Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lithic promiscuity

by J J Cohen

Yesterday in my flash review of Luminous Debris, I observed that Gustaf Sobin anchors his analysis in the human: cobbles that surround the site of ancient fire, for example, endure to tell a story of human persistence in the face of an unrelenting winter wind. Their story is not about their rocky selves. Stone axes, clay pottery, petroglyphs, stelae, quarries, memorial slabs, dolmens, mountain passes, plateaus, metals for offerings and mirrors, the monumental white limestone of the Pont Flavien, the ruined plinths and conduits of a Roman aqueduct: these lithic objects could be protagonists in Sobin's narrative, but his stories of stone are told to recover human trace, vanished human history. What would Luminous Debris be like if told from stone's point of view?

A crazy question, perhaps, but one at the very heart of the project I've been laboring upon for the past few years. One way of looking at Stonehenge, for example, is as a marvel of human architecture, the triumph of industry over landscape. Another entry into understanding that never finished, ever changing lithic wheel is to ask: How did the bluestone (spotted dolerite) of the Preseli Mountains convince prehistoric humans to carry them hundreds of miles and erect them on a grassy plain? What did generation upon succeeding generation discover in this stone that convinced them to amplify the structure, to create new stories about its rocks, to keep the monument alive?

Maybe you are with me so far: after all, I am treating stone as vibrant matter, an agency-possessing materiality with which we humans make our alliances, and that approach is not without precedent. But suppose I go farther and ask, does stone possess a sexuality?

That is in fact my question for my next project, a keynote I'll be delivering at a conference in Berlin (Queer Again? Power, Politics and Ethics) as well as, in mutating forms, at an engagement or two here elsewhere. Here is my abstract. I welcome your feedback, especially since the project exists for the most part only in my head.

The Sex Life of Stone
Inhuman and immobile, the material of weighty civic architectures and memorials to the dead, stone could only through the queerest of reckonings possess desires, let alone a sexuality. In those moments when stone touches the erotic (a statue springs to life for enamored Pygmalion, a diamond band surrounds the fiancée's finger), the lithic too often becomes the merely anthropocentric, the drearily heteronormative: idol-become-animate Galatea, compounded of idealized feminine features, pulls Pygmalion from his lack of feminine interest to conjugal bliss; the engagement ring is the expected sanctifier of the nuptial couple's beauty, endurance, superlativeness. Despite these severe and rather unimaginative circumscriptions, can stone be queered? Is there a nonhuman queer?

De Beers has ruined the diamond, transforming a rare and magical rock into a prop in the most clichéd of love stories. Taking as my point of departure a medieval account of diamonds as living, multiplicative, and licentious organisms (Mandeville's Travels), I will map geological desires: how the lithic elicits and insinuates itself within human ardor, how stone is an actant possessed of its own possibilities, impulses, sensuality. Nonhuman eroticism renders what seems the most inert of substances a material forever on the move, challenging the divide we assume between human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic. My emphasis is upon lithic life in the Middle Ages: the ways in which rocks and gems act as if they are biological organisms, possessed of a radiative virtue that makes them the protagonists of their own narratives, that propels them into queer relations, a lithic promiscuity that suggests the limits of the human as a category, bringing our queer loves outside anthropocentric confinement.

PS In case you're interested, Mandeville's story about diamonds is the following (here quoted from the TEAMS edition of British Library MS Royal 17 C. xxxviii). The account isn't original to the Book but is taken from the Speculum Majus of Vincent of Beauvais; Mandeville, however, was the popular conduit through which amorous diamonds passed into widespread medieval knowledge.
Also men fyndeth good dyamaundes uppon the roche of adamaundes in the
see, as hit were hasel notes. And tho beth all square and poynted of her owen
kynde, and they groweth togodres, the maule and the femaule. And they beth
noryshed with the dewe of hevene, and they engendreth comunely and bryngeth
forth other smale dyamaundes, that multeplieth and groweth all yeres. And Y have
many tymes asayd that if a man kepe hem with a lytel of the roch, which he
groweth uppon, and wete hym with Mayis dewe, they shal growe ech yer, and the
smale shal wexe greet. And a man shal bere a dyamaunde uppon his lyft syde, and
thenne hit is more vertu than elles, for the streyngthe of her growyng is toward the
north, and that is the lift syde of the worlde.
Often diamonds and adamant are the same thing (a gem), but adamant can also be lodestone (magnetite, "schipmannes ston þat draweth the nedle"). Dyamaund and adamaund are in fact two versions of the same word, deriving from classical Greek adamao, "I tame" or "I subdue" -- quite appropriate for the hardest of stones. Yet a medieval eye would also discern in the word the Latin verb adamare: to love deeply, passionately, perhaps unlawfully. Diamond/adamant is at once that which is so hard it resists like no other stone, and that which exerts an innate magnetism, a movement, a desire, a kind of a love (ad-amant -- not to be confused with this guy).


