A Letter from Jeffrey J. Cohen to Elysia Crampton
Jeffrey J. Cohen, Professor of English and author of of recently published Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman writes to artist Elysia Crampton in response to her recently released album American Drift. At the time of the letter’s writing, both Jeffrey and Elysia are traveling. Elysia is in transit between Santa Fe in the Yungas (a town her family helped found and build) and her farm in Rosario, Pacajes where she now lives. Elysia and her grandfather were the only inhabitants of Rosario other than an elderly woman living in a house nearby. Since Elysia’s grandfather’s passing, Rosario remains a ghost town for the most of the year. “I’ll never forget that it snowed again before my grandfather left Rosario, RIP,’ she says. The music you are now listening to is from a tape Elysia found and was listening to upon receiving Jeffrey’s letter.
Hi Elysia. I hope you will not mind that I have intercut your message (conveyed while you were in Pacajes, and I was wandering New Zealand) to form the verbal simulacrum of a geological unconformity, since we both love stories intimate to stone.
To be skeptical of dismissiveness is a lesson I am always teaching myself. I never learn. The impulse to dismiss is so hereditary that we spend much of our time as writers and teachers and artists trying to push (in the good company of others) beyond the No Think Zones we inherit and replicate. It makes the world easy when we wave away its difficulties. It seems right that you emailed me from a borderland, since transitions and transontologies flow through your work. I wonder what it means to you that your grandparents founded a town? How much does that history weigh? Does it feel like a kind of home? Fittingly enough I was thinking about my own great grandparents when I wrote my book on stone. New arrivals in a rocky land, they were fleeing a place of death, escaping for a while the heavy geology of anti-Semitism by settling in a place that knew little and cared less for long and unsought history. In the 1880s no one in Maine seemed to care why a Jew would depart Lithuania to seek a new life.
I’ve been listening to American Drift in Auckland, sometimes when I’m walking, with my earphones in, or sometimes when I am just trying to think. I’m a stranger here, and the striations of Drift’s sound are beautiful and make me think complexly of home. Or what has now been my home for twenty years, the sweep between Chesapeake and Shenandoah, a land of invidious history. Garden, night, cup, calcified. Your sonic aggregations words, phrases, rhythms whirl through my head even when the tracks you’ve crafted stop or I am seated in a quiet coffee shop while it rains. Or when I’m by the sea (you would love the oceans here, especially the Tasman: waves as high as those roiled Virginia hills, but deeper in their hue). I know that American Drift is a geology of brown (as rock and race) but there’s blue in its layers as well.
I should be more gracious, I know, but I am happy you were exhausted by my book. Writing Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman – and especially the sections on lapidaries – was arduous. There were days when the pain in my shoulders, wrists, and mind were so intense I thought I could not finish the work. I almost didn’t. Slough of despond. But I decided that certain parts needed to be exhausting since they could never be exhaustive. Completeness receded every time I attempted the definitive. Fevered rock. So I gave some chapters more than a hundred footnotes, ample in their Latin and ancient French and English that does not look like English, and I thought: as a shared affect, fatigue is the best catalyst of companionship. When you have someone with you who is determined to make it to the end, who will offer you the right word when you think you cannot take a step farther, who will pull you back before you tread a snake, who will not abandon you in wandering, so that new prospects open. I learnt all this hiking the Shenandoah, when a friend to whom I was saying goodbye and goodfuture asked if we could summit Old Rag. I remember puzzlement at the path over a boulder scramble and found the ready offer of a hand. The day was foggy but in time we ascended above cloud level and that clarity remains with me even now. Pinned to the exact.
Blue Ridge stay blue. I’m listening to American Drift again now as I am writing this and find your sonic ecologies anything but exhausting. Primeval gash. That’s how to build a mountain: something has to sink. Ridges seem like bodies in that way. I get the feeling there is a story here about slavery and abasement as well. Your tracks make me want to leave this laptop here at its table and walk for a long time – not to walk away from the colonizations and violence your music conveys, but to walk with them, think about how they relate to stones and trees, think about how their ugly allure. How do you sustain such energy in the music you make? Every brink recedes.
Say fuck it and start. I am joining you in that impulse, so thanks for this aphorism to keep. The weight of expectation and preparation; the worry of knowing where to begin; the anxiety that arrives from thinking that only if you do all exhaustive preparatory work will you cruise to a destination – that’s all wrong. Security in commencement never arrives, so say fuck it and begin. Yet your music has such layered complexity that it belies such quick movements – not an earthquake but an accretion, a sedimentation of history and sound, mud and other fecund materials into layered density. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to anything so geologic. A certain chemical trace inheres, like the smell of rock after rain, recording or suggesting things now invisible but not gone.
