Friday, December 09, 2011

Radiance (The Force of Stone)

by J J Cohen

[read Karl on Kadar Koli first] 

So I've been working away on my book, making fairly decent progress despite two ongoing family crises and a barrage of other responsibilities. 

Below is the draft opening of chapter two, called simply "Radiance," and glossed with the parenthetical "The Force of Stone." After this introductory section I have an explication of Merlin as an ideal or lapidary reader in Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace, a section on Roger Caillois and the beauty of stone (as well as his theory of objective, universal and inhuman aesthetics) ... and that's the 10K of words I have so far. Next likely comes a movement the subterranean realms mapped by Marie de France in "Yonec" as well as the Breton lay Sir Orfeo.


If physical things are described as firm and hard, this is clearly the case only for whatever tries to move them. (Graham Harman, Prince of Networks 143)

miroir d'eau, emptied
            The world is so full of stone that its vibrancy is only sometimes evident. The buildings that house our urban labors rise through collaboration with marble (metamorphic limestone, the skeletons of innumerable organisms), steel (iron alloyed with carbon), concrete (a composite of pulverized rocks, lime, clay and sand), and glass (the mineral sodium carbonate fused with lime, dolomite and other earthy substances). These buildings become streetscapes to which we pay infrequent heed. Lithic ubiquity leads to invisibility. Yet sometimes a startling edifice halts our walk. Pebbles line garden paths and when congealed in bitumen pave roads; we notice them only when they trip or puncture, or perhaps as the glint of rain or oil yields irresistible iridescence. Stone is our preferred material for the monuments, markers, foundations, walls and statues that arrest our progress, as well as for architectures to enable continued motion: bridges, staircases, walkways, highways. From my office in Foggy Bottom I can see bulldozers working the rock-strewn ground where a laboratory rises. Nearby pedestrians tread a sidewalk that weaves cobblestones into its cement, but just as the construction site and its unearthed stones is ambient rather than gravitational, few seem to observe the differences in texture or color. Yet a few blocks away the white columns of the Lincoln Memorial rise, lucent in the morning sun. I suspect that this limestone edifice defies the disregard to which its lithic siblings have been quietly subjected. The immense, neoclassical memorial is difficult to overlook. Its stone shines with a splendor not indifferent to human events: its affective power is certainly intensified by recalling that Martin Luther King delivered a speech about unrealized dreams upon its steps. The marble’s radiance is, however, more than a historical effect.

This chapter explores the radiative power of stone, an inherent and inhuman force that medieval writers called virtus. Modern English does not contain an adequate synonym for that powerful Latin word. I will use “aesthetic power” as a loose translation, though in a modified sense that brings the term aesthetics closer to its Greek root in aisthÄ“ta: “perceptible things,” that which is sensation-provoking, that which triggers extraordinary and perhaps unexpected affective and cognitive relation. Art and beauty have been central to aesthetics since its controversial launching as a science in eighteenth-century Germany, but mainly as static and inactive phenomena to be discerned, judged and savored. Stone teaches us that even the most inert and mundane of substances awaits its “postdisenchanted” reappraisal, revealing itself as temporally thick, relentlessly active and imagination-provoking.[i] A dynamic prod to action, emotion, memory and transformative confederation, aesthetic power must be as germane to things that are repellent or commonplace as to that which is magnificent.[ii] Aesthetics in this formulation will not be subjective (concerned only with individual or cultural matters of taste), but object-oriented and disanthropocentric (following the paths and unfolding the powers of things and materialities themselves). It is a tool for mapping the radiative power of objects, their ability to connect, effect, impede and intensify in ways that are not simply historical or local. Such conjunctive and emissive ability becomes most evident in an interspace, in a meeting of human collaborator with a rock ready to divulge something of the unexpected exquisiteness of its surface, the hidden artistry of its depths, its yearning to become monumental.

Yes, yearning. There will be many such anthropomorphic turns of phrase in this chapter. Their aim is not to suggest that stone acts just like a human. It is not my intention to humanize the lithic, as if assimilation were the necessary prerequisite to a more ethical mode of reading materiality or of thickening human relations to the nonhuman world. Such a method assumes a primal rift then builds what could be an environmental justice upon the presupposition of human dominion, rather than interrogating how that chasm opened and through what exertions that power has been sustained. Cautiously anthropomorphic language estranges. The wonder it engenders enables an exploration of how things -- objects and substances -- sometimes deeply intertwine themselves in human affairs, sometimes withdraw into unknowability, apathy, or indifference, but continually intimate that the exceptionality humans grant themselves is more precarious than patent. This power of things to re-orient the world can be described as aesthetic. It might also be glossed as radiance. It always precipitates astonishment, the state of what in Middle English was written astoned. This ubiquitous adjective derives from the Anglo-Norman French verb estoner, “to stun” or “to be stunned,” which in turn comes from Latin tonare, “to thunder.” Astonish is therefore a word with a sonorous etymology, and indicates the feeling of being outside oneself that arrives at a sudden thunderclap. Yet for both medieval and modern Anglophone audiences “astonish” carries a lithic suggestiveness: a-stoned. Thus Chaucer describes a stunned Pandarus, shamed into silence by Troilus’s rebuke, as follows: “This Pandarus ... stant, astoned of thise causes tweye, / As stille as ston” (Troilus and Criseyde 5.1728-29). Astonished people routinely fall to the ground, as the examples of astoned compiled by the Middle English Dictionary reveal. Heidegger’s designation of stones as weltlos (“wordless”) seems to designate the same state, until we remember that astonishment is a movement, an oscillation. The astoned person returns to consciousness – though perhaps, like Saul after the thunderbolt, no longer quite the same.

Radiance as wonder-making or becoming astoned designates a set of relations and qualities that are ineluctably ethical and aesthetic, with that latter term understood as naming a nonhuman effectivity rather than a culturally projected quality to be applauded. Radiance is a potentially inconstant but nonetheless inherent, agentic, and affective force, the collective name for diverse powers possessed by objects to enable them at times to touch and form alliances with other bodies and forces. Objects may withdraw completely from contact; contact may be withdrawn completely from objects. Both this relation-making power and the ability to recede have profoundly material consequences. Stone becomes at once an inexhaustible force and an entity the secrets of which can never be fully plumbed, no matter how many times or how accurately its possibilities are translated into human terms or assimilated into sustained alliance. Rock thereby opens up a world of things that cannot be reduced to history, use value, relational significance, or a substantiality determined only by cultural incorporation. The lithic possesses an anthropodecentric effect: it reminds that entities subsist regardless of human relations, independent of perception, and are therefore on the same ontological plane as both humans and other objects. The philosopher Graham Harman uses this insight to argue for the integrity and autonomy of all things:

When things withdraw from presence into their dark subterranean reality, they distance themselves not only from human beings but from each other as well. If the human perception of a house or a tree is forever haunted by some hidden surplus in the things that never becomes present, the same is true of the sheer causal interaction between rocks or raindrops. Even inanimate things only unlock each other's realities to a minimal extent, reducing one another to caricatures ... even if rocks are not sentient creatures, they never encounter one another in their deepest being, but only as present-at-hand … The true chasm in ontology lies not between humans and the world, but between objects and relations.[iii]

The material world, that is, can never be constricted into a merely human frame. Rocks form more relations with nonhumans than they do with architects, gardeners, and the pavers of roads. Harman’s aim is to bypass the “weary world/human dualism” not by affirming or overcoming this supposed rift but, with Bruno Latour, “starting with countless actors rather than a pre-given duality of two types of actors,” and thereby shifting “philosophy from its stalemated trench war toward the richness of things themselves” (Prince of Networks 119). To the charge of panpsychism or animism that often arrives when a philosopher speaks of such intentional objects, Harman pointedly replies “Rather than anthropomorphizing the inanimate realm, I am morphing the human realm into a variant of the inanimate” (212). He is in surprisingly good medieval company.

