Sunday, February 17, 2013

Stories of Stone: An Introduction

by J J Cohen

[read Karl on werewolf portraiture first!]

Below, the draft introduction to my book Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. Work proceeds at a geological pace. Let me know what you think.



Three Geonarratives
1. Like a Rock (Duration)
Bereft of family, home, possessions, and health, Job wonders how anyone endures the world’s calamities. “Nec fortitudo lapidum fortitudo mea nec caro mea aerea est,” he laments: “My strength is not the strength of stones, nor is my flesh of brass” (Job 6:12). Rocks and hard metals possess a lastingness no mortal flesh can own. Nothing like unyielding stone, the suffering Job submits to sorrow and speaks a story of unbearable humanity. A vertiginous shift of perspective unfolds when God asks Job where he was when the foundations of the earth were placed (“ubi eras quando ponebam fundamenta terrae?” 38:4). Does Job know the thunderous activity of the elements -- rain that cascades for no human witness, ice that hardens like stone, stars that whirl the heavens, the boundlessness of lands, the yawn of the submarinal abyss? Can Job discern the life of a vast world and the expansiveness of eons? Job’s complaint is rebuked through the invocation of temporal and cosmological scales that diminish the human to its vanishing.

A stone’s endurance is not Job’s. And yet Adam was fashioned “de limo terrae” (Genesis 2:7), from mud or clay. Like stones, human materiality mingles earth with water. Only one possesses through God’s breath a living soul (“animam viventem”), and that difference might make shared origin irrelevant, even as a petric inheritance renders Job’s complaint a little more complicated (he is in fact suffused with stone’s strength, or at least with rockiness). By the thirteenth century, however, the philosopher and scientist Albertus Magnus had repeatedly to refute the idea that stones possess souls, so lively do rocks appear when examined not in comparison to humans but in their humane companionship. Despite its incalculable temporality, the geological is intimate, not some vast and alien outside.

II. Like a Mountain (Ambit)
         In a seminal work of environmental writing Aldo Leopold introduced to the ecological lexicon the resilient phrase “thinking like a mountain.”[1] Leopold’s short essay by that name begins with a wolf’s howl, an “outburst of wild defiant sorrow” that reverberates in sonic progression down a mountainside. To deer the cry is a warning of mortality; for pines an augury of blood upon snow; to scavengers an announcement of the feast to arrive; for ranchers the howl is loss; for hunters, prey. The wolf’s relation to each human and nonhuman is different, and the deepest constitutes a knowledge both epochal and recondite: “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf ... mountains have a secret opinion about them” (129). Leopold learns of this withdrawn relation when, dreaming a huntsman’s paradise, he shoots a wolf and her pups. The peak without its pack, however, quickly becomes a barren space. The deer proliferate to devour every leaf, impoverishing the ecosystem. Eventually the “starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much” (132) join the denuded undergrowth. Because a mountain persists so much longer than trees, coyotes, bucks and people, its rocky expanses hold the profundity of a long temporality. The wolf is the ally of the mountain in its long duration, of the mountain that abides in terror of the deer grazing its slopes. The mountain gathers a vast meshwork of relations that entangle every struggling life and imbues even stone with an ecological vitality.

Leopold performs a rhetorical move familiar in environmental writing, employing a strategic anthropomorphism to deepen human sensitivity to nature’s precariousness. “Thinking like a mountain” stresses the stabilities achieved by diffuse biomes and the dangers of human disruption. Yet a mountain is also something more than Leopold’s allegory for Edenic nature, something more than a figure in a human story of expansive natural enmeshment. Relations do not create things like rocks and mountains; things like rocks and mountains are what enable relations to flourish. Leopold’s range is too small. To think like a mountain requires a leap from the ephemeral stasis of short temporal spans. In the geological frame within which mountains exist, pinnacles rise and fall in fearsome undulations. Summits ascend when tectonic plates push against each other, crumble as water wears granite to dust and carries to estuaries material for the manufacture of new stone. Continents smash against each other then break to wander the sea. The tracks of living creatures are the barest of archives, their howls and speech the most fleeting of traces.

III. Like a Rolling Stone (Perspective)
         Bruno Latour writes of the objects that crowd laboratories and living spaces, their compliance or resistance when humans form their alliances with them, and their collaboration in composing the narratives that become facts. A progenitor of Actor Network Theory, a mode of inquiry that finds in nonhumans a powerful efficacy, Latour argues that objects are agentic rather than passive, energetic mediators rather than idle tools.[2] The object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman likewise describes things as “actants, forever lost in friendships and duels” (Prince of Networks 21). Their stories are lost when they are reduced to a deeper play of forces or dissolved into overarching context. Every object holds unfathomable reserves and cannot be equated to anything else as a way of depleting its possibilities. “Miniature trickster objects turn the tide without warning,” Harman observes, so that even the smallest stone can trigger consequences disproportionate to its scale: “a pebble can destroy an empire if the emperor chokes at dinner” (Prince of Networks 21).

