Metal Fictions

‘Big’ mining involves environmental fictions that mask the reality of underground and ‘off’ world extraction of minerals. Mining companies creatively brand their industry as restorative, regenerative, and increasingly safe due to remotely controlled and digitally controlled operations. The public face of mining involves positive relations with local communities and habitats; relations that omit that mining is driven by profits and global markets managed by digitalised systems. Instead of accounting for their influence on the development decisions of state actors, big mining promotes the environmental and cultural heritage value of their impact on local communities. In this mix of persuasion, there is a sense in which the contemporary mining industry identifies as a techno-hippie at the forefront of renewal and sustainable futures. But this is a confused identification if, for example, we consider the absence of any place, ground or community in the 2015 Little Black Rock coal advertising campaign sponsored by the Minerals Council of Australia. The campaign utilised hyper-real imagery to affect coal as a magic digital object beyond the limits of time and space. As with popular culture narratives dealing with future mining scenarios, this magic manifests a sovereignty that diminishes any critique of orephosis. Orephosis is a neologism for the common sense subjectivity that supports big mining and that overlooks the non-sense of its digitally facilitated rhetoric.

Coal Tales and Techno-hippies

A 2015 Minerals Council of Australia coal promotion website and TV advertisement, named the “little black rock” campaign, distanced coal from its semblance underground.[1] In the promotion, coal is a digitally simulated, cleanly defined and pleasing object—a transcendent sublime blackness. With the referent excised, the image is a seamless form; Platonic coal with no countenance to origin or extraction. This ideal form of a rock functions in this ad, at least in part, because it manifests the ‘magic’ of digital logic as the magic of coal. In this idealisation, this Vitruvian coal, there is no requirement to locate coal in any specific geological space and time. Instead, the elegant black form is detached from a material ground. It does not belong with the dirt of the earth. This distancing of coal from the earth accentuates the magic, which is further exemplified by the rock’s attributes being conveyed in a wistful female voice over:

Coal’s possibilities are endless, it creates light and jobs. It produces steel and powers our homes as well as our economy. It can now reduce its emissions by up to 40%.[2]

This marvellous agency attributed to the digital ideal of coal is detached from the human engineering that is the actual event of bulk extraction of rocks from the earth. The wonderment concludes with a rhetorical flourish that adds to the myth:

It’s coal. Isn’t it amazing what this little black rock can do?[3]

Being semantic, it might be noted that a small piece of ‘little’ coal on its own does nothing. Although this is not quite accurate as a single lump of coal can be used as a prop. I refer here to a 2017 gesture by the Australian federal government treasurer Scott Morrison who brought a lump of coal into Parliament to convey its harmlessness in a ploy to mock the Labor opposition party’s call to phase out coal power.[4]

In the Minerals Council of Australia campaign, coal’s agency is further construed as ‘amazing’ by this natural resource obligingly awaiting its ultimate destiny. Additionally, in the ontological hygiene achieved in the promotion, there is a strange congruity between a ‘little black rock’ and a little black dress; the notion that coal is sexy. The illumination of coal as an artefact not of industry but of a desirable femininity is problematic at many levels, not least in terms of coal’s utilitarian value in the patriarchal economy.

‘Little black rock’ magic exemplifies orephotic persuasion translated into a digital setting. Orephosis is my term for the common sense assumption that the mining of natural resources and the progressive evolution of the human species are inextricably connected. Etymologically, the construct ‘ore-phosis’ affixes a metallurgic prefix to a subjectivity that is simultaneously phobic and productive, as in metamorphosis. Hence, orephosis is a cultural anxiety that conflates concerns around ideas that resources are running out, and threats, such as the notion that increasing mining taxes will destroy the mining industry. Catastrophes that if prevented will enable the species to maintain sovereignty on earth and beyond. In the magic coal campaign, orephotic reasoning and digital logic iterate a Faustian contract where mining fossil fuels is the price to pay for sustaining the achievements of modernity. However, it is requiring lobbyists to shift to digitally produced spin (such as the ‘little black rock’ campaign) to persuade the public that mining is clean and sustainable because this is not what the public senses is true. There is a new public awareness about the extent of the detrimental effects of mining. It is evident that the activities of mining companies—from massive earth moving projects to small-scale fracking—effect earth systems. To borrow from Leonard Cohen, ‘everybody knows.’

Documentation of accidents, negligence, dam collapses, chronic health issues, and habitat degradation globally circulate via citizen journalism and social media. The business of mining is further discredited because of close attachment to government mantras of ‘growth’ and ‘trickle-down’ economics, which citizenry following the Global Economic Crisis have evidenced as a failed political expediency.

