In an Empire of the Dead

By Hunter DukesJuly 17, 2015

Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

IN THE SUMMER of 1763, Samuel Johnson stubbed his toe. As the story is told, he and James Boswell were exiting a church in Harwich, having said a prayer to oversee the latter’s impending voyage. Discussing Bishop George Berkeley’s doctrine of subjective idealism, the belief that material objects are only products of mind, Boswell observed the impossibility of disproving such a claim. “I refute it thus!” roared his comrade, kicking a large rock so hard he rebounded. Gusto aside, Johnson’s theatrics proved little more than the durability of his footwear. Yet the anecdote shows how we turn toward things when words won’t do; how we find voice in the material world and its muteness. “A pebble is not an easy thing to define,” writes Francis Ponge in the The Voice of Things (Le parti pris des choses). Ponge continues: “On this subject let me not be reproached for going even farther back than the Flood.”

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s new book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (2015) could come with a similar antediluvian warning. The work shuttles back and forth between geologic epochs, genres, 14th-century travelogues and literary manuscripts, and contemporary debates in philosophy and literary theory. At once a work of serious academic criticism by a trained medievalist and a sedimentary memoir of his Jewish family’s past, the resulting book (like stone itself) is surprisingly protean for its density.

Stone seeks liveliness in what might be the most mundane of substances. For too long, the lithic has been thought of as cold and inert, the unchanging foil to life’s rapid evolution. If our historic engagement with stone is the story of cave painting, toolmaking, and home building, Cohen wants to recover a secret history that moves beyond such utilitarian domination. His version is about collaboration and gregarious commingling between humans and stones. Look closely at ammonite and watch the borderline between the organic and inorganic quietly dissolve. Contemplate a gem to reveal medieval lapidary magic, global trade routes, and the humbling scale of deep time. Cohen zooms out from a pebble to a planet and finds “a durable link to a dynamic cosmos.”

Cohen’s self-proclaimed thought experiments make the book strange and wonderful. He finds a “queer vivacity” in lackluster shale, encourages “geophilia” instead of dispassionate geology, and “plumbs the petric in the human and the anthropomorphic in the stone.” All is not buddy-buddy huzzah, though. The book also reveals what environmental theorist Timothy Morton would call a “dark ecology” of the lithic. Visiting Barber Rock at Avebury, the boulder under which Alexander Keiller found the corpse of a medieval barber-surgeon crushed and preserved, Cohen’s son believes the stone to be aware of its deed. “My son is right,” he reflects, “this megalith did take someone’s life.” By this point in the book, steeped in theories of vibrant materialism and accounts of inanimate agency, it is difficult to hear Cohen’s tone: is he embellishing or deadly serious?


Cohen wants to make pebbles pulse. When confronted with the “enduring stoniness of stone,” you cannot help but feel a certain rocky affinity. “Within a geological scale of time,” he writes, “medieval authors are our contemporaries.” By understanding how these ancestors made meaning of the masses before them, we can begin to chart a new course for the future. Like an ouroboros consuming its own tail, Cohen’s medievalism is a form of soothsaying.

He is fascinated by thinkers like Augustine of Hippo, who searches the geologic world for signs of the biblical flood. Many pages deal with Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose History of the Kings of Britain gives us much of the mythology surrounding the wizard Merlin. I was captivated by an extended reading of The Book of John Mandeville, a 14th-century compilation of travel narratives credited to the title’s apocryphal explorer. As the wayfarer roams from Jaffa to Lamory, an island brimming with “promiscuous nudist communist cannibals,” Cohen tracks his lithic discoveries. The research is meticulous but seldom dry. The arcane manuscripts that constitute Mandeville’s nebulous “book” become an opportunity for archival dexterity: 

These texts refuse to settle down into some well-delimited identity. Do they offer a reinvented itinerarium, a spur to pilgrimage, a crusading substitute, an armchair travel guide, a romance, a heretical tract, a paean to orthodoxy, a proto-novel, a panopticon, an imaginative delectation of the exotic and the monstrous, a compilation, an encyclopedia? Yes.

The same might be said of Stone, with its frenzied desire to leave no discovery unturned. It is an addictive mode of inquiry. (Pausing mid-chapter to view an episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, I nearly emailed the author upon learning about Stone Men: exiled invalids crumbling into graveled ruin.) This type of sprawling thinking makes room for the reader in its discoveries. 