In invoking an imperium-toppling pebble to illustrate the power of the nonhuman, Harman participates in a long tradition of mining the philosophical from the lithic. Stones are the partners with which we build the epistemological structures that may topple upon us. They are ancient allies in knowledge making. Thus Harman reveals in a shoreline rock an adventure in deep time and the science of inhuman forces: “It is easy to view a pebble on the beach as a black box to be collected or thrown, until a geologist teaches us the stress of volcanoes or sediments through which the pebble was slowly assembled” (Prince of Networks 36). The philosopher Michel Serres goes farther, positing stone as the foundation of story at every archeological layer of human history:
The people of Israel chant psalms before the dismantled Wailing Wall: of the temple, not one stone remains standing on another. What did the wise Thaleäes see, do, and think, by the Egyptian pyramids, in a time as remote for us as the time of Cheops was for him? Why did he invent geometry by this pile of stones? All Islam dreams of traveling to mecca where, in the Kaaba, the Black Stone is preserved. Modern science was born, in the Renaissance, from the study of falling bodies: stones fall to the ground. Why did Jesus establish the Christian Church on a man named Peter?[3]
Lithic agency impels human knowing, feeling, and the wandering that is being. A rock is not a construction or a concept, not dead matter or pliant utensil. Whether a pebble or a volcano, a mountain or a meteor, a stone is a passage into action, a catalyst, a cause. We love the Greek myth of Sisyphus and his frustrated labor of pushing a boulder up a Hadean hill. From an allegory for proper subservience to the gods Sisyphus becomes an existential hero, his embrace of the world’s absurdity a triumph of the human will. As Michel Serres wryly observes, however, no one relates the story of the endlessly tumbling stone that accompanies him into aeonic time. Stone abides at the origin of story, but a narrative in which it might figure as something more than an ancillary device, a protagonist rather than prop, has yet to appear.

What if the myth of Sisyphus is not about a human or a stone, each in its solitude, vying perhaps for the status of protagonist, but instead a story of the bond between the two: a human who grasps a boulder that never ceases to tumble, a human and a stone perpetually together in motion, hands upon hard surface, rock against hands, an epochal embrace?

Set in Stone
         This book is something of a thought experiment, attempting to discern in the most mundane of substances a liveliness, agency, vibrancy, companionship, and a spur to ceaseless story. Its spur may be glimpsed in a question posed by the environmental theorist David Abram about the stony limits of ecological thought. After enjoining contemplation of the “dynamic enigma” of a capacious material world with which humans are continuous and that includes skies, pines, birds and homes, Abram hesitates:
What of stones – of boulders and mountain cliffs? Clearly, a slab of granite is not alive in any obvious sense, and it is hard to see how anyone could attribute such openness or indeterminacy to it, or why they would want to.[4]
Rocky texts and lithic architectures from the Middle Ages provide an excellent response to Abram’s query. Medieval writers knew well that the world has never been still, that humans may dream a separation from nature, from cold and fundamental stone, but they never achieve that desire. An ecological consciousness suffuses human knowledge, even when we turn away from that awareness.[5] We need more models for thinking about the nonhuman from as many times as possible, nature with our art and art with our science. The Middle Ages are a good place to discover such challenging stories. As Julie Cruikshank has demonstrated in her work on local ways of knowing, an important lesson of postcolonial studies is that the Enlightenment divorce of nature from culture is to be interrogated rather than assumed. Indigenous epistemologies often frame worldly relations in ways productively different.[6] As medievalists know, conceptualizing the human (homo) as separate from nature (natura) did not take seventeenth-century science to achieve. In the Middle Ages, just as today, enmeshment subtends that supposed separation at every turn. Medieval nature could be conceived in a multiplicity of ways, not all of which predicate bifurcation. As the environmental historian Richard C. Hoffmann observes, because humans were created to rule over the natural world “literate medieval Europeans” assumed that they were “separate and distinct” from it, even if both were part of a sublunary realm (“Homo et Natura, Homo in Natura” 11). Yet because humans are a microcosm, because medieval writers were creative and intellectually restless, because the world is complicated, that supposed distinctiveness is actually quite a tumult. Other structurings were possible. Alternate models are most evident in textual performance: we learn as much about nature from history, chronicle and romance as from technical discourses such as natural history and lapidary science. A generic distinction between science and art in the Middle Ages would, moreover, be exceedingly difficult to maintain.

This book excavates some “local knowledge” about lithic ecomateriality in the late Middle Ages, especially in Britain.[7] I do not offer a progress narrative in which medieval myths, misprision and occult knowledges (alchemy, etymology, natural philosophy, astrology, lithotherapy) build a foundation for or yield to modern cosmology, chemistry, geophysics, medicine and plate tectonics. Nor am I arguing for a return to the search for the philosopher’s stone, not positing that crushed gems will relieve the symptoms of gout or ward against inebriation, but I do insist that medieval writers thought about stone in ways worth investigating for the challenge they pose to an overly disenchanted world. Inhuman agency undermines that dualism which enables humans to set themselves apart from environment, a bifurcation that renders nature “out there,” a resource for recreation, consumption and exploitation. Pondering the medieval use of petrifying tropes applied to people and to matter invites us to examine the persistence of these lithic modes of thought, to discern the queer life that looms beneath every still surface, to apprehend less anthropocentric modes of understanding materiality. Thinking geologically brings the medieval and the modern into unaccustomed proximity, and reveals how, when imagining deep time, a shared vocabulary of cataclysm becomes a propensity for producing story and collaborative art.

