Archive for the ‘ecology’ Tag

Becoming Anthropocentric: Enkidu, Shamhat, and The Epic of Gilgamesh

It’s almost a cliché in deep ecological thought to point to the Abrahamic creation story in the Bible’s book of Genesis, where man is made in God’s own image and given dominion over the earth, as the root of Western anthropocentrism and the ecological problems that branch out from it. However, despite the rhetoric of divine inspiration that governs the reception of the holy scriptures, the biblical creation story hardly fell from the sky. Like the story of Noah and the Flood whose source is an older, Babylonian one encountered by the Hebrews during the Babylonian exile, so, too, the anthropocentrism found in Genesis is likely not unrelated, at least, to older, local narrative traditions, as a recent article about a newly-translated fragment from the Epic of Gilgamesh seems to suggest.

As the article’s author, Sophus Helle, reminds us

 The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Babylonian poem composed in ancient Iraq, millennia before Homer. It tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk. To curb his restless and destructive energy, the gods create a friend for him, Enkidu, who grows up among the animals of the steppe. When Gilgamesh hears about this wild man, he orders that a woman named Shamhat be brought out to find him. Shamhat seduces Enkidu, and the two make love for six days and seven nights, transforming Enkidu from beast to man. His strength is diminished, but his intellect is expanded, and he becomes able to think and speak like a human being. Shamhat and Enkidu travel together to a camp of shepherds, where Enkidu learns the ways of humanity. Eventually, Enkidu goes to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh’s abuse of power, and the two heroes wrestle with one another, only to form a passionate friendship.

The newly-translated fragment, however, modifies the present version of the epic in one small detail:

Shamhat seduces Enkidu, they have sex for a week, and Shamhat invites Enkidu to come to Uruk. The two of them then talk about Gilgamesh and his prophetic dreams. Then, it turns out, they had sex for another week, and Shamhat again invites Enkidu to Uruk.

The first time that Shamhat invites Enkidu to Uruk, she describes Gilgamesh as a hero of great strength, comparing him to a wild bull. Enkidu replies that he will indeed come to Uruk, but not to befriend Gilgamesh: he will challenge him and usurp his power. Shamhat is dismayed, urging Enkidu to forget his plan, and instead describes the pleasures of city life: music, parties and beautiful women.

After they have sex for a second week, Shamhat invites Enkidu to Uruk again, but with a different emphasis. This time she dwells not on the king’s bullish strength, but on Uruk’s civic life: ‘Where men are engaged in labours of skill, you, too, like a true man, will make a place for yourself.’ Shamhat tells Enkidu that he is to integrate himself in society and find his place within a wider social fabric. Enkidu agrees: ‘the woman’s counsel struck home in his heart’.

So far, so good. Helle’s argument is that “The episodes represent two stages of the same narrative arc, giving us a surprising insight into what it meant to become human in the ancient world.”

It is clear that Enkidu has changed between the two scenes. The first week of sex might have given him the intellect to converse with Shamhat, but he still thinks in animal terms: he sees Gilgamesh as an alpha male to be challenged. After the second week, he has become ready to accept a different vision of society. Social life is not about raw strength and assertions of power, but also about communal duties and responsibility.

Placed in this gradual development, Enkidu’s first reaction becomes all the more interesting, as a kind of intermediary step on the way to humanity. In a nutshell, what we see here is a Babylonian poet looking at society through Enkidu’s still-feral eyes. It is a not-fully-human perspective on city life, which is seen as a place of power and pride rather than skill and cooperation.

What does this tell us? We learn two main things. First, that humanity for the Babylonians was defined through society. To be human was a distinctly social affair. And not just any kind of society: it was the social life of cities that made you a ‘true man’. Babylonian culture was, at heart, an urban culture. Cities such as Uruk, Babylon or Ur were the building blocks of civilisation, and the world outside the city walls was seen as a dangerous and uncultured wasteland.

Second, we learn that humanity is a sliding scale. After a week of sex, Enkidu has not become fully human. There is an intermediary stage, where he speaks like a human but thinks like an animal. Even after the second week, he still has to learn how to eat bread, drink beer and put on clothes. In short, becoming human is a step-by-step process, not an either/or binary.

…One is not simply born human…

That final formulation possesses a telling, unconscious irony, most charitably an instance of that “blindness and insight” that characterizes language, thought, and even perception (i.e., as the philosopher Edmund Husserl so forcefully reminded us, we only ever see one side of an object), a blindness symptomatically evident at several points.

