The Pulse of the Earth: Political Geology in Java

Benjamin Trumble

In The Pulse of the Earth, Adam Bobbette argues that geologic knowledge was formed not as a unidirectional distillation from Europe to the periphery, but as a multicentered and multidirectional creation. An intellectual history grounded geographically and temporally in colonial-era Indonesia, the work investigates the cross pollination between Dutch colonial scientists and local spiritual traditions, especially Hinduism, emphasizing the importance of both indigenous knowledge and religion in shaping science. Recognizing significant contributions by Islamic scholars and the interactions between Dutch scientists and the Javanese, Bobbette argues that conceiving of science as inherently western both ignores significant contributions by non-westerners and disregards the cross-religious underpinnings of many scientific discoveries. As he writes, “The assumed divide between modern science and local knowledge is tenacious, even though it is not real” (p. 5), and the Pulse of the Earth elucidates the connections between the two.

Across six main chapters, Bobbette examines various geographic case studies as windows into the intersection between plate tectonics, theories of the earth, indigenous knowledge, and colonial religions. Chapter One examines the Anthropocene through three volcanic eruptions, uncovering colonial understandings of cultures themselves as tectonic; rising, falling, and fading into the past. Chapter Two uses four maps of Java’s geology to trace the changing scientific perspectives on volcanology and the deep history of Earth. Chapter Three discusses the theory of plate tectonics in relation to spiritual geographies, specifically the connection between volcanoes and oceans that both Javanese spiritualism and Dutch scientists revealed. In Chapter Four, the image of the 1006 Merapi eruption in the Dutch colonial mind is used to explain the transition from the Hindu-Buddhist past to an Islamic present. Chapter Five examines the geopoetics of Johannes Umbgrove, whose book The Pulse of the Earth serves as the namesake for Bobbette’s monograph. Chapter Six concludes the work with analysis of observatories as outposts of colonial missions and their connection to spiritual geographies. 

The Pulse of the Earth is a slim yet complex text, but could benefit from more extensive historical grounding. Readers without prior knowledge of geophilosophy, religious studies, and Indonesian history will find some sections rely on prior knowledge unexplained even for an educated audience. Bobbette’s expertise in esoteric religious traditions can be difficult to appreciate; accordingly, further historical contextualization would create a more readable narrative. Even so, the extensively researched work is a profound contribution to the intersection of geography, religion, and the history of science. Just as David Noble previously elucidated the role Christianity played in the development of technology within Europe, Bobbette examines the syncretic religious understandings that emerged from the interplay between Dutch scientists and the local Indonesia population.1 Noble, David F. The religion of technology: The divinity of man and the spirit of invention. Knopf, 2013.

The figure of Johannes Umbgrove (1899-1954), a Dutch geologist who largely worked in pre-World War Two-era Indonesia, is central to Bobbette’s narrative. Umbgrove understanding of “geopoetics” was the practice of “overwhelming aesthetic experience,” the “antithesis of… economic geography” (p. 117). In practice, this was the blending of scientific fieldwork and the aesthetic beauty of nature and volcanoes, influenced by Javanese spiritualism. Bobbette argues that Umbgrove’s interpretation has been forgotten as geopoetics has become a movement to include those historically excluded from science or simply a method of “writing lyrically about geology” (p. 140). That spiritual element was essential for Umbgrove’s intellectual journey, as he “struggled to understand how novelty emerged in a cosmos of repetitions and to link those repetitions to the production of biological and geological difference” (p. 118). He argued against a strict geological versus biological divide; instead arguing that all things were complimentary. This, then, was the method of geopoetics; antireductionist in its rejection of simplification. “What made the cosmos beautiful, according to him, was the very abundance of relations among its parts and that their interconnecting rhythms generated ever-more complexity” (p. 135). This web of connectivity in some ways precedes the Gaia philosophy of Lovelock and Margulis, as well as later postmodern rejections of unifying narratives.2 Lovelock, James E., and Lynn Margulis. "Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis." Tellus 26, no. 1-2 (1974): 2-10. Umbgrove’s geopoetics is not simply geology with an eye for the humanistic, but a precursor to later developments in the sciences and social sciences, particularly geography.

Some examples Bobbette uses to advance his argument may seem farfetched at first glance, such as the retelling of a Javanese spiritual tradition of communing volcanic and ocean gods possibly prefiguring Dutch scientists’ understanding of plate tectonics. Readers could find in this attempt a post-hoc justification, similar to efforts in Biblical archaeology to confirm the truth of the Old Testament. In the case of Java, however, science was not employed to prove religious traditions as true, but instead religion prefigured certain understandings of the world which helped scientists ask useful questions. A debt is owed to Indonesian cosmology, as Bobbette writes “When we invoke the theory of plate tectonics as a description of the earth we inhabit, we inherit the powers of Nyai Ratu Kidul [the goddess queen of the Indian Ocean]. She changed us” (p. 57). Even knowledge encountered through scientific means is filtered through one’s metaphysical religious lens.

If geopoetics is taken as the bridging of western science and eastern philosophy, the creation of scientific knowledge is not limited to the west, but intwined and open to all. Schopenhauer famously synthesized eastern and western philosophy; Islam emerged from pagan, Jewish, and Christian practices; and numerous western inventions were dependent upon imported technology from the east. Bobbette’s thesis, then, is not a radical shift in the history of science, but a plea to read the colonial era as not fundamentally different from other time periods in the sense that knowledge and power are not top down, but always Foucauldian and omnidirectional.

In Bobette’s revision of the history of science in colonial Indonesia, the importance of non-western influence is illuminated, while the unity of science is preserved. If religion prefigures ontology, then syncretic traditions change paradigms of knowledge and allow for new discoveries. In the post-secular age, religion is no longer the domain of the superstructure but the base, its impacts so hidden and deeply embedded that Bobbette’s genealogy of the combined traditions of the past is essential to shed light on fundamental questions. He writes, “As the Immeasurable (obviously) could not be measured, the purpose of geopoetics was striking: it was to connect the largest to the smallest, the ancient to the new, the interior of the human body to the cosmos” (p. 130-131). By framing the work of scientists of all backgrounds as embedded within these narratives of a pulsing earth, Bobbette makes a compelling argument that changing one’s cosmology alters the very questions asked, providing answers that a solely Christian (or secular, for that matter) understanding would miss.