Ploughing the Clouds

Not to be confused with the book of the same name by the same author, this is an edited transcript of the first part of the Annual Harry Smith Memorial Strange Anthropology and Ethno-Poetics Series, 1994, at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado, USA. In the past decade or so, academia has caught up a little with some of the criticisms presented here. But while some factual parts of the discussion may be qualified by recent discoveries, the general approach here, of playful multiplicity, of seriously entertaining “wild ideas” without falling prey to them, remains vitally relevant to efforts to plumb prehistory. The original lecture, and many other treasures, can be downloaded in various audio formats from the Naropa Poetics Audio Archives. With thanks to the author for attention to detail, and to Tim Hawkins and Steven Taylor at the Naropa University.

Ploughing the Clouds is a phrase I got somewhere from Irish folklore, I no longer remember where. I believe it’s sort of a metaphor for an impossibility, or a futility. In other words: It’s as hopeless as ploughing the clouds. That describes my work in theory, and in practice.

But it has another meaning to me, and that is: you can plough the clouds, you can shape the luminous and ephemeral stuff of the imagination, you can shape the air. Theres such a thing as air art, like fire art and earth art and water art. This, then, is an exercise in air art, in the airiness of theory. Everything that I say is pure hypothesis, and purely subjective. I’m saying this because there are real anthropologists in the audience, and I don’t want to be embarrassingly put into the position of defending categorical statements that I don’t even believe in, but I’m simply throwing around in an experimental fashion, to see if any sparks shoot out of those clouds.

Everything we’re going to talk about is strongly relevant to the subject of poetics, and ethno-poetics — if not in a direct sense, then in the sense of what Ed Sanders calls investigative poetics. In other words, I feel that if you’re writing poetry out of your own pure subjectivity, unless you’re Dylan Thomas it doesn’t take you very far. And to continue the Celtic comparisons, it would be better if you were sort of a Yeats. You know, someone who actually studied something; be it, in his case, alchemy or Celtic folklore, or in this case, anthropology and archaeology, and what’s come to be known as ‘ethno-history’, and various other neologisms of dubious value.

I think that poetry wants to get its hands into something, it wants to dig in the earth — and that may even be more than just a metaphor. Archaeology and related studies are, I think, extremely poetically exciting. It was always book fantasies for me, but last summer I got into a little amateur archaeology and trespassing, being chased by various gothic six-toed farmers around the cow pastures of Wisconsin, trying to see various mounds and petroglyphs and what have you. I was in a constant state of ecstasy, the whole time. The tiny little discoveries, things that we discovered that were not in any written source, were like pure flashes of LSD, straight to the cerebellum.

I strongly suggest that every poet get a sideline in something like this. I’m just offering this as an example of the way in which, once you get your hands in the dirt, once you read a few books, once you’ve looked at a few pictures and studied a few carbon datings, and so forth and so on, you have as much right to your crackpot theory as any archaeologist or anthropologist has to theirs. Generally speaking, archaeology is a science which is terrified of interpretation. Anthropology is much less guilty in this respect, but archaeology has the idea of itself as a science; and of course, it isn’t — its an art, with scientific aspects, just like any art. But there’s a kind of paranoid defensiveness on the part of archaeology as an academic and professional science, in which the wild interpretations that were given in the 19th century, which pretty much all proved to be wrong, about the past and especially about prehistory, have been such a traumatic experience for archaeology that archaeologists these days refuse to interpret. They’ll tell you they found three arrow heads, seven bones, and they were in such-and-such a relationship, and thats all. Only the most daring, or the ones with tenure, are the ones who dare to interpret, who actually dare to try to imagine what the life of prehistory could have been like.

Prehistory is of course already a loaded term. It implies that somehow we’ve evolved from a pre-historical state, when everything was inchoate and incomprehensible, and nasty and brutish and short, to a superior state of civilized awareness in which time unfolds for us in a measured and orderly way, and in which everything becomes known, or will become known. Theres an amnesiac gulf that these kinds of attitudes open up between the present and the past, which is not so alien — which is, after all, just the past of human beings, of our ancestors. There haven’t been even more than a few hundred generations since the Palaeolithic. I mean, it’s really a flyspeck of time in the eyes of the gods, and it’s not so hard to understand, in my opinion, a great deal of what was going on in prehistory. Of course, I say that as a crackpot, not as an academic.

In approaching archaeology, therefore, I believe in something which transcends ‘inter-disciplinarianism’ — which means that communications are cautiously opened between college departments. I would like to see something that might be called anti-categorializationism take the place of this inter-disciplinary timidity. I would like to see all the barriers between these disciplines broken down, or at least breached. Id like to see what one Russian critic called permeable boundaries — divisions which are kept up for the purposes of rational discourse, but which are always known to be permeable. So that anthropology can be allowed to seep into archaeology, and ethnography into ethno-history, and history into ethnography, and all the various schools of history can have their findings applied to archaeology, and all the other so-called ‘social sciences’.

This I don’t think is going to happen in the academic world, or not very soon. I do truly believe, even in the moment when I try to overcome my hostility to the whole idea of academic discipline, that we amateurs, we outsiders, do have some role to play — even if its only as annoying gadflies. The English writer John Michell, who is certainly not a professional archaeologist, has made great contributions, I think, just by being open to everything: astroarchaeology, leylines, any kind of madness. As long as you keep a kind of agnostic approach to this, and don’t become a ‘true believer’ in any of these crackpot theories, but are able to drift creatively from theory to theory, then I think that the enthusiastic amateur or obsessive amateur has a real creative role to play in forcing various academic fortresses to open a little crack in the portcullis somewhere and let in some various breaths of fresh air from other disciplines. After all, its all just humanity, you know? Its all just us, and theres no reason for these amazingly ridiculous borders which are erected: walls, fortresses, fences… Fences might make good neighbours, but I don’t think they make for good humanitarianism. And in fact Robert Frost1 was a well-known sonofabitch.