Much recent scholarly work on the inhuman reveals an ardor for an unpeopled world. While the project of this book is disanthropocentric, its methods stress alliance, continuity and mutual participation over the solitary and the exclusive. Stories of stone will always in part be human stories, even if the worlds they convey make a problem of that category rather than celebrate some specious natural domination. This book plumbs the petric in the human and the anthropomorphic in the stone in ways both wondrous and discomfiting. Catastrophe limns the investigation, but companionship propels its trajectory. I speak therefore of the “inhuman” to emphasize both difference (“in-“ as negative prefix) and intimacy (“in” as indicator of estranged interiority).[8] In Britain in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the provenance of many of the primary texts examined, stone’s favored genres are the encyclopedia, the lapidary, history and romance. This generic proclivity arises from the preoccupation of these speculative modes of writing with an exploration of matter’s power, as well as the desire that suffuses their narrative structures: erotic desire, sometimes, but also a diffuse magnetism that invites readers to find in the mundane an astonishing vibrancy, a liveliness, unpredetermined possibilities. Along with this offer of unexpected connection, romance, historiography and the medieval science of stones are genres in which things speak, story-filled encounters with the inhuman. Romance is intimate to history; indeed, history forms its matter.[9] The burgeoning of romance within historiography is easily discernible in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s seminal account of King Arthur, a narrative of stone towers, rocks within which dragons slumber, and the peregrinations of Stonehenge. Romance also seeps at strange moments into scientific texts, including lapidaries, the wonder-filled biographies of stones.[10] Romance and lapidary rumination both know that the world is full of forces and objects that proliferate disruptive relation and possess uncanny vitality. Although inherently anthropocentric, such narratives unleash ecologies-in-motion that subtly challenge that orientation, that offer alternative visions in which a gem of cold gleam touched by water explodes in sudden storm, or a stone that calls out to be held burns the hand that grasps its heft.[11]

A stone is that mundane object upon which a philosopher might perch in order to think, a support that will remain, quite literally, below notice. Yet stone is the most intimate of human confederates: the foundation of the inhabited world and its most durable affordance, the material of our earliest tools, a lasting substance for our architectures, an epistemological ally (“calculate” derives from calculus, a pebble used for reckoning), a communication device that carries into distant futures the archive of a past otherwise lost. Such are stone’s story-laden activities. In a prescient example of the environmental humanities at work, the medieval history Lynn White Jr. wrote in 1967 that “all forms of life modify their contexts.” Coral polyps have rearranged the seafloor into new biomes, while for six millennia “the banks of the lower Nile have been a human artifact rather than the swampy African jungle which nature, apart from man, would have made it.”[12] Yet as stone suggests the objects and forces that compose these material contexts are seldom inactive as such human and animal modification unfolds. They leave a tangible impress as they form or break relations with their coinhabitants. Stone has for too long served as a metaphor for blunt factuality, for the givenness of the natural world. Medieval writers knew well that stones drop with fire from the sky, emerge through the subterranean lovemaking of the elements, tumble along river beds from Eden, travel the world in the holds of ships, exert magnetic pull, cure diseased bodies, pulse with astral energies. To examine a quarry from the eyes of a miner, a block of stone as a mason or sculptor, a boulder as a climber, a gem as a lithotherapist, a fossil as theologian or paleontologist is to behold in the lithic its material dynamism. The only way to excavate, mold, surmount, transform, or tell a story with stone is intensely to inhabit that preposition with, to move from solitary individuations to ecosystems, environments, shared agencies and companionate properties. The anthropologist Tim Ingold writes of the “condensed stories” that become evident when we move beyond a focus on the physical world (which “exists in and for itself”) to the environment (“a world that continually unfolds in relation to the beings that make a living there … a world of materials”).[13] In the interstices between boulderer and granite face, between ecologist and mountain, between Albertus Magnus as he composes a text about rocks and the mines he explores to know better their ways, a lithic vitality unfolds. This mineral life is, to use Jane Bennett’s apt word, vibrant: pulsing, radiant, thrumming with possibility. When stones are examined not as fixed and immobile things but as a roiling material, will facts likewise begin to ambulate? After the bedrock of our reality reveals its unrelenting slide, will our perceptions, cognition, and ecological sensibilities also shift? Will the nature of nature change?

“Nature” is a difficult word. It names something at once “everywhere and nowhere,” leading critics like Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour to argue that we are better off without the term.[14] But what if nature, refracted through the geological, were understood as inter-factual (knowledge arises within mediated spaces), trans-corporal (a phenomenon of bodily crossings and hybridities), trans-material (forces and things that may be at times be utterly indifferent to homo sapiens but not to other nonhumans, with whom a multitude of relationships are composed)? Once stone reveals its vivacity, shouldn't our ethical relations to the nonhuman -- nature, environment, ourselves -- become more complicated? If stone is not that of which we are certain (foundation of thought systems as well as houses, an imperturbable solid upon which we build our truths), but a material as inexhaustible in its mystery as provocative in its vitality (a substance and force so much more ancient, so much denser, so much more powerful than parvenus humans), then shouldn't our relations to stone move beyond the utilitarian and the dominating to become at once more hesitant and gregarious?

