Monday, November 28, 2011


by J J Cohen

We've just returned from a trip to Bordeaux, where over the Thanksgiving holiday we visited the family with whom Alex stayed last year at this time, courtesy of an exchange program at his school. Meeting Nathalie, Salomé, Augustin and Félix -- people we knew only through descriptions (Alex is an unsentimental teenager; he neglected to take photographs) -- was affirming. Their cordiality, and their obvious affection for Alex, inaugurated a tremendously enjoyable visit. I won't pretend that family travel lacks challenges: the meltdowns that jet lag and other fatigues trigger, the work required to keep a group of four united despite their differences, the moments of tedium or homesickness. Yet all in all this trip provided the best Thanksgiving we've had. It helped, of course, to be in a country indifferent to the day, and to eat a meal of galettes bretonnes and crêpes (and for two us, cidre) on a holiday when most of our friends devour a roasted animal without appeal for us four. And, for reasons not to be dwelt upon here, being away from extended family was also welcome.

Just before departure I finished the draft of the first chapter of my book, sixty pages of rumination upon fossils lithic and textual, and the invitation to deep time they extend. Today I am supposed to begin work on chapter two, "Radiance," on the forces stones unceasingly emanate. My heart is not in it. Or maybe I distrust my thesis. My mind is pulled back (by inexorable lithic gravity? an abiding rocky magnetism?) to the stones that intruded into our journeys of the last week, unlooked for but recurrent incursions into what was supposed to be family time. And maybe that repeated inhuman presence that surfaces near the heart of what is intimate, enclosed, and profoundly human has always been the spur to this book I have been writing for six years, or perhaps for more than forty years. Perhaps it is even, quietly, its subject.


Bordeaux is a city of stone, but not a metropolis a medievalist would call old. Its buildings are 18th century in their splendor. Their regal heft rose by pulverizing the preceding cityscapes. Numerous fountains, the swirl of the Garonne, and a recent mirroir d'eau help to counteract their ponderousness, bringing some fluidity to an architecture that can seem overly decorous. The Atlantic crashes not too distantly. Bord’eaux: intimacy to waters is in the city's name. Yet like the precisely crafted wine for which the region is famous, something feels artfully produced about Bordeaux's historic spaces: the balance of water and stone measured and executed for optimal aesthetic effect. A perfection, yes, but perfections are diffident.

The historic center of Bordeaux is not what theorists call an "urban palimpsest," or at least it isn't much of one. An ultramodern tram courses the square in front of the majestic Grand Théâtre (c. 1780), and though some hundreds of years might separate the two they seem comfortable companions, alike in their gleam. You have to walk to the city's edge to find the tower where Eleanor of Aquitaine lived. The ruins of a Roman coliseum are hidden by some apartment buildings and generally unlisted among tourist attractions. The ruins are cordoned from the life of the city, at the terminus of a narrow cul de sac: a nice view for some apartment dwellers, but there is no possibility of nearing the stones.

It surprised me, therefore, to wander the Jardin Public and encounter a Neolithic circle. We'd been searching only for the carousel, yet there it was: ancient rocks, some of them incised, in a classic ring formation. An imitation of a cromlech from Brittany? A model meant to add atmosphere to this park not even a few centuries old? I wasn’t sure. The circle is certainly easy to miss. Mentioned in no guidebook and marked only by a sign that lost its words years ago, the structure inhabits a shady slope not far from a see-saw. On nearby benches the Bordelais eat lunch. Some research later revealed that the circle is authentic – and had in fact been transported from Lesparre-Medoc in 1875, partly as a historical curiosity, partly to add a picturesque element to the gardens. 

Does the relocation of this architecture suggest that even though its builders vanished long ago, the stones continue to exert some power? The ring was not, as many cromlechs have been, fragmented so that the site could be used for another purpose. It was carefully measured, moved and restored. It did not suffer the fate of the Roman city that these gardens are built atop. Deracinated, dislocated, the ring is now nearly silent in its park. On an autumn day in 2011 it pulled me into its orbit, made me happy that it had not been consigned to the far side of metal fence on an obscure street like Burdigala's former amphitheater. And yet a cromlech in a city's midst, where trees undermine its solidity and air pollution wears its stones and the oil of human hands stains and children mistake it for a playground is an architecture that will not be offering its invitations to the contemplation of history and lost peoples indefinitely. The Cromlech de Lervaut in the Jardin Public in Bordeaux is a disintegrating time capsule, an archive crumbling into quiet. Yet there I was photographing the ring, feeling the joy of unexpected discovery, wondering about the hands that shaped it and the hands that moved it and the lives that have been and are being lived around its center.

Later in the week we traveled to Saint-Émilion to visit the église monolithique, a subterranean church carved from a single block of limestone. We arrived just in time to make the only tour of the day, which was in French. "I can't possibly translate for you," the guide stated with annoyance, irked as well at Katherine’s sudden need to use the toilet when the tour was about to begin. Since a guide is the only way to enter the church, we were happy to go with her all the same. Her French was precise and lucid; I had little trouble with it, nor did Alex ... and eventually she even warmed to Katherine, whose pleasure at the church's centaur and dragon transcended language. By the end of the visit the guide was happily speaking in English to her youngest entourage member. It is possible that the église monolithique is a crusades-era inspiration, the idea of a cave-like building brought back to France from Turkey with some itinerant knights. Or possibly its excavation was a convenience: hollow out the hill as you quarry stone for the town's buildings, and use the space for worship. We can’t know, because there are no documents: the church’s history is in the church’s stone alone.

There is a power within this hill become a place of worship. It is difficult not to feel the weight above you as you regard the pillars soaring into darkness. A cathedral promises sky on its other side; this church only more stone. Yet this power has not always been perceived. During the French Revolution the church was sold and its furnishings stripped. A cooper set up shop in a chapel. The soot from his curing of wine barrels accidentally preserved the ornate murals on the walls. The church is now privately owned and little used. Some tourists come to see it as they visit nearby vineyards and stop at Saint-Émilion for lunch. If this sacred space carved from singular stone has any transhistorical assertiveness, it seems a power that waxes and wanes. Most pilgrims to Saint-Émilion would, I think, rather dine at a café with a view of the orderly grape vines than explore such a dim interior.

