Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Lithic Modes

Speak to me!
by J J Cohen

I had a good lunch with Jonathan today.

We were catching up and spoke of various things: MEMSI, the blog, the shape of the field, summer travels, writing. Jonathan's book is out next year. As I keep announcing, I'm hermitizing myself and devoting the end of September to January finishing my own. Progress was slow last year despite having had leave time. In part that uncharacteristic lack of velocity was due to other projects: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral; Prismatic Ecologies (out next fall); a big lecture or two (or three) -- and a number of essays due. Yet I've also had a harder time writing Stories of Stone than my previous projects. It's my fourth monograph, but the first for which I sometimes think about audience and expectations while writing (a paralyzing mistake). The book is also an aggregate of many previously published pieces -- something like eight -- and making a symphony of that repetitive and divergent cacophony is not easy. There's a great deal of new material as well, and it has been difficult to draw a line around adding even more: the project could become infinite, since the petric is omnipresent as both material and metaphor.

To return to the lunch, though. Jonathan asked me if I was going to keep the nontraditional modes of writing that appear in some of the published essays as they become parts of the book. (You can see an example in my previous post, a draft of an essay which interweaves a text with its interrupted performance; the revised version even includes some strategic use of Old Norse as Grettir, facing death, comments upon his door bursting). I like writing this way for short essays and the blog, but I'm not sure it could work for a book. So far I've been stripping such moments as essays transform into chapters. Every book wants to speak in its own tone, and within its own mode. So far this book is far more straightforwardly scholarly in its voice than much of what I've composed over the past few years. Maybe I'm going to be a leader in the New Critical Dullness movement.

Or maybe you have to adopt a traditional mode when you are arguing for the life of stone. It is also possible that when I return to the book later this month the personal and the inventive will ask to be restored. Blog posts like this one stay with me in a way that more straightforward essays do not; I just don't know that an entire monograph can emerge from such a mixed frame. Wouldn't that be too distracting? I don't want to make the same mistake I did with Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity, which I revised to speak in a voice not quite its own.

Stories of Stone: when the lithic speaks, what does it sound like? How will its voice resound?


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Steve Mentz has a post on his blog that resonates with the thinking through I'm doing here; see my comment there.

Steve Mentz said...

I was just about to comment here when I saw you commenting there: simultaneity & etc.

Speaking as one of the many who are looking forward to seeing the Great Stone Book when it's done, I hope you will discover/uncover/invent a positive style of its own when you crawl into your MD think-house for writerly solitude. Books certainly can't play the same games as blog posts or short essays - genres are constraints - but they also can be experimental, playful, imaginative acts of narration as well as elucidation. (Genres are enablers, too.)

I know you know all that, of course, but just my two cents about avoiding the "straightforward." All paths are crooked on this almost-spherical place.

The conflict between bite-sized experimentalism and the different kind of effort required to assemble and shape a large vessel is much on my mind, too.

JH said...

Jeffrey, it was great chatting with you over lunch yesterday. And yes, I second what Steve says above.

I did find it fitting that you have the sense this book *wants* (desires) a certain critical mode (or even style?) that suits not only the material but certain lithic orientation toward the matter at hand. Last night in my Medieval Disability graduate course, we discussed Robert McRuer's remarks on critically queer and severely disabled positionalities. "Cripple Poetics: A Love Story" (Petra Kuppers & Neil Marcus) is a work that employs its mode of writing in order to enact a critically crip perspective -- its heterogeneous, "broken," non-coherent form (emails, IM convos, phtoos, poetry) provokes all sorts of unexpected ways for thinking about disability, (co-)authorship, desire. So is it a certain critical orientation that shapes decisions about written form, or does form itself enable unexpected modes of thought?

I think having *multiple* venues for experimentation (blogging, articles, etc.) gets at the point I was trying to make about the benefits of trying out simultaneous modes of thought. The book can provide one provisionally fixed lithic modality *and also* other versions of your story/stories of stone can circulate beyond and with the book.

Your posting did make me put some more thought into features of my own prose. I don't think my writing would strike very many people as "experimental" per se (I actually wonder if it's a bit boring, LOL!) but I note that I often switch into "we" near the end of chapters or articles. Since much of my work on multilingual writing is trying to invite new modes of thinking *across* different languages concurrently, my own use of first person plural might suggest a collaborative multivoiced mode. Not where all this is going, but you've gotten me thinking...

Unknown said...

Do as I admire, not as I do. Which is to say, we (h/t to Jon for the pronoun) love Steve's At the Bottom of S's Ocean, in part because of the poetic interludes. Given that you're writing about something arguably more resistant to representation than water (what are the great novels of stone? how many great novels of the sea are there?), something a great deal more silent and steady and heavy and even dull (in at least one sense of the word) than water, I sort of feel you NEED some experimentation, someplace, to let the stone do its work, and to startle us into knowing that it has significant being too.

That said...Ian Bogost and Stacey Alaimo and many other great writers/scholars/thinkers do great and startling work without ever getting, well, fancy. So maybe your deceptively straightforward instincts are right?

Unknown said...

STACY Alaimo.

JH said...

Karl: Yes. I think another great version of your maxim: "Do as I read, not as I do."

Anonymous said...

On the biology of the inorganic: Crystallography and discourses of latent life in the art and architectural historiography of the early twentieth century / Spyros Papapetros
In: http://library.brooklynmuseum.org/record=b940773~S1

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Steve and Karl and Jonathan, for these comments, which make me realize that I do have to give the voice and mode of the book more serious consideration. A part of me doesn't want to write a straightforwardly scholarly book, because that hasn't been my style of late. A part of me worries that an experimental or hybrid style will distract readers from the argument (or enable reviewers to focus on style over substance -- I don't know why but I sometimes think this is the book that will trigger a backlash). But also -- so far -- a traditional scholarly mode has seemed right for the materials.

I am hoping that when I return to my chapter drafts fresh in late September I will have more certainty...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Anonymous: wow, thanks for the reference. Biocentrism seems like a useful concept for me to explore.

Anonymous said...

Image of astrolitic 'Vesta':