Stone does not carry stories passively forward, a compliant surface for inscription. Stone is always entangled in the narratives it yields: as spur, as ally, as provocative and complicit agency. In medieval exegesis stone’s story ends when it becomes a symbol for the workings of the divine, so that like all created substances rock exists to yield a reminder of “a God beyond human categories … beyond the world in unimaginable and unanalyzable darkness or light.” Though this formulation is taken from Carolyn Walker Bynum’s description of the theology of Nicholas of Cusa (Christian Materiality 17), his faith that the purpose of earthly matter is to reveal supernal might is a medieval Christian commonplace. At its most acute, this yearning for traces of the divine in the secular leads to water, wood, earth, cloth, wax, oil or bone that shimmer with saintly power as relics.[15] Yet to resolve all material agency in divine providence potentially renders matter inert, or at least ends its narrative in foregone conclusion. In the Middle Ages materiality exists to reveal something about God, certainly, but it also reveals something about itself, something that cannot be wholly subsumed into allegory.[16] Medieval writers were reverent enough to believe that all creation owed its genesis to divinity, and realist enough to know that this origin did not resolve the chaos, cataclysm, and inexplicable but palpable material agency with which they dwelt into a wholly satisfying order or a finished story.

I focus in this book on stone as a raw or minimally worked substance rather than as a product of human shaping, such as in cathedral building or sculpture. While stone in the careful hands of an artist or mason is as plastic a substance as wood, and a favorite material for transformation into effigies, tombs, and churches, these lithic metamorphoses demonstrate the power of human impress more than the virtues of stone itself. Much stone sculpture tends towards the anthropomorphic: a cross, a cathedral and a statue are all versions of the human figure. Art also offers a perpetual invitation to think nonanthropomorphically. The lithic archive bequeathed from the Middle Ages includes engravings that dance with their viewer into nonhuman realms: the kinetic radiance of Pictish hybrid creatures, Anglo-Saxon interlace, Irish vortices and whorls, all the petroglyphs and patterns that surface stone’s lithe motion. This book, however, takes as its main focus the relations of humans to stone that may be hewn but has generally not been domesticated into sculpture or icon, into a display of human craft. The stones examined are not unrefined. The pages that follow are full of gems worked by skilled hands to intensify their glimmer. Stonehenge may have been inspired by natural formations but its immensity is the work of generations of artists, and its stones bear petroglyphs. The rocks of the Holy Land are important for the human and divine history with which they are intimate. In the end, however, I am less interested in impress than alliance, invitation, and advent: not stone as a malleable substance that can be shaped into desired forms so much as the lithic as an active partner in the shaping of worlds.[17]

I will sometimes use the words “stone” “rock” “mineral” “gem” and their related adjectives “lithic” and “petric” interchangeably in this book, but they are not exactly synonyms. Medieval geological designations were, however, more precise in theory than practice. Thus the Middle English noun “ston” could designate any lithic chunk from the smallest pebble to a towering section of Stonehenge. The Middle English Dictionary defines the noun along an ascending scale: “A discrete piece of rock, esp. one of small or medium size; a stone, pebble; also, a large discrete piece of rock, a boulder; a standing stone, monolith.” Geological terms were variably differentiated among classical and medieval writers, although the substance they designate is typically given an origin that repeats some version of Aristotle’s formulation: earth (an arid, powdery, restless element, one of the four from which the world’s materiality was composed) is admixed with binding water.[18] Just as in contemporary geology, medieval lapidary science held that each stone bears a story about the time and place of its creation. Jan Zalasiewicz examines a pebble that “contains time itself” to tell a story of the “thousands of corpses” from the Silurian sea, thick with the plankton compressed within its grey hardness (Planet in a Pebble 101), while the thirteenth century polymath Albertus Magnus beholds in saphirus a story of sandbanks in ancient India and mines in Provence, of swirling clouds suspended in translucence, of the calm the gem brings to those who gaze upon it (Book of Minerals 2.17). For medieval writers the traction of remote stars and circling planets, fluctuations of heat and cold, and the peculiarities of local environment leave their ineluctable impress upon stone at its formation, with a gem indicating an especially precious instance of lithic genesis. Cosmic and ecological imprinting imbues a stone with its virtus (Latin) or vertu (French and English), its inherent powers or agency. Many objects that classical and medieval authors listed as stones we would now separate as organic products (seashells, gastroliths, fossils), but medieval lapidary inclusiveness makes clear that stones were fascinating not because they offered a changeless substance but because they are themselves engendered through long process and trigger actions as they move through the world. For the encyclopedist Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636), all stone is dense earth, but stones (lapides) tend to be smooth and scattered (that is, they are individuals), while rocks (saxa) are rougher and must be quarried (Etymologies 16.3). For the Bartholomaeus Anglicus and his English translator, stone is “colde and drye, sadde and fast, harde and heuy, and moueþ dounwarde by his owene heuynes and weight” (On the Properties of Things 16.74). Metals are intimately related to stones, and are often described as an especially watery version of the petric.[19] Stones and metals are, for Albertus Magnus, the two types of minerals. Albert goes on to write that all stone is formed of a combination of earth and water (Book of Minerals 1.1.2-3), with the former element dominating in the densest stones and the latter in the most crystalline, yielding translucent gems. Albertus observes that earth is an arid powder devoid of the ability to cohere, and water enables its congealing into stone’s familiar forms. Avicenna insisted that “terra pura lapis non fit” (“pure Earth does not make stone”), and Albertus quotes this pronouncement approving: stone is a durable record of the elements in union.[20] This origin in earth and water holds true for Albertus no matter if the stone should originate in a volcano, a hot spring, earthly depths, an oyster shell or the bladder of a sparrow. Bartholomaeus repeats the declaration of Ambrose that stones are the bones of the earth, for they make the world stable and prevent its fabric from fragmenting (On the Properties of Things 16.74). He then adds that without the lithic humans would not be able to fabricate their worlds. Stones are “nedefulle” for the making of houses, walls, pavement, bridges. They keep us safe from enemies, wolves, hounds and “oþere euel bestes.” They draw out metals and cure illnesses. They are the foundation of the courts of kings and the fabric of cities, towers, castles (16.74). Stone is the substance of the inhabited world. The medieval geological is, in the end, not all that dissimilar to Manuel de Landa’s use of the word in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History to designate “dynamical elements (energy flow, nonlinear causality) that we have in common with rocks and mountains and other nonliving historical structures” (20), a commonality that belies our “organic chauvinism” (103).

