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Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Stonemaps the force, vivacity, and stories within our most mundane matter, stone. For too long stone has served as an unexamined metaphor for the "really real": blunt factuality, nature's curt rebuke. Yet, medieval writers knew that stones drop with fire from the sky, emerge through the subterranean lovemaking of the elements, tumble along riverbeds from Eden, partner with the masons who build worlds with them. Such motion suggests an ecological enmeshment and an almost creaturely mineral life.

    Although geological time can leave us reeling, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues that stone's endurance is also an invitation to apprehend the world in other than human terms. Never truly inert, stone poses a profound challenge to modernity's disenchantments. Its agency undermines the human desire to be separate from the environment, a bifurcation that renders nature "out there," a mere resource for recreation, consumption, and exploitation.

    Written with great verve and elegance, this pioneering work is notable not only for interweaving the medieval and the modern but also as a major contribution to ecotheory. Comprising chapters organized by concept -"Geophilia," "Time," "Force," and "Soul"-Cohen seamlessly brings together a wide range of topics including stone's potential to transport humans into nonanthropocentric scales of place and time, the "petrification" of certain cultures, the messages fossils bear, the architecture of Bordeaux and Montparnasse, Yucca Mountain and nuclear waste disposal, the ability of stone to communicate across millennia in structures like Stonehenge, and debates over whether stones reproduce and have souls.

    Showing that what is often assumed to be the most lifeless of substances is, in its own time, restless and forever in motion,Stonefittingly concludes by taking us to Iceland⎯a land that, writes the author, "reminds us that stone like water is alive, that stone like water is transient."

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4464-7
    Subjects: Philosophy, Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. INTRODUCTION: Stories of Stone
    (pp. 1-18)

    Bereft of family, home, and health, Job wonders how to survive the world’s catastrophes. “My strength is not the strength of stones,” he laments, “nor is my flesh of brass.”¹ Rocks and hard metals hold an endurance no mortal flesh can own. Nothing like stone, Job submits to sorrow and speaks a story of unbearable humanity. A vertiginous perspective shift unfolds when God intervenes, invoking geological time and demanding where Job was when the foundations of the earth were laid (Job 38:4). Does Job know the thunderous activity of the elements: rain that cascades for no witness, ice that hardens...

  4. Geophilia: The Love of Stone
    (pp. 19-66)

    The love of stone is often unrequited.

    An intimacy of long unfolding fails to be apprehended, and the story concludes in familiar solitudes, human exceptionalism and lithic indifference. Withdrawal and remoteness are inevitable themes within any romance of stone, since rock outlasts that which it draws close, that which draws it close, that to which it is strangely bound. Humans respire, reproduce, invent, desire, dream. The lithic inhabits the secret interiors of the earth. What could be more cloistered? Inorganic, nothing like the familiar animals we conditionally welcome into community, an everyday material that surfaces blunt rebuke to assimilation, stone...

  5. EXCURSUS: The Weight of the Past
    (pp. 67-74)

    Bordeaux is a city of stone. The regal heft of its buildings rose in the eighteenth century by pulverizing preceding cityscapes, medieval and Roman. Numerous fountains, the swirl of the Garonne, and a recentmirroir d’eauhelp to counteract lithic ponderousness, bringing fluidity to architecture that can seem overly decorous. The Atlantic crashes not too distantly.Bord’eaux: intimacy to waters in the city’s name. Like the precisely crafted wine for which the region is famous, Bordeaux’s historic spaces feel artfully produced, a balance of rock and water conjoined for aesthetic effect. A perfection of the elements, yes, but perfections are...

  6. Time: The Insistence of Stone
    (pp. 75-126)

    We stand beneath the megalith. Brisk winds roam the grass. The sheep are complaining. “Can you feel anything?” I ask. His palm presses the rock as eagerly as mine. “Yes,” he whispers, fingers searching clefts and lichen. “I think I do.” He places his ear against the stone and closes his eyes, as if through intimate contact he might discern hoary secrets. He is as certain and as joyful as when, many years ago, he used to press his head to my chest to know the life of an invisible heart. In a solemn voice, as if he has absorbed...

  7. EXCURSUS: A Heart Unknown
    (pp. 127-130)

    A slow walk across the Pont de la Tournelle, and we watch boats of colorful tourists gliding below. We pause on the Île Saint-Louis for ice cream, the morning too early for such indulgence. The man at the café who places pink, yellow, and white on cones rebukes us with his silence, but we do not care. We eat our treat and pass along the Pont Marie, stranded sand of the Parisplagesbeneath, then onward to the Marais, and the sad business of the day.

    We decided back in Washington that we would visit the Mémorial de la Shoah...

  8. Force: The Adventure of Stone
    (pp. 131-186)

    This chapter seeks a word we have yet to invent, a word stone wants to convey its movement-effects. This impossible term would combine “allure” and “radiance” to name incompatible yet cohabiting trajectories: enfolding and propulsion, pull and thrust, captivation and actuation, seduction (mysterious, sensual, affective) and ekstasis (vertiginous prospect of a sudden exterior). Impracticably, this word of plural vectors would also capture stone’s propensity for lapidary stillness and seismic slide at once, its ability to seem utterly fixed, a point of stasis in a bustling world, even while remaining in forceful motion. It would label the transports through which metaphor...

  9. EXCURSUS: Geologic
    (pp. 187-194)

    A long trip to Scotland, and I lose myself on the plane in David Abram’sBecoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. The book has its problems: the cliché of the educated Westerner who comes to mindfulness through a visit to Nepal; a proclivity to speak of the wisdom of indigenous peoples, as if their earthiness were universal and simply affirmative; a reflexive disdain for technology. I read Abram’s text through the mediation of a paperbound book, on a plane where a screen embedded in the seat displayed three exterior views through which I became an intimate of transatlantic clouds. Abram argues...

  10. Soul: The Life of Stone
    (pp. 195-252)

    A monument of stone occupies the heart of Berlin, the city in which the Final Solution (Die Endlösung, the plan to obliterate the Jews of Europe) was decided. This memorial to the murdered of the Holocaust is a sculptural expanse of 2,711 rectangular slabs, one for each page of the Talmud. Covering a city square, unincised, these dark gray structures call to mind orderly rows of sarcophagi. Those nearest the surrounding streets are about as tall as a bench, while closer to the sunken middle they tower skyward, high above the heads of those walking their narrow corridors. In their...

  11. AFTERWORD: Iceland
    (pp. 253-258)

    Stones, wrote Bartholomaeus Anglicus, are the “bones of the earth.”¹ They grant the globe stability and prevent its lands from pulling apart. Without stone we would possess the barest of lives. The lithic arrives in so many species and shapes, holding so much power to sustain relations, that through alliance we transform every ecology into which we step. Bartholomaeus describes stones as “profitable and nedefulle” for the building of houses, walls, pavement, and bridges. Guide and matter of transport, refuge against tempests, rock conveys and protects, a shelter against the predation of enemies, wolves, and “evil beasts.” The substance of...

    (pp. 259-264)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 265-320)
    (pp. 321-354)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 355-366)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 367-367)