Sunday, 26 October 2008

The acquisition of language

The very earliest human societies did not have a system of writing. Instead they relied on a tradition of oral literature [1] in which they recited and sang stories. In a pre-literate age, oral storytelling was a way to preserve knowledge, history and culture, a method which survived the invention of writing and provided the basis of the epics attributed to Homer, the epic of Gilgamesh, the Finnish Kalevala, etc.

To understand the roots of literature, of course, we need to understand the roots of language.

How we developed language

Language is unique to humans. It evolved only in ourselves, in only one way (which we are still trying to figure out).

Like many species, our primate cousins use all manner of grunts, calls and other noises to communicate with one another, often accompanied with gestures and other body language. These convey a variety of meanings understood by the whole group: to raise an alarm about an approaching predator, threaten a rival, announce the discovery of food, indicate contentment, etc. The earliest humans must have used a similar system of communication. The Finnish researcher Lea Leinonen even found that people could recognise the emotional content of calls made by macaque monkeys, suggesting that we have a common ‘primate inheritance’ in how we communicate emotion vocally.

The great apes, however, have a limited range of vocal behaviour even compared to other primates such as geladas [2], and birds are more vocally gifted than any mammal. The roots of language in primate communication are interesting, but there is a tremendous qualitative gulf between language and all other known forms of animal communication. This is not simply a matter of greater complexity. As the neuroscientist and anthropologist Terrence Deacon has pointed out [3], there are no ‘simple’ languages used by other species; however sophisticated animal communication gets, no animal other than humans uses words. The real key difference is that unlike us, they never developed symbolic communication.

The origins of language in human beings lie in our evolution through labour.

Just as tools developed dialectically with our brains and hands, toolmaking assisted our acquisition of language — language may itself be seen as a kind of tool. The more we explored our environment, acquired power over it, and entered new relationships with it, the more our communication needed to embrace new concepts. The comparatively rudimentary communication used by animals to signal alarm, threat, and so on was no longer adequate. The process was summarised by Engels:

The mastery over nature, which begins with the development of the hand, with labour, widened man’s horizon at every new advance. He was continually discovering new, hitherto unknown, properties of natural objects. On the other hand, the development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by multiplying cases of mutual support, joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual. In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to one another. Necessity created the organ; the undeveloped larynx of the ape was slowly but surely transformed by modulation to produce constantly more developed modulation, and the organs of the mouth gradually learned to pronounce one articulate sound after another.[4]

Engels observes that some other animals have the capacity for speech — most famously the parrot — but:

The little that even the most highly-developed animals need to communicate to one another can be communicated even without the aid of articulate speech.[5]

Animals’ ability to acquire language was studied by researchers at Columbia University from 1973 when they brought up a chimpanzee, from birth, with a human family. Mischievously named after Noam Chomsky, Nim Chimpsky was treated like a human child and picked up 150 characters of sign language. But despite spending four years in this environment, he did not develop any advanced language skills. The experiment seemed to confirm Chomsky’s belief that human language behaviour was too complex to learn from the environment alone: the linguist also needed a human linguistic intelligence, able to absorb language into a pre-programmed structure.

In the 1990s, researchers at Georgia State University revealed that a bonobo (or pygmy chimpanzee) named Kanzi was capable, remarkably, of understanding spoken English. In addition, they claimed he could create sentences — in other words, had grammar. Using symbols, Kanzi created two-word combinations which, the researchers argued, tended to place an action word before an object word. He would therefore say ‘hide ball’ rather than ‘ball hide’. What the researchers could not overcome was that Kanzi’s linguistic skills approximated to those of a child of two, and only a vast amount of human intervention got him even to that stage. Like Nim Chimpsky, Kanzi showed general intelligence and cleverness, but no evidence of an ability to use language beyond the most basic level. Given that chimps do not possess language or even the physical equipment for it, this should surprise nobody.

Many animals have developed means of communication which are much more sophisticated than Engels and his contemporaries would have assumed. This doesn’t stop us concluding that language, like labour, is a human characteristic: even though Kanzi shows us that there is no cast iron dividing line. Language would not have been possible without certain biological changes such as the descension of our larynx, which extended the vocal tract and enabled us to make much more complex sounds than, for example, our great ape cousins (we make most of our vocal sounds by contracting the laryngeal muscles). This was partly aided by our upright stance. Also, our dietary trend away from chomping plants towards meat-eating gave us smaller teeth and jaws that affected the shape and capability of our mouths, lips and vocal tract. But biology on its own explains little. Humans are not the only species to have a descended larynx — we share this feature with, for example, lions, deer and some aquatic mammals. It was the extension of our consciousness through labour that introduced to us new relationships that could not be adequately communicated using the vocabulary of primate sounds, and demanded something different.

These processes, like all processes, interact with one another and develop side by side. Engels again:

First comes labour, after it, and then side by side with it, articulate speech — these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man, which for all its similarity to the former is far larger and more perfect... The reaction on labour and speech of the development of the brain and its attendant senses, of the increasing clarity of consciousness, power of abstraction and of judgement, gave an ever-renewed impulse to the further development of both labour and speech.[6]

Toolmaking — the creation of human-made objects — taught us abstraction: the more we made objects with characteristics so similar that they shared a function, we discovered the need for a name, not just for, say, an individual spear, but for ‘spears’ in general. Thus we created an abstract category of ‘spears’ that united many objects with similar characteristics. Humans had managed to turn objects into concepts. This followed from the separation of human beings from nature: we learned to translate ourselves and our works into abstract terms.

At some point we probably began to break up our utterances, in which a single cry or call represented an entire message, into constituent parts. Instead of a call for ‘big eland’, we might have split the concepts of ‘big’ and ‘eland’, and then been able to combine those elements with other separate elements. According to archaeologist Steven Mithen, this meant we could “create an infinite array of new utterances. This is the emergence of compositionality, the feature that makes language so much more powerful than any other communication system.”[7]

The social character of language

The new level of communication helped us to develop our social organisation by sharing experience and improving technique. At the same time, language is itself social in origin. Neither aspect ‘caused’ the other, instead they developed in combination. Language is inevitably social in character, because humans are a social species. Marx and Engels understood this:

Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men... Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.[8]

Primates are unusual in that they live in tightly-knit groups. This helped to provide protection against predators much more formidable than ourselves. The more group members there on watching for predators, the greater is the chance they can be avoided, and the more help there is on hand to drive them away. For primates that are starting to eat or even hunt meat, it is also to their advantage to have several hunting parties searching simultaneously to increase the chance of success — once the big meat package is found, it can be shared amongst all the group’s members.

Group living was a positive adaptation, but it introduced new complexities, such as the need for hierarchies and alliances to regulate internal competition over food. As the size of human social groups grew over the millennia, so too did the complexity of social behaviour. All primates use vocalisations to communicate a variety of signals, but language, propelled by particular human needs, took this to an unprecedented level. A sobering aspect of the descension of the larynx is that the lower tracheal opening makes it easier for us to choke upon food. That we were prepared to trade this potentially fatal problem against language tells us a great deal about how important it was to us.[9]

The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has estimated that the number of people of whom we could have social knowledge grew from 50 per group six million years ago to 150 for early Homo sapiens. He argued that primates place great social importance upon grooming as a means of building alliances and gaining social information [10]. As group sizes increased, the amount of time needed to groom effectively became untenable. Language was the replacement — instead of limiting our communication to when we tidied each other’s dirt and parasites, we shared social information in a much more efficient way, without needing social contact with the people under discussion. Group size, brain size and language ability all increased as we evolved. Homo sapiens communities may also have experienced greater differentiation in roles, exchange with other groups, and other more complex social needs that encouraged language.

It is very difficult to fix a date for the first use of language because there is no way for it to be preserved. It cannot be less than 195,000 years ago, the age of our first fossil evidence for anatomically modern humans. The genetic leap seen in Homo habilis 2 million years ago may already indicate a vocal ability beyond that of other primates, and this ability will have increased with subsequent evolution. True language may first have been possible in a rudimentary form as long ago as Homo erectus. In Neanderthals the vocal tract, hyoid bone and other indicators were present, making language likely. Given the genetic similarity of all Homo sapiens, from 60,000 years ago to today, and the universality of language to all human populations, it is hard to see how language would not have been one of the faculties that our ancestors took with them from Africa before they dispersed across the world.

Nonetheless, the clear qualitative difference between early and modern human minds makes the question of how gradually or suddenly language was acquired, and how it relates to the rise of art and culture, a matter of ongoing debate. Some archaeologists have proposed that there was a ‘human revolution’ of art and culture around 40,000 years ago, and it would be astonishing if we had not had language at that time. This timescale for the first appearance of art dates it considerably later than the likely first appearance of language. Recent evidence from Africa has led some archaeologists to suggest that the ‘revolution’ might have started much earlier, begging speculation on whether the two are related, but evidence for consistent symbolic activity dating further back than 40,000 years is slight.

Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, which claims that the capacity to learn language is to some degree innate to all (modern) human beings, has yet to be proved. An alternative to Chomsky’s theory has been put forward by Terrence Deacon [11]. Children have such a gift for acquiring language that it seems it must be innate, but Deacon argues that children’s predisposition is of a different sort. Just as computer scientists developed Graphical User Interfaces such as Microsoft Windows to make intimidating computers easier for the general public to use, so language has adapted to the natural biases of human learning. The reason animals can be trained to perform spectacular ‘tricks’ is that the human trainers select from among the animal’s natural repertoire of behaviours and simply encourage them. Languages are very changeable and evolved spontaneously, not by design — those that can be quickly learned by children by conforming to their expectations will tend to be passed on more than those that are difficult. The elements universal to all languages, writes Deacon, actually arose independently in each language, which may seem hard to believe until one thinks of each language adapting to the same, universal set of human biases. These biases — such as the neurological bias that generates similar colour terms across all societies — may be very weak, but over many millennia of evolution their cumulative effect becomes determining. So language is acquired via a social evolutionary process, not a rigid pre-programmed structure.

Additional support for the case against Chomsky’s idea has been outlined by the anthropologist John Hawks:

There are strong evolutionary reasons to doubt the existence of a Universal Grammar. In short, no single language uses all (or even most) of the rules included in Universal Grammar. So the phenotype (behavioural expression) of nearly all the people in any human population must not include many of those rules. If this is true there is certainly no way that natural selection (which can operate only on phenotypes) could result in Universal Grammar being included in most people’s brains.[12]

It remains possible that a kind of common template for language did develop, given the profound importance of language for our evolution and social organisation. But this would not mean that language may be seen mechanically or biologically. Such a view makes language autonomous and genetic, denied its link to real life and to its human, creative character. That language has a social character is so obvious it should scarcely need saying, as the very purpose of language is communication between people. Bourgeois linguists sometimes however try to make language a self-contained system independent of society. Such an approach fails to prioritise real language as it is spoken by real people.

Language in fact is subject to change — in its words, grammar, etc — and the origin of this change cannot be understood without a social and historical context. The Marxist view was summarised neatly by Marnie Holborow: “Language arises from the social demands and needs of the material world and also, through human cooperation and activity, contributes to the transformation of that world. It is then itself transformed as human society changes.”[13] Or in Deacon’s words, “Language is a social phenomenon. To consider it in purely formal, psychological or neurobiological terms is to strip away its reason for being.”

Language is not inevitable

To finish, it is important to note that it would be wrong to see language as the pinnacle of an inevitable evolutionary process towards more complex, higher forms of communication. It is tempting to try to apply this ‘progressive’ aspect of the dialectic to the sweep of evolution, but to do so is inappropriate. Evolution is about organisms finding a best fit to their environment, and most living things have never ‘progressed’ beyond a single cell. It is simply that at one point in our development, language happened to help our species fill a particular evolutionary niche. As Deacon puts it, “the niche was just there, and was eventually filled.”[14]

[1] Given that ‘literature’ implies writing, the term is an oxymoron, but we do not have a better one. One possibility would be Pio Zirimu’s term ‘orature’.
[2] See for example Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals (2005).
[3] Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Human Brain (1997).
[4] Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals (2005).
[8] Marx and Engels, from ‘Feuerbach: Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks’ in The German Ideology (1845).
[9] A contrary view has been put forward by British palaeontologist Margaret Clegg, who found by studying medical records that death by choking on food is extremely rare. Mentioned by Mithen, ibid.
[10] Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (1997).
[11] Terrence Deacon, op. cit.
[12] John Hawks, ‘Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species (Jan 2005).
[13] Marnie Holborow, ‘Putting the Social Back Into Language’, adapted 2006 from a chapter of her book The Politics of English (1996). Holborow’s essay is a good short introduction to the Marxist theory of language.
[14] Terrence Deacon, op. cit.

Monday, 20 October 2008

The origins of art, part 4: The humanisation of nature

A decisive consequence of our evolution through labour was that we learned to objectify ourselves as human beings.

For primitive humans, nature must have seemed particularly immense, dangerous and frightening. Our human skills — constructing shelters, social organisation through language, making tools — helped us to bring nature to an increasing extent under our control and thereby improve our standard of life. But these unique capacities brought with them a curse unique to Homo sapiens: they introduced into us a dual nature. Instead of being instinctively a part of nature, as animals are, our self-consciousness separated us from it; as we are creatures of nature, we therefore also became separated from ourselves. The Biblical myth of the Fall — Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden — may express this fundamental human experience.

To put it differently, we realised that we are a subject and that the external world is an object.

Lenin summed up a fundamental tenet of Marxist philosophy when he observed,

Matter is a philosophical category designating the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them.[1]

The objective world existed before humans, and would continue to exist were we to disappear — the human subjective consciousness is itself ultimately nothing but a process of matter. Marxism is not only materialist, however, but dialectical and historical, and applies materialism in the context of the development of society. Human consciousness therefore is not a passive reflection of reality but a participant in it, and subject to change — as seen in the process of evolution itself.

We shall explore Lenin’s ‘reflection’ theory another time. For now, we can simply observe that art does not reflect an abstract, never-changing ideal [2] but is part of a dialectical relationship between a human subject and an objective world. As we perceive the objective world, we reinforce our own existence as a subject that is in a relationship with it. We are separated from nature, but we are also part of it.

For animals, the external world is a fact that cannot be changed. Humans however can reflect upon their actions before they perform them. Instead of building a home according to instinct, like termites, we can plan it in the greatest detail before a stone is laid. When we could foresee the effects of particular actions, we became aware of new relationships that we were previously blind to: not least that by using tools and reason we could act to change nature. Here is Marx:

The operations carried out by a spider resemble those of a weaver, and many a human architect is put to shame by the bee in the construction of its wax cells. However, the poorest architect is distinguished from the best of bees by the fact that before he builds a cell in wax, he has built it in his head. The result was already present at its commencement, in the imagination of the worker, in its ideal form. More than merely working an alteration in the form of nature, he also knowingly works his own purposes into nature; and these purposes are the law determining the ways and means of his activity, so that his will must be adjusted to them.[3]

Animals simply use nature, by existing — humans make it their servant.

Other creatures have better eyesight, a better sense of smell, sharper hearing. But in combination with our human brain we can extract more meaning from our senses than animals can. Marx said in the 1844 Manuscripts:

It is obvious that the human eye enjoys things in a way different from the crude, non-human eye; the human ear different from the crude ear, etc... Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form — in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being.[4]

Human senses are not immediate like animal senses, but are governed by a human consciousness. Engels later concurred when he wrote:

Hand in hand with the development of the brain went the development of its most immediate instruments — the senses. Just as the gradual development of speech is inevitably accompanied by a corresponding refinement of the organ of hearing, so the development of the brain as a whole is accompanied by a refinement of all the senses. The eagle sees much farther than man, but the human eye discerns considerably more in things than does the eye of the eagle.[5]

Human beings, who are only human because they have learned to be creative, i.e. to make objects, perceive through their senses an external, objective reality. In this reality we objectify ourselves. “The eye,” for example, “has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object — an object made by man for man” (Marx). As we became more human through our interaction with nature, we in turn made nature more human. After human manipulation, a stone formed by centuries of volcanic processes becomes a spearhead, or a statuette. These are objects that can never be produced by nature on its own. Humans’ products are created in response to needs, but through them we also invest nature and its materials with a human character: we externalise ourselves through our objects.

Here is Marx again:

The objects of his instincts exist outside him, as objects independent of him; yet these objects are objects that he needs — essential objects, indispensable to the manifestation and confirmation of his essential powers.[6]

In the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx writes of our Gattungswesen or ‘species-being’, the collective nature or essence of every human being. This includes a number of drives — the need for food, shelter, sex and so on. It also includes the desire for personal development and fulfilment, for the complete realisation of our powers as human beings.

Man is a species-being, not only because he practically and theoretically makes the species — both his own and those of other things — his object, but also — and this is simply another way of saying the same thing — because he looks upon himself as the present, living species, because he looks upon himself as a universal and therefore free being.

