The Disintegration of Expression


The week when a group of scientists have decided to hold the ‘Doomsday Clock’ at three minutes to midnight (though I cannot help feeling that the notion of a clock that can always be reset undermines the idea of time running out) is an apt one to consider the diagram above, which also deals with time, though the message it has to convey concerns not how little time might be left to us  but rather how much has gone before.

The diagram is drawn to different scales and has two related parts. The strip along the bottom with the grey wavy lines represents the last 200,000 years, which is the period our particular species of human, Homo sapiens, has been around (though that is still a small fraction of the human timeline, which streches back some 6.5 million years). The upper part of the diagram represents the last quarter of that time, with today (2016) at the right hand edge, and the jagged left hand edge being 50,000 years ago.

The area to the right of the blue line marked E is the last 5,500 years; it is reperesented on the bottom strip by the coloured portion to the extreme right of the grey strip.

Five and a half thousand years ago saw two significant events, the invention of metalworking and the invention of writing. It therefore marks an important boundary, or rather two: everything to the left of the line marked E (shown at greater length by the wavy line below) is the Stone Age; it is also conventionally regarded as Prehistoric Times, since History is deemed to start with the invention of writing and the possibility of contemporary records.

(It is worth pausing a moment to consider our immediate reaction to the terms ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Prehistoric’ – both are widely used pejoratively, to denote whatever is hopelessly primitive, barbarous and old fashioned, with no place in the modern age)

The red line marked with a star is more recent – 2,500 years ago – and takes us back to the beginning of the Classical period in Greece, the age that saw that most significant generation of teachers and pupils, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Somewhere in that time occurs what I have called the Muybridge Moment  by analogy with Eadweard Muybridge’s invention of stop-motion photography, which enabled him effectively to freeze time and analyse the motion of a galloping horse. In the same way, somewhere from Socrates (who wrote nothing) to Aristotle, whose writings arguably provide the foundation of Western thinking and the modern world, the full potential of writing is realised for the first time: it can freeze the flow of speech, giving it an objective form which can be analysed and codified.

That, for me, is a more significant moment than the invention of writing some three millennia earlier, which though a necessary condition for the development of the modern world was not yet a sufficient one, as its potential had yet to be recognised.

One inference that can be drawn from the diagram is that the farther we go to the left, the likelier it is that any human practice we find will by now have become so ingrained that we regard it as coming naturally to us; it is congenital, something we are born with, or born with an aptitude for (to use a very recent metaphor, we are programmed to do it). The prime case, of course, is speech, which we have presumably engaged in from time immemorial, and which we learn (and teach) without need for any formal training.

The naturalness of speech, however, is disguised to a large extent by the advent of literacy: reading and writing, though immensely advantageous (and a key measure of ‘development’ that we use to judge nations and societies) are by no means natural to us: considerable effort and training is required to master them (and to teach them) and not everyone succeeeds in acquiring them; but to be without them – in a literate society – is to be disabled. When it comes to human expression, we are not content to rely on nature: it must be augmented, even supplanted, by formal instruction.

That point is worth bearing in mind: it is quite likely that other of our natural aptitudes have become overlooked and effectively hidden by the way our system of education has developed.

Let us now consider what the first three lines on the diagram represent: none marks an event or a first beginning; rather they are records of activity that must already have been going on for some time – for thousands, even tens of thousands of years – but of which we have some tangible, dateable evidence at these points.


A, some 42,000 years ago, is the date of some bone flutes that have been found in the Swabian Alb region of German. Music, of course, must be older than that: it is probably primeval – the voice is the oldest instrument, though percussion – drumming and rhythmic clapping and stamping – must be a close second. And if we mention rhythm, it is natural to think of dance, and to suppose that it, too, is very ancient, though it leaves little in the way of direct evidence.

(However, there is possible evidence of the controlled use of fire by our ancestor, Homo erectus, dating from 1.5 million years ago, and demonstrable evidence from 0.79 million years ago (790,000 years). Is it at all unreasonable to suppose that dancing around fires, singing and drumming, is equally ancient? Or, for that matter, telling tales around the fire?)

B, 40,000 years ago, is the date of certain carved figures found in the same region of Germany as the flutes, though these again are not a start point but rather an indication of an established human activity; and there are some who find evidence for sculpture much older still (the ‘Venus of Tan-Tan‘ is dated around 300,000 years ago).

C, 30,000 years ago, is the date of some cave-painting found in France, Spain and Indonesia; again, not a start point, but evidence of an already highly developed and skilled human activity.

(I might have included a line a shade to the right of C, around 29,000 years ago, to mark the oldest know ceramics, i.e. fired clay. The striking thing is that its first use is aesthetic, the making of figurines or statuettes In terms of practical application, the oldest pottery vessels we know about are some 9000 years younger, from around 20,000 years ago.)

D, 10,000 years ago, differs from the others in marking a start point – that of civilisation, the habit of living in settled communities supported by agriculture, as opposed to our previous nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life. Jericho claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement, with beginnings dated some 11000 years ago.

