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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 15, April 13, 2024

Lukas Ley’s Review of The Pulse of the Earth by Adam Bobbette

Friday 12 April 2024



Review by Lukas Ley

The Pulse of the Earth: Political Geology in Java
by Adam Bobbette

Duke University Press
2023. 248 pp.
(e-book), ISBN 978-1-4780-2708-9
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-2505-4
Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-2007-3

Dandy Volcanoes

The Pulse of the Earth by Adam Bobette invites readers to get up close to the formation of the earth. This book is about active volcanoes in Indonesia, whose craters animate both geological and cultural discourses. Attending to the pulse of the earth requires a special sensory apparatus, one that captures more than depth, age, and lithology. It demands a careful genealogy of scientific claims and other forms of “geologizing.” Ruminating on the formative and destructive role of volcanoes is far from new or distinctly European: religion, fiction, and politics have been informed by earthly processes in numerous ways. Bobbette reveals how geological science borrowed heavily from non-Western knowledge systems to understand Indonesian volcanism. As the book argues, these accounts were well aware of links between oceans and land formation, integrating offshore trenches in encompassing cosmological realms. For instance, the rituals that undergird Javanese religious and political life already point to the “inseparable material relationship between the island and the Indian Ocean floor” (p. 54). Other well-known earth stories (continental drift, tectonics) also variously departed from and aligned with Hinduism, Javanese syncretism, or Kantian philosophy.

In line with recent scholarship on geopolitics, Bobbette doesn’t approach volcanoes as mere containers of geological information and dead matter, but as vectors driving “geosocial formations.”[1] They animate the social by displacing people, imperiling livelihoods, and producing sought-after raw materials like andesite and sand. Perilous volcanic landscapes require us to rethink and learn to live with a volatile geology, which is something that the people inhabiting the slopes of Merapi, intimately know to do. As Bobbette says in the book’s opening, Merapi’s residents have “things to teach those of us who [do] not live there” (p. xiii). This makes immediate sense given that we all live on unstable, throbbing grounds that liquefy,[2] become more oceanic,[3] or collapse.[4]

Apart from rocks and stiffened lava, geological theories and infrastructures also wax and wane on the slopes of Indonesia’s volcanoes, the book’s main site. They constitute the main cultural archive probed by Bobbette. He shows how scientists with a distinct interest in earthly shapes and behavior turned to largely inaccessible worlds and “processes [that are] buried deep inside volcanic mountains or their gurgling magma chambers” (p. xvi). These magicians variously sounded the depths of the earth or the alarm when impending eruptions might endanger the smooth functioning of the colonial plantation economy. Describing their investigations, Bobbette outlines the origins of geology, a science that brought humans into close interaction with the mysteries of earthly formation. Engaging with the combustibility of the earth, European volcanologists, however, encountered many others “tuned in” to the murmurs of the volcano.

The first of six chapters introduces readers to the role that the geological sciences played in expanding European empire. This science laid the groundwork for colonial extractivism, because it “helped to define, prospect, and extract minerals, ores, and fuels” in the colonies (p. 2). Geological concepts were, however, always shaped by other forms of subterranean knowledge. In fact, Dutch colonial scientists routinely appropriated such ideas without acknowledging the Indigenous basis for their theories. This is something that Bobette rightfully underlines throughout the book. The genealogy of geological sciences reveals volcanology as polyphonic discourse. The volcano itself speaks up: by divulging quite lively substratum and disturbing efforts to spatially fix it in place, volcanoes undid ontological distinctions of biological life and dead matter. To address such agency, prominent European scholars, for instance, derived inspiration from novels, such as Adjat Sudrajat’s Prahara Gunung Galunggung (2010), in which a volcano figured as a protagonist. They seemed equally spellbound by Javanese spiritual tradition which considered sultanates as alliances between rulers and volcanic deities. Conceptualizing the boundaries of human and lithic realms as blurry now finds expression in the recognition that, in the Anthropocene, “the border between geology and society ha[s] become porous” (p. 9). Bobette’s close attention to acts of translation that inform earth knowledge will be useful for studying the lithic dimension of social processes in other parts of the world. Using “political geology as a method,” as the chapter suggests, might provide a better understanding of land subsidence along Javanese shores and other volumetric shifts where science is still highly tenuous.[5]

