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Dana Luciano, How the Earth Feels: Geological Fantasy in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Antoine Traisnel
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Dana Luciano, How the Earth Feels: Geological Fantasy in the Nineteenth-Century United States, Durham: Duke University Press, 2024, 256 p., ISBN: 978-1-4780-2570-2, $26.95.

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1How the Earth Feels explores the effects and affects prompted by the popularization of geology at the turn of the nineteenth century in the United States. The “fashionable science,” as it was called at the time, shattered the then-predominant Biblical chronology in which time elapsed in human generations. No longer coeval with the creation of mankind, the earth was revealed in its ancestrality as a formidable lively force with the power to shape and shake up human destinies. Yet even as the intrusion of deep time radically unsettled androcentric histories, it nonetheless remained possible to harness geological knowledge to perpetuate familiar social and racial hierarchies. In fact, Luciano suggests that geology played a central role in securing the global dominance of “Man”—the white, bourgeois “ethnoclass” that usurps the category of humanity, following Sylvia Wynter’s famous argument—by presenting his recent emergence on the world’s stage as the culmination of a (very) long evolutionary process. Hence the strategic ambiguity of the title, which undecidably introduces the earth as either subject or object, depending on whether we read the verb “feel” as transitive or intransitive. If the former, it is the earth that has feelings; if the latter, the feelings are transferred onto the (elided) object, which functionally becomes the subject. The polysemy playfully troubles modern sensory hierarchies that cast the earth as an inanimate backdrop for human actions while inviting the reader to keep a critical eye toward possible appropriations of this newfound telluric sentience to consolidate preestablished and all-too-human orders of things.

2The book opens by asking what it would mean to view geology as one of the human sciences. The provocation is an invitation to reevaluate the modern partition between hard and soft sciences, and more specifically to dispel the idea that the Anthropocene is an unprecedented phenomenon. The recent “geologic turn” in the humanities precipitated by the recognition that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change, Luciano contends, is in fact a return to geology—and perhaps a return of the repressed knowledge that Mankind, as per Wynter’s definition, has always been a geological force. Indeed, humanists’ current fascination with rocks hearkens back to the Antebellum period, when people first grappled with the terrifying depths of geological time. The immensity of the planet’s antiquity was frequently presented as inassimilable by the human mind and intractable to human agency. In the Anthropocene, a similar trepidation resurfaces with a twist, as humans, now perceived as terraforming subjects, are asked to confront the inassimilability and intractability of their own selves and actions. Such a radical decentering of human existence and agency can be productive—and Luciano recognizes the creative and critical possibilities geological knowledge has opened for fields of inquiry like new materialism, whose rehabilitation of our “critical sensorium” can help to respond to the climate crisis (20)—but it also risks misidentifying the subject it claims to decenter when it casts a supposedly universal and suspiciously postracial “Anthropos” as the protagonist of a new planetary odyssey. Such whitewashing, Luciano argues, runs through the work of scholars of the so-called “nonhuman turn,” who often exalt the geologic as a “naturally” emancipatory framework insofar as it transcends, in principle, the petty business of human politics.

3It is precisely to rebut geology’s spurious innocence that Luciano excavates geological material from the Antebellum period. She studies cultural documents as varied as scientific treatises, magazine articles, poems, novels, sermons, political speeches, and visual artworks through the prism of recent scholarship in Indigenous, postcolonial, and critical race studies to expose how the new science contributed to the sedimentation of social and racial orders that continue to structure today’s world. Geology, Luciano demonstrates, provided white settlers with expedient discursive resources to justify the genocidal removal of Indigenous tribes and systematic subjugation of Black people: Native Americans were commonly depicted as untimely remnants of a prehuman age, “fossil others” whose preordained extinction freed settlers to annex their lands; Black bodies were likewise mineralized by a plantation economy that treated them as raw material, aligning them with the soil they worked. Luciano calls “geological fantasies” the creative ways in which settlers enlisted geology to support their agendas and corroborate Western narratives of progress. Geological speculations were not the prerogative of settlers, however, and Luciano attends to what she terms “minor geologies: located clusters of fantasy that operate apart from, and often against, the geology of overrepresented Man” (29). But they predominantly worked to cement a racialized settler worldview by grounding it on a strict distinction between organic and inorganic matter. This partition constituted the bedrock of an epistemic formation that dismissed as “primitive” and foredoomed more reciprocal, less utilitarian relationships between the land and its occupants, which in turn sanctioned the “violent reinvention of Indigenous land and Black bodies as property” (23).

4Building on Elizabeth Povinelli’s concept of “geontopower,” Luciano argues that geology was central to the early deployment of biopolitics which, although it is explicitly concerned with the management of the living, must presuppose an ontological difference between life and nonlife. In fact, she slightly departs from Povinelli when she suggests that it is the confrontation with the abyss of geological time that engendered the concept of “life” as biopolitics conceives it: a life defined in opposition not to death but extinction, seized not only statistically as population but also stratigraphically as species. Not only did geology provide the epistemological underpinnings of biopower, Luciano suggests, but it also “worked biopolitically to optimize the modern subject and to devivify those cast outside of modernity” (4). Because speculation was central to nineteenth-century geology (if only because it concerned itself with near-inconceivable temporalities), the science was often framed as a risky enterprise reserved for “enlightened” Western minds, who alone could reach back in time and beyond empirical evidence to rescue prehistoric lifeforms from oblivion. By the same token, geology was made to speak on behalf of those “primitives” deemed unable to transcend their own time. Luciano brilliantly shows how geology operates as a biopolitical technology when it traps certain populations within a racialized logic of species existence that makes them “contemporaneous but noncontemporary” with the colonizers (25).

