Dave Lordan

Dave Lordan

Dave Lordan is a Dublin-based working-class writer, educator, multimedia artist and activist. See www.davelordan.com

Culture, class and civilisation
Wednesday, 16 September 2020 09:34

Culture, class and civilisation

Published in Cultural Commentary

Dave Lordan continues his series on culture, class and civilisation

About 10,000 years ago, after 3.6 million years of the Stone Age, humanity began to slowly and stutteringly transform itself. A nomadic species made up of small egalitarian groups and surviving (or not) on the given bounty of the Earth, changed into a settled, class-based, accumulative society. It was based on agricultural surpluses, and institutional hierarchies and gross inequalities were to become a permanent feature. The domestication of certain animals such as the sheep and the goat, cultivation of high-yield grains, and improvements in food storage methods, irrigation, and farming methods and technologies, gave humanity for the first time the problem of more than enough stuff to go around - surplus - and what to do with it.

Small groups, perhaps those associated with high status tribal positions such as shamans and or hunt leaders, split off from society as a whole and seized control of the agricultural surplus and of its distribution. We don’t know whether this coup against society - the first, forced division into haves and have-nots  - succeeded the first time it was tried, or whether it was beaten back and had to be tried again and again over thousands of years before breaking through.

It may well have been the latter, but it seems from the simultaneous emergence of agriculture and class in several parts of the world with little or no contact with each other that the very existence of the potential for minority wealth-hoarding made such hoarding inevitable - such is the basis of the ongoing human tragedy. The so-called agricultural revolution, once established, rapidly spread and societies based on exploitation of people and nature took deep root across wide swathes of the planet.

The first truly sophisticated civilisations emerged a couple of thousand years after the agricultural revolution in high-yield river valleys in India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. They gave their respective hierarchies enough amassed wealth and concentrated power to rule vast areas, centred on imperial capitals such as Babylon and Thebes.

Hydraulic tyrannies

Archaeologists and anthropologists sometimes refer to these societies as 'hydraulic tyrannies', so called because the areas under cultivation, and therefore the size of potential wealth generation, were massively expanded by irrigation works, and royal prestige often depended upon how much and how well one built up such works. One of the great heroes of Chinese mythology from this time is Yu, combining the skills of an engineer and a wizard to halt and redirect the devastating annual flooding on the Yellow and Wei rivers, thus allowing settled agricultural society to prosper and expand in the Chinese heartlands.

Similarly, the ancient Egyptian macehead of the Scorpion King, roughly dated to about 3100 BC, depicts the king cutting into a ditch that is part of a grid of basin irrigation. The Sumerian God Enki was a God of water and wisdom and was reputed to have raised the City of Eridu from the surrounding watery marshes.

The new rulers needed bodies of armed men to protect their wealth, and enforce and expand their exploitative rule. They also needed to be able to offer a cosmic explanation as to why aristocracies existed and why they held privilege over all others. Warrior and priest castes thus played an essential role in the new political set-up, and their upper echelons were part of a ruling class centred round a tyrant in hereditary  (often incestous) royal families  who were often, as in the case of the pharaohs of the Egypt, portrayed as divine beings and unbeatable warriors carrying out the incontrovertible and irresistible will of the gods.

Within the Sumerian city of Uruk, the world’s oldest city, there was a large temple complex dedicated to Innana, the patron goddess of the city. The city-state's agricultural production would be “given” to her and stored at her temple. Harvested crops would then be processed (grain ground into flour, barley fermented into beer) and given back to the citizens of Uruk in equal share at regular intervals.

1 ziggurat 

Reconstruction of the ziggurat erected by King Urnamma

The head of the temple administration, the chief priest of Innana, also served as political leader, making Uruk the first of many ancient world theocracies.

Why trade when you can loot?

With control of this surplus these rulers could therefore exercise a previously unthinkable absolute power over society as a whole - deciding who got fed and who didn’t. They could provide a salary for craftsmen, warriors, and priests, therefore expanding and maintaining a ruling class interdependent with them. They could also trade the surplus with adjacent settlements for luxury goods. But why trade and parley if you can conquer and loot? The acquisitive society is also an expansionist one, and imperialist warfare has been a constant feature ever since. The story of ancient societies around the world is that of constant warfare and the rising and falling of ever more militarist city-states and empires - bloodbaths lasting thousands of years.

Human ingenuity and creativity, the foundations of which were built up over millions of years of egalitarian hominid life, was put to work above all on the arts of war. Everyone from blacksmith to poet was engaged chiefly in the maintenance of war machines and in the service of warrior elites and warrior cultural codes:

Agamemnon the lord of men was glad as he looked at them
and in words of graciousness spoke at once to Idomeneus:
“I honour you, Idomeneus, beyond the fast-mounted
Danaans whether in battle, or in any action whatever,
whether it be at the feast, when the great men of the Argives
blend in the mixing bowl the gleaming wine of the princes . . .
Rise up then to battle, be such as you claimed in time past.”
- Iliad 4.255-60 and 264

At this time too we see the emergence of a sense of humanity and nature as enemies, and of nature as something to be conquered and controlled. Thus, the economics and ideology of planetary devastation are set in motion. One of the most widespread motifs in the art of this periods is The Master of Animals, which a King or other high official is portrayed in between two wild animals which he (or occasionally she) has brought to heel.

3 taming animals

By way of such endlessly repeated representations of the superior humanity or semi-divinity of the rulers, the achievements of human labour and the common people come to be falsely viewed as the result of the efforts of the King alone, or of the Gods, whose avatar on earth was the King. Millennia later, this paradox of public consciousness found unequivocal expression in poetry:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
- Brecht, Questions From A Worker Who Reads

These were also slave societies, who looted wealth and labour-power from neighbouring societies with which they were always at war, sometimes winning, other times being defeated by a newly rising imperial power. Thus in quick succession the empires of Sumerians, Assyrians, Akkadians, and Babylonians rose and fell, each eating the other for breakfast, lunch and dinner, before being similarly eaten themselves in turn.

The fundamentals of human existence - food, shelter, protection, cohesion - were now all prerogatives and weapons of power - no longer collectively struggled for and enjoyed collectively, but fought over and accessed only in line with one’s class position.

How does culture reproduce class power?

So, what happened to art and culture generally? In the sense that we think of it, as a distinct sphere of productive activity with its own prerogatives, generating beautiful forms for the sake of contemplation and entertainment, art did not exist. The ancient Egyptian language has no word for art. Almost all art was, back then, quite useful - it served for the praise of and the reproduction of class power.

The skills and technologies needed to produce the art of the time were accessible only to skilled craftspeople, whose easy lives - relative to slaves and field-workers - were paid for by the King-God. There was no material basis for any kind of popular or oppositional art in forms that were likely to have been preserved - such things as protest songs and poems and tales that undermined or belittled the warrior class undoubtedly existed, but were firmly part of the oral tradition, which has not survived except as traces in later written traditions.

Art’s evolutionary role in forging a group identity and as the bridge between the individual and a supra-individual loyalty, does not change. But the nature of the group does change, from one which is united in a common struggle to survive, to one fragmented into classes and divided against itself, with each of the divisions having separate and competing interests. In nomadic egalitarian societies the group identity elucidated and performed by ritual and magic arts had, no matter how mystical its expression, an underlying material truth to it. Everyone was in it together. Everybody did depend upon and prosper from the efforts of everyone else. What little was held, was held in common. Now pressure arises from the minority at the top of society for the elucidation of a false consciousness around group identity that would portray social divisions as in line with a divine and unassailable cosmic order and its rulers as favoured by the Gods above all others.

Art and literature in the new dispensation become the handmaiden of ideology, chiefly through the medium of religion, and associated mythological literature. Many of the aesthetic practices built up in common over thousands of years' worth of collective ritual - techniques from music, song/poetry/chant, self-decoration, performance, dance - were appropriated by new state religions and subsumed into religious worship and observation.

This is an ‘enclosure’ of the cultural commons as unjust as later enclosures of common land. Ever since then, access to the arts and participation in the arts, literature and culture generally, have been deeply and chronically unequal. In an era when religion and politics were fundamentally complementary sets of ideas and institutions serving the same social order, the arts were the means by which this order was expressed, absorbed and reproduced in the realm of forms and ideas. For the most part, the arts did not have any separate meanings or independent existence outside of this.

One of the most important of the new Bronze Age technologies of power is writing. We know a lot about early writing thanks to fire. Writing was done by a special caste of scribes in cuneiform on clay tablets. These were stored in special rooms in palace complexes, which could contain hundreds of years’ worth of tablets. Left to their own devices, the centuries would have turned all these to dust. Thankfully, the palace complexes of the Bronze Age were prone to burning down - whether accidentally or as a result of arson or of natural disaster is a matter of debate. And in some cases, this resulted in the high temperature baking and preservation of the tablets.