Chapter 2 takes its cue from four geological maps of volcanic landscapes that provided globally circulating narratives for planetary evolution, enabling the emergence of modern earth and extractivism. Importantly, these maps, which required extensive research around Java’s active craters, treated mountains as actors and their eruptions as (disastrous) expressions of deep-seated geological characteristics. As Bobette shows, volcanism was thoroughly metaphysical, because it meant conjuring the subterranean, a largely invisible and inaccessible field, from visible records. Scientific thought was therefore engaging with quite elusive and unpredictable processes that had deep-reaching consequences. Or, as Bobette says, “mapping the edge of a volcanic crater was to glimpse into the whole of the earth” (p. 22). Interestingly, while the first map created in the 1870s by Rogier Verbeek located not a “single mineral species worthy of exploitation” (p. 29), today, Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of natural resources, especially volcanic sulfur and sand. The country just lifted a ban on international sand export, suggesting that volcanic activity is once again driving geopolitics.

Chapter 3 is driving the author’s concern with political geology home. Relying heavily on other studies and journalistic reports, it tells the story of the “gatekeeper,” Mbah Maridjan, a famous resident of the slopes of Merapi who refused twice to evacuate the mountain despite evacuation notices. His stubborn refusal to leave his post (and home), which cost him his life, made him a target of the powerful: scientists, capitalists, and even presidents. This story allows Bobbette to delve into the spirit world of Java, allied for centuries with Javanese sultanates in an attempt to abate the explosive nature of Java. It is no coincidence that the focal geographical point of rituals, a place in the Indian Ocean that marks the domain of the ocean goddess Nyai Ratu Kidul, is also where a US research expedition extracted samples from the ocean floor. In a brilliant move, the geological concept of “intercalation” gets extended to the conceptual ground on which Javanese syncretism met and ultimately beat modern science. The following chapter, “AD 1006 Geodeterminism,” also shows that politics are enmeshed with tectonics. The social worlds of colonists and colonized were asymmetrical to the point where these spheres collided in a massive eruption (p. 82)—the Indonesian revolution. The chapter places volcanoes at the center of philosophical debates in and beyond Indonesia. While the colonizer read the direction of human history from the earth, painting an ecologically determinist image of a lost Hindu-Buddhist Java, the postcolonial government returned to the spiritual appeasement strategy described in the previous chapter. Both relations show how volcano science “became a way to sink theological narratives into the physicality of the earth” (p. 113). Theosophy, an anti-colonial, revivalist current originating from European philosophy that found primordial truths in Javanese scriptures, draws heavily on volcanism to wed cosmology to natural science. In the chapter, Java shows the contours of Mike Davis’s “ecology of fear.”[6] Colonial anxieties about civilizational extinction spike at a moment when Indonesian nationalism turns violent and the Japanese invasion upends colonial rule. It would have been interesting to relate seismic fear to other scholarship of anxiety and its social role in Indonesia.[7] How is seismic fear used by the ruling elite to subdue insurgent elements and other political tremors?

The penultimate chapter describes the birth of geopoetics as an aesthetic practice of speculating about ecological relationality (p. 115), with volcanism at its core. Geopoetics, too, came out of geologists’ encounter with Javanese volcanoes and belief systems. The product was a “dandy science.” Geopoetics was unabashedly speculative, anti-capitalist in its quest for wonderment, and driven by a celebration of volcanoes as rhyming arbiters that connected the earth’s center with the galaxy. The chapter revolves around the Dutch geologist Johannes Herman Frederik Umbgrove, whose defense of colonial tutelage jibed with his narrow vision of earth’s evolution. Writing Indonesian labor and culture back into his geological work is what Bobbette attempts to do (p. 123), while naming his ethnography after Umbgrove’s 1942 publication “The Pulse of the Earth.” The chapter unfortunately doesn’t live up to the promise of including Indonesian voices, because it mainly summarizes Umbgrove’s ruminations on an immensely creative and “aesthetic earth” (p. 141). Bobbette could have broken with this tradition.