I’m going to deal with subjects which are pretty much taboo, since the 19th century — like the question of origins, for example. Origins are something that no-one wants to talk about any more. All the ‘origin theories’ — the origin of language, the origin of art, the origin of consciousness, the origin of the Indo-European people, the origin of the megaliths — where did these things or these peoples come from? What was their origin? In the 19th century when these questions were asked, origins were seen as categorical imperatives, which would exclude other origins. In other words, once you had decided, for example, that Hebrew was the origin of all languages — because God obviously spoke Hebrew — then you could take a wild child, an enfant sauvage who had been brought up by wolves in the wild, and lock him or her into a room, and record all the sounds that the child made, and say that these were all ‘Hebrew roots’. And therefore the origin of language is a divine origin, and that’s that. Categorically, that’s that.

I would like to return to the whole question of origins, which again has been dumped out of a kind of paranoia, or a disappointment in the failure of these theories to turn up hard scientific data. But instead of viewing origins as categorical imperatives — in other words, absolutes, distinct places along a line of linear thinking — I would like to construct a palimpsest of origins. Now a palimpsest, if you don’t know, is a word for an old kind of manuscript where, when paper was expensive, people used to write one way across the paper, then they’d turn the paper and write another way, across the writing. Then they’d turn the paper over and do it on the other side — and sometimes theres even more than two scripts on the same piece of paper. Sometimes old texts are erased and written over, but can still be recovered.

The ‘Agatangingos’ palimpsest from 9th-10th century Armenia (from Wikimedia Commons)

My palimpsest, I see it written on animation gels, on actual transparent sheaves of paper. I would like to take all these theories that interest me, all these stories about origins, and pile them up like a stack of animation gels. And then I’d like to hold them up to the sunlight and see where the light comes through all those blobs of black. This is a kind of cabbalistic approach, because the old Jewish cabbalists used to say that the spaces between the letters were as significant, or perhaps even more significant, than the letters themselves, because thats where the divine illumination was coming through.2

So, without making any categorical statements, without giving any origin theory a priority, without making any dogmatic statements about origins, or developments, I’d just like to keep on adding one theory to another. The French philosopher Lyotard has used the term driftwork to describe his kind of philosophy, and I also find this term very congenial. As we drift from theory to theory, maybe, at least for a moment, some illuminations will come through.

Of all the origins that were interested in, of course its the origin of consciousness which is the most fascinating. In other words, when does the animal become the human? When is it no longer instinct — if that’s what animal thought is, and of course thats a deep question in itself — when does it become self-consciousness? Not even reason, but simply awareness of self as self, as separate from all that other.

Some people would say that it’s fear of death. That once the human brain gets big enough, it begins to project thought into the future — it no longer lives for the moment. And as soon as that thought is projected, or even perception is projected, even a moment into the future, then it is possible to become aware of ones own death. And, having become aware of one’s own death, and the obvious inevitability of it, the obvious meaninglessness of it — or lets say the impossibility of its meaning — then, such thinkers of this school would say, that from that moment on self-consciousness exists, and therefore culture exists, and therefore civilization exists, and therefore the whole ball of wax. This, by the way, is somewhat related to Freudian thinking, although not precisely.

But you could also take another leaf from Freud and talk about sexuality as the origin of consciousness. Lets assume that the beasts have instinct and that humans have something more, and that something more is desire — which, again, is a projection into the future. Even when the beloved object or the desired object is absent, one desires the object, the person, the thing, whatever it might be. So passion, or sexuality, or desire then becomes the spark that brings consciousness into being.

Terence McKenna (1946-2000)

Another theory, which I like a lot, the chief proponent of which at the moment is Terence McKenna (another Irish-American bullshit artist), is that consciousness arose because of the ingestion of psychedelic plants. This sounds funny, but the more I think about it, the more I think its certainly a theory that deserves to be layered into that palimpsest along with the other theories. To look on it as exclusively true, the way Terence does, I think gets you into various kinds of conceptual difficulties. But to look on it as also true, along with other theories, that makes it to me very, very interesting, and restores its interest as a theory. So you can imagine that an early hominid, some Australopithecene, or Peking Man or Woman, or Java Man or Woman, or Homo habilis, or one of these ‘pre-human humans’, if you can think of them that way, in browsing over various plants, not knowing whether they are good or bad, accidentally ingests some psilocybin, or Fly agaric, or ergot, or some other naturally-occurring psychotropic. Of course in the New World, there are hundreds of such plants; the Old World in some ways seems strangely poor in psychotropic plants — but it’s certainly not lacking in them. I think Terence’s image is that a kick-start was needed for the human condition, that these hominids needed a boot in the ass to set them on the way to being human, whatever that was going to be, and that some mushroom supplied this kick.

George Bataille (1897-1962)

Then theres a theory that I’d like to bring in tangentially, which is the theory of Georges Bataille, who in his book Theory of Religion, and also to a certain extent in The Accursed Share, discusses the question of the origin of consciousness and of sexuality and so forth. He speaks of a hypothetical original ‘order of intimacy’. In other words, for him, at the beginning of human consciousness, there is no separation. Theres somehow consciousness without separation. So the human condition has already been reached, but there is no self-awareness in the sense of self-alienation; there’s no potential psychotic split, or abyss, that has opened up within human consciousness. And this is the stage that is referred to in every body of myth or folklore as the time when the gods walked the earth, when the animals spoke like humans… When all the orders of existence were on a single horizontal plane, and in direct communication, and you might say in ecological relation with each other.

I think that Bataille’s weak point is that he’s unable to describe or explain why this order of intimacy should be broken. What would induce the doubling of consciousness in a situation like this? This, surely, would be perfection. This would be like a permanent psychedelic state, in which one was always acting on the basis of what we might call a transcendent consciousness, which is also immanent at the same time, and involved in things, involved in the world, in nature. What is it, then, that causes what Bataille calls ‘the violence of the sacred’? Presumably, under the order of intimacy, there is no consciousness of the sacred, just as in Bali there’s no word for ‘art’. The artist is not a special kind of person, but every person is a special kind of artist. So, projecting backwards into the Palaeolithic, to the origins of humanity, wherever or whenever they may be, this also pertains. What possible shock or catastrophe could have occurred to break that original order of intimacy, and make future generations view it as a hideous chaos instead of as the Golden Age? That, and many other questions about breaks, and abysses, and separations, is what I’m proposing — and I’m not proposing to answer it with any one single simple-minded answer. I want to create a complex web of references to various theories about this moment, this tragic, catastrophic moment — which may, of course, have been extended over centuries or even millennia of time, but which appears to us in retrospect, obviously, as a moment, a crack out of which time and space, as two different things, emerge.

