Monday, June 30, 2014


by J J Cohen

[so much to read! Karl on race and class, Mary Kate's important survey [please take it!], Jonathan on Kzoo sessions]

I'm just back from a brief escape to the mountains of West Virginia, where I had a full day of solitude that I used as a writer's retreat followed by some excellent hiking with some very good companions. Summer is dwindling fast, especially because I leave for Iceland in less than two weeks, so I was happy to complete the introduction to a collection of essays I've been working on for Oliphaunt / punctum, Inhuman Nature. The collection derives from a GWMEMSI sympoisum entitled "Ecologies of the Inhuman." The table of contents:
Introduction: Jeffrey J. Cohen, "Ecostitial"
1. Steve Mentz, "Shipwreck"
2. Anne Harris, "Hewn"
3. Alan Montroso, "Human"
4. Valerie Allen, "Matter"
5. Lowell Duckert, "Recreation"
6. Alf Siewers, "Trees"
7. James Smith, "Fluid"
8. Ian Bogost, "Inhuman"
I stole the title of my introduction from Anne Harris, who noticed how these essays get at interstitial spaces where "human" and "nature" are less important than what possibilities open between the terms. The nearly finished piece is below. Let me know what you think.

Introduction: Ecostitial
            Inhuman Nature maps the activity of the things, objects, forces, elements and relations that enable, sustain and operate indifferently to the category and creature human (where “in-“ functions simultaneously as negative prefix and inclusive preposition, surfacing entanglement even at moments of abjection). Nature signifies both the qualities of these inhuman activities and relations, as well as ecological enmeshment. Inhuman is full of affect (a word for cruelty and barbarity, humane feelings’ failure) as well as a neutral designation for excesses of scale (too vast or miniscule for familiarity); a separation within incorporation; negation belied by production; an antonym that fails. Nature is the great outdoors as well as a disposition towards kindliness (derived from kynde, the Middle English word that French nature replaced), hostility (crimson teeth and claws), or indifference (the universe that is not for us, where we are specks and milliseconds). That’s a great deal of work with which to burden two words. Yet inhuman and nature together convey the shared endeavor of this book not because they are precise, but because in their coupling they foreground the difficulties of speaking of that which is not us within narratives we fashion. Yet story making, scientific or artistic, would not be possible without a great many inhuman allies – and language acts upon its users as much speakers and writers employ language. Few things in this world remain compliant long. Although their agency is not necessarily easy to behold, without a networked alliance of nonhumans you would not be reading these words, nor could I sit at my laptop, typing an introduction to a collection of essays on that very topic while a summer storm dashes rain and bamboo leaves against the window.
Enamored by fictions of environmental sovereignty, we imagine ourselves solitary. Our writing and our thinking habitually disregard the mediations of syntax and style, the pushback from pen or keyboard, the agency that flows within a fondness for dark coffee, the musing to which thunderstorms are intimate as triggers and intensifiers. Auguste Rodin’s iconic bronze sculpture Le Penseur [The Thinker] seems an entire world: a body stripped bare and arched into a self-contained emblem for Philosophy, a human figure curved almost into the globe itself. Its muscular autonomy suggests the inward vectors of contemplation, the privacy of cognition -- as well as their unthought gendering (Rodin’s Thinker offers an ostentatiously male body). But what of that which supports philosophy’s introspection, the boulder that affords foundation?[2] Without the stone (sometimes fashioned of bronze, sometimes of granite), the numerous castings of this statue would lack support, would tumble into indignity. What if instead of curving into anthropocentric selves we extend apprehension outward into the ecomateriality with which we are palpably embroiled, plumbing that which undergirds knowledge and abides in quiet affinity to all processes of knowing?[3] What if we attended to the “potent ethical and political possibilities” evident in the enmeshment of human body with “more-than-human nature,” in what Stacy Alaimo so well labels trans-corporeality?[4] Stone, for example, enables movement and violence, extends cognition, and invites world-building. Calculus, the study that makes possible chemistry and engineering, is a Latin word that means “small stone,” a counter that glides along an abacus, the means by which we outsource our reckonings to pebbles and string. “Calculus” is in turn intimately related to the support of body and dwelling, calcium, the mineral that enables flesh to swim, to fly, to run. This same substance under subterranean pressure yields limestone and marble, matter for courts and temples. Always supported by objects, substances, and ecologies, the human is never uncompanioned.
