Places of the heart

In the crater of Europe’s newest mountain, hunting for zeolites.


I know it’s old-fashioned, but place-sensitivity is at the heart of my PhD research interests. I look at place – in Cresswellian shorthand – as a “meaningful location.” And I can see the need to re-think it to better account for how meaningfulness is bound up – metaphysically – in the physical – geophysical – complexities that constitute and condition location.

By “location”, despite coming out of the GIS industry, I’m obviously not just thinking about a pair of x and y coordinates. For starters, let’s add a z. Now, to the relief of Stuart Elden, we have a volume (of arbitrary dimensionality – to which a recovering astrogeologist might add: and agnostic of reference frame). And we have whatever it contains, however temporarily: animae, inanimae, and everything which might confuse such distinctions, all passing through their various material states: as solids, liquids, gasses, plasmas. These materialities, in turn, are subject to, and only really sensible at the intersection of, various processes, physical and abstract – political, economic, and spiritual ones, yes, as well as hydro-atmospheric, chemical, geophysical, and so forth. These processual materialities can be further decomposed into fluxes of more basic fields and forces that constitute and condition them: gravitational, electromagnetic, the strong and weak. These fluxes flux temporally; at least, as far we humans are concerned. So, location, to become place, also necessitates some concept, or conceptions, of time – be it thermodynamic, relativistic, holographic, teleological, apocalyptic, spiralic, stratigraphic, or something like my own, which tries to reconcile a box-universe (née pre-Socratic) sort of eternalism (i.e., all that was, is, or will be is) with my conviction that the knowability of a time system alters depending on the perspective of awareness relative to it.

Which is, of course, how you can tell the difference between an oracle and a god.

Geography isn’t reducible to geophysics, of course, but all of these material complexities are available to meaning (and therefore Geography) to make place with. In the last decade or so, there has been some fascinating scholarship, theorization, and creative practice trying to make sense of different aspects of this “Geo-” in “Geography”. I want to participate in that work. To help encourage a “geophysical turn”, even. Ideally, to help recuperate/enlarge the concept of place by pursuing, however quixotically, a post-disciplinary re-integration of Human and Physical Geographies with Geology and the experimental sciences: as a sort of Alexander Humboldt in reverse — in “a scanner darkly”. 

By so doing, I hope to get at, at least provisionally, some of the philosophical questions about place that interest me most – in ways I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. 

Knowability, for example. 

If, as Tim Cresswell has it, “place is also a way of seeing, knowing and understanding the world,” it will, because it is meaningful, necessitate an epistemology, a theory of knowing – one that accounts for knowability. That is, for its ground. 

Like all human knowledge, the expertise (the episteme) for manipulations of geophysical fields and forces gets recapitulated in new epistemological frames historically. Historically, but also atemporally; atemporally, but also dynamically. 

As new epistemologies accrete, previous ones persist – and not just as substrate, but in tangled hierarchies of knowing. What’s more, these accretions are continuously sinking, deforming, breaking up, melting, being made available for future ruptures — convectively. 

Epistemology is analogous to geology in this sense, insofar as both the earth of “ground” and the ground of, say, “earth” are inherently stratigraphic. In both cases – as viewed through a hole – a whole past is presented. 

So, something like Foucault’s Order of Things, but with the fundamental dynamism of the earth-process metaphors restored.

I am interested in such un-groundings. I’m particularly interested in geophysical and epistemological considerations that I believe are already in dialogue – or even fully integrated – in the context of place, but can’t easily be seen that way for lack of post-disciplinary scholarship, experiment, observation.

This is why I’ve chosen to do my PhD work on a volcano, for epistemological reasons. 

Well, that and the fact that I grew up inside it, on Lake Avernus, in sight of the cave mouth that, according to classical tradition, was the entrance to Hell.

My old house, perched above a ruined temple of Apollo and Lake Avernus.

The Campi Flegrei

Let me tell you about a place I love.

The Campi Flegrei (or else, Phlegraean – i.e., Burning – Fields) is a volcanic caldera complex situated to the west of the urban core of Naples, Italy. The original crater – produced 40,000 years ago by the so-called “Campanian Ignimbrite eruption” (that may have created the environmental conditions in which modern humans replaced Neanderthals) – is approximately 13 km in diameter. 

There are twenty-three younger craters circumscribed within it – half a dozen of them visible at the surface; the rest, drowned in the Gulf of Pozzuoli. 

Beneath of all of this lies a quiescently active super volcano: the revenant Archiflegreo. Arguably the most dangerous volcano in the world, insofar as three million people live right on top of it. 

We can’t observe what’s happening down there directly, of course, but according to decades of seismologic, gravimetric, and tomographic models, intruding magma pools in a flat, wide reservoir ~1 km thick by 200 kilometers square at a depth of 10 km. From there, it gets pushed upward through trunk-line plumbing until it reaches a partially permeable cap-rock at depths of 4 to 2.3 km. Magmatic fluids percolate through this “seismic layer” into a shallower, blobular, lung-like chamber, where they mix with hydrothermals just two hundred meters below the surface. 

