GeoSemantics / Learning through stones (On Victoria Jolly’s Marga: cavar adentro) / Jens Andermann

Victoria Jolly, “Marga: cavar adentro”. Parque Cultural, Valparaíso, Chile. Photograph by Benjamín Santander.

It is in mountains and deserts, according to the geographer Augustin Berque, where the lesson of the stones is best appreciated. Where the scarcity of vegetation reveals terrestrial tectonics, the cascading succession of increasingly ancient geological layers reminds us, writes Berque, “that before human history there is that of the Earth, our planet, but not only before, it is also under our feet at this very moment. It is she who sustains us, just as she is where we came from.”1 Stratigraphy is the paradoxical manifestation of a type of history that both precedes and underlies ours; a time that sustains us and at the same time exceeds us. The lesson of the stones imposes on us the presence, strange and familiar at the same time, of a movement, a rhythm, which is foreign to ours and to that of living things—not, in fact, because it is slow, as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions make it eloquently clear, but because of its cosmic dimension, one that also comprehends us without our fully comprehending it in return. And yet, we cannot help but recognize ourselves in its rhythm, in the silent score that the rocks perform all around us: it is from them, as Berque says, that we came from.

More recently, we have found in the chronostratigraphic indices the indisputable mark of our contiguousness with the stony2. As is well known, these are but the manifestations in the most recent layers of a terrestrial diary, of the sedimentation of carbon dioxide, radionuclides and the so-called technofossils (such as plastic fibers or trinitite, a novel element that emerged from the first nuclear tests in the Nevada desert), all of which account for human action as a geological force. As authors such as Jason Moore and Isabelle Stengers have reminded us, this “double interiority” also points to an inextricable connection between planetary history and capitalism.3 Yet regardless of how we think about this convergence of geology and history, it could not be more obvious that we badly need the lesson of the stones more than ever, at the same time as we seem to be turning a deaf ear to its advice as never before. Hydraulic fracturing technologies for the extraction of shale oil and gas, for instance, are advancing today to ever deeper tectonic layers, including the suboceanic and the bedrock underlying the permafrost. We continue to claim that it is possible to “enter” and “exit” the mineral realm unharmed, as if it were an inert dimension exterior to that of living organisms—as if, indeed, it were not precisely its rhythm that shelters and sustains our own. As if it were not its unfathomable depths that we have come from.

But then, how does one learn from the stone? How “visit it/ how capture its unemphatic, impersonal voice,” in the words of the great Brazilian poet João Cabral de Melo Neto, for whom the noise of stones in the bed of a river is the primary form of song. How to listen again to “the moral lesson, its cold resistance / to what flows and in flowing, is being molded”?4 There are, Cabral says (and he puts it into practice in his poem of the same name, “A educação pela pedra”, learning by the stone), two ways of accessing the lesson of the stones, or perhaps rather only one that includes two contrary movements. The first of these, “from outside to inside,” would consist of accompanying its “compact densification” to then “decypher” the “mute notebook” it hands us. The other, typical of deserts and therefore also “predidactic”, would take the reverse path, “from the inside out” carrying with it “a birthstone [that] houses the soul.” Going in and out: these are precisely the ways of accessing the stones that Victoria Jolly’s work invites us to experiment, acts that are not at all simple since they require us to reconsider (“on the spot”) what is an inside and an outside , and with respect to what or whom. Going in and out of stones, as Cabral knew, requires putting your soul into them, and therefore requires proceeding with extreme delicacy when one crosses through their hard shell.

Putting one’s soul and leaving one’s body, perhaps, since, in their solid density, the stones defy any notion of exteriority (and therefore, of interiority, of soul), in the same way that, in their mineral silence, they seem to conspire against the very idea of ​​sound, of voice, of song. And yet, it is by touching and feeling “on the palm of my hands… the undulating, unpredictable line, like that of rivers, where the blocks of rock” of Cuzco’s Allcahuasi meet, that Ernesto, the young narrator of José María Arguedas’s Los ríos profundos, begins to remember “the Quechua songs that repeat a constant, pathetic phrase: yawar mayu, river of blood; yawar unu; bloody water; puk’tik, yawar k’ocha, lake of boiling blood; yawar wek’e, tears of blood.”5 The stone calls on language to name time, to unveil and become the rhythm that pulsates beneath its apparent stillness. Its song resumes the continuity between body and community (the “rivers of blood”) and the elements of its material environment (mountain and water, also the two basic components that make up the Chinese landscape, shan-shui): “The wall was static but it boiled along all its lines and the surface was changing, like that of rivers in summer, which have a peak like this, towards the center of the flow, which is the fearsome area, the most powerful.”

Victoria Jolly, “Marga: cavar adentro”. Parque Cultural, Valparaíso, Chile. Photograph by Benjamín Santander.

To enter the stone is to access its song. Perhaps it is that repetition of “a constant pathetic phrase”, as well, resonating inside the sphere, into which Victoria invites us, and where this mobilization of lines and surfaces reemerges that are only static in appearance. The very name of the piece, in fact, already indicates its condition as an object of resonance: “marga”, in geology, designates a type of sedimentary rock, mostly calcaric (hence its whitish or grayish tone) that predominates in Mesozoic mountain formations such as the Sierra Nevada in California. One of its characteristics is resistance to erosion, as manifest in the almost vertical staggering of its cliffs when they rise from earthy lowlands or river basins, to later flatten out into plateaus crossed by abrupt karstic cracks. The valley of Marga-Marga, which gives its name to the homonymous province in the fifth Chilean region, on the other hand, would have obtained its toponym from the Kichwa etymological root meaning “light” (or, alternatively, according to information from the regional government, it might be related to the Mapudungun “malghen,” woman, for the washerwomen who bathed in the estuary also known as the Quillén river). The Diccionario del Quechua, furthermore, associates the term with the concept of “marka,” corresponding to the intermediate unit between “ayllu” and “suyo”: “marka” is the subregion or “comarca” that integrates one of the four regions of the Tawantinsuyo (from “tawa”, four, and “suyo”, nation or state), and it is where the “ayllus” or towns have their place. There is also a Greek etymology of the same name, from mαργαρίτης (margaritis), pearl.

Just as its name refers, at one and the same time, to different etymologies that assemble diverse geological and historical times and spaces, both before and after colonization and even the separation of the continents, Victoria’s stone-shell admits us into a multitude of rhythms the flow of which converges in the “most powerful, most fearful zone”: the threshold between being outside and inside, between entering and leaving. We must not fear that instant of spatiotemporal suspension but, rather, we need to let it pass through us in the instant of crossing: this is, perhaps, the lesson of the stone.

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This is part of the cluster GeoSemantics. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. Augustin Berque, El pensamiento paisajero, trad. Maysi Veuthey (Madrid: Editorial Biblioteca Nueva, 2009), 95-96.
  2. Jan Zalasiewicz, “The Extraordinary Strata of the Anthropocene,” in Environmental Humanities: Voices from the Anthropocene, ed. Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 115-131.
  3. Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (London: Verso, 2015); Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2015).
  4. João Cabral de Melo Neto, “A educação pela pedra,” in A educação pela pedra e outros poemas (Rio de Janeiro: Alfaguara, 2008), 207.
  5. José María Arguedas, Los ríos profundos (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1975), 11.