Exploring the vivaciousness, variation and agency of the lithic, this book is an interlocutor in some lively critical conversations: medieval studies, ecotheory and environmental studies, postcolonial approaches to the past, posthumanism, and the new materialism (including vibrant materialism, the “geologic turn” of cultural studies, and object oriented philosophy). As a primal materiality, stone is a symbol for that which is bluntly real, a synonym for mere thingness, a figure for recalcitrance, even silence. Stone therefore enters these discussions as an unlikely – and all the more valuable -- participant. This turn to the inorganic may seem surprising to readers who know that my previous work has examined such topics as the cultural work of the monster; the precariousness of human embodiment and its dependence upon animals, objects, dreams; the medieval body; the creativity and violence that explode in contact zones; the complications of race; the vexing multiplicity of time; and the inextricability of the human from the material world within which it is enmeshed. This book continues these investigations but brings them to a limit case: the lithic, supposedly the most inert of substances, the foundation that is taken for granted, an object that incarnates all that is dull, cold and simply real.[21] Through stories of stone the chapters that follow discern an aeonic companionship of the ephemeral and the enduring, the organic and the material, and discovers in these fellow travellers a shared liveliness, desire, incessant motion, surprising agency and astonishing art.


“Geophilia (The Love of Stone),” the first chapter, deploys elemental theory from the philosopher Empedocles alongside actor network theory, the new materialism, and object oriented philosophy to offer a recursive meditation on the enduring intimacy of human and stone. Geophilia is a pull, a binding principle, and a conjoint creativity that unfolds across vast spans of time: the stone in the human (the skeletal system of calcium that enables our motion; the centrality of stone to dwelling and science) and the human in the stone (cities as mineralogical landscapes and geological forces; gems as creaturely objects on the move). Though the human and the lithic possess temporalities vastly different from each other, at the meeting of these frames a transformative alliance of long duration becomes visible. This chapter gathers the materials that will be examined in greater depth throughout the book and articulates its theoretical frame.

“Time (The Persistence of Stone)” plumbs the temporality of stone, detailing how its inhuman duration has long rendered rock an effective material for sending messages about the past far into the future. Examining fossils and Neolithic architectures as they appear in medieval texts, “Time” maps how the disruptive stories that inhere in this lithic matter explode into texts with unanticipated possibilities as well as narratives that capture stone’s ability to communicate in the absence of language. Topics touched upon include the intersections of the theologian and philosopher Augustine’s notion of eternity with geological Deep Time’s love of infinity; catastrophe-laden modes of historical narration, and the possibility of writing across cataclysm via petric inscription; the unsettling artistry of Stonehenge, and the messages this lithic communication device imparted to Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1138), the earliest writer to convey a complete mythology for the ancient structure.

Despite the warnings of anthropologists, we continue to employ phrases like “locked in the Stone Age” to describe peoples who (we suppose) do not share our modernity. Associating the indigenous with the chthonic is an ancient logic, enabling a colonizing group to displace groups with more lasting claims to a territory through the deprivation of their coevalness. In medieval Britain these petrifying tropes were applied to two groups with whom the English and their Norman conquerors shared the island: the Britons or Welsh, and the Jews. “Testament (The Grip of Stone)” maps the lithicization of both. Thought to be the island’s earliest occupants, the Welsh were dismissed as primitive: so much the easier to seize their lands. Yet a series of stories that erupt from subterranean spaces into the narrative of the English nation challenge that easy appropriation. The Jews, on the other hand, were newer arrivals in Britain, brought over by the Normans to assist in economic change. By invoking a theological tradition of Jewish stone heartedness, pogroms could be instigated. A geology of anti-Semitism demonstrates how this petrification worked and the complexities of neighboring and lived intimacy it could not wholly obscure.

Stone is our easy trope for immobility, but within its own duration (as the “Time” chapter demonstrates) it is always on the move. Using Actor Network Theory as a spur, “Desire (The Force of Stone)” explores the enmeshment of human, landscape, and objects. Following the errant trajectories of The Book of John Mandeville, a fictitious 14th century account of an English knight who nearly circumambulated the world, the analysis focuses upon the strange moments in the texts when the lapidary comes to life and offers an alternative version of being in the world that exists in relative indifference to Holy Land pilgrimage and the hierarchical orderings of the Chain of Being. Throughout the Book stone dwells in intimacy to human worlds, transforming them by alliance with a range of actors living and inorganic. This chapter emphasizes the activity of landscape and the emergent agency of stone within that mesh.