These dynamics sometimes result in an earthquake; sometimes, as in the early 1980’s, in such significant uplift of the area, so quickly, that tens of thousands of people get evacuated. Rarely, but within historical memory, they trigger an eruption – as when Monte Nuovo, the newest mountain in Europe, took form over the course of eight days in the autumn of 1538. 

Corresponding to the otherwise occluded workings of the volcano below, the gravity field at the surface changes ceaselessly, measurably, as do its other geophysical characteristics. Its faultscape is progressively elaborated by seismic swarms. Hydrothermal slosh in the plumbing produces a characteristic long period, low frequency microseismic tremor. Strain at seismogenic depths produces intermittent electrical and thermal anomalies. The chemistry of the melts undergoes constant modification by addition and subtraction, like any proper stew: mush crystallization; fractional differentiation. Extrusions periodically overwrite whole sections of the crater. Bradyseism inundates coastal cities, thrusts up new land like Venus from the waves: terra nullius, if only momentarily. The topography heaves. The earth steams. The air reeks of sulfur.

It’s an uncertain ground, in both senses. If anything, human history there has been even more tumultuous than the geology. In time, I’ll probably regale you with all sort of stories about its endless cultural contestations, ingestations, regurgitations.* For now, I want to very briefly mention two related stories that I’m going to focus on in my work – the first to do with knowability; the second, with ground (or lack thereof).

Monte di Cuma

Classical oracularism attempted, in complicity with the unhuman, to push back the horizon of human knowability — and was thus, I’d contend, an ancestor of what we now think of as “science”. 

Focusing on Monte di Cuma, an igneous blister on the western perimeter of the volcanic complex, the first colony of Magna Graecia on the Italian peninsula, and the seat of one of two ancient oracles associated with the Campi Flegrei, the Cumaean Sibyl, I want to trace a set of local epistemological developments emerging in and around it over ~2000 years that not only contributed to, but, I would argue, directly catalyzed, the advent of modern Geology, Seismology, and Volcanology — en route to the contemporary (and, again, somewhat oracular) use of sensing technologies and predictive computing at the current threshold of scientific knowability at sites like the Vesuvius Observatory.

Lake Avernus – Tartarus

As the Sibyl of Cumae knew very well, there’s a hole in the ground of the Campi Flegrei. A big one, called Tartarus, located below modern-day Lake Avernus – and supposedly accessible through a cave mouth on its shore.

For Greeks of a certain vintage, Tartarus was both a god and an awesomely deep vertical shaft within the earth. It’s this latter conception that Virgil and, by way of him, Dante appropriated to build hell with — i.e., for their matryoshka variations on, and enlargements of, the νέκυια depicted in the Odyssey, Book XI. 

These textual recapitulations, with the intent of re-contextualizing the Homeric underworld – thereby asserting primacy over successive poetical forebears while claiming their accumulated inheritance – exemplify, in some sense, the logic of Tartarus itself. 

For it isn’t just a pit. It’s a prison. Agitated subterranean earth-bodies – ferocious children of Gaia – are enchained at the bottom of an enormous tube that reaches the shallow subsurface. Age after age, their matter, as materiel, is brought up through this plumbing to combat an order which, once defeated, gets cast down into the depths of the earth while a new order is established at the surface and atmospherically. 

Sound familiar? 

One of these conflicts, the Gigantomachy, supposedly fought in a place called Phlegra, is what gave the volcano its name.

This prison is also a principle. Of under-the-groundness – of absence-of-groundness, even – with all the obvious ontological, epistemological, and geological implications thus imbricated, and I want to look at it, and the place beneath which its imaginary extends, through that lens.

I’m producing what I call “earthworks” (after Robert Smithson) that will be sited at, and draw substance from, these Phlegraean sites and their penumbral imaginaries — realized at the convergence of place-sensitive fieldwork and “field work” (two words) – the former including human and physical geographic research and documentation – i.e., interviews, archival work, GIS, as well as historiographic, mythographic, aesthetic, ethical and, crucially, epistemological inquiries; the latter: scientific theorization, modeling, experimentation, and – as practicable – implementation, sensing and recording, measurement and analysis, and exhibition. 

The earthwork itself is the union of these efforts, and from this standpoint might be regarded as a parascientific instrument with which to unground, examine and analyze, reorganize, and ultimately re-integrate “place” through creative practice — taking into account both the actual workings of the earth and specific epistemologies of the “place” in ways that place-based artists too often fail to consider.

In addition to these earthworks, I mean to write a book-length essay — a geophysically sensitive example of place writing — about the Campi Flegrei, as well as my dissertation about the practice.

So, keeping busy. Idle hands and all.

How has the summer shaped up for you lot?

*The first six installments (in reverse chronological order) of an idiosyncratic travel guide to Naples I’ve been publishing fitfully at HiLoBrow since the plague broke out:

Are You a Chicken?

Always Somewhere Else

The Experimentalist

Love’s Labours Mislaid

Monmouth Strikes Again

Blood Simple

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