In Earth, a planetary scientist and a literary humanist explore what happens when we think of the Earth as an object viewable from space. As a “blue marble,” “a blue pale dot,” or, as Chaucer described it, “this litel spot of erthe,” the solitary orb is a challenge to scale and to human self-importance. Beautiful and self-contained, the Earth turns out to be far less knowable than it at first appears: its vast interior an inferno of incandescent and yet solid rock and a reservoir of water vaster than the ocean, a world within the world. Viewing the Earth from space invites a dive into the abyss of scale: how can humans apprehend the distances, the temperatures, and the time scale on which planets are born, evolve, and die?
Winner of the 2017 Réné Welleck Prize for the best book in comparartive literature, Stone maps the force, vivacity, and stories within our most mundane matter, stone. For too long stone has served as an unexamined metaphor for the “really real”: blunt factuality, nature’s curt rebuke. Yet medieval writers knew that stones drop with fire from the sky, emerge through the subterranean lovemaking of the elements, tumble along riverbeds from Eden, partner with the masons who build worlds with them. Such motion suggests an ecological intertwining and an almost creaturely mineral life.
Although geological time can leave us reeling, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues that stone’s endurance is also an invitation to apprehend the world in other than human terms. Never truly inert, stone poses a profound challenge to modernity’s disenchantments. Its agency undermines the human desire to be separate from the environment, a bifurcation that renders nature “out there,” a mere resource for recreation, consumption, and exploitation.
Written with great verve and elegance, this pioneering work is notable not only for interweaving the medieval and the modern but also as a major contribution to ecotheory. Comprising chapters organized by concept (“Geophilia,” “Time,” “Force,” and “Soul”), Cohen seamlessly brings together a wide range of topics, including stone’s potential to transport humans into nonanthropocentric scales of place and time, the “petrification” of certain cultures, the messages fossils bear, the architecture of Bordeaux and Montparnasse, Yucca Mountain and nuclear waste disposal, the ability of stone to communicate across millennia in structures like Stonehenge, and debates over whether stones reproduce and have souls.
Showing that what is often assumed to be the most lifeless of substances is, in its own time, restless and forever in motion, Stone fittingly concludes by taking us to Iceland⎯a land that, writes the author, “reminds us that stone like water is alive, that stone like water is transient.”
For centuries it was believed that all matter was composed of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire in promiscuous combination, bound by love and pulled apart by strife. Elemental theory offered a mode of understanding materiality that did not center the cosmos around the human. Outgrown as a science, the elements are now what we build our houses against. Their renunciation has fostered only estrangement from the material world.
The essays collected in Elemental Ecocriticism show how elemental materiality precipitates new engagements with the ecological. Here the classical elements reveal the vitality of supposedly inert substances (mud, water, earth, air), chemical processes (fire), and natural phenomena, as well as the promise in the abandoned and the unreal (ether, phlogiston, spontaneous generation).
Decentering the human, this volume provides important correctives to the idea of the material world as mere resource. Three response essays meditate on the connections of this collaborative project to the framing of modern-day ecological concerns. A renewed intimacy with the elemental holds the potential for a more dynamic environmental ethics and the possibility of a reinvigorated materialism.
Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. In a series of linked essays that span place, time, and discipline, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen brings together writers who illustrate the vibrant worlds formed by colors. Organized by the structure of a prism, each chapter explores the coming into existence of nonanthropocentric ecologies. “Red” engages sites of animal violence, apocalyptic emergence, and activism; “Maroon” follows the aurora borealis to the far North and beholds in its shimmering alternative modes of world composition; “Chartreuse” is a meditation on postsustainability and possibility within sublime excess; “Grey” is the color of the undead; “Ultraviolet” is a potentially lethal force that opens vistas beyond humanly known nature.
Featuring established and emerging scholars from varying disciplines, this volume presents a collaborative imagining of what a more-than-green ecology offers. While highlighting critical approaches not yet common within ecotheory, the contributions remain diverse and cover a range of topics including materiality, the inhuman, and the agency of objects. By way of color, Cohen guides readers through a reflection of an essentially complex and disordered universe and demonstrates the spectrum as an unfinishable totality, always in excess of what a human perceives.
Contributors: Stacy Alaimo, U of Texas at Arlington; Levi R. Bryant, Collin College; Lowell Duckert, West Virginia U; Graham Harman, American U in Cairo; Bernd Herzogenrath, Goethe U of Frankfurt; Serenella Iovino, U of Turin, Italy; Eileen Joy; Robert McRuer, George Washington U; Tobias Menely, Miami U; Steve Mentz, St. John’s U, New York City; Timothy Morton, Rice U; Vin Nardizzi, U of British Columbia; Serpil Opperman, Hacettepe U, Ankara; Margaret Ronda, Rutgers U; Will Stockton, Clemson U; Allan Stoekl, Penn State U; Ben Woodard; Julian Yates, U of Delaware.
In Medieval Identity Machines, Jeffrey J. Cohen examines the messiness, permeability, and perversity of medieval bodies, arguing that human identity always exceeds the limits of the flesh. Combining critical theory with a rigorous reading of medieval texts, Cohen asks if the category “human” isn’t too small to contain the multiplicity of identities. As such, this book is the first to argue for a “posthuman” Middle Ages and to make extensive use of the philosophical writings of Gilles Deleuze to rethink the medieval.
Among the topics that Cohen covers are the passionate bond between men and horses in chivalric training; the interrelation of demons, celibacy, and colonialism in an Anglo-Saxon saint’s life; Lancelot’s masochism as envisioned by Chrétien de Troyes; the voice of thunder echoing from Margery Kempe; and the fantasies that sustained some dominant conceptions of race.
This tour of identity—in all its fragility and diffusion—illustrates the centrality of the Middle Ages to theory as it enhances our understanding of self, embodiment, and temporality in the medieval world.
Thinking the Limits of the Body. State University of New York Press, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art series, 2002. Editor, with Gail Weiss.
The Postcolonial Middle Ages. Palgrave, New Middle Ages series, 2000. Editor.
A monster lurks at the heart of medieval identity, and this book seeks him out. Reading a set of medieval texts in which giants and dismemberment figure prominently, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen brings a critical psychoanalytic perspective to bear on the question of identity formation-particularly masculine identity-in narrative representation. The giant emerges here as an intimate stranger, a monster who stands at the limits of selfhood.
Arguing that in the romance tradition of late fourteenth-century England, identity is inscribed on sexed bodies only through the agency of a monster, Cohen looks at the giant as the masculine body writ large. In the giant he sees an uncanny figure, absolutely other and curiously familiar, that serves to define the boundaries of masculine embodiment. Philosophically compelling, the book is also a philologically rigorous inquiry into the phenomenon of giants and giant-slaying in various texts from the Anglo-Saxon period to late Middle English, including Beowulf, Chrétien de Troyes’s The Knight and the Lion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, several works by Chaucer, Sir Gowther, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and more.
A significant contribution to our understanding of medieval culture, Of Giants also provides surprising insights into questions about the psychosocial work of representation in its key location for the individual: the construction of gender and the social formation of the boundaries of gender identification. It will engage students of the Middle Ages as well as those interested in discourses of the body, social identity, and the grotesque.
In viewing the monstrous body as a metaphor for the cultural body, the contributors to Monster Theory consider beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends as symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society and shape its collective behavior. Through a historical sampling of monsters, these essays argue that our fascination for the monstrous testifies to our continued desire to explore difference and prohibition. Contributors: Mary Baine Campbell, Brandeis U; David L. Clark, McMaster U; Frank Grady, U of Missouri, St. Louis; David A. Hedrich Hirsch, U of Illinois; Lawrence D. Kritzman, Dartmouth College; Kathleen Perry Long, Cornell U; Stephen Pender; Allison Pingree, Harvard U; Anne Lake Prescott, Barnard College; John O'Neill, York U; William Sayers, George Washington U; Michael Uebel, U of Virginia; Ruth Waterhouse.