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'21st Century: Art in the First Decade' is an exhibition, publication, blog and series of public programs at the Queensland Art Gallery l Gallery of Modern Art that explore the art of the past ten years. As an expanded platform for the exhibition, the '21st Century Blog' functions as a source book of reference material and contributions provided by artists, curators and writers. Read more

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2006.248a-jjjj_009_detail part yyy

Fiona Hall | Tender (detail) 2003-06 | US dollars, wire and vitrines | 86 nests, approx., ranging from 5 x 10cm (diam.) to 108 x 17 x 13cm; two vitrines (each comprised of three parts): 220 x 360 x 150cm (each); 220 x 360 x500cm (installed, variable) | Purchased 2006. The Queensland Government's Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

CULTURES OF EXTRACTION by Ghassan Hage

I have an urge to write about cultures of ‘extraction’. It probably has to do with the rise and rise of Australia as a Mining Nation. For what is a mining nation if not a nation grounded in an economy of extraction?

Extraction is probably the single most important practical form underlying all of capitalism, whether extraction of value from the earth or extraction of labour power from people. And isn’t capitalist industrial technology primarily a technology of extraction, not just extracting minerals but extracting from minerals (like extracting atoms). Even information technology is today vested with a function of extraction of knowledge: the extraction of DNA, for example.

Perhaps this is a form of economic determinism but I think that we live in a culture where extraction as a practical and cultural form permeates many dimensions of our everyday life. It has more of a presence than I would like it to, anyway! This is because, and I don’t think it is just my own subjectivity, but I find that there is something vicious about the notion of extraction. I think of torture: extracting information from a prisoner (for the good of humanity, bien sur). There is something vicious about extraction even when we talk of the extraction of a fragrance from a plant, or, even more paradoxically when it involves the pursuit of health like extracting a tooth or extracting a cancer. The undoubted positive effect of the extraction remains haunted by the extraction itself.

So what is it about extraction that is dislikeable. My guess at the moment is that, like black magic, it diminishes our life force in a sympathetic kind of way. Whenever we see an extraction a bit of our life is extracted with it. It is like when we witness a death of a human being or in indeed the destruction of any object that we consider a positive force in our lives (like, precisely, the extraction of a tree). Despite the disruptive nature of our presence on this planet, we humans derive a silent pleasure from things around us being left as they are: their very presence untouched around us augments our being. I will call this the gift of presence. Things around us are an offering in themselves, not because they actually offer us a specific gift of some sort. A fruit tree is an offering well before it offers us its fruits, for example. It is an offering by merely existing as a tree next to us. Its presence is a life force that gets communicated to us and increases our own life force.

Extraction disrupts this ethical economy of co-presence. First, extraction does not let things be. It is the epitome of instrumental logic. It captures what exists with and along us and transforms it into something that exists for us. At the same time, it radically and surgically alters it in its very being: it makes it less than it was before it encounters it.

Is that not why the wind turbine appeals to us? it uses the wind but it does not extract anything from it. Likewise, with solar energy, there is diversion but there is no extraction. Could that be where the utopian impulse of sustainable energy forms comes from?

Ghassan Hage is the inaugural Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne. His research interests include globalisation, migration, nationalism, racism and multiculturalism from a comparative perspective. In 2007, the Sydney Morning Herald listed Prof Hage in its top 25 public intellectuals in Australia.

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