Thursday, June 27, 2013


by J J Cohen

Writing Lockdown has sometimes been a mixed bag, but for the most part it's been extremely productive. I missed joining my friends on Martha's Vineyard for BABEL conference planning. But my book is so much closer to completion, and so much better (I hope) for the sustained attention I have been able to bring to it over the past weeks. June is almost over, classes start in August, so every moment I can give Stories of Stone seems well spent at this point.

Some days I have loathed my writing and felt like no matter how much I revise that book will never be done, or will never want to be done. On others I make progress and learn again what I love about the project. Tuesday of this week was an especially bad day, in that I came to an impasse over terminology and could not see a way of making cohere a chapter I'd combined from two others -- a chapter that remained at 40K words even after significant chopping. I haven't solved that problem quite yet, but at least I have a road map that helps me to make sense of why my four key terms cannot be synthesized. That breakthrough (well, to me it feels like a breakthrough) occurred yesterday morning, when I complained on Facebook about not being able to find the term I needed to get my argument crystallize. Forty-four comments later I realized that non-coherence (the non-coincidence of stone with its descriptors) was what I was actually speaking about and theorizing in the chapter ... and suddenly I had a way into its structure that I didn't possess beforehand. Thanks, so much, to everyone who contributed to that thread. It proved for me once again the value of sharing work-in-process and the generosity of academics who use social media.

Below, a short excerpt from yesterday's writing.

meta moment, courtesy of Angie Bennett Segler

This chapter seeks a word that humans have yet to invent, a term stone wants to convey its movement-effects. This impossible word would combine "allure" and "radiance" to express irreconcilable trajectories: enfolding and propulsion, attraction and outward impetus, lure and actuation, captivation and conveyance, seduction (mysterious, sensual, affective) and ekstasis (vertiginously standing outside the self). Impracticably, this word of dual vectors would also have to capture stone’s propensity for lapidary stillness and seismic movement at once, its ability to be utterly fixed, a point of stasis or arrest in a bustling world, as well as to be at the same time energetically, adamantly in motion. This unimaginable term would need to dance lithely between temporal and spatial scales, between ontological modes, capturing both weird simultaneity and dizzying shift.  Has there ever existed such a word?
A kinetic verb masquerading as a noun, wonder is one possibility. Old English wundrian designates irruption and eruption, outside coming in (to be struck by surprise) and inside moving out (to marvel). Wonder is an opening of the world in its strangeness.[i] Perspective realigns and matter queers.[ii] In the face of epistemological faltering, wonder entices curiosity and cognitive extension.[iii] It can also lead to a “broken knowledge” that inculcates respect for the indomitability of things: “wonder hopes to darken, to isolate, to insulate” (Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology 131). Astonishment is another possible term, the affective state that in Middle English was written astoned. This adjective derives from the Anglo-Norman French verb estoner, “to stun,” which in turn comes from Latin tonare, “to thunder.” A word of a sonorous etymology, astonish conveys the feeling of being outside oneself that arrives at a sudden thunderclap. For both medieval and modern Anglophone audiences the term accidentally carries lithic suggestiveness: a-stoned sounds like becoming petric.[iv] Those who are astonished routinely fall to the ground, and when the astoned regain their mammalian composure they are no longer quite the same. The world has come alive as a space in which “bodies, substances, goods, organisms, landscapes and energetic flows” burgeon with vitality, “the adventures of matter.”[v] Indeed the emergence of this effusive material power is what the genre of romance, the medieval equivalent of speculative fiction, calls aventure, transportive and perilous arrival, the root of our modern word adventure. Erupting as the world’s workings are revealed as fundamentally weird, aventure is hazardous, enchanting, oblique, inassimilable.[vi] Yet wonder, astonishment, and aventure better describe the effect of the lithic upon humans than what stone does outside of its anthropocentric relations.
The medieval noun-verb charm might be a better option, combining arousal and capture with materiality (a charm is a piece of jewelry or a magic object) and inherent dynamism (charm means spell, words come to life, and derives from Latin carmen, song). Charm emphasizes the ability of stone to enchant, intimately connecting medieval texts to newer materialisms. A neologism like allurance offers another alternative, a portmanteau capacious enough for varied lithic effects – but too deconstructionist, doomed to hapax legomenon. With its inbuilt push-pull magnetism is likely the best geological descriptor, and has the added bonus of being a sturdily medieval noun that remains familiar. Magnetism also underscores the perils of encounter with stone’s agency, its inhuman challenge to thinking the world from a perspective that assumes matter can be mastered and materiality is fully knowable. In his long alphabetical catalog of the powers of various stones, the thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian Albertus Magnus dwells mainly upon stone’s emissive abilities, its refulgence. His discussion of magnetes (magnetic stones) foregrounds a contrasting but coextensive trajectory, petric traction. The description begins in science and ends in horror:
Aristotle also says that there are many different kinds of magnets; for some attract gold, and others, different from these, attract silver, and some tin, and some iron, and some lead … and some attract human flesh: and it is said that a man attracted by such a magnet laughs, and remains where he is until he dies, if the stone is very large. (Book of Minerals 3.3.6)
Albertus takes this description from the so-called Lapidary of Aristotle, an Arabic work extant by the ninth century published under the Greek philosopher’s name and eventually translated into Latin.[vii] The Lapidary collates a variety of “stone that attracts” (“lapis qui trahit”). The rocks that draw humans are said to have been discovered by Aristotle’s pupil and correspondent, Alexander the Great. To behold them triggers astonishment: “all who looked upon them were stupefied and kept gazing open-mouthed as if they had lost their senses.” Alexander is savvy enough to steal some by draping them in cloth. He uses the stones to build a city, incorporating them within its lithic architecture, but over time sand erodes the protective layer placed to obscure their surface. Eventually a prince of Ninevah sends scouts into the city. Once they scale its wall these men are transfixed by the rocks and never reappear.[viii] Stones shimmer with beautiful and life-intensifying force. They also exert a corporeal and epistemological pull that brings humans, and the category “human,” to ruin. The prince’s messengers do not return with their report. The words never arrive to describe the actions of these stones that have captured their investigators, this substance with which they will be forever bound.
Despite combining attraction and propulsion, stillness and action, magnetism in both medieval and modern accounts mainly centers upon lithic gravity, on “lapis qui trahit” (rock that pulls). Seeking a word that has yet to be invented, stone can best be understood here in the failed return of the prince’s spies, who cannot communicate stone’s movement-effects because they have been caught by them; or here in these failed paragraphs, as I struggle to find words, as stone bluntly triggers linguistic failure, pushing investigation up against the hardest of walls, description faltering, the world escaping category. Here where humans become transfixed to a stony wall and words petrify rather than convey, especially here, stone does not cease to move.
This chapter continues the exploration of stone’s animating antimonies (crystalline solidity and magmatic flow, geologic and idiosyncratic scale, blunt factuality and invitation to reverie), but deepens these restless trajectories through an examination of how lapidary stillness and seismic motion have textual effects, how the emissive potency that is radiance and the sensual, aesthetic, and perilous force of allure interrupt human narratives and spur the genesis of a new genre, romance. 

