(from the book in progress)
When a geologist writes that “the pebble holds strange worlds within it” he is providing a contemporary scientific version of the journey “in at a roche” that Sir Orfeo takes in the fourteenth century, following a fairy retinue into an alternate universe enclosed by stone.[i] Yet it is just as true to observe, as does Wislawa Szymborska in her poem “Conversation with a Stone,” that when a human declares “I knock at the stone's front door / It's only me, let me come in,” the likely reply will be a lithic rebuff: “I don't have a door.”[ii] An opening that might enable human-lithic communication is not necessarily easy to discover, especially when we expect that something as alien and integral as stone will offer ready and easily recognizable entry.
In mapping the passionate relationship between the human and the lithic, this book contributes to the material turn in recent critical theory, a revaluation of matter as agent (or, to detach agency from intentionality, as actant) rather than inert, passive, or immobile substance. Understanding subjectivity and communal identities is important, and has thus been the main work of literary and cultural critics for decades. As Kellie Robertson has pointed out, however, an exclusive focus upon subjects “has obscured the very intense interest medieval texts show in objects and their ability to shape human consciousness” (“Medieval Things” 2). Ian Bogost notes that things are generally welcomed “into scholarship, poetry, science and business” only on the condition that they “relate to human productivity, culture and politics” (Alien Phenomenology 3). This insistence that what exists exists for us, within a mediation between mind and world, Quentin Meillassoux rejects as “correlationism.” When matter exerts its right to be the protagonist of its own story perspective alters radically: another Copernican revolution, but with multiple realignments.[iii] The earth no longer revolves around human self interest, but burgeons chaotically and contingently with proliferations of narrative, none of which exerts such gravity that some totalizing system will orbit its center.
Among the many theorists aligned with the new materialism, actor network theory and object oriented philosophy are David Abram, Stacy Alaimo, Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, Ian Bogost, Levi Bryant, Mel Y. Chen, Patricia Clough, Elizabeth Ellsworth, Graham Harman, Tim Ingold, Serenella Iovino, Eileen Joy, Jamie Kruse, Manuel De Landa, Bruno Latour, J. Allan Mitchell, Timothy Morton, Serpil Oppermann, Michael O’Rourke, Andrew Pickering, Michel Serres, Karl Steel, Isabelle Stengers and Patricia Yaeger. Working at the interface of the humanities and the sciences, these scholars examine the inhuman without assuming human exceptionalism; refuse to separate culture from nature, discourse from materiality; do not subordinate agency to intentionality or anthropocentricity; share a belief that human perception cannot stand outside the world, cannot distance itself from the nonhuman, because humans are always of the world, irremediably within its thickness; and are committed to enabling things, objects, forces to participate in story, even to form an expanded democratic parliament (from the verb parler, to speak) in the interests of environmental justice. As medievalists know well, “thing” is a Germanic word meaning a convocation, a meeting, and a matter of concern, while similar romance nouns (French chose, Italian cosa) come from “cause” (Latin causa).[iv] Nonhumans gather themselves into powerful collectives, form unexpected relations, speak strange stories in which humans may or may not figure, trigger and act in narratives of their own. No longer “monarchs of being,” humans become “among beings, entangled in beings, and implicated in other beings.”[v] For matter to matter, Stacy Alaimo has persuasively argued, “concern and wonder” must converge in an ethics which takes as its context not what is “merely social but material – the emergent, ultimately unmappable landscapes of interacting biological, economic, and political forces” (Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self 2). Alaimo articulates this ethics through what she calls trans-corporeality, the enmeshment of body within the more-than-human world: “’The environment’ is not located somewhere out there, but is always the very substance of ourselves” (Bodily Natures 4).[vi] Stone’s intimacy demands more-than-human temporal enmeshment as well, so that ecology must become Long Ecology, an affectively fraught ethics of non-human relation that unfold within a frame vast in both its spatial and temporal range.
Bringing the insights and energy of the new materialism to a reinvigorated environmental humanities, Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann compellingly argue for “new conceptual models apt to theorize the connections between matter and agency on one side, and the intertwining of bodies, natures and meanings on the other … rethink[ing] ontology, epistemology, and ethics – being, knowing, and acting – in terms of radical immanence.”[vii] As a mode of re-enchantment the new materialism proclaims a fact well known during the Middle Ages, if differently apprehended and expressed: matter possesses creative power and intensely alien activeness. Although constructed (by atoms, by elements, by hands, by forces), matter is never merely constructed (not merely conceptual, not a social or discursive fabrication, not passive). Matter remains irreducible to its context or constituent components.[viii] In its most serious attempts at reorienting philosophy to take account of objects, to grant the inhuman its profundity, this reinvigorated materialism moves beyond the “environmental wholism from John Muir to James Lovelock” to insist that “one type of existence – [organic] life” should no longer uncritically comprise “the reference point for thought and action” (Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology 7). The world is filled with things “animate but not living” that when placed “at the center of a new metaphysics” require us “to admit that they do not exist for us” (Alien Phenomenology 9).
Much of the material world moves within temporal scales too swift or unhurried for capture by unaided perception. Its agency unfolds via enmeshments and object relations indifferent to human participation or witnessing. One promising entryway into comprehending this vivacity is offered by the word network. Associated with the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, Actor Network Theory (ANT) offers a mode of understanding inhuman agency that insists that nature and society are not pre-existing, separate and self-evident realities. Neither possesses explanatory power, and no human/world duality preexists.[ix] A stone enters into multifold relations with other entities, creating through these connections hybrid and quasi objects that can be composites of lithic and nonlithic elements, all of which have the potential to assert a distributed, emergent agency. Objects are best understood in action, because that is where their relation-making force emerges. A rock exists in the alliances it can support, defeat, foster or resist. Within such a network all matter is a potential actant, since it has the power to enable or resist, to trigger unexpected effects. If ANT has a downside, it is a tendency to think of objects as being wholly absorbed into the networks in which they participate. The philosopher Graham Harman argues that no two objects can really touch each other (all touch is mediated; all causation is therefore indirect or vicarious), and that objects always withhold a part of themselves from every relation (we never possess access to an object in its entirety; we will never know a thing directly, in its fullness). This approach is often called speculative realism or object oriented ontology (OOO). Like medieval theology, OOO discerns mystery in the nonhuman world, but whereas for theologians materiality reveals that God exists beyond all human categories, for object oriented philosophy materiality itself exists beyond all human categories. Because relations among nonhumans vastly outnumber relations between humans and nonhumans, no object or thing is knowable in its entirety. The inhuman is inexhaustible.
When humans lose their privilege as arrangers of the world, a flat ontology ensues, but not a flat ethics: “all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally” (Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology).[x] Timothy Morton, OOO’s foremost ecotheorist, observes that the challenge becomes “to figure out how to love the inhuman” (The Ecological Thought 92) – or perhaps, better, to recognize how forces like geophilia have always already performed that love. Emphasizing ontology, relation, integrity, and multiplicity of scale, object oriented approaches insist upon the particularity of nonhumans. Stone enters into numerous relations as a stone, a rock, a landslide, as a singular entity rather than a plural and generic substance (a medieval philosopher would say: in haecceity rather than quiddity). A stone-oriented ontology would grant lithic autonomy, as well as a lithic indivisibility and distinctiveness. Stone will always evade full scrutiny, will always hold in its depths an illimitable potency.[xi] The anonymous writer behind the London Stone twitter account (@thelondonstone) framed this combination of love, relation, mystery and impossible demand perceptively when the stone tweeted:
I'm not asking you to worship me, just pay me a little love. I mean, if you want to form a new religion with me at the centre, do feel free.This fragment of medieval London, now set in a cage along a busy stretch of Cannon Street, modestly demanded a petrocentric reordering of contemporary human life.[xii]
Ian Bogost has coined the word “ontography” for OOO’s bestiary-like process of “documenting the repleteness under one tiny rock of existence.”[xiii] A chunk of quartz is as inexhaustible to meditation as Guernica, the Canterbury Tales, or Stonehenge. More inheres in objects than will ever be patent: a withdrawn reserve, an unbreachable mystery.[xiv] The fourteenth-century poet John Gower offers a medieval version of this object oriented insight when he imagines that the sun’s crown is fashioned from precious gems, three of which are “stones whiche no persone / Hath upon erthe” (“stones which no one on earth possesses,” Confessio Amantis 7.823-24). He names these luminous gems “licuchis,” “astrices” and “ceramius,” designations that are very close to but do not precisely coincide with stones from the medieval lapidary tradition known for their power to radiate intense light. Gower’s solar rocks remain locked in the heavens: they cannot be encountered or touched by humans. The lithic is a more than mundane material. It shimmers in the sky, vibrantly out of reach.[xv] OOO is a form of realism (it attempts a careful account of the autonomy and materiality of the world, and is not satisfied with analyses that disperse things into language, as if human words had sovereign power). Yet its realism is weird, meaning that this world is not reducible to common sense, the evidence of the mind, or other modes of imposing human order upon unruly nonhumans and their surprising agency.[xvi] Thus OOO shares expressive affinities with speculative fiction -- science fiction, horror and fantasy. Medieval versions of these strange genres include romance, lays and lapidaries, giving those who study the Middle Ages a natural entry into this critical conversation.