Radiance is an aesthetic quality that exists outside of human organization of the world. Its transportive or ecstatic consequences undermine our habit of ascribing intentionality to living organisms alone by illuminating how objects exert a power discernable through their effects. Medieval writers called this force virtus and described it as an efficacy innate to various kinds of matter itself, but especially stones. In romance this aesthetic force was often glossed as aventure, an astonishing advent (that is, “adventure”). Through object oriented ontology, a philosophy that emphasizes the integrity and unassailable mystery of things, “Radiance (The Allure of Stone)” reads lapidary tradition alongside the romance fascination with stones and magic to excavate the aesthetic power as well as potential lapidary withdrawnness from human relations.

“Soul (The Life of Stone),” the concluding chapter, asks what happens when stones come fully to life. Exploring a late medieval debate over whether stones possess souls, it delves deeply into the lapidary tradition and finds in these “geobiographies” a creaturely conceptualization of the lithic that profoundly challenges the exclusion of stone from vitality. Some of the rocks featured in its analysis have animal powers: they devour the dead, or surface desires, or promiscuously procreate. They challenge the lapidaries to move beyond the limits of the human, to imagine of what the life of a stone might consist.

Geonarrative 4: A Life with Stone
The pines and grey granite of New England are for me the ecology of home, but one stone in particular impressed itself forcefully upon my childhood sense of world. Dense with houses, the neighborhood where I grew up was cut from drained swamp, scraps of farm and forest, and the roll of a barren hill. No house topped the rocky mound around which the topography arranged itself: its rippled blue and white strata rendered its crest impervious to foundation. Three quarters of the way to the top of this anomalous barrow was a trunk sized granite boulder, its flecked whiteness nothing like nearby stone. Later in life I would recognize in the Big Rock (as we children called this obvious intruder) a glacial erratic, swept southward and stranded by ancient ice.
Even in winter the stone absorbed sun and radiated warmth for those who sat atop. For friends and siblings I wove an elaborate mythology around the Big Rock, tales of how its ancient solidity extended across multiple worlds. The stone was primordial, eyewitness to Apatosaurus before the swamps shrank. Its freckled granite would endure into an age when earthbound creatures roamed the skies in ships. The rock was transportive: to perch upon its heft was to risk the opening of a portal to storied lands. Later in life I was given a telescope for a birthday present. I set up the tripod nearby, not simply for the height of the hill but because the stone at night was luminous, a good companion for mapping lunar oceans.
The worlds this rock opened were the dreams of a child who lived in a place too small. No more than basaltic plains, the leavings of volcanoes, the Mare Ingenii, Mare Nubium, and Oceanus Procellarum do not roil the barren moon. Yet without the Big Rock’s invitation to think the past and future beyond the limits of the humanly possible, without the advent of its lithic possibility, without the astonishing intrusion of the erratic, I could not now offer you -- fellow traveller with me and that glacial stone -- this story, this book. Medieval writers knew what geologists reaffirm: undiscovered kingdoms attend every pebble. The moon is rich in stormy oceans, once we realize the vitality that pulses in shadow, in dust, in stone.