5For all its revolutionary pretensions, geology was often recruited in the service of providential narratives that secured the dominance of the modern Western subject—the “Man” of Foucault and Wynter. Ironically, the stability of Man’s dominance was indexed on his newly established transience: by viewing himself through the lens of extinction, Luciano contends, Man gets defined from the outside, or better, by an inassimilable outside “that at once refutes his expansiveness and, in doing so, provides a structure that supports his growth” (7). Chapter One attends to the geological fantasies that gave birth to this “exomodern” subject. Antebellum writers compensated for Mankind’s puny timeline, observes Luciano, by presenting its emergence as the denouement of a long evolutionary saga culminating in “the great American epoch,” which for the scientist Charles F. Winslow constituted “the last stratum in the successive developments of human society” (49). Geology also offered settlers a way to “make themselves at home on lands where they had no social history” (47). The science was introduced as a beneficial pastime that promoted self-betterment to its students while encouraging them to view the seemingly untamable immensity of American landscapes as knowable and domesticable for those who knew how to decipher them properly. This fantasized alignment of the nation’s colonial expansion with planetary transformations did not go unchallenged, however. Luciano gives the example of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1847 novel, The Crater, which she reads as a skeptical inversion of the “logic of manifest geology: instead of mutually confirming histories, both geology and America, if left unchecked, threaten to become parallel manifestations of arrogance” (53-54).

6Chapter Two explores competing accounts of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812, the largest series of earthquakes ever recorded in North America. Settlers read the event as proof of human frailty and justification for increased federal intervention (which accelerated the removal of Cherokee, Shawnee, and Delaware tribes); Evangelical Christians perceived it as a divine call for repentance and conversion; Indigenous populations interpreted it as an act of anticolonial insurgence on the part of the earth. Luciano discerns in these responses two distinct ways to relate to the earth. In the first two cases, the earthquakes are perceived as disasters that confirm that the land is essentially distinct from, and even hostile to, its human occupants; this supposed ontological difference justifies viewing the earth (and Native Americans perceived as “fossil others”) as exploitable and expendable. For Indigenous peoples, by contrast, the earthquakes appear as an opportunity to rekindle a relationship to lands from which they have been systematically alienated. Ultimately, Luciano shows how the triumph of the colonial geological fantasy framed Indigenous knowledges as pre-scientific superstitions.

7Chapter Three follows the fossilized footprints left in scientific and literary texts by what was imagined to be a gigantic extinct bird. When what remains is not a petrified body but the lithic impression of its movement, Luciano suggests, the past is endowed with a form of vibrancy or dynamism that renders it at once stranger and more familiar. The uncanny vitality of these “messy objects” (112) destabilized geological knowledge by shifting attention from object to action. Luciano reads essays and poems on the imaginary bird by the scientist Edward Hitchcock—a pioneer of “ichnology,” the science of traces—and by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to suggest that fossil traces, insofar as they upset the supposed objectivity of settler geochronology, have the power to denaturalize the genocidal casting of Native Americans as destined for extinction. As immemorial archives of ephemeral gestures, these traces also act as a moral admonition to enslavers that, even if they carefully expunge their actions from the annals of human history, the planet will keep a meticulous and everlasting record of their dehumanizing treatment of Black populations.

8Chapter Four continues the previous chapter’s exploration of the emancipatory potential and limitations of what Luciano calls “minor geological fantasies” with the study of two experiments in stone spiritualism conducted by white women. The first is The Soul of Things, a psychometric report in which Elizabeth M. Foote Denton and Annie Denton Cridge attempted to channel the liveliness of prehuman worlds by reading the energetic signature of rocks. The second is a romance by Harriet Prescott Spofford titled “The Amber Gods,” in which the protagonist’s erotic connection with amber (the fossilized resin produced by extinct coniferous trees) allows her to explore mentally bygone epochs. Both texts view the earth and the female body as similarly porous or “impressible,” capable of registering influences that elude men. Abjuring traditional gender roles and normative sexualities, the sensuous geology in which these women engaged offers a fascinating counterpoint to the moral and rational virtues extolled by settler geology. Yet even as they subverted the nation’s biopolitical investment in heterosexual reproduction, Luciano argues, these unorthodox experiments did not question established racial hierarchies.

9Chapter Five examines how African American male writers used geological tropes to upend these racial hierarchies and to introduce alternative forms of sociality opposed to the proprietary conception of humanity propagandized by settler geology. Authors like James McCune Smith, Frederick Douglass, and J. Sella Martin strategically turned the assumed apolitism of the fashionable science against itself, finding in geology a precious resource to denounce chattel slavery and to conjure up unforeseen modalities of collective action and existence. While these authors powerfully used the science to rewrite the past and imagine future worlds outside of the terms set by state-approved epistemologies, Luciano observes that they nonetheless failed to extend their emancipatory speculations to Black women.

10How the Earth Feels is a magisterial accomplishment, brimming with exciting concepts and thrilling analyses. The book’s contributions far exceed the field of nineteenth-century American literature. Every page opens fascinating new lines of inquiry for scholars working at the intersection of Black and Indigenous studies, queer theory, feminist theory, biopolitics, environmental studies, and Anthropocene studies. Most importantly, the unflinching critical rigor with which Luciano engages her object does not preclude her from advancing her own geological fantasy, as her coda on Ishmael’s Anthropocene reminds us that the unsettling powers of geology also point “toward the possibility of a more habitable world beyond the one that the geology of Man sought to make its own”—that in spite of everything, “other worlds are possible” (180).

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POVINELLI, Elizabeth. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

WYNTER, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 3, p. 257-337.

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Antoine Traisnel, « Dana Luciano, How the Earth Feels: Geological Fantasy in the Nineteenth-Century United States »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 12 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Antoine Traisnel

University of Michigan

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