Which brings us to Cohen’s already established fascination with giants, monsters, and dragons. His other projects – 11 books and annotated collections – reappear in this latest work. (To understand the breadth of his writing, just glance at the titles: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects (2012); Medieval Identity Machines (2003); Thinking the Limits of the Body (2002); Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996); not to mention a wealth of essays with titles like “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” and “The Future of the Jews of York.”) Things get heady when Cohen discovers that his interest in giants and the body, Jewish history and ethics, all converge in a gemstone. Like the most potent of pleasures, too large a dose can leave a reader disoriented. 

The heavy presence of Stonehenge acts as a bedrock to anchor Cohen’s argument. These mysterious blocks and their imposing solidity appear in every chapter. I get the sense that Cohen views Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as an uchronic history of the monument; the dawn of man as witnessed by a monolithic slab. This “hungry petric alien,” what the Britons called the “Giants’ Dance,” becomes the touchstone connecting Henry of Huntingdon’s 12th-century Historia Anglorum, Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), and the rock mocumentary This Is Spinal Tap (1984). In a nice turn of phrase, Cohen wants Stonehenge, a time-bound structure, to be also “time-binding”: a terra firma upon which to shore the detritus of history.


Stone contributes to some of the livelier debates churning in the wake of critical theory’s latest turns. It draws upon the work of thinkers associated with environmental studies, posthumanism, new materialism, object-oriented ontology, and the “geologic turn” of cultural studies. It also feels indebted to the British It-Narratives of the 18th century and the work of object biographers like Mark Kurlansky and Neil MacGregor. If there is a vector to unite these various camps, it is an instinct that the boundaries between the self and world are not as clear-cut as our Enlightenment inheritance claims. If the word “object” comes with an etymological sense of being “thrown” before the subject, perhaps things have been trying to get our attention all along.

The best contemporary theoretical treatments of objects show how interpenetrating bodies – what Deleuze and Guatarri call assemblages – can accomplish things that would be impossible for a human subject acting in isolation. Disability Studies has made great strides in troubling the distinction between natural and artificial bodies, leading to fascinating work that falls under Donna Haraway’s banner of “cyborg politics.” Actor Network Theory (ANT), associated with Bruno Latour, provides a framework to explain how non-human actors are continually recruited through social relations to become quasi-subjects with agency. When seeking to understand the messy entanglement of humans, machines, corporations, social movements, and the physical environment, ANT provides an elegant solution. Graham Harman and Levi Bryant have both laid the groundwork for an object-oriented ontology, whose acronym (OOO) looks suspiciously like three boulders abreast. These new ontologies diffuse the humanist subject into what Bryant calls “the democracy of objects,” and put the final nail in the coffin of The Great Chain of Being. 

Meanwhile, “deep ecology” — a rebranded pantheism for the secular age, the Gaia hypothesis stripped of its New Age garb — has tried to rebalance the needs of humans with the needs of earth’s other denizens, animal, vegetable, and mineral. If there is a politics to Cohen’s project, it is to correct what he aptly labels the “tellurian enmity” of our engrained anthropocentricism. By revitalizing stone, Cohen shows how human bodies and rocks “are profoundly enmeshed within generative ecologies” — ecologies capable of reorienting our material relations, when given the chance. 

At its worst, the recent turn toward “things” risks becoming Disney pastiche: a discourse full of talking teacups and charming candlesticks. John Plotz, in his cheekily titled essay “Can the Sofa Speak?” argues that objects actually “do not lie beyond the bounds of reason,” but there are times when they might seem to. “That seeming is significant: these are limit cases at which our ordinary categories for classifying signs and substances, meaning and materiality, appear to breakdown.” The most interesting sections of Cohen’s book are the places where stone appears alien, only to suddenly reveal a glossy sheen. Look closely enough and see two eyes staring back. That face gazing out from the world of objects is our own distorted reflection, made strange enough to clearly see. The unacknowledged legislator of Stone could be Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky. In his essay “Art as Technique,” the critic describes how habit dulls the senses. Advocating artworks that enact a process of ostranenie or defamiliarization, he writes of making the stone once again “stony,” of imparting the sensation of things as they are first perceived. 