Primal, enduring, and intractable, the lithic in philosophy typically stands in for nature itself: the given, the really real, a trope for the inhuman. When the nature for which it stands as emblem is marks difference from the human, stone arrives into thought limned by terror. Seeking an endurance not ours, we fashion headstones from granite to remember the dead, incise glorious achievements into bright marble, stories stamped on lifeless things. These lithic structures offer not lasting memorialization but future oblivion, “colossal wreck, boundless and bare.” All things fall to ruin, all things betray our desire to persist, all things enjoin the mighty to despair. To be human is to inhabit a world in which our burden is self-awareness. Blank stone becomes a metaphor for ruination, for nature’s disregard. Barbara Hurd’s Entering Stone: On Caves and Feeling through the Dark therefore begins her exploration of the substance with a moment of subterranean panic.[5] Crawling through a narrow limestone cave, deep within the ground, she feels the world’s weight impinge. She fears she will be crushed – by the world’s palpable weight, by the dislodging of her own pasts, “what lingers unseen … a myriad of other selves inside me wakened from deep slumber” (71-72). These long-interred and affect-laden fragments of biography threaten to dissolve her, just as the cavern’s petric substance was dislodged by water to form networks of narrow tunnels. Christine Marsden Gillis likewise uses stone to plumb autobiography, discerning in its density and separateness a bleak promise. She writes of a cemetery on a small island in Maine where she has buried her young son: “we were leaving that trace, not to shift with wind and tide on a sandy beach, but to endure in hard ground and rock.”[6] Gillis’s story attempts to petrify remembrance by attaching names and histories to lithic security. Gotts Island, “a place of stone remnants” and ruined houses, becomes an eternal memorial, its vitality evident in ephemera like wildflowers, frost, storms. The granite that forms the island’s substance and keeps it anchored against temporal whirl is lifeless, transfixing human stories by removing them from the stream of time. Except, of course, cliffs erode, foundations tumble, gravestones crack when frost invades their pores. Names and dates fade. Particular histories recede.
Rock conveys perilous knowledge. Gillis and Hurd’s “geobiographies” discover in inhuman nature an emotion-rich trigger to narrative. Yet because they separate this nature from the human, they do not plumb the ecologies upon which and through their narratives are built. As Stacy Alaimo’s trans-corporeality or what Laura Ogden describes as material entanglement make clear, segregation of human and inhuman, nature and culture belies a complicated reality, an intertwined environmentality.[7] Inhuman forces and objects ultimately refuse domestication, refuse reduction into familiar tales as ancillaries and props. They intensify, enable, transmute, and resist, exerting agency, perturbing that frail border erected to keep the social from the natural. Keen boundaries becomes on closer examination messy interstices, environmental meshes, “ecostices.” Bruno Latour has argued cogently against what he calls the Great Bifurcation, the division of culture from nature:
a virus never appears without its virologists, a pulsar without its radioastronomers, a drug addict without his drugs, a lion without his Masai, a worker without her union, a proprietor without her property, a farmer without landscape, an ecosystem without its ecologist, a fetishist without his fetishes, a saint without her apparitions.[8]
Rapturous in its incongruities, this catalog of human and nonhuman alliance enacts a lexical, cognitive, and affective commingling. Proliferative and sonorous, disinhibiting reduction back into constitutive elements, the litany performs the very tangle it propounds, radiating aesthetic force. Although he worries that Latour’s actor network theory disperses objects across networks at the expense of their own integrity, Graham Harman has similarly attempted a “vigorous means of engagement” that would “replace the piously overvalued ‘critical thinking’ with a seldom-used hyperbolic thinking”[9] Insisting that humans are merely some actors among many, none of which are exceptional or a priori privileged, Harman’s hyperbolic thinking is not all that different from what medieval romance calls aventure, the marvelously disruptive emergence (avenir) of nonhuman agency, disclosed when ordinary objects like rings, gems, swords, bottles of fluids demonstrate their power to disrupt, waylay, and enchant.
When Harman writes in a romance mode that “phenomenology must also include the description of nonexistent objects, given that centaurs and unicorns can appear before my mind no less than masses of genuine granite,” he grants matter in the form of the lithic an undeniable solidity, a bluntness that imaginary creatures cannot hold even when they exert a certain agency.[10] Harman’s essay on literary criticism “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer” is built around the first tool adopted by human beings, a nexus of human and inhuman that functions as cultural origin point. Knapped from flint and used as weapon and tool, the hammer was humanity’s first technological ally, the product of our first reaching towards something more durable than flesh. This transformative association between lithic tools and the primeval is medieval as well as modern. In Wace’s Roman de Brut, a history of Britain, the aboriginal giants who dwell on the island attack its first human settlers “od pierres, od tinels, od pels” (“with stones, clubs, and stakes”), while the settlers meanwhile drive away their attackers with more technologically advanced but nonetheless functionally similar metals: “od darz, od lances, od espees / E od saetes barbelees” (“with spears, lances, swords, and barbed arrows”).[11] That any tool can transmute or fail points to the ways in which an object will always exceed both use value and human comprehension. When we grant a material like stone the dignity of its proper duration, moreover, we discern that this inert and natural substance is forever in motion, even though our own lives are too swift to perceive its restless transits. Philosophy’s stone, that object upon which the Thinker sits in order to ruminate, that thing unthought so that thinking can proceed, that chunk of the real that stands for inhuman nature, actually resembles what medieval writers called the Philosopher’s Stone, lapis philosophorum. The alchemical agent by which dull lead attains gold’s radiance, the philosopher’s stone is the al-iksir or elixir or undefinable substance through which mortal bodies obtain a geological duration, that “privee stoon” (secret rock) that withdraws from knowledge even as it precipitates movement, creativity, frustration, explosion, and exploration without end.[12]
A similarly disjunctive yet lyrical series of objects opens Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, in which a collection of refuse on a Baltimore storm drain becomes a catalogue poem and a call to witness matter’s radiance. Bennett heightens the vivid particularity of each object in the accidental assemblage:
one large men's plastic work glove
one dense mat of oak pollen
one unblemished dead rat
one white plastic bottle cap
one smooth stick of wood[13]
Collecting in astonishing distinctiveness “the countless things that litter our world unseen,” this litany of detritus clinging to a grate could offer a dark ecology, the task of which is "to love the disgusting, inert and meaningless."[14] Yet there is nothing repellent or still in Bennett's debris. The vignette renders the dross of the world alluring, lively, saturated with significance -- a poetics of re-enchantment, the becoming-lyrical of matter.[15] This surplus inheres within the nature of worldedness itself. Manuel De Landa describes posthuman nature as “a positive, even joyful conception of reality.”[16] It is also passionate, lyrical, alluring. Within the enmeshments necessary for anything to happen, humans and inhumans intermingle to create hybrid forms and collaborative agencies. Inhuman nature is irreducibly complicated because it is unfinished, nonprogressive, dispersed across multiple action-makers and materializers.
Self-appointed sovereigns of inhuman nature, we are used to placing our demands casually upon these environments. We seldom think about what nonhumans might desire for themselves. In Aramis, or the Love of Technology, Bruno Latour composes a novelistic account of inhuman desire in action.[17] Through a genre he dubs “scientifiction,” he traces why a personal rapid transport system envisioned for Paris failed. Through multiple voices (some imagined, some the transcripts of actual interviews), the book’s protagonist pieces together the reasons for the foundering of Aramis, as the system was poetically christened. With an emphasis upon the negotiations and subsequent transformations that convey ideas into materiality, Latour details the shifting alliances among human and inhuman actors, arguing that adaptation-demanding movements rather than technological limitations triggered the project’s abandonment. Meshworks of living beings, organizations, materials, ideas, beliefs, forces and objects constitute both the social and the natural, neither of which possess inherent explanatory force. The task of the investigator is to trace weak and strong confederations, to examine whether something is well or poorly constructed, rather than to pull back a curtain and demystify origin: causality is not located in pre-existent social formations, but is glimpsed from the perspective of the things themselves in how they work, ally, or fail. Latour’s emphasis on composition over critique demands an accounting for nonhuman agency. Partway through the book the unrealized personal transport system itself begins to speak, accusing its imaginers of lacking love sufficient to sustain its coming into being. In his bitter reproach Aramis compares himself to Victor Frankenstein's spurned Creature, culminating his accusation with: "Burdened with my prostheses, hated, abandoned, innocent, accused, a filthy beast, a thing full of men, men full of things, I lie before you. Eloï, eloï, Lama, lama sabachthani" (158). Not exactly subtle, but his point is clear: when agency works through enmeshment, responsibility and desire (indistinguishable from movement, from life) are not the province of humans alone.
Latour’s Politics of Nature contains a similarly ecstatic moment in which a careful explication of how collectives are formed swerves into fairy tale, invoking a magical figure from Sleeping Beauty:
Let us not forget the fairy Carabosse! On the pile of gifts offered by her sisters, she put down a little casket marked Calculemus! But she did not specify who was supposed to calculate. It was thought that the best of all possible worlds was calculable … Now, neither God nor man nor nature forms at the outset the sovereign capable of carrying out this calculation. The requisite “we” has to be produced out of whole cloth. No fairy has told us how. It is up to us to find out. (164)
To calculate, used here to denote the adding of sums that refuse to cohere, returns us to calculus, the rock that enables cognition and culture, the trigger to thinking and doing, the inhuman nature upon which Le Penseur rests. Taken for granite: only when the passivity of inhuman nature is presumed do its abiding alliances become difficult to discern. The power of objects to disrupt human endeavors by refusing to be reduced to tidy equations and known-in-advance formulae hinges upon a small stone. How much more power, then, must an entire ecology of the inhuman hold: a summons to shared space, to an embroiled expanse beyond easy partition.
I completed this introduction in the woods of a small mountain in West Virginia, not far from the New River Gorge. Working over the draft, I was accompanied and sustained by still weather, birds sending messages through dense foliage, flutter of flies and moths. At night I built a fire that crackled and listened to distant storms. Some of what I wrote derived from the usual agony of seeking the right word and clarifying ideas intent to elude, while other portions arrived fully formed and to my surprise. A good IPA, coffee, cheese, cherries and a responsive laptop fueled some of the thinking. The ideas of this book’s contributors and the imagined arrival of the volume into your own hands also propelled. I was never alone.