Through our labour, creative human beings fill the world with our objects, in which are concretised all our powers and contradictions. This humanisation helps us restore some of the harmony with the world that we have lost through the dualisation of our own nature. Art and work are commonly perceived as opposites, but both are a creative process by which we objectify our humanity and see it reflected back to us. This has often been recognised by artists. Cézanne wrote: “The landscape is reflected within me, becomes human, becomes conceivable.”

Paleolithic handprint from the cave at Pech-MerlePaleolithic handprint from the cave at Pech-Merle, France.

Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, whose book of essays Art and Society contains an outstanding discussion of the humanisation of nature, offers this formulation: “Labour is thus not only the creation of useful objects that satisfy specific human needs, but also the art of objectifying or moulding human goals, ideas or feelings in and through material, concrete-sensuous objects.”[7] We do not here mean only physical objects in a crude sense — the argument applies not just to, say, an image painted on canvas or carved from stone but a dance, a song, or other externalised form.

This is one of the most essential concepts in Marxist aesthetics: through production we give our human ‘essence’ a concrete, sensual form, affirming it in external objects we can see and touch.

As humans began to express their power over the material world by creating objects, they were taking the first steps towards art. However, all our labour is creative. To understand art as a particular form of labour, we need to discuss the difference between utilitarian and spiritual value, of which more in a later article.

Such is the strength of our ‘humanising’ of external reality that we project human feelings onto phenomena with which they have nothing to do. The inkblots of Rorscharch illustrate our extraordinary ability to project human meaning onto random forms. The Paleolithic people who blow-painted their handprints onto cave walls had in part the same motivation as the adolescents who scratch their names on park benches.

The attempt to affect objective reality to our benefit has been a profound part of our evolution; in addition, our objects give ordered, external expression to the complex sum of our human intellect, abilities and emotions. Thus it is no wonder that art gives us such satisfaction, as it is an affirmation of our humanity. The English socialist William Morris wrote:

The Socialist claims art as a necessity of human life which society has no right to withhold from any one of the citizens; and he claims also that in order that this claim may be established people shall have every opportunity of taking to the work which each is best fitted for; not only that there may be the least possible waste of human effort, but also that that effort may be exercised pleasurably. For I must here repeat what I have often had to say, that the pleasurable exercise of our energies is at once the source of all art and the cause of all happiness: that is to say, it is the end of life.[8]

Nature threatens us; hunger in our bellies degrades us. As we were freed from immediate animal wants, and developed human senses that helped us give nature a meaning in human terms, we affirmed ourselves through our actions in relation to nature. The more conscious we became of sensuous, spiritual aesthetic qualities, the more possible it became to make objects in which these qualities were more prominent than utilitarian ones. This is the origin of art.

[1] Lenin, from Chapter Two of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909). This essay was Lenin’s answer to the positivism advocated by the likes of Mach and Bogdanov, and is an advanced study of materialism. In his Philosophical Notebooks, Lenin later took his dialectical materialism further with his 1914 notes on Hegel’s The Science of Logic. There have been attempts to argue that he broke from his materialism of 1909 because it was supposedly non-dialectical, but these do not stand up to investigation — in the Notebooks Lenin enriches the earlier work rather than refutes it.
[2] We shall discuss idealism in greater depth when we examine aesthetics and the concept of ‘beauty’.
[3] Marx, from ‘The Labour-Process And The Process Of Producing Surplus-Value’ from Capital, vol. 1 (1867).
[4] Marx, third manuscript, ‘Private Property and Communism’ from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
[5] Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).
[6] Marx, op. cit.
[7] Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez: Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics (1965, English transl. 1973).
[8] From Morris’s article ‘The Socialist Ideal – Art’ (New Review, January 1891).

The origins of art, part 3: Neoteny and culture

Art coincided with the emergence of modern humans. So why is Homo sapiens intellectually and creatively superior to its predecessors, given that they too possessed labour and tool-making? What caused the Homo genus to make the qualitative leap that made art and culture possible?

One contributing biological factor proposed by anthropologists is neoteny, a form of paedomorphosis in which bodily development is retarded so that childlike characteristics are retained into adulthood. Humans physically resemble the infants of other ape species rather than the adults. In humans neoteny is manifested in features such as the lack of body hair, large eyes, flat faces, the smooth vertical forehead, and our very slow rate of maturation — our growth to adulthood takes approximately twice as long as other apes. The prehistorian Desmond Collins wrote that “there are so many features in adult humans which are matched only in the juvenile stage of apes that it is almost a game to collect them.”[1]

ChimpsInfant and adult chimps: it is the infant that more closely resembles ourselves. Reproduced from Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny.

Neoteny also has implications for childbirth. Our proportionately larger brains required an enlarged cranium, which posed the problem of how to give birth to a child through a pelvis that had narrowed as an adaptation for plains walking. Neoteny solves the problem by delaying the growth of our brains until we are safely out of the womb: whereas at birth most mammals’ brains are basically fully-formed, the human brain is only one quarter of its mature size.[2] One of the costs of neoteny is that our physical development is so delayed after birth that our infants are completely helpless, without even the most basic ability to survive unaided — we may even think of infants in their first year as extra-uterine fetuses. Another cost is that we have experienced a loss of agility and body strength compared to other apes.

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould drew the conclusion:

I believe that human beings are ‘essentially’ neotenous... because a general, temporary retardation of development has clearly characterised human evolution.[3]

It is likely that neoteny contributed to several stages of human evolution. But it appears that this most recent development has been the most decisive.

Neoteny poses dangers for the theorist. The art critic Peter Fuller proposed that the origins of art lay mostly in the long and absolute dependence of human infants upon their mothers. The helpless human baby is unable to walk immediately or to go to its mother and suckle at will. It is thus, Fuller argued, separated from reality as an animal never is. As it realises there is a separation between the mother and itself, it fills the space with a world of imagination and illusion:

When infants are hungry, they do not seek the breast, they imagine it; and the mother, if she is good enough, dips reality into those imaginings, so that infants believe they have created reality through fantasy. The adult is never free of this longing to create a world through imagination again... Its imagination acquires this infinitely labile, transforming, and world-creating quality which, as far as we can surmise, is unique in the animal kingdom.[4]

Fuller’s argument is that whereas animals conceive no complex symbolisations, the key human faculty is the imagination, and this faculty derives “above all” from the relationship of the infant with its mother. He also places extraordinary emphasis on facial expression: “Leonardo and Poussin were not alone in seeing physiognomic expression as the very root of a painting’s capacity to move us”. This is a reductionist view that tries to ascribe art to biological causes. Art is the result of a dialectical process that spans our entire evolution and flows from our material engagement or labour, which is barely mentioned at all in Fuller’s essay.

We can however agree with Fuller that neoteny is likely to be one of the key developments that separated Homo sapiens from our hairier, heavier predecessors. One of its outcomes may be the encouragement of social bonding. Our children are so helpless that they need parental care for many years, and may still be growing when the next newborn arrives. Organising to support these dependents requires a high degree of socialisation, and lays the foundations for the human family. Gould approving cites a couplet from Alexander Pope’s poem Essay on Man:

A longer care man’s helpless kind demands,
That longer care contracts more lasting bands.

Another is that we keep our love of play into adulthood and are always, like juveniles, trying new things and testing our environment. Such trial and error can discover new ways of behaving and helped us become the most adaptable species on earth. Curiosity and exploration develop our intellect and imagination, and encourage the ingenuity of the products of our labour — labour upon which we depend for our survival and upon which our existence as humans is predicated. We remain adaptable long past our childhood.

Neoteny is connected to the human animal’s dependence upon learned behaviour rather than inherited, instinctive behaviour. In Culture and Socialism, Trotsky made this important point:

Let us recall first of all that culture meant originally a plowed, cultivated field, as distinct from virgin forest and virgin soil. Culture was contrasted with nature, that is, what was acquired by man’s efforts was contrasted with what was given by nature. This antithesis fundamentally retains its value today.

Culture is everything that has been created, built, learned, conquered by man in the course of his entire history, in distinction from what nature has given, including the natural history of man himself as a species of animal... From the very moment when man separated himself from the animal kingdom — and this occurred approximately when he first took into his hands primitive tools such as stones or sticks and armed the organs of his body with them — from that time the creation and accumulation of culture began, that is, of all kinds of knowledge and skill in the struggle with nature in order to pacify nature.[5]

Trotsky is right to separate humans’ social achievements from their instincts. The creation of art is not a genetic, instinctive behaviour: humans can survive without practising any artistic activity at all.[6] Unless they are deliberately passed on from one generation to another, our uniquely human skills are lost.

