The Stakes of Geologic Survey


© 2005 — Ron Reznick

The image above displays a survey marker from the United States Geologic Survey. It is part of a network of markers that is cross-referenced with a database that contains details on the ground composition below. These markers were placed by land surveyors who would walk the land, stake out boundaries and record whatever environmental data they could find, rock types, soil types, tree species and so on. Effectively these surveyors were assembling elaborate inventories of the land in terms of natural resources that was anchored to this survey marker as reference point. This created a knowledge infrastructure that enforced the on-the-ground communication of settler boundaries with scientific universality. Today the survey marker is, of course, an outdated technology in the geosciences. Now, state geologic surveys are more likely to use remote sensing and GIS, but there are ways in which the logic that arises from the object of the survey stake remains.

This practice of collecting, storing, and institutionalizing environmental data is and has always been a deeply colonial process. In Victorian Canada, for instance, the project of cataloging plants and minerals through botany and geology was intimately tied to the process of asserting power over the hinterland. The Geologic Survey of Canada, established in 1842 as an active scientific arm of British imperialism, was, in fact, more about the inventorisation of natural resources and the establishment of territory in such a way that put these resources under imperial rule (Bélanger 51). In the US, the Public Land Survey System, developed shortly after the revolutionary war, put in place a cadastral system that prepared the land for colonial settlement. The surveyors staked out rectangular blocks from the east out to the west that divided the land into 1-mile sections and six-section townships. This prompted the transition from public land to private ownership. In fact, there is something to the very act of staking out that claims ownership and separates inside from outside, as mine from yours.

I am interested in the survey marker or the survey stake as a media technology and how it stores and communicates information with a bias towards the simultaneous accumulation of data, territories, and its resources, particularly by bringing mineral deposits under corporate or state control. As a media technology, the survey stake affords certain kinds of calculations, perceptions or epistemologies and is, therefore, shaping the survey system as a process of collecting and archiving environmental data. The point I want to make is that a criticism of colonial discourse, like Laura Ann Stoler argues in “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” should take into account archiving as process rather than simply as a universal source to extract information from. But, in order to do so, we must also challenge the physical technologies that create the conditions and mechanisms through which certain types of information are selected and stored, and communicated — and the types of information that these techniques cannot register and therefore preclude from the institutionalized, modern scientific knowledge system.

Environmentalism often uses environmental data from geologic surveys as an authoritative source, to raise awareness, foster a sense of urgency, and serve as a call to action, but without looking at its processes of production. Of course, to read too much politics into environmental data is a dangerous bet when you want to argue for a strong and widespread environmentalism, particularly in today’s political landscape that is haunted by rumors of a post-truth politics. But the archive of environmental data, like any other, should be considered for the ways in which it collects, stores and communicates information — from what it isolates and what it emphasizes — and it should be negotiated with its colonial histories. In Stoler’s words, “scholars need to move from archive as source to archive as subject” — that is, attend to the ways in which documentation happens rather than its uninhibited extraction (90) because the colonial archives’ rules and mechanisms for selection of documents that are archived were created to reproduce a certain power discourse, or reproduce certain imaginaries (97). Similarly, by a process of quantification, the survey technology isolates the lucrative elements of resource to bring them under biopolitical control. We should be suspicious of the environmental archive if the epistemological apparatus of state geologic surveys was fashioned to produce nature as a standing reserve of natural resource.

To be sure, what Foucault calls the historical a priori can also be approached from the discourse’s technologies for archiving and measuring. Foucault argues for a concept of the historical a priori of the archive, by which he means the historically sanctioned group of rules that form the conditions for the emergence of new statements in a discourse. The a priori is not imposed on the discourse, he notes but they are caught up in one another, reinforce each other and evolve together as a group. In Foucault’s words, “[The historical a priori] has to take account of the fact that discourse has not only a meaning or a truth, but a history” (127)

But if discourse has a history it also has a technology. As we have seen in the intellectual furnishing and containers week, the materiality of the container shapes the way in which we understand the document, and what can be collected and stored in the first place. This system that creates the conditions for what Foucault calls the statement-events, or discursive acts, in short the system of enunciability’s location and practical workings remain somewhat in the air in Foucault’s text, while I would argue they are in fact located in the physical media with which we collect, store, and communicate. Indeed, what is often grouped together as German media theory calls this the ‘technical a priori’.

Articulated initially by Friedrich Kittler, the technical a priori is the idea that the past is recorded on a prior level, that is, through the physical media for documentation. This means that the technologies of measuring and recording are the “true first archaeologists of knowledge” and as such are also historical documents themselves that can yield an understanding of the ways in which knowledge has emerged through history. Kittler’s argument was not necessarily counter Foucault, rather the technical a priori was, in Bernhard Siegert’s words, “an attempt to overcome French theory’s fixation on discourse by turning discourse from its philosophical head onto its historical and technological feet.” (3) This elicits an evaluation of the affordances that technology yields for understanding, and to think about more concrete ways in which power is inscribed in our daily knowledge infrastructures.

We don’t see a survey stake every day, but all reporting on climate change holds data gained through a survey technology of some sort. I am arguing that we should be conscious of the types of understanding of environment that these technologies afford, what their techniques of representation emphasize and what they isolate. It becomes urgent to find techniques and technologies of ordering environmental and geologic data that attend to the ways in which environments are caught up in markets, politics, and socialites. So my question is, if these technologies shape what can be stored in the first place, and the broader ways in which we understand the document, should the survey, in so far as it isolates the environmental processes from its political and economic histories, be the universal scientific archive that defines the rules of environmental discourse?

Works cited
Foucault, Michel. “The Historical a priori and the Archive.” Archaeologies of Knowledge. Pantheon, 1973. pp. 126-131.

Siegert, Bernhard. “Cultural Techniques, Or, The End of the Intellectual Postwar in German Media Theory.” Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop Young. Fordham University Press, 2015. Pp. 1-18.

Stoler, Laura Ann. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance.” Archival Science. Vol 2. No. 1-2. Pp. 87-109.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *