Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Elemental Relations (redux)

by J J Cohen

As I have announced ad nauseam, after the BABEL conference I will disappear into my hermit's hut and not be spotted again until winter gales are a-howling. Ivory billed woodpeckers will be quotidian compared to J J Cohen glimpses. But before that happens I have to get some obligations off my plate: the finishing touches to Prismatic Ecologies, that nergling little co-plenary I'm supposed to give with Lindy Elkins-Tanton (hint: both of us will talk about rocks and cataclysms), and the essay I promised for the inaugural issue of O-Zone, Object/Ecology. You will recognize a little bit of this piece as I've shared it here before, but this is a new and experimental form for a journal that (I am told) will take some creative risks.

So here is my draft. Let me know what you think.

United Airlines flight from DCA to DET. March 2012.
Severe weather in Ohio and Pennsylvania has triggered numerous diversions to Detroit. I do not take the extra forty minutes we spend circling the airport as an omen of things to arrive. It is.

A large room in the student center at Eastern Michigan University. The symposium “Nonhumans: Ecology, Ethics, Objects” is underway. Craig Dionne introduces the event. Eileen Joy presents the two speakers. My talk is a careful choreography of words and images.
Social anthropologist Tim Ingold has argued that like the verbs “to grow” and “to dwell,” “to produce” is intransitive and nonteleological. Whether affects, perceptions, artworks, objects, or story, we insistently produce.[1] Ingold is speaking not only of humans but of “life itself,” of the nontotalizable amalgams of forces and substances that knot into ecologies and which create without necessary intention. Among these productions are numerous recording devices that inscribe, transmit and intensify relation – things without which I could not stand in this room, could not share with you some thoughts on how narrative-objects companion other kinds of things. Our longest functioning clock and most extensive archive is lithic, geological strata thick with primal traces, monsters, catastrophes, burgeonings, intimations of possible destinies. Other libraries include tree rings, ice cores and DNA, even if these devices hold more data than evident story. If narrative is a future-saturated device for artful connection-forging (that is, an apparatus of composition, of production), then humans are among the world’s most finely attuned story machines. Only stone has fulfilled this charge with stauncher historical determination.A densely populated and ceaselessly generative thingscape as well as mingling of biomes, the world produces, endlessly, objects without necessary objectives, except more production. Life swarms, inorganic substances proliferate, new forms burgeon (or at times vanish). Ecology is the study of open systems impossibly full. As various object oriented ontologies have insisted, every thing or unit or machine at every scale possesses integrity and infolded mystery.[2] With humans and inhumans alike, then, we must through narrative and other kinds of action foster ethical relations: complicated, hesitant, consequence-minded interconnections that thicken, fructify, and affirm. Narrative is the intermediary by virtue of which these environmental meshworks, mangles and networks are articulated, documented, vitalized.[3] Thick with voices and dense with agency, an object exterior to any author, narrative also breathes with its own life.[4] As Tim Morton writes, “Reading a text is a profoundly ecological act, because ecology, at bottom, is coexistence (with others, of course), which implies interdependence.”[5] Narrative is not the only means we possess for plumbing ecological entanglements, but its partnership has proven enduringly potent.
These human/nonhuman entanglements could also be called elemental relations. Whether in classical philosophy (Empedocles and his earth, air, fire and water) or common parlance (referring to the hostility of weather and landscape) the elements are at once the most intractable, enduring, agentic and fundamental of materials. Thick stone is documentary, the material of our earliest surviving tools and the conveyor of human prehistory. Restless water is that which cannot be inscribed (except as ice), a substance enclosed within our bodies as memory of a briny origin, the force through which we domesticate landscapes. Wind is propulsion, power, spirit, tornado. Fire is obliterative, the partner through which we transformed every terrain into which we stepped. Though they are perilous, even lethal, without elemental confederations we would possess no homes in which to dwell. Smaller than gods and larger than atoms, the elements offer a human-scale entry into nonhuman relations.[6] Unlike vast divinities or minuscule particles, invisible because alien to our scale, the elements are amenable allies because their narratives are noisily audible, their activity energetic and obvious. The slowest and the swiftest, rock and flame, are the most challenging to contain within customary frames. Though both are processes as much as substances, humans do not naturally inhabit lithic or igneous temporalities. Our moderate duration is closer to air and water, the two elements behind storm. Yet fire and stone likewise flow, at least when we accept their invitation to nonanthropocentric measures of time. Their stories convey the fertile past and pulse with futurity.
Through our alliances with the elements we humanized ourselves: no cooking or clearing without fire, no foundations without stone, small movement without water and air. Fundamental, the elements are also that which will remain long after our departure. The elements do not need us. They no doubt relate to each other on their own, outside of human terms. As Graham Harman writes, when “the gap between humans and world” is “privileged over the gaps between tree and wind, or fire and cotton,” we end up reinscribing a tiresome anthropocentricity that measures all things solipsistically, as if humans were the apex of the universe rather that one creative and productive agent among many.[7] Time neither culminates nor ends at the Anthropocene, and even though we are irremediably human it does not follow that the measure of all things should be our limited senses. Yet this object oriented realization does not allow us to wave good-bye to an earth we’ve ruined, departing for realms that aren’t so postlapsarian, for Edens that remain unspoiled because it’s impossible to dwell in them. Human-scale elemental relations assist in avoiding the pratfalls of scientism and theology, to roam a world with no answers in advance, no outside to what we’re intractably within: a co-inhabited realm of humans and nonhumans, neither the measure of the other, a stormy fiery watery earthy text-loving expanse that isn’t anthropocentric, but also isn’t indifferent to me as I am telling you this story and you who listen and consider, for a while, how roiling the ground beneath us might be, how inadequately or well we have constructed our shelters – this very room – with and against the elements, what happens when the door blows open and something unexpected arrives.
We travel to medieval Iceland, and a story of sudden advent. A door will burst from its hinges and dangerous strangers arrive.
Hold on.