[1] I thank the contributors for their provocative thinking, excellent writing, and enduring conviviality. Eileen Joy ensured that this collection would have a good home, and was an essential part of its shared endeavor. The brilliant Anne Harris gave me the title for this introduction and helped me to think through its theme.
[2] Michel Serres asks a similar question of the rock that accompanies Sisyphus into mythic time in Statues: Le second livre des fondations (Paris: Éditions François Bourin, 1987).
[3] On ecomateriality as a spur to thinking ecological networks see the special issue of the journal postmedieval Lowell Duckert and I have edited on the topic, 4 (2013).
[4] Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010) 2. Alaimo defines trans-corporeality as the ways in which “the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world,” underlining “the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from the environment” (2). See also her essential discussion of material agency and worldly emergence, 143.
[5] Entering Stone: On Caves and Feeling through the Dark (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003).
[6] Christina Marsden Gillis, Writing on Stone: Scenes from a Maine Island Life (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2008) 20.
[7] “Landscapes are assemblages constituted by humans and nonhumans, material and semiotic processes, histories both real and partially remembered” (Laura Ogden, Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011] 35). Visions of “pure nature,” she writes, are inevitably the “selective vision of empire” (71) that sees in landscape a space for domination.
[8] Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 165-66.
[9] Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Melbourne:, 2009), 120.
[10] “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism.” New Literary History 43 (2012): 186.
[11] Wace, Roman de Brut: A History of the British, ed. and trans. Judith Weiss (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003). Quotations at 1091 and 1097-98.
[12] “Privee stone” is Chaucer’s description of the infinitely deferred philosopher’s stone in the “Canon Yeoman’s Tale” 1452 (The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987]). Gower speaks of the “philosophres ston” and its relation to alchemical learning in the Confessio Amantis 4.2523 (John Gower, Confessio Amantis, Volume 1, ed. Russell A. Peck, with Latin translations by Andrew Galloway [Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000; Second Edition, 2006];
[13] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010) 4.
[14] The first quotation is from Ian Bogost’s excellent account of the workings of the nonhuman in Alien Phenomenology, or, What It's Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012) 51. For dark ecology see Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009) 195.
[15] I’ve written about this power in “An Abecedarium for the Elements,” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 2 (2011): 291-303.
[16] A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Serve Editions, 2000) 274.
[17] Aramis, or the Love of Technology, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).

1 comment:

Karl Steel said...

really good stuff. thick. one tiny suggestion:

"Inhuman forces and objects ultimately refuse domestication, refuse reduction into familiar tales as ancillaries and props."

while ALSO 'reducing' others to their ancillaries and props, etc.

as you know, objects have their own boundaries and are x-centric (where 'x' stands for any given object but also, you know, the pun), which means--via Bogost--that reduction and 'domestication' are going on all the time, at different scales and speeds.