Sunday, March 18, 2012

Elemental Relations and Elemental Participations

by J J Cohen

I flew to Detroit last Thursday to participate in the Journal of Narrative Theory annual Dialogue. This year's topic was Nonhumans: Ecology, Ethics, Objects and I was scheduled to present with Tim Morton. My plane was a bit delayed arriving due to severe weather in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but I didn't take the extra forty minutes we spent circling the airport to be an omen of anything to come. It was.

The event began beautifully. Craig Dionne, who had labored to make the day perfect, started with some remarks about the objectives of the series and his hopes for the evening. Eileen Joy then introduced Tim and me, connecting our work in ways that were generous and illuminating. I began my presentation, which I'd timed carefully to work with an automated PowerPoint of photographs of stone and flame that I've taken over my past few years of travel. Five minutes into the talk and the audience had heard me begin the framing of the project (and seen projected a makeshift inuksuit on the shore of southern Maine, the entrance to Newgrange, candles burning in Sagrada Familia, and pebbles on a Jewish grave in Montparnasse). A garbled announcement intruded from the hallway, but I spoke over it, assuming it had nothing to do with us. Then a man entered the room and announced that we needed to take shelter immediately as we were under a tornado warning. He led us to a large, windowless auditorium into which everyone in the EMU student center had been packed. The air conditioning was not yet functional (it being only March) so we sat in that noisy space together for the next two hours and watched on a giant screen the progress of the F3 tornado as it descended nearby. Out of boredom, a student group recited poetry. Some Girl Scouts engaged in Duck Duck Goose. I pretended I needed to use the restroom several times so that I could look at the deluge outside. You can read quite a vivid (and affirmative) account of the unfolding events here. Fortunately -- miraculously, really -- no one was injured by this whirlwind, but many homes in a nearby town were smashed.

The strange thing is that when we were evacuated to the shelter I was just arriving at the portion of my paper about bolted doors bursting open and the elements or some monster rushing inside.

After the long, hot duration of the auditorium we were given an all clear and returned to the room to continue the event. I told Craig I was perfectly willing to condense my talk on the spot to a ten minute overview and give up on a performance. It seemed to me that we had all the conditions in place for the emergence of something memorable: one of those rare events when formality dissolves and everyone admits that they've already bonded because of what has unfolded and instead of a talk you have a conversation, one in which everything can change. At that point, honestly, I was more interested in a vigorous Q&A than in being an actor with a visual accompaniment: the tornado had intruded and its aftermath should not be to carry on as if the elemental relations had not been profoundly altered. So I gave my brief version, Tim read his own paper very quickly, and then we had a far-reaching discussion of why all of this matters anyway. It was great.

Here, below, is a slightly expanded version of the paper I would have delivered. It incorporates some material that will appear in the Ecomaterialism essay on "Fire" I co-wrote with Stephanie Trigg, and no doubt the stone sections will find their way into the book I am supposedly composing. Imagine lovely pictures of stones and fires dissolving into each other as you read it and you'll have the effect of my PowerPoint as well. 

Let me know what you think.

Elemental Relations

In truth we know that the wind is its blowing. Similarly the stream is the running of water. And so, too, I am what I am doing. I am not an agent but a hive of activity. If you were to lift off the lid, you would find something more like a compost heap than the kind of architectural structure that anatomists and psychologists like to imagine.  
(Tim Ingold, “Clearing the Ground”)

How then can we claim that roads and buildings are part of the material world, if rain and frost are not? And where would we place fire and smoke, molten lava and volcanic ash, not to mention liquids of all kinds from ink to running water? 
 (Tim Ingold, “Materials Against Materiality”)