This also leads directly to the whole question of art and writing. In the hypothetical original order of intimacy, when the animals spoke to man and when the gods walked on the Earth, what would have been the point of art or writing? Obviously there would be no point. Just as all consciousness would perpetually be a kind of psychedelic trip or high, so all art would be life itself. It would be totally indistinguishable; not only would there be no word for it, there presumably would even be no words, as yet, at all.

But at some point in the development of the human, technê — the Greek word for technology — comes into being. And technê obviously represents the interface between my consciousness and that world out there. Now my consciousness is going to manipulate that world — it has taken that world for the object, and no longer the subject of its thought. Formerly, as Lévi-Strauss says, animals and plants are good things to think with, they are processual, they are part of a process of thinking. So if you look at ancient myth, or if you look at the paintings on the walls of the Palaeolithic caves, you see a process of thinking with the things of nature. In other words, nature is still the subject of thought, to a large extent. Afterwards, as language and art come into being, the medium, the in-between stage of technê comes into being. Now there’s something thats in-between when I grasp reality, something interposes between me and that reality. It’s no longer part of me, it’s part of some other.

Of course, this is the ‘origin’ of art. At this point one not only wishes to manipulate the world, but to create beauty in the world. Because before everything was beauty, so there was no concept of beauty. Now there’s something which is unbeautiful; inside, a psychoid split has occurred, and therefore something needs to be rectified, a balance needs to be restored. So, art comes into being, ritual comes into being The whole order of the sacred, which includes art, now comes into being.

This is the point at which we get to, say, Neanderthal man: 60,000 to 40,000 BC. They’re still arguing as to whether Neanderthal were Homo sapiens sapiens (or ‘wise, wise man’, as we like to call ourselves), or whether Neanderthal was some lost branch of evolution that didn’t make it. It’s still a mystery. Neanderthals had bigger brains than we do. If were going to talk about evolution, then were going to have to ask why these ‘primitive’ creatures actually had bigger brains. What did they need those extra brains for? Very curious.

My own poetic fancy is that they needed bigger brains because their perceptual world was so much bigger than ours; that they were still closer to this order of intimacy. And therefore the myriad things — ‘the ten thousand things’ as the Chinese say — were much more perceivable, much more perceived by them. For example, if you visit a South American tribe now you’ll find that if you walk through the jungle with them (I haven’t done this myself, but I’ve read wonderful descriptions of it), they see everything, the forest is a book for them, its a text. And you’re seeing what? A hellish green chaos of perception, out of which nothing appears to you as meaningful. So assuming that old Neanderthal was closer to that world, in a way that even our modern tribal people can no longer be, there were many, many, many more things that Neanderthal had to think with.

This is a strange way of looking at things because we feel that civilization, of course, has created the ‘many, many, many things’, and before that there was only a kind of brutal simplicity — what John Michell calls the ‘Urdummheit theory’ of humanity, that human beings were originally stupid, and only recently became clever. Which is a very, very unsatisfactory theory to me. This has to be said, as stupid as it may sound, because its still to a large extent orthodoxy within the archaeological world. When I see the burial sites, for example, of the Neanderthal — which is just about all we can recover of their culture — I don’t feel this brutal stupidity, I feel something very, very profound. Theres a wonderful dig in Iraq that Ive read about called the Cave of the Flowers, which is a Neanderthal burial where pollen analysis was made of the dust in the graves.3 I forget the name of the woman who did this, it was a brilliant thing. It was discovered that the burials had been made with heaps and heaps of flowers and herbs, piled into the grave on top of the bodies, or underneath the bodies. These plants, she was able to identify them all, and many of them turned out to be plants which are still used in Iraq in that region today as medicinal or magical plants. So here’s a cultural continuity going back to 40,000 BC which speaks directly to us, because I’ve actually lived in that part of the world and used those herbal remedies. That was a direct contact between me and the brilliance of Neanderthals.

The use of red ochre in graves already begins with Neanderthal, and continues right up to the present. Ochre is perhaps the original religious symbol. Red earth was put into the graves, perhaps to symbolise blood, that the blood is the life, perhaps to symbolise light, as in the red sunlight, but obviously having a whole complex of ‘life-like’ symbolism connected with it. And, some people would say, already indicating a belief in immortality, or a belief in the continuance of some kind of life beyond the grave.

We’ve all been taught to see writing as having begun in the late Neolithic in Mesopotamia — which is already very, very late in the story of prehistory. In fact its the end of the story, because once writing comes along and succeeds, then history begins. But the scholar Marija Gimbutas, who is a wonderful archaeologist, and Ill be referring to her work a lot, has already discovered that the early Neolithic 7th millennium, in the northern Greek, Balkan and western Anatolian regions, that the societies which she describes — in the very, very early Neolithic, far, far, far earlier than Mesopotamia or Egypt — already had developed some kind of symbological system. Of course we can’t decipher it at all, although she made some very interesting stabs at doing so. Her arguments basically lead to the conclusion that writing itself is far, far older than we believe, and in fact is prehistoric.