Writing to account for the surplus

Writing, including all of the great written literature of the world, is actually a byproduct of accountancy, which is itself a consequence of surplus and accumulated property. Stone Age humans didn't possess much or accumulate anything much to count or keep account of. But as soon as a ruling elite seize a hold of surplus goods it becomes necessary to know exactly how much of these surplus goods they possess.

Counting beads are used for this purpose at first, turning up in all urban archaeological records from 8000BC onwards, and a simple written numbering system - scratches on clay tablets - follows soon afterwards. But as cities and empires expanded and both the number and variety of goods increase at a rapid pace, and large-scale trading relationships between cities and empires evolve, more sophisticated methods are obviously required.

Pharaohs need to know exactly what it is they are owning, buying, selling, consuming, and distributing, as well as how much. They need to know not only how many sheep they have, but also their weight and age, and their cost from a certain trader at a certain date at a certain place, and what they were sold for at a certain other place on a certain other date to a certain other trader for, so that the God-King makes a certain gross profit minus expenses of keeping them, leaving a certain net profit.

Without such detail, fraud and theft are inevitable, and accumulation and trade above a certain primitive level are impossible. Numbers alone are not capable of such detail, so a system of signs, showing ever more detail and sophistication over time - writing - is developed in order that the king or queen know the exact nature and extent of their riches.

A second advantage to writing for commanders of states and of armies is the new and vital ability to transmit precise, sealed orders and other communications, over long distances. Empire-builders needed a guaranteed method of having their dictates expressed throughout vast swathes of conquered territory, of maintaining diplomatic relations with other states, and of conducting negotiations and treaties by distance. Writing served all these novel necessities of power. An abundance of often elaborate royal seals, used to stamp official documents, testifies to the critical importance of writing to early imperialism.

A third function of the new technology of writing was the dissemination of ruling class ideology, by which I mean the set of approved narratives and sanctioned ideas that explain and justify the prevailing social order. In our day the dominant, but not exclusive, ideology of power, is, broadly speaking, a secular and deeply cynical one - capitalist realism, the notion that we have got to accept capitalism, no matter how bad it gets, because there is simply no other system for organising society. In the early days of class society, however, ideologies of power emphasised the superhuman nature of kings and the divine roots of their authority. Secular and religious worlds were intertwined. To disobey the king in any way was to draw the wrath of the gods on one, if you hadn’t been chewed up and spat out by the godlike king himself before then.

King-lists, mythological narratives, and epic poetry

Broadly speaking, three major forms of overlapping official literature emerge: chronicles in the form of king-lists, mythological narratives, and epic poetry. However, it is important to note that we do not have anything like a complete record of the written works of the Bronze and Iron Ages. Speculations are based on the available, fragmentary, if ample, evidence and subject to development and revision as new evidence arises, although the fact that writing was an elite technology used for elite purposes of mystification and domination will not alter.

Neither is it possible in the space of an essay to fully represent the riches of the literature of the ancient World. Consider, for example, that the Ancient Egyptian literary tradition lasts from around 3500 BC until around 400 AD, and included dozens of genres we do not have time to deal with here.

King-lists have the names and order of succession of monarchs, including exaggerated accounts of kingly deeds. In  general, the farther back the king is in time, the more superhuman his characteristics, with godlike founding monarchs.

The lists provided legitimacy and a sense of dynastic continuity to monarchs, as well as a form of historiography which emphasised the deeds of great men in the shaping of history. Taken as a whole, a king-list provided the present monarch with a guide to the nature and role of a monarch and what needed to be emulated and achieved to go down in history as a great king. The military prowess and the mercilessness  of kings, alongside the pointlessness of resisting them is often emphasised, as in this 400 year-old Babylonian account, rendered into modern English by the great socialist poet Carl Sandburg:

4 poem kinglist resized

Mythological narratives were comprised of the various supernatural beings and their innumerable escapades, and had the overall purpose of explaining what could not then be reasonably explained about the world given the low level of scientific knowledge. Mythology is rarely internally coherent and there are often numerous contradictory elements, indicating that the myths we have been handed down were a patchwork, stitched together out of existing oral traditions stretching back thousands of years into the Stone Age. As the oral traditions were stitched together, they were reshaped to reflect the current world and worldview.

So it is not surprising that a polity like ancient Greece, made up of hundreds of quarrelling mini-states, where dynasties rapidly rose and fell and alliances were constantly shifting, produced a mythology full of fickle and callous divinities always at war with each other and always trying to catch each other out.

Epic poems are a combination and repurposing of elements of both the king-lists and the mythological narratives. Figures from an idealised aristocratic past overcome great challenges, performing incredible deeds within lengthy and exciting narratives. These stories are often presented as historical accounts, and work as a kind of moral, political and even military instruction book on how society should be run, who should rule and who submit.

Although there are numerous epic poems produced by ancient societies all over the world, The Iliad is the best known and most influential, having survived 3000 years on the library shelves of the world’s imperialist elites, in their public schools and military academies. In part 3 of this series we will examine the Iliad - a poem which Boris Johnson can perform extended quotes from in the original ancient Greek - closely as a political document and look at its enormous contribution to the ideology and practice of class power.

We can be sure that the working people of the ancient world, neurologically and emotionally similar to ourselves, felt resentment at their treatment. They occasionally rose up in both spontaneous and organized ways, eg the Spartacus rebellion in Italy and the ancient Egyptian general strike. But even these events are only recorded by members of the 1 per cent (at most) who could read and write, who are of course opposed to them, and not from the point of view of the rebels.

Popular resistance

This is a huge problem with the historiography of the time - most of what we know about the Celts of Gaul, for example, was penned by their conqueror, Julius Caesar. However, some signs of popular life and even popular resistance survive in the literature of the ancient world. Even the Iliad contains the famous ‘Thersites’ passage, describing the first anti-war and proto-communist mutiny to appear in literature, which we will examine in detail in part 3 of this series, alongside the rebellious and anti-militarist poetry of Sappho.

In addition, the scribes of Byzantium, just like the monks of a later era, sometimes left marginal scribbled notes and verses that tell us something about popular life of the time. So let’s finish this part of the essay with an example, once again resurrected for our time by the great socialist poet Carl Sandburg.

5 Sandburg note resized

Friday, 17 July 2020 10:55

Creativity and Class

Published in Cultural Commentary

 Dave Lordan, in the first of a three part series, explores creativity, the arts and cultural activities before the development of class-based societies.

Poetry is indispensable - if only we knew what it was for.
- Jean Cocteau

Before any major hunt the women of the Baka family group will sing "yelli". This they will do in the early morning before dawn and while the men and children are in their huts. One voice starts - a beautiful, haunting melody reverberating through the trees. After a few minutes another voice joins in, then another. Each voice will sing their own repeating melody, each one with its own rhythm and cycle, and yet all of them sitting together as one song composed of magical polyphonic harmonies that carry far into the forest, blending in with the unending night-time songs of the insects. 

To paraphrase the Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk, creativity is putting things together to make new things. It is the modality by which humans shape the material world to meet their various needs and serve their various purposes. In the broadest sense then, it is similar to the Marxist conceptions of labour or work. Creativity is work and work is creativity.

The nature and conditions of work change over time and according to the dominant system of production. Factories, call centres, and now ‘working from home’ - alongside commodity production and the profit motive - are all extremely recent phenomena. For most of humanity’s time here on Earth (300000 years of Sapiens and millions more years if we include predecessor creative/labouring hominids) work (of hunting, gathering, sheltering, and tool production) was entirely dedicated to meeting basic survival needs. It was undertaken in common, and benefited all who participated. Things could not have been otherwise - in a hostile environment humans had no option but to work together on a more or less egalitarian basis to survive.

The efforts of each member of the nomadic band were required to keep all others safe and alive. No doubt petty rivalries and intra-group tensions existed, but, in the absence of significant surplus wealth for one faction to hoard, these tensions did not solidify into permanent hierarchical divisions or structural inequalities. Humans were chained to each other for good or for ill, and everything they had to do to stay alive, they had to do together.

The subset of creativity which we think of as artistic creativity evolved in this Palaeolithic context of endless struggle and scarcity and throughout the prehistoric period is also entirely dedicated to meeting the survival needs of the primal group. ‘Art’ is not in any way a distinct or indeed superior form of work to any other. Songs, for example, may have arisen as part of the work process, co-ordinating activity through call and response structures, as well as uplifting morale and increasing stamina during hard tasks and long treks.

B and R award

Cave paintings undoubtedly contributed in some way to hunting culture and activities, perhaps to magically increase the chances of hunting party success, or to conjure into being herds of large mammals during times of scarcity or declining herds, or as a way of ‘contacting’ or honouring the souls of dead animals by way of apology for killing them. The very first statues we find in the archaeological record mostly appear to be fertility or female-worshipping icons dedicated to the generative power of women and The Earth - they too were aids to reproduction and would have had no meaning or purpose outside of such putative magical aid.