Don’t we have in common mixed methods, sudden hybridities, novel transpositions? My intellectual formation was through turf wars and declarations of Truth over and against the truths of others, a culture of high profile takedowns and scholarship as blood sport. I want a more generous world. When glee exists in making a spectacle of the wrongness of others it is impossible to foster a sense of communal endeavor, to create anything but a cult of the personality that thrives through clash. What could be more tedious? We’re in it together. I could never write, never think, never live without manifold writers, artists, makers, explorers, revelers (many of whom are not humans: can’t we extend our generosity that far? I think you do that so well in your music, where the sound of a lake and wordpoem of a mountain meet histories of race, religion, and other things that may or may not be familiar in form). When I was giving a presentation early in the genesis of Stone a famous scholar asked me if I was comfortable with how I was using my children in my work. I understood the accusation immediately and appreciated its strong formulation, because it allowed me to say what I believe: we never work alone. We ought to acknowledge the companionship of those who think with us, our collaborators. So yes along with Jane Bennett and Stacy Alaimo and Tim Morton you will find the amazing Alex Cohen and Katherine Cohen in the book (they grew up with it, accompanying me in my research). They challenged me to think about the animacy of the inorganic, the storying of matter, the possibilities that yet inhere in things even after we have been trained to no longer witness them. There are moments in the book that I hope demonstrate the limits of this collaboration as well. I had to include the day at the Arènes de Lutèce when both Alex and Katherine rebelled against being narrativized. That resistance matters. The book is about stone’s agency, but that does not mean that human agency does not [matter].
Vulnerability and love: we need more of both. I’m not sure I knew that when I was young, and in some ways the world hurts a lot more when we seek both, but … say fuck it and start. It seems to me, Elysia, that you too are looking for worldly entries that foreground the personal (all experience is mediated through some subjectivity, even if that subjectivity is manifold) and yet open to vaster panoramas – ambits of vast geographical stretch, historical as well as personal depth. What you’ve written about brown as skin and stone seems right to me, the geology of contemporary American racism as active sediment and abiding foundation, but I do wonder what the stakes of an embrace of vulnerability might be here: the brown or black body’s woundability has always been the way it has been disciplined and even destroyed. Vulnerability as the engine of slavery. It’s not just a willed opening to the world. Primeval gash. Wounding bodies – and wounding mountains – leave a lasting impress (in landscape, in souls). Your aural environments capture that process of accretion well – and rightly refuse to allow a stilling thereafter. In some of your tracks I can smell or taste rain, and in others blood. I like how you stage their confluence (it is hard to tell the difference between human and natural history in your work). You seem to find your way into these histories through the personal (you’ve spoken so eloquently in interviews about your family history and its force) and yet craft pieces that are never only personal: shared feeling, shared history, shared inheritances run through American Drift.
I am interested in how we use pronouncements like “It is unethical” to prevent thinking beyond a certain limit. In the case of advanced humanities studies, for example, “It is unethical” is often pronounced to declare that PhD programs need to be shut down. But maybe a better ethics inheres in giving people the chance to make risky and wasteful decisions, regardless: an informed choice to pursue a project that has little practical utility and may never result in a secure career, the chance – and the support – to say fuck it and start, instead of making that decision for them, as if we know better. Maybe young people do not need the policing of their options and desires that we assume they do. Maybe we who are so comfortable denying to others uncertain roads should hesitate before we pronounce.
