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 The Book of John Mandeville, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, the writings of Albertus Magnus, Sir Orfeo, and Augustine’s City of God. Cohen’s literary critical mode is more enactive than interpretive; his riff on the phrase “enter the magicians” (176) in Monmouth’s History effectively describes Cohen’s prose, which becomes a performative show featuring errant stones and knights errant, a textual wandering that engenders readerly wondering in all senses. Cohen’s deeply provocative readings extend beyond literature; the fantastic, absorbing meditation on Stonehenge he develops over the course of the book is reason alone to read it.
No matter its merits as a study of literature, Stone may well have a more “seismic effect” in theory than criticism. Cohen uses stone to effect a significant “perspective shift” in contemporary ecology/materialisms discourses, to expand the horizon of “vibrant matter” (Jane Bennett) beyond the biological to the geological. Cohen contends that while “most [End Page 184] ecological analyses are ‘green’ [and stress] balance and sustainability such studies encounter with difficulty the slow immensity of the geologic” (34). Ontologically Cohen argues, the “’urge to affiliate’” among forms of life E.O. Wilson identified as biophilia also obtains in “geophilia,” a more encompassing “promiscuous desire” of matter to affiliate with matter. Analogously Cohen suggests that Rosi Braidotti’s “bioegalitarian ethics” of creatures and animals be reimagined as “a zōē-egalitarian ethics, where zōē indicates not bare or animal life but a force (call it life, wildness, desire, vibrancy, creatureliness) that is materiality in action: affiliating, connecting, breaching ontological solitudes, defying exclusive taxonomies, undermining closed systems” (228). More generally, the preoccupation in ecotheory and environmental humanities with the Anthropocene widens in scope through the encounter with stone: “Although tree rings and ice cores yield tales of ancient pollen, glaciation, and aerial chemistry, stone’s archival force endures far longer.” Cohen’s inhuman ecology thus shifts our perspective from the Anthropocene to the much, much deeper time of the Lithocene (35).
Cohen demonstrates the methodological difference a Lithocene perspective makes in the “Time” chapter. Here, he “excavates” stories/ sites including Genesis, Augustine, medieval writings, geology, and Stonehenge to “suggest that time is actively and materially contained in texts, fossils, engineered devices, stones. Time exists in a plural state: an ebullient then crashing against a vivacious now, shaping futures to arrive. The human and geologic are likewise compound, dynamic, full of heterogeneity” (125). From this long, expansive viewpoint, Cohen questions the widely held notion that “the discovery of deep time … in the nineteenth century engendered a decisive epistemological break, with modernity arriving on its nearer side” (79). Cohen argues that reading Genesis and geology together reveals parallels in narrative vocabulary and structure to confront aeonic time, and that both discourses express models of time characterized by “temporal vastness and arrangement around punctuated catastrophe” (83). Writings on fossils, tombs, and Neolithic architecture show that “medieval people were just as capable of responding to lithic provocation to deep time, to dreaming the prehistoric and the inhuman, intimations of lost realms” (86). While the parallels Cohen shows between medieval and geologic encounters with “temporal vastness” are convincing, they do not dispel a lingering sense that a specific, sharp “epistemological break” occurred in the nineteenth-century context defined by a schism between religious and scientific understandings of the world (among other things), and the gulf between their calculations of its age.
Cohen’s claims here about time leave open questions that could be pursued in further scholarship. From a historical viewpoint, it might be [End Page 185] interesting to build on the ancient/medieval/nineteenth century parallels and try to chart a recursive process in which ancient, early modern and modern human concepts of ‘deep time’ replicate one another in narrative form, while expanding exponentially in temporal scale. Cohen’s chapter would then be another iteration in this process, in which the opaque abyss of deep time becomes readable within a contemporary cosmic history. From a philosophical viewpoint, Cohen misses an opportunity to adduce a more robust, explicitly formulated concept of time. He remarks the “intracatastrophe” arc of geologic time that appears to be both linear and cyclical, and yet neither one, but doesn’t develop the idea. Thinking in this vein invites one to investigate a model of time as a palimpsest of periods, a rhythmic log of logarithmically expanding scales.
