Seminar Reports


Report: Rock/Body Seminar 1



What is role of minerals as actors of geological affect on the human body? How does the geologic commune and communicate with human flesh? How is mineral agency articulated and negotiated within circuits of mineral intake and absorption, physiological response and eventual excretion?

The first Rock/Body seminar took place at the British Geological Survey (BGS) on the 27th and 28th of April 2016, under the theme “Flesh/Minerality.” With the participation of Alexandra Gormally (Lancaster University), Angela Last (University of Glasgow), David Paton (University of Exeter), Hazel Gibson (Plymouth University), João Florêncio (University of Exeter), Mark Cave (BGS), and Nigel Clark (Lancaster University), the aim of the event was to find some initial connections as well as tensions between the different disciplines represented and, through those, start opening up some questions on minerals and their roles as interfaces between the lithic and the body.

Within the context of such disciplinary connections and tensions, it became apparent the importance of being able to articulate a geological imagination that thinks through deep temporal scales with other processes, material properties and dynamics that, whilst still locatable at the interface between geos and bios, happen at much smaller and closer-to-human temporal scales: processes, properties and dynamics such as mineral toxicity, bioaccessibility and bioavailability rates which can not only affect the ways in which our bodies perform but can also highlight how human performances of work and play can affect the mineral composition of soils and that, in turn, feed back into human bodies and their behaviour.

Those phenomena are the domain of Medical Geology. As BGS’s Mark Cave explained, medical geologists work alongside biomedical and public health researchers to address environmental health issues resulting from exposure to particular geochemical elements. In the words of Robert Finkelman, José Centeno and Olle Selenius, published in TERRAE in 2005:

The earth (terra firma) sustains all living things but the Earth (the natural environment) sometimes extracts a steep price for its generosity by causing or contributing to serious and locally widespread health problems. This is the domain of Medical Geology—the impact of geological materials and processes on animal and human health. (Finkelman et al. 2005: 3)

As an example, in an article published in 2012, Howard W. Mielke and Sammy Zahran identified a correlation between concentrations of human intake of air Pb (lead) and increases in societal violence in New Orleans over a period of 22 years (Mielke and Zahran 2012: 48).

However, as Mark Cave went on to explain, it is not enough for metals such as lead or arsenic to exist in high concentrations in the environment for them to be ingested and affect the health and even behaviour of individuals. Considering that humans ingest on average 100mg of soil per day, the rate of absorption of metals contained in the soil—medical geologists tell us—is dependent on their bioaccessibility and bioavailability. The former means the fraction of contaminant that is dissolved in the gastro-intestinal tract and available for uptake, whilst the latter means the fraction of the bioaccessible mineral that ends up actually crossing cells walls. Despite the fact that the geology of many regions possesses high concentrations of toxic metals, their bioaccessibility is actually dependent on whether those minerals are fixed in rocks or more freely mobile as part of the local soil and/or water. Devon and Cornwall, for instance, possess high concentrations of arsenic which is fixed in rocks and cannot be easily dissolved, ingested and absorbed by humans, thus having a low bioaccessibility rate. Even if ingested, metals with low bioaccessibility rates end up being excreted alongside undigested soil and therefore aren’t absorbed.

Interestingly, however, at the Devon Great Consols, a disused mine near Tavistock in Devon from which copper and, later, arsenic were extracted, bacteria have developed resistance to arsenic and have been able to thrive in such heavily contaminated area where no other biological organism can subsist.

In what ways is knowledge about the geologic developed and applied and how does it feedback into stakeholder communities and society at large? At a time when communities are turning to localism—local food, local politics—as a response to the challenges of a globalised world, how can an increased awareness of the geological specificity of local soils impact food consumption behaviours and even the ways in which people come together in spatially-organised, geologically-grounded, communities? How can the correlations identified between local geology and disease clusters shift preconceptions that, in the current age of global capital and global ecological crisis, “we [humans] are all in this together”?