Another day trip from Bordeaux took us to Arcachon. We were pulled, for reasons I can’t fully explain, by the Atlantic: my family is united in its love of oceans. I was thinking about that gravity a great deal during this trip, especially as I was contemplating how at the age of fourteen Alex is a young man I don’t always know. He has unpredictable moods and desires that come from strange places. He is becoming his own person. And yet the ocean brings out a contemplativeness in him that he shares with his sister, mother, father.
A quotation from Jean Cocteau stenciled on the glass of a café near the beach at Arcahon helped me to understand how waves, stone and imagination form a unity of time, again and again.

And then to Paris. We walked around the places we know, and found others to explore – like the catacombs, l’empire de la mort, that pass beneath much of Montparnasse, and where bones have become a decorative and endless wall. After all, calcium is stone. “How long does it take,” I asked, “for a body to be no longer a person or a life, but material that can be moved, that can be used to construct a place like this?” Not long. 

Later we crossed the Pont des Arts and were amused by the rows of love locks that have been affixed there. Steel clasping steel above ceaselessly flowing water, they well capture the passions that we want to make last, the ardor we have to stay bound to this earth and to each other, as well as the anonymity that ultimately swallows such acts that feel to us singular. It was hard not to see a convergence of sorts in the beauty of the locks clasping the bridge and the beauty (why not?) they share with the architectures of bone beneath the streets of Montparnasse. 

We’d never stayed in Montparnasse before, and enjoyed the way its busy streets yield quickly to everyday neighborhoods. One of these is a community of the dead, the crowded and stony and weirdly lively Cimetière du Montparnasse. Alex and I went there together, and remarked how some graves stood in what seemed to be eternal splendor, while others had already been obliterated. We were moved when we came upon a cenotaph, its occupant “disappeared to Auschwitz.” We left a pebble upon it, observing how strange it was to find a Jewish memorial among so many crosses. Yet the more we wandered the more familiar the Magen David became. We placed a pebble upon each grave, until the number of them grew so overwhelming that we knew we could never accomplish this task we’d assumed. The dead profoundly outnumber the living. Memorialization brings despair. I asked Alex how long he thought the lifespan of grief might be. When do the daily visits to the cemetery cease? At what point does one say, I’ll go weekly. I’ll go once a month. I’ll go for the anniversary. I used to go …

Our final morning in Paris was spent walking to the Arènes de Lutèce, the remnants of a Roman amphitheatre uncovered in the nineteenth century. A few summers ago we’d lived not far from the ruins on the Rue Claude Bernard. I’d enjoyed going to the Arènes, especially in the morning. In the semi-circle where people died to amuse an audience, young men now practice soccer and older men play bocce. I’d never photographed the place. This is where Alex and Katherine’s patience gave out. They were tired of living in my documentary about stones and the human lives that unfold beside and within them. They were weary of being human content for my lithic ruminations. They did not want their pictures taken around the Arènes. So they walked off together, and I wandered with Wendy or by myself and took photographs that make the place seem emptier than it is. 

I like that the Arènes de Lutèce are nothing like the coliseum in Bordeaux. They are part of the city’s life, a lived space. They are also, like many stone monuments that survive into the present day, restored to the point of being almost a recreation – but nothing lasts as long as we desire, not even the stone in which we encase our yearnings for an eternity.

On the plane back to DC I watched the Lars von Trier film Melancholia. Had I seen it anywhere else I might have been annoyed by its heavy-handed allegories. A blue planet called Melancholia is headed towards an earth inhabited by melancholiacs and those whom they suck into their orbits. You might think that you can escape the sadness (at first it seems that the Weighty Symbolic Planet is going to miss earth), but you cannot (Melancholia swerves back and crushes our world). The final scene features a feeble “cave” made not of stone but of several sticks inside which three of the protagonists huddle. One of them is a child who is told that he will be safe. He is incinerated like his mother and aunt. The End. 

Blunt, perhaps, but maybe that is the frank lesson of stone. It is possible that the moon was created when a planet called Theia smashed us long ago, causing the liquefied earth to reform. We don’t know. We can’t know. It is possible that the makers of the Cromlech de Lervaut thought that what they built would always endure, that no one would forget what their stone ring means and dismantle it to bring to a park. It is possible that those who cheered in Latin in the stone theaters of Bordeaux and Paris assumed that Rome would never fall, that the language of their shouts would be the language of that space for all time. It may well be that those who affix love locks to Parisian bridges believe their passion will not abate, that their inscribed names will signify their ardor endlessly. The builders of Saint-Émilion could not have known that the church would become a barrel maker’s workspace, or that the effigies upon its stone tombs would lose their faces. The particular is always rendered anonymous, like bones taken from graves to fashion whimsical arches in an Empire of the Dead. Those still in graves or those exhumed from them have no message to bear other than that time erodes memory, time unhooks substance. The continents we cross on airplanes are plunging slowly into sea. In the cemetery at Montparnasse someone’s grave had a baby in a shroud atop a mother in a shroud. Could anything speak loss – of memory, of love, of history, of everything that matters – more eloquently?

And yet someone else, nearby, had commissioned for their funereal sculpture an angel that is probably arriving to take a soul to heaven, but accidentally resembles an incubus embracing his human lover. I left a pebble here, too. I don’t think this statue will be around in a millennium. It isn’t the Cromlech de Lervaut. Someone will clear the cemetery for an apartment complex when no one remembers who is buried beneath the stones. But there is something defiant in that incubus or angel love (carnal or spiritual, I can’t in the end tell which), a love that also speaks of some artist’s passionate collaboration with stone. 

I do not believe that anything, lithic or otherwise, will still speak ten thousand years hence. I do have some hope that a few messages might endure for centuries, and that sometimes, but only sometimes, stone forms an alliance with quick paced humans and that alliance holds force for millennia. That, in the end, must suffice. To live long enough is to disbelieve the power we once thought we possessed to keep the things we love. This is sad knowledge, melancholic knowledge, but it does not end the world. No Blue Planet or second Theia is in the telescope. Yet. We inhabit an ephemeral landscape. 

Stone intrudes and intrudes not because it is so different from we who build families of whatever kind against the cataclysms of the world, but because of its deep affinity, its desire for a permanence that no thing can hold, its strangely inhuman (I don’t know what else to call it) love.

