Yesterday in my flash review of Luminous Debris, I observed that Gustaf Sobin anchors his analysis in the human: cobbles that surround the site of ancient fire, for example, endure to tell a story of human persistence in the face of an unrelenting winter wind. Their story is not about their rocky selves. Stone axes, clay pottery, petroglyphs, stelae, quarries, memorial slabs, dolmens, mountain passes, plateaus, metals for offerings and mirrors, the monumental white limestone of the Pont Flavien, the ruined plinths and conduits of a Roman aqueduct: these lithic objects could be protagonists in Sobin's narrative, but his stories of stone are told to recover human trace, vanished human history. What would Luminous Debris be like if told from stone's point of view?
A crazy question, perhaps, but one at the very heart of the project I've been laboring upon for the past few years. One way of looking at Stonehenge, for example, is as a marvel of human architecture, the triumph of industry over landscape. Another entry into understanding that never finished, ever changing lithic wheel is to ask: How did the bluestone (spotted dolerite) of the Preseli Mountains convince prehistoric humans to carry them hundreds of miles and erect them on a grassy plain? What did generation upon succeeding generation discover in this stone that convinced them to amplify the structure, to create new stories about its rocks, to keep the monument alive?
Maybe you are with me so far: after all, I am treating stone as vibrant matter, an agency-possessing materiality with which we humans make our alliances, and that approach is not without precedent. But suppose I go farther and ask, does stone possess a sexuality?
That is in fact my question for my next project, a keynote I'll be delivering at a conference in Berlin (Queer Again? Power, Politics and Ethics) as well as, in mutating forms, at an engagement or two here elsewhere. Here is my abstract. I welcome your feedback, especially since the project exists for the most part only in my head.
The Sex Life of StoneInhuman and immobile, the material of weighty civic architectures and memorials to the dead, stone could only through the queerest of reckonings possess desires, let alone a sexuality. In those moments when stone touches the erotic (a statue springs to life for enamored Pygmalion, a diamond band surrounds the fiancée's finger), the lithic too often becomes the merely anthropocentric, the drearily heteronormative: idol-become-animate Galatea, compounded of idealized feminine features, pulls Pygmalion from his lack of feminine interest to conjugal bliss; the engagement ring is the expected sanctifier of the nuptial couple's beauty, endurance, superlativeness. Despite these severe and rather unimaginative circumscriptions, can stone be queered? Is there a nonhuman queer?
De Beers has ruined the diamond, transforming a rare and magical rock into a prop in the most clichéd of love stories. Taking as my point of departure a medieval account of diamonds as living, multiplicative, and licentious organisms (Mandeville's Travels), I will map geological desires: how the lithic elicits and insinuates itself within human ardor, how stone is an actant possessed of its own possibilities, impulses, sensuality. Nonhuman eroticism renders what seems the most inert of substances a material forever on the move, challenging the divide we assume between human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic. My emphasis is upon lithic life in the Middle Ages: the ways in which rocks and gems act as if they are biological organisms, possessed of a radiative virtue that makes them the protagonists of their own narratives, that propels them into queer relations, a lithic promiscuity that suggests the limits of the human as a category, bringing our queer loves outside anthropocentric confinement.
PS In case you're interested, Mandeville's story about diamonds is the following (here quoted from the TEAMS edition of British Library MS Royal 17 C. xxxviii). The account isn't original to the Book but is taken from the Speculum Majus of Vincent of Beauvais; Mandeville, however, was the popular conduit through which amorous diamonds passed into widespread medieval knowledge.
Also men fyndeth good dyamaundes uppon the roche of adamaundes in theOften diamonds and adamant are the same thing (a gem), but adamant can also be lodestone (magnetite, "schipmannes ston þat draweth the nedle"). Dyamaund and adamaund are in fact two versions of the same word, deriving from classical Greek adamao, "I tame" or "I subdue" -- quite appropriate for the hardest of stones. Yet a medieval eye would also discern in the word the Latin verb adamare: to love deeply, passionately, perhaps unlawfully. Diamond/adamant is at once that which is so hard it resists like no other stone, and that which exerts an innate magnetism, a movement, a desire, a kind of a love (ad-amant -- not to be confused with this guy).
see, as hit were hasel notes. And tho beth all square and poynted of her owen
kynde, and they groweth togodres, the maule and the femaule. And they beth
noryshed with the dewe of hevene, and they engendreth comunely and bryngeth
forth other smale dyamaundes, that multeplieth and groweth all yeres. And Y have
many tymes asayd that if a man kepe hem with a lytel of the roch, which he
groweth uppon, and wete hym with Mayis dewe, they shal growe ech yer, and the
smale shal wexe greet. And a man shal bere a dyamaunde uppon his lyft syde, and
thenne hit is more vertu than elles, for the streyngthe of her growyng is toward the
north, and that is the lift syde of the worlde.