In the context of this edge to public awareness there is an awkward shallowness to the ‘growth and jobs’ rhetoric used by democracies such as the Australian government in 2016[5] or the 2017 White House plan for American economic revival:

…we are going to put our miners and our steel workers back to work… We will put new American metal into the spine of this country… Jobs will return, incomes will rise, and new factories will come rushing back to our shores.[6]

The irony is that industrial-techno nationalism can only work through global markets and relations. In this colloquially fashioned industrialisation, critical work in the Humanities can usefully focus on the digital magic that provides the buffer for big mining as it goes about the business of exploration, extraction and production of the earth. A significant complexity lies with networked subjectivity constituting the convenience of a unified self, the unified subject of ‘progress’ that for centuries has driven industrial development. The imperative in this regard is to ascertain the affective breach of digital logic (a reasoning where time and space is redundant) into the analogue experience, that time on earth feels like it passes. The apprehension of such a breach can only occur through the analogue perception that rocks, in their materiality, construct this earth. The status given to rocks, however, does not enable ontological approaches that discern that we are substantively kin to rocks, not to algorithms.

Rock ontology

Into these geo-political-digital sands is the critical awareness that what were once deemed incommensurable differences between the being of human existence and the non-being of earth systems are merging into new subjectivities. In this shift, the processes of digital logic shape our five senses’ experience of being-in-the-world. The sense of feeling the passing of time, of moments and days, of before and after, is irrelevant to the iPhone subject who is a timeless, placeless contact. The sense of a subject as a placeless contact is perhaps why the simulated topology of a coal seam detached from earth has a familiarity, rather than affecting a sense of unease. It affects a human-technological relation that digitally frames experience of the material world. This relationship would seem to fly in the face of a broader and more inclusive existential awareness that there is, and always has been, entanglement of the human animal and earth systems.

Negotiating a critical path to expose the cultural work of orephosis will require some vivid clarity because, as Isabelle Stengers notes in “resisting the coming barbarism,”

Those who have set up camp in the position of the guardians of reason and progress will certainly scream about irrationality. They will denounce a panicky regression that would make us forget the ‘heritage of the Enlightenment,’ the grand narrative of human emancipation shaking off the yoke of transcendence.[7]

The fear is for loss of human reason, even while any semblance of reason is undermined by digital logic that does not reason. Orephotic persuasion is translated by digital logic into digital magic. There is an insidious gap in meaning-making that accords with Robert Hassan and Thomas Sutherland’s observation that the “colonization of analogue processes by digital logic seems to have proceeded largely unnoticed.”[8]

Enquiry into such matters requires an historical awareness of the construction of disciplinary evolutionary taxonomies devised in the nineteenth century, and of the rapid translation of these taxonomies into digital processes.[9] There is a specific analogue, time-based reasoning behind the taxonomies (geological, biological, evolutionary, etc.) that demarcates nature and culture and that functions to ontologically separate humans from the material world. This separation is confronted in our own time by mediations that give form to cross-agential relations. In the current moment however, such relations are overwhelmed by the productions and values generated by financial spreadsheets and ‘algos’ in what ultimately continues, rather than confronts, the human solipsistic othering of the self. In order to create the semblance of a stable reality we assert human sovereignty over the wild earth and in doing so overlook that we are increasingly constructed of the minerals that we have thoroughly othered. The abjection of the earth to the status of dirt, dust and geological forces of decay, enables the avoidance that we are constituted of these same mineral and genetic processes; that ‘we’ consolidate and stratify along with this debased material.

At the same time as what might be known as agency is increasingly defined by digital processes, the possibility of alternative constitutions and entities continues to be curiously enabled by use of CGI in cinema and video games. We see these entities represented in early cartoon animation (such as the stone age sentience of animals and forms in The Flintstones 1960-66, Hanna-Barbera) through to fluid human/non-human characters in contemporary anime and films such as Ghost in the Shell (1995, Dir. Mamori Oshii) and WALL-E (2008, Dir. Andrew Stanton). It is in such human-techno imagining of form that we can find popular cultural awareness that the status of the human is not stable.

