From the Series: Correspondence
If we drop social science’s realist and mimetic ambitions to represent and analogize worlds, we’re left with the uncertain but open attunements of ethnographic practice and the weird, robust realism of deobjectified, deliteralized things (Harman 2012). Without the presumption of a fixed distinction between some kind of thinking subject and the world, we’re suspended in a vivid pragmatics that we can only think from the middle (Stengers, Massumi, and Manning 2009). Points of material-noumenal interest emergent in energetic surfaces and troubles rehearse their own speculative potential. From there we might try to approach, emulate, and correspond with, rather than to, the mixed-ontology oscillations and waverings whose transmogrifications, returns, and sediments constitute the onto/epistemology of continuous worldings. Constitutive differings, detours, resonances, rhythms and pauses, voicings, and other expressivities make matter and subjects generative. Worldly thinking moves with what’s unfolding, riding up, granulating, dissipating, shifting weight, or deflating.
Here’s a tiny story of a minute of worldly thinking with granite. A correspondence.
I drank for the first time at a friend’s house when I was fifteen. Head-reeling drunk and high, I walked home late, a long walk down High Street, up Elm Street to the library, and then through the neighborhood. On Elm Street I took a pee on an elm tree and then sat on a granite curb. Butt-to-granite, a jointing of being sputtered up out of a plain moment piqued. A night resonance of old houses and trees threw together around us into a stark accretion of lines and bushy shapes—a prismatic milieu swelling up out of elements of solid infrastructure, quivering incidentals, and the ordinary teenage self-division between the move to surge out in a risky worlding and the labor of return, alone and weighted. That moment of sitting in the night air in sheer contact with the cold hard granite registered a mass of collective, pre- and nonpersonal materialities, enigmas, oblique events, background noises, and histories of all kinds. A reeling present presented as immanent to things emerging, sagging, enduring, festering, and sheltering god knows what.
I found myself in an elemental landscape like what Annie Dillard (1987, 3) describes as an end-of-life attunement:
When everything else has gone from my brain—the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all of this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.
This is where granite comes in. Abundant in New England, it scored the landscape with mountains notched by glaciers over a million years, and massive boulders deposited randomly in such numbers that a walk in the woods is a path of detours around them. Granite formed the pervasive materiality of the first layer of historical sedimentation and later was put to use in curbs, steps, foundations, monuments, courthouses and banks, gravestones, and canals. It generated infrastructure beyond itself; the first railroad in the United States was built to haul the granite from Quincy, Massachusetts to the Neponset River. Highways had to curve around it and follow its seams. It formed a field, sealing a worlding promise in its tough granularity—a history of climate, the geological contouring of earth, a calling up of grand and brutal labor.
Further inland, I remember quarry workers getting maimed. One of my brothers had a winter job standing on the granite wall, chopping massive blocks of ice to keep the canal open. Abandoned quarries on the outskirts of town were on the teenage landscape and agenda: a place of first sexual contact, suicide, sheer elemental outsideness. Swimming in them was illicit and often injurious. They held qualities of atmosphere, attunement, and rock-solid otherness.
Sitting on the granite curb that night was a plain and unsettled grounding in the charged circuitry of an intercorporeal, intermundane world. No time for ontological distinctions and the dull naturalisms and shrieking humanisms they breed but, rather, a turning to the forms and mysterious partial inevitabilities of what presents. I was sitting on a threshold of expressivity like what Spinoza (2005) called conatus; Nietzsche (1976), will to power; Bergson (1998), élan vital; Deleuze and Guattari (1987), difference; Foucault (1978), micropolitics; and Merleau-Ponty (2003), ontology of flesh.
It’s not dead matter that grounds us but the capacity to correspond with a multiplicity of continuous worldings that are both plastic and dense. We watch or avert our eyes as folded, indeterminate lines of force ripple across the phenomena of a field, rendering its materiality and our thought multidimensional, contingent, and overdetermined.
What’s a form of critique that can emulate this compositional process? Not conventions of defending a proper relation between subject, concept, and world but, maybe, forms of detour, pause, and haptic description of what seems to be unfolding.
When my mother was confined to a nursing home, she talked her grandson, Justin (a stoneworker given to wanderlust and creative risk), into driving her to Vermont. As they talked along the four-hour trip up, it began to snow. They went to the granite quarry in Barre, where we had lived. They looked at stones; my father’s gravestone had come from here. They got stuck in the snow on the way back, driven off the road, and so they were happy when they finally got back. After our mother died, my sister Peg and I were in Vermont and decided to see if we could find the house we’d lived in until we were six and seven. Coming into Barre’s downtown we sensed to turn right, up the mountain. We saw the school where we’d gone to kindergarten and then we knew to turn right again, then left, then right again as something in the landscape presented a track. Then we saw the house sitting atop a granite outcrop, up a steep, treacherous driveway we remembered in stories of accidents, sledding, and labors.
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Bergson, Henri. 1998. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell. New York: Dover. Originally published in 1907.
Dillard, Ann. 1987. An American Childhood. New York: Harper and Row.
Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Random House. Originally published in 1976.
Harman, Graham. 2012. Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. Winchester, U.K.: Zero Books.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2003. The Visible and the Invisible. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. Originally published in 1969.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1976. Thus Spoke Zarathrustra: A Book for All and None. Translated by Walter Kauffman. New York: Penguin. Originally published in 1883.
Spinoza, Baruch. 2005. Ethics. Edited and translated by Edwin Curly. New York: Penguin. Originally published in 1677.
Stengers, Isabelle, Brian Massumi, and Erin Manning. 2009. “History through the Middle: Between Macro and Mesopolitics—An Interview with Isabella Stengers.” Inflexions, no. 3.