[1] The phrase serves as the title of an essay in the “Sketches Here and There” section of his 1948 book A Sand County Almanac (129-133). “Thinking like a mountain” has taken on a life of its own through frequent citation, and provides the title for numerous books and environmentally themed music. For a sensitive reading of Leopold’s essay that does not shy away from its problems but praises its attempt to “think against anthropocentrism … [through] a new Copernican revolution,” see Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism 104-5. For a recent exploration of Leopold’s idea of a “land ethic” see Dan Brayton who in Shakespeare’s Ocean, a book which also critiques the “terrestrial bias” of most ecological criticism (18-21).
[2] For a lucid explication of Actor Network Theory (ANT), see especially Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social. Bjørnar Olsen illustrates ANT in action well when he writes of eighteenth-century America: “cutlery, Georgian houses, and tombstones are not merely expressing or – even less – symbolizing a new American template created in advance. They were actively involved in creating and ‘ontologizing’ the new social schisms and thoughts, which without them might not have existed” (In Defense of Things 146). Olsen provides the example of a Norwegian adventurer who claimed to have skied across Antarctica “solo and unsupported,” and points out that such claims to sovereignty and autonomy obliterate the participation of skis, a sledge, equipment, producers of extreme weather clothing, high-protein foods, financial sponsors, and “generations of mapmakers, former explorers, satellites, and navigators all helped him along the way” (143).
[3] The quotation is from Michel Serres, Statues 213. This particular passage is translated from French and considered in Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern 82.
[4] The quotation is from Becoming Animal 46. I admire Abram’s project to ponder the vivacity of matter and our human affinity with even a “largish stone … implacable in its solidity” (47-48) via “our own mineralogical composition” (46). Much of what Abram writes echoes the arguments of object oriented philosophy, vibrant materialism and actor network theory, all of which have been essential to the critical framing of my project in this book (e.g. “An entity that captures my gaze is never revealed to me in its totality; it presents some facet of itself to my eyes while always withholding other aspects from my direct apprehension” 44). Yet some of his work moves towards an animism that seems anchored in personal projection rather than an encounter with the activeness of matter, at least when it comes to discerning affect in (for example) a house about to be abandoned – even if Abram smartly redefines mood itself as environmental entanglement (153). Serenella Iovino usefully teases out the resonance of Abram’s Becoming Animal with the idea in biological science of the “wood wide web”; see “Steps to a Material Ecocriticism” 144.
[5] I like the definition of ecocriticism offered by Lynne Brukner and Dan Brayton in their introduction to Ecocritical Shakespeare, where they write that even though ample analysis has long existed on nature and its representation in literature, “ecocriticism is distinct from that work in its attention to anthropocentrism, ecocentrism, living systems, environmental degredation, ecological and scientific literacy, and an investment in expunging the notion that humans exist apart from other life forms” (3). Gillian Rudd enacts this very program in her book Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature. I would broaden their articulation of ecocritical scope, however, to include the agency of matter and nonlife forms.
[6] See Cruikshank’s Do Glaciers Listen? Her research focuses on the complexities of understanding landscape, nature and modes of living in the Arctic; see especially pp. 47-49 (on issues of commensurability), 143 (industrialism’s necessary conflict with animism), and 245 (postcolonial theory and Enlightenment dualism). Despite its title, the book really asks if humans can listen to each other across the divide of two kinds of local knowledge, science and indigenous. Glaciers are present but seldom possess a materiality that matters -- although the closing pages are good at suggesting ways that they insinuate themselves into ecological debate. Cruikshank’s work is an important contribution to postcolonial ecotheory with thoughts about landscape, human impress on the "wilderness," oral tradition, the pristine, and the archival power of the inhuman, but the book does not significantly expand the critical vocabulary for speaking about the agency of the nonhuman.
[7] For the term “ecomateriality” and the elemental activeness it is meant to convey see the special issue of the journal postmedieval I co-edited with Lowell Duckert on the subject (2013).
[8] Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird place a slash mark in “non/human” to indicate something similar, performing lexicographically the inseparability of each term from the other, their inherent instability, “the impossibility of applying a hermetic seal to the distinction between—however temporary and shifting—what gets to count as Human and nonhuman.” See their introduction to Queering the Non/Human, 5. In my previous work I have labeled this inexcluded space the extimate (a term take from Jacques Lacan) and the difficult or inexcluded middle.
[9] Matter in the sense of both substance as well as subject (the three matters of France, Britain and Rome). For more on how these two meanings of matter inevitably intertwine see Michael W. Scott, “The Matter of Makira” 120-21.
[10] Suzanne Conklin Akbari argues persuasively for reading imaginative literature alongside “arcane learning,” especially through the example of Bartholomaeus Anglicus, in Idols in the East 161-62 and 200-203.
[11] The gem which triggers a storm is found in Chrétien de Troyes’ romance Yvain and will be treated later in this book, but it is worth quoting the Middle English reworking of the story, which well conveys the vigor the storm’s gem-triggered arrival: “And kest water opon the stane; / And sone thare wex withowten fayle, / Wind and thonor [thunder] and rayn and haile”(Ywain and Gawain 622-24). For the hand burnt by grasping a rock, see Albertus Magnus describing pyrite: “Perithe, or peridonius, is a stone of of a yellowish color. It is said to be good for coughs. And a marvelous thing is reported of this stone - that if it is strongly gripped in the hand, it burns the hand; and so it should be touched lightly and cautiously” (Book of Minerals 2.2.14).
[12] “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” 3. White’s essay has been widely anthologized and cited. Unfortunately medieval studies has mainly lagged behind other time periods in contributing to ecological criticism, though with some important exceptions. See especially the work of Valerie Allen, Carolyn Dinshaw, Peggy McCracken, Eileen Joy, Lisa Kiser, Kellie Robertson, Gillian Rudd, Randy Schiff, Alf Siewers, Sarah Stanbury, Karl Steel, and Stephanie Trigg.
[13] See his essay “Materials Against Materiality” in Being Alive 19-32; quotation at 30.
[14] The quotation is from Barbara A. Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser’s introduction to Engaging with Nature, 1. Latour and Morton are often misconstrued as declaring that nature or natural reality does not exist, when their claim is that nature does not exist as a kind of eternal separateness, as the antithesis of culture – that is, nature includes much more than forests, animals, and mountains. Nature is where we dwell, and where nonhumans dwell with or away from us – an everywhere rather than “everywhere and nowhere.”
[15] Bynum makes clear with characteristic sophistication in her study that “insistent” and “problematic” holy matter (which “pointed its viewers and users to something beyond,” 20) is acomplicated business. Its determination is historically specific and its function is not to close down questioning so much as to open “profound religious exploration” (18). Bynum argues that all medieval matter potentially exhibited the liveliness that I will follow in stone, since matter was a substance known for its ability to change. Although she will place within the fifteen and sixteenth centuries “a growing sense that material objects were not merely labile but alive” so that “even phenomenon such as magnetism came to be conceptualized as animation” (25) and alchemy and astrology were embraced, I find these intimations of matter’s vivaciousness and its enmeshment within astral and lunar pull, elemental jostling, and the innate qualities designated by virtus or (in the romances) magic and ingenuity to be a much earlier knowledge.
[16] Which is not to say that many writers did not attempt such allegories, replacing stone’s substantiality with stories of divinity. An enduring tradition of lapidaries focuses upon the breastplate of Aaron, reading each gem as a solidification of a Christian value. Adam of Eynsham in his Life of Saint Hugh of Lincoln describes how King John once showed the bishop “a stone amulet set in gold. This had been given to one of his ancestors with the promise that none of his descendants who wore it would ever lose their ancestral lands. Hugh immediately replied that he should trust instead in Jesus Christ, the living stone: 'make him the centre of your soul, anchor all your hopes in him; he is the firm and living stone who crushes all who resist him, who always raises to higher things those who rely on him'" (85). Although such renditions of the lithic as dead compared to the transcendent vitality of God are numerous, this book explores the glimpses of life that nonetheless pulse in medieval stone.
[17] My thinking about advent, adventure and the ethics to which these arrivals are inextricably bound owes much to J. Allan Mitchell’s work throughout Ethics and Eventfulness in Middle English Literature. See especially 111-30 for an emphasis on contingency and adventure in romance, a genre essential to my own study.
[18] Petrogenesis may also proceed, however, when water freezes into crystal or mixes with another earth to trigger coagulation. See for example Bartholomaeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things 16.74 (“De petra”), which combines Isidore and Aristotle with a wide ranging rumination on how various stones come into being.
[19] Because metals are more aqueous, they are more malleable. Though the Middle Ages inherited a metal-based schema for the representation of epochal human decline, from the Gold Age to mere Iron, metals do not typically hold the “liquid capital” sense familiar now through the association of finance with metal coins and a gold standard within a thoroughly monetized economy. More positively, hard stone and ductile metal are both participants in an ecology of a matter on the move.
[20] See The Book of Minerals 1.1.2 and Dororthy Wyckoff’s note, p. 13.
[21] Though it takes a very different direction, this investigation begins by recognizing, as Bynum has pointed out, that “body” (corpus) in the Middle Ages is inextricable from matter (materia); that “body” indicates any changeable thing (“gem, tree, log, or cadaver”); and that to study the body was to “explore stars and statues, blood and resin, as well as pain, perception, and survival” (Christian Materiality 32). I would add story and temporality to Bynum’s list as well.