As Nigel Clark noted, geographers and humanities scholars are very used to think about different places connecting up with one another and being shaped by their interactions with each other. Still, their thinking tends to approach place in a flat, horizontal, cartographic way. The challenge today, in the context of the recent geological turn in the social sciences and the humanities, is thinking about our exchanges, transactions, and histories that circulate upwards and downwards across geological layers and that are often mediated by local soil and our daily ingestion of it. Could this be a case of examining the feedback loops between the lithic and the body, minerality and flesh, through following that third, mediating term: soil?

By focusing on soil and its chemistry, and by tracing the bioaccessibility and bioavailability rates of some of its mineral components, medical geology adds movement to our thinking about geological strata. Whilst normally most of us approach strata as solid, inert, fixed records or archives, the movement of soils—from their separation from the rock underneath to their possible ingestion by plants, animals, and humans—highlights the mobility of the lithic and of its mineral elements across living/nonliving divides and at a human scale.

But how does one acquire and disseminate these kinds of knowledge about the geologic? As Hazel Gibson claimed in her interventions, whilst scientists use various technological apparatuses and read the landscape for clues of the history and composition of the subsurface, non-experts narratives of what’s going on underneath our feet are often mediated through human activity. In other words, lay knowledges and histories of the subsurface often draw from local oral histories of labour and geological prospection and are, therefore, deeply enmeshed in local social, political, and economic histories. E.g.: histories of mining and quarrying in industrial Britain, as noted by Hazel; or histories and conceptualisations of displacement, colonisation, and Empire in the Global South, as noted by Angela Last). What that highlights are the difficulties of overcoming the embodied dimensions of knowledge and the limitations of human sensorial apparatuses when developing geological knowledge, difficulties that are present in both expert and lay contexts albeit addressed in different ways. As Alexandra Gormally stressed, the challenge for science communication is to understand how knowledge is developed and applied, and how it then feeds into local communities and is able to impact governance. However, the question still remains: what counts as local when one is digging through (Deep) Time?

With those issues in mind, Nigel Clark asked what if we were able to develop a politics that is not just about surface (geopolitics of nation-states and their borders, for instance) but, instead, a vertical politics, a politics of depth? What would change in current political and ethical formations if one were to ask “when do I come from?” (geotime), instead of “where do I come from?” (modern geopolitics). How can questions of the type “when do I belong?” help us reconfigure politics, community, identity and place through geological time? What would happen to politics if strata, rather than territory, become the new political paradigm? How can such politics be invented and performed? What levels of upskilling do humanities scholars and social scientists have to undertake in order to address such questions and the new contexts from where they emerge, when the traditional training of our disciplines is no longer enough?

For David Paton, the way towards such vertical geopolitics of strata might pass, amongst other things, through an increased awareness of the dialogue between stone and flesh as it is enacted in the labour of quarrymen and miners. In the quarry, stone and flesh feed back into one another, aided by the metallic proxy of the quarrymen’s tools. In such performances of labour, endurance and exhaustion, the texture, shape and density of rock affect and mould the rhythms and physicality of the bodies beating it—a pas de deux between stone and mason. Through it, the bodies of stone and labourer become attuned to each other’s materiality; they resonate in sympathy with one another.

A heightened attention to the communication between rocks and bodies, to the cross-contamination of geo- and bio-logics highlighted by both medical geology and the physical labour of miners and quarrymen, could also—João Florêncio suggested—open up timely ethical and political questions to do with histories of violence, suffering and exploitation shared by both realms coming together in the Anthropocene: the human and the geologic. How do geochemical variations of minerals such as lead or arsenic in the soil interact with socio-economic and racial inequalities, with concentrations of wealth, poverty, and oppression? In what ways do geological and social strata cut across one another? How to articulate together the geochemistry of local soils and the mineral composition of the subsurface with local histories of violence and deprivation?