Today I’d like to explore with you what happens when we produce a story, an ethics and a world with the elements.
This project may seem retrograde and humanistic, but only because I am going to admit from the start that we’ve fucked up the world we inhabit. Unless we can refashion our relations to materiality and objects and the nonhuman, we may end up in a grey place of stumps, fumes and sludge – like the ending of The Lorax, when the grumpy little ecologist hoists himself by his keister and vanishes into the smog (though in the film version I hear he drives away in a Mazda SUV). Yet even if we wind up schlupping across a dark ecology, that’s not the end.[1] From Tim Morton I have taken that sonorous word schlup, which sounds like it ought to be Yiddish but isn’t, as well as the notion of a dark ecology; and as Tim insists, even toxic sludge possesses aesthetic power and, like mountains and SUVs, numbers among the “irreducibly unique” objects that compose our world. Sludge is produced (by humans, by factories, by elements) and is likewise productive (of feelings, of stories, even – perversely - of life). 
So let’s start with the blunt fact of production, that consummate noun of relations. Tim Ingold argues that “to produce” is an intransitive verb: whether affects, perceptions, artworks, story, or toxic matter, we insistently produce. Ingold is speaking only of humans, but the nontotalizable amalgam of forces and substances that we call the world likewise produces without necessary object. Among its products are numerous recording devices: things that inscribe, transmit and intensify relation. Our longest functioning clock and fullest archive are geological strata, lithic pages filled with monsters and primal history and future destinations. Other libraries include tree rings, ice cores and DNA, even if these devices hold more data than evident story. If narrative is a history minded yet future-saturated process of artful connection-forging, then humans are among the world’s most finely attuned story machines. Only stone has fulfilled this charge better than we have.[2]
Narrative is not merely human, but a mechanism, being or object exterior to any author and itself alive, as Eileen Joy has inspirationally traced in her recent work.[3] A worlding and a voice for nonhumans, narrative is one instance among many of the artworks and monuments created by the volatile composite which in convenient shorthand we designate the world. Through ceaseless human and inhuman generation emerges a densely populated thingscape. Differences between objects and bodies are not necessarily keen, but that is not to say that the world is undifferentiated: as our various object oriented ontologies have insisted, everything has its integrity, dignity, and mystery. With humans and inhumans alike, then, we will ideally foster ethical relation: complicated, hesitant, consequence-minded interconnection that thickens, fructifies and affirms.
The elemental relations I’ll trace depend upon narrative, the substance through which meshes, mangles and networks are articulated, documented, vitalized. Narrative provides Graham Harman the vehicles for his myths and poetic flights, Ian Bogost his estrangement apparatus, Tim Morton his multimedia machinery of envisioning, crafting and dissemination. As Tim writes:
Reading a text is a profoundly ecological act, because ecology, at bottom, is coexistence (with others, of course), which implies interdependence.[4]
Acts of reading are acts of ecology, which must in turn be ethical acts. Reading a text is an action performed with something already agentic. Don’t get me wrong: I realize we’ve turned away from the linguistic turn, and I am not arguing for the primacy of text over reality. Today I want to follow how narrative -- which is at base a propinquity that triggers relations and transmits their burgeoning or failures – how ecological narrative is a kind of nonhuman substantiality intimately related to the ethics of worlding. Narrative is not the only means we possess for plumbing our environmental entanglements, but it is among the most efficacious. Story-making is our most potent magic. It’s elemental. That sounds quite abstract, I know, so I will ground this investigation in the foundational, in that through which humans humanized themselves. My argument engages the most intractable of materials and pursues the most fleeting. To get elemental I will turn to inscriptive stone and combustive fire: one is archival, the other obliterative; one the material of our earliest surviving tools, the other a chemical process through which we transformed every landscape into which we stepped.
Smallerthan gods and larger than atoms, the elements offer a human-scale entry into nonhuman relations. The elements are amenable allies because unlike vast divinities or minuscule particles their narratives are noisy but audible, their activity energetic and obvious. I’m most interested in the slowest and the swiftest, rock and flame, because they are the most challenging to contain within customary frames: though both are processes as much as substances, we human story-making devices don’t naturally inhabit lithic or igneous temporalities. Our moderate duration is closer to air and water. Yet fire and stone likewise flow, at least when we accept their invitation to abandon anthropocentric measures of time. My analysis travels from the present day to the Middle Ages and prehistory. Since humans are narrative machines, and since stories archive the fertile past and pulse with futurity, I concentrate on old tales. Like Stonehenge, they have had more time to draw meanings to themselves.
Our elemental confederates are more ancient still. Their intimacy extends to billions of years. They’ll remain here together long after we’re gone. Despite my invocation of inhuman time scales, I’m not going to tell a story indifferent to homo sapiens: that’s too easy. Dreaming a world emptied of human presence, like dreaming the apocalypse, often suggests a failure of the imagination: ridding the world of its most troublesome occupants instead of committing to the more difficult project of laboring to foster the ethical relations required to compose a more just worldedness. I am not arguing that elements do not relate to each other on their own, outside of human terms. As Graham Harman has made clear, when “the gap between humans and world” is “privileged over the gaps between tree and wind, or fire and cotton” (Prince of Networks 67), we end up reinscribing a tiresome anthropocentricity that measures all things solipsistically, as if humans were the apex of the universe rather that one creative and productive agent among many. Time neither culminates nor ends at the Anthropocene, and even though we are irremediably human it does not follow that the measure of all things should be our limited senses.
Yet this object oriented realization does not allow us to wave good-bye to an earth we’ve ruined, departing for realms that aren’t so postlapsarian, Edens that remain unspoiled because it’s impossible to dwell in them. We are not the Lorax and we can’t hoist ourselves above the clouds. Through human scale elemental relations I hope to avoid scientism and theology, roaming a world without atoms (no electron microscopes or ardor for precision required) and a world without gods (no Big Other so no answers in advance, and no outside to what we’re intractably within). Our world: a co-inhabited realm of humans and inhumans, neither the measure of the other, a stormy fiery watery earthy text-littered expanse that isn’t anthropocentric, but that also isn’t indifferent to me as I am telling you this story and you who listen and consider, for a while, how roiling the ground beneath us might be, how inadequately or well we have constructed our shelters – this very auditorium – with and against the elements, what happens when the door blows open and something unexpected enters.
We travel to medieval Iceland, and two stories of sudden advent. In both a door will burst from its hinges and a dangerous stranger will arrive.
Hold on.

A Story of Fire and Water, Rock and Gale
Twelve men warm themselves round flames in a tempest-battered hall. The sea rages, thunder at the rocks, but the men drink beer against the elements. A troll bursts through the door, his garments made of ice. They attack the creature with sticks pulled from the blaze. The next morning where the hall once stood is seen only “a huge pile of ashes, and in the ashes were many human bones.”[5]

A Second Elemental Story
Travelling with merchants who fear they will not survive the night without fire, the warrior Grettir strips to his tunic and swims across a stormy harbor towards a blaze. Encrusted in briny icicles, he enters the hall with a tub to convey some logs. He is attacked immediately. The straw on the floor ignites. Grettir returns. When the merchants seek their benefactors the next day, they find only “a huge pile of ashes, and in the ashes were many human bones” (Grettir’s Saga 38).

Two stories of burst doors and elemental intrusion, but they are both the same story, a diptych of narrative perspectives. The fourteenth-century Grettir’s Saga contains both within a single narrative unfolding: troll and warrior are one. The saga is an intricately woven story of a warrior who had the misfortune to be born as the Viking Age dwindled into farmsteads. From his youth Grettir is exceptional in size and strength. The son of a farmer, he finds himself too large to be contained by a pastoral frame. Through the eyes of the twelve men on the Norwegian shore, icy Grettir bursting into their revel is a monster, barely distinguishable from the elements that keep them in the hall; from his own point of view, Grettir is undertaking a heroic act, a supremely cultural endeavor. Only after the bleak revelations of the next day will he realize what he, hungry flames and the clinging sea have ignited. Grettir’s decapitation on a lonely island will be the culmination, almost twenty years later, of the chain of events sparked by his swimming for fire here.
            Grettir’s saga unfolds with slow precision, its intricacy driven by its perspectivism. Few details go to waste. Yet despite its capacious ambit, Grettir’s saga reveals the anthropocentric limits of all texts. The tale of the stolen fire is narrated from Grettir’s point of view as well as from that of the men within the besieged hall. As Skapti the lawman says before rendering judgment on Grettir’s deed, “a story is always half told if only one side speaks” (46). But isn’t there a third side? What about the jetties of land that anchor the narrative, the rocky places of refuge without which all the men might have been swept to their cold deaths? What of the sea that swells and pummels, the ice and hail that immobilize through relentless bombardment? The perturbed air that with its gusts threatens one group with hypothermia, and cannot lessen the merriment of the other, secure from its bite? What about the fire that shimmers, warms, consumes, and is transported? No less than incinerated sailors, tiresome merchants and unlucky warriors, these elements must possess story. Water is the Viking roadway, stony islands their farms and bivouacs, the matter of foundation. Flames that reduce timbers and men to ash exert material as well as narrative agency: as the transmutation of substance; the combustive vanishing of stories that might have been; as the ignition of narrative chains that will end in Grettir’s death. Human actors in the saga jostle with a swarm of nonhuman characters. Even humans become objects of a sort, sometimes walking in death, forming their uncanny alliances with subterranean spaces or the shimmer of the moon behind winter clouds. These objects and elements are active, effective, powerful. Like the undead humans, lively in their afterlife, they have compelling stories to unfold.
When graves refuse to still their occupants, we might worry about the unfinished business of ghosts that return. But we also might not limit our attention to human bodies: what about sepulchral spaces themselves? Might they also be restless, even in a way alive, and might the wandering of the dead convey that material vitality? The Old Icelandic term for what we’d call a zombie or vampire is draugr or, more interestingly, aptrgangr, “return-walker,” a person still moving after he is supposed to have been reduced to a corpse’s inanimation. The dead are supposed to be as immobile as the stones beneath which they are buried; but what if those rocks also reveal themselves as exerters of unexpected agency, holders of an uncanny life? Rock is our most inert substance, our cliché for inaction, our symbol for givenness, an element that Heidegger declared weltlos (worldless), the very substance of the impassive Real. We found our lives upon a base of stone but do not take stone’s power to initiate into account. What if we did?
Our myths might change. Having thought that he was clever enough to outwit the gods, Sisyphus is doomed to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have the rock fall repeatedly back. Yet Michel Serres argues that we impoverish the story’s possibilities when all we behold is an allegory of transgression and justice:
We never see anything but ourselves … What if, for once, we looked at the rock that is invariably present before our eyes, the stubborn object lying in front of us?
Serres explores what happens when we find in the tumbling stone of Sisyphus not the outcome of a judicial process (as if a court of law has sovereignty over materiality), but an agency that does not originate in the human and might operate indifferent to crime and punishment. Attention to the weight of the rock upon the shoulders of Sisyphus gives the lithic a voice that raises the narrative’s ethical stakes, allowing that the stone might be something more than a prop. For Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour, however, Serres does not push the perspective shift far enough. His rock is the plaything of physics. Whether gravity or justice moves the boulder, the stone itself remains inert. What if “storms, heat waves, and glaciers taking shape or changing shape before our eyes” – all the elements that roil our ecologies – had the power to “compel us to remix science and politics,” to rethink with slow care our relations to materiality, this time with less anthropocentricity, less moral certitude (“Morality or Moralism” 323)? When the world is figured as a wilderness of forces alien to us, a collection of resources for mastery and profligate consumption, then its elements become that against which we build a house and hope the door holds firm. Yet if through and with these same forces we devise modes of deliberative coinhabitance, we will better discern the network of relations that bind us to the destructive and creative powers of the nonhuman. Ethics is best served not by certainty and prescription but hesitation and tentative connection, a carefulness fostered through multifarious rather than comfortably anthropocentric narratives. The task of ethics is not simply to unmask, debunk, or demystify. Critique typically strives to enlighten by revealing the social constructedness of its objects (as if construction were a kind of untruth) or the false consciousness of its texts, by a revelation of a reality beyond mere appearances. Ethics, especially an environmental and thereby elemental ethics, might instead embrace a process of composition in which nature and culture are inseparable and “there is no world of beyond.”[6] This process of production and composing might also be described as a call to occupy.
But how to occupy an element? Let’s start with the most difficult case, rock. Stone is our trope for immobility. Water undulates, air is ceaseless in its agitations, fire leaps so quickly we need time lapse to capture its motility, but earth stays put.[7] Stone is the fixed point from which origins may proceed, moorage in a volatile world. Our lapidary nouns arrive saturated in metaphor, our vocabulary for the commencement and secure construction of even that which is immaterial. “Written in stone” denotes the permanence the lithic bestows upon the verbal. Moses transports the Ten Commandments from Sinai incised upon stone tablets. The petrification of these words is the declaration of their originary status and sacred permanence.[8] Stonehenge and the menhirs of Brittany have survived far longer than the peoples who erected them. Immobile, immune almost to time, stone signifies material endurance.[9]
Yet stone seldom makes good on its promised stability. “Rocky” mean precarious, troubled, unsteady. Landslides and earthquakes reveal the sporadic rapidity of earthly motion. For all its petric durability Moses shatters in anger the first edition of the Ten Commandments. The medieval travel writer John Mandeville describes a sea composed of shifting gravel, gray pebbles constant in their surge. The seventh-century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville went so far as to grant earth the same restless mobility as its three elemental siblings: “The world (mundus) is so named, because it is always in motion (motus), for no rest is granted to its elements” (Etymologies 3.29).
Isidore’s insight is a prescient summation of two related philosophical arguments, Actor Network Theory (aligned with Bruno Latour and Andrew Pickering, among many others) and vibrant materialism (a phrase coined by Jane Bennett in her recent work on political science and ecologies, but an approach that has much in common with Tim Ingold’s anthropological work on materiality). Both these modes of reconceptualizing materiality stress the agential power of that which has been too long assumed inert. Despite the lithic’s propensity to undermine its own cementing into metaphor, for example, few would grant it animation, let alone agency. Because lapidary movement is natural (this logic goes), it must be a link in a causal chain with initiation elsewhere. An inert material through which the actions of humans, gods or natural forces are made manifest, rock is our metaphor not only for stability but for lifelessness: “as cold as any stone,” stone dead. Rock can certainly injure. We all know what people dwelling in houses of glass are not supposed to hurl. Yet stone’s ability to cause harm must depend upon motion that arrives from another source: the foot that treads the rock’s oblivious point, the rain and gravity that propel the mudslide, the slingshot that hurls the pebble towards the giant’s brow. Stones are insensible, passive, worldless. Earth is the material from which God fashions life in Genesis, but clay or dust requires divine breath (ruah) to ambulate.  
When premodern texts describe jewels in active terms, the contemporary reader is therefore startled. In his compilation of classical and patristic wisdom, Isidore writes that the gem astrion “shines with the gleam of the full moon” and enhydros gushes crystalline water like a fountain (16.13), while galactitis exudes a milk that can cause forgetfulness and will render the breasts of nursing mothers more productive (16.10). These active, emanative descriptions must be misapprehensions of impassive geological qualities rather than a recognition of some liveliness within stone, some ability to engender ecological connections that look like movement, even desire. Isidore’s ascription of activity to the gems he describes no doubt makes clear why works like the Etymologies had to be left behind for recognizably modern science to commence. Disenchanted and geologized, Isidore’s stones lose their glimmer,. Sort the rocks into the display cases of the museum, admire them from afar as the colorful products of immense subterranean pressures and mineralogical comminglings, accidentally beautiful but devoid of life. Do not say that they act, move, or desire.
Except they do.
A fossil ammonite sits on my desk, a treasure purchased years ago at Harvard's Museum of Natural History. Its allure was inescapable. I'd been contemplating rock’s function as our sign for that which is stubborn, lifeless, impedimental. Yet the halls through which I had just passed, where cases of gems and minerals attract hundreds of visitors, where fossils announce the primordial intertwining of organic life and lithic activity, eloquently declare that stone is never so passive. The ammonite became my totem object, my mineral familiar. These shelled invertebrates appear in the fossil record about 400 million years ago, and vanished with the dinosaurs.[10] This remnant of a vanished world unfolds a compelling story of lapidary transformation. The curve of its shell evidences the ceaseless motion that is stone, manifesting how ancient invertebrates learned over the long years to produce lithic houses. Trillions of such creatures dwelled inside extruded carbonate and upon their death were compressed into sedimentary stone on the seabed, a material for future cathedrals. Sometimes instead of being pulverized into limestone, an ammonite shell was colonized in its entirety by minerals, transmitting to the distant future a record of its once having inhabited the earth. Neolithic peoples prized these serpentine fossils and worked them into their own architectural creations. They could not have known about natural selection or extinction, nor did they likely measure temporal spans geologically, but they certainly discerned in fossil remains a living art, an intensification of the world's truths.
My ammonite shell declares that organic life petrified itself, took stone into and upon itself because it sought durability, desired stone’s ability to confer persistence and motion. Exoskeletons became endoskeletons: organic creatures interiorized calcium, rendering the lithic that which upon flesh is hung so that it can swim, soar, run. Stone, the fossil's curves intimate, is anything but inert. It circulates through lively systems of relation, long-lived networks or meshes that energetically intermingle the organic and the petric. The ammonite is an organism that self-lithicized, and became a rock when stone repeated that process, infiltrating what had been soft body and making flesh its own. The spiraling shell is the record of strange and vanished life as well as an invitation to the contemplation of cosmically complicated helices, of the agency and movement that unfold outside human duration but are not invisible to apperception. Even stone not shaped by human sculpting holds stories to impress upon those who yield to its allure, who discern in its magnetism, tectonic creep, corkscrews and gyres not unending stasis but slow mobility, vibrant substantiality.
The fossil ammonite that has insisted upon service as my spirit guide is perched at the edge of my office desk. Almost all who come to visit unthinkingly take hold of the petrified animal when they sit down to talk. They palm its heft, run their fingers along its elegantly ridged coil. That a hand should instantly yearn to touch that durable whorl reveals the intimacy of movement to desire, manifesting the expansive meshworks of nonintentional connection within which bodies and objects, human hands and lithic spirals act together, companions of an epochal road.[11]
To quarantine matter (limestone, sea, sand, shell) from life (the extinct mollusk, the one speaking these words, you sitting in the audience today) – to quarantine matter from life enables us to disregard “the vitality of matter and the lively powers of material formations,” including those possessed by rocks and metals.[12] Anthropocentricity promises a world that belongs to us, resources awaiting our use. The current ecological crisis suggests the limitations of such a viewpoint. Disanthropocentricity intimately involves temporality. Although we employ the word “material” to denote “some stable or rock-bottom reality, something adamantine,” in fact objects like coal, diamonds or iron chains “appear as such because their becoming proceeds at a speed or level below the threshold of human discernment” (Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter 58). Any body, object or materiality might couple to any other in this tumultuous ecology, charged with possibility.
Such an active materialism returns to Isidore’s gems their ability to enchant. Humans become one actant among many within a turbulent mesh.[13] Agency circulates within and emerges from proliferating connections. The movement that is causality or desire is evident as a phenomenon that thrums throughout this distributive lattice, a network devoid of lonely initiators and uncomplicated resultants. Such heterogeneous, chaotic and creative assemblages are “living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within” (23). In this dispersive account animation is not the exclusive property of organic bodies, nor a synonym for intentionality, autonomy or singularity. Certain epistemological habits and hermeneutic frames may render it difficult to discover or express, but this “anthropomorphic” vitality of matter would seem to be a universal truth, discernable to any observer attuned to its presence. Even stone becomes lively. Given enough time, its motion is as fluid as wind and wave.
Or fire. In contrast to slow and dense stone, flame is the most fleeting of elements, the most rapid, the most enamored of oblivion. Texts incised upon rock endure centuries, but the lesson of the Asburnham House blaze of 1731, which incinerated the Cotton library and singed the Beowulf manuscript, is that ephemeral fire consumes narratives more easily than conveys. Flame signals a change in materiality and is not itself substantial. Yet Stephen J. Pyne has composed what he calls “fire history,” a mode of ecological analysis attentive to material and biotic relations from the deep past in order to reimagine contemporary modes of inhabitance. Fire history illuminates the intimacies among humans, the elements, and living ecosystems, stressing that the alliances constitutive of such expanses come about through the agency of all involved. Pyne’s critical method does not distinguish all that well among fire-wielding humans, fire-loving plants like the eucalyptus, and fire itself: all are self-adaptive and promiscuously symbiotic agents, acting in uncannily similar ways within the possibilities and constraints of the environment in which their actions unfold.
Returning to Grettir’s saga and the stolen fire at its center can illuminate these points. A fire history of the saga starts with the fact that despite the preponderance of other elements in the story, flame impresses itself upon the narrative repeatedly. The text’s landscapes are sweeping because they lack trees, an absence which once recognized makes evident the ecological impress of the work’s generative environment. By the time the story was written Iceland had long been deforested.[14] Firewood was a gift from the ocean. Flame is nonetheless tangibly present. Its zeal for collaboration with humans and its power to radiate warmth determines the architecture of the many halls and houses that Grettir inhabits. Fire is the gravitational force around which sleeping arrangements are organized and the daily progress of domestic chores arranged.[15] Fire burns repeatedly throughout the text, drawing or frustrating or intensifying narrative action: a slow unfolding of an environmental awareness in which humans are not lonely actors within or masters of the ecosystems they inhabit: an ethics of composition rather than imposition. This perspectivism is so potentially multiple, in fact, that fire must retain an ultimate mystery.[16] There must remain in fire stories and possibilities unknown to those who play with it: potentials never exhausted, secret spaces where fire smolders or flares indifferent to warriors and merchants and curses. Fire’s withdrawal will matter to human relations as much as its burning presence – though this object oriented environmental ethics does not allow us to opt out of the world we co-inhabit. You can’t leave a mesh.
As the unintended house fire ignited by Grettir makes clear, of its own volition the process that is fire will seek unceasing incendiary relation. Fire will not necessarily remain encompassed by the hearth’s circle, or by a human story. Fire perilously spreads. We inhabit the known world through ancient alliance with flame, and yet human intentions, human stories are not able to circumscribe its incendiary ardency, even if they domesticate its intensity for a while. Playing with fire leaves you burned, thinking with stone leaves you smarting. Elemental relations quicken as they bind, thicken as we cultivate an ethical complexity with their materiality and force. They emerge within narrative but they do not necessarily become servants indentured to anthropocentrism. Narrative enables the envisioning of realms at times indifferent to us, thingscapes that often excludes us, but through that imagining we connect and interdepend all the more deeply. Materially, ethically, narratively we’re too entangled to escape this call to dwell with rather than despite, against, or through.
Narrative is the relational machine of ethics, and the perspectivism of stories is our complicated but unremittingly productive angel of connection. On ground that is never firm, lit by dangerous burnings that are also our sine qua non, we imagine more just modes of coinhabitance. Through stories of stone, fire, wind and water we attend with slow care to the ethical bonds that ally us with a thing coming always into being: with that impossible and always already ruined but absolutely essential converging of restless elements that is the world.
            As Empedocles insisted, what binds the elements is love.