Alexander Marshack, another great archaeologist with a real vivid imagination, traces notation, at least, if not writing, way back into the Stone Age, even back into the Palaeolithic, on a number of objects which he has studied which had never been studied before, because they were so embarrassing and impossible to understand. They are objects which have scratches on them. They’re obviously not decorative, they’re not at all interesting to look at. Some of them are very worn, as if they’d been carried around in somebody’s pocket, or used over a long period of time. And they have little nicks, or scratches, or little marks in them. And no-one had ever asked what these things meant, until Marshack came along and suddenly saw them as a form of notation. Because, of course, according to the Urdummheit theory, these people were too stupid to do something like that. Ergo, these things were meaningless, perhaps decorative, but basically meaningless. Marshack asked if they might not be notative, and he started counting the scratch-marks, and adding them up, and seeing where they were divided. And over and over and over again he began finding numbers which related to the lunar cycle: thirties, twenty-eights, sevens, numbers like that. So he hypothesized and wrote a great deal of extremely, painstakingly careful work, to propose his theory that these were in fact the origins of calendrical mathematics. And for reasons unknown, but perhaps understandable or recoverable through ethnography, that these Palaeolithic hunters were already interested in the calendar, which was previously thought to be a Neolithic invention, dependent upon agriculture, or perhaps giving rise to agriculture, and having nothing to do with the hunting societies.

So, every origin can be pushed back; that’s the only point I’m trying to make here. All the origins can be pushed back, pushed back, pushed back. You begin, as I did, with a fascination with early classical societies, like Greece and Mesopotamia, and you start going back. Under every fact, a trapdoor opens, and drops you down, down, down into an archaeology of time. And you discover that all those layers are still present. None of this has vanished. And I’m not just talking about archaeological stratigraphy, although thats part of it. Within every consciousness there is and remains, a ‘hunter-gatherer consciousness’, or a ‘Neolithic peasant consciousness’. We are all still those people; its only been the merest, briefest time since we were those people, and in fact, secretly, we are still those people. We have links, strong links of consciousness, which connect us to those people, and which have been denied: vigorously, hysterically, rigidly denied, ever since the rise of civilization in the Fertile Crescent.

As soon as we have a mythology to look at, it’s a mythology of denial, a denial of this connection. It’s a mythology which tells us that those ancient people were chaotic and evil and bad, and that we the agriculturalists, with the priests and the kings and the storehouses full of grain, were the good guys. Those primitive tribespeople, they’re the bad guys. They are the avatars of chaos, and we are the avatars of order. History itself is founded on a total dualism, on this dichotomy, on a split which was perceived to have taken place in time. This theory has been identified with the line, ‘the life of primitive man is nasty, brutish and short’.4 This has been the point of view ever since Mesopotamia rose itself from the slime of prehistory.

And it remains the ideology of today — obviously, otherwise we, as a culture, would not still be engaged in desperately trying to wipe out every last vestige of the Palaeolithic, on one level. We heard all the ‘Eeek! Eeek!’ stories from the panel the other day about how this language is disappearing, and that tribe is disappearing; and this is not a joke, this is happening. On the other hand, we, right now, are living through what I would call a return of the Palaeolithic. By that I mean that nothing disappears, and finally now, after all these centuries, certain weights have been lifted from our consciousness. Civilisation itself has failed so miserably, in certain respects anyway, that we have regained our vision of this prehistoric past, and we’ve reinterpreted it. And now we have a new interpretation of it; thats why we have ‘neo-shamanism’, and ‘neo-paganism’, and Green philosophies, and Gaian philosophies, and ecological activism. All those kinds of forces in modern society are coming out of what I call not a return to the Palaeolithic — no-one wants to bomb themselves back to the Stone Age — but a return of the Palaeolithic.

Anyway, these dichotomies are set up: order and chaos, cultivated and wild… Saint George and the Dragon, thats a good example, which can be traced back to one of the very earliest Babylonian myths, of Tiamat and Marduk. Tiamat was the dragon, or rather the dragoness. She was the Earth Mother, her progeny were monsters, and she had to be removed from heaven by Marduk, who was the male, phallic, patriarchal god — by contrast, anyway — the warrior-priest-king god, who slaughters the female Tiamat, who’s symbolic of water and chaos and shapelessness, and cuts her up into little pieces, and out of those little pieces human beings are created. So human beings are the gobbets of carrion from the dead body of the matriarchal dragon. And human beings are created for one purpose, and one purpose only, by this act of Marduk, and that is to work for the priests and kings, to fill up the temples with grain so there will be wealth for the priests and kings. It says so! Go read it in the book, I’m not making this up. Thats what the myth says — and I take it quite literally.

A parallel Mesopotamian myth to Marduk’s slaying of Tiamat, Ninurta (right), god of law, scribes and farming, pursues the monster Anz

Saint George has pinned down dragons all over Europe. If you go and travel around Europe, from church to church, wherever there’s a church dedicated to Saint George, there’s a dragon underneath, with a lance through it, sticking it into the earth, where Saint George pinned it down. In this way the Marduk consciousness (Saint George is definitely Marduk), by pinning down these dragons, actually creates the landscape of culture. Before there was only chaos, only wilderness, only forest, only what the Cuban magicians call El Monte, the forest and mountain combined into one concept: the wildness, the out there which is not us. By slaying the representative of that otherness, which is a dragon or a snake, and pinning it down, Saint George actually creates the landscape of Europe. This is called Landnma in Icelandic: the actual emergence of cultured landscape out of nothingness, out of supposed chaos.

Of course, as I said before, its not chaos for the tribal hunter who lives inside it. The rainforest is not chaos to the Mbuti pygmies; it’s their home, it’s their text, it’s their everything. They have no concept of a cultivated space separated from this forest, no concept of an other space or an other time. They’re still living, as it were, not only in dreamtime, but in dreamspace.

But for the modern consciousness, which begins with these great Mesopotamian civilizations, they look on it as actually creating the earth. This is why, if you read the mythologies of these people, this is a process of creation — Marduk creates human beings, before that there were no human beings, there were only ‘wild monsters’ who inhabited the forest. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (this is the first epic of the human race, and if you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it) Gilgamesh was the great king, the Marduk figure in the tale. His best friend is Enkidu, who comes from the mountains — in other words, from El Monte, from the forest, from the wild place — and he is ‘an hairy man’, as the Bible says of some character or another. He’s a hairy fella, he’s sort of a Sasquatch character. He comes down out of the mountains because Gilgamesh tempts him with a woman; desire tempts him to become civilized. Then he and Gilgamesh fight a terrible battle, and afterwards they become the best of friends.