In orephotic logic, matter configures around prospects for profitable global trading through the ontological formulas of the geological sciences. In this science, each rock’s ontological essence is what organises minerals as data and through this disciplinary process the earth is the sum of its substances. In this substantiation, rock data is the information that determines its extraction from its rock body. Geology has profound knowledge of the innards of rocks; it puts time stamps on rocks and interprets spatial elements and events occurring inside a rock as chemical and numerical calculations. This surgical conceptualisation of geological space and time is the dominant logic defining human relations to the earth since the nineteenth century. It is the scientific way to slow things down, to construe a freeze frame “to gain a reference able to actualize the virtual”; this then becomes knowledge that “forms a universal constant that cannot be gone beyond.”[10]

The constancy of geological rock ontologies is what makes it possible to evaluate the economic prospects of rocks and this evaluation is what determines elemental existence within western ontological systems. In the twenty first century, such means of knowing the earth are technologically determined by digital logic. This reflects a double containment of earth systems; firstly, earth is contained in the discourses of Enlightenment reason, and secondly, it is contained as digital data. This data, while itself a product of the Enlightenment project, does however not reason.

There are other ways of enfolding geological data and transforming this data into information about the earth. For example, a geological philosophy that conceives from science that living creatures are self-organised by the same processes as rocks, where “perhaps rocks hold some of the keys to understand sedimentary humanity, igneous humanity and all their mixtures.”[11] This idea of the constitution of a species is a literal expansion beyond the brief duration of the individual that actualises the reality of genetic and climatic processes. Such a geological philosophy is not meant as a metaphor to convey that human processes are like geological processes, but rather perceives of humanity as geology. A perspective that conceptualises an ethical inhuman becoming with the geological processes of the earth and usefully moves our thinking beyond structures of differentiation, linguistic or otherwise. “We are never signifier or signified. We are stratified.”[12]

Ironically, perhaps, such inhuman thinking is analogic, in the sense that it can imagine time in a way irrelevant to digital logic. Yet, so too the agential relations created using digital technologies can conceptualise an inhuman becoming that agrees with non-western entanglements with earth bodies. Such entanglements however are irrational in orephotic orthodoxies when the substance of a thing is what ‘exists’ or is substantial. Wending a responsible path through such contradictions is no easy feat.

Western geological ontology is what makes common sense of the everyday as a triadic compartmentalisation of the underground, surface and sky. The scientific substantiation of everything is not the way of traditional Indigenous ontologies where the form of a substance is its existence. This has something in common with digital construction in narratives where animal and rock-bodies are experienced together as lived experiences of land or sky; formations that are incommensurable with orephotic geo-ontology. Such as, for example, the merge of gameplay and space in computer games such as No Man’s Sky (2016, Hello Games). The ethical position that arises from the activity of mining planets as a game is that the mediated gamer ultimately is not enabled to diverge from a reward-driven orephosis to question the humanist myth of developing cosmic space to progress the human species.

So, despite the networked subject constituted by new media, human identification remains fixed within the perception of a unified self that is progressing into a stable future. In this continuous subject position, thought is fixed to the earth as a natural resource and non-human other. This is an increasingly confused status in that it fails to acknowledge that the human species, at an accelerating rate, is mediated by the engineered metals it deems to be its other—implants, prostheses, pharmaceuticals, communication devices and so on. Devices increasingly ubiquitous in popular culture narratives. Orephotic subjectivity might be conceived therefore as a form of bio-geo-cide.

Orephotic banality

Common orephotic propositions about the earth seem increasingly banal when it comes to understanding digital subjectivity. The facts remain at the level of description, such as this ‘useful’ information provided on iron ore:

  • Nearly all of Earth’s major iron ore deposits are in rocks that formed over 1.8 billion years ago.
  • They formed from chemical reactions that combined iron and oxygen in marine and fresh waters.
  • The two most important minerals in these deposits are iron oxides: hematite (Fe203) and magnetite (Fe304).
  • These iron ores have been mined to produce almost every iron and steel object that we use today—from paper clips to automobiles to the steel beams in skyscrapers.[13]

These facts establish a relation of certainty between deep time and skyscrapers, and connect mineral and marine undergrounds to iron ore and profitability. Here we find the essential meaning of ‘iron ore’; as a rock from which iron can be profitably extracted. There is no orephotic concept for iron (or the earth’s thin crust) beyond its destiny for extraction and production. In this destiny, conceiving ‘rock’ outside orephotic thought is a meaningless signification. Economic conditions are what assert the credibility of rocks.