‘Civilisation’ is another word loaded with overtones, though unlike ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Prehistoric’ they are not pejorative: ‘civilised’ is the opposite of ‘barbaric’ – it denotes having all the cultural adjuncts that we esteem highly – education, art, music, literature, and a certain level of human behaviour implying decent treatment, hospitality and respect for others. Which should give us pause, since as our diagram shows, ‘civilisation’ is very much a Stone Age, Prehistoric invention.


‘Civilisation’ (in the strict sense of living in settlements supported by agriculture) is one of the earliest examples of what I have called ‘elective indispensables’ – things we manage perfectly well without till we invent them, then adapt our way of living to them so they seem indispensable. A look at surviving nomadic cultures – the Mongols, for example, or our own (sadly beleaguered) travelling folk – soon gives the lie to the notion that hospitality, decency and a good standard of life are the preserve of dwellers in cities; and where has there ever been squalor, degradation and dehumanisation on a par with that found in great cities down the ages and still today?

As for the notion that ‘Civilisation’ is interchangeable with ‘Culture‘ in its narrow sense of ‘those human achievements we value highly such as art, music, poetry’ – the diagram gives the lie to that, too – it is evident that all these things have their origin tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of years before civilisation came along.

But surely literature – as its very name suggests – belongs to the age of writing (and so of (later) civilisation)?

It is a point worth examining. While the discovery of ceramics was turned first to creative or aesthetic use, and only some thousands of years later to practical applications, the case of Writing is the opposite. It would appear to have come in as an adjunct of number, to enable lists to be made of the things that could be counted – such as the contents of warehouses and treasuries. It was also used for records, of reigns, battles etc., and the promulgation of laws. It took a thousand years for anyone to use it for something we might call literature.

Although there is a case to be made that the invention of writing marks the start of History, that is to suppose that History is merely record-keeping; however, it has a much wider sense, ‘the account that people give of who they are and where they came from’ and here it overlaps to a large extent with ‘Culture’, not in the narrow sense of ‘desirable attainments’ but the broader one of ‘the customs and traditions – the way of life – transmitted from one generation to the next.’

Look again at our diagram. The inference to be drawn from it is not that the people who lived in the time up to the blue line marked E had no sense of who they were or where they came from, but rather that they had a means of transmitting their Culture which had no need of Writing.

Which brings me at last to my somewhat controversial claim that the period up to the red line should be thought of as the Age of Integrated Expression, in contrast to what I have called the Age of Language.

My case is this: what we think of as ‘Language’ is not a continuum with its origin in the very beginnings of human time but actually a radical departure from that continuum, dating back some two and a half thousand years. The major obstacle to our seeing this is that ‘Language’ is, as it were, the lens through which we view the past: it colours how we think of it. (And a small evidence of this is seen in the effect of the words ‘Prehistoric’ ‘Stone Age‘ and ‘Civilisation’ noted above)

What characterises ‘Language’ and marks it off from what went before is its narrowness of focus: it is concerned exclusively with its written and spoken form, which interact yet are to some extent opposite (a point examined here ) Although Speech is far older and comes naturally to us, the dominant partner in this relationship is Writing, as can be seen from the great importance that we attach to formal grammar, standardised spelling and punctuation, all necessary adjuncts of writing (in fact, remedies for its inherent weaknesses) for which Speech has no need at all, though it now strives to conform to them – consider the notions of ‘Standard English’ and ‘Received Pronunciation’.

(these are points I have discussed elsewhere here, here and here )

I would argue that the natural mode of human expression makes use indifferently of all the means we use to express ourselves – speech, certainly, but also facial expression, gesture, bodily posture, movement, rhythm, music, art, sculpture – a range that extends from our immediate selves out into our surroundings. I see no reason to suppose that Speech in particular was deemed any more important than the others: I think that is an illusion fostered by the disintegration which has taken place with the emergence of ‘Language’ which has seen Speech separated and simultaneously elevated in importance but subjugated to Writing, while the other modes are effectively conquered by division, being turned from natural human activities into areas of specialist skill: music, painting, sculpture, dance (and indeed literature).

This ‘Integrated Expression’, I would argue, is the natural vehicle of human culture, the means by which we transmitted our ideas of who we were and where we came from for tens and hundreds of thousands of years. If we were looking back at it through our ‘Language’ shaped lens, we would distinguish Dance and Ritual and Music and Storytelling and Poetry and Art, and doubtless see that they were associated with particular times of year (Solstices and Equinoxes, for instance) and certain places (painted caves, perhaps, or megalithic monuments – to say nothing of campfires). However, the key to grasping it is not separation and distinction but combination and likeness, synthesis rather than analysis – which is also the mechanism of metaphor, the key tool of this older way of thinking as reason and logic (both children of ‘Language’) are of the new.

And the hopeful conclusion is that, although the old way may have been superseded, it still goes on, albeit cloaked and disguised – indeed, a case might be made that all that is vigorous in our present culture stems from these ‘natural’ elements in their various guises – Music, Art, Poetry, Storytelling etc. – rather than from our present education system, chiefly designed as a means of transmitting literacy (and maintaining the ascendancy of the literate).

3 thoughts on “The Disintegration of Expression

  1. Pingback: Heart-thought | COMPLEAT TROWZER

  2. Pingback: Stone-sucking, or what matters | COMPLEAT TROWZER

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