Willful Stones

One thing I have learnt from having a blog is how to pick up some of the threads in my own writing. I think that is because with a blog it feels like you have more of a”follow through” than with a book: each post is an invitation to pick things up again. I realized for instance just how much I pick up stones in Living a Feminist Life not only in my discussion of how histories become concrete (how stones piled together form walls) but also in stories of queer kinship with stones.

I think especially of Eli Clare’s book, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation, which I draw on in chapter 7 “Fragile Connections.” A stone wall appears in Clare’s text as a place from which you can view a world that is alien: “I watched from the other side of a stone wall, a wall that was part self-preservation, part bones and blood of aloneness, part the impossible assumptions I could not shape my body around” (2015 [1999]:144). A stone wall: made out of a body that cannot be shaped by what is assumed; a body that has been stolen and has to be reclaimed before it can become a home (13). Clare describes how his most “sustaining relations” were with stones: “I collected stones –red, green, grey, rust, white speckled with black, black streaked with silver –and kept them in my pockets, their hard surfaces warming slowly to my body heat” (144-145).

And it is stones that Clare picks up and puts in his pocket, which give another sense of a body. From a shattering, a story can be told. Picking up the pieces of a shattering story is like picking up those stones; stones that are warmed by the heat of a body.

I have been thinking of this warmth, how we find kinship in unexpected places. If it is the expected places that are the places that make it hard to survive, then we find kinship in unexpected places.

We will, we do.

And then: we can be warmed by stories, too.

Stones were also picked up in Willful Subjects (2014). And I am expecting stones to be picked up in my next project on “the uses of use.” I will be interested to know how stones will be useful! One of my starting points is that a relation of use can be one of warmth and affection – think of Silas’s affection for his brown earthenware pot; a pot that was his constant companion before it broke into pieces.

I am not going to be returning to my “useful archives” until later on this year. I began researching utility in 2013 – then stopped to write Living a Feminist Life, because it demanded to be written!

So in the meantime, let me share a section on stones from the conclusion of Willful Subjects.

Stony connections matter.

What about other matters?[i] I want to return now to the example of stones, mentioned in my discussion of Augustine’s account of will in the introduction to this book. Can stones be willful objects? I choose stones for a reason. The history of will is full of stones. Even if the stones appear quite differently when they appear, the constancy of their appearance does create quite an impression: a stony impression.

If we follow the stones, we can travel differently along the path of will. Take Augustine. For Augustine the stone matters insofar as it does not have a will of its own: the “movement of the will” is similar to “the downward movement of the stone” but “the stone has no power to check its downward movement, but the soul is not moved to abandon higher things and love inferior things unless it wills to do so” (3, 1: 72). The stones here are the other of will; they become not-will insofar as they have no checking power. Will is the power not to be compelled by an external force, or by gravity. Will is the power to stop. A stone if flung will fall, and cannot, according to Augustine, stop itself from falling; this incapacity to check a downward movement shows that the stone has no will of its own.

Why stone? Why stones and not another kind of object? Perhaps the stone already figures within human culture: to be stone-like is to be hard and immovable as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in his moving “Stories of Stone” (2010). Or perhaps stones become the objects asked to do this work because our landscape is littered with stones: stones are available; they are around; they surround. Stones are assumed to be stationary, such that if they move, it is assumed they are moved by something other than themselves. I might pick you up and throw you. If you fall there, it is because of how you are thrown. Stones are hapless or maybe they are hapfull: things happen to them; but they don’t make things happen. We might imagine it would sad to be a stone: always thrown, never throwing. Stones, we might assume, are shaped by forces of nature, and even take the shape of those forces. A stone on the beach, perhaps even a pebble (Ahmed 2006: 187), glistens from the water. It receives the waves that pound against it, creating and recreating a surface. You can feel its smoothness as a trace of where it has been.

