Book #14: A Language Older Than Words

A Language Older Than Words, by Derrick Jensen.

I have a hard time figuring out what to say about this book. If I’d read it when I was 20, I would have been all about the same things as Jensen, not because his message is immature or because I’ve “outgrown” some of the things he claims and believes, but simply because my particular experiences and beliefs suggest that some of his rage is misdirected, some of his conclusions are mistaken, and some of his indictments are too sweeping.

The main thesis he offers is that Western Civilization is insane. If you look at the way people relate to the environment, to one another, to themselves, you will see—he illustrates it rather forcefully—we are crazy. Faith in governments, corporations, in popular culture to do the right thing are misguided because all of these things have come into being within a society that, in its government, in its religious texts, in is ecology, in its economics, is twisted, broken, insane, and centered on a destructive death-wish.

Mining his own experience as a child who grew up in an abusive family, as a young man whose Crohn’s disease was dangerously misdiagnosed, as a young science student, as an activist, as an anarchist dropout who works to live closer to nature, he makes some very forceful arguments about the nature of denial, the process of healing; he provides interesting (albeit incomplete, and far from final) answers to questions of violence versus nonviolence in activism.

His hatred for megacorporations is not just understandable, but infectious. The companies he lists off are ones whose evils I already know, with Weyerhauser—the poisoner of my childhood hometown, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan—all too familiar to me. This is the same Weyerhauser that is leading the destruction of rainforests.

His yearning for greater closeness with nature is also something I understand. I look out my window and I see not the ricefields that sat spread out before me when I first moved into my apartment, but a wall of apartment buildings, and the grating sounds of new buildings beyond them being churned up against the sky. I know that all the way out as far as I can see, they—developers—want to put up the same damned squareblock soulless apartment buildings. It’s “empty space”, empty being something defined by how much money it’s generating. Rice? We can import rice, the logic seems to suggest. “We can import rice, while we can make more money putting apartment buildings onto this land.” Meanwhile, developers look to convert wetlands into “much-needed” rice-fields.

But then, I ask myself, where will the people live if there are not new apartment buildings? Where will people sleep? It’s not as if apartments in Korea are excessively spacious, or as if housing land is used wastefully. Hell, there’s barely anywhere to park, the buildings are so close together. And for now, they can import rice. They have a greying population, and the young are getting worried about how they will feed the growing legions of grannies and gramps.

I think of what Jensen writes about, and I realize that there are many problems in Korea, or in Canada, or in Zaire, but the problems aren’t the same everywhere. Here in Korea, even a foreigner can get health care for very little money. In Canada, residents can do the same, though they may have to wait for it.

The way Jensen feeds his chickens is off the waste of, well, wastrel companies. Yet in Korea, the mass majority of people dump their food trash into food trash bins; thereafter it is apparently, used to feed pigs or composted.

This is not to say Korea is essentially more conservationist than Canada or America. For me to assert that would be to lie. My girlfriend sometimes points out to me ways in which she can tell I come from a wasteful society—leaving the water running a little too long, or not consuming all of the food I buy—but on the other hand, it’s only been in Korea that I have seen people turn on the air conditioning in a room to full blast, and then open the windows at the same time. It’s only been in Korea that I’ve seen people reflexively turn the heat on high on a rainy day, even on a hot rainy day, because they think rain makes the day cold.

Human societies are, I suspect, all wasteful. It’s not just Western “Civilization”, either, though Jensen notes that the West has perfected destruction to a high black art. But I wonder if he’s studied the history of human expansion on Earth. Korea, for example, has a mythology and a language full of references to tigers and bears. The Korean version of “Once upon a time,” is, literally, “Back in the day when tigers smoked cigarettes,” (or, I assume at some point it was, “when they smoked pipes”), and it is said that the Korean people descend from the union of a demigod and his wife, a bear-woman whom he helped take on a human form. But we can see neither bears nor tigers in the wild here. Where are they?

Jensen likes to tell stories of how the Native Americans lived in such stable union with their environment, sustaining populations of fish and megafauna and respecting the land. If that’s the case, where are the old megafauna, the shaggy mammoths and the forgotten sabre-toothed tigers?

The answer is, they were killed off. They were killed off in a mass extinction event somewhat comparable to the one we’re living through now, brought down by a new form of technology and organization which they’d never encountered before. And that was long before the advent of agriculture.

What of agriculture? Agriculture was, for the first people who tried it, a hell. It meant slaving and suffering and for many, reliance on other methods of getting food. Hunt, gather, cultivate a little. Slowly, it took on more and more sense, and humans began to control their relationship with their food a little better. Control—that is a word Jensen repeats, time and time again, with rancor clear in his voice. And as a man who was controlled by his father, unforgivably, throughout his childhood, I can understand the hatred of control, the perception of control in our culture, our science, as a thing of evil.