Meeting room in the student union at EMU, continued.
“I am sorry but you will need to evacuate immediately to the shelter on first floor or the stairwells. Take your belongings with you. Walk as quickly as you can. You need to get out now.”

Same building. A windowless auditorium: noisy, crowded, warm.
I am thinking about interruption and advent. My presentation was timed to unfold with a flow of visual commentary: stone, water, flame, cloud. I'd taken these photographs in Spain, France, Germany, England, Australia while pursuing my elemental research projects. Visual journal of my wandering years: makeshift inuksuit on the shore of southern Maine. Sunrise, and a raven atop a menhir. Candles burning in Sagrada Familia. Fragment of the Berlin Wall. Rocks like seaborne castles along the Victoria coast. The miroir d’eau of Bordeaux at night, my son and daughter blurred in their running. Pebbles on a Jewish grave in Montparnasse.
When the garbled announcement intruded from the hallway, I spoke over it, assuming the words had nothing to do with us gathered in the room. A man entered and declared the tornado. Much of the student union is made of glass. We were led to an auditorium in the building’s center where we sat for almost two hours, watching the progress of the F3 on a monitor. Excitement yielded to boredom, a student group recited poetry, some Girl Scouts played Duck-Duck-Goose. I pretended to need the restroom so that I could watch the deluge outside: green sky, gale and relentless flood.[8]
No one was injured by the whirlwind, but homes in a nearby town were smashed. When we were evacuated to the shelter, I was just arriving at the portion of my paper about storm, shelter, firm doors bursting and intrusion’s shattering of the home. Ok í því brast sundr hurðin.

Drangey Island, north coast of Iceland
A Story of Fire and Water, Rock and Gale
The wind had been howling for days, winter’s advent, and when it stopped Grettir knew trouble neared. The shepherd’s hut had been home in exile, shared with his brother, a servant, a ram. He’d spent days inside. A knee wound from an axe stroke gone wrong was suppurating, and Grettir was dying. “Ok knýr heldr fast,” the hard knock of enemies at the threshold, the door about to break.[9] Grettir had depended on Drangey’s loneliness to ward him. The island was sheer cliff, every side. Grettir cursed the need for fire that had driven him to chop driftwood and cut his leg, an injury that held him to an unaccustomed bed. He grasped his sword as the timbers yielded.
In the past Grettir had been on the other side of such doors, breaking wood from hinge. He had been that thing against which houses are constructed, that which an oikos excludes. Now all that the house been constructed to exclude would soon be within.

