Thursday 26 April 2018

The curse of agriculture

The Indian in his Solitude by NC Wyeth - this is more like the kind of thing...

Since the invention of farming, modern life has become a state of siege, a small gang of family and allies against a mass of hostile strangers, an island of order surrounded by overwhelming forces of chaos - planning is essential, yet most plans will fail. The world is not an unconditionally nurturing parent but must be coerced into producing the necessities of life, survival is a hard bargain, failure an ever present threat. For the farmer, the natural world is neither unchangeable nor ‘giving’ - it is raw material for the production of food and other necessities and luxuries. Production entails prolonged, dull, repetitive tasks to force nature into new and different shapes.

The conditions of [the] archetypal farm are harsh. This is not Eden but the curse of exile: only by the sweat of his brow does the man provide food for his family. Not only the man, of course; the woman, too, must work all and every day. The children are the labourers who will ease the burden of the cursed land.

The same forest that is a nurturing parent for the hunter-gatherer, becomes for the farmer a perpetual threat of savage encroachment. The world consist of objects to be manipulated:

The trees are felled, their root are hauled from the ground, stones are picked from the earth, invading wild plants and shrubs are rooted out again and again.. the soil will grow grass and vegetables only if a great deal else is “kept under control”, which means excluded or destroyed. Not only rival plant life, but also wild creatures that harm seeds, seedlings, buds or fruits, or eat the domestic animals… Weeds and vermin. These are the agents of wild nature that have to be walled out, scared off or killed.

And ‘the farmer’ stands for the modern human condition - the life of modern man is ‘farming’ the whole world. The serious business of survival now depends absolutely on a shift to objectification, control, imposed order. Animism must be denigrated, written-over and suppressed.

The distinction between respect and control is of immense importance to an understanding of how agriculturalists approach hunter-gatherers. The skills of farmers are centred not on their inner relationship to the world but their ability to change it. Technical and intellectual systems are developed to achieve and maintain this as completely as possible. Farmers carry with them systems of control as well as crucial seeds and livestock. These systems constitute ways of thinking as well as bodies of information. .. the achievement of abstraction and the project of control are related.

...The above is from an article I wrote about 15 years ago (and before I was a Christian).

I still feel much the same! And in consequence, I regard the historical situation, language and symbolism as sub-optimal to the degree that it assumes an agricultural (or industrial) society. Agriculture is intrinsically a sub-optimal way of life... 

I think we humans are 'meant' (by our natures) to live much less 'planned' lives than we do: less civilized and more natural; less institutional and more familial; less dependent on literacy and science and more spontaneously creative.

In sum, I believe that we are intended/ destined to return to living much more like hunter gatherers - but this time with a full awareness of our situation and from choice (rather than knowing nothing any different, or from necessity)... And if not in this world, then the next.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Interesting that the Bible has nothing to say about life before agriculture. The first farmers are Adam and Cain, and the first hunter mentioned, Nimrod, is also the king of several cities, so obviously not a hunter-gatherer.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - I assume Genesis 4:2 described the origin/ invention of agriculture:

And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

And that before this there was implicitly some kind of Edenic version of the hunter gatherer life... but then Genesis, at this point, does not seem to be trying to tell us anything like History.

I suppose my point is that the origins of Christianity - so far as we have *records* - have been within literate agricultural societies; but that this is an historical artefact - and the reality of Christianity is (and must be) wholly compatible with non-literate, ultra-low tech hunter gatherers.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - I should clarify that being a 'keeper of sheep' is agriculture, just as much as being 'a tiller of the ground' - although the current consusus is tha herding of goats then sheep came one or two thousand years before growing cereals... Herding, as well as tilling, causes/ associated with the qualitative changes that mark the advent of agriculture. Indeed there were some hunter gatherers with agriculture-type societies among the Amerindians of the Pacific North West - the ones that had totem poles, potlatch feasts and slaves - they 'harvested' and stored shellfish and other water resources. It seems to be the control of food supplies (or some other essential of life, maybe a technology) that triggers/ enables the social changes - the emergence of a warrior/ priest ruling class etc.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Or how about the story of Jacob and Esau as depicting the transition from hunter-gatherer life (Esau was a hunter) to agriculture? Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage -- representing giving up the hunter-gatherer life in exchange for the steady food supply of agriculture. Esau's deception by Jacob is portrayed as a sort of second Fall. Esau is called Edom, which is etymologically the same name as Adam; and the crafty, hairless, heel-grabbing Jacob recalls the serpent.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - Yes, that's convincing.

(Of course, these are just specific aspects of what is being given - what I got from Barfield's work on language, what crystallised this for me, is the very different way in which ancient people thought, spoke and wrote compared with us - meaning many things simultaneously. The nearest we moderns can get to it is in poetry and dream; both of which are notoriously 'untranslateable' into precise descriptive prose - which means only one thing at a time.)

Chiu ChunLing said...

No, the pastoral life is not agriculture. This is not just technically incorrect. There is a vital difference between the relationship of man to other mammals and man to vegetation. It is a difference with real and significant moral implications.

The scriptures, particularly those recording Christ's mortal ministry, recognize this distinction implicitly.

Hunting and gathering is a natural mode of life for humans. It has appealing aspects, much like "free love". But it means not only giving up the project of civilization, but the foundational aspiration of alleviating the essential cruelty of nature. The worship of Ashtoreth and Baal involves abject acceptance of even unnatural cruelty in exchange for carnal pleasures. It is thus an extension of the preference for hunting and gathering over pastoral life. The "Noble Savage" is a myth, the real savage is at some moments apparently free of malice simply by failing to be conscious of his own outside of those moments when some necessary act of cruelty requires it.

Pastoral life confronts and challenges that cruelty, without necessarily going so far as to deny that it is fundamentally necessary.

Once you know about civilization, you can never make the choice to become a savage without abandoning moral scruples entirely. But you can return to the pastoral life.