LITERATURE & THE ANTHROPOCENE – Part 1

Cuneiform Tablet

“Writing appears to be necessary for the centralized, stratified state to reproduce itself. . . . Writing is a strange thing. . . . The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied it is the formation of cities and empires: the integration into a political system, that is to say, of a considerable number of individuals . . . into a hierarchy of castes and classes. . . . It seems to favor rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind.”

Claude Levi-Strauss


Literature, written works considered by intellectuals to be of general & lasting importance, is born in & of the Anthropocene, the geological period during which human activity accumulates to such an extent & in such a way that it destructively alters the earth system, threatening all life.

The first works of Literature, including epic poems, religious texts, fables, proto-histories, chronicles, & early lyric poetry come down to us from the first city states, some of which expanded to empires, which evolved in China, The Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, & the Mediterranean in ancient times.

These states/empires were built on the brutal exploitation of humans, animals, & land. They were constantly involved in wars of expansion & aggression, & their wealth was accumulated by means of conquest & the enslavement of vast swathes, sometimes the majority, of those ruled over.

They also invented writing. Not for literary, but accounting purposes. The first writing systems evolved from the numerical systems used to account the loot appropriated from the earth & fellow humans by these warrior aristocracies. A caste of scribes, intimate with & entirely dependent on the ruling class, is brought into existence by the rulers to mark how many sheafs of emmer, how many torcs of gold, how many creditors are owed how much, & so on. Before long these scribes are instructed to write poems glorifying the princes & justifying their narcissism, sociopathy, greed & ruthlessness against fellow-humans and the natural world.

Such is the birth of literature, an effluent of slavery, bloody warfare, earthrape, & the vanity of Pharaohs who were so obsessed with holding on to power that, generation after generation, they married their own siblings. The great Epics, e.g Gilgamesh, Illiad, Aeneid, the most ‘lasting’ &, according to a large intellectual consensus, the most ‘superior’ of literary texts, are at heart extremely successful propaganda for slavery, conquest, patriarchy, & earthrape. So successful in fact (as well as so instructive) that they still form the basis of the cultural education of ruling classes throughout the world, in the form of the ‘classics’ subject universally offered to the children of the 1%. This is where literature exerts its true power in the world – the classrooms of Eton & Westpoint; far from MAs in Creative Writing was it reared!

There is a rebel & a countercultural literature too, dating in English from Paradise Lost, for example, but again it is naive to think of it as wholly or even partially innocent of the disaster we live in. Milton wrote the justification for the beheading of the King during the English Revolution, but he also believed the Irish were subhuman & that the English, whether Roundhead or Cavalier, had every right to enslave & massacre us. The deforestation of Ireland to make warships for the conquering English navy is a medieval prelude to the razing of the rainforests.

What is more countercultural to capitalist imperialism than the Sermon on the Mount? Or The Book of The Wisdom of Solomon? Yet who would claim that testaments both Old & New are not weapons of mass destruction in the hands of elites?

The relationship between literature & justice, at least historically, is ambiguous, to say the least.

We are accustomed in our own time to naively think of literature as a realm of freedom, as somehow detached from the economic & political systems which, in ever-diversifying & ever-accelerating ways, are killing the biosphere. But, is this really true?

Is it not instead the case that much literature these days specializes in telling the ruling & managerial classes exactly what they want to hear, one way or another, just as it did in the days of Sargon of Akkad & Ramses 11?

I will examine the ways in which contemporary literature & literary economies contribute to or conflict with the catastrophe of the Anthropocene in a further article. In the meantime, please feel free to add your thoughts on the topic, & especially any links, in the comment threads.

Something else I want think about, write about, & act upon is Literature & Degrowth. How can we work to (even partially) decouple literature from the forces destroying life on Earth? How can we as writers withdraw, as much as possible, from systems & institutions of destructive production & distribution – e.g deforestation, amazon? Again, ideas welcome in the threads!