This place where I am writing. August, 2012.
Grettir’s Saga was composed in the fourteenth century by a Christian imagining what life must have been like during Iceland’s Viking Age. As much monster as hero, its protagonist is a complicated warrior never fully in control of his impulses. His decapitation on a lonely island at the hands of a man who has long hated him is the culmination, twenty years after the fact, of a chain of events sparked when Grettir stole fire from a similarly lonely home and its wooden walls went up in flames, incinerating those within. Skapti the lawman declares before Grettir is outlawed for this deed that “a story is always half told if only one side speaks” (46). Skapti is speaking of human litigants, but what about the land that anchors the narrative, the rocky places of refuge, the stones constantly lifted and hurled? What of the sea that quickly enables distant travel, and that also rages and churns? What of the gales that blast the island, that keep an ill Grettir in his island home, secure from its bite, and cause such mystery for his servant that he neglects to raise the ladder at a pivotal moment? What about the fire that lights the evening, warms at the hearth, and consumes human lives? These elements possess story. Water is the Viking roadway, stony islands their farms and bivouacs, the matter of foundation. Flames that reduce households to ash exert material as well as narrative agency. The narrative is alive with nonhuman characters. Even humans become objects of a sort, sometimes walking in death, forming their uncanny alliances with subterranean spaces or the shimmer of the moon behind winter clouds. The Old Icelandic term for what we’d call a zombie or vampire is draugr or aptrgangr, “return-walker,” a person still moving after reduction to a corpse’s putative inanimation. The dead are supposed to be as immobile as the stones beneath which they are buried. But what if those rocks also reveal themselves as exerters of unexpected agency, holders of an uncanny life? Rock is our most inert substance, our cliché for inaction, our symbol for givenness, an element that Heidegger declared weltlos (worldless), the very substance of the impassive Real. We found our lives upon a base of stone but do not take stone’s power to initiate into account. What if we did?
Our narratives might change. We’ve fucked up the world we inhabit, this place without a beyond. Unless we refashion our relations to materiality and objects, unless we learn to compose our stories and our ethics not from the elements (as if all that is inhuman were a resource) but with them (as agency-exerting partners possessed of unsounded depths and innate dignity), we may well find ourselves in a grey and brown space of stumps, fumes and sludge – like the ending of The Lorax, when the grumpy little ecologist hoists himself by his keister and vanishes into the smog, abandoning humans to their industrial mire.[10] Yet despite what we know from the denouement of ecocastrophe narratives, a dark ecology is not necessarily The End. As Timothy Morton has observed, even toxic sludge possesses aesthetic power and numbers among the “irreducibly unique” objects that compose our world.[11] Muck is a terminus only from a human point of view. Produced by humans, by factories, by elements, sludge is likewise productive: of feelings, of stories, and even, perversely, of life.
Playing with fire leaves you burned, thinking with stone leaves you smarting, water has a cold sting. Elemental relations quicken as they bind, thicken as we cultivate an ethical complexity with their materiality and force. They emerge within narrative but they do not necessarily become servants indentured to anthropocentrism. Narrative enables the envisioning of realms at times indifferent to us, thingscapes that often excludes us, but through that imagining we connect and interdepend all the more deeply. Materially, ethically, narratively we’re too entangled to escape this call to dwell with rather than despite, against, or through. Narrative is the relational machine of ethics, and the perspectivism of stories is our complicated but unremittingly productive angel of connection. On ground that is never firm, lit by dangerous burnings that are also our sine qua non, we imagine more just modes of coinhabitance. Through stories of stone, fire, wind and water we attend with slow care to the ethical bonds that ally us with a thing coming always into being: with that impossible and always already ruined but absolutely essential converging of restless elements that is the world.