Cohen’s philosophical interest, of course, lies in situating his “inhuman ecology” in relation to contemporary forms of materialism. One might imagine this work as a kind of spectrum, with Quentin Meillassoux’s austere, ascetic speculative realism at one end and spiritual ecology and mystical materialism at the other. Cohen’s writing moves quite fluidly along this spectrum, perhaps because Cohen seems more motivated to make allies than mark differences. Early on (in “Geophilia,” pp. 39 – 47), Cohen conducts a kind of literature review of materialisms in which he uses citations to forge links between his work and a range of authors (including Meillassoux, Bruno Latour, Gregory Harman, Ian Bogost, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton). Doing due theoretical diligence dulls Cohen’s writing, in my view. In these pages, Cohen espouses a “geophilic Long Ecology” characterized by “an ethics of relation and scale” that “mandate[s] a cautious living with that looks deep into time” and situates humans as environmental actors “coextensive with…carbon, glaciers, aerial and marine currents, geographical strata, expansive biomes” (41). Sounding somewhat didactic, Cohen claims that “the lesson of lithic-human entanglement is simple: we need to stop creating greenhouse gases if we do not want to be contemporary equivalents of the surging magma that once presided over an extinction so massive that life on earth nearly vanished. Geology can teach us these cautions. So can medieval texts, which knew that stone is not an inert substance that forms a world for our use” (65). These read as rather pat (if important in general) statements. The analogies also are a bit simplistic, as debates around the Anthropocene reveal—tracing the causal scope and scale of humanity’s geological footprint quickly proves controversial and at best complex. While he acknowledges that ethics on this scale can be “infuriatingly imprecise,” Cohen nonetheless argues that they broker against “fracking, mountaintop removal, and other modes of environmental devastation” on the grounds that “Long Ecology permits none of these endeavors [End Page 186] to poison a future that must be allowed its heterogeneity of possibility, richness of manifold difference, reducing certainty … while disallowing noninvolvement” (41-42). This blanket statement is so broad it covers over the complexities it broaches. Extending Long Ecology to ethics and policies entails linking disparate scales in a more nuanced manner than calling for a protection of future “possibility” and “difference,” terms that don’t translate easily from human ethico-political contexts into environmental histories. One hates to suggest adding authors to Cohen’s already extensive, wide-ranging bibliography, but his intervention on this score could be fleshed out easily and effectively through Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work on climate and capital, for instance.
At the same time though, Cohen’s inhuman ecology also expresses a more mystical materialism. It is at this end of the materialist spectrum where Stone and its lithic ontology come alive and where Cohen sets himself apart from other scholars. Cohen’s mystical-materialist sensibility is discernible in many of the more personal passages in Stone, which I often found to be the most authentic. For instance, Cohen begins a section on “Lithic Soul” by describing an “oval of salt-and-pepper granite” in his study, a rock with “qualities” that “allure, calling me to continued contemplation, calling me to introduce this stone to you” (211-12). The stone’s form and texture trigger associations with Cohen’s professional work and personal background; thus he “seized a round stone on a winter beach in Maine because it dwelled already inside [his] history.” But then Cohen poses the question familiar to any rock collector: “But what if the stone seized me?” Teasing out the implications of the query, Cohen writes, “What if the petric egg, so perfect for the palm, holds more than an accidental power to draw human hand and story? What if it is not anthropomorphizing to speak of a stone’s ability to resist, its power to attract—and even of its sympathies, alliances, inclinations, and spurs?” (212). At this precise point though, a slightly defensive tone enters and the thought experiment is redirected to the domain of literary criticism: “And let’s up the outrageous ante even more: what if within my ready-to-hand rock is not just an incipience, an agency, but that principle of vitality that in the Middle Ages was supposed to set humans apart from everything else in the world, a soul?” (212).
But, in the big picture, this is merely quibbling. It would be more fruitful and germane to argue that Stone pushes discourse, ontology, and belief to a place where the boundary between “mystical” and “material” breaks down. In other words, Cohen has little need to invoke the mystical or “spiritual,” because the material (both the material domain generally and his lithic/textual materials specifically) simply functions in a way that might appear to have these qualities. One sees this fine line walked [End Page 187] in a forthright, balanced fashion in the book’s concluding words on Stonehenge, where Cohen writes that, surveying the scene and contemplating the sweep of history, “something happens in that encounter…: the stones begin to move. We want to touch them, want to reassure ourselves that the spinning of the lithic ring resonates with a vibration awakened in ourselves, that the desire is shared. What we feel spring into being is an affective interspace where the agency of stone and human ardor meet in mutual relation, in cross-ontological embrace” (252). This passage recalls the more mystical side of Gaston Bachelard, such as his notion of “dialectical animism” expressed through a “materialist imagination” that “thinks matter, dreams in it, lives in it” (Bachelard 14). Cohen’s text is replete with what one could call Bachelardian “reveries” of stone.
Cohen’s evocation of an “affective interspace” where “the agency of stone and human ardor meet in mutual relation” could also be compared to Roger Caillois’s revelation of a mystical materialism: “When I scrutinize stones … between the stone’s stillness and the mind’s effervescence is established a kind of current where … I might almost see the possible germ of an unknown and paradoxical kind of mysticism,” a mysticism that remains immersed in the world of “active, turbulent matter… and motionless matter of the longest quietude” (Caillois 207). But while Cohen’s ontology may be consistent with those articulated by Bachelard and Caillois, there remains an important epistemological difference between them. Bachelard and Caillois both treat stone as something to be worked on, or an object of thought; stones start out as passive recipients of human thought, before they reveal affect or agency. By contrast, I would say that the power of Cohen’s work comes from an acute openness and sensitivity to his materials, whether lithic or textual. He not only reads stones and texts; true to an ethos of “mutual relation” and consistent with a “cross-ontological embrace,” he also listens to them.
Cohen ends the body of his book by elegantly encapsulating the epistemological and ontological space in which it has unfolded: “Geophilia is a middle region of creation and innovation, a space of convivial wayfaring—experimenting, working, and living together, a place of differences and disorienting danger, a forging of alliance and embrace that gathers a world so vast that even stones become fellow travellers along epochal, uncertain, but never uncompanioned ways” (252). Stone creates and embodies precisely such an ecology—in addition to its sweeping historical survey and commentary, the narrative is a purveyor of stones, a creative as well as critical work that opens a contact zone with the lithic. In retrospect, I am struck by the fact that this passage could be written by anyone who works seriously with stone and seriously loves stone. In substance and spirit, it resembles statements by artists like Giuseppe Penone or Isamu Noguchi, or passages in Taoist treatises on painting stones [End Page 188] or placing them in gardens. Stone expresses a brilliant scholar’s passion, his vocation, and in this sense, it utterly surpasses the fast-growing body of criticism that utilizes ecotheory and the Anthropocene as occasions to reread well-disciplined bodies of literature.
In fact, in reading Cohen’s book, I often felt as if it marked the apotheosis of a genre. On the one hand, it epitomizes erudite literary criticism focused on a specific period wedded to a wider theoretical sweep and eco-logical commitment. On the other hand, it opens up completely different scholarly terrains and stylistic registers. Cohen’s treatment of “Geophilia” remains grounded in an Anglo-centric literary canon, even as it integrates a remarkable range of materials from other disciplines and traditions. The poetic and personal aspects of his style, the “Excursus” between chapters, point toward a mode of writing at once critical and creative, or one that doesn’t draw a clear distinction between them. And finally, why publish such work in the form of a scholarly print monograph? As a fellow petromaniac, I felt sympathy for Cohen when looking at the small number of low-quality black-and-white illustrations university press authors are limited to using. I thought many times that this beautifully written book deserved to be much more beautiful to read—it calls out for copious color images of stones, sites, and medieval texts. I could imagine this as a lavishly illustrated coffee table book, or, more practically and frugally, as a born-digital work full of images, hyperlinks, and videos that one could navigate in non-linear fashion on any screen at hand.1
Speculations aside though, Stone: An Inhuman Ecology is a simply splendid book. It reads well and, I have already found, it teaches well. It provokes all kinds of fundamental questions about historiography, time, literature, and philosophy. If you read it actively, it will actually change the way you look at stones, memorials, or medieval texts. It sets a standard for eco-materialist literary criticism, while hospitably inviting others (human and non-human) into future conversations. I found it inspiring and courageous in showing how scholarly expertise and personal passions may feed and deepen each other, and I hope it encourages others to follow similar paths.
1. This suggestion is also something like a shameless plug for a new e-book series SubStance editors described in our “Introduction” to the previous issue (#139, 45.1).