UNCIVILISATION: The Dark Mountain Network

A space for conversations in a time of global disruption

No idea if this is of relevance but here is my braindump on what Dark Mountain as a poetic project could do.

The 'post-environmentalist' Dark-Mountain manifesto contains at its heart an appeal for 'uncivilised writing'; to quote the crucial two paragraphs:

“Uncivilised writing is writing which attempts to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence. Apes who have constructed a sophisticated myth of their own importance with which to sustain their civilising project. Apes whose project has been to tame, to control, to subdue or to destroy—to civilise the forests, the deserts, the wild lands and the seas, to impose bonds on the minds of their own in order that they might feel nothing when they exploit or destroy their fellow creatures.

Against the civilising project, which has become the progenitor of ecocide, Uncivilised writing offers not a non-human perspective—we remain human and, even now, are not quite ashamed—but a perspective which sees us as one strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious procession. It offers an unblinking look at the forces among which we find ourselves. “

Writing of course is often seen as the very token of civilization, as the great measuring stick to separate the savage from the human. To argue for voluntary illiteracy to deculture ourselves back to the stone-age, as primitivist thinkers like John Zerzan have done, seems a bit drastic, but it is certainly true that literature does not need writing. Oral traditions have been able to preserve literatures worth thousands of pages down through the centuries. The imagination, intelligence and wit contained in oral traditions, like for instance in the Watunna, a creation cycle from the Orinoco, is of undisputed richness and unarguably created by civilized and ordered minds. Engineers will be of more use to the future than poets, someone quoted in reply to Dark Mountain and the worldview that equates engineering with progress, the idea that all flaws can be engineered out of existence is exactly the 'story' that should be criticized and replaced. The !Kung will never built anything like the new Heathrow terminal, say, but who is to say that living a life of affluence in the Kalahari desert is not an equal achievement? Or to quote Jerome Rothenberg: “Measure everything by the Titan rocket & the transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive people. But once the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all those people have been doing all those years with all that time on their hands”. Poetry first and engineering second, if at all.

There really is no excuse for the manifesto's howler that calls humans “highly evolved apes”. It is a biological orthodoxy that only creationists will want to argue with that all creatures are equally evolved. We humans are not on a higher plane of evolution than apes, or birds or bacteria. It is difficult, from our perspective as humans, to not think of ourselves as in some ways special. We do not know if animals are of this opinion too, but as Gary Snyder's startling inside goes: “All animals love us”, so maybe they do.

But the central point raised by the Dark-Mountain Manifesto is important; it is time to look outside the bubble, to consider our writing as an outgrowth of literature, as an outgrowth of language, as an outgrowth of communication as an outgrowth of awareness and mind from an angle that incorporates the bigger picture. We have the knowledge to do so and I like to offer my own work on PrimatePoetics as one aspect of what a near-future 'uncivilized writing' might encompass.

All beasts signal, most beasts communicate and some beasts have language. The line between communication, that uses inflexible symbols of some kind, and language, that is flexible and can be refined and redefined at will, is a difficult one. Some will argue that the distinction is hard, that it depends on the availability of grammar and that so far only humans have been proven to be able to acquire language. Others will argue that language is a continuum and that the communication of apes, parrots, whales, dolphins, coyotes and other animals has been shown to fulfil at least some criteria of language. Language does not imply spoken language, the medium is unimportant. Human sign-language are languages in their own right and possibly older than spoken language.

If non-humans have language do they have a literature as well? What are the chances? Let us not get mixed up in funny har-har about the chimpanzee novelist writing the first great-primate-novel and begin with a suitable definition of literature. The modern concept of the novel is not useful in this context. Following Gary Snyder, I like to use the definition proposed by pre-Chomsky linguist Leonard Bloomfield who said in 1933 that “Literature, whether presented in spoken form or, as is now our custom, in writing, consists of beautiful or otherwise notable utterances. “ Literature starts, with other words, with something that is worthy enough to be repeated by someone else. A nice implication of this definition is that a novel or poem unnoticed is not part of literature.