Here. Now. With you.
I have been untruthful about my partner in composing this essay. The tornado interrupted ahead of schedule. The door had not yet been threatened. No monster or storm was bursting the bolts, and I had not yet pronounced “Hold on.” The elements are seldom compliant. They have terrible timing.
abandoned fishing hut, Reykjavik
This essay, however, bears throughout the impress of the storm that suspended its origin. The presentation I was to give on “Elemental Relations” in March 2012 will never be delivered. This piece you are reading is not a substitute but a meditation on aftermath. The hurried evacuation, the time spent in the sweltering auditorium, the unexpected companionships a tempest’s advent engendered, the green sky and the relentless rush of waters, glass against gale, community within a whirlwind: all of these things convinced me not to postpone the performance, but to cancel. Something less solitary had already unfolded in its place. Relations had become participations, production, co-composition. At the all-clear we returned to the room and instead of my practiced talk I gave an informal account of things I might have said, of things the storm had asked me to think. I gave up on companionless performance. We had all the conditions in place for an emergence, for one of those rare moments when formality dissolves and bonds of unexpected solidarity become visible, and a conversation unspools, one in which everything can change, one in which even the unlooked-for and inhuman arrival had become an interlocutor. The tornado had intruded and in its wake we could not carry on as if the conditions of our gathering and the knowledge that we brought to our colloquy had not been profoundly altered.
            Elemental relations are elemental participations, and possess no exterior. Catastrophe has always intervened already, and catastrophe will always arrive again. We live in its midst. We have always lived in its midst, at a doorway that sometimes holds firm against storm but sometimes blows open and the elements arrive.

My gratitude to Craig Dionne for extending the invitation that made this project possible, to Eileen Joy for nurturing its focus, to Timothy Morton for companionship at the symposium, and to the audience for the perseverance, great questions, and good cheer.

[1] Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (London: Routledge, 2011) 6.
[2] This sentences gestures towards the terminology of various object theorists who have helped me to frame this investigation: Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (Alresford: Zero Books, 2011); Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2011) and “BorromeanMachine-Oriented Ontology, Strange Strangers, and Alien Phenomenology
[3] For network see the work of Bruno Latour, such as Reassembling the Social (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); for meshwork see Tim Ingold, Being Alive 63-65; for mangle see Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
[4] On narrative autopoiesis and agency, see Eileen Joy’s “Notes Toward a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism.
[5] He continues, “What I call the ecological thought is the thinking of this coexistence and interdependence to the fullest possible extent of which we are capable.” See the “Ecological Thought - Mission Statement” at
[6] On elemental ecocriticism see “An Abecedarium for the Elements.” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 2 (2011): 291-303 as well as the special issue of the same journal devoted to “Ecomaterialism” (ed. Jeffrey J. Cohen and Lowell Duckert, spring 2013).
[7] Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Melbourne:, 2009) 67.
[8] Alan Montroso, who sat next to me and Eileen Joy in the auditorium, has a compelling account here:
[9] Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar. ed. Guðni Jónsson. Íslenzk fornrit 7 (Reykjavík: 1936; reprinted Reykjavík: Steinholt, 2001); Grettir’s Saga, trans. Jesse Byock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) chapter 82. References to both by chapter number. This narrative from Grettir’s Saga forms a triptych with the essay I co-wrote with Stephanie Trigg on “Fire” for a forthcoming issue of postmedieval (spring 2013) and “All Things,” Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. Jeffrey J. Cohen (New York: Oliphaunt / punctum books, 2012) 1-8 (downloadable here).
[10] On grey, brown, black and other non-green shades for ecology see Prismatic Ecologies: Ecotheory Beyond Green, ed. Jeffrey J. Cohen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
[11] “Dark ecology” is from Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007) 159.


Steve Mentz said...

Very nicely done. You're a few days ahead of me (as usual, and at least), but I am also working up a semi-narrative format for O-Zone, which will take me into "swimmer poetics" across the Chesapeake Bay in the company of my friends Hamlet, Nemo, Emily Dickinson, etc.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Please tell me that the narrative also features a shark, Steve. It is not going to be an exciting swim without a shark in hot pursuit.

Rob Barrett said...

Provided the shark has a frickin' laser.

Anonymous said...

"Thick stone is documentary" or can be used as documentary? also in terms of "alliances" how does this fit with elemental disinterestedness?

Kristin said...

Lovely, provocative, and lyrical post--and I am writing from a Southern California location that' just had an earthquake, today, and feels very much alive!

I was thinking about the role of smog as living antagonist in China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, near the end of your piece (Mieville conference approaching, so I'm rereading much of his work) and how "pollution" works in the world, changing and altering the other elements (rain, for example). Might be of use in that section, perhaps?

