Last Thursday was a good day at the Institute for the Humanities, one filled with the sort of excited intellectual energy that tends to accompany the beginning of a new academic year. The day was full of conversation. In the morning the UMIH Director and I discussed a variety of practical matters, as we normally do, but then this year’s Research Affiliates gathered in the office and we all went to lunch. The ensuing conversations were friendly and ranging, but one of the threads of conversation looped back and forth around the “New Materialism,” the works of Timothy Morton, and touched on Jeffrey Cohen’s book, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, and Aldo Leopold’s classic essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain.”
I remember this conversational thread so clearly because after lunch I attended a panel discussion on “‘Trumpism’ Monumental Hatred and the Historical Resistance to White Supremacy,” involving several good friends of the UMIH. We learned of the dark racial history behind Aunt Jemima pancake mix; the chilling “whitewashed” history of the so-called “father of modern gynecology,” James Marion Sims; and the often warped appropriation of medieval history by various racist right-wing groups. But the opening topic focused on the Confederate monument blasted into the face of Stone Mountain, in Georgia (pictured here).
Almost immediately my thoughts turned back to the aforementioned lunchtime conversations, and I began to make some notes under the heading, “Thinking Like Stone Mountain.” As I considered this monument of the Confederate icons Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee, my thoughts skipped back to Leopold’s efforts to “think like a mountain.” Stressing the interconnectedness of all the elements of an ecosystem, Leopold links the eradication of a mountain’s wolf population by short-sighted human hunters, to the deforestation resulting from the unchecked and insatiable herds of deer. “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf,” declares Leopold. Recalling this line I could not help wondering what Stone Mountain made of all the heated debates currently swirling around Confederate monuments like the one carved into its rock face, or all the wilfully-stupid conflation of a legitimate interest in Confederate history with reverence for the racist Confederate heritage.
And why not wonder? “[M]ountains,” Leopold says, “have a secret opinion about them.” Through such declarations he employs “a strategic anthropomorphism,” as Jeffrey Cohen puts it, to make human readers more sensitive to the ecological precarity of the world. However, Cohen believes Leopold does not press the conceptual implications of this mode of thinking far enough. A mountain is not merely a player in a human story of the interconnections and balanced stabilities achieved by diverse ecosystems. To truly think like a mountain “requires a leap from ephemeral stabilities, from the diminutive boundedness of merely human tales,” such as those surrounding Leopold’s overzealous wolf hunters, or those bound up with the sculptures of Davis, Jackson, and Lee on Stone Mountain. “In the geological frame within which mountains exist,” Cohen continues, “pinnacles rise and fall in fearsome undulations. Peaks ascend when tectonic plates push against each other, crumble as water wears granite to dust and carries to estuaries silt for the making of new rock.” Thus, thinking like a mountain extends the conceptual focus by coupling two historical agents: one, a geologic formation that, like the planet more generally, remains unsettled and enormously powerful, and the other an arrogant animal whose history and very existence can be so easily undone.
Turning this line to specifically “think like Stone Mountain” provides a convenient opportunity to similarly yoke together two of the more alarming lines of controversy surrounding the policies and world view of Trump and his ilk: (1) those to do with their broad anti-environmentalism and denial of climate change, and (2) those surrounding their unapologetically racist social politics. This yoking is conceptually valuable because it helps clarify that, while obviously separate, these two streams of controversy are underpinned by many of the same sorts of core moral, cultural, and political values. What is more, putting things in the context of lithic time in this way prompts us to fundamentally alter our perspective and, hopefully, set aside prevailing notions of human and/or racial exceptionalism; reassess our values and priorities; as well as devise a more compelling and complex view of the world and our small, but shared, place within it.
There is, of course, little that is very original or deep in this essentially observational, even amateurish discussion. But that is all right because my main point, which concerns the importance of conversation, is still well served. At its heart, this piece is interested in the important role conversation plays in developing the capacity for empathy and self-reflection. To say that today’s world is being silenced by its technologies does not exactly square with the bombardment of information that smacks us in the face on a daily basis, or the spreading epidemic of a rabid troll culture. But these technologies have, as Sherry Turkle has observed, effectively “cured us of talking,” precipitating a crisis of empathy.
To begin her case, Turkle turns to a figure typically, but mistakenly, thought of as a hermit who sought to avoid talk. In 1845, Henry David Thoreau famously “retreated” to a cabin on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. His true intention, however, was not some sort of self-imposed hermetic exile. Rather it was to live more “deliberately,” and the intended manner of that life is neatly captured in his decision to furnish his cabin with three chairs: one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society. Together these three chairs form what Turkle calls “a virtuous circle” that “links conversation to the capacity for empathy and for self-reflection.” Like Thoreau, in solitude we both find ourselves and prepare ourselves to contribute in conversation with others something meaningful and authentic. When we are secure in ourselves, it seems worth noting in these times of fear and suspicion, we do not frighten so easily. But more than that, we are able to listen differently by listening to understand rather than to respond. Consequently, we are better able to really hear what others have to say, and with that simple shift we increase our capacity for empathy and meaningful exchange.
This virtuous circle of conversation is obviously an ideal, but so what. It is an ideal worth urgently pursuing. Personally, I cannot help believing that if we could all place ourselves in a cycle of conversation—personal reflection—conversation, the closer we would all get to “thinking like mountains,” as it were, and the happier, smarter and better off we would all be.