Monday, August 17, 2009

Stories of Stone (draft)

[illustration: recent reading, atop my desk]

So here is the latest version of my essay for the inaugural issue of postmedieval. It's the last version I'll post at ITM ... and, as always, your feedback is most welcome. Much will be familiar if you've been keeping up with the blog as of late.


Stories of Stone

Reality is a single matter-energy undergoing phase transitions of various kinds … Rocks and winds, germs and words, are all different manifestations of this dynamic material reality, or, in other words, they all represent the different ways in which this single matter-energy expresses itself. (De Landa 2000, 21)

What could be less human than cold, unmoving stone?

What could be less lithic than itinerant, adaptive humanity?

Geochoreography I

The cultural truth of the mineralogical: nothing could be less expressive, less unyielding and unchanging, and yet less fundamental. Stone gives terra its firmness, mundane reality its comforting solidity. Stone is immobile. At those rare times when it slides or shakes or melts, what surprises us most is that something so inert can for a moment become kinetic. This movement is always brief, always the forgettable exception. Houses rise swiftly after an earthquake’s leveling, grass and trees effloresce after the lava flow expands the contours of an island, landslides bury troves that bulldozers can with exertion retrieve. Stone’s movements are its aberrations.

Or so it seems to us, we whose lives are so short that to the stone we walk and build upon our presence registers nothing, we mayflies who live and perish in less than a blink. Small things who think our ephemeral walking and building expansive, who measure the world as if it were likewise swift and small. Small things who dwell in a large and rocky world.

If stone could speak, what would it say about us?

Stone would call you transient, sporadic. The mayflies analogy is apt. Stone was here from near the beginning, when the restless gases of the earth decided they did not want to spend their days in swirled disarray, in couplings without lasting comminglings. They thickened into liquids, congealed to fashion solid forms. Nothing of that primal lithic clot survives, but sediments and magmatic flows from earth’s young days linger. The Acasta Gneiss knows that story.1 When you stand on such bedrock, you touch matter that solidified perhaps 4.3 billion years ago. Your continents – and will it annoy you when I remind that your continents are splinters of a rocky protoplasm, fragments that rifted Pangaea to voyage the waters like ships of stone? -- every one of your migrant continents conveys rocks of at least 3,500,000,000 years. A fortunate animal endures perhaps for 70. Do the math: it is inhuman. These ubiquitous boulders, not even the eldest of the earth, possess the lifespan of million upon millions of fortunate animals. They will persist into a future so distant that no human will witness their return to liquids and powders.

Primordial organic things loved their rocky forebears, clung to stone’s solidity, became part of stone themselves. It is harder than you suppose to tell the difference between nanobacteria and late mammals, between starfish and human forms. They adhere, they multiply, they fade. Yes, humans have always desired the permanence of stone, beholding in its endurance a thing they wish for themselves. They scratch a small hole and bury their dead, they place rocks upon the bodies as if to keep the spinning world still. Yet organic life can hold perdurability only if the bacterial and the human are one: then you are nearer to stone’s speed, then stone can see you. Then perhaps you will also see stone for what it is, rather than for what you seek. From this vantage, this view so anthropodiscentered that language almost fails its imagining, from this lapidary perspective stone can be witnessed in possession of its own life.

A protean substance that retains no form in permanence, stone moves. Stone desires. Stone creates: architectures, novelities, art. Flow is the truth of stone, not its aberration. All rock is motion, all that is solid a lie. Yet the humming bird pulse of human time is too rapid for geologic mobility. You expect stone to be heavy, but stone is light. You expect stone to possess fact; it holds only non sequiturs – or, better, holds everything in a following or a flowing without end. If stone had a voice it would be less ponderous than your own.

Gene and stone are chemical nomads, fluxes indifferent towards the humans, lemurs, lapis or rubies that are their ephemeral conveyors. If your hurried heartbeat did not bind you to your swift smallness, you would know that affinity binds you and stone.