In response to the anon above, I like the "thick stone as documentary" phrasing--stone as genre, as testament to observation--as opposed to the "can be used as documentary" suggestion, which implies external force using the stone. But I will second the question about the move from disinterestedness to alliances--though of course one can be personally disinterested in the machinations of other beings but still be concerned about how to live in harmony with them.

Unless they're sharks, with lasers.

Anonymous said...

Kristin, except to categorize as genre, to pre-scribe, is to make use of, I'm with Rorty and pace Heidegger that as the kind of handy critters that we be we are always-already manipulating (hear an embodied/fleshy take on Derrida's narcissism(s) without end),homo-rhetoricus, if you will.

medievalkarl said...

thanks for this Jeffrey. super fun. It's an incentive for me to get moving on my O-Zone paper, due sooner than I'd wish!

Some comments -- chiefly, I'll let you know that I've now decided to use Morton's stuff about 'interdependence' as a jumping off place for my Boston Babel talk. Hungry worms eating our flesh gives another view of 'interdependence' than one that's 'fructif[ied] and affirmative', at least from our point of view. I'm not proposing some kind of pessimistic ecology that's more 'true' than an affirmative model, but rather (with an eye towards my Book #2), thinking of what it looks like when humans abandon their pretensions to being above the field of play, creation, eating, and being eaten.

That's my bag, though.

Some other questions for you: wondering if you could clarify that transition from Ingold on life to the lithic, which isn't something people typically think of as 'alive.' I know your work well(ish), so the transition works for me: but maybe slow things down there?

With that in mind, if you have space, it would be cool to squeeze in a reference to the Curiosity Rover, which is hunting amid the rocks for evidence of life having been on Mars. Somehow I think that resonates with this paper.

Daniel Anderson said...

I enjoyed this very much. Particularly like the way it asks for refiguring what might be narrative and enacts alternatives in the composition. I'd be interested to see what might happen by pushing that even further, fidgeting with the narrative boundaries in the piece--scholarship's lines, maybe. I wonder a bit if layering narrative over stone and time yields the kind of objects and events of language as much as narrative. Both, as here. Great stuff.

I'd be curious to hear what you think of this: a bit about sediment and stones.

Anonymous said...

A correction from the Motor City: Detroit = DTW

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thank you, everyone, for these useful and helpful comments.

The elements are indifferent to humans, yes, but they are also allies of their own accord. It is too easy to say that world (inhuman) and culture (human) are separate spheres: we uncannily partner with a thing (eg stone fire) that has always already uncannily partnered with us. Stone is documentary AND it can be used as a documentary apparatus.

Elements are ready to hand as well as that through which handiness and handedness are possible. Without the mineralization of life -- without stone implanting itself in invertebrate flesh -- we wouldn't be able to touch rock or make art as elements fashion art. And so on.

Karl, I'm trying to argue not that that ecologies themselves 'fructify and affirm' -- they don't, so I'm actually with you in believing in pessimistic or at least disanthropcentric ecologies -- but ecological ethics must (in my opinion) move toward affirmation over resignation (or, worse, celebration that all things end in death, that life reduces itself to non-meaning -- a replication of theological misanthropy).

Will clarify what I mean by life -- thanks for that: am using Deleuzian notion, I guess, of une vie, impersonal life. And: my BABEL talk is about Curiosity Rover! So I won't place it here.

Daniel, quite a moving video melange! I like it,a dn it is part of a genre I've been calling geoautobiography, the narration of personal life stories via lithic spur.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And thanks for the DTW correction!

Anonymous said...

"elements are indifferent to humans, yes, but they are also allies of their own accord"
this is an intriguing claim but not an obvious one would take a great deal of spelling out of what terms like "allies" and especially "accord" mean in such an economy, a more Pickering-ish model of mangles of practices, with affordances and resistances, doesn't suggest two realms just one with great and actual variety. A flat ontology does not a democracy make...

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for that link to a thought from Harman I know well. For the record and lest I be misunderstood, I am NOT arguing that everything is connected. That is both facile and obviously not true. But I AM arguing that within an ecosystem (even at the scale of the world ecosystem) a great many things are intimately interconncted. Not permanently, not necessarily even for long, and certainly not in some totalizing giving over, but interconnected in profound and unpredictable ways all the same.

That is in not the same thing as the soft core spiritualism of "Everything is connected, man."