These days, coastal populations can be warned of tsunamis caused by maritime volcanic activity within minutes. How is this possible? The last chapter provides a fascinating story of earthly introspection. It juxtaposes observatories equipped with tools for monitoring seismic activity to local forms of inhabiting and knowing volcanic landscapes. Both ways of relating to volcanoes require up-close monitoring and proper “tuning in” to the forcefields of the earth. Bobette first relates the astonishing career of Willem Einthoven, who was born in Java and developed the first electrocardiograph, a tool that can record the electrical pulses of the human heart. The cardiograph allowed differentiating the signs of a well-functioning from an ailing cardiovascular system. It paved the way for seismographic investigations of volcanic activity. Not just seismographs show the earth as a chattering being. Local dwellers, too, have calibrated their senses to the hill and feel its pulsations. Both building observatories on the slopes of active volcanoes and living in nearby villages posed immediate risks and required staying alert to the emissions of sound, vibrations, and matter. The chapter raises questions about the infrastructural instruments to produce proximity with and reduce interference by nature. Some residents of Keningar, a village located in Merapi’s highlands, rely on specific conduits to capture the “frequencies” of a person or object. Drawing on Javanese metaphysics (Kejawen), Bobette shows how Indonesian intellectuals built “modern” communication devices like the telephone into their own view of transcendental connectivity, one that is “at the edge of matter” (p. 162). For inhabitants of Keningar, who lead an impoverished existence on the margins of capitalist society, living near famous Merapi allows them to communicate with each other and the wider world.

The Pulse of the Earth is a truly fascinating study of colonial knowledge production and one of its key subjects—geology—in Indonesia. As such, it marks an important contribution to the ethnography of scientific discourse and its ties to colonialism and nationalism. But The Pulse of the Earth is, in many ways, a global and contemporary book. It successfully disturbs narratives that portray science as a linear story of discoveries. Instead, science is a jumble of Western and non-Western ideas, where breakthroughs are often anticipated by local wisdom. The most interesting takeaway for me was the persistent refusal of Western science to engage in serious conversations with the immaterial, something that Bobette brilliantly teases out throughout the book. Therefore, I was surprised that the book doesn’t engage more with the concept of agency. What does this popular and much-contested concept do for the author? He acknowledges “the vibrant agency of a liquefying mountain” at the outset of the book (p. 4), but prefers to place emphasis on shifting cultures of geological knowledge.

This book is a novel, deep-time riff on Java’s famous volcanoes—a cherished hotspot of social theory where the likes of Margaret Mead and Clifford Geertz have extracted inspiration for sweeping theoretical constructs. It is a must-read for aspiring political geologists, historians of Indonesia, and ethnographers of science. Anyone interested in the Indian Ocean will also find ample inspiration for thinking the sea as an inhabited and geologically animated extension of far-reaching polities. Despite its focus on the hidden, “subterranean” forces that continue to unsettle the theoretical fads of geology, the book could have been more bottom-up. But other scholars can now follow Bobbette’s “political geology as method” down a promising path to trace Merapi’s pulses into the thick of everyday life and politics.


[1]. Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff, “Geosocial Formations and the Anthropocene,” Theory, Culture & Society 34, no. 2–3 (2017): 3–23,

[2]. Franz Krause, “The Tempo of Solid Fluids: On River Ice, Permafrost, and Other Melting Matter in the Mackenzie Delta,” Theory, Culture & Society 39, no. 2 (2022): 31–52,

[3]. Stefan Helmreich, A Book of Waves, The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2023).

[4]. Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa, Tilo Schöne, Johannes Herbeck, Julia Illigner, Mahmud Haghighi, Hendricus Simarmata, Emma Porio, Alessio Rovere, and Anna-Katharina Hornidge, “The ‘Wickedness’ of Governing Land Subsidence: Policy Perspectives from Urban Southeast Asia,” PLOS ONE 1, no. 6 (2021): e0250208,

[5]. Marie Belland, Michelle Kooy, and Margreet Zwarteveen, “Destabilizing the Science of Soils: Geoscientists as Spokespersons for Land Subsidence in Semarang, Indonesia,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space (July 2023),

[6]. Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998).

[7]. Joshua Barker, “State of Fear: Controlling the Criminal Contagion in Suharto’s New Order,” Indonesia, no. 66 (October 1998): 7–43,; James T. Siegel, A New Criminal Type in Jakarta: Counter-Revolution Today (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

(Reviewer by Lukas Ley is with Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)

[This work from H-Net is reproduced under a Creative Commons License

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