Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Door Into Stone

by J J Cohen

(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” [32]: 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.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I blame Gerald of Wales

by Karl Steel

(OBVIOUSLY, the first thing you must do, if you haven't done so yet, is to read (and distribute) the more important posts below: Eileen's announcement of the James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant for Scholars of Limited Funds, hugely important as Kzoo creeps up on us, and then Jeffrey's Introduction to his Stone Book, hoving its mass still further into view.)

There's lecturing with a blackboard. There's lecturing with slides. There's group work and conversation and problem solving and Reacting to the Past. And then there's the end of the party, when everyone else is putting on jackets and thanking the hosts, when you become the guy who just has to show everyone one last hilarious internet video. That was me, maybe, outsmarted by a smart classroom.

Here's a key moment from last night's frenzy.

For those of you trapped in a tomb since 1960, some lyrics:
The rain may never fall till after sundown.
By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
In short, there's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot.
It is so relevant! It's not just a chance to introduce students to one of Wales' more famous sons/worst singers. It is that, of course, but it's also this: use it to talk about the Messianic Arthur of the Welsh, the hopes of the return of the quondam et futurus rex whose law is the best law for all Britain, whose return promises a world, human and non-, of obedient subjects, so unlike the horridos Kambriae, the "wild Wales" of the present. Then gesture towards the much-reviled Henry II “discovering” Arthur and Guinevere's bones at Glastonbury, and finally spring into Gerald of Wales' own peculiar relationship to the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth (Journey through Wales I.5) and his conflicted hopes for Wales.

That's but the slightest soupçon of what last night's students got served. Again, I blame Gerald, and again. (I also blame Jeffrey for making Gerald so delightful). If you're reading this blog, you probably know Gerald, and you know his wunderkammer aesthetic. Like Gervase of Tilbury, William of Malmesbury, Ralph of Coggeshall, William of Newburgh, and (keep going?), Gerald's another twelfth-century British wonder-collector. His crusader tour can't take two steps without acquiring another story; and neither could I, except what I was preaching was “the Middle Ages” and my “Wild Wales" is the Internet.

For some evidence, if you like, see below. Or skip it. I'd just as soon hear from you about times in the classroom where your zeal for sharing and for keeping a class hopping became a public, and therefore worse, version of any private internet binge. How do you keep it under control?

Because this is the danger of screens in classrooms! Not distracted students, but manic professors. Not Facebook, but and flickr and the British Library.

So! Here's a very small selection of what I thought I needed for Gerald. Use what you can.
  • Bruce Holsinger's post on Uterine Vellum, to start the class with a shock, and a promise of learning more Middle English ("3if þou wilte make letters on abortiue or bortiue, lai þi oile also þynne þeron als þou may.")
  • Welsh Phrases, for a sense of twelfth-century British linguistic diversity. Be sure to start here though.
  • Siân Echard's extraordinary Medieval Welsh Poetry page, with generous samples, translations, and links to manuscripts.
  • An excerpt from Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois, for the spread of idea of the Welsh as fools.
  • Gerald of Wales' autobiography (warning, a large PDF, but a useful one), page 53, for the astonishing story, worthy of Sergio Leone, of Archdeacon Gerald and a Bishop facing off, each threatening to excommunicate the other. It's such a fine introduction to Gerald's theatrical self-promotion and professional ambition, and as fine a way to break apart students' sense of the medieval church as monolithic.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ANNOUNCEMENT: The James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant for Scholars of Limited Funds


I am thrilled to announce this morning [and a bit belatedly, so listen up!] the creation, by the BABEL Working Group and postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, and with an initial gift from Mead Bowen, of the James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant for Scholars of Limited Funds, specifically established to aid scholars to travel to the International Congress on Medieval Studies, held each May at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

In brief, for those scholars who have had a paper accepted by the Congress, but for whom travel to the Congress presents a financial hardship (due, especially, to lack of institutional and other support), we have established this grant in memory of Jim Paxson, and, more pointedly, for persons presenting on topics that would have been dear to Jim, whom many of you will know was an important person for the support and development of theoretical medieval studies through his role as an associate editor for so many years at Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Please see below for the full description of the Travel Grant, and note that the deadline [which looms quickly] for applications is MARCH 15, with a decision to be made by APRIL 15.

The James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant
for Scholars of Limited Funds

The BABEL Working Group and postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies would like to announce the James J. Paxson Memorial Grant for Scholars of Limited Funds, available annually beginning in 2013 for presenters at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, held each spring at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, Michigan), and made possible by an initial gift from one of Professor Paxson’s former students, Mead Bowen.
This grant honors the late Prof. Paxson, an energetic and creative scholar who was particularly devoted to exploring medieval allegory, Piers Plowman, the relations between literature and science, medieval drama, and the works of Chaucer. He produced the important monograph The Poetics of Personification (Cambridge, 1994) and authored an extensive body of articles on a variety of literary and other subjects, and also helped to steer and edit the journal Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (vital to the development of theoretical medieval studies) through its formative and later years. His enthusiasm for research was surpassed only by his commitment to his students. He mentored countless men and women at the University of Toronto, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the University of Florida, and he regularly encouraged them to present their findings at academic conferences. Yet he often lacked the funding necessary to present his own work at the conferences he urged his students to attend, and it disheartens us to think that, had he been able to do so, we might have learned something more of the work he was conducting before his passing, and more of us might have received the gift of his encyclopedic knowledge, boundless enthusiasm, and love for teaching. Prof. Paxson was also warmly supportive of the BABEL Working Group at a time when they needed such encouragement, and he was known for his helpful encouragement of those just starting out in the field. Through the James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant, we hope to extend the encouragement he freely gave and the funding he deserved to scholars who wish to honor his legacy of kindness, erudition, and commitment to both expanding our knowledge of the medieval world and also embracing new ideas.
This grant of $1,000 will cover travel costs, registration fees, lodging and other expenses for one scholar who would otherwise find it a financial hardship to present his or her work at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. First priority will extend to those presenting on topics dear to Prof. Paxson: medieval English literature, especially medieval allegory, and even more especially Piers Plowman; medieval drama; science and literature; critical theory; and/or Chaucer. Scholars whose careers would benefit the most from this opportunity, such as early and mid-career researchers, and also graduate students and recent doctoral graduates, will also take precedence. 

Applicants should send a brief prospectus of their accepted ICMS paper (350-500 words), a statement of financial need, and a brief (2-3-page) c.v. to Eileen Joy at: by MARCH 15, 2013. The recipient of the grant will be announced by or before APRIL 15.

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.