Of course, no culture could endure forever with a schizophrenic split going on all the time, this intense, rigid consciousness of fences and fencing off of space — I mean, it would be too psychotic. So there’s always a reconciliation that occurs: first a split into two, first a separation, a thesis and antithesis if you like, and then, using Hegelian terminology, a synthesis — or as I would prefer to say, a dialectical reconciliation between these terms. So the wild is absorbed into the civilised, and the power of the wild is used and understood. Sometimes it involves a contract, or a contact with the remnants of the wild people who live out in the woods. Sometimes their magic is more powerful than our magic, and if we civilized ones want to be cured of some dread disease, or put a spell on our wife, then we go to the old sorcerers of the forest, the witch who lives on the other side of the clearing.5 If you read fairytales about witches, they’re always on the other side of the clearing.

So the remnants of the wild people remain necessary, actually. Once the last indigenous tribe is erased from this Earth, if that’s going to happen, that will be the millennium; that will be the end. Because without that existent consciousness of the wild, then the existent consciousness of cultivation, of culture, will die, it will lose its root.

We’re looking at a gradual process of separation. I don’t believe that we can take one moment in time and say, ‘Ooh! That was it! Now if we could only go back before that moment…’; be it the 1960s [chuckles] or the Palaeolithic. I think theres a spectrum of moments, theres a continuity of moments, theres a chaos of moments; theres a moment that occurs over and over again. And its always a moment of separation. And the separation is always new in its terminology, new in its terms, but never new in its structure. That’s why the same old myth of the dragon slayer, the same myth is trotted out again and again — it’s still going on. If you just pick up a newspaper and see the way, oh, lets say the Arabs are depicted, the way Muslims in general are depicted in our society, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found the term snake-worshippers used at some point. They, at present, are the ‘wild other’ that were dealing with. In their own minds, of course, they’re highly civilized people. In fact, more civilized than us — but that’s another matter.

Lets say we want to identify some of these key points, or ambiguous moments of separation, when some ‘order of intimacy’ is broken, and replaced by an order of separation.

We might, for example, go back to the Ice Age. Its an interesting fact that among all the hunter-gatherer societies we can look at now, gathering is much more important than hunting. And gathering, of course, is the province of the women; hunting is the province of the men. This is almost universal. This is from a very nice collection of essays called Man the Hunter that came out in 1968.6 The finding was that gathering was much more important economically. The hunting is prestigious; the hunting is exciting, it’s adventurous, secret societies are formed around it, rituals are formed around it, religions are formed around it — as you can see if you look at the cave paintings in Europe, which are 99% depictions of animals. The figures range, amongst modern tribes from 10% hunting and 90% gathering, amongst some African tribes, to a more even balance among the Eskimos. Of course, the Eskimos are up in a part of the world where hunting would obviously be much more important than gathering, and the large part of the Eskimo diet is meat, because thats what there is to eat. I think only about 30% of Eskimo diet comes from gathering.

So we could project backwards — heres a place where ethnology could throw light on archaeology — we could project backwards to those Neanderthals as the Ice Age begins to creep up on them, the Würm glaciation, the last big ice age. Presumably they had some sort of gender-egalitarian thing going on. I like to believe this anyway; Gimbutas believes it, a lot of people believe it nowadays. That original human society (theres that word again, ‘original’) was a gender-egalitarian society. It may have been matriarchal in the strict sense of the word, that is that descent is marked through the female line, because before marriage is invented, you don’t know who the father is. So clearly, if you’re going to have any idea of kinship at all, it has to be based on the female. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there was some kind of society of huge, strong women lording it over supernumerary men. It’s much easier to see, for example, that hunting arose in prestige precisely to balance, to rectify an imbalance that would have occurred because gathering was economically so much more important, and because kinship was traced through the woman, through the female. The prestige of hunting, the cult of hunting may have been a response to that imbalance.

But then comes along the Ice Age, and the whole thing is thrown into a new imbalance: hunting, which gave itself prestige, has now become economically more important than gathering. So a terrible imbalance may have occurred in Neanderthal society; in fact, that may be why they disappeared. But the same imbalance would hold true for us, too, because we modern Homo sap sap, Cro-Magnon types emerge out of the Ice Age. Thats where we first see ourselves, emerging out of the ice. (I think thats why that frozen fella in the Alps7 has been so fascinating to everybody: everyone sees their origin in this frozen corpse.) This theory would go on to explain that men in the Ice Age achieved an unfair balance of power in society. Therefore, once the ice went away, women, who still remembered how to gather, began to really push it as a new economy; they began to say, ‘Aha! Now we’re the power.’ Gradually, this pushing of gathering, and the returning every year to sites where, say, certain wild grasses or fruits were found, and the discovery that you could re-seed those areas on purpose, this intense new activity of the women created the beginnings of agriculture. Therefore, another flip-flop takes place in human society, and once again women are on top — the famous Neolithic matriarchy, the age of ‘the Goddess’ which we now know so much about (although we may not know very much accurate data about it) comes into being.

Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994) at Newgrange in Ireland (photo CC-licensed by Michael Everson)

Marija Gimbutas’ book Civilization of the Goddess has got the most beautiful photographs of just about any book on the Neolithic. She photographed stuff that apparently no-one else dared to photograph, because it would have screwed up their theories. Endless, endless Neolithic goddesses of all kinds, overwhelming evidence — 95% of all the mobile art found in the Neolithic is statues of goddesses. Less than 5% are the little phallic consort deity of the Goddess.