[photographs mine]

Friday, November 25, 2011

Latest Issue of postmedieval Now Out: New Critical Modes


The idea for ‘New Critical Modes’ was born in the good company of a bottle of sauvignon blanc in Kalamazoo. It burgeoned through e-mail exchanges that became blog posts. The project was from the start gregarious: of and for flocks (and, inevitably, the occasional shepherd or wolf). We structured this collaboration as a communal experiment, a textual laboratory for intensifying creative strains within contemporary academic writing, even as we have tried not to lose sight of the precariousness of both creativity and community, both of them so easily taken for granted as objects of knowledge. (In other words, we have never really believed in the well-worn modernist imperative to make things new, even as we have never really abandoned our sense that things are always -- always -- in the process of being made new.) We therefore encouraged the resuscitation of outdated forms, experiments in voice, manipulations of genre and ruminations upon the possibilities yielded by new media. We wanted this issue of postmedieval to examine and embody some of the novelties (flavors of the week, even) that have been emerging among contemporary medievalists. Just as importantly, we wanted this issue. It was – and is – an object of no small desire.
--Jeffrey J. Cohen and Cary Howie, "Editors' Introduction: Novelty"

Myra Seaman and I are thrilled to announce the release of Volume 2, Issue 3 of postmedieval: a special issue on New Critical Modes, co-edited by Jeffrey and Cary Howie. I'm particularly happy about this issue because of its experimental nature: the authors gathered together herein -- Brantley Bryant, Catherine Brown, Jeffrey, Cary, myself, Anna Klosowska, Karmen Mackendrick, Carl Prydum III, and Daniel Remein -- have endeavored to either try out different [not necessarily new but not necessarily conventional] forms of so-called "scholarly" writing [the abecedarium, the antiphon, the interview, the confessional essai] or to think about and propose new modes of reading [manuscript-thinking, vicarious causation, "evential" hermeneutics, literature as transport, break, and reprieve, criticism-as-flirting], or even to ruminate what "novelty" itself supposedly means. The issue also includes a book review essay by Sharon Kinoshita, "Re-Viewing the Eastern Mediterranean," that reviews books that challenge "the grand narratives of nationalist histories and Western Civilization alike," revealing "the unruly multiplicity of eastern Mediterranean texts, artifacts, and cultures in the very period usually taken to epitomize the east-west, Muslim-Christian clash of civilizations. For readers interested in cross-cultural and cross-confessional relations, they make clear that the kinds of political negotiations, cultural dynamics, and accommodationism long ascribed to Muslim Iberia and Norman Sicily find ready counterparts in the eastern Mediterranean, in ways that could not be more relevant to ‘contemporary events, issues, ideas, problems, objects, and texts’."

It should also be said that this issue has been an endeavor of friendship -- between Jeffrey and Cary, but also between the contributors, and between the contributors and the editors. Another way of putting this would be to say that this has been an experiment in a public form of amity, of wanting something together, which can only be an ambivalent desire at best. Or as Cary writes in his essay, with reference to that striking act in Chretien's "Knight of the Cart," when Lancelot does the unthinkable by stepping into a horse-cart, normally reserved for thieves and murderers, in order to have a "means of transport" for pursuing the kidnapped Guinevere,
It may be useful, on the one hand, to think about how Chrétien's text disorients our sense of everyday verbs, most crucially ‘monter,’ to climb, to mount, to board: an ordinary thing – think of the stairs you may have climbed today – but suddenly a world-changing one, a world-shattering one. If to become univocally visible, to become visible as a knight of the cart, is to have climbed up onto something, an ascent that is also, socially, a more striking descent, are there ways of transfiguring that movement so that it opens onto other figures? Can we ride this out together?
Three of the essays in "New Critical Modes" [by Brown, myself, and Remein] will be open-access for a limited time, and you can access those plus see the full Table of Contents here:

New Critical Modes, eds. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Cary Howie (postmedieval 2.3: 2011)

Here, you will find whales and projective verse, a rumination on the "time" of the academic, a conversation about medievalist blogging, flirting as a "critical mode" that looks "over the shoulder" of the writer, the four elements [water, air, fire, and earth] as methods of thinking, speculative vitalism, reading as an inhuman adventure, the medieval as a sign and excuse for "getting carried away," the idea of the new as "the same as the old without a first," and the "flex-point" of manuscript space-time. It may be that each and every essay contained in this issue is something like a failure in the sense of "omitting to perform something due or required," and maybe also because, in the most faithful attempt to try something out --literally, to essay -- we faltered a bit, and also given the length restraints of the short essay, we ran out of time. Or as Catherine writes in her essay,
Before a paper's ready, you have to do a lot of prep work. Afterward, you can ignore it or destroy it or file it away. But for now, the point is: Get the ideas where you can put your hands on them. Use the back of an envelope, a bar napkin, a blackboard. Leave yourself a voicemail, use an app, just get it out, get it down, in a form that can be touched, seen, heard – even smelled or tasted, if you can make that happen. Even if you lose the notes, your hands will remember the writing.
The twist here is: we put the ideas where you [the more general "you" that lies outside of the more intimate 2nd-person "you" Catherine invokes in her essay] -- our readers -- can put your hands on them, and perhaps "ride this out" with us. And please do.

A Medievalist Leads the Charge of the English Department at UC-Davis Rally


As our readers know, Karl and Jeffrey have both recently posted on the student protests and police brutality at UC-Davis, HERE and HERE. I learned yesterday, happily, that the English department at UC-Davis made a collective statement about the brutality and the need for the Chancellor of the University, Linda P.B. Katehi, to step down, and they chose Seeta Chaganti, a medievalist well known to many of us [she will, in fact, have an essay appearing in postmedieval's special issue on Becoming-Media and recently participated in our experimental crowd review with us] to make that statement publicly at a rally on campus this past Monday [November 21st], and you can see the video of Seeta reading that statement here:

You can also read the statement HERE, and if you are at all interested in signing Nathan Brown's letter to Chancellor Katehi, asking for her resignation, go HERE.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Incubus-Demons, Magic, and the Space Between the Moon and the Earth: Jeffrey Cohen and Ben Woodard @Speculative Medievalisms


Erratic angels, like the incubus-demon, the Fairy King and Merlin, are the vicars or intermediaries who make possible the world's vibrancy by enabling contact and relation. They allow the emergence of transformative textualities, even while they themselves are left behind at that luminous advent.
--Jeffrey Cohen, "Sublunary"

Perhaps then the sublunary, as the way-point between the lunar madness of speculation and the coruscating solar death of the real, stands as a universalism emphatically weird in which, and of which, a properly metaphysical system can be cast.
--Ben Woodard

Somewhat belatedly, and following not closely enough on the heels of sharing audiofiles of the talks and responses from Speculative Medievalisms 2: A Laboratory-Atelier, held at The Graduate Center, CUNY on September 16th [go HERE and HERE and HERE for digests and audiofiles of the talks and responses by Kellie Robertson + Drew Daniel, Julian Yates + Liza Blake, and Graham Harman + Patricia Clough & Nicola Masciandaro, respectively], I now share with you the audiofile of Jeffrey's talk, "Sublunary" [a talk Jeffrey also shared the text of HERE] and Ben Woodard's response, "Casting Speculation."

