings with whom we become persons. In some worlds rocks have history.
1. As requested by my collaborators, I’ve changed all names.
Clark, Nigel. 2011. Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. London: Sage.
de la Cadena, Marisol. 2019. “Uncommoning Nature: Stories from the Anthropo-Not-Seen.” In Anthropos and the Material, edited by Penny Harvey, Christian Krohn-Hansen, and Knut G. Nustad, 35–58. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Harman, Graham. 2017. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. London: Penguin.
Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 1995. “Do Rocks Listen? The Cultural Politics of Apprehending Australian Aboriginal Labor.” American Anthropologist 97, no. 3: 505–18.
Yusoff, Kathryn. 2013. “Insensible Worlds: Post-Relational Ethics, Indeterminacy and the (K)nots of Relating.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31, no. 2: 208–26.
———. 2015. “Queer Coal: Genealogies in/of the Blood.” philoSOPHIA 5, no. 2: 203–29.
———. 2019. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.