Art is the product of cultural evolution, a learned behaviour that allows us collective communication. We are social beings, therefore our tool-making, our art and our culture are also social. No infant emerges from the womb knowing how to make an axe or mix paints. As cultural beings, our species found it beneficial to retain a longer period of learning and behavioural flexibility. Human culture, not least language, is complex and the human infant needs a long period of development to assimilate it. Thus Gould has asserted, “We are preeminently learning animals, and our extended childhood permits the transference of culture by education.”[7] This point of view was also endorsed by Albert Einstein, who wrote:

Memory, the capacity to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication have made possible developments among human beings which are not dictated by biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organisations; in literature; in scientific and engineering accomplishments; in works of art. This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can influence his life through his own conduct, and that in this process conscious thinking and wanting can play a part.[8]

An adult human never, in fact, ceases to be capable of behavioural change. Even elderly humans have a flexibility of behaviour normally associated, in other animals, only with the very young, and our retention of curiosity and playfulness has profound consequences for our creativity. We shall examine this in detail when we consider Marx’s idea of the “realm of freedom”.

As discussed in the previous post, the unique character of Homo sapiens cannot be reduced to biology or any other single process. Neoteny itself needs to be understood not just in biological terms but as part of a complex evolutionary dialectic of human labour, cognition, and social behaviour.

[1] Desmond Collins, The Human Revolution: From Ape to Artist (1976). It is important to remember of course that chimps and gorillas are not our ancestors, so thinking of them as somehow representing earlier stages of ourselves can be misleading.
[2] Readers can find anthropological discussions of neoteny in, for example, Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape (1967) and Stephen Jay Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977).
[3] Stephen Jay Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977).
[4] Peter Fuller, ‘Art and Biology’, New Left Review 132 (1982). (Note: to read the linked article requires a subscription to NLR.) The overemphasis I criticise here can be ascribed to Fuller’s move to the right, analysed by Julian Stallabrass in ‘Success and Failure of Peter Fuller’, New Left Review 207 (1994).
[5] Trotsky, Culture and Socialism (1927). To my knowledge this essay is available in only one place online.
[6] Culture has not been incorporated into our genes, but that does not mean that our toolmaking and other cultural behaviours could not exert evolutionary pressure. Our learned skills have a real influence upon natural selection, e.g. by modifying the environment in which natural selection operates (the so-called ‘Baldwin effect’).
[7] Stephen Jay Gould, ‘A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse’, reproduced in The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (1980). In this essay Gould examines how Mickey Mouse’s appearance became more neotenous, i.e. juvenile, as his creators made him more inoffensive.
[8] Albert Einstein, ‘Why Socialism’ from Monthly Review (May 1949). In this essay, Einstein — yes, the Einstein — concludes that capitalism is responsible for “the crippling of individuals” and advocates a socialist economy.

The origins of art, part 2: Human evolution and labour

What were the processes that took a genus of primates on the journey to modern civilisation? Our starting point must be that art is a form of labour, or work (the terms are interchangeable). To some readers this may seem a contradiction. But what Marxists mean by ‘labour’ is human activity that transforms natural materials towards a purpose. In this sense, a pencil sketch is just as much a product of labour as a bricklayer’s wall. Marx defined it thus:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal.[1]

In the last article we mentioned that tool-making was the dividing line between humans and animals. We may be more specific and say that the key process that propelled our evolution and made tool-making possible was labour.

Engels argued that labour was what helped to form the human hand and brain:

Labour is the source of all wealth, the political economists assert. And it really is the source — next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. But it is even infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.[2]

Labour became possible because our primate ancestors adapted to the grasslands by walking erect, which in turn freed their hands. The very first tools were found objects, mostly stones: crude extensions of the hand useful for cutting or pounding. As early humans discovered how to put these objects to use, for example to extract the nutritious marrow from bones, their hands and brains evolved to the point where they could make tools of their own. The development of the opposable thumb gave them unprecedented dexterity, and they developed excellent eye, hand and brain coordination. Engels concluded:

Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour. Only by labour, by adaptation to ever new operations... has the human hand attained the high degree of perfection that has enabled it to conjure into being the paintings of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini.

The hands of the most primitive humans can create objects that no other animal is able to. Thus our labour distinguishes us from animals, as Marx explained in the 1844 Manuscripts:

It is true that animals also produce. They build nests and dwellings, like the bee, the beaver, the ant, etc. But they produce only their own immediate needs or those of their young; they produce only when immediate physical need compels them to do so, while man produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in freedom from such need.[3]

And in Capital:

The use and fabrication of instruments of labour, though we find their first beginnings among certain other animal species, is specifically characteristic of the human labour process...[4]

It is through thousands of years of labour (i.e. active material engagement with our environment) that our ancestors made the extraordinary leap from primate to human. This is a process that many evolutionary scientists — including Darwin himself — have failed to grasp. Even such evolutionary factors as the consumption of meat and the adaptation to cooked food require both labour and tool-making. Culture has played so important a role that, as the archaeologist Timothy Taylor has pointed out, we cannot live without artificial aid:

Humans would die without tools, clothes, fire, and shelter... I believe that from the very start our early ancestors took control over their own evolution by developing technologies... [5]

To understand this leap fully we must explore the dialectical relationship between labour and the advent of a uniquely human consciousness.

The expanding consciousness

Engels’ singular emphasis on the freeing of the hand by bipedality has become dated, but most archaeologists would agree that tool-making is the ability that marks the appearance of the first humans, the habilines. The hand is one important part of a complex organism, advances in one part of which had consequences and benefits for the whole.

Tools enabled human beings to make the transition from scavenging to hunting and fishing. This allowed an expansion of their diet and greater efficiency in food-gathering, which increased the nutrients going to the brain. Our brain increased in size and complexity. But our consciousness is not a merely biological process. As humans became aware of the different properties of the found objects they used as tools, they refined them to make the objects more effective. They realised that a piece of flint picked up from the ground does not usually cut a hide as well as one that they had, by accident or design, knocked into an edge.

When we compare the tools of succeeding eras we see increasing precision, effectiveness and sophistication, and apparently a developing aesthetic sense. Oldowan tools were mostly created simply by splitting a stone into two to create a cutting edge. The handaxes which appear in the time of Homo erectus take many forms, but include examples that are ovate, symmetric and finely formed.

Acheulean handaxeAcheulean handaxe in a tear-drop shape discovered in Spain, dating to c.350,000 years ago. Acheulean tools represent a utilitarian, and, at least to us, an aesthetic, advance on the Oldowan.

Whether humans were making aesthetic decisions at this stage in their evolution is open to debate. A number of anthropologists have argued that symmetry in handaxe design may simply be more efficient [6] — i.e. any artistic value may be in our eyes rather than their creators’. The truth probably lies inbetween: early humans were developing the rudiments of an aesthetic sense which only Homo sapiens was to master. (See our article on the origins of symbolic representation.)

“Creative consciousness,” wrote Ernst Fischer, “developed as a late result of the manual discovery that stones could be broken, split, sharpened, given this shape or that.”[7] Modern archaeology does not contradict him. By slowly discovering how to use natural materials to achieve their purposes, such as lighting a spark or cracking open a shell, the human mind was being encouraged to encompass new intellectual concepts.

Animals participate in nature just as we do, and like us their actions can change it. Engels [8] uses the example of animals grazing the vegetation in an area and, because they do not know what they are doing, destroying the food source, compelling them to move on to new areas. If humans raze an area of vegetation they do it in order to plant crops or introduce some other premeditated development. This is not to say animals are incapable of premeditation, planning or cunning, simply that they have never taken the evolutionary step necessary to impose their will upon nature. Engels concludes:

The animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.[9]

Other animals use tools — chimpanzees for example know how to poke a stick into a termites’ nest, so that they can draw the stick out and eat the termites on it. But there is a difference between picking up and using a naturally occurring object, and transforming that object through labour. Early humans had to be capable of projecting their actions beyond the present, foreseeing the outcome of their labour and the benefits it would give them, to take that crucial step to tool-making which no other animal has made.[10]

It is through labour and the production of tools, with the increased demands on the dexterity of both hand and mind, that we became aware of our actions, and our hands and senses became human. Fischer uses the example of an ape using a stick to get fruit from a tree. The ape sees the fruit and, knowing that a stick can be used to fetch it down, will look around for one. After many repetitions, the ape finally makes an intellectual leap: “here is the stick, where is the fruit it can fetch down?”