Only with the emergence of class societies does art become distinct from other kinds of work and become subject, overall, to the dictates of class power, inter-imperial competition, and commodity production - against which of course many kinds of art and artist from the very beginning struggle and contradict. Only in the contexts of class and commodity does the artist eventually become a mystical figure unlike other kinds of workers, with insights and abilities inaccessible to most, interdependent not with society as a whole but with the profit motive and/or bureaucratic state patronage.

This epochal shift from the art of common purpose to mystified and commodified art can still be traced in the etymology of later ages. The Latin Creare, ancient root of the the English word Creativity, means ‘to make or to produce or to grow’ - the artist is like a farmer or craftsperson who makes socially useful things. By the late Middle Ages, however, when artists were firmly attached to aristocratic courts, the english word create had come to mean ‘form out of nothing’ and is ‘used of a divine and spiritual being’. The artist as demigod, beyond the apprehension of the commoner, aligned with and determined by those similarly heavenly things such as kings and queens and popes - and som-time later, the market.

Creation and creativity

Humans emerge from nature and consist of combined elements drawn from the natural world, in which creation and creatures exist, but not creativity. Nature is the process whereby, within geological time frames, things blindly combine with other things to make new things. The tendency of natural things is to gravitate out of chaos and towards form and equilibrium. But, due to the cosmic law of entropy, all material forms and cosmic equilibriums are temporary and subject to decay and reformation into fresh new things. In nature each creation is a temporary node in an always unfolding metamorphic chain. Thus atoms become elements, elements become stars and stars become galaxies. Tree-rats become monkeys become hominids become homo sapiens become....

Creatures, themselves new things unwittingly created by nature out of combinations of other things, create many new things out of other, pre-existing things. All of these creature-created things - consider nests, webs, burrows, anthills, hives - are purposeful and answer a direct question with regard to survival and reproduction. Some of them, from the human perspective are also beautiful and aesthetically pleasing: consider birdsong and the symphonic effect of a dawn chorus in woodland. 

But this is not creativity or work in the human sense, but blind instinct at play, however impressive it is. Animals do not know what they are doing, cannot describe or analyse what they are doing, cannot imagine in advance what they are about to do, cannot in real time alter their plans or intentions to meet new needs or changing circumstances. For sure, the designs of nests, or the hunting behaviours of hyenas, change through time and metamorphosing environments, but this is a result of chance forces operating over hundreds of thousands of generations. Creativity on the other hand, introduced to the universe by the hominid genus of which Homo Sapiens is the latest and sole surviving iteration, is not blind but visionary - working towards a goal imagined in advance. It is not accidental but intentional.

Marx puts it succinctly:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. - Capital, Vol. I, Chap. 7, Pt. 1 

Somewhere between the higher primates and the early hominids consciousness - another word for imagination, or, indeed, for language - emerges and is added to creation. Thus is creativity created and invention invented, out of which spills everything from epic poetry to poison gas, from Beethoven’s symphonies to the Big Brother household. But hundreds of thousands of years elapse in the era of creative Homo before the need arises for any of these civilised creations.

For the vast majority of the human story, our creativity has been employed to serve fundamental natural needs that are distinct in degree, but not in kind, to those of other mammals. The key difference between us and other higher animals lies in our sophisticated generation of tools. The transformation of natural objects into tools with which nature is purposefully and intentionally shaped to suit our needs is the great leap forward from nature into culture, initiated by higher primates, and refined by a metamorphic hominid succession including Erectus, Australopithecus and Neanderthal, and lately accelerated into the space age by Homo Sapiens.

Humans are no different to animals in that our primary purpose is to cheat death in the short term as individuals and in the long term as a species, to survive against each and every obstacle and threat. To succeed in this never-ending challenge, certain fundamental needs have to be constantly provided for. Food and shelter are fundamental needs without which we die. Our food sources and our shelters need to be protected from environmental threats, therefore protection is another fundamental human need. None of these needs can be met by individuals alone - only cohesive groups working together can feed, shelter, and protect both individual and group. Therefore group cohesion is also a fundamental need.


Language is the principal means by which group cohesion is achieved by humans. It tells us who we are and what we must do. It is the tool par excellence, the mother tool without which no other sophisticated tool could exist. The development of language by (at least) Neanderthals and Sapiens allowed for de-grees of collective labour and knowledge transfer previously unimaginable, enabling humans to accelerate development at an exponential speed. With the acquisition of language, humanity emerges from its pre-linguistic infancy into something like its childhood. Now all the members of a community, and all its succeeding generations can be taught the elements of hunting, cooking, shelter-building and group preservation.

This supreme tool of language allows us not only to repeat a-quired knowledge formulae, but also to build upon the already-acquired knowledge of the past by adding new layers of adaptability and innovation. Tools and techniques can be improved and new tools and techniques invented in real time for the first time. Thus, fuelled by the infinite adaptability of the word, the evolutionary processes of nature enter hyperdrive - within a geological instant the earth is cleared of forest and covered in cities and roads. Language speaks us, as the philosopher Heidegger puts it. Our societies and everything in them are created by language, our greatest creation, which creates us.

As Ernst Fischer puts it:

It was not only a question of prehistoric man believing that words were a powerful tool - they actually did increase his control over reality. Language not only made it possible to coordinate human activity in an intelligent way and to describe and transmit experience and, therefore, to improve working efficiency, it also made it possible to single out objects attaching particular words to them, thus snatching them out of the protective anonymity of nature and bringing them under man’s (sic) control. - Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, Lawrence and Wishart, 1959

Individual human beings graduate from nature to culture, from animal being to human being, through primal acts of creativity enabled by language. Each infant that (finally and after an im-mense struggle) manages to combine meaningless noises into a word, and soon after a sentence, directed at the attention and for the instruction of another human being, is demonstrating incredible genius unknown on earth for its first five billion years. The first and best poem is was and always will be Ma-Ma!

The forms of work we know as the arts emerge from nature too, and, as in all other spheres, humans repurpose the natural inheritance to suit a fundamental need of their own. In the case of the arts, this fundamental need the arts satisfy in these prehistoric times is group cohesion, both in real time (synchronically) and down through the generations (diachronically). The ritually inter-related and overlapping arts of music, song, chant, dance and poetry base their varying and modifiable rhythms and melodies on those of the human body and of the surrounding elements - the footstep, the heartbeat, the breath, the beating or crashing of the sea against the shoreline, birdsong, wind noises, mammalian mating cries, and so on.

Chants, songs and dances synchronise group activities and annihilate the alienation of the individual from the group, increasing stamina and raising morale for the urgent tasks of gathering, hunting, food preparation, shelter building, and simple manufacture of tools, weapons, clothing - keeping spirits up and minds off the pain of, for example, long treks or climbs.

A collective working process requires a coordinating working rhythm. This working rhythm is supported by a more. or less articulate unison chant...The first word-signs for working processes - chanted sounds providing a uniform rhythm for the collective - were probably, at the same time, command signals intended to arouse the collective to action (in the same way as a warning cry produces an immediate passive reaction, e.g. the flight of the herd). Thus there was power stored up in every linguistic means of expression - power over both man and nature. - Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, Lawrence and Wishart, 1959

Songs and chants retain this original group cohesion purpose into the modern era, most obviously in hard manual work and military settings - think of the worksongs of African-American Slaves, such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Think of the marching songs common to all infantries. The primeval structure of the participatory, unifying chant - call and response - is also fossilised in the verse chorus structure of most songs, in religious ceremonies such as the Catholic mass, in some participatory live poetry cultures in the Middle East, and so on.

Scottish Island women ‘Walking The Tweed’ while singing an old  worksong. 

The story has a different original purpose, which is present in the role stories play in the lives of infant humans today. Those of us who are lucky enough to have been born into a situation of love and care will universally have been told our first story by a guardian who is trying to calm us down at bedtime, to assuage our abandonment anxiety, to put us to sleep. This will be the case whether we are born in Tokyo or Tipperary, Timbuktu or Toronto.

The story, in other words, is a natural tranquilliser - Valium in a wordy form. For this original purpose, its content is far less important than its form - the pre-linguistic infant has no idea what any of the story means, it’s simply that the presence of familiar, uninterrupted voice-in-flow is calming and reassuring. Nonsense rhymes exist because sense is not a requirement for the job they are doing.

In a hostile natural environment, as darkness fell and the presence of potential predators in the surrounding landscape is felt more keenly and more terrifyingly with every passing instant, the enunciation of a story by a leading tribe member calms and reassures, allowing children and others to relax into a night’s shut-eye knowing someone is awake and keeping guard:

And then that sweet, heart-piercing melody
He drew out from the rigid-seeming lyre,
And made the circle round the winter fire
More like to heaven than gardens of the May.
So many a heavy thought he chased away

- William Morris, The Earthly Paradise, 1881)

All of the arts share this distractive and soothing function in common. Participation in them - and everyone in the primal group participated - requires all our individual attention, or, to put it scientifically, uses up all our neurological capacity. When we are immersed in singing, dancing, music-making and so on, our individual worries recede and we feel connected to and part of something greater than ourselves.

