|Karen Sakisov, Daria Kalugina and me at the exhibit|
I'm just back from Moscow, where I gave a presentation at the v-a-c foundation's wonderful "Hosting the Inhuman" exhibit. Designed as a welcoming but nondescript hotel with various rooms, each filled by a different artist with objects and stories, the project is designed to make those who wander its chambers contemplate the agency of nonhuman creatures, things and forces. I gave a presentation from my ongoing research with Julian Yates, this time entitled "Welcome to Noah's Ark!" I was then interviewed by one of the curators, Maria Kramar. A great experience, and I am grateful to the foundation for sponsoring me: I left full of new ideas for how art (and the careful curation of art) can move us beyond the limited welcomes we habitually extend to the world.
Of Moscow I will simply say that I am in awe of the city's beauty. Difficult histories are easy to read here, but so are everyday hopes. What struck me most about people walking in the city is the privacy in which individuals or small groups are dressed: it's an easy place to be alone in a crowd. Perhaps for that reason, very few people wear headphones and listen to music. When I pointed this out to a new friend, she said "And why would you listen to music when you can be with your thoughts?"
Below is the English text of a publicity interview that was shared around the event (for a day anyone logging onto the WiFi in the Moscow metro system saw it in Russian on the entry page)
How did your relations with the tectonic begin?
What a difficult question! I think the only answer I can give is, before birth. Human relations with tectonic forces and lithic agencies have been ongoing since times long before we could name ourselves “human.” I love that the word tectonic derives from the Greek word for carpenter. The tectonic conveys a constant making, and for me a participation that crosses the boundaries between mammals and minerals. Like many children I had an innate predisposition to palm stones that caught my eye. There’s something in the call of rock to be grasped and then created with that evinces a weird and abiding companionship, what I would call a tectonicity. Were you to come to my house, by the way, you would see rocks from around the world sit on every windowsill and counter top. They are excellent triggers to contemplation, constant spurs to art and thought.
When we were thinking about the English title for Hosting the Inhuman, some people would warn us against using the word inhuman because it connotes brutality, cruelty and is seen as something outright negative. We would normally reply that for us it was a way to also refer to something in humans which exceeds the human dimension itself, instead of merely positing the non-human as a mere opposition to the human, as its simple correlate. We noticed that you, too, have a preference for the inhuman, witness the subtitle of your on book on stones - An Ecology of the Inhuman. Can you please explain the rationale behind prioritizing this term?
I have given this issue a great deal of thought and decided to use “inhuman” rather than “nonhuman” in order to emphasize that there is no clear division between human and not-human worlds. Humans are ambulatory because they have stone inside them, calcium skeletons, the gift of an intimacy between primal living creatures and minerals. I would also note that when we use the word “inhuman” to denote brutality and cruelty, we are typically labelling what humans are actually doing all the time: an inhuman act of brutality inevitably describes acts performed by a dictator or a community or a nation against other human beings. Violent inclinations are shared with the world at large, of course. But so are impulses to collaboration, making, intensification, invention, excess, aesthetic revelry …
In the The Fifth Element movie, there were four stones that symbolise the four elements – air, water, earth and fire – and what appeared to be the fifth one was – love. In your book, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, there is a special role allocated to love, how do you see this element relate to the others?
Love (what the Greek philosopher Empedocles called philia) is the binding force of the universe, causing the elements of earth, air, fire and water to move together, combine promiscuously and engender all kinds of things from their union, from objects to creatures to natural forces. Without love there could be no creation. But love is not enough. Were love to triumph utterly (Empedocles argued) the world would condense into an immobile sphere, everything stuck together. Love exists only in tension with an opposing force called neikos, strife or entropy. Without some amount of chaos we would not have duration, composting, the opening up of possibility. Empedocles thought there were four elements and two universal forces, and that the shape of the cosmos was therefore a vortex in constant motion. I don’t think he was wrong: check out the helix-like shape of the solar system in motion, the topology of any galaxy …
In 'Elemental Relations' you wrote that 'humans do not naturally inhabit lithic or igneous temporalities. Our moderate duration is closer to air and water, the two elements behind storm'. Can you please explain what do you mean by saying that the human is closer to water? Is it connection with temporality and its likeness with human being temporality, or connection with structure and texture, let's say material forms of water? Is there any way for the human to observe the lithic relations while having this radically different temporality?
Every element moves, from rapid fire to slow, slow stone. Air and water are elements of middle duration and the ones with a pulse closest to our own heartbeat. Compared to rocks and the tectonic sliding of continents, we are not even mayflies. Water is also the primary element in our bodies and the thing that will kill us first if we do not have a good enough supply. In the Anthropocene we have come to see that climate is something in ourselves (we are stormy creatures) as well as in a world that affect profoundly with our activity – so deeply at this point that we are now writing ourselves into the geographic record. Unlike water, air and fire, humans cannot directly observe the temporality of stone – so we use technology like narrative to comprehend how the lithosphere moves.
Far from considering stones to be inert objects, you call them our "ancient allies in knowledge making". You recognize the intellectual import of the lithic, mentioning the Latin etymology of calculation (i.e. calculus, a small pebble) etc. The examples of touchstone (that helped tell the real thing from its counterfeit) and the Philosopher's stone also come to mind. Can you tell us a bit more about the relationship between the stone and knowledge?
The first human artifacts – from a time when we were not even inscribable under the label as we know it today – are stones gathered and set as windbreaks for ancient fires. Stone sheltered us and allowed us to cook and to kill. Stone has been an intimate ally in both action and cognition – as well as art-making (ochre-lined human handprints on rocks were our first “paintings”). Stone is a substance that brought us continually outside of ourselves, a constant invitation to interact with a more capacious world. I love that calculus and abacus are words that derive from sliding stones to count higher than we can easily do in our heads: stones were our first attempt at extended cognition, the first computers.
Do you think that, as a medieval scholar, as someone conversant with cultures of the Middle Ages, you are better placed to tackle the issue of inhuman agency? Some have argued that the non-human turn amounts to pre-modern enchantment of the world. Do you think this charge is justified?
I think that we too smugly assume that the people who lived before us were, compared to who we are today, overly credulous and not nearly as smart. We like to pat ourselves on the back and commend ourselves for all we have achieved -- even as here in the United States we roll back environmental protections and continue to turn every part of the land into a sellable resource, no matter the long term consequences. We would do better to think about the past with a little more sympathy. Although people may have had less access to the kinds of scientific knowledge we now possess, they were relentlessly curious, creative, and eager to explore. They also often had a far better sense of the power that inheres in the inhuman. They knew that we are creature continuous with a world full of agency-filled objects and animals and forces. To re-activate our sense of wonder and better appreciate our entanglement within a more-than-human world: what could be better than that?