And therefore, to continue with this gender war theory of human development, the end of the Neolithic brought a new technê, metals, which are apparently brought in from the east, according to Gimbutas, by the proto-Indo-Europeans, the Kurgan people — that is to say, most of us. The Indo-Aryans, whatever you want to call them, brought in bronze, and this created yet another re-balancing effect on human society. And of course, metallurgy was very magical — it involved digging into the body of Mother Earth in a much more intrusive way even than agriculture, and therefore has always been surrounded with intense taboo, and has largely been a province of men. Metallurgy changes the balance once again, and now we have the image of the great patriarchalist societies of the early Classical period: the Greeks, the Mesopotamians, the Marduk and Zeus worshippers. The Sky God people. That big, Nobodaddy, phallus / lightning-bolt in the sky. And the men take over, the King replaces the Queen, and now the Goddess is the consort of the God, not the other way around. The Neolithic Goddess survives, but she gets smaller and smaller, and more and more creepy, until finally she becomes Hecate, the witch goddess, and a principle of evil. Which goes right back again to the idea of Tiamat as feminine principle, as principle of water, being the evil, chaotic principle, while the male principle, which is of day as opposed to night, light as opposed to darkness, strength as opposed to weakness… All these mythic dichotomies come into play, and we have a new propaganda in the world: the propaganda of the Fathers, as opposed to the propaganda of the Mothers.

Well, its a very clever, neat theory, but I certainly don’t think its a categorical imperative. I’m not adopting it as dogma. For one thing, its way over-simplified, its like a Punch and Judy show. For another thing, there’s too much actual hard data in the way of it. For another thing, I just don’t like it, y’know? Even if it was true I would reject it.

However, I don’t think its useless; I don’t think its a useless theory by any means. And were I to take Gimbutas as the major representative of this theory, I would bow down to this woman. Why? Because, even though she’s a professional, she dares to have an interpretation! She actually dared to have an opinion about what things were like in prehistory, instead of just saying, ‘Well, we found eighteen figurines, of plump female figures — not goddesses, or at least we don’t know for sure, maybe it was primitive pornography, we cant be sure.’ (That’s what I call ‘the R. Crumb theory’ of the Neolithic goddess.)

At least she dared to construct a theory, and we can bounce off it. We can have a conversation now, what a relief! We’re no longer being stiff-armed by these academics who say, ‘Sorry, you don’t have any right to interpret that, because we’re experts, and even we don’t know what it means.’ I know somebody who used to work with Gimbutas, and he said that in the daytime she would be on the dig, behaving just like a good, scientific archaeologist; but at night she would take one of the plump female figures, and go back and sit in the moonlight, and listen to it, y’know? So there’s this lovely attack from both sides that she gives us: not only the scientific, but the intuitive; not only the dry, academic work in the dust — which she makes very exciting, by the way — but also that night-time intuition, the realm of, as Hesiod said, Chaos, Eros, Gaia, and Old Night.

Now we could talk about other theories, and I’m just going to come across them as I go along. What were looking for always is the break, the split, the abyss that opens up in consciousness between the old gender-egalitarian tribal setup, and the new, hierarchical, class-divided society, in which for the first time there’s surplus and scarcity. It’s a fact that the hunters may know hunger, but hunters do not know scarcity. A hunter can die of hunger, but a hunter does not die of scarcity. Scarcity and surplus, that dichotomy comes into being with agriculture. Here we come to one of my favourite books, Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins.

Marshall Sahlins (photo CC-licensed by Elkziz)

Sahlins was particularly offended, as an anthropologist, by the ‘nasty, brutish and short’ theory of ‘primitive’ ‘man’ (all those words in quotes, please), and he set out to do a statistical analysis of all the fieldwork he could gather concerning work and food-gathering among existent hunting-gathering societies. I think he found fourteen or fifteen of them. He pointed out that these are people like the Bushmen, the Pygmies, the Eskimos, who are pushed out to the margins, to the bare margins of viability in this world. I mean, we powerful, agricultural, industrial types took all the good land, and all that’s left for these folks is the tundra, the steppes, the desert or what have you. Right away, you would think that if anyone’s leading a nasty, brutish, short life, it must be these folks. So he went and collected all the data that he could about the amount of time spent in food gathering by these people. And then he compared it to another statistical analysis that he made of primitive agriculturalist societies, slash-and-burn types, and found how many hours a day they had to work. I may be getting the figures wrong, but it was something like this: hunter-gatherers average about 4.2 hours a day work (and that means a lot of them work even less than that); the primitive agriculturalists averaged about fourteen hours a day work. The larder, that is, the number of foodstuffs known to primitive hunters, he found averaged out to about two hundred different things to eat. The ‘larder’ of the agricultural societies averaged out to about twenty things. One tenth of the menu, for the agriculturalists. So the idea that agriculture came into being because human beings were tired of eating bugs, a kind of culinary explanation of the rise of agriculture, doesn’t hold true. The diet of the hunter-gatherers was far more complex, was much more of a cuisine than a mere cookery.

In fact there’s a wonderful story about anthropology that I believe I got from Sahlins. He says that there was a tribe of Australian Aborigines who appear in the original literature as very nasty, brutish and short. The ‘clue’ to this is that every year they walk over a hundred miles through the desert to get to a place where theres some fallen trees, and pry off the bark and eat these grubs. So any people that does that must really be desperate, right? Later on, another anthropologist went and actually deigned to ask the people themselves what they were doing. And they said something like this: ‘Well, we have nothing better to do at this time of year, and we love to go walkabout, we love to wander through the desert, and we get to this place… And boy, wait til you taste those witchety grubs! Mmm-mmm!’ Its like we would say, ‘I went to the Riviera and lived on caviar for a week.’

So Sahlins developed this anecdotal and statistical material into a picture of ‘Stone Age economy’, and he was able to coin the term ‘the original leisure society’ to describe this. Actually I don’t like the word leisure any more, it has too many negative connotations from TV-land. Lets think of it as ‘the original society of excess’ — of just having far more than anybody could ever want or need. If you study, lets say, the northwest Indians, the people around Washington and Oregon, or what you can recover of knowledge about the Indians who lived around the Chesapeake Bay, where they probably worked on average, I would say, about half an hour a day on food. Where do you think all that fantastic art came from amongst the northwest coast Indians? They had time, they had leisure, they had time to devote themselves to an amazing explosion, or excess of creativity. Bataille talks about this, too, in The Accursed Share. He talks about how a society which experiences excess — not scarcity, but excess — will have to blow it off in some dramatic way. For example, the potlatch would be the way in which the northwest Indians blew it off. Every once in while some rich person would say, ‘I’m going to prove myself the most generous dude in a fifty-mile radius. I’m going to give away everything!’, and hold a big party. They just spent all their time doing this until ‘we’ arrived and blew the whole scene, and finally made the whole potlatch illegal. Up until a few years ago, the potlatch was a crime, and it had to be practised underground.

