Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

hunters, farmers, and time

In a wonderful review-essay in the most recent issue of The New Atlantis, Adam Roberts argues that farmers were the first time-travelers:

It is certainly possible to imagine our hunter-gatherer ancestors living in some bestial, continuous present of consciousness, their experience of time pricked out with moments of intensity — the chase, the kill, the satisfaction of a full stomach — but indifferent to the distant future.  

But it is quite impossible to imagine farmers prospering in such a frame of mind. Once we humans began to depend on planted crops and domesticated animals, our new mode of life absolutely required us to think ahead: to anticipate setbacks and think through solutions, to plan, to map out the future world — indeed, many potential future worlds.

Time travel as mental exercise must have begun at least that early. And that makes this focus on recent modernity look a little parochial. We are not so special. Indeed, thinking in this way of the future’s origins might make us rethink some of the metaphors we use to articulate our sense of time. Gleick is good on the limitations of these figures of speech — for example, time, as he shows, is not really “like a river.” Farmers, the original time travelers, are likewise prone to think of rivers not first as modes of transport but means of irrigation. Might time be the same for us — not a vehicle for taking us somewhere, as a horse is to a hunter, but a resource to make fertile what we have and hold dear?  

This view would imply that science fiction is at root a farming literature.  

I am intrigued by this idea, and responded to it in an email to Adam that I’m going to adapt for this post. (I should mention here that Adam and I are these days thinking together about fantasy.) If "science fiction is at root a farming literature," could we not say that the Primal Scene of fantasy is the disruption of the lives of farmers by hunters? And that that disruption is (to stick with Freudian categories) a kind of return of the repressed, the nightmarish recurrence of something that the farmers thought had been banished by their forethought, i.e., their time travel?

It is not just fantasy, of course: when Horace retreats to his Sabine farm he is surely escaping the “hunters” of Roman politics; and when Machiavelli is exiled by the fierce hunters of Florentine politics to the countryside what does he do? He enters his study and practices the time travel of conversing with long-dead men. Maybe the founding myth of this particular pattern is Cincinnatus’s returning to his plow. (On the Lawn of the University of Virginia there is a statue of George Washington standing with the fasces, his plow behind him — and immediately across the Lawn there is another statue, of Jefferson sitting and contemplating this scene. It’s marvelously ambiguous.)

But what if the genre of fantasy uniquely finds its fons et origo in the fear of the return of the repressed hunters? Think of Odysseus’s encounter with the Kyklopes and his deep repulsion at the fact that they do not farm but just eat whatever comes up out of the ground — and then he immediately goes on to note that they have no politics either, and simply deal out whatever they think is justice to their own families. They are hunter-gatherers and therefore uncivilized, as are Penelope’s suitors of course, who behave in exactly the same way. And so the killing of the suitors and the subsequent purging of the halls of Odysseus are a prefiguration of the Scouring of the Shire.

So maybe science fiction is fundamentally about the hopes of farmers, and fantasy about their fears. If the history that David Graeber and David Wengrow sketch out  —the one I described in my previous post — is correct, and there was no smooth sequential abandonment of hunting and gathering in favor of farming but rather a very long period of mixed economies, mixed cultures, then the survival of these complexities into modern literature is not wholly surprising.


  • This post is interesting timing for me, I'm currently reading Ancillary Justice and in it notice three prominent themes that you mention above (farming, civilized/uncivilized, and stretching time).

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