Within that context, how can anthropogenic geological changes be thought alongside histories of human exploitation that have damaged so many of us, often in life-changing or even deadly ways? Can the geologic witness and record human suffering? Can it become a future-fossil telling local histories of violence and oppression? By the same token, can our bodies be approached as living fossils where histories of geological exploitation and extraction are inscribed in living tissue? What kinds of knowledge can we produce when we synchronise our bodies with the bodies of rocks? How can we think together the ability of both human and geological bodies to, in their materiality, bear witness to their shared histories? How to think the bodies of rocks and the bodies of humans as living testimonies to the violence each of them, each of us, has endured? And how can we allow their bodies, our bodies, to speak as such?

In line with the above, some methodological questions arise to be further explored at the next seminars:

  • How to manage such different scales in our thinking: the micro geochemical scale, the human scale, the cosmic?
  • How to move between the different paradigms, methodologies, and concerns of our different disciplines?
  • What kinds of operative concepts allow us to effect such transition between scales and translation between disciplines? Some possibilities to examine and discuss include: “affinity,” “competition,” “release,” “storage,” “mobility,” “action/reaction,” “exhaustion,” “movement,” “performance,” etc.


Report: Rock/Body Seminar 2



The advent of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution depended on the dual extraction of minerals and labour. Today, in the contemporary economy of oil and 24/7 trade on a planetary level, one of the main ways in which the body overlaps with geological issues is around the shared predicaments of resource scarcity and exhaustion. Under conditions of neoliberalism, both rocks and bodies increasingly seem to be burnt out. As such, what new light can be shone on the interfacing of rock and body as it is enacted at the level of resource extraction and mineral depletion?The second Rock/Body seminar was dedicated to the theme of “Extraction/Exhaustion” and hosted by the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) in Penryn, Cornwall, on the 22nd and 23rd of July 2016. The participants included Andrea Butcher (University of Exeter), Angela Last (University of Glasgow), Annette Arlander (Stockholm University of the Arts), Bronislaw Szerszynski (Lancaster University), Caitlin DeSilvey (University of Exeter), Carolyn Deby (University of Warwick), David Paton (University of Exeter), Hazel Gibson (Plymouth University), João Florêncio (University of Exeter), Maaike Bleeker (Utrecht University), Nigel Clark (Lancaster University), Paula Kramer (artist), and Rose Ferraby (University of Exeter). Together, participants built on the conversations started at the first seminar and furthered the discussion around the attunement of labouring bodies with geological formations and their shared histories of extraction, depletion and exhaustion.

After an initial contribution by João Florêncio summarising the previous seminar, Caitlin DeSilvey initiated the proceedings with a presentation on the social and cultural history of china clay, in Cornwall to its various uses to its role in the formation of the so-called “Cornish Alps.” Caitlin’s presentation drew attention to the central role played by water in the extraction of china clay, a material that is known for its dryness and absorbing properties, making it renowned for treating intestinal problems. Thanks to its multiple uses—health, pottery, paper production, textile industry, etc.—the extraction of china clay in Cornwall consumed the landscape in order to provide minerals and livelihood for local working communities, a history that is now embedded in the “Cornish Alps,” mounds produced by the piling up of byproducts of the china clay industry and which now mark the Cornish landscape. Such narratives highlighted the enmeshing of mineral extraction and social and economic histories, as well as the tight relationships communities have developed with their local landscape through generations of mining and quarrying.

