- Inherent Enchantments. A review of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's Stone:An Ecology of the Inhuman
Stone is a book to engage with on one of those days: a day when something happens to make you feel your age, or when a series of mundanities is sufficient to wear you out, or when banality or harsh weather makes you crave something poetic and imaginative. Read some passages from Stone and before long you compare your human age against lithic formation. Or read it to recognize that the mundanities that wear on you are even more fleeting than your life, and question whether they're truly worth your exhaustion. Pick up Stone to ponder lines such as this one: "A dense nexus of unpredictable relation-making, stone discloses the enchantment inherent to things, the powers of which cannot be reduced to history, use value, contextual significance, or culture" (165). Decide for yourself if you agree that this is so, and to what degree.
How wonderful, to pause at the idea of the enchantment inherent to things. Cohen's lyrical style makes its way into your thinking with statements like these, and soon you find yourself taking life's matters at a slower, more considered pace. More importantly, Stone is, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen admits, "something of a thought experiment, attempting to discern in the most mundane of substances a liveliness" (6). A Medievalist by training, Cohen mobilizes the belief in rock as a living entity to which we are connected in holistic ways:
Medieval writers knew well that the world has never been still . . . [H]umans may dream a separation from nature, may strive to exalt themselves from the recalcitrance of stone, but remain earth formed from earth, living upon the earth through alliance with earthen matter, returning at death to earth again.(6)
In contrast with contemporary literary scholarship that focuses on the post-human, the cybernetic, and the dystopic, Stone reminds us of our fundamental terrestrial and lithic connection, a connection that begins with the very composition of our bones. In this and other ways, Cohen wishes to remind us that stone is never completely inert. It remains a living substance in some regards, even though our comparatively short lifespan alongside lithic formations means we often fail to apprehend this. Cohen's book follows similar object studies he has undertaken, such as those included in Inhuman Nature, an anthology of essays based on an "ecologies of the inhuman" roundtable held in 2012.
Stone's text is often as dense as its namesake. It forces you to move through it slowly, in a style reminiscent of glacial creep or of the time it takes water to erode a rock face. This is no accident. As Cohen states in the introduction, "Because of its density, extensiveness, tempo, and force, there is something in rock that is actively unknowable, something that will not surrender itself to stabilities…. In that reproach inheres a trigger to human creativity and a provocation to cross-ontological fellowship" (8). Departing from other texts like Manuel DeLanda's "Inorganic Life," Cohen is interested in recognizing stone as an ally in humanity's long history of material production; Stone wants to remind us that nature is not separate and apart from human life. Thus, in Stone we see the geological, the ontological, the material, and the epistemological. It's a large undertaking, but one that Cohen handles thoughtfully, using literary and cultural-studies analyses to help readers gain a perspective of geologic time and relative human existence.
Earth's cosmological history is difficult to grasp beyond the superficial understanding that its age contains a lot of zeroes. It's like trying to get one's head around the national debt: thinking in terms of trillions is rather abstract until the figure is fully written out, down to the fourteenth digit. Likewise, it's difficult to apprehend Earth's formation and evolution from the perspective of our own comparatively recent emergence from the primordial soup. Cohen uses cultural references, including to literature and architecture, to help us realize that long view because he connects...