We can extend this destiny to the construction of markets for ‘rock sites’ in tourism and official cultural heritage rhetoric, where such sites—from mountain vistas to places of Druidic ritual— acquire affective force through their relatedness to wilderness or to primitive notions of Aboriginality. The mythological guises that support orephotic persuasion determine the information that is received about rocks, and in so doing reduce earth bodies to discourses of discovery and development. In this tidy schema it makes little sense to conceive rocks outside the market economies that make common sense of ‘natural’ resources. Dominant myths and ways of knowing remain orephotic at a time when the fluidity of digitalisation suggests alternative conceptions that de-extract earth from the conceit of orephotic thinking. This requires a shift from the technological sublime and its capture by neoliberal thinking. Perhaps this is an instance where, as Hasssan and Sutherland contend, “renewed responsibility toward our technological environment can only be meaningful if we assert analogue control over digital logic.”[14]

In the north of Western Australia, in a vast iron ore rich region known as the Pilbara, the evolution of rocks is geologically mapped to determine the location of ore deposits. Such mappings reflect an ontology that is incommensurable with the same rocks as Aboriginal country. Asteroid impact in the Pilbara has been established through litho-stratigraphic subdivision and correlations of the Archaean volcanic-sedimentary belts.[15] The orephotic base for such geological studies is that asteroids, to differing degrees, are composed of iron. This makes off-earth rock bodies of particular economic interest. As a first link from a Google search of asteroid mining indicates: “Asteroids have amazing potential for industry. But what will it take to land on an asteroid, find these valuable minerals, extract them and process them?” The answer follows: “The drive to set up a mining operation on an asteroid is a matter of simple economics.”[16] That the economics of off-earth mining is “simple” implies such development is nigh. Hollywood has long anticipated the “taming” of asteroids by designating these entities catastrophic events and exploding them using nuclear devices. In Armageddon (1998, Dir. Michael Bay) for example, this feat is achieved by astronauts who martyr themselves to prevent a massive asteroid causing an extinction event by colliding with earth.

There are of course, other ways of addressing planetary bodies and geological entities. Aboriginal knowledge of the sky is deeply informed by cultural knowledge of relations between cosmic bodies and earth systems.[17] In the Aboriginal ontology of David Mowaljarlai the geological life of his country in north Western Australia synthesises with psychic, social and botanical life as a vitality, “that guides a person to sensible action.”[18] The direction or dissipation of this vitality is felt through the life of physical objects and this felt experience suggests how to act within country. Mowaljarlai describes country swinging around him. A psychogeography that is “the result of relentless cultural labour—marking the ground, lodging painted figures in caves, determining sight lines to other sacred zones, bouncing sounds off cliff faces.”[19] This actualisation is sensed, for example, by bouncing a sound off a rock face to aurally discern what is happening in that part of the country. In this audio-visual perception of country, what has changed and what remains the same in a specific place is ascertained through performing such cultural labour. There is no separation of a rock ‘site’ and human well-being; an entanglement that is not a “mystical ability” but an embodied experience in which the boundary that demarcates a human body from a rock body does not end at the surface of the skin.[20] Rock/human mediation at this sensory level recalibrates the essential substantiation of geological forms and human bodies that is assumed in the orephotic separation of object and subject. The rules that capture rocks into modern geological ontological semblances and their algorithmic non-continuities are affectively shallow when it comes to existential body/rock assemblages outside substantial constitution. In the ‘rock art’ orephotic aesthetic, for example, the surface of a rock face is simply a convenient canvas for human expression, while in the entangled way of a pre or post orephotic mineral cosmopolitanism there is a fundamental analogic encounter with un-constituted matter.

What we might call pre or post orephotic thought, respects a multiverse of rocks, stones, pebbles and dirt entwined with the body and its senses. However, this hybrid ontological subject significantly differs from rock-animisms that, no matter the degree of empathy with the earth, invariably assert human sovereignty. This is not to dismiss that the attribution of sentient life to the nonhuman is not valuable in problematising accepted rigid philosophical positions. Critical anthropology has shown the value of ontological perspectivism; that a reshuffling of conceptual schemes is possible and that there are more ‘reals’ than western understanding of an objectively real natural world.[21]

Critical thinking on what it might mean to be posthuman assists in approaching the analogue condition of the human as a necessary mediation of digital logic, and as a position of responsibility. Rocks, like other nonhuman bodies, can be understood as culturally existential in a variety of ways, as Jane Bennett shows in her vital materialism of “things.”[22] In this approach, distinctions are discerned between transhumanisms that enhance human sovereignty, and materialisms where stone and sentient life inhabit the same agential formulation. An example of the former enhancement is the traditional rural Andean attachment to stone objects of herd animals. These artefacts or inqaychu have powerful connections to mountains, humans and other animals in a way that “does not stand for anything but itself.”[23] Objects and places are situated in a hierarchical schema ranked according to impact on humans, “with the snow-capped mountains exercising most power and authority.”[24] So although inqaychus are what they are (and cannot be properly described as representing herd animals), they exist to empower humans. It is by departing from the performance of an essential human being in all things, that we might envisage earth and planetary bodies entangled beyond current conceptualisation.

Durational agency

In orephotic persuasion, ores and minerals are substantiated to service humans. So too, ‘climate’ and ‘climate change’ are substantiated by human limits. Climate is named to actualise weather systems. The habit of essentialising the natural world makes it unimaginable to virtualise the inhuman becoming of iron. Outside orephotic thought, however, it is apparent that ores too are cyborg entanglements. As such it becomes possible to approach ore memory; that is, the colonisation and crushing of iron ore’s into metal and steel. Cinematically we might imagine ores as androids constituted by the industrial mechanisms of orephotic thinking. In this framing, orephosis is the earth’s controlling and conflicted Blade Runner, tasked as is the character of Deckard in Ridley Scott’s 1982 cyberpunk film, to keep the abject other subordinate in a master and slave relation. A reappraisal of the orephotic violation of earth enables new voices to be discerned amongst the chatter of digitalised communications that seem to be increasingly removed from any semblance of analogic mediation. What might be heard are the massive shifts anticipated by earth sciences—changes that are outside the range of human experience, but not outside the duration of those forms called rocks.

Significant change across millennia is the norm for geological formations but is unknown to human lived experience. Chris Russill addresses this discrepancy in relation to the influence it has had on the focus of climate change by science. Changes are treated as “anomalies by global institutions seeking to manage climate change” when the anomalies are actually “geophysical regularities, evident when you are able to set aside the temporalities that structure modern life.”[25] Russill argues that non-semantic, abstract data can be used to overturn dominant views. His interest is in the ability of optical media to detect planetary change that exceeds what it is possible for humans to imagine. The depletion of ozone in the atmosphere for example, could only be accidentally found “because it did not conform to how global institutions hoped to manage, model, and to know the atmosphere.” It “violated the episteme governing atmospheric science.”[26] This is cyborg thinking, listening to the entangled sensory apparatus of technology and earth.

There is conceptualisation afoot across critical fields to deactivate the orephotic subject by—as with Russill’s approach—utilising digital logic to extend analogue reasoning. A criticality that supports “broken world thinking,” a phrase coined by Steven Jackson to divert attention away from “discovery” and toward repair.[27] The task involves an ontological perspective not fearful of admitting the noisy earth, a cacophony that avoids the critical abyss of deep ecologies that, like animism, enhances the human individual through a reformed humanity based on interconnections with the environment.[28] In popular fiction this recuperation through a bonding with the natural world is often narrativised in the restoration of a redeemed human species following global catastrophe. The catastrophe is invariably, as in the aforementioned Armageddon, averted by a combination of science, fortitude, and American family values. A fantastic nostalgic drift into orephotic spectacle.

Even the intelligent sociological science fiction underscoring the film Snowpiercer (2013, Dir. Bong Joon-ho) concludes with humanity overcoming a near future ice age. In this future, a train perpetually circulates the frozen globe keeping alive survivors of catastrophic climate change. The film explores the slave-master relation used to control the train population for 18 years. A chilling post-apocalyptic study of utilitarian eugenics. However, rather than the film ending with the failure of all too familiar human violence and cruelty determining the species unworthy of continuation, the final scene is redemptive. Humanity, the final scene suggests, will survive to reproduce and repeat the civilising of the human species through the taming of nature. A more apt message is termination of the species as told in Joss Whedon’s horror film, The Cabin in the Woods (2012, Dir. Drew Goddard). A shock to thought.

But the shock needs to be analogue, as algorithms don’t feel. They produce the magical gratification of a cleanly produced earth. Science fiction however can enable a post orephotic subject, if the generic tendency to resolve in the final instance into an enhanced transhumanism or a celebratory techno-scientific transcendence is resisted. This is the innovation of Whedon’s film, and is also powerfully rendered in the end of the world in Melancholia (2011, Dir. Lars von Trier). We can diverge from narrative resolutions that defer to the sovereignty of our species as such resolutions do not denote a paradigm shift in earth-human agency. The twenty first century is a time for cyborg tales that resist nostalgic resolutions that return survivors to a utopian pre industrial past. These are tales that resist the digitally enhanced world of Avatar (2009, Dir. James Cameron), where a disabled male soldier, metonymic of humanity’s decline, is saved from a malevolent military-mining complex by acknowledging the power of an Indigenous tribe and their animist tree spirituality. In this arboreal cinema, earth itself is meaningless except as a ground for human life.