Perhaps stones come to embody what is passive; what is capable of receiving an impression. To receive an impression can be to make an impression. The stones leave an impression upon our hands when we touch them.  Perhaps touching is assumed too quickly as our gift. Perhaps we forget how our hands can be shaped by stones. Perhaps stones become useful characters in the play of human will because it is assumed they require human hands to become more significant than being just stones, requiring hands to become tools, to be given a purposeful shape, as the shape of human intention. We should remember, for instance, that the word “hammer” derives from stone. It is as if stones are just there, waiting for humans, to be given an end or purpose, to be given an assignment, something to do. In imagining this waiting around, we might be thinking of ourselves as purposeful, as given something to the stones: an occupation, no less. Stones are, in the house of philosophy, the philosopher’s hammer. Acquiring the meaning of matter, they become “not will,” what requires the will of another for completion. It is not that stones are these things. They are after all moving around quite a lot in being assumed to be stationary. They contradict the assignment in fulfilling the assignment. They are certainly hard at work in Augustine; giving him the shape of what we are not. If the not holds its place, it does so by moving around.

Stones too often become the strangers, whose task is to reveal not only what we are not but what we are not like. They become examples of willessness (a word we almost have to invent to signify the absence of will). But the place holder is not held in quite the same place. Take Spinoza: a philosopher who contrasts with Augustine as one who does not argue for free will. A contrasting set of beliefs: but the stone still appears. Spinoza’s stone is a rather queer stone. For in thinking of the stone, Spinoza gives us a story of a thinking stone. “Now this stone since it is conscious only of its endeavour [conatus] and is not at all indifferent, will surely think that it is completely free, and that it continues in motion for no other reason than it so wishes” (cited in Sharpe 2011: 65).[ii] Say the stone is falling. If a stone could think, Spinoza suggests, it would think of itself as a willing stone, as the origin of its movement, as able to stop and start at will. Oh how the wrong the stone would be! How wishful and willful but how wrong! That is not, however, Spinoza’s point: to expose the error of a thinking stone. He intends this stone to expose human error: if there is humiliation in the story it belongs to the humans not the stones. Spinoza’s aims in throwing a stone into a letter to expose the error of human will (an error that Nietzsche would later tie to the general error of causality). Spinoza: “This, then, is that human freedom which all men boast of possessing, and which consist solely in this, that men are conscious of their desire and unaware of the causes by which they are determined” (cited in Sharpe 2011: 65). The thinking stone is certainly used to exemplify what I am calling willessness, but in order to create a new kinship: a kinship premised on the absence of will, on the common state of being determined from without. Freedom here requires consciousness of being determined: perhaps a kind of stony consciousness; a consciousness that movement comes from what we are not is how we acquire self-knowledge.

If we can think the queerness of a thinking stone, we might not need to travel far to reach the queerness of a willing stone. Willing would matter not as the causing of an action but as the feeling of being the cause, or even the feeling that accompanies what Spinoza called conatus, perseverance in being. This is exactly Schopenhauer’s angle on Spinoza’s thinking stone. He writes: “Spinoza says that if a stone projected through the air had consciousness, it would imagine it was flying of its own free will. I add merely that the stone would be right” ([1819] 1966: 126). Schopenhauer is not in suggesting the stone is right (rather than humans are wrong) positing a model of the free will as self-originating movement. Rather the will becomes something everything has: another kind of kinship, a stony kinship. Schopenhauer explains: “the will proclaims itself just as directly in the fall of a stone as in the action of a man. The difference is only that in its particular manifestation is brought about in the one case by a motive, in the other by a mechanically acting cause” ([1819] 1966b: 299). Schopenhauer’s will is far removed from what we would recognize as will in an everyday sense. As Deleuze describes Schopenhauer, in making the will into the very “essence of things” (2006: 77), perverts the course of will by taking an old philosophy to a new extreme (though of course there are other older philosophies of will such as offered by Lucretius discussed in my introduction that anticipate Schopenhauer’s perversion of will).