De lapidibus

We became posthuman (so the story goes) because of technological innovation. The internet, cybernetics, genetics, cyborgs, and virtual communities at last enabled a leap beyond the confines of flesh. Yet human identity has always depended upon and been sustained by dispersive networks of actors and objects, meshworks that prevent the human from ever possessing some finite form, an unchanging ontology, a diminutive boundedness (Cohen 2003, especially xi-xxiii). Recent technologies only render more visible the ways in which human identity always exceeds the boundaries of determinate bodies, dispersed across a phenomenological world of which homo sapiens is one small and nonsovereign part.

For this inaugural issue of postmedieval, I chose stone – or, more truthfully, stone chose me -- because rock seems as inhuman a substance as to be found. To get beyond the circumscription inherent in small categories, why not explore the inter-relation of loquacious and parvenu human to recalcitrant, primordial stone? Human beings have from prehistoric times recognized the potentialities within the lithic to send communication across vast spans of time. Hence our fascination with structures like Stonehenge, designed to persist across a temporal duration no human culture can surmount. As information endurance devices, such rocks communicate long after their successive human co-dwellers have been obliterated. Stonehenge has survived multiple cultures of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages, the Romans, the Britons, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, the Welsh, the English. An actor as well as an imprinted substance, rock does more than endure. In The Writing of the Stones Roger Caillois detailed the aesthetic impulse inherent within the geologic. Stone offers messages that no human agency emplaced within. The world’s first art was fashioned by marble, amethyst, jaspers, limestone and agates: “intrinsic, infallible, immediate beauty, answerable to no one” (Caillois 1985, 2). Stonehenge may even be a human communion with rock formations found in the Preseli Mountains, where dolerite stands in architectural pillars arranged by no human hand.2

These examples, though, are too still. Classical and medieval theorists hypothesized that gems combine two elements, earth and water. All stone is possessed of hydrous motion, and that mobility might even be said to constitute an agency, a desire, posing a blunt challenge to anthropocentric histories. Human immediately becomes posthuman as a consequence of the enlarged temporal frame that geology demands. Such a stone-etched countervision invites reflection on what it means to inhabit a world that is potentially indifferent to humanity and yet intimately continuous with us. By foregrounding mineralogical motility, I am trying to be both scientific (from a deep history perspective all stone moves and changes; given a large enough temporal frame, any component of the universe acts as if an errant atom, any solid or sedentary combination proving ephemeral) and – because I am a medievalist – attentive to the insights of nonmoderns as well. Within a geological scale of time, after all, such people are our exact contemporaries.

Geochoreography II

Meditations on stone typically begin with its stark substantiality, its thingness. Fascination with lithic imperturbability is easy to understand. Durability is the reason we short-lived humans construct walls, pyramids, memorials by use of quarries. Stone seems an uncomplicated material, instantly and bluntly knowable. Thus Samuel Johnson famously rebuked George Berkeley’s assertion that all matter is “merely ideal” by forcefully kicking a stone that was not to be moved, declaring “'I refute it thus” (Boswell 1986, p.122). The hard rock of the real disproves through its materiality, its serene factuality, the vagabond fogs of the imagination. Stone’s inert solidity grounds Johnson’s own sense of what constitutes fact: no matter how hard he kicks, no matter how much Berkeley might desire a world more fluid, the stone does not yield.

Such inanimate stones are rather alien to medieval writers, especially those who detailed the lives of minerals and gems in the geological treatises known as lapidaries. The stones of these popular texts seldom remained still. Lapidaries detail the emissive virtus of rocks, their innate ability to affect the world via radiative energies.3 Vermidor, for example, holds such intensity that it glows at night like an inextinguishable candle. When placed against a bodily swelling, the ailment quickly subsides. The stones of the lapidaries are rarely found in a solitary or unsociable state, but are ever seeking alliance with organic bodies to spring into expanded agency. Life forces that confound the boundary between the geological and the biological are therefore ubiquitous. Goat’s blood must permeate the diamond before it softens enough to cut. Agate contains a kind internal blood that lends a ruddy complexion to those who carry it; though itself as mute as any stone, agate renders would-be orators eloquent. Rocks are typically embedded in narratives from which they must be excavated, histories that cling to them thereafter. Magnetite (magnetes lapis) is mined in India by cave-dwelling Troglodytes, and has been used throughout the centuries by magicians like Circe to extend their powers. The stone can test virginity and fidelity, can be used by thieves to send occupants fleeing their homes so that goods may be snatched, may implant or destroy love among the married, quells dropsy and bestows efficacy in argument. A hero’s labors may be required to extract a desired stone from the body of rare and distant fish, to snatch the coveted gem from the beak of mountain-dwelling bird oblivious to its power. The stones of the medieval lapidaries are, in other words, embedded within networks of agency in which what they can and cannot do -- where they may and may not move, what they desire and what they can achieve -- is simultaneously constrained and enabled by other actors within that reticulation: humans, rivers, angels, animals, intensities of heat and light. No single component of this web is detachable as a lonely actor. The whole meshwork pulses with movement because of the reaction chains that it enables, augments, and is often transformed by (autocatalysis without end, leading in unpredetermined directions).

