Review of Elizabeth Povinelli’s Geontologies

A short while ago I drafted a review of Elizabeth Povinelli’s most recent book, Geontologies: a requiem to late liberalism (Duke University Press, 2016). The final review will appear soon in The Australian Journal of Anthropology but, in the meantime, I am posting a clean draft here. Beth’s work has been a huge influence on my own, and I have had the fortune to review another book of hers before (Economies of Abandonment review here), so I was happy to get this opportunity to have a concerted think about her recent book. Review below:

Geontologies is the ‘last chapter’ of work begun by Povinelli in 1984 and previously presented in Labor’s Lot (1993).[1] Despite this context, the author does not see this as a return to ‘producing ethnographic texts’. Rather, her project is now figured as an analysis of how ‘late liberal power’ appears as it is encountered from the perspective of the Karrabing media collective, a ‘supermajority Indigenous group’ and in the northwest Northern Territory (NT) (p. 23). This is a new trajectory, but one still pursued through the critiques developed in Povinelli’s previous texts, namely how settler liberalism elides ‘certain violences’ through the attribution and distribution of social failure (2002, p. 7) and how its formations of tense and eventfulness are used to dissipate the ‘ethical and political demand’ of alter-agents such as Karrabing on the dominant order (2011, p. 30).

Drawing on a growing number of Karrabing films and media texts, Geontologies presents two parallel lines of inquiry. The first grapples with Foucault’s theorisation of liberal governance as biopolitics in order to launch a speculative reframing of the governance of difference. Increasingly, Povinelli suggests, contemporary late liberalism is not ordered according to biopolitical differentiations between life and death but geopolitical ones between life (bios) and nonlife (geos). That said, Geontologies is not a historical project and little of it is devoted to thinking through how or why geopolitics came about. The point is that the present situation is organised around the distribution of all ‘existents’ according to familiar dynamics of tense and eventfulness. Just like Karrabing members, Two Women Sitting Down – a rock dreaming at Bootu Creek in the central NT destroyed by a mining company in the pursuit of manganese – is governed according to forms of pasts and futurity.

This brings us to the book’s second, and more extensive, line of inquiry, namely the ‘Karrabing analytics’ or epistemologies employed by Karrabing members. This is an ethnographic enterprise, despite the aforementioned disclaimer, though one marked with moments of refusal and with a non-ethnographic end. Certainly, Karrabing members’ grasp of the lively and a lifeless are represented, and clearly differ from that of Australian settler law, they are present in order to demonstrate ‘the cramped [theoretical] space of manoeuvre’ within which they operate (p. 26). Unlike in Povinelli’s previous texts, though, the interlocutors here are less the managers of the settler state than they are the doyens of biopolitics (Agamben), new materialism (Bennett), object-oriented ontologies (Morton and Holbraad), speculative realisms (Meillassoux), and informational capital.

This second strand is the source of both the book’s most notable analyses and equivocations. For example, Povinelli delineates the extent to which many of academia’s theoretical preoccupations are either irrelevant or counterproductive to Karrabing analytics. The fixation of new materialists and others on the irruptive event and vibrancy reiterates ‘the discourse and strategy of geontopower’ (p. 54), or, alternately, restages ‘the call in liberal recognition’ to recognise the other’s sameness (p. 130). Meanwhile, the ‘speculative games’ of object-oriented ontologies and speculative realism participate in ‘crushing’ Karrabing by disavowing interpretation and working to decenter lived social conditions (pp. 74, 91). If your world is one in which nonhuman agents such as creeks, fogs, rocks are lively to the extent that they affect and are affected by specific humans, then any imperative to allow objects ‘just to be’ in and of themselves is both absurd and detrimental. Responsible being in the world is better served by Karrabing ‘ongoing efforts of attention’ to local nonhumans and human alike, leading Povinelli to suggest that our own parsing of the world ‘should’ also interminably interpret the directionality, orientation, and connections of and between different agents and places (p. 116).

Geonotologies features several such normative injunctions, typically posed as questions. Perhaps, Povinelli (p. 122) asks, meteorological, ecological and geological existents ‘should have an equal say in legal, political, and ethical debates in late liberalism’? Or that they ‘should matter equally to or as much or more than a form of human existence’ (p. 35)? Indeed, perhaps they must, since we ‘must allow existents that are not biologically and anthropologically legible or do not speak to disrupt’ the standard democratic ordering of the political (p. 142). But where did these norms come from? Why is equality the ideal? Why insist of the voice these particular existents and not others? While Povinelli supplies no obvious answers, she implies that the Karrabing collective, and human life on Earth more generally, depends on other existents having political presence and influence.

This brings us to the book’s unresolved tensions which are amongst the defining tensions of critical scholarship today. To generalise, just as there is a growing body of work across multiple disciplines seeking to trouble the boundaries of ‘life’ and draw attention to the ‘liveliness’ of a vast array of existents there are also those who insist on the primacy of human factors. These perspectives all reside somewhere between emergence and determination, representing given situations in such a way as to re-order, or even ignore, the efficacy of certain human and other existents. Well-known interventions in these debates, such as Eduardo Kohn’s call to let others semiotise, suggest how existent others might be heard, however they provide little guidance about the distribution of voices and votes in the parliament of existents? Who determines the future more than others? Two Women Sitting Down? The creek Tjipel? An invasive grass? A bacteria? An asteroid?

Povinelli’s own tactic in Geontologies is to argue that it is crucial to attend to ‘whose arguments about truth and persuasion… gain the power to set the norm’ (p. 91). All existents matter, but their very presence often depends significantly on the extent to which they matter to humans with the political and economic capital to foster or destroy them. This pragmatic point provides a check on recent enthusiasm regarding indigenous alterity and multinaturalisms, which can sometimes elide the precarity of lived difference (Neale and Vincent, 2017). But if the book’s ideals of equality resemble the liberal politics problematized by Povinelli elsewhere, they are nonetheless conditioned by an insistence on the absolute dependence of humans. The ‘radical potential’ signalled in the opening and the close of the book hinges upon the promise of recomposing the political through attending to, and defending, local existents. To rework Foucault’s phrase, the imperative and diagnosis of Geontologies is that ‘existents must be defended’.

Timothy Neale (Deakin University)


NEALE, T. & VINCENT, E. 2017. Mining, indigeneity, alterity: or, mining indigenous alterity? Cultural Studies 31:2-3, 417-439.

POVINELLI, E. 1993. Labor’s lot: the power, history, and culture of Aboriginal action, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

POVINELLI, E. 2002. The cunning of recognition: indigenous alterities and the making of Australian multiculturalism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

POVINELLI, E. 2011. Economies of abandonment: social belonging and endurance in late liberalism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

POVINELLI, E. 2016. Geontologies: a requiem to late liberalism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

[1] All references in this review are to Geontologies unless otherwise noted.