Caitlin’s presentation was followed by Maaike Bleeker, who brought in ideas involving mediation developed through reading together the work of philosopher and physicist Karen Barad and media theorist Mark Hansen. How do we read records from far-off spaces and times? What is the role played by contemporary media in bringing forth the geologic, something to which we will never have direct access (as noted by Hazel Gibson)? Maaike started her presentation by addressing the myth of the Book of Nature, a text that, according to Darwin, was “imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect.” However, for Babette Babich, as Maaike noted, the so-called “Book of Nature” is not so much a limited record—a record with parts missing—but more of a record with limited readability. In that context, Maaike introduced the recent work of Mark Hansen on 21st-century media which, he suggests, no longer function as analogues to (or extensions of) human perception, nor as a mere record of what’s already there, but rather operate as an expansion of the sensible. In that way, contemporary media function in a way similar to other scientific apparatuses studied by Karen Barad in her onto-epistemology: they do not simply make visible previously unseen realities but, instead, produce those realities through their mediating relationships with them. 21st-century media are inseparable from that which they know or measure; they feed reality forward, to paraphrase Mark Hansen’s work. Technologies allow the emergence of the traces they, themselves, read as traces. Such a position allows for a reversal of phenomenology and a move away from its anthropocentric nature by shifting the focus away from the intentionality of the (human) observer and towards the implicatedness of media technologies and the world, epistemology and ontology. This raises important questions concerning the ways in which we produce knowledge about deep geological strata—ultimately physically inaccessible—and the ways in which our mediating technologies perform, i.e. bring-forth, the geologic as tangible reality.

Following Maaike, Annette Arlander presented some thoughts drawn from Teresa Brennan’s work Exhausting Modernity, examining the ways in which psychic, social and environmental exhaustion are pervasive in modern capitalism. Annette focused her presentation on Brennan’s idea of the “foundational fantasy” of modernity, whereby we as subjects inhabit a world of objects as subjects – a world in which the rhythms of the ego and psychic life tend to often exist in tension with the slow speeds of the “natural” world we inhabit. What implications does such realization have for performance work and in what ways can performance bring psychic and geological rhythms closer together and reconnect human and lithic bodies in times of exhaustion? These questions were explored in interesting ways through the screening of one of Annette’s works—Sitting on a Rock (Rock with Text)—in which the artist’s disembodied voice was heard reflecting on time and waiting over a fixed-shot video of a rock where the artist once sat. Again, this raised questions on the attunement between bodies and rocks and the relationship between exhausting and waiting or passivity, topics that would keep on coming up throughout the seminar.

In the afternoon of the first day of the seminar, participants visited the Trenoweth Quarry, a 20-minute walk from the Penryn Campus. There, David A. Paton introduced us to the life of a granite quarry and the rhythms of stone, diamond blades, forklifts, and the labouring bodies of quarrymen and stonemasons cutting and shaping granite. There, at a disused lower part of the quarry, Paula Kramer guided participants on a series of short exercises on blending body and site. Executed in pairs, the exercises involved trying to feel rock through the body of another participant and following the lines of the landscape on someone else’s body, shaping their body in sympathy with the surrounding quarry walls.

Day 2 started with a presentation by Rose Ferraby on the cultural geologies of the Jurassic Coast. Through articulating photographs taken at mines and quarries in Purbeck, Portland and Beer with local histories engraved in rock and in the collective memory of the communities, Rose drew our attention to the ways in which one can feel the traces left in rock by people who’ve come before us. Drawn from her PhD ethnographical work, which explored the importance of the quarrymen’s knowledge and its relation to the knowledge of the geologist, Rose’s presentation explored practices of learning by digging, of developing a complex language of stone developed through co-existence and labour. Within that context, the quarry emerged not simply as a dug-out void, but as a site filled with stories: as a negative space that gives form to the lives of the communities implicated in it—the architecture of mines and quarries as records of the animation of centuries of labour. Here, again, the issue of translation took a central role: how are social and economic histories recorded in rock and read back? And how do the languages and vocabularies of stone developed by quarrymen through generations of embodied encounters with rock translate into the scientific language used by geologists? How does language make the geologic perceptible?