But the old Bible verse about how we ought not to fear, for God feeds even the birds on the trees, so why would he not feed us too—that doesn’t gel well with prehistoric man. We know that hunter-gatherers we’ve seen in the modern era have mostly spent their time in relaxation, working very little to secure their survival. But we also know that sometimes they starved, their children died in ridiculous numbers, and that they exterminated all kinds of large, delicious species of megafauna whenever they encountered them. Why else would they do that than to assert control of the area—we will not be crushed in our sleep by a mammoth—and because, hell, it was a lot of food?

It is true that the Cree living around where I spent my last few years of high school had not, before the appearance of Europeans, driven the bison to extinction. But to claim they only killed what they needed is also a lie. No matter how big your hunting pack, if you’re on foot with pre-industrial weapons, killing a buffalo is a bloody hard thing to do. You end up either getting little ones, or old ones, or sick ones. You end up getting one at a time, maybe. Or you end up going hungry for the next few weeks.

The Cree in Southern Saskatchewan were not stupid. They knew that the survival of their group was crucial in some way, the way we humans favour our own survival over the survival of other species. And so they ran the bison in herds off a cliff. This is something well-documented; you can see it at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park near Saskatoon, a place which my high school girlfriend’s father helped to get built. Many bison died going over that cliff. Possibly more than people could use at one time. Sure, they shared, they were a collective. Their coexistence was not poisoned by some kind of slave-wage relationship.

But they sure killed a fucking lot of buffalo at once. Now, here’s the thing to watch out for: Native Americans, Canadian Aboriginals—living out of country, I don’t even know which terminology is acceptable this year—were a colonized people. They have some important stories to tell us about themselves, and about us and what we did to them. But to believe their stories about themselves is to be as credulous as those who believe the stories we tell ourselves about our culture.

There are Cree people I’ve met who don’t give a damn about all the evidence of a land bridge, of a lack of human remains far back in North American history, of their ancestors coming from Asia. These radicals don’t want to hear about it, they laugh at the idea and simply say, “We have always been here. Our stories tell us so.” Having been colonized, and working at rehabilitation, doesn’t mean one should go ahead and ignore reality. If a Cree person comes to visit Asia, looks at little children here, one will see the resemblance so strikingly that they will never question the idea of where Native Americans came from. When I taught children here, I saw the little faces of Cree and Dine kids I’d lived among when I was a kid, up in Northern Saskatchewan.

And this brings me to my main disagreement with Jensen: that science itself is simply a tool of our culture, a justifier of destruction. It’s difficult for me to disagree with him in practice, of course: for all the good it has done us—in the form of vaccinations, hygiene, and communications technology—a lot of what we use science to create is utter shit, stupid and destructive and wasteful. How can one explain cars that not only burn a non-renewable fossil fuel, but also emit as a result poisons into the air that not only harm us individually but affect the climate and ecology of the planet as a whole? How could you ever explain such a technology to an alien race if they asked, “What the hell are you people thinking?”

We couldn’t. We couldn’t explain, to use one of Jensen’s most powerful examples, why we have produced enough plutonium to provide a fatal dose to every living, breathing creature on Earth. We couldn’t explain why we are still producing plastic garbage bags from petroleum byproducts that don’t break down naturally but instead turn to poison, and why we’re allowing them to be stored in landfills and dumped into the ocean at alarming rates. We couldn’t explain why we insist so vehemently on a diet which necessitates all kinds of environmental stressors so extreme that aquifers are facing all kinds of awful consequences, that even our own bodies show, like the rings within a cut tree, the traces of all the poisons that go into keeping it going.

And yet Jensen himself acknowledges that the system is there, it is not changing now. When he goes out to dinner in one of the instances related in his book, he orders chicken. We want to eat meat, at least sometimes. We want music. We want things that move us, entertain us. Jensen’s books are printed on paper from trees that get cut down and pulped. Jensen’s stand-up CDs get made with plastic that will someday break down into poison. (Though no one author can be thought to add much to the overall footprint, no one author can be thought blameless in his or her contribution, either.)

So sometimes I wonder if science and our greedy society isn’t just pushing us through the birth canal to the post-medium culture. We want chicken, but it will come to us in the form of virtual meat, made in hygenic tanks from the modified flesh of one bird, without the insane amounts of steroids and antibiotics that are used on animals today. We want books, but we will simply plug chips into the backs of our personal paper-display books, which will display the contents of the chips on high-tech paper-like pages. We want music, but we won’t someday need anything as wasteful as reams of plastic discs to store it all one—something P2P technology is making us realize.

How we can reform war, that’s another question. Here, I have to agree with Jensen, there are good people and evil people, and the evil people are sick in a way that is linked to the sicknesses of other aspects of our culture. He cites a study that examined the sexual habits of high-level politicians and the elite prostitutes they visited, and found that most of them wanted not merely sex, but all kinds of weird, humiliating (to the prostitute) sexual mind games and power games. It’s not surprising to me that people drawn to the power available within politics are more likely to be like that.

Similarly, it’s not surprising to me what comes of our society when, as Jensen rightly points out, quality of life is something valued far less than production. He puts it very well when he writes:

We do what we reward, and we reward what we value. All the fancy philosophy aside, we value asking someone if they would like fries with their burger more than we value a rich and healthy emotional and spiritual life and a vital community. Of course. The former does not threaten the foundations of our culture. (pg. 328)

He hammers at this point relentlessly, and with him I am on that point.

But there are other places where he strays to areas I have to question. He insists that he has communicated with nonhumans—a claim which in itself is trivial in a way, for any of us who’ve kept and loved a dog would claim the same thing, though perhaps a bit shyly. Jensen, on the other hand, claims to have communicated with and struck bargains with animals like coyotes, ducks, chickens, dogs, and bees. He even goes so far as to interview Cleve Backster, the polygraph expert who so famously in the 60s and 70s attached a polygraph to things like plants, cups of yogourt, and test tubes of sperm cells and claimed to find reactions by the plant to human intentions, or remote actions by humans to which the plants, yogourt, or sperm cells were “attuned”.

Having not experimented with a polygraph and yogourt, I have a hard time saying either way what I think for sure, but my strongest intuition suggests that, like all purported claims of proof of ESP I’ve ever encountered (such as from people like Rupert Sheldrake) have been the result of misinterpretation of correlations, mistakes, or purposeful falsification. Backster sounds convincing in what he says to Jensen, but I have trouble believing that it’s all on the level, because I think that Backster’s implied claim is false that no scientists would dare admit he is right; I suspect that if it had been verified and repeated by others (as is claimed on Backster’s website), it would be a major field of interest. Ah, but it’s not perfectly repeatable: why?

Backster claims it’s because of an “experimenter effect”, but why should this particular principle work this way, while others don’t? Why couldn’t there be some other explanation beyond telepathy? Same goes, perhaps, for Jensen’s experiences with some of the animals he’s encountered.

But at the same time, I have a hard time dismissing some of his stories. Mammals communicating with other mammals hardly should surprise us. Even mammals and birds do share some ancestral history. It’s also completely believable that the history of our society, with its anthropocentric, dominator attitude towards nature, its deep-seated desire to assert control over nature, and its neurosis about its own destructive power and tendencies… given all that, I can believe that our natural interrelation with creatures around us has been cut off, closed off, and denied until we’ve forgotten it exists, except perhaps with the household dog.

I suppose what I mean to say is that I think Jensen goes too far in saying he wants to tear down civilization. Civilization has many good things to recommend it, as well as many tumors which need to be excised. Science, commerce, media… these things are no of themselves evil, but they can serve evil and often they do, in our civilization. This is what needs to be changed, and Jensen’s meditations of resistance, revolution (and the failure of most revolutions in history), and violence versus nonviolence are very useful.

But where Jensen wants to write it all off as infested, I see this as a case of throwing out the baby along with the bathwater.

Still, I think the book has much to recommend it, and I do think it’s very worthwhile reading.

2 thoughts on “Book #14: A Language Older Than Words

  1. If Jensen adjudges Western civilization to be insane, what’s his standard for insanity? Does his standard come from inside the West or from outside of it?

    Fascinating post, Gord.


  2. Well, Kevin, thank you and that’s a good question you add in your comment.

    I’d like to add one caveat before I try to answer that: he gestures at “The West” but more often just calls it “our civilization”. Which makes sense in certain ways since, whoever is in a position to read it, is also a participant in the global postindustrial economy. In that case, any random Korean (or Indian, or Tanzanian, or Maori) who runs across it and reads it is very likely, in some way, caught up in the same “civilization”.

    Now, that said, his standards for this are a mixture of unobjectionable points and more objectionable ones.