Even more than Latour and Harman (both of whom possess a poet’s ardor for the beautiful), Jane Bennett describes a world enchanted by the vivacity of the nonhuman – a vision, Bennett observes, with deep affinities to “nonmodern (and often discredited) modes of thought” (xviii), modes that offer overlooked resources for a revitalized ecological sensibility. Her notion of vibrant materialism is intimate to the modes of inquiry often grouped beneath the label of the new materialism. In Bennett’s account a rock is not recalcitrant, for to label it with such an adjective is only to narrate the world from a human point of view. All materiality is inherently lively: it exerts agency, regardless of human alliance or intention (which is, in Bennett’s description, “like a pebble thrown into a pond” : the efflorescence of outcomes is seldom final and never certain). This omnipresent vitality, “obscured by our conceptual habit of dividing the world into inorganic matter and organic life,” invites us to a nonanthropocentric ecology, one in which the activity of stone matters.[xvii] An aesthetics as well as an ethics, vibrant materialism insists that action unfolds through distribution among an assemblage of actants, through confederation as well as conflict. This vexed field of intentionality, desire, effectivity and surprise bears some resemblance, Bennett argues, to Augustine’s agonistic description of the postlapsarian human will: “the will wills even as another part of the will fights that willing” (Vibrant Matter 28).[xviii] Yet agency is never the same as intention. Desire is often realized retroactively, through the accumulated evidence of patterns and effects. If we encounter the world “as a swarm of vibrant materials entering and leaving agentic assemblages,” then “what was adamantine becomes intensity” (107), and no object remains still. Or lifeless: “A life thus names a restless activeness, a destructive-creative force-presence that does not coincide fully with any specific body” (54).
My reading in contemporary philosophy, ethics, and ecotheory has assisted me in framing this book’s project. Stories of Stone is not, however, an attempt to impose modern critical theory upon medieval materials. ANT, OOO and vibrant materialism are resonant with some medieval ways of conceptualizing matter, especially in the genres that this book explores. In the end, though, what I attempt is to generate and frame an interpretive structure from the ground up: from stones themselves, from their activity, transmissiveness, relations, powers and virtus as recorded in late medieval encyclopedic, scientific and literary texts. I am less interested in the vast schemata supposed to explain materiality in advance (religious doctrine, Aristotelianism, alchemy) than in how medieval matter moves through texts, what it does more than what it is. A human witness might be necessary for stony agency to be recorded, for story to be composed, but most of the texts acknowledge that lithic qualities and activities exist with or without an observer. Stones originate in an act of divine creation, but tend to be examined not as celestially predetermined objects but as things in the world. Their enchantment does not lead inexorably to theology. Even without recourse to alchemical discourse, philosophy’s stone – that thing that is unthought, that chunk of the real that typically stands for blunt, insensate, immobile and impassive materiality – becomes the lapis philosophorum, the agent by which dull lead attains radiance, that al-iksir or elixir or undefinable substance through which mortal bodies might obtain a geological duration rather than their brief human span, that “privee stoon” (secret rock) that withdraws from knowledge even as it precipitates movement, creativity, frustration, explosion, and exploration without end.[xix]
But how to narrate geophilia’s lively story? How to find words for stone?