Apes are unwilling to learn a human language, but they will, if they find themselves in a situation that is free and pleasant, to make an effort to try to understand what a human is trying to say to them. And they will also, with patience and deliberation, try to make the human understand what they would like it to know. The open secret of Great Ape Language Research is that these projects are successful only when they are structured in such a way that a pidgin language of ape language can crystallize mutual understanding between the species. These under-reported pidgins are a mixture of human language, ape language spoken by humans, human language used and also perhaps uttered by apes, and artificial language created by humans. For instance, consider this quote from a paper by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Kanzi is a bonobo:

Just before we reached the Treehouse, I felt Kanzi’s body began to stiffen, and I noticed that the hair on his legs, which was all I could see of him when he was astride my shoulders, was beginning to come erect. Kanzi made a soft ‘Whuh” sound and gestured to the side of the trail. There, a short distance from my foot, was coiled a very large snake. I screamed and jumped back several feet, almost falling as Kanzi grabbed hold of my head to hang on. Kanzi’s keen eyes had enabled him to give a last-minute warning that had just come in time. I returned Kanzi to Jeannine, found a very long, sturdy stick, and proceeded to prod the snake with the stick, Kanzi produced extremely loud “Waaa” calls, as though to warn me that what I was about to do was dangerous. Each time I actually struck the snake with the stick, Kanzi felt it necessary to “Waaa” yet again. Pretty soon Jeannine and I were “Waaaing” ourselves. “Waaa” seemed to be a pretty good word for “snake”, and when it was uttered with the gusto that Kanzi mustered, the ferocity of the sound itself was almost effective enough to scare the snake away. I soon became so accustomed to giving “Waaa” barks to alert Kanzi whenever I saw a snake in the woods that I began to find myself “Waaaing” even when I was walking home alone and came across a snake.

It shows that ape-language words, if that is what they are, can enter human language. The reverse has been show to be possible too many times. The ape and human language bubbles can exchange items. The Neanderthal and human bubbles might have mixed in the past and remnants of Neanderthalese could be buried in human language. A movement of uncivilized writers might include in its program the attempt to make non-human language enter in human language and vice-versa.

Do apes at current have what it takes to be literati? Have they produced notable utterances? They certainly like stories and they do tell their own. I invite you to explore the collection of PrimatePoetics to make up your own mind. It includes, to my knowledge, the only compendium of ape-language.

The crux of PrimatePoetics is that we ourselves our apes, the third chimpanzee according to Jared Diamond. In looking at the language of the other apes we are also looking at our own language from a distance. PrimatePoetics is not just appending a new chapter, a new language, a new mind, to existing literature, it is completely upstaging the way we have organized language and literature around our Ozymandian selves. In the PrimatePoetic order human language is no longer the immobile centre of language, but just another threshold of language, another example of language amidst the countless number of languages that dot the 15-million-year-long periphery of primate language. PrimatePoetics in other words want to look at language as a primate heritage and create new literature from this insight. In comparison to the greater aims of 'uncivilized writing' that is still a modest proposal.

Views: 39

Comment by Dougald on May 16, 2010 at 18:24
Wilfried -

Thanks for posting this! I'm looking forward to exploring PrimatePoetics further. It's great to discover other projects which so clearly interweave with the threads of Dark Mountain.

You're right, of course, about 'highly-evolved apes' - it's the kind of slip which reminds me how difficult it is to escape the ways of thinking we have set out to critique. (And one of the risks of the high-decibel rhetoric we deploy in the manifesto is that you get carried away by the momentum of language, losing the precision which should have caught a howler like this.)

A few connections immediately come to mind:

- David Abrams' 'The Spell of the Sensuous' makes some remarkable arguments about the roots of language technologies in the pre-human skills of 'reading' our surroundings.

- in Classical myth, the alphabet originated in Hermes observation of the flight of cranes (Robert Graves writes about this in 'The White Goddess')

- William Golding's 'The Inheritors' is an amazing attempt at a novel written from the perspective of the last Neanderthals.

On a related subject, we were talking last night about whether animals have a sense of humour. What do you think?
Comment by Antonio Dias on May 16, 2010 at 18:43

What a wonderful post! It's refreshing to find someone already beginning with a healthy dose of perspective! I love your definition of literature as that which is worth repeating. I think this might begin to qualify some whale-song and who knows what else. language, even something we might call literature, does not have to be written, even "spoken," but might combine perceptions with physical, somatic, sound and visual reactions that compel some sort of moving communication.

I'd never heard, Diamond's characterization of us as the third chimp, but that too sounds so true.

To respond to Dougald, I know my dog has a sense of humor, it tends to be stiff, she's a bit pompous at times, but she does know funny!

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