Focused on a very different geographical and cultural context, Andrea Butcher’s presentation explored the ways in which extraction and exhaustion are being articulated in the local histories and ritual practices in Ladakh, North-West India.. Starting with an introduction to the role played by Telluric and Chthonic entities in the local lives and politics of Himalayan communities, Andrea drew attention to the Buddhist practice of building temples to nail down negative energies and calm the land for Buddhism to flourish—a widespread practice of Geomantic taming. Amongst Himalayan Buddhist communities, geological/environmental problems and political issues are inseparable from one another and collectively solved through ritual practice. As such, as a result of recent environmental disasters and climate change, there has been an increase in offerings in order to calm down the Telluric entities responsible for them. That increase is due to the fact that, thanks in part to irresponsible human agency and exploitation of sacred sites, we have entered an Era of Demerit, one in which offerings no longer bring about the merit they once did, and thus more offerings are needed for satisfying deities and avoiding natural disasters. Here, too, the issue of translation is significant : how does scientific knowledge function alongside local religious vocabularies and ritual practices? Can one inform the other?

Departing from a context similar to Andrea’s, Bron Szerszynski stressed the inseparability of science and technology from symbolic realms such as art and religious practice. Inspired by the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe, Bron proposed a move away from what he called “Anthropocene 1”, towards a new “Anthropocene 2”. Whilst the former is laminar and monolithic, marked by dynamics of linear progress, agency and causality, the latter should be thought in terms of concepts of turbulence, motility, advective-diffuse tuning, primitive accumulation, and long-distance enchantment. Further to that, the Anthropocene should also move away from its monotheism (whereby the “Human” is presented as its dominant agent) and, instead, embrace a wider diversity of “low spirits” symbolically embodied in the figures of cannibals, vampires, the Devil, and local mining spirits. Through sustained attention to the importance of the symbolic and the mythical for thinking an alter-Anthropocene, Bron introduced an idea of the Earth no longer as a unified homeostatic entity (‘Gaia’) but, rather, as something closer to a steel drum, an instrument that, although appearing homogeneous, possesses different zones that vibrate at their own individual frequency.

The presentations concluded with Carolyn Deby, who began with a short action involving filling a bag with 30 litres of water, the equivalent to the water in her own body. In doing so—and connecting her presentation with the first one by Caitlin DeSilvey—Carolyn focused on planetary flows of humans and water, as well as on water as the vehicle through which minerals are often extracted from rock and also the ways in which they enter our own bodies. Expanding on the shifting materialities enacted by water, Carolyn highlighted the ontological continuity between the city and the countryside: there is no nature/culture divide but only reconfigurations of matter. From here, her presentation led to the figures of membranes, enclosures, and their dual existence as structures that both signal separation and allow for border crossings and various degrees of permeability.

In conclusion, trying to articulate together some of the main ideas developed at the second seminar in order to carry them to the last event in September, some areas of tension and unresolved questions seemed to demand special attention in moving forward with the project:

  • The ways in which knowledge and doing/performance might be implicated in one another (e.g. quarrying <-> geology; science <-> poetics; material transactions <-> spirituality);
  • Possibilities and limits of mediation as translation (of the geologic, of bodies, of different forms of energy and its expenditure, of scientific and local knowledges, etc.);
  • The articulation of different scales –such as specific events/phenomena (e.g. local histories of mining) with broader questions and debates (e.g. the Anthropocene hypothesis);
  • The relations between older (analogue) industries and contemporary (digital) ones and their different levels of implication in the geologic, and the question of whether the geologic domain has messaging or communicative capacities of its own;
  • The entanglement of creation and destruction – and its ethical consequences (e.g. how to care if creation might always involve some level of destruction; e.g. digging out stone, emptying landscapes through mining and quarrying but creating livelihood and new forms of community). Also: creation+destruction being at the core of the transformative power of geological agency.
  • The relationship between minerality and flesh, thought beyond the thinking of “life” (that is so prevalent in contemporary scholarly debates). Can rocks and bodies be thought together through alternative paradigms? E.g. stillness, passivity, sessility. What would such exercises do for geoethics and geopolitics?