- Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Against Martin Heidegger, who famously quipped in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics that “the stone is worldless” (1995, 184), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen offers a poetically charged account of stone as uncannily lively substance, the necessary ground for any articulation of ecological (and ethical) figures. “Things like rocks and mountains,” he writes, “are what enable relations to flourish” (Cohen 2015, 3)—they mediate the interactions of the living and non-living, shaping patterns of weather, channeling rain into rivers and streams, enriching plant life with minerals, and so on. What’s more, human life is itself only possible owing to mineral infiltration in the form of bones; it is thanks to “stone” in this broad sense that we walk upright, with lifted [End Page 591] heads. At the same time, stone presents humans with a certain challenge, the sublimity of geological time-scales having an effect of diminution and estrangement. When, for example, Fernand Braudel begins his magisterial history of the Mediterranean, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, he is compelled to acknowledge, before any discussion of the sea itself, the primordiality of mountains, noting that
[they] are as a rule a world apart from civilizations, which are an urban and lowland achievement. Their history is to have none, to remain almost always on the fringe of the great waves of civilization, even the longest and most persistent, which may spread over great distances in the horizontal plane but are powerless to move vertically when faced with an obstacle of a few hundred meters. To these hilltop worlds, out of touch with the towns, even Rome itself, in all its years of power, can have meant very little…(1995, 34)
To “think like a mountain,” then, to use the formula Cohen lifts from Aldo Leopold, erodes anthropocentric fantasies of human relevance in the grand scheme; what stone ultimately declares is that “[t]he world is not for us” (Cohen 2015, 63). On the far side of that derogation, however, we have a chance to reconfigure the meaning of our existence with greater compassion and sensitivity to all the other forms of matter in which it is imbricated—animal, vegetable, and mineral alike. To this end, Cohen surveys a broad range of biblical, classical, and medieval writers whose “ecomaterial envisionings proceeded in modes just as vivid and capacious [as modern-day geophysical conceptualizations], through narratives stressing ecological entanglement” (21).
In its emphasis on entanglement, Cohen’s book explicitly aligns itself with new materialist/speculative realist trends in the humanities inspired by Bruno Latour’s “actor-network theory,” Manuel De Landa’s “assemblage theory,” Jane Bennett’s “vital materialism,” Timothy Morton’s “dark ecology,” and Graham Harman’s “object-oriented ontology.” At stake is a way of looking at the world that can, by can, by fiat or magic, move beyond the impasse of enchantment versus disenchantment. Cohen clearly opts for and doubles-down on enchantment, so intensifying it in the process that it begins to resemble its opposite: if enchantment, associated with the pagan and medieval world, works by instilling passive wonder and if disenchantment, the hallmark of modernity, works by engaging dialectical rationality, then what are we to make of a book like Stone, which reveals the the Earth itself as alien terrain, but in so doing, commends us to explore it anew? In each of its four chapters (“Geophilia,” “Time,” “Force,” “Soul”), Stone attempts with lapidary patience to sensitize the reader to hidden, obscured, or forgotten dimensions of this substance without which, surely, we’d be worldless. Whether discussing the strange intimacies and interpenetrations that define stone’s relation to biological life; the incredible depth and weight of “lithic” time; stone’s literal and figurative magnetisms, its availability and durability as a [End Page 592] trope; or the imprinting of human histories, life-forms, and sexual desires on rocks, gems, and the like, Cohen reveals just how sedimented and petrified are anthropocentric perspectives. Not only do they miss out on the...