Thus it was that Fischer could conclude that “the hand released human reason and produced human consciousness.”[11] Not, as we have said, the hand alone, but the hand in dialectical combination with other processes.

Fischer concludes:

Man took the place of nature. He did not wait to see what nature would offer him: more and more he forced it to give him what he wanted. He made nature more and more his servant. And out of the increasing usefulness of his tools, out of their increasingly specific character, out of their increasingly successful adaptation to the human hand and the laws of nature, out of their increased humanisation, objects were created which could not be found in nature.

We shall see the further significance of the creation of non-natural objects in the article on the humanisation of nature. As humans embarked upon the Neolithic Revolution, even plants and animals were transformed by labour, via deliberate breeding to meet human needs. This has been taken to the point where the modern milch cow has become both extraordinarily productive and incapable of surviving without human support.


Our consciousness developed out of a process of labour that began with the primitive use of found objects and, through a long interaction of evolution, exploration and adaptation, culminated in human-made objects that include works of art.

In a footnote in Capital, Marx comments on Benjamin Franklin’s definition of humanity as a ‘tool-making animal’ as being “characteristic of Yankeedom”[12]. It is true that tool-making characterises human production, but Marx takes issue here with the idea that our uniqueness can be reduced to technology, to instruments of profit.

The universe is made of processes which interact constantly with one another — as we change nature, nature changes us; as we produce labour, labour produces us. By working the raw stuff of nature we discovered through a social and biological dialectic our own capabilities as humans: physical, intellectual and creative. This relationship is the soil from which art could grow.

[1] Karl Marx, ‘The Labour-Process And The Process Of Producing Surplus-Value’ from Capital, vol. 1 (1867).
[2] Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).
[3] Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’ from the first of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1844). First published in 1932, these manuscripts of a work Marx planned on bourgeois political economy are only in draft, fragmentary form and are therefore less harmonious in content and style than his finished works. Despite this they offer an invaluable insight into his ideas on aesthetics.
[4] Marx, ‘The Labour-Process And The Process Of Producing Surplus-Value’ from Capital, vol. 1 (1867).
[5] Timothy Taylor, The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution (2010).
[6] See for example page 6 of April Nowell and Melanie Lee Chang, ‘The Case Against Sexual Selection as an Explanation of Handaxe Morphology’, PaleoAnthropology (February 2009). This article is principally a refutation of Steven Mithen’s theory that handaxes were made beautiful by men in order to attract women, which is one of his less useful ideas.
[7] Fischer, The Necessity of Art (1959). Ernst Fischer was an Austrian Marxist prominent in the rediscovery of ‘humanist’ Marxism in the period of de-Stalinisation. This book offers a good account of the development of humans through labour.
[8] Engels, op. cit.
[9] Engels, op. cit. This is not an excuse for species arrogance, a point made by Engels himself. Humans’ unique capacity to exploit the laws of nature is producing, for example, the disaster of global warming, which not only threatens the existence of other species but the lives of thousands of our own. On the other hand, our mastery of the laws of nature are constantly improving through scientific inquiry.
[10] Well, almost. Recent research suggests that humans are not strictly unique in their tool-making (see for example Betty the crow). Such achievements in animals however simply emphasise the poverty of their tool-making ability compared to our own. Betty made a hook out of wire — she did not build a Sputnik.
[11] Fischer, op. cit.
[12] Footnote to Chapter 13 of Capital, vol. 1 (1867). ‘Yankeedom’ implies a vigorous capitalism that seeks to commodify everything.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

The origins of art, part 1: The beginnings of humankind

Art is so fundamental to our humanity that we can claim that creativity, in the broadest sense of making, is what separates us from other animals. We are animals ourselves, but the revolutionary step into self-consciousness has only occurred in humans, and was one of the most significant new developments in evolution since life on Earth first appeared.

Other species do participate in activities that resemble art — termites are famous for their feats of architecture, and some spiders pursuing a mate perform what we like to call a dance. But these behaviours are instinctive and necessary to the animals’ survival. Humans, by contrast, make things even when there is no need for them to do so. The dividing lines between human and animal capabilities will always be blurred, but to begin we shall explore art as a human activity. Once we understand its nature we can better assess the difference between human and animal ‘aesthetic’ activity.

To understand how art began, we need to explore how humans were formed as a species and what processes were unleashed when our ancestors learned the skill of making. The relevance of this to art may not at first be obvious, but art becomes possible only after an immensely long and complex process of development. Since the first great flowering of culture in the Upper Paleolithic the change in our biology has been marginal, because that period — approximately 40,000 years — is tiny in evolutionary terms. Yet our evolution defined the physiology with which our special cognitive capacities are bound up. So, as usual, it is best to start at the beginning.

The beginnings of humankind

Marxism is interested only in scientific explanations of human origins: dialectical materialism and evolutionary theory complement each other. It is worth remembering how recent this method of interpretation is. As the American Marxist George Novack pointed out,

these ideas and facts, so commonplace today, were the subversive thoughts of yesterday. We readily adopt this scientific view of organic evolution without realising that this very act of acceptance is part of a reversal in human thinking about the world and the creatures in it, which has taken place on a mass scale only during the past century. Recall, for example, the prevalence of the Biblical myth of creation in the Western world up to a few generations ago.[1]

There is of course no firm dividing line between those two worldviews. The critique of religion within the Christian world dates back to at least Voltaire and the Enlightenment. But it was Darwin, and contemporaries such as the relatively unsung Alfred Wallace, whose scientific discoveries were to strike a decisive blow against religion — as least as far as credible theory is concerned. (Unfortunately, religion has not seen being proved wrong as a reason to cease operations.)

The generally accepted scientific view of human evolution, backed by a vast body of evidence, begins (very roughly) six million years ago when the primate family branched into two. One branch led to gorillas, orang utans, chimps and the other surviving primates. The other was to lead to a succession of human species. We have no certain fossil record for the species from which they diverged, which is known as the ‘common ancestor’, but anthropologists assume that one must have existed.

Three million years ago the Earth entered upon its most recent ice age (which we are technically still in today). The causes are still disputed, but may have been because our planet moved on its axis and spent longer periods facing away from the sun. The resulting fall in temperatures, besides the creation of the polar ice caps, led the humid forests to shrink and give way to grasslands. Some species reliant on the forests died out, while others survived and evolved into the great apes. Our own ancestors adapted to a new diet, moving from the forests to the plains. This was the decisive point at which human evolution diverged from the other primates.

Friedrich Engels, like all the scientific community of his day, had relatively little data about human evolution. Nonetheless, he successfully identified some of its processes and key stages of development:

First, owing to their way of living which meant that the hands had different functions than the feet when climbing, these apes began to lose the habit of using their hands to walk and adopted a more and more erect posture. This was the decisive step in the transition from ape to man.

All extant anthropoid apes can stand erect and move about on their feet alone, but only in case of urgent need and in a very clumsy way. Their natural gait is in a half-erect posture and includes the use of the hands. The majority rest the knuckles of the fist on the ground and, with legs drawn up, swing the body through their long arms, much as a cripple moves on crutches. In general, all the transition stages from walking on all fours to walking on two legs are still to be observed among the apes today. The latter gait, however, has never become more than a makeshift for any of them.[2]

Engels does not discuss the cause of this move to a bipedal posture — the adaptation to life on the grasslands. Apes living in the forests use both feet and hands for locomotion. The apes that moved out of the forests, by contrast, won more evolutionary advantage from an erect posture that required less energy than moving on all fours, and which freed their hands for other activity. (We shall discuss the role of the hand in the next article.) This was the time of our remote bipedal ancestor, Australopithecus, whose most famous member was Lucy. Striking evidence of the bipedality of Australopithecus was discovered at Laetoli in Tanzania, where a set of footprints was preserved in volcanic ash.

It is debatable today whether bipedality was the decisive factor as Engels believed. One may read theories about how humanity was launched by cooking, technology, language, sexual selection, or all sorts of things. In reality, our evolution was probably the result not of one single ‘Eureka!’ cause but a combination of genetic and cultural elements. Engels is probably correct however that the most powerful cause was labour, i.e. the discovery of tool-making and the new properties, symbols and ideas generated by it. Many modern archaeologists agree that humans ‘made themselves’ through their material engagement with the world.

