|from a recent Seattle trip|
by J J Cohen
I am so deep within my project these days that I have difficulty seeing its entirety. I work on the book in one hour chunks almost every day (often at a secret café on my way to campus), and though I'm making good progress towards my Feb. 1 deadline (when the MS is due to the press), I do have a difficult time maintaining wide perspective. A recent visit to the University of Washington helped bring me back to the wider lens version (highlight: the first comment in the discussion after my presentation was from an intense person who declared "You are the Nietzsche of the stones. Do not respond to this.") I'm also leaving Tuesday for Bucknell where I'll give a faculty workshop on recent trends in ecocriticism that includes material from this petric project.
AND I'll be visiting the University of Manitoba in February (when it is - 30C! Can human beings live more than ten seconds at a temperature mimicking the surface of Neptune? Doesn't nitrogen congeal at that point?). They requested a short description of my project accessible to those who know nothing about it, and composing that précis turned out to be both difficult and good. Here's my attempt to reduce a sprawling book into three paragraphs that can be used as a one sentence description, a two paragraph abstract, or a three paragraph overview (meaning, it's a detachable series that is also a whole). Let me know what you think.
Stories of Stone maps the liveliness, agency, and spur to story offered by our most mundane matter, stone.
Stone has too long served as an unexamined metaphor for the “really real”: blunt factuality, inert givenness, nature’s curt rebuke. Medieval writers knew 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, companion the masons who build with them, exert magnetic pull, cure diseased bodies, pulse with astral energies. This motion is an ecological enmeshment, a mineral life that borders on the creaturely.
Medieval writers thought deeply about stone’s ontology in ways worth investigating for the philosophical challenge posed to our overly disenchanted world. Stone’s agency undermines the dualism that enables humans to set themselves apart from environment, a bifurcation that renders nature “out there,” a resource for recreation, consumption and exploitation. Studying the medieval use of petrifying tropes applied to people and to matter invites us to examine the persistence of such modes of thought, to discern the queer life that looms beneath every still surface, and to compose less anthropocentric frames for 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 also betrays a desire for producing story and inhumanly collaborative art.