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  • Feeling Stone1
  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (bio)

Stone hurts—and not simply because rocks so easily become missiles. The lithic offers a blunt challenge to our belief that humans matter. Homo sapiens are a species perhaps 200,000 years old. Homo erectus and Homo habilis, two of our earliest ancestors, go back perhaps 2.5 million years. That seems a substantial span. If you were to count one number per second and never pause to sleep or eat, it would take about twelve days to reach one million. Two-and-a-half million is a month filled with incessant counting. Stone was the Earth's first solid. Geologists have identified bedrock that has endured at least 4.3 billion years. Some zircon crystals are older still. Every migrant continent harbors rocks of at least three-and-a-half billion years duration. At one number per second nonstop, almost 32 years are required to achieve one billion. Stone has more than 137 years on the month that has been attained by Homo sapiens and their immediate forebears. Geologic time has little to say to human temporalities. We have hardly yet to exist.

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Stone rebukes our anthropocentricity, our ingrained habit of regarding the world as if it were fashioned for our use, as if we were the most enduring of its occupants, a culmination rather than a flicker. We could not resist christening the Earth's primordial era the Hadean epoch, as if to domesticate this inhuman span into an underworld. Yet geology demands that we contemplate time in unfamiliar terms. The Hadean possesses no human content, nothing but gases and congealing rocks and the bare beginnings of organic life. A billion years in duration, the Hadean renders human history brief. Its mythologizing name does little to attenuate the challenge posed by stone, denizen of these earliest of terrestrial days. Though it might offer evidence of vanished life through ammonite shells and dinosaur bones, stone seems a dead substance, an archival material [End Page 23] well suited to memorials and grave markers. It erodes into clay and sand, but the process of its decomposition is so protracted that rock is our symbol for endurance, for stillness, for that which will not alter.

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And yet.

Though stone reproaches our vanity and makes us feel like latecomers, human hands cannot refrain from touching and transforming the substance. Much of our prehistory is known because of worlds shared with stone: Paleolithic windbreaks fashioned so that fires could blaze; flint axes sharpened for sport, war and industry; figures carved for gods or love. Some of our earliest artworks consist simply of a palm pressed against rock. This gesture seems transhistorical, transcultural. Cueva de las Manos in Argentina is the most famous, but handprints and outlines of hands are found worldwide, recordation of a universal impulse to lithic union and mineral amity. What memory is imprinted or activated by that encounter, what affect comes into being, what history awakens, what future worlds become possible? In that moment when human and stone meet, a transient organic creature and a durable, unyielding substance touch. How much commonality do they possess even before that encounter? Might both be artists, innovators, instigators of narrative, creatures of desire?

Given stone's proverbial reticence, how to speak that story? If stones bear witness, they appear to do so in silence: a trigger to memory, a mute reminder of human histories, a passive catalyst to recollected story and emotion. Martin Heidegger famously captured this idea of the insensate lithic by describing stone as weltlos, worldless. Rock is taciturn, unfeeling, unyielding. Stone clearly conducts affect, but only because we have engraved or shaped the material to achieve sensory effects. Rock is passionless. "Stone hearted" and "cold as stone" are as much a part of our lithic vocabulary as various expressions for stony silence. Without a human hand to impress meaning upon it, stone would be blank, impassive, aloof. Immobile and sterile, stones do not do much. Or perhaps our lexicon for stone is impoverished. When observed within their particular and nonhuman duration, stones are forever on the move. Louis Agassiz and...


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pp. 23-35
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