In Jeffrey's initial talk, which put Geoffrey of Monmouth's Merlin (from the 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain) and the Breton lay Sir Orfeo on a collision course with each other (much like subatomic particles in an accelerator-corridor), he charted the cartography of a middle space between the moon and the earth: "Aerial and moonlit, this middle realm is knowable only at second hand." Provocatively connecting Merlin's status as the progeny of two "oblique realms" that can never really touch (the lunar and the terrestrial) with Graham Harman's invocation of an "autistic moonbeam" in his essay on "vicarious causation," Jeffrey sketched the possibilities of communication and relation between realms (angelic-demonic and human) that otherwise could not touch each other. Jeffrey then also commented upon the Fairy-underworld that Sir Orfeo travels to [in order to rescue his kidnapped wife: Heurodis/Eurydice] as a realm of speculative adventure in which forms of both inviolable solitude and objectal relation are possible. But what was really interesting about Jeffrey's talk [for me] was how he also asked us to think about what the lunary [or sublunary] also obscures from sight: what figures and objects [angels and demons in the parlances of the medieval texts Jeffrey examined in his "laboratory"] recede from our view at the very moment they give birth to the vibrantly material possibilities of our world? What is the fate of the intermediary "vicars" who are the agents of Harman's [and the world's] causation? And therefore Jeffrey's conclusion that,
Though these figures open new worlds for and bestow unexpected futures to others within their texts, their shared fate is silent abandonment. Speculative awareness comes through the labor of those reduced to mere go-betweens, those who move from one place to another in order to change both. These mediators are literally sublunary angels, messengers who in their erratic flights refuse reduction into narrative or philosophical order. Perpetually conveyed, traveling without necessary destination, these disordered angels remind us that a retreat into tidy heaven leaves too many abandoned on the rubbish heaps of the earth.
In his response, Ben decided to take Jeffrey's "sublunary" and add some madness to it, in an attempt to bring some "lunacy" [i.e., "fanciful" imagination] to speculative realism's vicarious endeavours, where lunacy might operate as a sort of "third space" between the vital material and the speculative thought. As Ben himself put it,
The issue becomes that of how to parse the traction of thought on the real with thought's limitation, with the utility of speculation and the need of a formal distinction between the metaphysical and the non-metaphysical. Or, in other terms, how do we explain the ingenuity of Merlin, where his seemingly ungrounded thinking leads to feats of engineering, without overselling the power of thought or de-galvanizing the effect of materiality?

Ben usefully turned to the philosophy of Liebniz [and even the steampunkish Neal Stephenson] for some possible answers to that question, and if you want to know how that turned out, you can listen for yourself here:

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, "Sublunary" [with response from Ben Woodard]

If you prefer to download audiofiles and listen to them on a portable, mobile device, go HERE.

Monday, November 21, 2011

It's Already Tomorrow in Australia: Two Upcoming Talks

Figure 1. Luna Park, Melbourne


Don't worry about the world coming to an end today; it's already tomorrow in Australia.
--Charles Schulz

This coming Sunday, just after Thanksgiving, I'll be heading to Australia [first to Melbourne, and then to Perth], and while I'm a little nervous about the long flight, I'm terribly excited over the opportunity to visit this beautiful continent which heretofore has only existed in my imagination of it, inspired by books like Bruce Chatwin's Songlines, movies like My Brilliant Career, and the stories of one of my best friends who grew up on Kangaroo Island and in Adelaide (in south Australia). It will also be nice to depart for a place where summer is just beginning at the very moment the American midwest slips into its winter chill.

I'll be attending and giving a talk in Perth at a 2-day conference (Dec. 4-5) on "International Medievalism and Popular Culture," sponsored by the Australian Research Council (as part of a funded multi-year project on medievalism and cultural memory, directed by Stephanie Trigg, John Ganim, Louise D'Arcens, and Andrew Lynch) and the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Western Australia, along with other medievalists who will be in attendance, such as Louise D'Arcens, Helen Dell, John Ganim, Stephen Knight, Clare Monagle, and Stephanie Trigg, among others. I'm very excited about this conference, and also about the time I will get to spend in Melbourne for about a week before this conference starts, thanks to the gracious hospitality of Stephanie Trigg, who has also asked me to give a talk at the University of Melbourne.

So, as I am packing things like valium, noise-canceling headphones, melatonin, and kimonos (kidding about the kimonos), let me wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving or whatever kind of holiday you might be celebrating if you have any part of this coming week off, and I'll share with you as well (below) the abstracts for my two upcoming talks. They both feature Lars von Trier, but in very different ways (hmmm . . . how did that happen?):

[1] University of Melbourne

Thursday, December 1st

it would be hard to say exactly what I felt: vibrations in the archive

It would be hard to say exactly what I felt when I read these fragments and many others that were similar. No doubt, one of these impressions that are called “physical,” as if there could be any other kind. I admit that these “short stories,” suddenly emerging from two and a half centuries of silence, stirred more fibers within me than what is ordinarily called “literature,” without my being able to say even now if I was more moved by the beauty of that Classical style, draped in a few sentences around characters that were plainly wretched, or by the excesses, the blend of dark stubbornness and rascality, of these lives whose disarray and relentless energy one senses beneath the stone-smooth words.

