Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Geologic in Scotland

by J J Cohen

Yesterday I returned from Edinburgh, where I gave a paper with little stone in it.

On the long plane ride home I read David Abram's Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. The book has problems: the cliche of the educated Western man who comes to a better sense of mindfulness via journey through enchanted Nepal; a proclivity to speak of the wisdom of indigenous peoples, as if their earthiness were universal and uniformly affirmative; a disdain for technology, which becomes flattening and estranging (I read Abram through the technology of a book, on a plane where if I flipped a button the screen embedded in the seat in front of me displayed three camera views of the exterior through which I became an intimate of transatlantic clouds). Yet Abram argues for an active ecological materiality that has much in common with the new material feminisms as well as object oriented philosophy. He arrives at his conclusions through a different road (a little Deleuze, a lot of phenomenology), but what he writes is consonant. And beautiful.

I found myself haunted by some lines which unintentionally resonate with some words from Derrida I'd been thinking about:
But what if meaningful speech is not an exclusively human possession? ... What if thought is not born within the human skull, but is a creativity proper to the body as a whole, arising spontaneously from the slippage between an organism and the folding terrain that it wanders? What if the curious curve of thought is engendered by the difficult eros and tension between our flesh and the flesh of the earth? (4)
This language of inhuman being, Abram writes, possesses not words but rhythm, movement, animation; not representations but participations, dances, presencings (11). If stone tells a story, I am certain it speaks in such a tongue.

Taxi from the airport and I am trying to remember Edinburgh. Jamie narrates as he drives: the idiocy of politicians and their betrayals; the prodigality of the queen, who keeps an estate to visit once a year; the construction of a tram he does not want; bleak futures for the young. When he speaks of those who have too much love for immigrants I observe that Africa alone possesses indigenes. He laughs.

Hiking to Arthur's Seat to battle jet lag. The sun settles in its late northern way, smearing clashes of orange and violet across a dusk strangely blue. A cold wind rises at the peak, where a silver disc marks arrival. I am thinking of the silliness of calling the mountain after Arthur, beloved of the Welsh and English, but this is the queen's park after all. The last of the sun is deepening final purples across the Firth of Forth. As I sit on a rock that Arthur never sat upon, the water's other name comes to me: Linne Foirthe. I remember only because like Firth of Forth the words resound.

Twenty years and more ago I sat at the same peak: in the morning, with a crowd, owning a short past and small prospect. At this dusk I'm alone. In hiking I'd feared the cloy of personal history, feared seeing that younger me for whom I don't possess enough compassion, but the wind from the Firth is brisk, deeper, yielding geologic thoughts. The chill of this stone on this night is also the epochal cool of 350 million years. Arthur's Seat is an extinct volcano, a remnant from Scotland's childhood as land of rocky fire. Here the local physician James Hutton observed igneous expanses that were once magma, and saw they had been thrust through oceanic sedimentary stone. In this intercut (stone from fire, stone on land from the sea) Hutton discerned the logic of the earth, a lithic writing or geographesis in which he glimpsed deep time. Hutton was one of many scientists to discern in the earth its native temporality, its persisting but slow liveliness. On the way to the Seat I passed a sweep of the Salisbury Crags now called "Hutton's Section," a space at which when this eighteenth-century physician attended to the inhuman time of their record the rocks imparted a story. Arthur's Seat is the gift of slow uplift and erosion: formed in the seabed, penetrated by volcanic energies, scraped to a craggy mound by the sandpaper of glaciers. When Hutton hiked Arthur's Seat he beheld a world of sea and stone, heaviness and inestimable force, a restless world in which humans and gods are upstarts, unreadable in geology's archive.

