- Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
In this landmark book, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen combines and culminates the two strands of his substantial scholarly work: ecology and Medieval and Early Modern studies. Stone is ambitiously synthetic and syncretic, framed not as critical exegesis but “a thought experiment, attempting to discern in the most mundane of substances a liveliness” (6). Rather than developing an ecological theory and applying it to particular texts, or practicing an ecocriticism that reads nature “in” texts, Cohen attempts to stage something like a symbiotic textual petric performance: “To tell a story with stone is intensely to inhabit that preposition with, to move from solitary individuations to ecosystems, environments, shared agencies, and companionate properties” (11-12). This conjoining of human and stone produces a “monstrous child of the meeting of incompatible scales, queer progeny of impossible taxonomic breach” that Cohen calls “geophilia,” defined as “the lithic in the creaturely and the lively in the stone” (20). Cohen marks his project as necessarily “’inhuman’ to encompass both difference (‘in-’ as negative prefix) and intimacy (‘in-‘ as indicator of estranged interiority”) (10). This inhuman ecology notably serves as both ontology and methodology; the mutual implication and intimacy of stone and human must be countered by tapping the distancing, disruptive power of stone’s difference:
Lithic-induced perspective shift triggers an ontological and temporal reeling, a rocky movement of affect, cognition, horizon. This book simulates that seismic effect by intermixing the medieval and the modern, the theoretical with the blunt, the linguistic and textual with the ecomaterial. Vertigo is the book’s intent rather than an accident of its rhetorical excess(16).
Yet, while Stone might at times propose vertigo-inducing thought-experiments and consistently takes wonderfully inventive turns, it is also an elegantly structured, stylistically-rich study in theory and criticism. Cohen combines clear command of narrative arc with detailed textual exegesis in a manner both canonical and contemporary; he also is a distinctly poetic writer, drawing on complex layered meanings and etymologies to thicken his prose, without becoming indulgent or showy (see, for example, Cohen’s compelling takes on the triple etymologies of ‘geologic’ and ‘tectonic’). The text features four neatly crafted stand-alone chapters dedicated to particular lithic characteristics: “Geophilia” brings stone and humans into contact and interaction; “Time” examines how stone-human intimacy brings humans into a zone of monumental endurance and intermittent catastrophe; “Force” focuses on the provocations and [End Page 183] attractions that emanate from such perduring material; “Soul” uncovers the affective, creaturely, sexual energies that surface through these forces. Between chapters, Cohen inserts “Excursus,” written as mini-travel narratives where he visit sites and reflects on political and existential questions that percolate in the main chapters. These passages exemplify and enrich the book’s interweaving of personal and political, creative and critical rhetorical registers.
Stone is also a deeply interdisciplinary book that seamlessly “intermixes” ecotheory and Medieval/Early Modern Studies. Cohen’s command of these fields allows him to intervene directly in different disciplinary debates. On the one hand, Cohen argues that literature of the period may be richly reread in the context of contemporary ecological thought. This is because “medieval writers meditated upon inanimate matter and came to similar insights” as those informing new materialism, object oriented ontology, and speculative realism: “Rock communicates something nonhuman and yet weirdly creaturely, queerly vital” (257). The “ecomaterial envisionings” of medieval writers “proceeded in modes just as vivid and capacious” as current geo-philosophy, “through narratives stressing ecological entanglement as well as powerful solitudes” (21). Medieval writings are particularly suited to disclose stone’s “queer vivacity” and the ways it “aggregates, attracting to itself disparate matter” because of the period’s “varied rhetorical devices and narratives, especially of the compound and dilatory sort: catalogue poems, encyclopedia entries, biographical digression, etymological impulses, lapidaries…, wonder-filled romances” (6). As one not versed in Medieval/Early Modern studies, I cannot make a scholarly assessment of Cohen’s textual readings. I can attest, though, that Cohen offers up engaging analyses of several texts, including...