Fredric Jameson argued in the 1990s that science fiction texts avoid the real threat, which is the largely invisible economic structure, they are, “a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely the whole world system of a present day multinational capitalism.”[29] Such films exemplify orephotic dissembling by diverting attention from global neoliberalism and represent instead atavistic virtual redemption fantasies. While trees are remarkable, the turn to techno-transcendent environmentalism imparted in popular culture, such as Avatar, is formulated around a discourse that all will be well if we return to the clean past of an unsullied aboriginal being. Such approaches are not suggestive of becoming inhuman, of an analogic digression that shines a light on the global reach of neoliberalism. Utopian fantasy is not a post orephotic Gaia-turn. James Cameron’s blockbuster Hollywood avatar-ism and its tree-becoming repair of wounded masculinity is reflective of a unified holism that too simplistically opposes a good earth to bad industry. An orephotic morality tale that perpetuates a traditional dualism and fails to affect—for all its CGI shifts between life worlds—a cyborg subjectivity that is up for the challenge of the digital acceleration facing the analogue sensibility of sustainable human-non human relations. To produce a responsible awareness of the digital future, is facilitated by the observation that narratives that represent humans as the Anthropos of the destructive Anthropocene are a type of hyper-humanism based on the notion that “‘we’ must re-form, re-group and live on…”[30] What this achieves is to sustain humanity, even as a problem. In order to escape orephotic thought there are other questions to be posed such as: “What if there were no humanity other than that which is effected from the thought of the other-than-human?”[31] If we escape from the notion of ‘we’ is it then that a sustainable humanity might be encountered? In this critical encounter, “the human is an effect of a declaration of non-being: ‘I do not exist; therefore I am.’”[32]

Metal selves

In the Pilbara, there is an extreme encounter of geology, cutting-edge digital technology and Indigenous pragmatism. The region is a sparsely populated semi-arid zone where around 25% of the planet’s iron ores are mined. The country is marked by hundreds of thousands of rock engravings and significant sites. Many of these sites remain undocumented including at the Burrup Peninsula where Woodside Energy has enormous infrastructure around its Karratha Gas Plant. Large-scale mining such as the North West Shelf Project of which the Karratha Gas Plant is one facility, exemplifies the impact on the earth that has occurred during the cultural event known as the Anthropocene.

At the forefront of techno-scientific advancement, big mining companies have a privileged mandate to influence governments and research agendas. The texts they generate are hence significant for a post orephotic geo-criticism that aims to identify the digital logic that underpins their activities. The reach of companies like BHP Billiton, Adani Group, and Rio Tinto is global and contained within rhetoric, but there are always leakages. The leaks and interests of multinational companies are deflected by rhetoric of social responsibility. For example, Adani’s vision is to: “Accomplish passionate commitment to the social obligations toward communities, fostering sustainable and integrated development thus improving quality of life.”[33] Yet Adani Group has been given government permission to destroy villages and forests in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh to mine coal.[34]

Rio Tinto, which presents itself at the vanguard of cultural heritage and generative technologies, has massive operations in northern Western Australia. During the 2007-14 Australian mining ‘boom’ the company coordinated twelve mines, three ports and railways from 36 floors of a skyscraper in the state’s capital city Perth, 1500 kilometers from the mine sites. Presenting industrial activity as remotely operated, enhances the conception that mining activity is safe and clean. The imperative is that technological innovation is necessary for a sustainable future: “We’re expanding our operations in the Pilbara to epic proportions while introducing the next generation technologies to deliver greater efficiency, lower production costs and improve health, safety and environmental performance.”[35] The geo-critical challenge is to engage with the hyper-orephotic rhetoric of big mining as it becomes increasingly apparent to the public that the way forward for these giant organisations is to decarbonise their industries and introduce renewable energies.

The economic production of metals and the use of cultural heritage initiatives by big mining to ensure their social license to mine, occurs without a deep sense of what is really going on. In northern Australia (and elsewhere), for example, mining companies adopt the strategic mantle of being at the forefront of Aboriginal employment and responsible managers of Indigenous cultural heritage. There are strong and emotive arguments for and against this role of mining companies.[36] As long as orephosis remains the ground zero for strategic planning by big mining, including issues of Aboriginal and cultural heritage, a fundamental shift is unlikely. The same might be said about the trade loop that determines the logic to ship ore from the Pilbara to China, and then back again as steel to construct infrastructure to dig more ore to sell to China. The logic that is reflected in this trade loop displaces ancient rock zones for a digital organisation of supply and demand that, when separated from orephotic thinking, is not reasonable.

