‘MY METEORITE’ – Mat Paskins

RESPONSE # 4  Mat Paskins


It lives in the Rock Room in the pre-Cambrian cabinet. The petro rocks are locked in drawers and the rock room offers deep history as well as a language to describe the rocks. It lives there in its cabinet and, I’m told, geologists like testing it. William Ramsey, who found helium and argon in meteorites, once had a go. It is a cut sheet, has an eye that is no seeing eye on its left side, and it’s banded as with basket-weave. I imagine some solemn voice speaking, from the Rock Room cabinet this is where it all began.


My meteorite was found by an enslaved man named Alf in 1858 or 59, on Robert Van Lear’s land in Augusta County, Virginia. Alf tried to sell it in Staunton, but found no takers, so it was used for a fence instead. I’d imagined it wrong: I thought the chunk of metal I’ve seen, with its buttonhole on one side and the tweed striations was the whole thing Alf found: but, no, it was cut from a rock of 69 kilos. And rediscovered then by a man named MA Miller. In 1877 it was sold to Ward’s natural history establishment.


In November 1859 BS Brooke, a chatty resident from Augusta county, wrote “My dear friend” – and went on “I have nothing of importance to communicate the times seem hard, money scarce” – and went on “Stevens has been handed over to the U.S. authorities and will doubtless be tried in Staunton” –  and then went on “Many persons are selling, and sending, their negros to the South.” Another Augusta letter, from 1852, begins: “I write you a letter to let you know of my distress my master has sold albert to a trader on Monday court day and myself and other child


is for sale also and I want to you let hear from you very soon before next cort if you can I dont know when I dont want you to wait till Christmas I want you to tell dr Hamelton or your master if either will buy me they can attend to it know and then I can go after wards I dont want a trader to get me they asked me if I had got any person to buy me and I told them no they took me to the court houste too & they never put me up


a man buy the name of brady bought albert and is gone I dont kow whare” – the writer’s name was Maria Perkins — “they say he lives in Scottesville my things is in several places some is in staunton and if I should be sold I dont kow what will become of them”.[1] The historian Christopher Hagen remarks that “nothing is known about Maria Perkins’s life or the surrounding influences that may have shaped her act of writing”.[2] Her letter survived because of a collector of papers named George Armentrout, who kept it in a sack, with 25,000 other documents.


The original description of my meteorite was drawn from the American Journal of Science, volume 3, for 1878: “After lying neglected for some years it was put with other loose material into a stone wall. Its great weight and irregular shape caused it to fall out of the wall, and it was then used for some time as an anvil. Afterwards it was built into the curbing of a cistern. Here, during the summer of 1877, it was noticed by Mr M.A. Miller, of Staunton, who obtained it, and then disposed of it to Ward and Howell, of Rochester”.[3]


1878 is 13 years after the end of the American civil war.  Henry A. Ward opened his natural science establishment in 1862, during the War, in Rochester, New York: it contains 22 folders of descriptions of meteorites. He was the world’s ‘greatest collector of meteorites’, and a correspondent of the Circus Impresario PT Barnum. He was charming, a raconteur, not motivated solely by profit. He was a scientific traveller, a ‘rescuer’ of meteorites, from Santa Rosa in Colombia and Veramin in Persia and Barcubito in Mexico. Those meteorites were not used for fences; or, I do not think they were.[4]


Augusta County is the subject of a study by the historians William G. Thomas III and Edward Ayers, entitled “The Differences Slavery made”, which compares it with Franklin County, Philadelphia. [5]

These two near places become ‘north’ and ‘south’.  Both possessed  “rich soil, abundant water, and mild weather, both places grew vast quantities of grain, sustained towns, and depended on railroads that came into their counties.” They conclude that “[r]ather than a fight of modernity against slavery, the American Civil War could be seen as a fight between variants of modernity, not as the inevitable clash of the future against past.”[6]


How much of this maps to the rock room? Or, to put that in another way, how far should this history claim to be about the material – the artefact – my meteorite, which William Ramsay sought to know? Alf had no myth about the meteor, or none we can recover, is a name which follows it around, but which also designates the human hands through which it passed – which were on other business. Are we to unbind the xeno-metal from such phases, when it could not even be sold, had not been rescued; which were no part of its history?


I am tempted to side-step the history. It’s hard work, and I don’t want to go on an aeroplane. I could write a sequence of 100 blocks of 100 words and describe the meteorite’s various owners, what they might have thought, how it slipped into their days, panicked paratactic lyrics. The voice from the Rock Room says, Tell them how it all began. Remember ages of metallic time elapsed before it was found. The voice from the Rock Room sounds like Carl Sagan, wants to tell you we’re stardust, is not wrong; but there is so much more than that.


The geographer Ian Cook wants his student to reflect on the critical impact which their interaction with things and technologies has upon their lives, and so asks them to keep diaries. In the diaries, the students talk about the control which their alarm clocks have over them, and the make-up they use to wear another face. The word ‘cyborg’ is thrown around. I hope that Ian Cook’s students’ journals are the only thing which survives of the present time, and future historians note their many distresses, dresses, snooze-button presses, and analyse their sense of their own intersecting and emergent selves.


In some of modes, post-humanism names the wish for the human to be “one life form among many”; that is, to relinquish dominion, be de-centred, recognise the claims of other beings, and the lively interaction with our tools and machines. It feeds on  “biotethics, cognitive science, animal ethics, gender and disability [sic?].”[7]  It argues that “[m]astery through the exercise of autonomous will is merely the story consciousness tells itself to explain results that actually come about through chaotic dynamics and emergent structures”. We do not need to be sovereign, are the gas which thuds and chuckles in its pipes.


“If there is a relation among the desire for mastery, an objectivist account of science, and the imperialist project of subduing nature, then the posthuman offers resources for the construction of another kind of account.” If I have an objection to this way of writing – I do – it is something like this. If there is a relation like this, how will we know what we have lost? If “distributed cognition replaces autonomous will” what is turned towards remorse, what then will say “my eyes have seen what hands did”?[8] Who woke crying in the night? Whose things were scattered everywhere?


At Junior Meeting, when I was a teenager, Kevin Bailes, an anti-slavery activist asked us what we thought human rights were. Rash and self-righteous I said “they’re everything that makes us human” – “we’re still human if we lose all that.” That stayed with me. I don’t know how these theorists account for legal title, the artificial doubling from which persons are made. Do their maps of solidarity move beyond the categories, with which people have understood their status, in history? One thing which defined a servant in the English Eighteenth Century was that she knew she was not a slave.[9]

[2] Christopher Hager, Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing, p. ##, which also offers a close reading of Perkins’ letter.

[3] http://digitallibrary.amnh.org/dspace/bitstream/handle/2246/811/v2/dspace/ingest/pdfSource/bul/B008a08.pdf?sequence=1  “Described by JW Mallett Am. Jour. Sci, III, sx, p. 337, 1878, whence the above-given account was taken

[4] Oliver C. Farrington, “Professor Henry A. Ward”, Science , New Series, Vol. 24, No. 605 (Aug. 3, 1906) , pp. 153-154. The Ward archive is here: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=918

[5] William G. Thomas, III and Edward L. Ayers, “An Overview: The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities”, The American Historical Review , Vol. 108, No. 5 (December 2003) , pp. 1299-1307

[8] Robert Lowell, “Dolphin”

[9] Carolyn Steedman, Labours Lost


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s