I’ll leave that as just a point that you should keep in mind as I continue to talk about the Stone Age: we are not talking about the ‘nasty, brutish and short’. We are talking about a great culture, which is not yet a civilization, and therefore is very hard for us to recognise as a culture. But its a great culture, a culture of permanent excess (this is my interpretation). I think it’s an impulse we could all recognise; or at least, dream about.

The entirety of prehistory as we now understand it is a very recent discovery. It began with a few disgusted English, German and French gentlemen, who really thought that primitive things were kind of disgusting, but they didn’t have anything better to do, so they would mess around and look at these things. People like James Frazer in folklore, who actually hated all the stuff he wrote about — or at least, so he said.8 He said he thought it was evidence of Urdummheit, of how stupid people were before the British came along to correct them. Nevertheless, he ‘dabbled’ in it for twelve huge fucking volumes. So, beginning with those kinds of people, who could sort of half-see, by focusing through binoculars made out of Classical literature — and of course, the Greek classics contain innumerable clues about the so-called pre-historical period — they could begin to reach back

Bachofen,9 theres a wonderful example: contemporary and friend of Nietzsche; wrote the book on ‘mother right’; invented the whole concept of matriarchy (or re-invented it); as far as I can make out, thought that the matriarchal period was a scandal, that involved a lot of men being dominated by women, spending all their time screwing around, literally, fucking orgies, a culture of orgiasticism, is the way he saw it. He thought that the real Hellenes, the real Greeks, the real patriarchal people represented this great step forward in social evolution: to get rid of the female, to get rid of the chthonic, to get rid of the Palaeolithic, the Dragon, the Mothers, the Water… And replace it with this wonderful image of Greece as the epitome of reason, bare white stones. We forget that those temples were painted like Hindu temples, and that the statues were painted like statues in Hindu temples. Even these great Hellenes, who were so patriarchal and masculine and Platonic and everything, themselves were far closer to what we would consider wild-ass paganism than we can ever imagine. So Bachofen, burrowing back through that wild-ass paganism, recovered the matriarchy. And he thought it was awful. He was shocked. Actually, I think he had mixed feelings; sometimes he kinda liked it — how can you dislike the orgy, after all? But he couldn’t admit it, it would have been pas comme il faut in the Victorian era to admit to a nostalgia for this matriarchal orgiasticism. His work has been taken up and re-interpreted by some smart feminist students of prehistory, including Gimbutas.

I would like to shift the focus of the question now and question the origin of the state. We’ve talked about how, for millions and millions of years, human beings live in an egalitarian surplus economy. Hunting and gathering goes on for millions after millions of years, and no-one ever thinks to change it. This, of course, from the point of view of progress and evolution looks like degeneracy. However, from the sort of post-postmodern point of view, which views civilization as a mixed blessing at best, this Palaeolithic past begins to look more and more like the Golden Age. Now, politically, the kind of tribal structure that were talking about is not, and cannot be considered as ‘the state’. And in fact anthropologists and archaeologists no longer consider that there was in those days such a thing as ‘the state’. Society? Yes, of course there was society. Human society itself begins with that original moment of splitting apart, which immediately then demands its antithesis and a coming together. If you want to ask about the origins of human society, it is also in that mythical moment of falling apart, of the split, the primordial split of consciousness.

But the state is something that comes much, much later. Only a few minutes ago, really. And it arose in the form we know it now pretty much in the Neolithic — I think in the late Neolithic. If you look at a place like Çatalhöyük, which is in fact the first city in the world, as far as we know. It’s in Anatolia — Turkey — and was dug up in the late fifties or early sixties, and has still not been paid very close attention to. It turned out to be a town with streets laid out in a grid pattern, like New York.

So, now we’re faced with another mystery. What earthly reason could there have been to give up what I call ‘a million years of anarchy’ in favour of this tight-assed obsession with order? In which a few people, of course, are in a much better position than ever — the kings and priests — but most of us are beginning that long history of ‘work, consume, die’. Why? What was in it for us, fer chrissake? Why should we have ever adopted agriculture or the state? All the old evolutionists’ views, that these were steps forward, that agriculture would of course provide more food and better food, and that the state would protect people against violence… What violence? ‘Don’t ask! There’s violence out there in the forests! I can feel it!’ Why? Was this a scam? How about the ‘conspiratorial’ theory of history: an elite that bands together to enslave the rest of humanity, and constructs out of nothingness a new religion based on the idea that you are nothing but a piece of dead flesh, cut off from the primordial dragon, and that it is your duty to do nothing but slave for the priests and the king, and to fill up that storehouse with grain; to make that surplus on one hand, and that scarcity on the other. You are in the scarcity; King is in the surplus. What on Earth could have caused this?

Pierre Clastres (1934-1977)

The French anthropologist Pierre Clastres has two books which are very germane to this question. One is called Society Against the State; and the other one is the book that Clastres was working on when he unfortunately died, and didn’t finish, called The Archaeology of Violence. In these two books, Clastres puts forward a theory that society itself is a structure that is meant to resist the emergence of the state. It’s not just that people were happily bumbling along through the whole Palaeolithic and they never thought of it, they never thought, ‘Oh, we could enslave all these people and make them work for us.’ The thought occurred countless times, to countless sons-of-bitches. It probably occurred to the second Australopithecene that he could enslave the first, and make him work for him. It’s a very old idea. But it never worked.

(By the way, Clastres doesn’t give this ‘fantasy of the past’; he sticks strictly to his fieldwork among the Guarani Indians of South America. I’m making the extrapolation.)