Sorige, for example, is a green stone found within a river traversing the terrestrial paradise. Sometimes the currents of the stream convey the precious gem into la grant Ynde, carrying sorige from abandoned Eden to more mundane waterways, where it washes onto shores. Fish-eating beasts as large as dogs place the stones in their mouths, unaware of its powers. Sorige can be extracted only when a naked virgin is placed close enough for these creatures to scent. A beast will approach the girl, place its head between her breasts, and fall asleep, intoxicated by the sweet smell of her virginity. The stone-bearing animal can then be killed easily by an awaiting man, the sorige extracted from its mouth. As long as the bearer is Christian, the viridescent jewel will cure gout, destroy vermin, prevent stomach aches, and ward against rabid animals. The gem's powers will cease immediately if worn by someone dishonest or dirty.

Although supposed to be inorganic, stones frequently trouble the divide between that which lives, breathes and reproduces and that which is supposed to be too insensate to exhibit such liveliness. They trouble the line that is supposed to keep the boundary between biological and mineral realms discrete. When beneath the ocean’s waters corallus (coral) is a lush plant with waving foliage, but exposed to air its lithe branches harden into red stone (Marbode 59): from organic to inorganic at a single, breezy touch. Yet even in this petrified state coral does not become inactive, warding those who hold it against storms, preventing the attacks of infernal creatures, nurturing agriculture. Ever desiring to abandon their rocky solitude, stones act less like than lifeless bits of earth than as if they were the creatures for which they have such affinity, for whom they have such an ardor to touch. Stone is more organism than substance.

And stone loves nothing more than story. Lapidaries are lithic narratives, the life histories of rocks, geocultural biographies. No medieval stone exists alone, but is an actor in a narrative that exceeds any use value, any practicality, a gem of aesthetic efflorescence that conveys conventional histories and received traditions beyond any border that they would ordinarily cross. Lapidaries were a major gateway for pagan learning back into orthodox Christianity. They carried into the present challenges, invitations, and inducements to the imagination from medieval Europe’s superseded past. Lapidary lore could thereby spur a reconceptualization of present and future in terms rather different from idées reçues -- a reconfigured reality where rocks possessed an uncanny agency, where the world was far wider geographically and temporally than the small portion already mapped by its human inhabitants.

Lapidary knowledge: few objects are as heterodox, vagrant, or powerful as stones.

Facts on the Move

Whether in the form of stones or bodies, reality is not infinitely pliable. We cannot squeeze water from a rock because we "socially construct" the lithic as the aqueous. Although we can find stone that will float like a ship (as the medieval travel writer John Mandeville wrote of pumice), we do not fabricate naval vessels out of boulders because something in rock resists such transformation. That does not, however, mean that stones are so immobile that they will not reveal their fluid tendencies when viewed in a nonhuman historical frame. Over eons tectonic plates travel vast distances and mountains rise, volcanoes spurt molten stone. Despite Samuel Johnson’s kick that failed to dislodge its unyielding target, rock is quite a flexible material. Reality is a time and context bound meshwork of alliances that unites human and nonhuman agents. A diamond becomes a precious gem because its rarity, lucidity, durability can sustain strong confederation with human and inhuman forces, tools, economic and aesthetic systems -- coalitions that pumice cannot maintain. An alliance between the shipbuilder and granite will fail because the stone can't support the laborer's marinal desires, but that between the granite and the architect will flourish since the granite will comply with her desire to shape it into a durable, aesthetically pleasing support for kitchen appliances.

Marbode of Rennes described a stone called sadda that wanders oceanic depths, awaiting the passing of a ship (73). To any opportune keel in motion sadda will affix itself, and thenceforth never stir. Marbode is clearly speaking of barnacles, which are not stones at all … or are, rather, like many marine creatures an admixture of the organic with the rocky, carbon softness mixed with calcium durability. Manuel De Landa calls such union the mineralization of life (26), an organization of organic liquidity around a calcified center that could convey both in unanticipated directions. From stone’s point of view, De Landa is right: panthers run and humans ambulate because their bodies produce and enclose skeletons, stone at the heart of mobile life.

An alliance between human beings and primordial stone can loosen the temporal fixedness of one and the spatial immobility of the other. Rocks are the limit case for these possible transformations because they seem the bluntest material, the most inert of our worldly phenomena. Acknowledging the dullness of stone, Ian Hacking has examined the "construction" of dolomite, a rock that has consistently challenged those who seek to map its origin -- possibly because nano-bacteria (organisms so small they cannot be observed) are behind its formation. Errors accumulate and are shed; certain data cling and are retained; but an aura of uncertainty consistently surrounds what should be as solid as any stone. Dolomite, a rock so durable and so ancient that much of Stonehenge is built of it, is a reality, a brusque fact; but it is also – like stone itself -- a fact on the move. In their possible union with nonhuman frames of temporality, medieval lapidaries pose a similar challenge to the human, a category that cannot maintain its supposed difference from the inorganic, the insensible. Rocks possess much of what is supposed to set humans apart. They are neither inert or mute, but like all life are forever flowing, forever filled with stories.

Even if it sometimes congeals into feldspar or amethyst, all rock is a lava flow.

Even if it sometimes congeals into an aphid or a dinosaus, all life is a genetic flow.

And you know, it seems that language is its own flow, separate from the gene flux, separate from the mineral flux, its own organism. Stories, narratives, are something more than the animals from which they take life, just as organic life derives its components from stone, carries stone within, creates with stone.

But whether language, whether narrative will proliferate, diversify and endure like rocks and fleshy things, it is too early to tell.


    [1] The Acasta Gneiss is outcropping of bedrock along the Hudson Bay in Quebec. Geologist Jonathan O'Neil has suggested the rocks may date to 4.28 billion years ago. The earth is estimated to be 4.6 billion years, making these rocks potentially earth’s eldest survivors. See Greenfieldboyce 2008.
    [2] The hypothesis of Geoffrey Wainwright. See Cohen forthcoming.
    [3] I take my examples from Marbode of Rennnes, De lapidus, the most influential source of rock-knowledge in the Middle Ages; and the Livre de Sydrac, a popular later work.


    Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. Hibbert, Christopher (London: Penguin, 1986).

    Caillois, Roger. The Writing of the Stones, trans. Barbara Bray (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985).

    Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

    ----------. “Time out of Memory.” The Post-Historical Middle Ages, ed. Sylvia Federico and Elizabeth Scala (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) 37-61.

    ----------. “Inhuman Art.” Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism, ed. Eileen A. Joy and Myra J. Seaman (forthcoming, Ohio State University Press).

    De Landa, Manuel. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Serve Editions, 2000)

    Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge: Harvard University press, 1999).

    Holler, William M. “Unusual Stone Lore in the Thirteenth-Century Lapidary of Sydrac.” Romance Notes 20 (1979) 135-42.

    Marbode of Rennes. De lapidibus, ed. John M. Riddle, trans. C. W. King (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH, 1977).


Wajih Ayed said...

It is not easy to see stones in the restive flux of kinesis, rather than looking at them as inorganic troves of accessories to the human, or irrelevant clots of the inhuman--not easy, that is, for postmedieval subjects positioned outside the middling perspective.

For the medievalist, stone matters; for medievals, stone was a matter of concern and a catalyst for intricately reticulated reflections and hypotheses about the intertwined narratives of the motile and the lithic. Professor Cohen insightfully recovers from medieval lapidaries an energising understanding of the interconnectedness of the human and the stony.

