Book Review: Between Gaia and Ground

E. A. Povinelli, Between Gaia and Ground: Four Axioms of Existence and the Ancestral Catastrophe of Late Liberalism (Duke University Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Angie Sassano (Deakin University)

(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

Through the lens of catastrophe, Between Gaia and Ground: Four Axioms of Existence and the Ancestral Catastrophe of Late Liberalism takes the structural conditions of racial and colonial violence as the essence of all theories of existence. Beginning with the premise that catastrophes – environmental, viral, climatic and political – threatening the existence of the West have been necessary tools in the violence and oppression of Indigenous and colonised people, Elizabeth A. Povinelli uses her recent book to continue mapping the conditions of late liberalism through a genealogical approach of critical theory to illuminate how much of Western critical thinking is co-opted into the late liberal machinery which diffuses radical anticolonial action. Throughout, Povinelli does not simply refer to a metaphorical toxicity, but the material conditions of late liberalism which are evidenced in the ancestral catastrophe where entangled relations are a condition of colonial violence. By focusing on the period beginning from the 1950s, Povinelli traces a range of critical theoretical debates to examine discourses of existence through the catastrophe to contrast ontological approaches and how they frame liberal toxicity as either comingor ancestral. Bringing a range of critical thinkers into discussion with each other, such as Hannah Arendt, Gregory Bateson, Edouard Glissant, and Aime Cesaire, Povinelli illuminates the implications of political action when critical theory is differently positioned across colonialism.

The book is structured through two sections which take readers on a journey through the ‘social tense’ of critical theory as manifest in the four axioms of existence. While section one (chapters one and two) provides a conceptual focus on the axioms and the meaning of toxic late liberalism in the context of the comingand ancestralcatastrophe, section two (chapters three to five) draws on several case studies which explore the philosophical debates aiming to extend particular theories of existence from an ontological beginning of entangled existence against those situated within the “ancestral and ongoing onslaught of colonialism” (p. 10). Together, they extend a core question central to Povinelli’s overall argument: what is at stake when theories of existence begin from an ontological starting point “rather than in the middle ocean of racial and colonial history?” (p. 9). In doing so, the book draws a relationship between critical theory and late liberalism to demonstrate how reactions to anticolonial and anticapitalist struggles have been immobilised through this ordering of the axioms of existence. Therefore, Povinelli does not just attempt to reorder the axioms to provide an alternative practice of existence but attempts to demonstrate that all theories of existence must begin from a historical condition of colonial violence.

Therefore, the axioms of existence are central to Povinelli’s work. Emerging through dominant strains of critical theory, Povinelli outlines the order of the four axioms as: (1) entangled existence, (2) uneven distribution of power, (3) multiplicity of the event, and (4) Western liberal thinking as grounded in colonialism. Through this order, the theory of existence is treated as an ontological problem, rather than one of historical and ongoing violence. This has certain philosophical and political implications for what we care for, and how we distinguish between Life and Non-life, if such a distinction exists. By centring these axioms of existence, Povinelli grounds her claim that “all theories of existence matter only insofar as they direct our energy toward altering the ancestral present of colonial power” (p. 16). Some critical theorists would perhaps disagree with Povinelli here, arguing that the aim of such philosophical inquiry is to unsettle and disrupt colonial reason and Enlightenment thinking. Critical theory has engaged with racial violence in the context of totalitarianism and Nazism as demonstrated in the work of Arendt and Max Horkheimer’s objective of critical theory as emancipation from slavery. However, in recent years, a trend towards the decolonisation of critical theory has begun identifying the limits of Western philosophy in its silence on colonial histories (Bhambra 2021; MacArthur 2021). In these approaches Povinelli would argue that such theories focus on the liberal horizon of progress, freedom, and truth, rather than the liberal frontier of the lived experience of Indigenous and colonised bodies globally existing within the toxic relations of liberal-capitalism. Indeed, Horkheimer’s own notion of slavery exists as a metaphor rather than as the literal relations of violence experienced globally under the colonial project (Bhambra 2021). Thus, Western critical theory prioritises the ontological relationships of entanglements to move towards social and historical consequences, ultimately “recapitulat[ing] a form of colonial reason even as it seeks to confront and unravel it” (p. 23). Thus, a reordering of the axioms, beginning with the historical and ongoing consequences of colonialism, is necessary to recentre anticolonial struggles and situate catastrophe as ancestral rather than as a future event.