Cohen’s line of questioning can invite misinterpretation, a confusion Goethe anticipated in his 1798 essay on the statue Laocoön and His Sons. Viewing the marble by torchlight and briefly closing his eyes, he swore the figures had shifted upon raising his lids. Object-oriented inquiry points to the same flickering presence that Goethe saw, but often fails to locate its origin. By mistaking the human impulse to animate our surroundings for a magical world of objects, theorists risk conflating a cognitive slight-of-hand with Pygmalion’s ivory — and ignore a valuable insight into the workings of the mind. This misattribution is sometimes nothing more than strategic indulgence. Jane Bennett, coiner of concepts like “thing-power,” suggests that we need animistic rhetoric to combat the way our language inherently privileges the human: “We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism— the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature— to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world.” Cohen’s enthusiasm for this kind of theory can come off as trying to draw blood from stone, but his prose makes it a pleasant experience:

We love stone, and the marks we make upon stone, and the marks stone makes upon us. Stone insists not because it is so different from we who build families of whatever kind against cataclysm, but because of its deep affinity, its enduring tectonicity (movement, carpentry, making), its strangely inhuman (I don’t know what else to call it) love.


And then, just when you’ve reached academic saturation, at the very moment you tire of jargon like “petrogenesis” and claims about how “stone is always something more than the totality of its relations,” Cohen makes a move few colleagues would dare. He casts his marbles before the reader. Between the four chapters that form the bulk of his argument, we find very personal excursus. These are sections where his prose freely associates, forming intersections only a person surrounded by stone could see. Without these moments, the book would make a solid addition to specialist bookshelves; with them, it becomes a work of art. As he writes in the Afterword, “Too sentimental, I suppose, to write such things. Too personal. There is something uncomfortable about losing stony detachment. Yet better rocky than secure.” Better indeed. Following in tradition of the medieval writers that form his itinerant pantheon, Cohen keeps notes as he walks through Paris, Scotland, Berlin, and Iceland. A hike up Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh becomes a moment of convergence with his adolescent self. The viewing of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia on a return flight to Washington prompts a vision of historic decay.

Those who cheered in Latin in the stone theaters of Bordeaux and Paris likely assumed that Rome would never fall, that the language of their shouts would be the language of that space for all time. It may well be that those who affix love locks to Parisian bridges believe their passion will not abate, that their inscribed names will signify their affection endlessly. […] The particular is always rendered anonymous, like bones taken from graves to fashion whimsical arches in an empire of the dead. Those still in graves or those exhumed from them have no message to bear other than that time erodes memory, that time erodes substance itself. The continents we cross on airplanes are plunging slowly into sea. 

These psycho-geographical meanderings read like a chimeric descendent of W.G. Sebald and Robert MacFarlane, but with a quality all their own. In Austerlitz, a narrative where past continually oozes into present, the homophonic slippage between the narrator’s surname (Austerlitz) and the Nazi concentration camp (Auschwitz) becomes the dark matter behind Sebald’s elliptical orbit. One uncovers a similar architectonics at work in Cohen’s book: a process he calls the historic “lithicization” of the Jews. Cohen’s stories of 13th-century London are haunting, recalling a time when Jewish homes were destroyed, their fragments set into the city walls for all to see. Cohen tracks the medieval equation of Semitic souls with “harde stones” back to a perverted reading of Ezekiel 36:26. 800 years later, walking through the Holocaust memorials of Paris and Berlin, he experiences these places as cairns of historic as well as material significance. Cohen’s past will always be written in stone. When the Mémorial de la Shoah begins to overwhelm his family, he and his daughter step outside.

We leave. In the courtyard, by the pillar with all those camps, by the names and the doll and the ruined candle, Katherine raises her arms and begins to spin. As we lose ourselves to history, she loses herself in whirling, faster and faster. She laughs at a private joke, the sobriety of the place failing to grip. I take my camera from its bag and seize images of everything, as if this were the last day we could have: the memorial, the plaques, the building, the names, the girl lost in a dance of her own devising. We leave.

One day we too will leave this dervish dance behind. Our bodies will be buried or burned, returning troves of elements to the earth. Carbon, nitrogen, and magnesium will feed a new generation of plants, which will nourish animals, including human beings. We might become part of subducting plates, plunging deep into the planet’s mantel. What enters as a loose confederation, will emerge as ordered, igneous stone.


Hunter Dukes is a writer, editor, and scholar based in Cambridge, UK.

LARB Contributor

Hunter Dukes is a writer, editor, and scholar based in Cambridge, UK. His work focuses on modernist literature and the animacy of objects. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. Find his other work at


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