These pre-human primates diversified their diet by scavenging meat left behind by predators. The increase in calories fuelled an increase in brain volume, and in turn a more demanding brain required a reduction of energy elsewhere, probably the gut, and thus a higher quality diet. The need to be intelligent enough to avoid plains predators, the social complexities of expanding groups, and tool use all urged a growth in our mind. The average human brain is unusually large, with a volume of 1350 cc compared to 350 cc for our nearest surviving relative, the chimpanzee. The size ratio of brain to body is also important — the human body is only 50 times the weight of our brain, compared to 130 times for chimpanzees and 1000 times for elephants. Brain size, however, even proportionate brain size, does not explain everything: whales have bigger brains than we do, and we are outdone in brain-to-body ratio by the shrew. As the neurologist Terrence Deacon has pointed out [3], there must also have been a change in the structure of the brain which is at least as important.

Although fossil evidence suggests the shift to an erect posture may have taken place 4 million years ago, Australopithecus had chimp-sized brains and is not regarded as human. Many archaeologists consider the first humans to have been Homo habilis, a tool-maker which appeared about 2.3 million years ago and is the first species in our genus, Homo. Other human species of this period have been labelled Homo rudolfensis and Homo ergaster, and it is difficult as yet to draw firm lines between these and other human species during the Lower Paleolithic. It is likely that several species of early humans co-habited. These species were not only using tools but were making their own, creating cutting edges — for example to strip meat from bones — by breaking one stone against another, skills more advanced than anything modern chimpanzees are capable of. The capacity for making tools is so significant that it is commonly seen as the dividing line between humans and animals: hence such labels as Homo faber and ‘man [sic] the tool-maker’. This technology, known as the ‘Oldowan’ after the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where many such implements were found, was in use for over 1 million years.

Oldowan chopping toolsOldowan chopping tools. Photo: Didier Descouens.

It is important to note, of course, that dating such remote periods is rarely an exact science, and sources will differ in their estimates. Marxism and science can only draw upon the best of current knowledge.

About 1.8 million years ago, humanity made its next step with the evolution of Homo erectus, a species which was similar to us, sharing our fluent stride and run and maturing slowly as we do [4]. At this time early humans spread out of Africa into the East. They were making cleavers, handaxes and other quite sophisticated tools, which were not only functional but had qualities we would consider ‘aesthetic’, such as symmetrical form. This technology, which is known as the ‘Acheulean’ and belongs to the Lower Paleolithic period, lasted until as recently as 200,000 years ago, making it the dominant technology for most of human history. No technical advances were made for over a million years.

The Lower Paleolithic offers very little evidence for symbolic or artistic activity. The very first claimed art objects do however date to the period of Acheulean technology, dating to up to 280,000 years ago. Fragments of ochre found at the Kapthurin formation in Kenya and the Duinefontein site in South Africa may have been used as body ornaments. There are also very early examples of the so-called ‘Venus’ figurines, such as the object found near Tan-Tan in Morocco, which bear marks of carving and are claimed to resemble crude female figures. (For various good reasons, the term ‘Venus’ should be dropped — not least because it is meaningless, given that the figurines in question haven’t the least connection to the Roman goddess.) Such figurines are probably naturally occurring objects, whose likeness to human forms was, it has been alleged, appreciated by our ancestors and modified by them. These early objects’ purpose is unclear and their claim to be art is debatable.

Indisputable artistic activity only appears with the advent of modern humans during the Middle/Upper Paleolithic period. The oldest known art objects generally (though not entirely) accepted by scientists are pieces of ochre carved with crosshatching and jewellery made from perforated shells dating back 77,000 years, found in the Blombos cave in South Africa. Ochre is a soft red or yellow stone whose powder can be used to create paint.

Objects from the Blombos CaveBifacial flakes, bone tools, and possibly the first known true art — a block of ochre bearing an engraved pattern. From the Blombos Cave. Photo: Henning (Wikimedia Commons).

Our own species, Homo sapiens or ‘wise human’, appeared 200,000 years ago (according to estimates based upon DNA), probably in Africa, and developed further into Homo sapiens sapiens, or modern humanity. (The sexist use of the word ‘man’ as a synonym for ‘human being’, incidentally, is not the fault of the Latin — Homo means not ‘man’ but ‘person’ or ‘human being’.[5]) This species is believed to have migrated from Africa [6], replacing other archaic species of human: it had reached China by 68,000 years ago, Australia 60,000 years ago, and Europe 40,000 years ago. Since the disappearance of the Neanderthals 28,000 years ago, Homo sapiens has been the only surviving species of the Homo genus. These people had an unprecedented level of culture: they buried their dead, created rituals, made and wore jewellery, sewed clothing, carved artifacts, painted cave walls, and diversified into different communities with different cultural behaviours. Over several thousand years they have created — and are still creating — immensely diverse art.

Many religious people believe that human consciousness was created fully-formed through a single act of divine will. No concrete evidence for this has ever been produced, so it is reasonable to dismiss it. Our consciousness arose through an evolutionary process which had no preconceived goal — we are the result of a remarkable combination of events. Evolution vindicates dialectical materialism, the Marxist theory that matter is in constant motion, striving towards more complex forms [7]. A species evolves out of many quantitative changes which are in tension with the old form; eventually the new forces overcome the old and there is a qualitative change, giving rise to a new form. These collisions propel matter in developmental leaps: nothing in existence is fixed or eternal. Marx did not invent dialectics, but he adapted it to a materialist outlook. In the words of his contemporary Paul Lafargue, Marx

did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings: he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion. His intention was to disclose the whole of that world in its manifold and continually varying action and reaction.[8]

In human beings, evolution created a species that was quite new. It “both grew out of the old and outgrew it” (Novack).

We shall discuss dialectics in greater detail another time. To understand what took forest primates on the journey to modern civilisation and to the creation of art, we must combine dialectics with another fundamental process in human evolution — labour.

[1] George Novack, ‘How Humanity Climbed to Civilisation’ from Understanding History (1956–68). This work also includes a discussion of evolution from the dialectical materialist standpoint.
[2] Friedrich Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876), later included in Dialectics of Nature. It is immediately clear that some of the scientific data used by Engels have been superceded, and in fairness to him we should point out that the article is a draft only and was never finished. However his argument remains a fine example of the dialectical method applied to evolution.
[3] See discussion in Chapter 5 of Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species (1997).
[4] In his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009), the anthropologist Richard Wrangham has argued that the transition to habilines was the consequence of adding meat to our ancestors’ diet, and that the transition to Homo erectus resulted from cooking our food, made possible by the discovery and control of fire. The increased energy obtainable from cooked food gave us an essential biological advantage and our bodies adapted to consuming it.
[5] A further aside in case of confusion: the word ‘homosexual’ draws not upon the Latin homo but the Greek homos, meaning ‘same’.
[6] There has been a dispute between the ‘Multiregional’ theory, which maintains that after Homo erectus left Africa 1.7 million years ago the local populations all evolved into Homo sapiens independently, and the ‘Out of Africa’ theory that Homo sapiens began in Africa and spread into the rest of the world in a second great migration around 60,000 years ago, replacing all human species descended from Homo erectus. Modern DNA analysis shows that humans are remarkably homogeneous, with very little genetic variation. This and other evidence favours the Out of Africa theory, with all modern humans descended from a population that may have been as small as 10–50,000.
[7] Some readers who think of Darwinism as ‘red in tooth and claw’ may find it hard to reconcile it with the egalitarianism of Marxism, but in fact the ‘survival of the fittest’ is a distortion of Darwin’s theory. Darwinism explains how organisms with characteristics best suited to particular environments adapt and develop, while organisms that find themselves in environments to which they are unadapted, or less well adapted than others, may disappear. This process takes many generations. As Ellen Dissanayake observed, “For the true Darwinist, it is the inclusive survival of the fit that matters, not the exclusive survival of the fittest” (from Homo Aestheticus). The idea of aggressively competing selfish individuals was an invention of Social Darwinism.
[8] Paul Lafargue, Reminiscences of Marx (1890).

Further reading
This blog is not the place to discuss human evolution in detail. Readers who wish to know more may find the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and the BBC’s Human Beginnings rewarding.

About this blog

My aim for this blog is not necessarily to make a fresh theoretical contribution (although I won’t rule it out). My purpose is to pull together the diverse strands of Marxist thought in general to explore its implications for art in particular — thus building a comprehensive theory.

This should be a useful resource for readers who want to know more but have neither the time nor the means to negotiate the huge body of literature available, or who seek a starting point from which to explore further. After all, there is no single work to which people can be directed. This blog cannot of course study everything, and won’t attempt a full historical overview either of art or of Marxism.