Distinctions between the ancestral and coming catastrophe are similarly central in extending Povinelli’s argument on the implications of our axiomatic thinking. Here, Povinelli situates existence within the toxicity of late liberalism across its frontier and horizon. The idea of the liberal horizon and liberal frontier provide a clear distinction between those who are sealed away from, and those living within, the toxic conditions of late liberalism. For Povinelli, the liberal horizon – the focus on the coming event – legitimises a form of violent and toxic governance through the disavowal of violence. Where colonised bodies are living toxicity on the liberal frontier – in Flint where water is contaminated, in the Aboriginal communities across Northern Australia where toxic remnants of atomic waste contaminate life, and those across the Global South ingesting lead and copper for the function of toxic extractive economies – such actions are treated as unintended harms for liberal progress. When we switch to the ancestral catastrophe, such harms are not incidental but rather necessary for the mere function of liberal-capitalism. The work of Michelle Murphy (2017) and Max Liboiron (2021) comes to mind in this reading of the liberal horizon and frontier as demonstrating the colonial conditions of how toxic waste and pollutants are unevenly distributed. Although it takes some conceptual strides, the relationship between toxic liberalism and the axioms becomes clear; the very nature of uneven distributions of power and violence do not occur because existence is entangled, but rather because of the historical and ongoing consequences of colonisation. Consequently, alternative political actions are offered when the axioms are reordered, and our understanding of existence begins with the historical rather than the ontological position.

While much of this discussion is conceptually dense within the book, its richness is magnified through the cases examined in the second section of the book around atomic catastrophe, and environmental collapse. Povinelli compares Arendt with Cesaire to demonstrate how critical thought frames the crisis as coming or ancestral. While both thinkers may position themselves similarly in relation to the toxicity of totalitarian rule, they operate in different ontological scales. For Arendt, her focus was on the reparation of Western thought, adjusting the liberal horizon; in contrast, Cesaire is focused on the catastrophe as a consequence of colonial destruction. Arendt’s work on the human condition and the coming atomic catastrophe in the 1950s is read against the lived experience of nuclear threat facing the Pitjantjatjara, Anangu, Wongi, and Ngaanyatarra peoples. In The Human Condition, Arendt understands atomic catastrophe as a coming event. Yet, Povinelli highlights that Aboriginal communities were living an atomic crisis at several nuclear testing and extractive mining sites across Australia. This demonstrates how the ontological condition of existence elides the production of violence through extractive economies of liberal-capitalism. Similarly, Povinelli points to the emergence of a ‘new ecology of mind’ in the 1960s, led by Gregory Bateson and the turn to human extinction in the face of a looming environmental collapse to demonstrate the tensions and divergences in human existence across Western and Indigenous thinkers. While Bateson was attempting to situate the human mind into nature, his focus on the biosphere was contrasted against the rising tide of land rights activism whereby Indigenous peoples situated existence in the colonial sphere to understand how human-nonhuman relations presented grounds for liberal refusal, rather than its recognition. Through these cases, Povinelli brings together a philosophical patchwork to demonstrate the political stakes of how we understand existence, and the need for Western critical thinkers to consider carefully how the way in which we understand existence implicates our actions on catastrophe. The cases begin to make clear Povinelli’s central concern on whether we care more about the ontology of existence or how certain forms of existence in late settler liberalism produces violent and toxic conditions for certain bodies.

Much of this work is an extension, and entangled itself, with Povinelli’s earlier work such as Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, and Economies of Abandonment. As such, there is the use of complex terminology and concepts established in these earlier works. This is a strength of Povinelli’s in her weaving of concepts and her work into a broader project on the conditions of late liberalism. However, for inexperienced readers, the reliance on concepts such as gerontology, geontopower, and late liberalism which have all been outlined in earlier work, may provide a difficult terrain to navigate her conceptual threads. While a glossary is provided at the end of the text, inexperienced readers of Povinelli would find a second reading of the text, or engagement with earlier texts prior to reading the current work, beneficial to fully grasp the rich conceptual and philosophical strides made throughout the book.

Ultimately, Between Gaia and Ground is a timely book to shine a light on the limits of Western critical thought, and its co-option into late liberal violence. Readers of Povinelli should take this as a cue to engage with the works of authors cited, such as Glen Coulthard, Michelle Murphy, and the Karrabing Film Collective to name a few, to begin unsettling the narratives of entangled existence as separate from the historical and ongoing colonial and racial project which have come to dominate much of critical thinking.


Bhambra, G.K 2021. ‘Decolonising Critical Theory?: Epistemological Justice, Progress, Reparations’. Critical Times, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 73-89.

Liboiron, M 2021. Pollution is Colonialism. Duke University Press: Durham, North Carolina.

McArthur, J 2021. ‘Critical theory in a decolonial age’. Educational Philosophy and Theory doi: 10.1080/00131857.2021.1934670 pp. 1-12

Murphy, M 2017. ‘Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations.’ Cultural Anthropology vol. 32, no. 4, pp. 494-503.

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