Paleolithic refers to a historical period and takes so from describing the relation between humans and stones. It is also known as the Old Stone age, reinforcing the crucial yet rudimental repercussive relation between the two.
Hiding in very plain sight, everywhere in post-agricultural psychic, social and philosophical space, is evidence of a traumatic Severing of human–nonhuman relations. The difference between modernity and deep premodernity (Paleolithic cultures) is simply that sophisticated technological instruments and contemporary science tell us explicitly that the Severing is produced at the expense of actually existing biospheric beings and their relations.
What we are dealing with is a becoming-species, a consciousness that we are humans inhabiting a planet, that has happened precisely as the inner logic of the Severing has unfolded such that, until now, there have been drastic dislocations and distortions in that consciousness and in the concept of “human.”
We are human insofar as every quality of being human has been severed from a central, neutral substance that Enlightenment patriarchy was happy to call Man.
Rocks, and thinking.
Reflection is the process by which reason (nous) penetrates behind appearances (phainomena) in order to be able to think about them. Reflection is thus preliminary to thinking. ...To reflect as a human, in the end, is to yield a knife, and the stone knives of the Paleolithic era—the earliest human instruments—indicate it was then we began to reflect.
We trace our fingers along the dissected rations of phenomena in order to comprehend and define their contours. With a theoretical gaze, we then disassociate these defined contours from the dissected phenomenon, at which point we are holding an empty husk. We call this empty husk a “concept,” and we use it to collect other rations of phenomena that have not yet been fully defined. We use concepts as models. In doing so, we create a mêlée between dissected appearances and empty concepts—between phenomena and models. The unfortunate outcome of this conflict is that we can no longer discern any phenomena for which we have not already established a model. Since we can no longer apprehend model-less phenomena, we therefore brandish the scalpel of reason simply to tailor phenomena to our models. Human reflection, in other words, is the act of constricting the feedback loop between models and phenomena.
If I now wish to examine a specific stone type of stone with greater attention, its perfection of form and the fact that I can hold it, roll it around in my hand, makes me choose the pebble.
Furthermore, the pebble is stone at precisely that stage when it reaches the age of the person, the individual, in other words, the age of speech.
There is, in nature, nothing comparable to soap. No pebble (quoit), no stone so slippery, whose reaction in your fingers, if you have managed to hold it there while chafing it with the right dose of water, is such a voluminous, pearly slobber, consisting of so many clusters of plethoric bubbles. ... If one let’s it remain in water, on the contrary, it perishes in confusion.
Soap is a sort of stone, but not natural: sensitive, susceptible, complicated.
Soap as a stone presents itself as a conversion from purifying elements taken from “Nature” to be employed in the act of cleaning, washing, whitening. To get yourself rid of dirt is to rid yourself of evil filth—the one contemplating one’s own demise—, and to arrive at a purified, good, state.
As for foam, it is well known that it signifies luxury. To begin with, it appears to lack any usefulness; then, its abundant, easy, almost infinite proliferation allows one to suppose there is in the substance from which it issues a vigorous germ, a healthy and powerful essence, a great wealth of active elements in a small original volume. Finally, it gratifies in the consumer a tendency to imagine matter as something airy, with which contact is effected in a mode both light and vertical, which is sought after like that of happiness either in the gustatory category (foie gras, entremets, wines), in that of clothing (muslin, tulle), or that of soaps (filmstar in her bath). Foam can even be the sign of a certain spirituality, inasmuch as the spirit has the reputation of being able to make something out of nothing, a large surface of effects out of a small volume of causes (creams have a very different ‘psychoanalytical’ meaning, of a soothing kind: they suppress wrinkles, pain, smarting, etc.).
Water on the other hand, which makes everything slippery and spreads its fluidity to whatever it can encompass, sometimes manages to seduce these forms and carry them off.
Lackluster on the ground, as days is lackluster to compared to night, the moment the wave takes hold of it, it starts to shine. And though the wave works only superficially, barely penetrating the very fine, hard-packed agglomerate, the very thin though active adherence of the liquid causes a noticeable modification of its surface. As though the water were repolishing it, thus assuaging the wounds of their earlier embraces. Then for a moment, the pebble’s exterior resembles its interior; all over its body it has the sheen of youth.
There is something adorable in the personality, the character of soap; something inimitable in its behaviour.
At first a reserve, a bearing, a patience in its saucer as perfect as those of the pebble stone. But, at the same time, less roughness, less dryness. It is, certainly, obstinate, compact, self-disciplined, holding itself in check, but also amenable, attractive, polished, soft, agreeable in the hands, and scented (although not sui generis). More vulgar, perhaps, but in compensation more sociable.
Whereas the stone is more misanthropic: it seems to ignore man altogether,—soap is made for man, and does not forget him; it it no way forgets its duty.
It circulates, flees, makes a thousand affected gestures, swathes itself in veils and finally prefers to dissolve, give up the ghost, to give up the body rather than let itself be caressed, unilaterally rolled about by water.
The latter, on the contrary, conserves itself, slowly perfects itself in its very erosion.
It is, besides, the predestined form of our object (this ovoid form): because it has the virtues of flight, of success, that is of leaving the hands when it has finished being useful.
Let’s say that the particular kind of hardness (slightly malleable) and silence (like a verbal reserve), finally the sort of taciturnity it proposes to us, seem to us to be the sign of a dramatic inner conflict. In other words, that its appearance reveals a painfully achieved compromise—and, it seems, constantly regained as it is constantly lost again—between the temptation to endure, to conserve itself, to perpetuate itself, even, in an ever more perfect silence and dryness (the finished type of this perfection represented, if you like, by the stone)—and the feeling, on the other hand, that this is neither its duty nor, considered and honestly judged, its nature, its real end, which is rather that it be used, at the same time, of course, as it rejoices, enjoys,—to be used, I say, and to lose itself in its function, its service, and finally, to fulfill its usefulness.
The soap appears now in its true light, in relation to the stone. Solid, serious, austere, slightly yet tenaciously scented, it certainly experiences the temptation of turning into that stone, which may appear to it as its perfect state. But it is not at all permitted to achieve this. For it is made of oil, the basis of its qualities. Soap is a useful object. It has its qualities. It has its inner conflict, for it never forgets its duty, its destiny.
Rather than let itself be rolled about by water, like pebbles, the natural stones, it prefers to instantly melt into it.
As for the water, it remains deeply troubled, moved.
It is very difficult for it, however, to rid itself of soap, and the traces of its crime. The soap avenges itself for the humiliation it undergoes by intimately blending with the water, marrying itself to it in the most apparent way. [...] It is then, during an impressively staged ceremony, that its confusion with water takes place, and the disappearance of its form into memory. (At the same time, all memory of dirtiness dissolves.)
At this point, a new reflection occurs. It is necessary to end. The skin is puffy, although very clean. We have obtained what we wanted from the soap. And perhaps a little more even.
Hygiene, by contrast, turns out to be an excellent route, so long as we can follow it with some self-knowledge. As we know it, dirt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists only in the eye of the beholder.
If we shun dirt, it is not because of craven fear, still less dread of holy terror. Nor do our ideas about disease account for the range of our behavior in cleaning or avoiding dirt. Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment.
In a number of primitive societies religious rites are purification rites whose function is to separate this or that social, sexual, or age group from another one, by means of prohibiting a filthy, defiling element.
For I believe that ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, about and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created. In this sense I am not afraid of the charge of having made the social structure seem over-rigid.
Her analysis suggests that what constitutes the limit of the body is never merely material, but that the surface, the skin, is systemically signified by taboos and anticipated transgressions; indeed, the boundaries of the body become, within her analysis, the limits of the social per se.
Significantly, Kristeva’s discussion of abjection in Powers of Horror begins to suggest the uses of this structuralist notion of a boundary constituting taboo for the purposes of constructing a discrete subject through exclusion. The “abject” designates that which has been expelled from the body, discharged as excrement, literally rendered 'Other'.
That law is not literally internalized, but incorporated, with the consequence that bodies are produced which signify that law on and through the body;
A polluting person is always in the wrong. He has developed some wrong condition or simply crossed some line which should not have been crossed and this displacement unleashes danger for someone. Bringing pollution, unlike sorcery and witchcraft, is a capacity which men share with animals, for pollution is always set off by humans. Pollution can be committed intentionally, but intention is irrelevant to its effect—it is more likely to happen inadvertently.
This text has been put together with (small) excerpts from:
Textual contribution to Octopus of Offshoots, the 2019 Werkplaats Typografie Reader.