The concept of assemblage is useful to raise awareness that what big mining actually does is to dig, crush and ship or pipe chunks of country between countries. There is little popular understanding about the way mining systems actually work, because, apart from obvious accidents, mining and metallurgy occurs without a glitch. Orephosis only requires that bits of the story are told; that rocks are extracted as iron ores and every system and network turning them into steel is operating. This connects to the ontological hygiene of orephosis, which has no concepts for the senses to elucidate a conceptual realm that is neither nature nor culture. Yet once a rock is geological data it becomes a cultural artefact that can speak to discombobulate the common sense veracity attached to big mining and its entrenched avoidances.

Bruno Latour, in rethinking the connections between things, writes about gas pipelines in Europe that link “steel tubing, pumping stations, international treatises, Russian Mafiosi, pylons anchored in the permafrost, frostbitten technicians, [and] Ukrainian politicians.”[37] For gas to get to the stove in Western Europe it has “to pass through the moods of the Ukrainian president.”[38] Since he wrote this, of course, Russia’s continuing attempt to annex sections of Ukraine adds an interesting dimension to assemblages of energy networks holding a fragile post-Brexit Europe together. The Norwegian TV series Okkupert (Occupied) (2015), predicts an impending challenge for the politics of energy in Europe when the Prime Minister of Norway takes the progressive decision to turn off the oil and gas and transfer to renewable energy. This results in Russia occupying the country and blackmailing a reversal of the decision. The fictional thriller is a telling assembling of orephotic links between the extraction of fossil fuels and the vested interest of national politics.

The earth and cosmos are traversed and surveyed through ever more automated media applications. The potential of creative technologies are diverted into banal video games and, at the other extreme, in research programs devised to geo-engineer the earth. An action-adventure video game that falls into orephosis, rather than exploring the potential of a geo-critical cyborg ore-human subjectivity is the aforementioned No Man’s Sky (2016). The game presents uncharted, unexplored planets for players to experience. In its apparent endless vastness the digital imagery suggests the seemingly endless desert and sky vistas of north Western Australia. One review of No Man’s Sky notes that its gameplay suggests the inconceivable vastness of the cosmos, so much so that the planets encountered by a player may not ever be visited by another player.[39] This experience of an infinite universe generates existential questions that potentially make the game a shock to thought. However, play is designed around four primary actions: explore, fight, trade and survive. This requires a “great deal of time and effort touring planets in search of mineral deposits—knolls of gold, shrubs of plutonium, copper monoliths—and harvesting them.”[40] There is no ‘quest’ script per se as players are flung across the universe, yet the game affectively extends the orephotic subject into cyberspace. While seeming to offer the gamer reflection on the existential quandary of human durability, it resolves that to survive players must explore, fight and trade.


In a real world context, such as the north west of Australia, a genealogy of iron ore across half a century of trading links with China and South East Asia would discern assemblages of orephotically led cultural relations. An exploration of extant trade and intercultural links, based on development agendas of successive entrepreneurs and governments, is a task awaiting such geo-critical enquiry. In the state of Western Australia, there is massive potential for solar, wind and wave energy to forge cracks in common sense continuities, but this requires a conceptual transfer of energy. A geo philosophy with the earth as a human analogue connection with time and space, envisages a metamorphosis from ore to rocks and not the other way around. The task requires unhinging the tenacity of orephosis through a sensibility and aesthetic that exposes the differences that the new digital ‘normal’ thwarts.

The perfect form of the ‘little black rock’ provides an opportunity to critique such unearthly matter. In devising a post orephotic plane of consistency, the treatment of the earth that underpins the sublime rhetoric of big mining becomes a non-sense. There is critical thinking devising such a plane by thinkers who seek to differently shape conceptual spaces for the land known as Australia, in order to move toward new thought of the earth. Emily Potter for example draws on the enabling of difference in discerning the need to approach the value given to the development of the land through the non-Indigenous “anxiety of not belonging.”[41] Such critical exposures de-territorialise subject positions that constrain engagements with the earth and the body of the analogue human that moves as a part of the earth. The becoming of the human as a mineralised critical thinker that controls the direction taken by digital technologies is not judged a nonsense in geo-critical rock zones. And the crux of such enquiry is that the public is aware that the time has come to listen. Or, at least, this is the enabling stance to hold. Citizens are not convinced that everything will be okay. The discourse that “things will sort themselves out” lags behind awareness that there is no longer a strongly held belief in this discursive certainty. With doubt comes a shift away from unbridled confidence in technology and science: “It is not in the least bit ensured that the sciences, such as we know them at least, are equipped to respond to the threats of the future.”[42] Orephosis will step forward at each turn to fight any threat to its territorial domain, but the magic does not always spin as intended. And, as Stengers discerns, “there will be no response other than the barbaric if we do not learn to couple together multiple, divergent struggles and engagements in this process of creation, as hesitant and stammering as it may be.”[43]



Thanks to Robert Briggs and Francis Russell.