[1] “Schlup” and “dark ecology” are both from Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007) 159.
[2] But we have a possibility that the lithic does not: our narratives have more ethical potential, because we possess a deliberative power to create relations that more or less just, more or less harmful. Stones are not indifferent, but (because I am human) I prefer the best ways that humans love over how rocks demonstrate their desires.
[3] See for example “Notes Toward a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism,”
[4] He continues, “What I call the ecological thought is the thinking of this coexistence and interdependence to the fullest possible extent of which we are capable.” See the “Ecological Thought - Mission Statement” at
[5] Grettir’s Saga, trans. Jesse Byock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) chapter (p.110). Further references by chapter number. For the Old Icelandic I have consulted the edition of Örnólfur Thorrson (Reykjavik: Mál og menning, 1994).
[6] Bruno Latour “An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto,” New Literary History 41 (2010):471-90, quotation at 475.
[7] I will use lithic words like “stone” “earth” and “rock” and “gem” almost interchangeably throughout this book, even if (for example) a gem is obviously a very special kind of stone. These terms could be differentiated, as Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) did in his Etymologies, but they remain forms of the same substance. Thus for Isidore stone is dense earth; stones are smooth and rocks (saxum) are aggregates, and so on, but all belong under the same heading (Etymologies 16.3)
[8] Along these same lines, Jean-Pierre Vernant has written that the transformation of ancient Greek law from a memorized and spoken form to a code inscribed on buildings in public spaces changed the reception of this law as well as the society that now inherited what seemed a legal system as fixed and durable as stone itself. See The Origins of Greek Thought 52-60. Levi Bryant observes: “law written on the side of a building takes on a sense of eternity and universality by virtue of enduring through time … the medium has a tremendous impact on the content. We can’t say that the content is something that is just there before such that one and the same proposition expressed in speech and writing are identical, but rather content seems to come after.”
[9] Kellie Robertson has rightly observed that “the basis of any time period’s view of nature is based on its views of material substance” (“Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto” 105). By starting with materiality as expressed in metaphor (that is, in everyday as well as literary language), I hope to make clear that I will derive my medieval “views of material substance” not primarily from intellectual culture (e.g., not from the scholastic project to reconcile an Aristotelian notion of form giving meaning to substance with biblical exegesis), but from literary and scientific texts that do not theorize matter so much as place it into motion. That is, I am most interested in the stories in which stone is entangled (as an actor, even a kind of inorganic character) rather than in the stories told about it (where stone is something to be described from a distant, a taxonomic approach that emphasizes separation, abstraction, and inorganic interness).
[10] “Some of the most common and distinctive fossils in the Secondary formations had no obvious counterparts at all in the present world. The most striking examples, and certainly the most frequently cited in this context, were the ammonites … They displayed an astonishing diversity of form, and they varied in size from a coin to a cartwheel; clearly they represented a profusion of different species. Yet not a single ammonite shell had ever been found in the present world.” (Martin J. S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time 247)
[11] By “nonintentional” I mean that volitionality is mainly beside the point; sometimes it comes into play, sometimes it does not, but intentionality is ultimately discerned retroactively, as an outcome or emergent effect of these networks.
[12] The quotation is from Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter vii.
[13] “Actant” is a term borrowed from the philosopher of science Bruno Latour, who employs the word to emphasize that nonhuman objects and collectives may possess agency. For a comprehensive introduction to Actor Network Theory, see his Reassembling the Social. “Mesh” is the favored term of Timothy Morton in Ecology Without Nature. Andrew Pickering, whose work also informs this chapter, conceptualizes this connective interrelation as a mangle.
[14] See Ian Y. Ashwell and Edgar Jackson, “The Sagas As Evidence of Early Deforestation In Iceland,” Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe canadien 14 (1970): 158–166; William R. Short, Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2010) 121-22.
[15] Fire is integral to the structuration of inhabited spaces and the social relations that unfold within them. To give an early example, when Grettir is experiencing his troubled childhood we are told “It was the custom on the farms to build large longhouses, and in the evenings people sat on both sides of the central long fire. Tables would be set up for eating, and afterwards, people slept alongside the fires. During the day it was here that the women worked wool” (chapter 14, p. 35). The Icelandic word for this long house is eldaskáli (“fire-hall”) or eldhús (“fire-house”). See Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson, An Icelandic-English Dictionary (1874), accessible electronically at
[16] A necessary hesitation within our world-making relations to the element is easier to inculcate once we acknowledge the ultimate incapacity of our narratives to domesticate fire’s wildness. Graham Harman observes that “No one sees any way to speak about the interaction of fire and cotton, since philosophy remains preoccupied with the sole relational gap between humans and the world.” “On Vicarious Causation” Collapse II (2007):187-221, quotation at 188. Cf. Prince of Networks: “No matter what variations we play on this theme, whether through absorbing the supposed things-in-themselves back into the human subject, or denying that the question makes any sense in the first place, the gap between humans and world always remains privileged over the gaps between tree and wind, or fire and cotton” (67).



Anonymous said...

seems to me that narrative is dependent on a whole bedrock of practices/habits, most of which are non-conceptual and without which words are just words. that said how we frame and justify things certainly does matter. might be worth looking at some of Dreyfus' work on ethical development and his presidential address @:

jeb said...

Jeffrey I was going to stop commenting but I should be encouraging this.

I suspect you're thoughts would be most helpful for people like myself who think entirely in visual terms dealing with the order imposed on things in university.

At university you are dealing with people who for the most part don't think in this way and order, contrast and classify very differently. Processes things in a very different way and struggle to understand different modes of thought and ways of working that are based entirely on vision.