So, Clastres sees society itself as defence against these sons-of-bitches, who come along from time to time and try to invent the state. Everybody knows this happens, you can find stories about it in mythology. We’ve always known that these potential kings and priests were around, but we’ve resisted them — apparently. Clastres looks at the tribal societies he studies, and he sees many of the social institutions in a new light, because of this theory. So he rejects Lévi-Strauss and all the earlier work, which his is in part based on, and comes to a new theory about primitive society: that it is in fact a kind of freedom machine, if I can put it that way — that’s my phrase, not his. It’s an actual mechanism for the preservation of social freedoms. And these things are very well understood, at least on the level of folklore or mythology, by the societies in question.

In his second book, The Archaeology of Violence, he began to focus in on the question of warfare. Now, Gimbutas points out that theres very little evidence of warfare all the way up through the Neolithic: there are no fortified settlements, there are no huge caches of weapons, there are very few examples of skeletons you can find that seem to have been victims of violence or murder. And if you look at so-called primitive tribes you find the same thing: theres very little evidence for organized, continual violence, that we call warfare, amongst so-called primitive people.

In fact, the last surviving example of this might be the wonderful Yanomami,10 the wildest-assed tribe in the world, I think. If you took the Hells Angels and dropped them in the jungle, and came back 5,000 years later, that would be these people! They’re really wonderful, and I really admire them. The first anthropologist who really studied them, Napoleon Chagnon, has one of the classic anecdotes of modern anthropology. As a young anthropologist he went to study these people, and they just gave him shit continually. They laughed at him, they wouldn’t answer his questions, they stole his food right in front of his face, they pushed him around, they made fun of him constantly. And he was the saddest little anthropologist in the world. One day, at the lowest point of his depression, he’s sitting in his hut, he has one can of sardines left. And the lowest guy in the pecking order of the tribe, some cripple who everybody else laughs at, comes into his tent, kicks him out of the way, and steals his last can of sardines. Its the last straw, and he loses it. He rushes after this guy, and in front of the whole tribe he starts pounding on him. ‘Give me back my sardines you sonofabitch!’ And after that, the elders of the tribe come up to him and say, ‘Gee, sorry, man — we didn’t know you were human.’

Now, warfare amongst these people is clearly not a force for centripetality, for moving in towards the centre, and towards ever more severe forms of social order. Warfare amongst folks like these is centrifugal; it just scatters every social force to the winds, it dissipates. Again, its a form of excess, it’s a form of working off that excess of Stone Age economy — this time in the form of violence. Of course it involves the expenditure of great amounts of wealth to do this: you have to raise up a troop of your friends and go and have this adventure, you have to leave your fields behind, you cant do any hunting. I mean, by their standards, its very expensive. So its a form of waste. They waste the excess in this means, through primitive warfare. It’s not a warfare which is aimed towards the creation of a state — in other words, towards the conquering and enslaving of an entire people.

It’s a dissipative warfare. It spreads itself out in every direction; and it’s really actually not that violent. One of the big problems the Plains Indian tribes faced when they first came in contact with the Europeans was that ‘counting coup’ was considered a far groovier thing to do than killing somebody. If you could take your coup stick — which was a symbolic weapon, it couldn’t be used to hurt a fly, really — and get close to one of the enemy on your pony, and touch him, in sight of everybody, you touched him and got away, leaving the guy alive, but his face is completely gone. He’s been touched. Counting coup was a far more sophisticated and really cool way for the warrior to act than to actually kill somebody, which was really messy and kind of crude. But unfortunately, the Europeans didn’t understand this, and even after they were touched with the coup stick they would go right on firing with that damn firestick, wiping out the warriors who had done the really brave thing, who had counted coup.

So this is primitive warfare. It is not, repeat not ‘war’, as civilization knows war. Clastres’ essay breaks off at the point that he died, and he promised that he was going to go on and analyze what could cause these social structures to break down and give way to the state. And I think he was going to find that origin in a breakdown of the primitive warfare structure. In that, there would come a point at which inadvertently, almost, primitive warfare would result in the conquest and enslavement of another tribe, and therefore the creation of a class structure. In order to manage that class structure, the state would have to arise.

Again, its really not explanatory, because why did that accident occur? Nevertheless, its very close to being an explanation, and its a very interesting concept.

A conclusion is of course impossible. We are still drifting amongst a plethora of origins — a delirium of origins. Conclusions are tyrannical stoppages. The State loves conclusions: dogma, unquestioned consensus, repression of floating possibilities in favour of a worldview based on anchored limitations. Any doctrine of ‘the’ origin is always a mask of death. But the rush of many origins is the breath of life.

Subtraction is death, addition is life. Freedom arises from complexity. From simplicity comes limitation, but also power. Is there power in complexity, too? We shall see.


  • Bachofen, J. J., Myth, Religion & Mother Right (selected writings). Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Bataille, Georges, The Accursed Share (3 volumes). Zone Books, 1991/1993.
  • Theory of Religion. Zone Books, 1992.
  • Chagnon, Napoleon A., Yanomamo: The Fierce People. Thomson Learning, 1996.
  • Clastres, Pierre, Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology. Zone Books, 1988.
  • Archaeology of Violence. Semiotext(e), 1994.
  • Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians. Zone Books, 1998.
  • George, Andrew (translator), The Epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin, 2003.
  • Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization. Thames & Hudson, 2001.
  • The Living Goddesses. University of California Press, 2001.
  • King, L. W. (translator), Enuma Elish: The Epic of Creation. RA Kessinger, 2004.
  • McKenna, Terence, Food of the Gods: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs & Human Evolution. Rider & Co., 1999.
  • Sahlins, Marshall, Stone Age Economics. Routledge, 2004.

Further Reading

  • Baring, Ann & Cashford, Jules, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. Arkana, 1993.
  • Knight, Chris, Blood Relations: Menstruation & the Origins of Culture. Yale University Press, 1991.
  • Lewis-Williams, David, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness & the Origins of Art. Thames & Hudson, 2004.
  • Mithen, Steven, The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion & Science. Thames & Hudson, 1996.
  • The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind & Body. Phoenix, 2006.
  • Whitmont, Edward C., Return of the Goddess. Arkana, 1987.