Primal societies viewed this something greater as divine or ancestral in nature, and accessed it through total collective immersion in ritual practices. The closest a contemporary human can come to such totally immersive collective rituals, which likely varied in scale from band-size - a couple of dozen - to far larger events at intertribal gatherings, is the way we might feel while dancing intoxicatedly at a rave, especially an ‘illegal’ outdoor one, our minds emptied of anything but the overwhelming music and our bodies locked into the collective rhythm provided by the bass. But anytime we escape into a film or a book we get an echo of the ancient immersion. Our minds are primed by evolution to take the escape routes offered to us by artistic experience, which all ultimately derives from these Palaeolithic rituals within which artistic practices originally evolved and were put to work for the collective good.

Many artists refer to the totally immersive and mentally/spiritually rewarding nature of creativity in one way or another. Composer Galen Mac Cába writes in the Irish Times that “composition is addictive. When a composer earns that feeling once, he or she wants to repeat it.” 

How often do we hear rock bands talk of ‘the chemistry’ between them? The more we do art - once we find an art that suits us, be it make-up artistry, origami, poetry, or whatever - the more we want to do it. Again, this is because our creativity is an embodied adaptive ability which develops in humans in response to basic, pressing survival needs of small nomadic groups. It is a development on the higher level of human consciousness of adaptive capacities present in the animal order.

‘Early’ or as I prefer to say ‘classic’ humans lived at more or less constant threat of annihilation. They had to rely completely on their own resources, their own ability to adapt and overcome. Their greatest resource was their own creativity i.e the ability to quickly generate ideas that can help overcome environmental challenges and lead to group survival.

Creativity and health

Creativity gives us an evolutionary advantage, and therefore becomes a species trait hardwired into our DNA. Over time, due to natural selection, the pleasure circuit associated with creativity becomes an internal chemical reward system. The brain encour-ages us to be creative by combining a boost to our arousal levels and our goal-oriented concentration with a reduction in inhibition. When we are being creative and enjoying it we feel happy, engaged, relaxed, immersed. When we finish a creative project to the best of our ability, we feel a a sense of pride and achievement. Because of its origins in evolutionary struggle and overcoming we receive a positive and productive high from engaging in creativity. This is the origin of what is referred to in the psychology of creativity by theorists such as the Bolshevik Vygotsky as the flow state:

the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. in essence, flow is character-ized by complete absorption in what one does.

While we are involved in the flow of creativity we forget our troubles. This is because being creative, a marshalling of all our internal forces for the purposes of group cohesion and or immediate survival needs, takes so much focus that it prevents us from thinking about or acting upon anything but the creative task before us. Then we get an organic chemical reward when our creative efforts are judged a success - echoing the ancient feelings of relief when our creative efforts enabled us to ward off an animal attack or erect a shelter that protected us from dangerous weather or produce a tool which enabled quicker skinning of animal carcases.

All of this explains why creativity is such a powerful healing tool, being the evolved capacity that kept and keeps us alive as it enables us to pro-actively shape our environment with our survival and satisfaction in mind. The individual mental health benefits to creativity are obvious, and are the reason why arts-in-health is such an important and expanding part of contemporary arts practice, one that every socialist should support.

Primal groups needed to respond quickly to all manner of situations, and they needed healthy, upbeat, connected and communally minded individuals - otherwise group cohesion broke down and, well, everyone died. That is why we have creativity and why the arts have therefore played and will continue to play an irreplaceable role in the communal health and prospects for survival of any human group struggling to survive in a hostile world - the vast majority of us.

Creativity, cohesion and solidarity

We have dealt with the synchronising role the arts played in group cohesion during the Palaeolithic period. But what about the role played by the arts in maintaining group cohesion across time, down through the generations? This, if anything, is even more vital, even more obvious. For knowledge to travel efficiently through long distances of time, humanity invented the time machine of poetry.

When the racist imperialist John Milton wrote in the introduction to his great blank verse poem Paradise Lost that ‘rhyme is the relic of a barbarous age’ he was inadvertently alerting us to the effect that formal elements of art are determined by the needs, structures, and capacities of the era in which they emerge.

In Milton’s day, now that the printing press had been invented and the age of mechanical reproduction had begun, poetry could potentially dispense with any formal elements whose primary purpose was the aiding of human memory for real recall - thus Milton dispenses with end-rhyme and makes such a fuss about it.

