Architects and Bees
On ‘The Ark in Space’.
“And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” – Genesis, 3:7, KJV
“…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.” – Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.1
“I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars…” – Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, 22nd May 1860
As I’ve said before, I think SF is fundamentally the reiteration of mythology in the idioms of modernity, particularly the age of science and technology brought in by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and their legacies. Christian stories of creation and apocalypse are probably the most important mythological narratives reiterated by SF because the genre originated in the West, and is fundamentally concerned with the implications of the modern epoch which began in Western Europe. But there’s more to it than that. There is a deep link between Christianity and the experience of the rise of technological modernity. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. You don’t need to buy Weber’s bass-ackwards, cart-before-horse notion of capitalism born from Protestantism to see the connections.
The Eden story is about the end of one way of life and the start of a new one. It is about the expulsion of humanity from pre-History into History. It tells this tale twice, on two tracks.
Contained in Genesis, right at the start, there is the garden. The garden we had to leave because we acquired knowledge. In the book, the knowledge is of good and evil, and consequently of pain and death. It is the moment of our emergence from the animal world of sensation into the human world of consciousness. Animals, after all, do not ‘know’ that they will die. That is the curse of the conscious. Here, in the first book of the Bible that the literalists so abuse by their crass slavishness, is a Darwinian acknowledgement of the emergence of the human mind from the blurry thoughtworld of the beasts. The near-immediate legacy of Adam and Eve’s little picnic is the creation of the tool.
It is almost as though Genesis contains an ancestral memory of how the use of tools drove the rise of the big brain, which in turn powered the biological emergence of humanity. It also seems to ‘remember’ the role of language in the creation of consciousness, and the role of consciousness in the adaptation of the environment to our needs.
In Genesis, the deadly tools, the tools that see us kicked out of our idyllic biological pre-History, are the words with which to conceptualise ourselves, with which to become self-conscious and conscious of the other human selves outside us.
But this is the primal track of the text, its dimension of ‘natural history’. The social-historical track tells of the a much later development: the rise of agriculture and, with it, of settled society with class and organised production.
There is, then, a subversion of the entire infrastructure of ‘actually existing Christianity’ (with all its hierarchies and commands and temples of glittering swag) hidden at its very start. The garden is always there. It lurks in all our minds. The eternal feeling that life should be easier, fairer, better. That we were meant for more than drudgery and submission. That those who say otherwise – including all those priests who tell us that it’s natural and good that the surplus be concentrated in the hands of a few – are forgetting the garden.
Auden said that humanity may be divided into ‘Arcadians’, who locate happiness in the past, and ‘Utopians’, who see it in the future. Just as Marxism is the only philosophy that sees barbarism and progress proceeding inextricably together (to the point where they are, up to now, essentially the same thing), so it is also the only philosophy that is materially and literally both Arcadian and Utopian at once, in that it sees the classless future prefigured in the classless pre-History. Christianity accomplishes the same feat – with its two elided and yet opposed Paradises, Eden and Heaven, one the arche to the other’s telos – but it manages this by cheating and locating the Paradise of the future in an afterlife (though it is by no means certain that Jesus thought this way… he seems to have looked forward to an imminent ‘Kingdom of God’ on Earth, revolutionary that he was).
But, as Marx put it, the difference between the worst architect and the best bee is that the architect sees the structure in his mind before he builds it. He imagines it in the future and then sets about trying to create it in the present. This is the difference between humans and animals, and it represents the evolutionary leap forward that the Wirrn want to make. They want to have their own Genesis. They seek their own expulsion from Eden. They want to eat the apple. It just so happens that, for them, the apple is us. They will achieve knowledge of good and evil, of death, by becoming evil, by becoming death. They will absorb our knowledge, just as Adam and Eve absorbed knowledge in the flesh of the apple.
This is how I see this story: as science-fiction in the full politico-mythic mode. SF as myth reiteration in the age of science and technology, especially in the capitalist age of uneven and combined development, the age of high technological societies interacting with pre-modern ones, the age of Bronze Age religious traditions that persist even amidst skyscrapers, the age of miraculous science but also of hierarchies essentially still like those that first arose with class society upon the invention of agriculture, thousands of years ago. This is a retelling of various aspects of the Christian mythic system, recoded to tell us about evolution and technology, about hierarchy and even imperialism, about technological society and religion… and the interactions between them.
Capitalism is much submerged in this story, but it’s in there, implicitly. There is little literal and explicit capitalism in evidence; certainly no commodities or anything like that… though there is a hint of economic relationships and class struggle in what Rogin says about “the space technician’s union”.
There’s also the matter of the elision of “virtue” and “value”. At first, there seems to be a contradiction, but this forgets that we imbue certain persons or ideas with ‘virtue’ in a social context, and so virtue tracks back to usefulness. We are always ready to assign moral weakness to those who fail to ‘do their part’. Obligation is the key concept here. Failing in your obligations to others, or failing to take on obligations at all, is a sure way to invite disapproval. Vira’s rueful contempt in response to Harry’s ethics (i.e. human beings are of intrinsic value, simply by existing) tells of her moral judgements.
This is a symptom of commodity fetishism, the trait of capitalism that sees humans treated as commodities and commodities ascribed human characteristics (you know… the way we talk accurately of a “labour market” while talking about the stock exchange like it’s alive). The capitalism is implicit because the story is set in a high technological world that is manifestly not a post-hierarchy or post-religion or post-labour society. The age of science and technology (at least at this level) is, inherently, the age of capitalism. Only the capitalist mode has (so far) unleashed and developed the productive relations and forces of human society to the point of sequencing genomes and sending probes beyond the solar system… while also creating extremes of wealth and poverty (i.e. hierarchy) previously unimaginable, while mass producing weapons (i.e. technological products/commodities) that are literally capable of bringing global armageddon (which is a modern concept we all understand, expressed in a Biblical word).
The poor are always with us (as long as we have the rich; poverty being a necessary condition and by-product of wealth) and they’re still with the Arkers. There’s a clear hint that the people on the Ark are an elite in the way they look down upon the Doctor and Co. as “regressives” and obsess over their sinister genetic targets.
Also, the story about how the humans invaded and decimated the Wirrn colonies in Andromeda speaks of imperialism, the kind of genocidal capitalist imperialism that decimated the Native Americans, that organised the scramble for Africa and the various African holocausts of the colonial era, that provided the trains and assembly line principles and punch card filing systems and modern demographics that were prerequisites for the Nazi holocaust. Even if we choose not to see the original Wirrn who were subject to this assault as sentient, we can still see in their fate the echo of a thousand species bulldozed into extinction as capitalism tears its way through the natural world. The dodo was wiped out by sailors and their cats… sailors who came on trade ships.
The Doctor’s “homo sapiens” speech expresses an evolutionary rather than a moral view of human success. Trouble is, this view of people can be linked to aggression, colonisation and competition. This is the society of the Ark, despite their official ideology being religiose and sentimental and speciously inclusive (as is ours, even as we bomb people). Just as we talk the talk about tolerance and liberalism while smashing other cultures and nations, so the Arkers have a double standard. The Wirrn represent the return of the repressed (in true Gothic style) but also the return of the oppressed. Their history exposes the double standard of the aggressive, hierarchical, compartmentalised society of the Ark by confronting it with its own values, now espoused by its victims. You smashed us, now we come to smash you. You colonised and settled our worlds (the human imperialists are even referred to by Vira as “pioneers”) so now we come to settle your world and colonise your planet… and your bodies and minds and cultural knowledge! Moreover, the Wirrn began as peaceful and non-threatening to humans, laying their eggs inside “senseless herbivores”. It takes the experience of being invaded, colonised, slaughtered and ethnically cleansed to turn them into aggressors. The Native Americans really did scalp people in the West… they learned the habit, previously unknown in the “New World”, from the Spanish.
Some people see hierarchy, imperialism and genocide as evidence of man’s fallen nature; original sin or “the lowly stamp of our origins”, depending on the perspective. Either way, the human capacity to struggle and build and survive is part of our nature. But we don’t have total control over our context. We confront the world as we find it. And our ideas stem from our social position and relationships. In a class society, the ideas of the ruling class have hegemony. In a theocratic, hierarchical, imperialist society… well, I’m sure you get the gist.