[1] The Minerals Council of Australia (6 September 2015), (accessed in March 2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Josh Butler, “Scott Morrison Brought A Lump Of Coal And Waved It Around In Parliament,” The Huffington Post (8 February 2017), on 19 April 2017).

[5] The Liberal Party of Australia, (accessed in June 2016).

[6] Tessa Berenson, “Read Donald Trump’s Speech on Jobs and the Economy,” Time, (15 September 2016), (accessed on 19 April 2017).

[7] Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, (Open Humanities Press, 2015; 2009), 48.

[8] Robert Hassan and Thomas Sutherland, Philosophy of Media, (London and New York: Routledge, 2017), 138.

[9] Tony Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonisation, (London and New York: Routledge, 2004).

[10] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? trans. Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson (London and New York: Verso, 1994), 118.

[11] Manuel De Landa, “The Geology of Morals: A Neo-Materialist Interpretation”, Zero News Datapool, World Information Institute. (accessed 31 August 2016).

[12] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, (London and New York: Continuum, 1988), 75.

[13] Geoscience News and Information, Iron Ore, (accessed 10 April 2017).

[14] Hassan and Sutherland, 222.

[15] A. Y. Glikson, “The Archaean: Geological and Geochemical Windows into the Early Earth,” Modern Approaches in Solid Earth Sciences 9, (Springer Books, 2014), 97.

[16] Kevin Bonsor, “How Asteroid Mining Will Work” in How Stuff Works (accessed on 12 April 2017).

[17] See, for example, Duane W. Hamacher, “Some Notes on the Meteorite Knowledge of Indigenous Australians” in Adam Cruickshank, In One Hundred Thousand Years, (Melbourne: RMIT, 2017). Also see, Trevor M. Leaman, Duane Hamacher and M.T. Carter, “Aboriginal Astronomical Traditions from Ooldea, South Australia, Part 2: Animals in the Ooldean Sky.” Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 19:1 (2016), 61-78.

[18] Cited in Ross Gibson, “Spirit House” in South Pacific Museums: Experiments in Culture, eds. Chris Healy and Andrea Witcomb, (Melbourne: Monash University Press, 2006), 23.4.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Catherine J. Allen, “Stones Who Love Me: Dimensionality, Enclosure and Petrification in Andean Culture,” Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions: La Force Des Objets—Matières à Expériences 174 (April-June, 2016: 327-346), 326.

[22] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[23] Allen, 332.

[24] Ibid, 336.

[25] Kate Maddalena and Chris Russill. “Is the Earth an Optical Medium? An Interview with Chris Russill,” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015: 1-17), 2.

[26] Ibid, 6.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, (Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press, 2013).

[29] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (London and New York: Verso, 1991), 38.

[30] Tom Cohen, Claire Colebrook and J. Hillis Miller, Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols, (London: Open Humanities Press, 2016), 9.

[31] Ibid, 11.

[32] Ibid, 12.

[33] Adani Group, Wikipedia, (accessed 12 April 2017).

[34] Tom Morton, “Beyond the Coal Rush Part 1: The March of Coal,” RN The Science Show, (27 August 2016) (accessed 12 April 2017).

[35] Rio Tinto Pilbara, Iron Ore,, (accessed 12 April 2017).

[36] See the 2012 ABC Boyer Lectures delivered by Marcia Langton, “The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom,” Sunday 18 November – Sunday 2 December 2012 (accessed December 2012).

[37] Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Modern, trans. Catherine Porter, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 32.

[38] Ibid, 33.

[39] Simon Parkin, “All Alone in No Man’s Sky,” The New Yorker (August 10, 2016), 3. (accessed 10 April 2017).

[40] Ibid.

[41] Emily Potter, “Climate Change and Non-Indigenous Belonging in Postcolonial Australia,”
Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, (27:1, 2013, 30-40), 32.

[42] Stengers, 29.

[43] Ibid, 50.



Janice Baker teaches art history and cultural studies at Curtin University, Australia. Her recent book is Sentient Relics: Museums and Cinematic Affect (Routledge, 2017). She is currently interested in theorising human and technological relations, particularly regarding the status of the earth in digital and visual culture.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2017 CTheory