Yet poetry remains fundamentally and originally the art of collective remembrance through oral recall. Most of the formal apparatus with which we still generally associate poetry even half a millennium post-printing press - rhyme, alliteration, assonance, regularity of metre and verse structure, choric and trope repetition and much much more - are techniques invented by ‘illiterate’ and ‘barbaric’ peoples thousands of generations ago which modern poets have in no way managed to supersede.

Before the internet, before the phonograph, before the book, before papyrus and vellum, long before even ogham and runes, the oral artform of poetry, imprinted upon nature’s greatest recording device, the human brain, was the ark and fount of all useful knowledge - the original knowledge store or ‘cloud’.

Oral traditions and lyric poetry

In terms of efficiency and suitability to the task at hand - remembering what’s important to survive - oral poetry/song surpasses books or the internet. The oral traditions of the San People of South Africa and of Indigenous Australians, for example, have been proven to accurately recall events from up to 25000 years ago. Throughout such cosmic lengths of time, the members of such hunter-gatherer communities could rely on poetic recall for every manner of information, but especially for practical information such as how and where to find food and water in a desert, or even how to navigate at night:

“The sounds of the environment can be conveyed very easily in song. As any birdwatcher will know, trying to identify bird so, from a writ-ten description in a field guide is close to impossible. By encoding the call of birds in song, a particular bird can be identified. Accurate iden-tification of the birdsong can often mean the difference between life and death The aquatic diving bird, known as loons or divers, have a pierc-ing call which is used to detect land when a sailor is lost at sea by the Tlingit and Inuit, as no doubt it will have been by other cultures across its wide northern range. The red throated loon (Goviastellata), for ex-ample. is a fairly non-descript bird, espe-cially without its red breeding plumage, but its call is distinctive and this warrants its significant role in oral tradition. Being lost at sea at nightfall in the cold northern cli-mate, in weather conditions which block visibility to land-marks or stars, can be fatal. Loons, unlike many other aquatic birds, reliably re-turn to land each night. Survival can depend on being able to identify the call of the loon among all the bird calls at sea, in order to follow that call to land. Songs encode the call, and are the best way to constantly reinforce the sound into memory. “
- Kelly, L. (2015). Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

The poetry that we are in general used to encountering today is called lyric poetry, and is usually to do with expressing individual feelings, opinions, and experiences, with only a tangential re-ation to collective purpose or identity. The oft-remarked tendency towards obscure, self-referential, exclusive language in much contemporary poetry is a symptom of this fatal break with collective relevance and purpose - an analogue in the cultural realm to the ‘metabolic rift’ with which the birth of class society and settled urbanity broke the human race away from a direct and organic link to the natural world. Referring to the encoded eli-ism of much of contemporary poetry, Adrian Mitchell quipped ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most peo-ple’.

The poets of earlier ages could not afford to be misunderstood or only understood by code-talking academic networks. On the contrary, they had to recite in a language and with a method that everyone could understand. So at the dawn of historical record during the bronze age, what we find emerging from prehistory are often very long poems, containing everything from thousand-generation genealogies to entire mythological cycles to encyclopaedias of natural medicine. Poets were capable of extreme acts of recall, right up until the early modern era.

It is thought, for example, that the Iliad took three days to perform in its entirety, and many societies have similar lengthy epic poems that are central to their culture and which were widely performed at everything from royal courts to cattle fairs. Epic performers probably adapted their performances to suit the tastes and needs of different audiences, so that epics could be entertainments for the people as much as flattery for the noble warriors and lords who populate them.

The poet-ritualist in prehistoric societies was therefore a very important figure upon whom the memory, identity, and spiritual well-being of the group depended. They were composite figures who were also healers and shamans, looking after the mind, body, and soul of the small group of which they were an integral part and apart from which they had no separate motives or interests.

Poetry, song, music, performance, self-decoration: all of these early arts combine into ritual and magic ceremonies in which the identity of the tribe is performed and remembered, and spells are cast to protect the tribe from predators, increase hunting success, guarantee food supply. The rudiments of science, religion, and political ideology, before these split into different modes of knowing and doing, can all be deduced from early artistic practices.

In these societies preceding class and commodity production, in which all the fundaments of human being and artistic form and function evolved in tandem with each other, arts and the artist were part of a seamless flow of communal living. This was all smashed to smithereens by the asteroidal impact of the rise of class-based societies.

In the next article in this series we will discuss the appropriation of age-old commonly held artistic techniques by the new elites and the repurposing of the arts as instruments of class rule back at the dawn of ‘civilisation’ in Sumeria, Egypt and elsewhere. In part three, we will look at how this appropriation was resisted and questioned from the very beginning, and tell the story of Thersites, literature’s first communist.