So why does Schopenhauer describe the fall of the stone as will if it is brought about not by motive but by a “mechanically acting cause”? He is suggesting that motivation can be thought of as determination. Will is a sphere of internal determination. Schopenhauer relates this distinction between motivation and mechanical causation to gradations of being: humans and stones are not different in being but are “higher” and “lower” grades of being ([1819] 1966: 149). But he is also implying that mechanical causation is more complex than simple determination from without (recall that writers such as Ribot discussed in chapter 2, relate will to irritability, understood as reaction, as the capacity to be affected from without). For Schopenhauer even a stone has impulses: an “impulse for it” is what “the motive is for me” (126). An impulse is what “in the case of the stone appears as cohesion, gravitation, rigidity” (126). For Schopenhauer the stone has something to do with what happens to the stone: the “quality” of a stone is what we would call “character” in a person (126). The stones, in other words, have tendencies. How they fall is determined as much by their tendencies than by the arm that throws them. We might pick up stones to do certain things because of what stones are like: they have qualities of their own, on their own (ownness here registers what makes something be the thing that it is in this or that moment of a trajectory), such that we turn to them for this but not for that. I might not sleep on you because you are too hard, I might throw you because you are not too soft. The “too-ness” of course refers to the qualities of something only in relation to actions that I might or might not perform. But we learn that actions involve judgments about the qualities of things in the world. Actions are successful if we judge rightly, a judgment that reaches things, touches things; shows how we are touched by things. To act requires being in touch with the world.

Stones might be willing; or not. At one level, stones appear as willful, insofar as willfulness is often related to being obstinate and unyielding. But of course its hardness, its tendencies, allows us to do certain things. We might assume the stone as a willing participant if we use the stone as a hammer: our hammering might depend on the stone; our will might be distributed across a field of action that includes the stone. But we should not find agency only in agreement. That is an-all-too human tendency that I have been grappling with throughout this book: to assume “yes” as a sign of being willing, a sign that is taken up as the giving of permission to proceed. This is one way we tend to go wrong. It is not that from the point of view of the hammer, everything is nail, but that the hammer is already a human point of view. The hammer is stone given the form of human intention. Perhaps stones are willing inasmuch as what they do not let us do; in how they resist our intentions. They can be checking powers; reminders that the world is not waiting to receive our shape. Perhaps then, they grab our attention. We might need to lose the hammer to find the stone.[iii]

And we too can become stone. Think of the “stone butch” in lesbian queer history: a history of those who become unyielding as a way of surviving, a history of those who might have to protect themselves by becoming stone. Here the stone becomes a willful gift, a quality we can assume.  And if we think of ourselves as stony we are not simply bringing the stones back to ourselves. We are showing how human bodies cannot be made exceptional without losing something: how we matter by being made of matter; flesh, bone, skin, stone, tangled up, tangled in. The entanglement of stone and skin matters: skin too, skin like stone, is capable of receiving impressions.

Damage can be understood as a form of reception. Audre Lorde once wrote: “In order to withstand the weather, we had to become stone, and now we bruise ourselves upon the other who is closest” (1984: 160). It would be hard to overestimate the power of Lorde’s description. Social forms of oppression, racism, the hatred that creates some bodies as strangers, can be experienced as weather. They press and pound against the surface of a body; a body can surface or survive by hardening.  For some bodies to stand is to withstand. Or, as I described in chapter 4, sometimes you can only stand up by standing firm. Willfulness helps us to describe the unequal distribution of material as well as social standing. But a stone too can be more and less hard. Hardening does not eliminate what made hardening seem necessary: that sense of being too soft, too receptive; too willing to receive an impression. Hardness is a relative condition even when we try and relate differently to a condition. What we become to withstand can become something that hardens us from others, those who might be closest, who might too have to survive the weather. We can damage each other in how we survive being damaged.

Stone and skin: softer and harder histories, material histories of bodies and worlds. Is a stone a willful inheritance? I began this book with a story of a willful child. We could relate her story to the story of willful stones. This story is a Christian parable, equally grim as our Grimm story. In the parable the stones, really, are us. But I am going to de-humanize the story, and let the stones be stones. The story:

The kingdom of God is like a house which a certain man began to build. He had very good blueprints of an excellent plan. He poured a foundation and started placing choice stones on the foundation where his plan called for them to be. As the house started to take shape, some of the stones became dissatisfied with the positions in which the master builder had placed them. They began to shift themselves into new positions, according to their own ideas of how the house should be built. Many of them dragged other stones with them into their new positions. Soon, instead of one perfect house, there were many smaller, unevenly spaced houses which more closely resembled mere piles of rocks. Some of the new piles were not even on the foundation at all; instead they called to the others to be more open minded about their positioning. The other piles adamantly insisted that each of them was more closely aligned with the master builder’s original plan, and that all who were not joined with them were not part of the same building. When the man saw these stones had aligned themselves differently, he took hold of them and pulled on them to move them back in line with his blueprints. Each stone he touched steadfastly refused to be moved. Though he pushed and pulled and worked very hard, those stones were convinced that they had come up with a much better design. At last, he grasped a rod of iron which he kept nearby and smashed the recalcitrant stones into powder. The powder was then cleared away and mixed with the cement which was to fill in the cracks between the newer stones which the builder brought to replace them.[iv]

Willful stones do not stay in the right place, the place assumed as divine or in my reading human intent. They move around. That their movement begins with dissatisfaction tells us something. The point of stones we might assume is to be satisfied by the place we have assigned them. They participate in creating a dwelling for us. We might even say; they are willing. If we build a house, we might assume we have their agreement. But when the stones do not stay in place, they bring our walls down. Willful stones would be those that bring the walls down. They get in the way of our purpose; they get in the way of our capacity to create the conditions we assume necessary for survival or flourishing. Their unhappiness with their lot causes our loss of the warmth of shelter. Oh how selfish are they not to play their part! Houses become piles of rocks, wrong bundles. The human appears with a rod: he punishes the willful stones, turning them into dust, as if to lessen the particle is to lessen the capacity to resist. The human rod straightens things out, forcing the wandering stones back into their place. The rod as a technology of will assumes might as right; it might punish the wayward stones for the stones themselves, to give them a chance of a more meaningful life.

There is a moral to the story: we as humans must be satisfied with the place we have been given within the divine order. But we can willfully transform the human moral into a stone pedagogy. We would as dwellers assume the qualities of willfulness. We would relate differently to the capacity of all things to deviate from the places given as assignments. Dissatisfaction can be an opening up of things, a gift from things. We would imagine crooked houses, wonky bundles, assembled from unwilling parts, assembled out of the agency of things that have not agreed with our own design or purpose. We would be for those who might refuse our own desire to be with, our desire for company, who might as parts come apart. A stone pedagogy is another way of describing what willfulness has taught me. In treating willfulness as a lesson, I am also making a commitment to will. The problem with will remains how it can allow us not to register how things are determined. But the will is also the name we give to possibility: the shared condition of not being fully determined from without, whatever that without; the will as wiggle room, as the room to deviate, a room kept open by will’s incompletion, a room most often in human history designated as ruin. To inhabit this ruin is to inhabit the room of willfulness. We might in the work of this willful inhabitance create a stony kinship, a kinship of strangers, to return to my reading of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Such a kinship would be between those who have willfully refused to be straightened out, to become points on the straight line of inheritance. Such a kinship not only embraces the swerve, as described by Lucretius, and those who follow him most queerly, but takes up these points of deviation as points of attachment.  Willful stones might even offer us a new beginning, one without blueprint, one in which the capacity not to be compelled by others is made into the promise of a queer thing.

The promise of a queer thing: is this not an earthly promise, a way of accepting a shared inhabitancy of an earth? Is there a willful ecology being implied here? I think so; I hope so. We could relate a willful ecology to the Gaia hypothesis of the earth as a single organism. Let’s think back to Pascal’s mischievous foot. One way of telling the story of the willful foot might be as a story of the humans who have selfishly forgotten they are part of the earth, and who in this forgetting have compromised the health of the whole body. If we affirmed the willful foot, we might also give permission for humans to be selfish. Whatever my argument is, it is not about giving any such permission (though I have questioned how selfishness or self-will can be used as a technique to differentiate the moral worth of humans). I would translate Pascal’s account of the mischievous foot into an ecological fable quite differently. It is not that humans are the foot but that they have treated the earth as the foot, as the part that must be willing to submit. To make the earth into a foot is not only to assume that it will become part of the human body, as an extension or limb, but that the earth must be productive, must support or carry the whole social body, the body of the occupier. A more ethical ecological relation would recognize instead the willfulness of natureAfter all, we know from assembling a willfulness archive, that willfulness is an attribution that humans tend to make to whatever gets in the way of an intent. Nature as the mischievous foot gets in the way: she does not agree to the human demand for submission; she does not even cope with this demand. Such an argument is implicit to Isabelle Stengers’ redescription of Gaia not as a healthy organism but “as one who intrudes.” Indeed Stengers suggests she choose the name Gaia as she “wanted a name for who we may associate with the notion of intrusion” (2008: 7).[v]

Intrusion: a willful description for what comes back to the body.

An ecological concern would be an invitation to think not only of humans as parts of a shared world but what follows this thought. The invitation might be one we can address to parts. Some partnerships are not a matter of will: they come before a willing subject, as a question of how we arrive into a world. Partness could be linked to what Hannah Arendt describes as “natality” the shared condition of being “newcomers who are born into the world as strangers” (1958: 9), a condition which for Arendt is also the promise of a new beginning, of creativity. If to be born is to become part of a world that has already taken shape, then being born is also a parting of company: the newborn emerges not only to a world but from a woman’s body. Partness is here an interval or travelling between bodies that matter, bodies that are not simply one or singular wholes. If dwelling within is temporary, then a body, this maternal body, includes parts that will cease to be part, parts for whom unbecoming member is birth not death. In being cut off from a body, in becoming part of a world with others, we do not just leave what we leave behind us: bodies too carry traces of where they have been. To become part of a world can be to restore the promise of this behind as a maternal as well as material promise. And of course, not only all things emerge in the same way: a mammalian beginning is one kind of beginning. But if to emerge is to emerge from, then it is by going back to from, that we can offer a new way of beginning: perhaps even a new way to begin the thought of beginning.

To begin again: we would need to tell different origin stories of the human. Perhaps we would not begin with Eve coming from a part of Adam, but with the wayward parts themselves. Take the story told by the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles: “Here sprang up many faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads” (cited in Kirk, Raven and Schofield [1957] 1983: 303). We do not need to re-attach the strays by assuming parts as needy. Strays can lead us astray. Wandering parts can wander toward other parts, creating new fantastic combinations; affinities of matter that matter. Queer parts are parts of many; parts that in wandering away create something. We could throw stones too into this most queer mix, or stones could throw themselves, or we could by thrown by the stones.

If we are to queer the mix, humans would not be assumed as the mediating part: the part to which all other parts must relate.  A willful ecology would be one that does require we follow the path of the will to the same place, one in which hap as well as snap can create room, room for things to be the things they are with or without other things.  A queer relation offers the freedom of not having a relation, the freedom not to participate, not to be connected or stay connected.[vi] If this is a queer story of inter-connections, we would find in the dash an alternative line, a way out as well as a way in. To create room means we still have to fight for preservation, we have to fight for life; we might have to become willful to keep going, we have to keep coming up, to get in the way of an-all-too-human occupation. And we have to be willing to hear the intrusion of Gaia, which means being willing to attend to the costs of the generalization of human will. Perhaps we can listen to the sound of nature’s feet when we do not ask nature to be handy.

[i] It would be possible to read this section as part of a “new materialism” or a new “material feminism.” However I would argue that there is nothing new about the materialism I am offering here: I consider my own work as indebted to decades of feminist scholarship on how bodies and worlds materialize. I wholeheartedly reject the argument that “matter” did not matter to earlier work in feminist studies. Perhaps matter mattered right from the beginning, given how matter was intertwined with woman and the maternal. Who could forget Adrienne Rich’s instruction to “begin with the material,” from her “Notes Toward a Politics of Location” first published in 1984: “Begin, we said, with the material, with matter, mma, madre, mutter, moeder, modder” (1986: 213). For further discussion and explanation of what I consider to be the problematic genealogy implied by claiming a “new materialism” see Ahmed (2008).

[ii] Hasana Sharpe is careful to note that the analogy bequeaths wisdom to humans rather than implying they are “dumb as rocks” (2011: 67). A she points out: “all beings include a power of thinking that corresponds exactly to the power of their bodies to be disposed in different ways” (66). There is thus “a power of thinking that belongs to the stone” (67). Schopenhauer and Spinoza are closer than it might seem from a first reading of Schopenhauer on Spinoza.

[iii]  We could go even further: we might even have to lose the stone to make room for other findings. It might be important to recognise that even designating something as a stone is an all too human designation. Tim Ingold describes:  “Suppose that I find a stone, and wonder whether I might use it as a missile, for hammering, or perhaps as a pendulum bob or paperweight. For none of these purposes need the stone be modified. But the tiny insect hiding behind the stone never perceived its ‘stoniness’: it simply perceived concealment, and responded accordingly” (1986: 3).  In this book, Ingold remains relatively committed to the difference between humans and other animals as a difference of consciousness and intentionality. But what I find so evocative about this description is both the reminder that “objectness” is an orientation towards what we encounter rather than what we encounter, as well as the implication that activities are also perceptions for subjects of all kinds: we might perceive something as a dwelling insofar as we are aiming to dwell; a concealing insofar as we aim to conceal, and so on. Whatever we think of and call a stone might have its own projects or leanings. A less human occupation might be one that takes occupation more seriously as a life activity or praxis. I use “less” and “more” advisedly: the most human occupations in my view are often the ones that proceed from the thought that humans can escape human occupation, that we can make ourselves (including our locations, our dwellings, our orientations) disappear from our own thought by thought.

[iv] The story can be found here: http://heartsonfire33.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/the-parable-of-the-willful-stones/


Ahmed, Sara  (2008). “Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the New Materialism,” European Journal of Women’s Studies.15, 1: 23-39.

————- (2006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham:  Duke University Press.

Augustine.  (1991). On Free Choice of the Will. Trans. Thomas Williams. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Clare, Eli (2015) [1999]. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome (2010). “Stories of Stone.” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies. 1: 56-63.

Deleuze, Gilles (2006). Nietzsche and Philosophy.Trans. Hugh Tomlinson. London: Continuum.

Ingold, Tim (1986). The Appropriation of Nature: Essays on Human Ecology and Social Relations. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kirk, G.S., R.E.Raven and M.Schofield (1988). [1957]. The Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A  Critical History with a Selection of Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lorde, Audre (1984). Zami: A New Spelling of my Name. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers.

Rich, Adrienne (1986). “Notes Toward a Politics of Location” in Blood, Bread, and Poetry Selected Prose 1979-1985.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Schopenhauer, Arthur  (2005). [1839] Essay on the Freedom of the Will. Trans. Konstantin Kolenda. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.


——— (1966). [1819] The World as Will and Representation, Volume 1. Trans  E.F.J. Payne. Mineola, NY: Dover.

——— (1966b). [1818] The World as Will and Representation, Volume 2.

Sharpe, Hasana (2011). Spinoza and the Politics of Re-Naturalization. Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Stengers, Isabelle (2010). Cosmopolitics 1. Trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.



About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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