The Doctor is just as optimistic about humanity as the High Minister, but whereas her optimism is religiose and sentimental (and deeply hypocritical, it would seem), the Doctor’s is secular and, as we will see, has little to do with facile admiration of “human love and faith”. Parts of the Doctor’s optimism are actually misplaced; instead of “all colours” and “all creeds”, “their differences finally forgotten”, we are presented with a culture with one state faith, with a bunch of white Westerners who think within their pre-set social functions and obsess over genetic targets, with people from a culture that at least sanctions racist imperialism and conquest of the worlds of other species. The Doctor respects and admires the human talent for survival, their inventiveness, their refusal to be conquered by natural disaster. He uses the words “invincible” and “indomitable”. He admires the evolutionary genius. He admires the technological brilliance. He admires the ability to struggle and fight and win. Now, as a complex of ideas, this suggests a particular type of ideology: something like the cruder liberal/libertarian version of sociobiology. Evolution shaped us to be winners… nowadays, this manifests itself as rugged individualism, enterprise, initiative and other such bourgeois virtues (values)… and the downside is that we still carry the brutish, xenophobic, leader-worshipping, female-oppressing, spear-chucking genes that cause us no end of trouble.
The presence, in this story, of a sub-theme about evolutionary progress and evolutionary war (with two species fighting over the same territorial and cultural niche) makes it possible to connect the imperialist behaviour of the “star pioneers” to some innate human truculence and xenophobia that stems from the evolutionary past. The story suggests that the aggressive expansionism stems from a society that it carefully depicts as hierarchical, cold, clinical, religiose, ideological and underscored by a nasty form of genetic determinism that causes the leaders to consider the likely deaths of “regressives” to be a cause for relief. However, that very society may be an expression of the dark side of our evolutionary genius for survival.
Almost uniquely, ‘The Ark in Space’ attempts to depict the humans of the future as both thinking and speaking differently to us. This is rather wonderful coming from the classic series (which usually just represented future people as exactly like us only in silver tunics). The early scenes with the Doctor, Harry and Vira are beautifully scripted (despite the presence of one oxymoronic clanger “she will either survive or die” – well, duh!) to depict a “small communications problem” caused not only by the newcomer’s unfamiliarity with Vira’s society and situation but also by the very ways in which she thinks and thus communicates. This kind of inflexible thinking (ironically, given their advancement, these future people seem oddly thick at times) leads directly to the death of Librae. He fails to follow his instincts, accedes to the social directive to obey a superior and is thus killed. Vira’s commitment to obeying her commander and remaining within the boundaries of her social function nearly leads her to into a fatal mistake, of following Noah’s suggestion and expediting the revivification process. Noah’s suggestion is, in itself, interesting – is Noah still himself, trying his best to save his people but failing to think outside the box of preset procedure… or is the Wirrn within him deliberately misdirecting Vira into a plan that will aid their eventual consumption of the sleepers? Or perhaps this is another example of the ways in which Noah’s 30th century thinking and the Wirrn mindset exhibit an uncanny degree of similarity.
The “highly compartmentalised” society of the 30th century is metaphorically mirrored in the Wirrn – they are an expression of the mindless uniformity of insect society. With wonderful irony, just as the humans slip into a hive-like social cul-de-sac (the suspension chamber resembles a honeycomb and also, by placing each human in a separate cubicle, reinforces the idea of compartmentalisation), the Wirrn want to break out of one by absorbing the humans and becoming, in one generation, “a high technological species”.
The Wirrn, unusually for Doctor Who in general (and for Robert Holmes scripts in particular) are an alien species that don’t think of humans as ‘ primitives’. Moreover, the Wirrn attack is based not only on a desire for revenge but more especially on a desire to absorb the virtues (or value) of the humans: their knowledge, technology, accomplishments and power. The Wirrn don’t want to just kill, enslave, destroy, absorb or eat the humans… they want to internalise their knowledge, their culture. They don’t want to destroy us, they want to be us. They must worship us as Gods. Much as the Conquistadors – men of the Early Modern Period in Europe – were interpreted as semi-divine by some of the pre-modern class societies they encountered (and then conquered) in the ‘New World’.