The National Museum of Scotland narrates its earliest history through confederation with stone. The basement level is dedicated to "Beginnings" and "Early People," collections arranged around a record simultaneously petric and human, profound in its temporality and yet embodied, immediate. James Hutton adorns a placard announcing "Geologic Time." Its chronology advances in thick segments of hundreds of millions, with humans at the tiny flatness of "0 Million Years Ago." That this past is not  indifferent to the creatures curating its vastness is suggested at the exhibit announcing "Scotland's History Starts Here." A boulder marbled white, black, grey forms the totality of the beautiful display. Everyone who walks by touches the stone: a needed reassurance once they learn that it has been transported from an outcropping in the country's northwest whose stones originate about two and a half billion years ago. These are the oldest rocks in Europe, and among the eldest of the world. Yet the signage also announces that "In the rocks called the Lewisian Gneiss, Scotland's history emerges from the depths of time." The stones were already the bedrock of Scotland, even though the Precambrian life forms coeval with them were microbes, and any supercontinent to which they clung predates Pangaea by three or four iterations.

As I watched short documentaries on geologic and glacial Scotland, I was struck by how their narration of Scotland's lithic prehistory offers the same kind of very human stories that nations like to tell themselves about their continuity and primal coherence, especially in the face of briskly heterogeneous realities. I loved the repeated emphasis on Scotland as a portion of Britain that arrived from elsewhere. During the Silurian period the Scottish portion of the island was pushed by wandering Laurentia into the rest of Europe. Its meeting with what was to become England was not easy: a violent fusing that thrust up mountain ranges, that was protested by the molten fire of a multitude of volcanoes. Scotland drifted with its new companion to the equator as part of Pangaea, becoming a desert; and then northward with Eurasia to cool and flood. The rising sea ensured that Britain (as this conjoined twin would now be called) would seem an isolated entity, that Scotland's primal affinities with lands having nothing to do with the unwanted expanses to its south could be forgotten. But geology speaks the truth of history. Though Scotland has been scoured by glaciers, its primal life wiped from its stone under the weight of frozen water and then the force of floods, its stones hold the story of its endurance.

Although it does feature some bones, clothing, and even a Viking grave, the "Early People" exhibit continues the composite petric-human narrative instigated in "Beginnings." Material culture like brooches, buckles, pendants and pins are displayed in anthropomorphic cases that resemble copper robots walking across the museum floor. Incised stone slabs offer most of the stories. A placard entitled "Knowing Stone" speaks of stone's cross-cultural as well as specifically Scottish use in "every human activity ... from making fire to making an impression." Homes, weapons, domestic tools, items, religious objects and jewellery were all created from stone. Scotland's geologic diversity enabled a sophisticated stone knowledge through which the properties of various types of rock were activated and allied with to create objects specific to their abilities. Exotic stones were meanwhile imported and treasured.

Stone's archiving power is continually activated, especially to inscribe stories. Through that repeated and sensuous contact between durable rock and desiring hand narratives were incised and bequeathed. Sometimes these stories remain loquacious after centuries. Latin engraved on a sarcophagus speaks in a language we can still comprehend; a cross speaks the penetration of a religion still practiced; an engraving of a boar or sheep is a pleasant reminder of how long these animals have companioned us. Other narratives are more reticent. The Papil Stone is cut with images of monks, a cross, and a lion that is likely Saint Mark. But it also displays anthropomorphic bodies with animal visages, and two long beaked avian creatures pecking at what looks to be a severed human head. Many stones feature Pictish symbols that reassure with their beauty, intrigue with their inscrutability, and seem to be part of this geologic story of Scotland as well as a challenge to its certainty.

"The imperfect and improvisational character of all earthborn beings ... is a character also present in stone ... There's an affinity between my body and the sensible presences that surround me, an old solidarity that pays scant heed to our distinction between animate and inanimate matter ... It unfolds in an utterly silent dimension, in that mute layer of bare existence that this material body shares with the hunkered mountains ... with gushing streams and dry riverbeds and even the small stone - pink schist laced with mica - that catches my eye in one such riverbed, inducing me to clasp it between my fingers. The friendship between my hand and this stone enacts an ancient and irrefutable eros, the kindredness of matter with itself." (David Abtram, Becoming Animal 29)

By the time "Early People" is ending, stone has yielded to wood. Visitors walk through houses, glance at the remains of boats, examine textiles, and perceive that the historical archive brims where it once was as sparse as a coil engraved on stone. Andrew Goldsworthy's installation "Hearth" (1998) is its terminal point, the connection to the "Kingdom of the Scots" exhibit that comes next, with its narratives of struggle, assimilation, pride, war. "Hearth" is semi-circle of wooden fragments scrounged from the construction site of the museum. They are jagged but in their moodily lit unity beautiful. A perfectly round black disc has burnt into the center, suggesting the place where a vanished fire once flared, a circle of gathering for community and tales. The affirmative power of this installation is undeniable. Yet its wood and its absent flame seemed insubstantial to me after so many stories of stone.

An easy critique of the museum's curators: they anthropomorphize stone. Lithic stories become national stories. They discern in rocky and indifferent substance their own vitality, their own history, because they place it there themselves. They are like Alexander Duff, who looked at the Hilton of Cadboll Stone and beheld not its Pictish specificity but a pretty background to carve a story about him and his three wives, as if the world cares; or even worse, like those who left the Stone languishing upside down in a chapel, or employed it as a garden ornament.

Perhaps. But what if all an observer discerned in the Hilton of Cadboll Stone was a local type of sandstone formed by eons of alluvial sedimentation? What if its only story was its similarity to the rocky material out of which much of the National Museum of Scotland is constructed? Would that not miss the point that something generative, something more than a stone or human story, unfolds when we are drawn to such a specific sandstone by our stone knowledge -- which is really just our love for stone, as well as our recognition that we are lithic intimates?

It could also be said that the curators perceive in stone something that those who dismiss its materiality as indifferent or inert do not. The rocks that dot, subtend, texture, and continue slowly to convey the expanse of land we are calling for a while Scotland are as active, hybrid, shifting and astir as its peoples. Stone is animated and self-organizing. It speaks, when we stop insisting that communication requires words and representation rather than participation is how meaning unfolds. "Knowing Stone" is the encounter through which groups form alliances with various kinds of geologic materials -- not because they are cold and recalcitrant, but because they are metamorphic. They outlast human durations -- sometimes, like the Lewisian Gneiss, by years extending into numbers so vast as to defy real comprehension. But let's not be ageist. The temporal alterity of stone does not make the lithic any less our companion. Stories of stone are inhuman only if humans are not the world's intimates. It is not so much that we project ourselves into rock and trick ourselves into discovering tales of our implanting (although I do not deny that we often undertake such projects). More surprising is that despite having dwelt on the earth for a brief time (but then again, stones have dwelt in the cosmos only a brief time), the stories in which we participate, stories in which we may not be the protagonists or conclusions we once dreamt, are nonetheless in part about us. We matter as they matter.

James Hutton ascended Arthur's Seat and read in its shifting composite of fire-stone and ocean-stone a story that is disanthropocentric. In its length the narrative legible there makes our arrogance reel, but that movement away from our own small center is all to the good. The world may not offer its expanses for us, may rebuke us for having ever thought we culminate its processes rather than ride them for a while, but our worldedness (our mundane companionship, our material interbeing) becomes something extraordinary: a sentience that extends beyond us, into the inhuman; our lives become rather like the life, say, of granite; our dreary history of reducing matter to its use value might at last yield to an ethic of embeddedness, artistry and care.

I brought home for myself a single souvenir of my sojourn to Edinburgh: a small chip of volcanic stone, clasped near the summit of Arthur's Seat, carried with me for days and after three thousand aerial miles near me as I write these words.


Dr. M.W. Bychowski, Ph.D said...

A really nice way to ride along with you, glimpsing the rocks, texts, voices, and thoughts which were your traveling companions. Thanks Jeffrey :)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks M ... though as I reread the post I think: "Geesh, does that guy ever step out of his head? He ought to because it's a little bit crowded in there."

Dr. M.W. Bychowski, Ph.D said...

The guy is writing a book (should I pluralize that?), I'd give him a break.