The danger of compression can be over-simplification: art, like any other aspect of human society, is full of contradictions and subject to many different forces. I hope to avoid this danger while remaining comprehensible to readers who have not studied Marxist theory. Some readers won’t fully understand all the terms that are used, but in one post or another their meaning will be explained.

In traditional Marxist cultural analysis, the emphasis has overwhelmingly been on literature — I will try to overcome this limitation by considering all forms of art. Another of my aims is to try and clarify some of the persistent misconceptions in Marxist art theory, many of which — the theory of ‘decadent art’, the imposition of ‘socialist realism’, etc — have little or no basis in Marx’s work.

Marxist theory is not a unified whole. There are differing perspectives and outright disagreements, just as there are within bourgeois theory, and debate is a constructive thing. Inevitably I will be selective. I seek to create a consistent argument based upon the best Marxist thought, while commenting upon disagreements. Where I quote a writer, it is because that particular passage is useful — it does not necessarily mean I endorse everything else the writer said, even in the same work, and occasionally I use quotes to illustrate faults rather than merits. One may for example reasonably agree with Lukács in some matters while objecting to his critique of modernism. It is of course possible to interpret some of Marx’s ideas in different ways, but it would be misleading to claim that there are as many Marxes as readers: he is far more consistent than that. My hope is that the great majority of Marxists will find little to object to here. The blog is non-sectarian: I do not write as the representative of any organisation and will criticise specific groups or individuals only if and when it is necessary in order to clarify artistic questions.

Italics used in quotes are in the original unless otherwise stated. I use the Common Era designation for dates, preferring ‘BCE’ and ‘CE’ over the traditional ‘BC’ and ‘AD’, as this is more sensitive to non-Christians and academically neutral. Millions of people of all faiths use the Gregorian calendar out of convenience and the Common Era notation is more broadly acceptable. Of course the dates are still based upon the calendar’s Christian origins, and the system’s pre-eminence derives from the West’s imperialist history, but no realistic alternative is on offer.

Just as reality and theory are not static, neither is this blog. I welcome contributions from readers that help to advance its quality and accuracy, and will amend or expand posts where necessary. My aim is simply to achieve the highest theoretical standard.

Please note that although I avoid gender bias in my own language, I can’t undo it in the words of people I have quoted, or in translations made of them. The practise of using ‘man’ as a synonym for ‘human being’ is the result of thousands of years of sexism, and even among progressives it is not yet dead.

A final note on this blog’s epigraph, “to tell the truth is revolutionary” (the relevance of which will become clearer as we go on). This quote is regularly misattributed to Gramsci. The first number in 1921 of the daily edition of L’Ordine Nuovo, a socialist journal founded in 1919 and edited by Gramsci when it became a daily, had this motto by Lassalle on the front page. Gramsci had however already written something very similar: “To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a communist and revolutionary act” (from the article ‘Workers’ Democracy’, in L’Ordine Nuovo, 21 June 1919).

Update 30-10-10: I have altered the site’s motto to the present one, ‘Humanity makes itself’, as I think it better captures my general theoretical position.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

A defence of Marxist theory

Marxism has been proclaimed dead many times since 1989. We may fairly paraphrase Mark Twain to say its death has been greatly exaggerated. But it is perhaps necessary to explain why it remains a powerful philosophy that has something relevant to say about art.

When the Soviet bloc broke up in 1989–91, the bourgeoisie trumpeted it as the end of socialism. Since the 1920s, the Soviet Union had come under the control of a bureaucratic regime that set back the international struggle by decades. Despite this degeneration, it remained a workers’ state [1], whose eventual overthrow was a deeply disorientating defeat for the international working class. Wrongly equating Stalinist doctrine with Marxism, many interpreted it as evidence that Marxism was no longer relevant.

In reality, Stalinism reduced the rich and complex theory of Marx to something crude and mechanical which was easily refuted by both true Marxists and anti-socialists. In any case, there will be defeats in any long-term struggle, some of them severe, but they are no excuse for abandoning an objective historical perspective. As Trotsky pointed out in In Defence of Marxism (writing in 1939),

Marxists do not have the slightest right (if disillusionment and fatigue are not considered “rights”) to draw the conclusion that the proletariat has forfeited its revolutionary possibilities and must renounce all aspirations to hegemony in an era immediately ahead. Twenty-five years in the scales of history, when it is a question of profoundest changes in economic and cultural systems, weigh less than an hour in the life of man. What good is the individual who, because of empirical failures in the course of an hour or a day, renounces a goal that he set for himself on the basis of the experience and analysis of his entire previous life-time?[2]

The defeat of several — not all — workers’ states notwithstanding, the Marxist insistence upon materialism and the analysis of social processes is mainstream today. The main challenge to it comes from post-modernism, whose rejection of the basic scientific tenets of the Enlightenment greatly limits its usefulness to most scientists and historians. The fatuous arguments about the death of Marxism go unchallenged in the Western mainstream, because the media in the capitalist world provide no platform for Marxist analysis. Liberal or social democratic viewpoints are permitted, but these do not fundamentally challenge the system. Instead, we are repeatedly told that there is no alternative to a neo-liberal capitalist viewpoint.

Yet reality marches on despite the spin. A particular defeat does not invalidate an entire system. If it did, then the fall of Byzantium would have meant the end of feudalism, and the defeat of Hitler the end of monopoly capitalism. One billion people continue to live under governments inspired by Marxism, and the most dynamic economy in the world — China — is a workers’ state. Millions continue to fight to create new revolutions, particularly in Latin America, and in Venezuela they have succeeded. Thus the declarations of the ‘death of Marxism’ are nonsense, on the most basic factual level.

Over the last thirty years, the working class has suffered a series of defeats. These began with the election of Thatcher and Reagan, and peaked with the overthrow of the Soviet workers’ state. But these are battles within the context of an ongoing war. The socialist states of Eastern Europe fell in 1989–91 because of the mistakes of Stalinism, not because Marxism itself was wrong. On the contrary, there was always a cogent Marxist critique of the Stalinist system, beginning with Trotsky and the Left Opposition, and the recent economic crisis has proved yet again that Marx’s analysis of capitalism was correct.

Developments such as the growth of the socialist economies, resistance to imperialism in the Middle East, the huge leftwards shift in Latin America, and the final discrediting of neo-liberalism through the so-called ‘credit crunch’ are all contributing to a shift in the global balance of forces. Very slowly, Marx’s ideas on the emancipation of humanity are reasserting themselves. Despite reverses, socialism is never going to go away, because it is the politics that represents the interests of the proletariat: a class that will be here for centuries yet, and whose numbers continue to grow rapidly. The class struggle, for the same reason, will never go away. This does not necessarily mean that world socialism is around the corner, but it does mean that the struggle for emancipation is never lost.

The need for a Marxist theory of art

One of the most compelling reasons why Marxism is needed is that bourgeois opinion, even today, customarily presents art as something mysterious that can never be satisfactorily explained. Art is reduced to ‘the expression of feeling’, or to ‘form and content’, or an attempt to emotionally ‘infect’ the viewer, or is art ‘because it is made by artists’. Bourgeois theory tends to either take a single aspect of art and elevate it into a system, or at its most feeble to simply throw up its hands in bewilderment and conclude that a definition is impossible. In fact, art can to some extent be explained, but the bourgeoisie finds it difficult to analyse society without being confronted with uncomfortable truths about itself. This does not mean that bourgeois theory cannot provide us with excellent insights into art — only that it is limited in how fully it can penetrate the question. To quote Trotsky again:

It is very true that one cannot always go by the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to accept or reject a work of art. A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why.[3]

The seminal epic of Western art history, E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, manages to discuss 10,000 years of art without even mentioning the powerful social forces that shaped its story. This is like observing that the sea level rises and falls, without noting the existence of tides. Marxism always seeks the underlying forces as well as the surface features, and knows that they will inform the present as well as the past. For this reason the art of the past appears not as dead and academic but as part of a dynamic relationship. If Trotsky’s belief that ‘only Marxism’ can provide such explanation seems a little stretched today, it is because progressive materialism has had such an influence on the development of modern archaeology and other sciences since he was writing in 1924.

The best Marxist criticism seeks a total view of a work of art — not limiting itself to any one aspect, but trying to pull together every influence and recognise which factors are the most powerful, for the most complete and evidence-based understanding. This understanding is not set in stone, because a work of art is itself part of a dialectical reality, in which its meaning will never be static (a Christian artist of the Renaissance for example saw the sculpture of ancient Greece very differently to an early Christian zealot). Marxism sweeps away fixed ideas, outdated hierarchies, and stasis. Many of the assumptions of pre-Marxist aesthetics are pulled off their pedestals and forced to justify themselves. At the same time, art is restored from the magical and mysterious, or the eternal idea, to where it belongs, namely the social life of human beings.