Karl Steel said...


"And they beth noryshed with the dewe of hevene, and they engendreth comunely and bryngeth forth other smale dyamaundes, that multeplieth and groweth all yeres. And Y have many tymes asayd that if a man kepe hem with a lytel of the roch, which he groweth uppon, and wete hym with Mayis dewe, they shal growe ech yer, and the smale shal wexe greet."

The temptation to read this passage as investment advice must be strong; good for you for resisting.

I love this project, Jeffrey. My only quibble at this point are with the words "inhuman" and "nonhuman," since these points of comparison (human vs everything else) maintain the human at the center. Certainly Vincent and 'Mandeville' through him do write with the human in mind, likely centrally in mind, but there's also, I think, an intimation of object/object relations, indifferent to human needs or desires. After all, the diamonds grow from the dew whether or not humans are present. The point is not, then, that the desires of (and OF rather than FOR, once more with feeling) diamonds are in/nonhuman, but that they are their own (correcting this 'own,' certainly, with the unsatisfiability of any desire, whether diamond or otherwise). Points of contrast that would work better for me might be diamonds on the side and the NONLITHIC on the other, or desiring, erotic objects on the one side and nondesiring, nonerotic objects (God?) on the other.

I'll also mention here, because perhaps it's worth tracking down, that in Honorius of Autun's Imago Mundi, in the section on India, he lists the magnet and adamant with the fantastic beasts (PL 172:125A); however, by the time of Walter of Metz's translation (or at least this prose adaptation of Walter of Metz, or this one in English, by Caxton), the section on "precyous stones and...their vertue, whiche growe in Ynde" becomes distinct from the animals. Is this a recognition of the particularity of lithic life, or a 'demotion' of stone from life to nonlife?

At the same time, though, Caxton speaks of "growing," and Walter of Metz of stones that "croist" (increase, grow)...

Anonymous said...

They must all be referring, more or less knowledgeably, to growing crystals, mustn't they? No idea if that's any use, already well-known or just annoyingly historicist...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Karl, for that reminder -- helpful for me to bear in mind as I work on this. As to stones as living creatures, I am working my way through Albertus Magnus's Mineralia right now and man oh man does he get angry with those who claim stones have souls, can be organisms. Which is to say: they were philosophers who thought just that. What's interesting about Albertus is that even as he denies stones the possibility of being alive, he also grants them agency and a kind of desire ("Stones do have powers of wonderful effect and these powers reside not in their constituents but in the way they are combined ... Hence it is known that stones, too, undoubtedly are effective -- all, or nearly all, stones, although the effects of many of them are unknown.")

Jonathan, YES, sort of. As always there is a grain of truth in such stories: crystals can be grown. What's interesting to me, though, is what is added to the kernel of scientific observation, the STORY about diamonds and lithic reproduction...

Karl Steel said...

WOW. That Albert stuff is very cool. It reminds me of the exegetical responses to Romans 8:18-25 (which I talk abt in my book)

18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that[i] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Origen says: this is about the future renewal of the stars (another kind of rational life), which, since they need to be renewed, shouldn't be worshiped; Augustine says, no, it's just about humans, who are a microcosm; later commentators say: it's DEFINITELY not about stars, and anyone who says it's about stars or irrational life, which is here only to be subjugated by us, is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Is this evidence that other people thought that the promise of the verses encompassed beasts? Maybe, but I guess not. But it is evidence--and here's the relevance for Albert--that exegetes saw that thought COULD go in that direction. They imagine others as true believers (or better: "true heretics"), needing to be shot down, when it fact its their own imagination (and reading comprehension) that's leading them astray.

Maybe it's sort of like the Mannoni quand même argument: the fetish need not be directly believed in, but can be believed in through an other who is presumed to believe. Likewise with Albert and lithic life: he claims that others believe in it, which claim allows him to imagine lithic life (in)directly.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I like that; thanks for quoting it at such length, Karl. Working in the lapidaries has also meant working in the Christian inheritance of Greek philosophy as mediated by Muslim and Jewish preservation and amplification ... and that has been a reminder that so much of what we know (for example) of the pre-Socratics exists because it was quoted in disagreement. Meanwhile deep thinkers like Albert are also often arguing against nontextual beliefs about things like worship of the stars and trees, and obsessed by questions like "Do rocks have souls?"

What's funny is that even though he answers a resounding NO, he still grants stones almost all the attributes of organic life, including procreation and a striving towards betterment.