3 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Epic! Read about 75% of this and realized I wanted breakfast. Will return. So far, wonderful (and confidentially--I'm now thinking my proposed earthquake paper might be unnecessary and am now letting my brain fish around for another approach)

Eileen Joy said...

This is wonderful; I wonder if maybe Jane Bennett would not deserve a footnote-nod here, not for "Vibrant Matter," but for "The Enchantment of Modern Life," since that seems an important precursor to what is one of your biggest aims here [I think]: to supply counter-narratives, esp. from the premodern archive, to contemporary narratives of disenchantment? And also because Bennett delves into the premodern archive herself in that book, discussing Paracelsus, for example, and she also turns often, as you do, to Latour and Serres.

I also like the move here to *not* to separate the human from the lithic and to use tropes of companionability to explore lithic histories and narratives: that's more ecological, of course, but also avoids [I think] the inhuman dystopia [or ice-worldliness] that attends certain strands of post/human and speculative philosophical thought [and which leaves many of us "cold"]. That makes your work also feminist, I think, where messiness and the anti-domestication of theory is valued over orderliness and neat categories of inquiry/reason. I also love the idea of the inter-factual: knowledge as that which arises from, or is created in, the spaces of the inbetween. There are no "hard facts," then, only fluid mediation. I mean, some things *are*, of course [there is is-ness in the world: things happen a certain way and not in other certain, possibilistic ways], but it seems more frutiful to have a philosophy/historiography/narrative that attends to the continual movement of everything and lets go a little of that harder is-ness [at least for the purposes of imaginative thinking tending toward futural Otherness]. I also love the emphasis on romance as a type of history, or at least as always entwined with it [as many medieval scholars have shown, of course, such as Monika Otter and others], BUT, as I've been teaching the Foucault course at the Newberry this semester, I've been struck more and more by how important the genre of romance is to ... practically everything [historical narrative, religion/hagiography, philosophy, etc.]. It seems to me that your book is, also, a romance.

Kristin said...

I will second Eileen's comment about your book being a romance (and would love to make a Romancing the Stone film joke here); but seriously, I'm thinking of the project of much of medieval romance to create, explore, and interrogate ways of being in the world (what does it mean to be a knight, a king, a nation, as a part of the larger universe?), and this book is also, fundamentally, a construction/suggestion of another kind of narrative about being in the world, a narrative that's affectionate and open to possibility and inclusive and excited.

I'm interested in the ways in which the 'petrifying trope' becomes applied to people. Given that so many medieval and classical writers praise stone, are there instances in which people-as-stone is ever a positive metaphor? I'm thinking about knights and sword arms and steadfastness, but also adjectives like 'statuesque', versus 'stone-hearted'.

Um, just because it caught my eye (too much time tutoring over at the Writing Center), I think perhaps 'history' should be 'historian,' in this sentence? "...the medieval history Lynn White Jr. wrote in 1967 that “all forms of life modify their contexts."