As if a window gave upon the medieval scene, petrified ideas about the lively middle came into life when approached from the critical theses of the article's author. My thanks abound to you, Professor Cohen, for the pleasure, thrill, and passion with which your readings of medieval writings have always provided me.

Karl Steel said...

Great stuff Jeffrey. I love how this complicates our notion of what constitutes a 'thing,' and the difference between 'life' and 'things,' and especially how you've brought TIME into what I tend to think of as the synchronism of theorists like Deleuze & G.

I'm tardy in recommending a short German animation, 'Das Rad,' but here's a decent copy and here a bad copy with subtitles, and you can find it on DVD, probably among other places, here.

The mayflies analogy is apt. Stone was here from near the beginning, when the restless gases of the earth decided they did not want to spend their days in swirled disarray,
I wonder about the mayflies bit here? If this is being done in a stoney voice, would a stone even know a mayfly? Would it know a human? I wonder. I also wonder about 'decide': I like it, but I'd like to hear more about why you're imagining physical processes as decisions?


I also want to remind you that the world's first known art isn't even carved stone; it's simply uncarved but interesting rocks, manuports, and the earliest known manuport predates humans.


Yum, dinosauce


Sarah Rees Jones said...

I am really looking forward to this project of yours – and the breaking down of barriers between things (heard a wonderful lecture by Ad Putter on that word in Old and Middle English last June).

In my recent Pyrenean cave visiting at Sare there was a constant interplay (unintended I think) in our guide's narration of the continuous growth of the caves themselves (of their geomorphic evolution, the growing of stalactites, the erosion of underground river beds and lakes) on the one hand, and their occupation by humans (as dwellings, as ritual sites, sites of extractive industry and equally extractive archaeology and cultural heritage) on the other. This rockhuman interchange underpinned their narrative of regional identity – in the pitch dark of the deepest cave we even heard how the rock conditioned and shaped the local music. The ultimate end of all this was (they asserted) the distinctive character of the Basque – and as you stepped out of the last cave into the sunshine so they had erected a silhouette of a basque man and his beret, cut and engraved in metal, through which you could step out and back into the modern world. Now all this was in French – and while my French is OK sometimes my understanding of what is being said can be a bit impressionistic – even poetic. So my English conversation with my daughter did not quite follow the script, but provided a kind of wandering English decoration to the French guide’s melody - on the ‘caviness’ of the European (from the influence of Plato’s cave to our pale skin which (so I was told) some anthropologists attribute to our long period of cave-dwelling). [She has just discovered today that she will be studying Anthropology at Goldsmiths and has been reading many of the classics in that field this summer].

These caves were deep underground – a vast many-storied city of interlocking chambers, routes and waterways crossing the border between France and Spain beneath the mountains - but most of the local villages had some kind of above-ground cave dwellings cut into cliffs and developed into houses, workplaces and churches – some of them still in use. At the conference in Najera (another cave city in origin) from which I had just come the last lecture (by Philippe Bernardi) provided a striking counterpoint to all this – pulling together the evidence for the use of quarried stone in public works around medieval Europe. How certain stones travelled and others did not – and when and why. Is there any medieval commentary on the difference between living in stone and quarrying stone for use as a manufactured building material?

The caves contained very little rock art (at least none on display – cave paintings are often not shown to tourists nowadays) – but I have heard several papers on rock art recently – from Alastair Patterson of UWA, Perth on the rock art of western Australia – where the same sites were used for centuries and continually and deliberately overpainted by both aboriginal and European settlers alternately – in a kind of endless visual conversation spanning centuries- about the evolution ships for example, or farming methods. Some of the methods and research questions developed there are now being applied to ‘rock art’ in the UK – where the same sites can attract ‘graffitti’ over millennia from the stone age to the present day. I suppose rock art is another kind of rockhuman joint enterprise – and might take you even nearer to the ‘language’ with which you end?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

"rock art is another kind of rockhuman joint enterprise" -- I love that Sarah, and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Re: the question of quarrying vs.inhabiting stone, I can't think of anything off the top of my head, but we have a very smart grad student at GW named Lowell Duckert who is working on (among many other mineralogical things) mining, so I will ask him.