    He says our culture’s philosophy about “the real” is just plain mentally ill. Going back to Descartes, he notes the insanity of Descartes (I’ll admit) deeply neurotic line of questioning that leads him to proclaim, “Cogito, ergo sum.” I mean, most of us don’t need to go through that whole line of questions to answer the question of whether we ourselves exist or not. I mean, it’s hardly even a creative question (or answer): I remember musing on the same question—untutored on the fact that some major Western philosopher had beaten me to it, hundreds of years before—that maybe I and the world around me didn’t in fact exist. It was during a car ride home from the big city, and staring out into the dark, I wondered if everything, including myself, might be a dream. But then, of course, I had to go to the bathroom, and then I had to eat dinner, and brush my teeth, and go to bed, and so on… and I realized this was nothing like what I remembered of my dreams. I realized that I knew that I existed because, well, because I simply knew so. In the language I’d use today, awareness of myself was just built into me.

    Jensen’s sense seems to be that the fact Descartes is remembered and even honored for his nutballery is not a causal problem, but rather a symptom of a great dislocation-from-reality illness that our society suffers from. It’s a reality-dysfunction of positively Philip K. Dick style, but with much more monumental proportions, and in it he implicates the Church, politics, production and profit as the sole economic value and the empowerment of corporations to enforce them as such, and Western culture in general as being thoroughly afflicted with this disease, the prime tumor of which is a drive to control and kill, twinned with a central death-wish.

    He also sometimes seems to feel that this is something of an epidemic, but also festering especially in certain places, and spread by certain carriers.

    And to go along with the medical metaphor for all this, he seems to envision himself, and others who take action, in some ways as being like the doctor in the Camus novel The Plague: aware of the horror, understanding of the spread of the sickness, able to minister to its victims somewhat, but helpless in the face of the thing as it is.

    Another aspect of the illness as I think he sees it is that, it seems, those who do not agree with our attitudes towards nature—a thing to be mastered, exploited, killed or brought to life as we wish—are cauterized by the system into either denial, apathy, or despair… all of which result in the intended state of apathy. People talk a lot about self-change but never seem willing to raise the question of when to go out and arm up, and lead an onslaught on behalf of nature. (Though he points out it would often be futile, he does not rule it out completely, and chides philosophical pacifism as moralistic selfishness.)

    As well, he sometimes seems to found his perceptions of our “civilization” from the (often somewhat romanticized) point of view of the cultures victimized by it. Thus we see images of Cree hunting bison conservatively, and preserving the herds. Yes, some did. Others ran them off cliffs, and don’t forget that their ancestors participated in some of the most vicious megafauna extinctions since the rise of humanity. (Same goes for humans all over the globe.)

    The point that is most convincing for me, though, is that he considers insane what he believes our descendants will look back upon as insane. If you think about it, this is an extremely good method of devising what we, as citizens of the planet here-and-now, are morons for agreeing putting up with.

    I mean, there is no goddamned reason everyone should have cars, or that their cars should have been running on oil all this time. That one is a simple no-brainer: what the hell have we been thinking? Similarly, why are we using plastics the way we are? How fucking stupid can we be?

    This is how we look at people in the Middle Ages, sometimes justifiably (but sometimes, in our ignorance about the time, less so).

    We ask ourselves, “How could they have just kept on justifying the existence of a hereditary monarchy, and never revolted against their king? How could they have put up with the rule of princes and wizards and charlatans for so damned long?”

    And yet we fool ourselves thinking that our descendants won’t be looking back at us with the same disappointed, confused disdain, wondering how we could have ever believed that this shit we are working with is actual democracy, that a two (or three, or whatever) -Party state could be an effective democracy, that global warming wasn’t happening (for regardless of what the Australian government says, the Bushistas are still pretty much in denial), that Jesus would have stood for any of the shit done in his name, that the collapsing of biodiversity on Earth was an acceptable thing to sit back and watch, that Reality TV was ever interesting, or worth keeping people in their homes when they could have been making love, going for walks, drinking a beer with friends, that smoking was ever a an acceptable form of drug use, that marijuana was not, that the production of plutonium was not an insane thing to do, that the global “free market” was ever at all free… I mean, the list can stretch on and on ad infinitum.

    And it is by this method—the examination of our world from imagined hindsight, with the cold eye of our imagined, bereaved, and pissed-off descendants—that Jensen argues most convincingly.

    Sadly, of course, the hindsight may be completely wrong. We don’t truly, angrily, miss the woolly mammoth or the sabre-toothed tiger. At the end of the current mass extinction, if living conditions are bearable enough for us to survive—and I imagine they will be—except by reading whatever books from the far past survive into their time, our descendants may not know at all what they will be missing out on.

    I guess it depends on whether we kill off all the krill and make things really hard for them, or not.

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