[i] Jan Zalasiewicz, The Planet in a Pebble 39. The crossings between romance and geology are also betrayed by the name of the “strange world” that Zalasiewicz’s pebble opens: the now-lost continent of Avalonia, “one on which – much later – King Arthur would reign, and Shakespeare would write sonnets, and a revolution that would spread factory chimneys and iron foundries across the world” (Planet in a Pebble 33). The quotation from Sir Orfeo is line 347.
[ii] Wislawa Szymborska, “Conversation with a Stone,” Poems, New and Collected 62-64, quotation at 64.
[iii] I’m using “Copernican revolution” in the broad sense developed by Meillassoux, not simply as the astronomical decentering of earthly observers but “the decentering of thought relative to the world within the process of knowledge … the recognition that thought has become able to think a world that can dispense with thought, a world that is essentially unaffected by whether or not anyone thinks it” (After Finitude 115-16).
[iv] On these etymologies and efficacies see Michel Serres, Statues 294, 307.
[v] The quotation is from Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects 44. See also the entire first chapter of Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology.
[vi] Cf. “an ethics that is not circumscribed by the human but is instead accountable to a material world that is never merely an external place but always the very substance of our selves and others” (Bodily Natures 158). When this shifting of viewpoint is applied to the geologic it enables what Ellsworth and Kruse describe in their introduction to Making the Geologic Now as a movement “from seeing the geologic as matter to seeing it as process; from seeing the stuff of the world we live in as being passive object and inert thing to seeing and sensing it as process and as vibrant matter; from perceiving form as ideal, fixed, or achieved to seeing it as motion; from perceiving humans as the culminating achievement of all of geologic time to seeing ourselves as mammals included within the geologic—as living within what is alien and previous rather than as living within a romanticized nature” (19).
[vii] The quotation is from Serenella Iovino, “Stories from the Thick of Things” 450. Serpil Oppermann, in the second part of this diptych they composed, offers this inspirational mission statement: “Material ecocriticism demonstrates a performative engagement with this world of becoming and meaning making, and attempts to form a unique materialist perspective which gives equal importance to discursive practices and the material parameters of the world through which meanings are enacted. It stands at the intersection of ecological and postmodern ideas that converge on the new ontologies of matter and agency, as well as on the new ethics that considers the mutuality between physical-nonphysical, technological-natural, and human-nonhuman aspects of life in contemporary reality” (“A Lateral Continuum” 469).
[viii] Iovino and Oppermann (“Theorizing Material Ecocriticism: A Diptych”) offer an argument carefully modulated against linguistic constructionism but not against postmodernism. I would go further and argue that where the new materialism and the Middle Ages (broadly speaking) meet is in posthumanism, since the former is very much a part of that intellectual movement and the latter knows we have never not been posthuman. See especially the essays gathered in the inaugural issue of postmedieval, “When Did We Become Post/Human?” ed. Eileen A. Joy and Craig Dionne. For an important caution that the “new” in “new materialism” can too easily obscure the long tradition of feminist work that has enabled its emergence see Sara Ahmed, “Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the `New Materialism.’” Finally, for a persuasive argument that from the point of view of linguistics thought and language are not equivalents (language possesses a materiality that thought cannot; it is also animated, “as much alive as it is dead,” generative and creative), see Mel Y. Chen, Animacies 51-55 and 75-82.
[ix] Timothy Morton makes a similar point throughout The Ecological Thought, arguing that modern Nature is a kind of ghost or mirror of the human, so that even “the idea of pristine wilderness” is a version of our own obsession with private property: “Keep off the Grass, Do Not Touch, Not for Sale” (5). Of the ecological crisis Latour writes compellingly that the first step towards addressing its problems must be to comprehend the necessary failure of our terms: “Concern for the environment begins at the moment when there is no more environment, no zone of reality in which we could casually rid ourselves of the consequences of human political, industrial, and economic life. The historical importance of ecological crises stems not from a new concern with nature but, on the contrary, the impossibility of continuing to imagine politics on the one side and, on the other, a nature that would serve politics simultaneously as a standard, a foil, a reserve, a resource, and public dumping ground” (Politics of Nature 58)
[x] In “The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder” Bogost writes that “If ontology is the philosophical study of existence, then object-oriented ontology puts things at the center of being. We humans are elements, but not the sole elements of philosophical interest … OOO steers a path between scientific naturalism and social relativism, drawing attention to things at all scales and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much as ourselves.” Flat ontology has been misconstrued, sometimes deliberately, as a denial of ethical relation or an objectification of humans, especially humans who suffer. Alex Reid observes “I don’t think that a flat ontology denies the existence of asymmetrical relations. It doesn’t deny that humans are more important for humans than other objects or that humans can, and often do, have asymmetrical roles in the networks in which they participate. What a flat ontology does refute is the idea that the universe has some inherent great chain of being that puts humans at or near the top. What a flat ontology does critique, in a Latourian style, is the divide of humans and nonhumans in the modern world that puts ALL the agency on the human side” (“The Object Industry”).