My friend Eileen Joy, a refugee from the Academy, has been an inspiration in thinking through the knot of urgent issues that cluster around the contemporary, crisisplagued university. At a time when I was ready to stop publishing she also revived my faith in intellectual vagabondery, in the power of emergent communities, in the centrality of affect to cognition and creation, in openness and vulnerability as a mode of cognitive thriving. I like the idea of a para-academy that dwells both inside the university (often as a kind of parasite, since if the neoliberal university knew more of its challenging aims it would choose to exterminate it) and alongside the university, as a space of freedom and alternative belonging. In the short term I think we are looking at a constriction in education as universities merrily continue to become corporations that churn out assessable products in predictable forms, with employability a code word for conformity. In the long term young people are much smarter than their would-be overlords realize, and are already beginning to point out that a system that ensures they graduate with such debt that they must undertake 10 years of indentured servitude (at the loss of intellectual, physical and imaginative mobility) to pay it off – typically working a job in which nothing is challenged and little is fulfilled, is an utterly broken system that profits from their reduction. Education is a basic human right. So is protest. And freedom from intellectual constraint and the ability to form new modes of disrupting, learning, and belonging. All these things are being systematically stripped from the young in the hope of forming more obedient consumersubjects. I was not alive in the 1950s but I am hoping that our own era – which seems just as repressive, especially if you happen not to be rich and male and white – gives way to the kinds of blossoming of possibility that happened in the late 1960s. Maybe we need another 1968. Maybe the students of the not too distant future will give us one. The seismic #BlackLivesMatter is showing the way to a more just society, one that grapples deeply with the racist structures upon which dominant culture is built, one that can – again, as American Drift does – detail the sedimentations of the trauma and injustice inflicted upon colored bodies over centuries, the ways in which that history is geological and thereby foundational to the moment in which we now dwell. We need to dwell upon unconformities when we find them, alternative histories that open new futures. Maybe we also need to topple some bastions.
That didn’t answer your question, I know. My goal in teaching is to give my students the tools they need to be brave in a system that will crush them if it can: to think beyond tests and assessments and the lure of retirement plans to thinking what kind of world they would like to dwell within – and letting them know that they are intimate to other such dreamers across long historical spans. Another world has always been possible. Say fuck it and start.
I was happy to have the chance to write about a film that I don’t like and yet is so beautiful that it moved me profoundly. I think Melancholia taps an abiding human impulse not to say fuck it and start but just the opposite, say fuck it and let it all end. Who cares if the earth dissolves into flame and everyone dies? It’s what we deserve, we are such base creatures. Or so this reasoning goes, a line of thought you can find in ecological writing as well (catastrophe as the wages of our environmental sins). I’ll never understand Christians. What about tikkun olam, repairing the world? Not managing the earth or nature, not treating the nonhuman as resource or symbol or something inert, but healing some of the harm we have inflicted? What about not giving up? So yes let’s think about the agency of horses and forests and planets. Let’s think about the agency of the elements: earth, air, fire, water. Let’s stop surrendering to an apocalypse we secretly desire. That’s the easy way out. Repair and composition are harder – especially because we are broken ourselves. We’ve created a system that keeps breaking people, that thrives on breaking humans and worlds, that wounds in mind and body those who live with us now and those yet to come. Fixing what we keep breaking is surely the antidote to melancholia, the best way to live with rather than be consumed by fire and ice. And maybe we would feel more compelled to repair rather than consign if we saw better the agency and power of the nonhuman.
Do you think that music might be part of that call to activism and worldchange? You sent me a copy of a piece of yours called “Lake” which you said is “made with field recordings from a hidden lake on the edge of West Virginia.” I love it and have played the song repeatedly while writing this response: something happens when the sounds you make meet the sounds you’ve recorded. You make me want to seek that hidden lake. But you also make me realize the deep layers of rhythm that bind human sound and frog sound, cricket chirp and drum. The track is ethereal (a thing of air) and yet has so many layers that, like American Drift, it seems geologically layered. And maybe you had that in mind when you entitled the album American Drift? Tectonic plates drift, swallowing the ocean on one side and creating new sea chasms on the other. Tectonic, by the way, comes from the Greek word for carpenter: someone who makes things, someone who repairs or composes. Sometimes American Drift seems to be about the Shenandoah, and at others about the human body, the propensity for bodies to change (and yet to carry history forward through change: a geology of the flesh). Have I gotten anything right?
I think you are doing well if there are only a few hours a day when you are feeling illiterate! I always struggle with my inability to comprehend and to be articulate, with my attention to detail that mistakes dust for mountains, with my shifts of frame that are more about vertigo than realization. Constant anxiety is what provokes me to write: without emotions that I don’t particularly like or want I would not be provoked.
I am wondering about family history as catalyst, so I ask what it means to you that your grandparents founded a town, that you wrote to me from such a place? How much does that history weigh? I am wondering about companionship, and how you sustain such energy in the music you craft? I am wondering what motivates your art: can you name the impulse, or is the impulse even yours? How do you hope to change those who listen to your music? I know that American Drift is about deep time and geologic history, about slavery and colony, brown as skin and mineral, but what queer futurings do you (in your most optimistic moments) believe your art could engender? What is a transontology? How is the human body like the Shenandoah you describe?