            All rock potentially exerts a relation-making or impeding agency, as anyone who has ever built a stone wall, attempted boulder climbing, or beachcombed and found themselves drawn to a particular stone along a shore strewn with smooth stones knows. Such lithic radiance is the trigger to the geologist Jan Zalasiewicz’s book The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey Into Earth’s Deep History. The compacted energy, mass, gravity and time within a banded fragment of the Welsh shore extends an invitation to wonderment, enabling Zalasiewicz’s travels into paleogeology, a history in which landmasses crush against each other and mountains bulge. Zalasiewicz’s pebble perpetually retains an ability to open stories about a world immeasurably vast, temporally as well as spatially. The medieval historian Geoffrey of Monmouth discovered a similar potency in Stonehenge, the rocks of which have moved over tremendous distances and endure for spans that humans can only with great difficulty conceive. Of the structure’s megaliths Geoffrey has Merlin declare:

‘Mistici sunt lapides et ad diuersa medicamenta salubres. Gigantes olim aportauerunt eos ex ultimis finibus Affricae et posuerunt in Hibernia dum eam inhabitarent. Erat autem causa ut balnea infra ipsos conficerent cum infirmitate grauarentur. Lauabant namque lapides et infra balnea diffundebant, unde aegroti curabantur. Misecebant etiam cum herbarum confectionibus, unde uulnerati sanabantur. Non est ibu lapis qui medicamento careat.’ (History of the Kings of Britain 173)

[‘The stones are magic and can effect various cures. They were brought long ago from the farthest shores of Africa by giants, who erected them in Ireland while they lived there. Their purpose was to set up baths among them whenever they were ill. They used to wash the stones and pour the water into baths to cure illnesses. They also used to mix in herbal compounds to heal wounds. There is not a stone among them that does not have some medicinal power.’ 172]

Merlin knows that the stones radiate power, and that through alliance with them this force can be intensified for the healing of wounds and the ensuring that the memory of those slain in battle never fades. This potency is always there, innate to the stone itself, but can be medicinally harnessed only through a water, herbs and fleshly contact. The structure’s efficacy can also be glimpsed in its ability to catalyze story, here engendering a narrative of rocks moving from Africa to Ireland to Britain through the collaboration of giants, a prophet, ships and men. Stonehenge is agential, even restorative, but that power is known only through gregarious alliance.

[i] “Postdisenchanted” is Carolyn Dinshaw’s term from a roundtable on “Theorizing Queer Temporalities” (185), put to excellent use by Karl Steel in How to Make a Human 244.
[ii] Tim Morton makes a similar argument in Ecology Without Nature.
[iii] The quotation is from Tool-Being 2. Kris Coffield composed the Wikipedia entry for “Object-oriented ontology” and does an excellent job of explicating objects and relations. Compare also this account by Harman in Prince of Networks: “Objects are not defined by their relations: instead they are what enter into relations in the first place, and their allies can never fully mine their ores. In Heideggerian terms, objects enter relations but withdraw from them as well; objects are built from components, but exceed those components … An object stands apart – not just from its manifestations to humans, but possibly from its own accidents, relations, qualities, moments, or pieces” (132, 152).


Karl Steel said...

Mutt : Ore you astonaged, jute you?
Jute : Oye am thonthorstrok, thing mud.
Finnegans Wake 18

Eileen Joy said...

This is gorgeous writing. Is there any way to disentangle the *inhuman* aesthetic power of stone from our ability to perceive that? I see here that you will take the object-oriented route to attempt just such an exploration--will you discuss the *sensual* versus the *real*, a la Harman as well, as one way of approaching the stone-everything else intermesh?