—Foucault, ‘Lives of Infamous Men’[1]

The aim of this talk will be to share how, over the past two years, I have tried to take seriously Foucault’s question, repeated by the medievalist Carolyn Dinshaw in her essay, ‘Temporalities,’[2] of how the ‘vibrations’ of the dead Others felt in the archives might not ‘enter into the orders of reason at all,’ and how then, are we to analyze these ‘feelings, these experiences’? Is this a spiritual experience (Dinshaw herself hints that it is, in another essay, ‘Are We Having Fun Yet?’),[3] and therefore beyond rational analysis? Or could it be analyzed hermeneutically, and also phenomenologically?[4] It has been my hope for some time now that certain new trajectories of thought -- Claude Romano’s ‘evential’ hermeneutics as well as Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology (especially his theory of ‘vicarious causation’) -- might point us in certain fruitful directions with respect to this question, and with respect as well to how we might begin to investigate new modes of reading (beyond, but also in combination with, the modes of reading most prevalent in the humanities at present: new historicist, psychoanalytic/symptomatic, and skeptical) that would pay better attention to the unruly ‘aliveness’ of texts. Related to all of this, and also raised most urgently in the oeuvre of Dinshaw, is the question of whether or not it is possible to ‘touch’ and be ‘touched’ by the figures and objects of the past -- for me, the question becomes: how can we reckon the ‘weird realism’ of textual figures and objects that refuse to cede completely to the grasp, or touch, of any hermeneutics we might apply to them, and yet, are still available for ‘relations’ (but what kind)? Through a reading of Chaucer’s ‘Clerk’s Tale’ alongside Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves, I experiment with some of the ways we might get closer to this ‘weird realism.’

[1] Foucault, M. 2000. Lives of Infamous Men. In The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1974: Power, Vol. 3, ed. J.D. Faubion, trans. R. Hurley et alia, 157–175. New York: The New Press.

[2] Dinshaw, Carolyn. 2007b. Temporalities. In Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English, ed. P. Strohm, 107–123. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[3] Dinshaw, Carolyn. 2007a. Are We Having Fun Yet? A Response to Prendergast and Trigg. New Medieval Literautures 9: 231–241.

[4] It might also be an experience of embodied cognition related to the collision of cognitive objects (texts and readers), but I leave that route of investigation to those more interested than I am in cognitive literary studies.

[2] Australian Research Council Symposium: International Medievalism and Popular Culture

4-5 December 2011

University of Western Australia

An Improbable Manner of Being: Medieval Hagiography, Queer Studies, and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves

In a planned fourth volume to his multi-volume History of Sexuality, never finished, Foucault planned to take up the ways in which early Christian confessional modes intensified certain classical models of self-regulation and also helped to produce sexualities as ‘truths’ about selves that could then be disciplined and governed (and even punished). At the same time, in some of the texts of the early Church dealing with monks and saints’ lives and their extreme forms of self-discipline, Foucault saw a way out of this oppressive regime of policed sexuality and a way in to what he called ‘a manner of being that is still improbable’—a manner of being, moreover, that would offer us ‘an historic occasion to re-open affective and relational virtualities’ that he believed could be emancipatory.

Foucault’s thinking on early Christian saints’ lives has ‘returned,’ in a sense, in some scholarship on the ‘exuberant erotics’ of ancient and medieval saints’ lives—lives, moreover, that portray what one scholar has called the pleasurably ‘violent seduction of sacrifice.’ In Virginia Burrus’s The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography (2004) and Karmen Mackendrick’s Counterpleasures (1999), just to name two studies, the legends of desert hermits, militant martyrs, and self-mutilating mystics are held up as models of a sexualized and ‘queer’ asceticism and radically sublime sites of freedom, and even love.

There has also been some recent work in queer theory that valorizes certain forms of Christian and ‘saintly’ abjections, such as David Halperin’s recent proposal in his book What Do Gay Men Want? (2007) for an ‘upbeat and sentimental’ abjection that would help us to ‘capture and make sense of the antisocial, transgressive’ behavior of gay men without recourse to the language of pathology or the death drive, and which relies for some of its inspiration on medieval Christianity’s rhetoric of humiliation and martyrdom. Halperin puts forward a model of ‘queer solidarity’ (between gay men) built upon an embrace of one’s own social humiliation and abjection as an ‘inverted sainthood.’

The question is finally raised: what kind of ‘spiritual’ work are all of these studies doing (including Foucault’s) with regard to certain ‘medieval’ modes of asceticism, saintliness, the sacred, self-sacrifice, the abject, violence, and love? In my talk, I will explore these questions in relation to Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves, part of his ‘Gold-Heart’ trilogy (also including The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark) in which he sought to portray and even pay homage to the role of the female martyr ‘in its most extreme form.’ As is well-documented, the two primary sources for von Trier’s film were Sade’s novel Justine (1791) and Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc. The fact that the film both puts its primary female character, the ‘holy fool’ Bess McNeill, through a series of terrifyingly self-willed sexual degradations (that ultimately kill her) while also sanctifying her (Bess is, quite literally, turned into a miracle-performing saint at the end of von Trier’s film, escaping the Hell her Scottish village’s Presbyterian elders consign her to at her death) has vexed and troubled critics, who remain distressed over the ways in which the stories’ themes of sadism, masochism, inhuman suffering, self-negation, violence, religiosity, and death are ineluctably enmeshed with what it supposedly means to love, to have ‘faith,’ and more importantly, to be ‘good.’ Ultimately, my talk will aim to highlight the troubling and vexed ways that medieval hagiography inhabits both contemporary queer studies’ interest in the abject and also Lars von Trier’s enduring interest in the supposed ‘sublimity’ of female sexuality, abjection, and sacrifice.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Students triumph over UC Davis Police: "Cops are leaving"

Read Jeffrey below on Stones and Time, and also let me join Jeffrey in asking you to read this letter by UC Davis Assistant Professor (let this be a call to tenured profs!) Nathan Brown, who is justly demanding that UC Davis chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi resign.

Watch the video posted with Brown's letter, but watch it to the end. You'll see UC Davis police pepper spray a line of students, and you'll see the faces of the police: watch how they make themselves impassive, doing as much as they can to pretend not to be horrified or pleased by what they do. They imagine themselves subjects of the Law, and--perhaps not being readers of Žižek--they imagine themselves untainted by the inevitable excess of the Law's obscene underside. Auto-reifiers, they want to imagine themselves things, as if they hadn't made a decision to make themselves things, as if things do nothing other than react.

But watch to the end and see the students retake the space. They move from chanting "Shame on you!" to a human-microphoned negotiation, to the chant "You can go!" The cops waver over whether to pepper spray the lot of them, but then back off.


(this wasn't the post I had intended to write. Things got me carried away. Maybe tomorrow or Monday you'll hear what I have to say about Descartes)

Nathan Brown's Letter to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi

by J J Cohen

Worth your time to read, think about, act if you are so moved.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Prehistory and Geohistory: Stone and Time

by J J Cohen

I know: I never blog any more. Seems like the only social media I allow myself are a few quick tweets every day and the occasional FB post. The reason is simple enough. I'm in that terrible portion of a teaching leave where you realize that no matter how much you've accomplished it isn't enough, that the clock is ticking, and that abject book failure is staring you down. Luckily I react to such situations not via paralysis at what's ahead but by composing a calendar of obligations, breaking my work into accomplishable chunks, and plowing through. Sometimes this method even works.

My objective was to have the draft of the my book's first chapter finished before tomorrow, and I am fortunate to be right on schedule. My family departs for Bordeaux on Saturday, so that's given me quite good motivation. We are going to spend some time with the family that hosted my son as an exchange student last year at this time, as well as flee the ritual slaughter of the turkeys, and I don't want to bring writing obligations with me.

Below is the (very rough) beginning of the chapter. Let me know what you think.


Time is inhumanly vast. Were the 13.7 billion years that have elapsed since the Big Bang expressed as a single earth year, with time commencing on January 1, then the Milky Way arrived on May 1, the solar system on September 9, and earth’s oldest rocks October 2. Bacterial fossils come on October 9, followed by cells with nuclei November 15. Dinosaurs appear on December 24 and depart four days later. Hominids evolve on December 30, while recognizably modern humans make their belated appearance late on New Year’s Eve. The last half hour of the last day of this cosmic year is a hectic one for homo sapiens: Neolithic civilization and the earliest cities erupt at 11:59:35 PM, the Roman Empire flourishes around 11:59:57, the Crusades unfold at 11:59:58, the European arrival in the Americas at 11:59:59. The present moment is the stroke of midnight. Happy new year, but enjoy the champagne quickly, since a human life endures for less than two tenths of a second within the cosmic scale. (n1)

As this boundless sweep compressed into a mundane year suggests, to render time comprehensible we must measure its abyssal depths in human terms, parceling eons into small segments like generations, the life-units of mere organisms. When the biblical Methuselah endures for an extraordinary 969 years, almost to the Flood against which his grandson builds an ark, he becomes a figure for impossible longevity, domesticating temporal extensiveness into a comfortable frame. Even through displacements into myth and metaphor, however, we have immense difficulty rendering the millennium a conceivable unit of measure (Methuselah dies just short of a thousand years). Even more difficult is to grasp the procession of epochs in what geologists call deep time, “the unimaginable magnitudes of the prehuman or prehistoric time scale.”(n2) The Cambrian era is remarkable for its proliferation of multicellular creatures, but its watery lifefields did not contain anything like human beings, so we have difficulty thinking of the period as distinguishable from the Permian, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. Painting a caveman into our portraits of dinosaurs is nearly irresistible, even though we know such creatures never coexisted. Although temporal spans are better measured through the lives of rocks than of animals, we yearn to insert a familiar observer to make their depths more intimate, to render time a persisting, living and knowable impingement rather than a distant and dissociated realm. We employ whatever conceptual tools we have at hand in this process of fashioning a convergence for human and inhuman scales of time. In this difficult undertaking we inevitably find ourselves challenged by temporal profundity to the invention of new narratives. Such provocation to story typically arrives through stone.

To touch stone is to place a hand upon a substance alien to human duration. Medieval writers trained in the study of the bible knew this fact with the same certainty as contemporary scientists and philosophers. Geologists tell us that stone was the earth’s first solid, the planet’s most venerable denizen. In the Hebrew bible dry earth appears on the third day of creation, while humans arrive on the sixth. After their expulsion from the circumscription of perfect Eden, these ambulatory latecomers will take some time to overspread their new terrain. They are compelled to begin their colonization anew after the purging Flood. Stone, however, endures indifferent to human catastrophes. Recent volcanic creations aside, stone’s origin stretches back millions to billions of years according to cosmological reckoning, and between four and seven millennia according to Genesis-based accounts.(n3) Much of the scholarship on deep time and geohistory takes as a founding assumption that the discovery of temporal profundity – of the vast prehuman spans that were to be measured in stone rather than flesh – marks a revolution, creating a formidable rupture in human relations to the past. On one side of this temporal chasm stand those whose relation to prehistory is comfortably mediated by myth; such peoples are assumed to be happy in their confident ignorance. On the other are the moderns whose awareness of temporal depth alienates them from history, troubles their relationship to the world they inhabit, and activates their imaginations. Thus Martin J. S. Rudwick, the foremost historian of the scientific mapping of deep time, narrates the discovery of geohistory by stressing that science and religion are complicated partners, yet provides as his illustration for life before deep time’s challenge to human self-assurance a moment “back in the seventeenth century” when Thomas Browne declares “quite casually” that “’Time we may comprehend, ‘tis but five days elder than ourselves.’” Rudwick contrasts Browne’s glib assertion of time’s brevity – so cheerful in its literalmindedeness -- to the prehistory that for us stretches almost infinitely backwards. Our imaginations are strained as we are called upon to envision remote epochs filled with dinosaurs, the migration of continents, and an oxygen-deprived world in which “comets or asteroids crashed catastrophically into our planet” (Bursting the Limits of Time 2). Contrary to such “rupture narratives” (as Kellie Robertson labels such enthusiastic and tidy periodizations), medieval conceptions of prehistory are not nearly so casual, and almost never unperturbed.(n4) Historical frames may have stretched back millennia rather than eons, but ancient eras were envisioned through rich and multiplex narratives filled with lively, often startling content. Time’s vastness was capable of taxing the medieval imagination in ways just as anxious and innovative. Every historical period works with the conceptual tools it inherits but is never bound to mere replication of that which is already known by those tools. Living before the scientific and social revolutions Rudwick details, medieval people did not populate their prehistory with pterosaurs and mammoths, but they knew well through these creatures’ bones the archaic lives of dragons and giants. Even the frameworks of “universalizing” and “short chronologies” like the Genesis story have their strata, fossils, provocations to dreaming the inhuman, and unexpected depths. (n5)

Geology and Genesis differ substantially in their time scales, but both convey the elemental primordiality of stone, as well as its inhuman perseverance. Something potentially combustive therefore unfolds at the moment of contact between mortal flesh and lithic materiality: the advent of a disorienting realization, no matter how inchoate or dimly perceived, that stone’s time is not ours, that the world is not for us. We grasp the antediluvian, figuratively or literally, and realize that we are fleeting, that this place supposed to be a home is too ancient and enduring for comfortable domestication. In a simple gem, for example, is condensed an inestimable temporal extension. For a medieval author, a ruby or emerald might compact a history that stretches to Paradise, the rivers of which wash primal jewels from its gardens.(n6) For most readers of this book, diamonds and amethysts compress an epochality that demands the imagination of prodigious monsters and migratory continents indifferent to apes yet to come. Both temporalities are vast enough to make human lives seem meager. Rock resists our accustomed anthropocentricity. As solitary years accrete into eras, the still earth becomes vibrant, inhabited by impressive materialities that are also forces, moving and creating. That which was static springs into life. Rock slides, seeps, grinds, infiltrates, engulfs, transforms. Rising as mountains, gliding as continents, stone accrues as aeonic strata, tumbles with glaciers, plunges deep under the sea in sheets and ascends later as peaks veined with marine souvenirs. Mineralizing what had been organic life, compressing traces of multiple times into heterogeneous aggregates or metamorphic novelties, rock also bends like plastic so that ephemeral humans may sculpt a lithic whorl or devise a temple of a thousand years’ duration. 

Such durable building projects are possible only through human-lithic alliance. They intensify the architectures that geological forces fashion on their own. The baleful Green Chapel of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may or may not be the work of human hands. Perhaps a decrepit church or ruined shrine, its description also suggests a pre-Christian holy place, possibly Thor’s Cave, a limestone cavern in Staffordshire used in the late Neolithic for burials, or Lud’s Church, a mossy gorge that also possesses a long human history.(n7) In a way it does not matter if human builders or geology fabricated the haunting structure since humans and rocks have a habit of imitating each others' work, of creating homologous and shared spaces. All stonework is a collaboration between human hands and inhuman forces. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem obsessed with landscapes, animals, and other manifestations of the nonhuman. No wonder then that the Green Chapel is at once a dire mound or hillock where the grinding of a lethal axe echoes, a crag or cave where red blood trickles onto white snow, and the climactic locale where terror at the prospect of impending death yields to an invitation to celebration and the affirmation of humane connection. “Make merry in my house!” Bertilak declares once Gawain has completed his testing (2468), and the verdant half-giant reveals himself also to be an ordinary man.

This chapter explores the lithic as a kind of temporal portal, the trigger to an affectively charged encounter that opens up a geological conception of time, a history far more extensive than that for which mortal years can account. To grasp such an inhumanly vast history entails imagining unknown worlds, usually through a record written with stone. Few objects can cross such temporal distance. Rock as substance, as architecture, as force and as a geological archive invites us to the contemplation of durations exceeding human comprehensibility, immensities before which our certainties – and our interpretive tools -- founder. Whether thousands or millions of years, such spans beckon us to populate as best we can the distant past and far flung future, the temporalities in which stone abides, before and beyond transient organic creatures. Yet stories of stone are always more intimate and affective than such differences in endurance imply. 

We too often assume that the only history that counts is textual. Anything human that endures from the millennia before writing likely survives because its substance is rock (an axe, a statue, a windbreak), or because it has been petrified (bone or footsteps). The Stone Age which these lithic traces define therefore often functions not so much a chronological period as a time without real history. Thus Europe had its long ago Paleolithic period, and yet contemporary peoples discovered by the descendants of these Europeans can be described as inhabiting a Stone Age. Both terms indicate through rocky reference a time without text, and thereby a time without narrative. John Lubbock coined the term “prehistory” in 1865 to describe this distant past, the archive of which is readable only through objects and architecture. Lubbock observed that “memorials of antiquity have been valued as monuments of ancient skill and perseverance,” but not as “pages of ancient history.” (n8) Yet the history he reads from these monuments is rather timeless: all primitive peoples everywhere end up versions of the same savage state. The problem with separating prehistory from history is that one becomes rather homogenous and wholly nonlinguistic, the other an enterprise built too narrowly upon the analysis of written documents. Within such a documentary methodology other kinds of archives have trouble being heard.(n9) 

Recently historians have begun to argue that when we assume such temporal partitioning is natural we divide the world into noncommunicating segments and disallow a potentially transformative conversation between the two periods. Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail have demonstrated how considering deep time alongside smaller scale history leads to innovative analytical practices. Deep history opens historiography to the “realm of the imagination,” creating a “shift in sensibilities” through which “intellectual endeavors” are not “prematurely sorted into separate boxes.”(n10) Shryock and Smail insist that this shift in scale towards a single and more capacious temporal frame enables us “to reconceive the human condition as the hominin one – that is, one that includes all the species in the genus Homo that are ancestrally as well as collaterally related to Homo sapiens” (p.15). This temporality might be pushed even further, though, to the point at which the neatly arrayed stages of the Paleolithic yield to the eons of the geologic time scale, to include prehistories with and without humans, a lithic rather than anthropocentric orientation.

It could be objected that no medieval writer would speak of prehistory since, strictly speaking, a time before writing did not effectively exist. All history was recorded in Genesis, and it begins with a divine speech act: “And God said: Be light made. And light was made” (Genesis 1:3). Even though the Genesis narrative is routinely disparaged by contemporary scholars as offering a chronological scale that is “shallow” and “short,” medieval writers found its millennia extensive enough to roil with uncertain depths, a temporal immensity that required new “narrative and reconstructive story-telling.”(n11) Such stories arise in collaboration with objects “actively engaged” in time’s production. Shryock, Trautmann and Gamble argue that deep history requires a focus on the agency of objects like the famous biface (hand ax) discovered in Amiens in 1859 “in the same geological stratum as extinct animals” (“Imagining the Human” in Deep Time p. 24). With its resounding declaration that humans are a species of longer than biblical endurance, the stone tool assisted in bringing about the “Time Revolution of the 1860s” through which brief chronologies featuring Eden and the Flood opened into an unsettlingly deep past. Held by human hands or not, the ax is an actor:
If objects have no agency, then these men would not have been visiting the gravel pit, and we would not be scratching our heads about deep time and history. That simple biface was both the source of and target for human agency because it stood in a network of social relationships … Hominins [humans and their ancestors] have always been constituted by the agency of persons and things. Our history is a material history, not just a succession of thoughts or speech acts. If deep time is to figure in our histories, then we need narratives that can triangulate between agents and materials. (“Imagining the Human” in Deep Time p. 30).
This networked and distributed agency is just as evident – and just as lithic -- when the prehistory being imagined involves time spans measured in the quadruple digits rather than sextuple. Such objects may not be embedded tools, but they will still be familiar: fossils, tombs, Stonehenge.

No matter what the adopted scale, the eons of deep history or the supposed temporal shallows of Genesis, the stories to which such objects invite authors will feature the same strange protagonist. Viewed in its proper duration, rock acts: as catalyst, summons, cogency, force. Stone in action is as disconcertingly strange as it is uncomfortably familiar, an astonishingly lively materiality that invites us quite literally to gigantic temporal frames: to spaces populated by vast figures who seem monstrous but reveal the intimacy of their connectedness. The lithic causes us to ponder our brevity, our inability to send messages far into the future. It thereby incites creativity and spurs art. From such lithic inducement arrive our stories of stone, aesthetic efflorescences created by and with rock, our constant companion. This chapter argues that medieval people were just as capable of responding to stone's provocation to deep time, to dreaming the prehistoric and the inhuman. Whether as fossils, as ancient architectures, or as a primal element, the lithic elicited wonder, ingenuity, and intimations of lost realms. 

To lay hand upon stone is to press against time in material form, a kinetic and disorienting experience. Medieval romance developed the perfect word for this fraught catalysis: aventure, literally an advent – an appearance, coming-into-being, visit -- but also an adventure, an irruption, a marvel, a disruptive arrival, a queering, an unexpected conveyance across unsettling horizons that might once have seemed as if they could never be traversed. As the writers of medieval romance knew well, aventure engenders narrative. Whereas contemporary stories of stone spur visions of an ancient earth in constant motion, seas that inundate continents, and beasts that were it not for the fossil record and the assurances of paleontologists would scarcely be believable, medieval people used the historical frame provided by the bible to envision an ancient earth in constant motion, inundating seas, and beasts preserved in stone that were it not for the assurances of theologians and authoritative texts would scarcely be believable. In both cases, stone is a trigger to story, a material of nonhuman duration, a vivacious substance, and an unfolding of the profundity of time. 

Such triggers to lithic adventure often arrive in the form of fossils or architectures from time out of memory. (n12)

(1)This “Cosmic Calendar” was famously calculated by Carl Sagan in his book The Dragons of Eden, 13-16.
(2) Martin J. S. Rudwick takes the phrase “deep time” from John McPhee’s Basin and Range, remarking upon its analogy to astronomical deep space (Scenes from Deep Time 255). He also employs the earth science term geohistory, “the immensely long and complex history of the earth, including the life on its surface (biohistory), as distinct from the extremely brief recent history that can be based on human records, or even the somewhat longer preliterate ‘prehistory’ of our species” (Bursting the Limits of Time 2).
(3) An origin date of 4004 BCE for the earth is the most famous calculation based on the Genesis narrative, but this was the number derived by James Ussher in the seventeenth century. Medieval reckonings varied widely. The fourteenth century Middle English poem Piers Plowman, for example, has creation take place “seuene thousand” years ago, while the Middle English Gospel of Nicodemus places the span at 5500 years. Bede calculated the time between Adam and Jesus as 3852 years; others calculate the figure to be much higher. See Stephen A. Barney, The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman volume 5, p. 69. Nor was it necessarily the case that the seven days of creation were interpreted as human days, especially because three of these days preceded the creation of the sun. On the endurance and adaptability of the Genesis “short timescale,” see Martin J. S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time 116-17. Though Genesis was the primary narrative through which the writers of the Middle Ages understood their earliest history, a coexisting tradition deriving from Hesiod and Boethius described a Golden or Former Age. Like Eden, it was both better than the current era and irredeemably lost.
(4) Kellie Robertson, “Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto” 108. Robertson is speaking specifically of the chasm that is supposed to separate the Middle Ages from the early modern period, but her rich essay is generalizable beyond this specific focus. See also the work of Daniel Lord Smail, who traces how the Middle Ages and the Paleolithic are both put to work to maintain such unnecessary gaps.
(5) As Andrew Shryock and Daniel lord Smail point out, these short chronologies are also not true to the bible itself, which does not contain calendar dates. Later interpreters “retroactively imposed” such a frame to harness the narrative to differently organized contemporary chronicles, giving the Genesis story a “brittle precision” that snapped in the nineteenth century (“Introduction,” Deep History 6).
(6) G. Ronald Murphy traces this paradisal origin for gems back to Augustine’s commentary on Genesis. See Gemstone of Paradise 41-48.
(7) See Ralph Elliott, “Landscape and Geography” 116. Elliott writes that the cave was once called Thurse Cave, “the giant’s cave.” The poem does not locate its action precisely, however, suggesting that the location is a composite of several architectures and landscapes.
(8) Pre-historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages 1.
(9) See especially Andrew Shryock, Thomas R. Trautmann and Clive Gamble, “Imagining the Human in Deep Time,” in Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, Deep History, 21-52, esp. 29-30.
(10) “Introduction,” in Deep Time 15. Shryock and Smail go on to argue that this shift in scale – deep time with shallow time in a single field of analysis – enables us “to reconceive the human condition as the hominin one – that is, one that includes all the species in the genus Homo that are ancestrally as well as collaterally related to Homo sapiens” (15). I want to push this frame even further, though, to include time without human (or hominin) content, lithic aeons. 
(11) I am quoting from Shryock and Smail on the mission of paleohistory (“Introduction” to Deep History, 14), but believe the words hold just as true for the temporal spans imagined by medieval authors. 
(12) Fossil is an early modern Latin term for anything dug up from the ground; Martin J. S. Rudwick traces its narrowing of signification in “Fossil Objects,” the opening chapter of The Meaning of Fossils. There is no medieval word for fossil in the precise sense we use it today (the petrified remains of an organic creatiure). Fossils, gems, stones, and lithic architectures will often be treated as separate objects in my analysis but they are deeply interconnected as manigfestions of a singular, stony materiality.