Fossils in Macau

The ‘Fossils’ paper I gave here at the ANU gets its second outing next week in Macau. Here are the details:

University of Macau
Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities


Fossils: Age, World, Relation


Prof. Stuart Elden
Professor of Geography
Durham University, UK

16 May 2011 (Monday)
3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Venue: L205A
Language: English


This talk takes its provocation from Quentin Meillassoux’s remarkable book After Finitude. For Meillassoux, post-Kantian philosophy has been characterised by correlationism – that we have no access to the world except as it exists through our relation to it. Meillassoux articulates a radical problem with this: how to understand the problem of the arche-fossil, those radioactive traces that predate any life on earth. Correlationism is flawed, Meillassoux suggests, because arche-fossils show that there is a world of which we can have objective knowledge without there being any mediation between that and the observer. Meillassoux suggests that correlationism, in all its variants, is a convenient way to avoid having to account for the world as it is, outside of human access. Meillassoux is problematic because he ends up returning to a mathematical foundation for the ontology of the world—based in large part on the work of Alain Badiou. But the arche-fossil poses an important challenge to accounts of the world and its relations.

In this talk I suggest that fossils have always presented a fundamental challenge. Schematically tracing the story of fossils and accounts of them from Aristotle to Darwin, with specific mention of Steno and Cuvier, I suggest that three philosophers of the kind criticised by Meillassoux have come to terms with the relation of fossils to the world in different ways. These figures are Leibniz in the Protogaea; Kant in his Physical Geography lectures and related writings; and Foucault in The Order of Things.

I conclude by suggesting that fossils help us to pose general questions about the age of, and our relation to, the world. Heidegger might have claimed that the stone is without world, but what has become the merely mineral has profound implications for our sense of the world.

About the Speaker:

Stuart Elden is a prolific scholar whose work emerges at the intersections of politics, philosophy, and geography.   He has held visiting positions at University of Virginia, University of Tasmania, UCLA, National University of Singapore, New York University, University of Washington, and University of London, and has just completed a post as Visiting Fellow in the Humanities Research Centre, Australia National University.  He is editor of the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, and has authored or edited 10 books and numerous articles.  His most recent book is Sloterdijk Now (Polity, 2011).  His other books include Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty (Univ of Minnesota Press, 2009); Reading Kant’s Geography (State Univ of New York Press, 2011); Speaking Against Number: Heidegger, Language, and the Politics of Calculation (Edinburgh Univ Press, 2006); Understanding Henri Lefebvre: Theory and the Possible (Continuum, 2004); Space, Knowledge Power: Foucault and Geography (Ashgate, 2007); Mapping the Present: Heidegger, Foucault, and the Project of a Spatial History (Continuum, 2001); and Henri Lefebvre, State Space World: Selected Essays (Univ of Minnesota Press, 2009).  His forthcoming book project on “The Birth of Territory” seeks to provide an account of Western political thought from the perspective of the relations between power and place, and was funded by a three-year Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship.


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5 Responses to Fossils in Macau

  1. Pingback: Justin E.H. Smith on Fossils as an Epistemological Problem | Progressive Geographies

  2. Pingback: Political Geology: Stratigraphies of Power | Progressive Geographies

  3. Hello Stuart,
    I came across your blog through Paul Ennis’s Ahb – and was interested in your paper on Fossils.
    I’m currently a PhD candidate in Visual Culture, NCAD in Dublin researching ‘Manuel DeLanda’s Aesthetics’ among other things and would very much like to know if your presenting the Fossils paper somewhere soon, or if you’d consider sharing a copy?

    Thank you and Regards


    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Alan. The paper was given in Lancaster last week – after a couple of previous outings in Canberra and Macau. Not sure it will be presented again. At the moment it’s not in a finished state, but I hope to return to it this summer and work on it again. Haven’t decided whether to leave it for a future book or try to publish as a standalone piece. Doubtless I will mention it on the blog again at some point. I’d be willing to share a draft if I ever get it to that stage.

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