What is an arche-fossil? Political Ecology and Speculative Realism

I wish the telescopes didn’t just look into the sky but could see through the earth also so that we could find them…We would sweep the desert with a telescope downwards and give thanks to the stars for helping us find them. – Violeta Berios, Nostalgia for the Light

In a recent talk for Stanford’s Digital Aesthetics Workshop, I suggested Quentin Meillassoux’s concept of the arche-fossil may provide a powerful tool for mediating between the microscopic scale of computational processes, the mesoscopic scale of everyday ‘human’ sensing, and the macroscopic scale at which geological processes like climate change unfold. The arche-fossil helps us address what I called the dual nature of the metabolic rift for contemporary life. It presents a powerful tool for politics and culture. To introduce the term “arche-fossil,” I used the following quotation from Meillassoux’s After Finitude:

“I will call ‘arche-fossil’ or ‘fossil-matter’ not just materials indicating the traces of past life, according to the familiar sense of the term ‘fossil’, but materials indicating the existence of an ancestral reality or event; one that is anterior to terrestrial life.An arche-fossil thus designates the material support on the basis of which the experiments that yield estimates of ancestral phenomena proceed – for example, an isotope whose rate of radioactive decay we know, or the luminous emission of a star that informs us as to the date of its formation.” (After Finitude, 10).

After some thought-provoking questions during the Q & A, it became clear that I was using the term in a pretty counter-intuitive way. Isn’t the whole point of Meillassoux’s speculative realism the need to break away from the Kantian “correlationist circle,” which sees knowledge as a product of combining human intellect and sensing alone? If sensing enters the realm of ontology once more, are we not re-absolutizing Kant’s transcendental subject?

This reading of Meillassoux is quite compelling and it makes perfect sense as a critique of certain forms of phenomenology. But I’d like to suggest that it doesn’t push the aesthetic and political implications of Meillassoux’s ontology far enough. The arche-fossil, as the above quote describes, is tied intimately to what Meillassoux refers to as ancestrality. Ancestral events are events which unfold before human life began or long after our species have disappeared. Ancestral events like the big bang or the fifth mass extinction, which occurred 66 million years ago when a huge asteroid shattered into the Earth, seem to break the correlationist circle by presenting events we have knowledge of but which seem to circumvent our sense experience. Homo sapiens weren’t around to experience the fifth mass extinction. Yet we know quite a lot about it.

Future Fossil Spaces, Installation View: Viva Arte Viva – 57th Venice Biennale, 2017, Image by Jens Ziehe.

I would argue, however, that this doesn’t necessarily imply a rigid ontological divide between ancestral phenomena and perception. The arche-fossil, once again, “designates the material support on the basis of which the experiments that yield estimates of ancestral phenomena proceed.” The arche-fossil is thus a material condition of sensing, rather than its undoing. The existence of this material support is what allows us to even imagine and know things about events that we do not and cannot directly perceive. While Meillassoux focuses mainly on phenomena occurring ages or even aeons ago, he also hints at the ways in which the arche-fossil could provide a postcritical and material basis for a political ecology in the Anthropocene. At the start of “Chapter 5: Ptolemy’s Revenge,” he writes:

“We must now try to render the formulation of this question more precise. Closer inspection reveals that the problem of the arche-fossil is not confined to ancestral statements. For it concerns every discourse whose meaning includes a temporal discrepancy between thinking and being – thus, not only statements about events occurring prior to the emergence of humans, but also statements about possible events that are ulterior to the extinction of the human species” (After Finitude, 112).

By confronting humans with the existence of worlds occuring both before and after their existence, the arche-fossil forces us to take seriously the frailty and finitude of life on Earth.

Violeta Berrios in Nostalgia for the Light, 2010.

This confrontation presented to us by the arche-fossil is illustrated beautifully by Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 film “Nostalgia for the Light.” This incredibly documentary follows women searching through the Atacma Desert in Chile for the remains of family members who were killed by the CIA-installed Pinochet regime alongside astronomers trying to understand the origins of the universe. I wish the telescopes didn’t just look into the sky,” one of the women, Violeta Berrios, tells the crew, “but could see through the earth also so that we could find them…We would sweep the desert with a telescope downwards and give thanks to the stars for helping us find them.”

In a powerful scene at the end of the film, Barrios is offered the chance to look through one of the telescopes and peer out into the vastness of the cosmos. While she does not find her husband, she nevertheless breaks down into tears at the sight of all the scattered stardust. In cathartic recognition of the ancestrality presented by the entire universe, she is able to connect once more with what she has lost. A catharsis mediated by the material of the arche-fossil, such connection might hint at a new vital possibilities for a politics and aesthetics at the end of the Anthropocene.

New Article in Cultural Politics

Gregory Chatonsky, Landfill 2 (2022). Digital print produced by a neural net, http://chatonsky.net/landfill-2/.

My article “The Extinction Image” is out in the latest issue of Cultural Politics. This essay explores the artist Gregory Chatonsky’s development of a new type of image—the extinction image. Emerging as a by-product of new technologies such as deep learning and neural nets, this nonoperative image is typified by a painstaking attempt to come to grips with the current threat of human extinction.