[i] I am grateful to Dan Remein for his inspirational meditation on wonder posted in thecomments here.
[ii] On the queer and disorienting shifts of perspective see Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, esp. 170-72; on queer as “infinitely open to and responsible for others, to other spaces, other times, other worlds, to the other (than human), to new forms of being-in-the-world” – a space for “surprise, for wonder, for love, for happiness, for a world in which our very uncertainty about what it means to be human comes to be understood as definitive of the human condition” -- see Michale O’Rourke, “The Open” (quotations at xvii, xviii-xix).
[iii] For the ratiocination, mischievousness, amusement and dread that constitute the serious and “complex semantic field” of wonder in the Middle Ages, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity, esp. 56-75.
[iv] Thus Chaucer describes a dazed Pandarus, reeling from Troilus’s rebuke, as rock-like: “This Pandarus ... stant, astoned of thise causes tweye, / As stille as ston [This Pandarus stood astonished for these two reasons, as still as a stone]” (Troilus and Criseyde 5.1728-29).
[v] I am quoting from the beautiful description of the material turn in ecological theory by Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann in “Theorizing Material Ecocriticism” 450.
[vi] Frédéric Godefroy’s influential Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française (1895) defined aventure as “ce qui arrive inopinément” (that which arrives unexpectedly). Godefroy aligned such unforeseen advent with hasard, accident, risque, péril and fortune. These definitions are standard and uncontroversial. Cf., e.g., the entry for aventure in Pierre Kunstmann’s in-progress Dictionnaire Électronique de Chrétien de Troyes.
[vii] See Lynn Thorndike, “The Latin Pseudo-Aristotle” 243.
[viii] See the excerpts from the Lapidary of Aristotle included by Dorothy Wyckoff in her edition of Albertus Magnus, Mineralia 2.3.6 (p. 149 n17).


Alex Mueller said...

It's too bad you're not writing this in Ojibwe. I don't know it, but according to Louise Erdrich, Ojibwe is a "wildly adaptive and powerfully precise language" in which "[t]he word for stone, asin, is animate. . . Once I began to think of stones as animate, I started to wonder whether I was picking up a stone or it was putting itself in my hand" (

Anonymous said...

Numinous comes to mind: