Material Cartographies by Matterlurgy

‘Is there a form of theory that can acknowledge a certain ‘thing-power’, that is, the irreducibility of objects to the human meanings or agendas they also embody?’

-Jane Bennett, Agency, Nature and Emergent Properties: An Interview with Jane Bennett. Contemporary Political Theory, 8, 90-105 (February 2009).

Today we visited departments and researchers across UCL in a fascinating tour de force of the anthropocene and its multifarious debates.

The first visit began with Alice Stevenson, curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology. We discussed the agricultural tools and equipment on display and how such items evidence the development of mechanistic technologies that began to enter and change landscapes and civilizations, both physically and psychologically. We’re interested in tracing cartographies around such material cultures: extending an appreciation of the ‘thing’ outwards, towards broader relationships and speculative assemblages, and their political and ecological consequences. Interestingly, Petrie himself produced a book called Tools and Weapons, a detailed analysis of items from an Egyptian expedition in 1916. It is a text that that nests agriculture and war, seeds and death in close proximity.

Next was Prof. Simon Lewis from the Geography department. Simon is at the cutting edge of anthropocene debates and with Prof. Mark Maslin coauthored the recent paper Defining the Anthropocene for the influential Nature Journal. We discussed the difficulty of pinning this contingent epoch to a specific start time. Our conversations focused upon two of the ‘Golden Spikes’ that Lewis and Maslin identify as geological specificities, or points of ‘origin’. One being 1610 and the collision of old and new worlds by way of colonialism and trade, the other being 1964 as a result of increased levels of radioactivity produced through nuclear weapons testing.

Our heads now spinning, we visited Nick Booth, curator of the Geology collections. We were interested in drawing out connections between the earth and technology, primarily through rare earth minerals. These physical elements, mined from the earth, make up parts of our so-called ‘immaterial’ culture such as phones and laptops. Along with rare earths and a host of other items including a Chirotherium fossil footprint and Sir William Ramsay’s original set of discharge tubes, we were drawn to a collection of micro fossils and the deceptively large impact they have in relation to oil exploration.

Our final visit of the day took us to Paolo Viscardi, curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology.  If the desire for energy drives the anthropocene then it seems petroleum oil/plastics are one the central material actors within this story.  Stemming from such materialities are the consequences and impacts upon non-human species such as the giant tortoises of the Galapagos. These animals were exploited for their oil rich bodies in addition to habitat clearance for agricultural purposes. Like the microfossils these museum artefacts (in this case, giant shells) project a powerful grafting of non-humans and humans, technology and the earth, extinctions and possible futures.

To conclude this post, and in response to Bennett’s opening quote at the top of this blog, we would say that although ‘thing power’ may productively recognize the intensities of material things in and of themselves, we are more interested in mixing vibrant matter with their geopolitical contexts: to drawn a cartography of consequences rather than a type of material awe.

 By Helena Hunter and Mark Peter Wright of Matterlurgy (

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