The real Marxism

Many in the West, raised on a bourgeois diet of distortions and anti-socialist insults, would be surprised to learn what Marxism really is. The goal of Marxism is free human beings — unalienated, unexploited, free to develop themselves creatively. The economy, currently controlled by a minority, should be used for the equal benefit of everyone and governed by direct democracy. This is not a utopia or a dream, as the bourgeoisie would like us to think, but something that is realisable.

Understanding Marxism as just another ‘-ism’ limits its breadth: it is the investigation of the objective world through the method of dialectical materialism, and its aim is to discover the most precise attainable truth. Its method is scientific because it derives theory from experience — where experience teaches us that the theory no longer holds true, theory must change to more accurately explain the world, not vice versa. Marx did not get everything right. For example, his belief that socialist revolutions would first take place in the most advanced capitalist countries overlooked the strength of the apparatus of consent and coercion that could be created in those countries. Political experience demonstrated that breakthroughs actually came where the bourgeoisie was weak, as in Russia and China. The working class observed this, revised the theory [4], and continued the struggle on an improved basis. Nobody gains from defending Marx or his successors blindly; what matters is to be as close as possible to demonstrable reality.

Objectivity, of course, is not the same as neutrality. Objective conditions — global poverty, war, etc — confirm the need for the radical change of society. Marxism does not apologise for siding with the working class: for all its media’s pretence of impartiality, the capitalist class too sides with its own interests.

Marxism therefore is routinely misrepresented by the bourgeoisie: it is hardly going to be represented fairly by those who would be overthrown by it. As we shall see, parts of the left have also been guilty of misreadings. To cite Allen Wood, author of the respected study Karl Marx:

There are probably no texts ever written, with the sole exception of scriptures purporting to convey divine revelation, that have been read with more consistent intellectual dishonesty than the works of Marx... Misreading is almost guaranteed when it proceeds from agendas that preclude either reading a text sympathetically or reading it critically.[5]

Most of the arguments against Marxist aesthetics are flung against straw men, without reference to major texts in which they have already been refuted. Marxist theory is accused of economic determinism — which it does not advocate in a hard form. It is crudely equated with Stalinism — a degenerated discourse which principled Marxists opposed. At best it is conceded to have ‘good intentions’, but to contradict ‘human nature’ — a nature which is apparently synonymous with bourgeois values, though capitalism has existed for just 500 of our species’ 150,000 or more years! Nothing delights the bourgeois more than to liken Marxism to a religion — yet it is a strange religion that corrects its texts according to empirical evidence. It is accused of seeking to proscribe what work artists are allowed to create, and yes, there has been bureaucratic repression — but by contrast Trotsky, who was foremost in carrying the torch of true Marxism during the worst years of Stalinism, wrote:

Our Marxist conception of the objective social dependence and social utility of art, when translated into the language of politics, does not at all mean a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders. It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital![6]

Far from being dogmatic, true Marxism is open-minded, flexible and highly tolerant of change. Indeed, if it refuses to accept change, Marxism is in contradiction with itself. This refutes Foucault’s claim that “Marx out of the nineteenth century is like a fish out of water”. An essential part of this flexibility is that no Marxist worthy of the name should ever reduce art to a social document, from which a ‘political line’ must be extracted. Whether or not particular artists or works receive a ‘stamp of approval’ from Marxist criticism, art will continue regardless, just as it did for thousands of years before Marxism was even conceived. Art is first and foremost an affirmation of human powers and experience, that is there to be appreciated on its own terms and for which Marxism is simply a tool to a fuller understanding.

Why the Marxist perspective is important today

Lenin and Trotsky both understood that we must assimilate bourgeois culture before we can attempt to build a new, socialist one. If we want to understand how art fits into that process we need the best possible theoretical and historical perspective. Marxists are generally very interested in art and culture, but busy cadre engaged in activism against ills such as war or fascism often see the study of art as a low priority. Strictly they are correct. But human society without art, as the expression of our humanity in concrete, sensuous images, is unthinkable. If we are to understand Marxism in its totality we need to study its art theory too — through it we will encounter some of Marx’s most profound ideas.

The point is not to peddle endless quotations by Marx as if they were sufficient in themselves — what matters is that your theory should fit the facts. Identifying facts, of course, is less straightforward than it sounds. No scientific test exists outside of social and historical conditions, outside of ideology. The present-day debate between genetic determinism and the more plastic, socially mediated view of human nature is a case in point. And it is easy to forget that many of the scientific norms we take for granted were unknown to the vast majority of humans who have lived. Until the 17th century, the existence of bacteria was unknown; until the 19th century, Europeans mostly assumed that human beings were created ready-made by a creator God. The Newtonian model of physics seemed incontrovertible until new ideas by Einstein forced a revision, and even the Industrial Revolution is only 200 years old. We too will have assumptions overturned, and be sent in new directions by new discoveries — like anyone else, Marxists can only go on the best of current data, which makes claiming a definitive ‘final’ theory inadviseable. There is no Marxist magic wand that can conjure up answers to complex topics that the world’s best scientists are still puzzling over. But I would argue that it does put our researches into a powerful framework — materialist, penetrating, dialectical, embracing of change, viewing events as the products of complex totalities of causes rather than reductive ones, unafraid to seek underlying causes — that helps steer us through the debates of the day.

In achieving a better perspective, we must expose not only the distortions that capitalism has imposed upon art, but also the theoretical abuses that have been propagated by parts of the left, above all Stalinism. One reason why I quote so copiously from Marxist writers — apart from there being no need to reinvent the wheel — is to prove that an open-minded and humane approach to art is supported by primary texts. The attempts by the likes of Zhdanov to dictate content to artists was not only wrong in itself but contrary to the philosophy of Marx.

It was when confronted with an attempt to present bad politics in his name that Marx made his comment that if that was Marxism, then “what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”.[7] When the leader of the world’s most recent socialist revolution, Hugo Chávez, talks about “twenty-first century socialism”, he does so for good reason — to draw a line between the worst models of the twentieth century and the new ones of today and tomorrow.

Marxism’s contribution to analysing a painting or a novel may seem of minor importance next to the goal of freeing the oppressed people of the world, but the application of Marxism is universal. It is not only interested in economics, class or revolutions but in anthropology, archaeology, history, psychology, culture, and indeed everything else. We should not see Marxism as one among several interesting tools in a toolbox, for its implications are felt across the whole of society. You cannot, as some academics want to, cherry-pick the bits you like and ignore its revolutionary politics. Marx and Engels never lost sight of their philosophy as a programme of proletarian revolutionary action. It is not enough to theorise in isolation from political practice. As Marx famously said in the last of his Theses on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” For a Marxist, political intervention, with no interests other than those of the international working class, is a must.

The goal of Marxism is to reduce human suffering by building a world of democracy and hope in which everybody has food, shelter, education, healthcare and the other benefits of civilisation, not according to their social status, sex or the colour of their skin, but on an equal basis. It is this powerful and optimistic human message, this belief in a far better way of organising society, that drives all Marxists and which makes Marxism essential today.

[1] As theorised by Trotsky in, for example, The Revolution Betrayed. There is an alternative theory popular with the ultra-left that the USSR was in fact ‘state capitalist’. This theory has various forms, the most prominent contending that the bureaucracy was a new class — a position that excused the ultra-left from defending the Soviet Union and led them to see the regression from workers’ state to capitalism as at worst a ‘step sideways’. This gave us the grotesque spectacle of some socialist forces applauding the biggest defeat the working class has suffered since the Second World War: capitalist restoration halved the former USSR’s GDP and devastated the living standards of its working class.
[2] Leon Trotsky, ‘The USSR in War’ from In Defence of Marxism (1942).
[3] Trotsky, ‘The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism’ from Literature and Revolution (1924). This work was part of Trotsky’s opposition to the Stalinist orthodoxy that dominated communist parties across the world. Eclipsed for decades, it deserves to take its proper place as one of the finest works of Marxist aesthetic theory.
[4] For example, in Lenin’s State and Revolution and Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution, and Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.
[5] Allen Wood, Preface to the second edition of Karl Marx (2004).
[6] Trotsky, op. cit.
[7] Reported by Engels in his letter to Eduard Bernstein (November 1882). Marx was talking about the French leaders Guesde and Lafargue, whom he accused of “phrase-mongering” in their rejection of reformist struggle.