Friday, June 25, 2010

Extractive Cultures

I have been writing about cultures of 'extraction' this morning. It probably has to do with the rise and rise of Australia as a Mining Nation. For what is a mining nation if not a nation grounded in an economy of extraction? Extraction is also probably the single most important practical form underlying all of capitalism: whether extraction of value from the earth or extraction of labour power from people. And isn’t capitalist industrial technology primarily a technology of extraction, not just extracting minerals but extracting from minerals (like extracting atoms). Even information technology is today vested with a function of extraction of knowledge: the extraction of DNA, for example.
Perhaps this is a form of economic determinism but I think that we live in a culture where extraction as a practical and cultural form permeates many dimensions of our everyday life. It has more of a presence than I would like it to, anyway! This is because, and I don’t think it is just my own subjectivity, but I find that there is something vicious about the notion of extraction. I think of torture: extracting information from a prisoner (for the good of humanity, bien sur). There is something vicious about extraction even when we talk of the extraction of a fragrance from a plant, or, even more paradoxically when it involves the pursuit of health like extracting a tooth or extracting a cancer. The undoubted positive effect of the extraction remains haunted by the extraction itself.
So what is it about extraction that is dislikeable. My guess at the moment is that, like black magic, it diminishes our life force in a sympathetic kind of way. Whenever we see an extraction a bit of our life is extracted with it. It is like when we witness a death of a human being or in indeed the destruction of any object that we consider a positive force in our lives (like, precisely, the extraction of a tree). Despite the disruptive nature of our presence on this planet, we humans derive a silent pleasure from things around us being left as they are: their very presence untouched around us augments our being. This is what I call the gift of presence. Things around us are an offering in themselves, not because they actually offer us a specific gift of some sort. A fruit tree is an offering well before it offers us its fruits, for example. It is an offering by merely existing as a tree next to us. It’s presence is a life force.
Extraction disrupts this ethical economy of co-presence. First, extraction does not let things be. It is the epitome of instrumental logic. It captures what exists with and along us and transforms it into something that exists for us. At the same time, it radically and surgically alters it in its very being: it makes it less than it was before it encounters it.
Is that not why the wind turbine appeals to us? it uses the wind but it does not extract anything from it. Likewise, with solar energy, there is diversion but there is no extraction. Could that be where the utopian impulse of sustainable energy forms comes from?


  1. I like it a lot, especially in the Australian context where the extraction economy destroys the co-existence and co-presence and more so ships off the extracted minerals abroad where they are turned into something else. Partly because instrumental logic of the capitalist system demands that labour extraction is too expensive here, further alienating and divorcing us from that with which grew up with. Of course the fact that we largely do not see mineral extraction, as it happens at the periphery, we may never have the nostalgic feelings or feelings of relatedness you describe.

  2. Hi Ghassan - I like this too, and I agree with your thinking.

    "Extraction disrupts this ethical economy of co-presence. First, extraction does not let things be. It is the epitome of instrumental logic. It captures what exists with and along us and transforms it into something that exists for us."
    Of course, two other words beginning with an 'e' are pertinent here: exploitative economy.

    Your use of 'extraction' reminds me of Polanyi's notions of 'disembeddeness' and 'fictitious commodities'. And I think you're right, the instrumental concepts and actions (such as to extract and exploit) that are employed so 'neutrally' and normatively are very disruptive of, and damaging to, socio-cultural and ethical relations. Working with the energy of the wind, as part of an eco-system/ecology is certainly a good metaphor for thinking about our material, ethical and social impact on the world...