[xi] Eileen Joy articulates the critical possibilities of OOO eloquently when she writes in a comment to Alex Reid’s “The Object Industry”: “turning one’s attention to animals, objects, post/humanism and so on is precisely about thickening our capacity to imagine more capacious forms of ‘living with’; it is precisely about developing more radical forms of welcoming and generosity to others, who include humans as well as trees, rocks, dogs, cornfields, ant colonies, pvc pipes, and sewer drains; it is precisely about amplifying the ability of our brains to pick up more communication signals from more ‘persons’ (who might be a human or a cloud or a cave) whose movements, affects, and thoughts are trying to tell us something about our interconnectedness and co-implicated interdependence with absolutely everything (or perhaps even about a certain implicit alienation between everything in the world, which is nevertheless useful to understand better: take your pick); it is precisely about working toward a more capacious vision of what we mean by ‘well-being,’ when we decide to attend to the well-being of humans and other ‘persons’ (who might be economic markets or the weather or trash or homeless cats) who are always enmeshed with each other in various ‘vibrant’ networks, assemblages, meshes, cascades, systems, whathaveyou … work in post/humanism, and in OOO, is attentive to the world, which includes and does not exile (or gleefully kill off) the human (although it certainly asks that we expand our angles of vision beyond just the human-centered ones); it is both political and ethical; and it is interested in what I would even call the ‘tender’ attention to and care of things, human and inhuman.”
[xii] I am thankful to Tom Prendergast for sharing his ongoing research on the London Stone with me.
[xiii] The quotation and bestiary reference are from “The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder,” and the explication of ontography is in Alien Phenomenology 35-60.
[xiv] Object withdrawal is Graham Harman’s translation of Heidegger’s notion of entziehen. See “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer” 187. For an excellent overview of speculative realism and object oriented ontology which traces their genealogies and wrestles with the critical objections posed against both (especially by feminism and queer theory), see Michael O’Rourke, “’Girls Welcome!!!’: Speculative Realism, Object Oriented Ontology and Queer Theory.” O’Rourke emphasizes that, like queer theory, OOO cannot be reduced to well delineated metatheory, and emphasizes its “promissory nature,” “provisionality” and “welcomeness to its own revisability” (279). I would add that these dialogic and adaptive vectors, as well as an inbuilt openness, are due in large part to the fact that OOO and SR have been incubated via blogs, social media and open access publishing.
[xv] Behind these withheld stones have been placed in the sun’s crown gems better known from lithic lore, such as crystal and adamant (diamond). Russell Peck provides thorough notes referencing the appropriate lapidaries in his edition.
[xvi] Harman writes: “The problem with individual substances was never that they were autonomous or individual, but that they were wrongly conceived as eternal, unchanging, simple, or directly accessible by certain privileged observers. By contrast, the objects of object-oriented philosophy are mortal, ever-changing, built from swarms of subcomponents, and accessible only through oblique allusion. This is not the oft-lamented “naïve realism” of oppressive and benighted patriarchs, but a weird realism in which real individual objects resist all forms of causal or cognitive mastery” (188)
[xvii] Bennett glosses vitality as “the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” Vibrant Matter viii).
[xviii] Bennett is not making an Augustinian argument for agency, even if both stress the dispersed and conflicted ways that will unfolds. Bennett, like Latour, emphasizes the agency of the inhuman, stressing that “human intentionality can be agentic only when accompanied by a vast entourage of nonhumans” (Vibrant Matter 108).
[xix] “Privee stone” is Chaucer’s description of the infinitely deferred philosopher’s stone in the “Canon Yeoman’s Tale” 1452. Gower speaks of the “philosophres ston” and its relation to alchemical learning in the Confessio Amantis 4.2523.