But the Wirrn want to merge with us. Perhaps the “compartmentalised” nature of 30th century human society leads the Wirrn to see it as all the more compatible with their own, the similarities almost suggesting the possibility of a convergence.
There are various ways in which the texts goes out of its way to make humanity and the Wirrn mirror each other. Both, interestingly, seem to exist simultaneously on terra firma and in space. This point is clearly made twice; when the Doctor discusses the way the Wirrn live in space but have to visit planetary atmospheres occasionally (with only a little stretch we can say this is also true of the space-faring humans of the future), and in Noah/Wirrn’s speech to Vira, Sarah and the Doctor about the Wirrn origins. The Wirrn, in yet another similarity with the humans, are sleeping, awaiting their rebirth. The humans plan to awake so that they can re-colonise the Earth. The Wirrn plan to awake and ‘colonise’ the bodies and minds of the humans. To the Wirrn, the humans are the terrain they wish to inhabit, just as the Earth is to the humans. I mentioned earlier that we can’t trust Noah when he tells the story of the humans coming to Andromeda. We must remember that once he is infected, Noah’s dialogue inhabits an undefined half-way zone between human and Wirrn. When Noah/Wirrn speaks, we cannot be sure which part of him is speaking, or if both speak at once. Perhaps, as the Wirrn may have seen a compatibility with humans, Noah – once conjoined – also sees a compatibility. Maybe he can retain a sense of self because his own self (with his clearly established character traits of coldness, ruthlessness and compartmentalised thinking) can readily exist within the Wirrn identity. His identity does not sink because he can swim in their water.
And, of course, in a story which relentlessly draws parallels between human hierarchies and insect hierarchies, the leader of the humans is a woman. A queen. (Of course, the concept of the ‘queen’ is a concept from class society which is mapped onto animal behaviour by humans from such class societies.)
But the most important point for my purposes is to do with the way both races are, to various degrees, hive-like, hierarchical and compartmentalised. In our tendency towards conformity, hierarchy, compartmentalisation and functionality, we resemble them. We tend towards the insectile. We make ourselves drones and worker bees. This is the distinct inflection that ‘The Ark in Space’ puts on the perenniel Whoish obsession with what we could call the ‘horror of compatibility’. Who is at least as disturbed by compatibility with ‘the other’ as it is with difference itself. You see this in the Cybermen and the Daleks (in RTD’s iteration, the Daleks are as horrified by their compatibility with us as we are by ours with them), and here also.
In capitalist narrative culture there is a longstanding tradition of linking the semiotics of the ant-heap or hive with a certain ideological view of ‘collectivism’ and ‘totalitarian statism’ (notionally opposed to ‘free’ or ‘open’ societies, which are – natch – capitalist and free-marketeering, with supposedly weak states). But capitalism (bullshit aside) is resolutely segregated and stratified, with the working classes exposed to ruthless monitoring and cataloguing. Social mobility may be greater, but is still negligible on the whole. The state, even in a ‘democratic’ iteration of capitalism, is an engine for controlling and oppressing the working class, with its monopoly on legitimate violence and its manifold mechanisms of discipline and punishment.
‘The Ark in Space’ keeps capitalism implicit, so that it can retain it as an inflection of a more general picture of class society itself – that form of society which was born when agriculture supplanted foraging. In this story, class itself is essentialised down to the barest basics: hierarchy, the division of labour, ruling class ideology, etc. This is also the echo that the Ark-people have with the insectoid Wirrn, suggesting that ‘The Ark in Space’ sees hierarchy itself as something inherently inhuman or, to put it another way, pre-historic. This is very much in line with a strain in Marx’s thinking, in which he sees the entire history of humanity up to this point (i.e. the history of class society) as, essentially, not really history at all but rather pre-history. History proper, for Marx, will begin when we make out next leap, the one that takes us out of class society and into communism, the classless-society in which all human potential is finally unleashed by the destruction of alienation, by the reunification of all people with their species-being, with their ability to control their creative impulses and abilities. There is a degree of hope for this offered by the end of ‘The Ark in Space’, in which a human leader – who has voyaged into the extreme telos of hierarchy via his merging with the Wirrn – opts to destroy himself in order to preserve the human social. Meanwhile, another act of self-sacrifice – by a worker who identifies himself as a trade unionist! – does the same thing from within the Ark.
These actions are ambiguous since they also reek of race essentialism and race supremacism, with the sacrifices looking like racial decisions aimed at maximising the evolutionary success of in-group genes over out-group genes. There is another whiff of sociobiology here. (Nothing’s ever straightforward, is it?) Having said that, Noah’s sacrifice seems partly motivated by emotional affection for Vira. It belies the simultaneously racial and hierarchical nature of their ‘pair bonding’ (i.e. an arranged marriage, presumably on the basis of compatible genetics, functionality and social status). There’s no personal genetic advantage for Noah. His selfish genes aren’t going to get to replicate with Vira. Sociobiology has generally been at pains to argue with versions of gene theory which place social selection over individual selection.
The society of the people on Nerva is a fusion of rigid hierarchy and religiosity. It is both technocratic and theocratic. It is “highly compartmentalised”, according to the Doctor. And, indeed, we see rigid adherence to pre-set social roles and reflexive obedience in the humans on board Nerva. They are “pair-bonded” (presumably a form of arranged marriage) based on social status and, I supposed, genomes. They react to new people by assessing – or failing to assess – their ‘value’ in terms of their place in the hierarchy, their function in the utilitarian structure, or their degree of divergence from pre-decided genetic targets. And, at the same time, they re-enact scripture – apparently consciously. They are aboard an ‘Ark’, they call their leader ‘Noah’, they are fleeing a natural disaster which mirrors the Biblical flood. As mentioned, their leader is a High Minister who speaks of “love and faith”, “stony ground” that has been “purified by flame”, etc. The word “Minister” carries associations both ecclesiastical and political. It is obvious to Harry that she is at the apex of the social structure. He illustrates his point with reference to a totem pole.
There is no contradiction here. Organised religions have stratified and hierarchical structures. This is because they are the product of stratified and hierarchical societies. The inner religiosity of the Nerva-people’s social structure does not actually clash with its nature as a hierarchy. Indeed, the idea of an actual clash between organised religiosity and hierarchy is, upon a moment’s reflection, absurd. Hierarchy is the essence of organised religion. Similarly, compartmentalisation, taxonomy, etc.
At the core of ‘The Ark in Space’ is an assumption: that religiosity and hierarchy have a deep identity, a deep linkage.
The foundational texts of Christianity, especially Genesis, are records of the rise of hierarchy. The whole of The Old Testament is, in many ways, the recounting of these great changes, as seen through the ideas of a tribe undergoing the transition. As Jacob Bronowski puts it in The Ascent of Man:
The Bible is a curious history, part folklore and part record. History is, of course, written by the victors, and the [ancient] Israelis, when they burst through here [Jericho, through to the Fertile Crescent], became the carriers of history. The Bible is their story: the history of a people who had to stop being nomad and pastoral and had to become an agricultural tribe.
Before agriculture, humans almost certainly lived for hundreds of thousands of years in small, nomadic, relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer (or ‘foraging’) societies. (This, by the way, casts doubt upon the idea that hierarchy, class, inequality, competition, sexism and war are inescapably hardwired into the human genome. We probably lived pretty much free of them for millennia. We can’t be entirely sure about this, but it relies upon perfectly reasonable extrapolation from what foraging societies still in existence do today… and certainly does not necessarily rely upon any patronising racist idealisation of such people.) Foragers were probably aware of the possibility of agriculture but chose not to pursue it for a very good reason: it’s hard work, much harder than living off the providence of nature. (Those foraging societies which still exist still resist such transitions.) Eventually however, probably owing to climate change, agriculture (well, horticulture, to begin with) became a widespread development. This was the Agricultural (or Neolithic) Revolution which lead to the foundation of the first settled human societies. With settlement, domestication of plants and animals, cultivation, farming, etc., came other things. Back-breaking toil, for instance.
The Eden narrative recalls the moment when humanity was banned from simply picking the fruit of the natural world and was forced into a new relationship with nature, where they had to labour intensively to cultivate the land. The religious aspect of the narrative reverses the chronology – were we ‘expelled’ and so could not simply pluck the fruit, not expelled because we did – but, essentially, the tragedy of Eve and Adam is a remembered echo of the tragedy of the loss of the foraging way of life, replaced by the world of work.
More particularly, however, settled agriculture brought surplus, and thus, eventually, class. Horticulture and agriculture in turn led to the so-called ‘Urban Revolution’. This is what really sees the start of the great system of alienation of persons from their work, and thus of person from person in the social system in which the work occurs, that we call class.
Farmers and cultivators can produce more than subsistence. The surplus can and must be stored. The storage must be administered. The surplus allows the community to support people who do not work directly in the production of food. The very administrators who are needed can thus be afforded. Stored surplus attracts the greedy attentions of nomadic brigands, those who feel the same environmental pinch but have not yet made the leap to settlement. The raiders come to storm the walls of Jericho, knowing that within lies grain in great silos. The threat of attack means that the settlement needs guards and warriors. The guards and warriors can, like the administrators, be supported even though they do not produce. The administration of the administrators and the guards requires politicians. The politicians can be supported by the same surplus. The people who get these comparatively cushy jobs do not wish – understandably – to relinquish their new situation. Justifications must be found. The new arrangements and hierarchies, the new widening gap between those who produce and those who do not, must be presented as eternal and sacred. Priests arise. The surplus can support them too. Indeed, the administrators and the priests are often indistinguishable.
At the core of Genesis there is the hierarchical system’s desire to catalogue. Adam is given the task of naming the animals. Noah must create an Ark that is a kind of actualised catalogue, with each animal compartmentalised in its dual specimens. This fundamentally comes from the need to organise the production of the necessities of social life – food, etc – in a farming society.
Settlement brings agriculture, which (eventually) brings surplus, which brings leisure time for some, which brings classes whose social role is not production but administration, defence from raids, ideological management of those who are still working at the production of the surplus upon which the new ruling classes are living. Hierarchy brings, in due course, organised religion as a ideology that legitimates hierarchy.
Genesis is a furtive remembrance of the transition of humanity from a fundamentally egalitarian ‘pre-History’ to a hierarchical History. History is, fundamentally, something that is written. It is with the coming of surplus and administrators that written history begins. Accountants invent numbers and language so they can keep a record of what the society has in store, what’s been expended, what they expect to come in next year, etc. Records soon become histories. With the ability to keep the records, comes a History to record. A settled, civilised people has a History that is more than just the endless migration, following the endless round of seasons.
Genesis, in its befuddled way, tells of the starting of the clocks. As ‘Kinda’ realises, the expulsion from Eden is the moment when the clocks begin to tick. The wheel turns and the curse of history begins, with all its attendant shit: the mass of humanity labouring under the supervision of ruling classes who control the surplus and promulgate ideologies to legitimate this relation, ideologies that make it an eternal necessity and an eternal good. (With every forward thrust of class society, time has become more regulated. Capitalism invented time as we experience it socially today, with our every moment scheduled according to internationally-agreed ticks and tocks, with start times and end times for working days, with labour reckoned in carefully-counted minutes and hours.)
And so, humanity as a whole finds itself more productive than ever before, but also more divided, more stratified, more hierarchical, more threatened by war, more dominated by the laws of the powerful, more subjected to the idea that the intentionality they infer from nature is actually the will of some great sky-ruler who ordains that things must and should always be As They Are.
One way in which these things manifest themselves socially is in the curious double-edged effect of technology, of the designed and standardised and (comparatively) mass-produced tool… which can start to open up possibilities that were unseen by its creators, like unprecedentedly dangerous weaponry, or the fusion of human and tool followed by the subsuming of human users to their tasks.
In depictions, Adam and Eve are chased out of the garden out by angels wielding swords. The manufactured artifact is now upon us. The designed, created, forged thing expels and alienates us from the idyll and sends us out into social History. It isn’t long before Genesis acknowledges such physical tools, and the settled uses to which they are put. The blade of the sword is also the blade of the sickle and the hoe and the plough. Cain is a farmer and Abel a shepherd. The squabble is over God’s preference for Abel’s products. The story is a dramatisation of the conflict between settled farmers and nomadic shepherds. The farmer kills the shepherd. The new way supplants the old. The new man, the killer of the old ways, asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is a question of immense importance. Should one man keep another, either in the sense of providing for him by his labour or of controlling him? Or should all men keep each other? Cain’s conception wins. He will not be responsible for his brother. He will vanquish him instead. At its birth, as it kicks-off the process that eventually changes human relations so fundamentally, agriculture marks humanity with conflict.
But the garden is still there, unploughed and untilled, uncultivated and providing enough via human oneness with nature rather than more-than-enough via human exploitation.
John G Wood
December 3, 2015 @ 6:21 am
I love the way the various strands of this essay link together. Nice.
December 3, 2015 @ 10:26 am
This is rather beautiful. Just two observations:
The whole idea of a “literal” interpretation of Genesis- as in a univocal, Enlightenment, it-all-happened-like-this-exactly-in-this-order interpretation is rather wonderfully exploded from the very start of the book. There’s not only one creation story- there are two entirely separate creation narratives that have probably arisen from entirely different sources and been glued together: one with humanity created last after the other animals, and the other created first. In that respect, the “literal” truth of Genesis has to be etymologically just that- the truth in the letters, which inherently contain their own paradoxes and self-contradictions and play.
Going on, you mention Bronowski’s wonderful point from Ascent of Man that the Old Testament is the narrative of a ex-nomadic people looking back on their past. But have you come across the idea that there’s also a huge amount of latent class struggle from a slightly later period of history in the narrative? After Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians In 587 BC a large chunk of the perceived upper and middle classes- the priests, the civil servants, those with lots of money- were deported from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, and sent to Babylon.The manual labourers, the farmers and the poor were left behind. And may well have been those the exiled middle classes, simultaneously dispossessed and racked with guilt at their survival, that put together a large chunk of the Bible as we know it in exile.
The interesting bit is when the priestly “middle” classes start to drift back over the next century or so, and the class prejudices that come out when they do return. Sometimes it seems like the narrative is written to convince themselves that they are the truly virtuous believers, and the ordinary people who had been left behind to get on with their lives under the invaders were somehow inferior… So hence there’s a huge amount of invective about not mingling with foreigners in the old testament; it’s the voice of the sharp-elbowed middle classes who felt they kept themselves pure during the Babylonian exile.
December 3, 2015 @ 11:10 am
I feel that at the time of broadcast, a hive race that seeks to ‘leap’ technological development and become fully technological ‘in a generation’ would have struck the audience mostly as a reference to Soviet (and specifically Stalinist) Russia – the ‘in a generation’ especially, as that was a part of the goal of the planned economy – to replicate and absorb all that is powerful and good about the capitalist states in a communist one.
December 3, 2015 @ 6:35 pm
I love this essay, Jack. It could almost be your statement of position, or theoretical framework. I just know there is a Latin phrase of some sort lurking out there that I’m not using …
I disagree with (parts of) it from an anthropological or sociological standpoint, and with the sheer amount of teleology present in the narrative. But as a piece of cultural analysis mapping to a philosophical framework, it brilliant. So brilliant that it out-shines any semi-scientific squabbles that I might have with it.
December 4, 2015 @ 7:04 am
5tephe commented on “the sheer amount of teleology present in the narrative”…
You say that like it’s a bad thing 🙂
I think teleology is something we could with rather more of in political debates, which are stuck in a sort of barren consequentialism. Less “what sort of immediate effect will this have on the balance sheet” and more “what sort of community should we be?”
December 3, 2015 @ 6:40 pm
I think Genesis may be more deliberately engaging with the rise of hierarchical systems than you give it credit for. Joseph is depicted as buying up the peasant’s land during a famine, basically setting him up as the mythic founder of autocracy. And just in case we get any ideas that this is a glorious bit of nation-building, we next see his descendants caught up in the system of forced labour he instituted. Biblical law is also really concerned about offsetting the accumulation of capital which the rise of the near-eastern city states facilitated. You can see the Hebrew Bible not only as a record of these changes, but an attempt to mitigate and condemn its abuses (how successfully it does this is obviously a matter of debate)
December 17, 2015 @ 11:53 am
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September 5, 2016 @ 7:25 am
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