The first is a linguistic insensitivity, in a howler of a mixed metaphor. Like the Bible and the Homeric epics, the Epic of Gilgamesh as we read it is the result of centuries of editing. As Helle puts it

Not only does Gilgamesh exist in a number of different versions, each version is in turn made up of many different fragments. There is no single manuscript that carries the entire story from beginning to end. Rather, Gilgamesh has to be recreated from hundreds of clay tablets that have become fragmentary over millennia. The story comes to us as a tapestry of shards, pieced together by philologists to create a roughly coherent narrative… (my emphasis)

A second, deeper blindness is ideological (in a Marxian sense). In Helle’s reading, this newest iteration of the seduction of Enkidu shows that, “[t]o be human was a distinctly social affair. And not just any kind of society: it was the social life of cities that made you a ‘true man’. Babylonian culture was, at heart, an urban culture.” That the epic should identify being human with being civilized should be unsurprising, given the conditions of its production, the labour of scribes in a hierarchical, urban society, whose social relations were rooted in the settled agriculture whose surplus of food underwrote the division of labour that freed bodies and hands to sit, learn to read and write, and reproduce clay tablets retelling a cultural epic whose values unsurprisingly reproduce those of the society that tells it to itself.

Finally, there is that most fateful of unexamined distinctions, that between the human and animal. What goes unremarked is just how Enkidu is tamed:  being seduced by Shamhat with whom he copulates for one or two weeks. On the one hand, Helle’s graduate school buddies might chuckle that Enkidu is “tamed” when he goes from being a single, unattached male to one half of a couple. Not only does the role, function or importance of Shamhat’s gender go unexamined (…), Helle also, on the other hand, fails to register that Enkidu is made human by that act human beings share with all other sexually-reproducing animals, mammals and otherwise, an act as biologically primal as eating and defecating.

That “no one is born human” is surely the case, just not in the sense Helle seems to draw from the epic. As he remarks “becoming human is a step-by-step process, not an either/or binary.” However, more profoundly, it is also a process that sidesteps the animal/human binary it pretends to bridge, in however many steps. The seduction of Enkidu seems not so much to make Enkidu human as to convert him from one kind of herd animal, running wild on the steps, to another, that has learned “to eat bread, drink beer and put on clothes.”

I leave unremarked Helle’s curious wording at the end of his summary of the pertinent part of the epic, concerning how, when Enkidu and Gilgamesh finally meet, “the two heroes wrestle with one another, only to form a passionate friendship.”









On the end of the Doha Climate Change Conference: a poem and commentary

Brushfires from Colorado
to Croatia; floodwaters
deeper than memory

drown southern Russia
and Thailand; tornadoes
plough the Midwest;

record hurricanes on
the Eastern Seaboard.
Humanity betrays all

the collective intelligence
of a bacterium
in a petri dish.

Although the poem above was composed in Berlin this past summer, today its sentiment seems prescient of what many of those of us who care about the fate of civilization feel. A lone voice speaks to the issue in Canada’s parliament, and in the face of suicidal official denial and incapacity, it would be barbaric not to lend a poetic voice in support. Posting a poem, of all things, must seem a futile gesture, but its impulse takes inspiration from Luther, who, asked what he would do if he knew the world were to end tomorrow answered, “Plant an apple tree.”

Philosophy in real time

I’ve chanced on a very lively, new philosophical movement lately, Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), one of whose members, Timothy Morton, Professor of English (Literature and the Environment) at the University of California, Davis, is presently tracking the writing of his new book, live:  here is the first of four posts, already.

Green Economics: TEEB, GNH, GPI, and GDP

It is fortuitous if not synchronicitous that as Canada’s finance minister plans the next federal budget that this article The Guardian posted on its website October 2010 should resurface. It reports on the UN-sponsored research of London-based economist Pavan Sukhdev, who “was ordered to look at the value of nature in the same way British economist Nicholas Stern’s famous 2006 report looked at the financial implications of climate change.” Unsurprisingly, Sukhdev concluded that “ecosystem goods and services” — bees’ pollination of plants, trees’ filtration of the atmosphere and production of oxygen, for example — need to be taken into account at the level of economic policy decision making. Sukhdev’s research has led consequently to The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative, which seeks “to sharpen awareness of the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services and facilitate the development of effective policy, as well as engaged business and citizen responses.” The push to green political economy does not begin with TEEB, however. Indeed, there has been movement afoot to replace or at least complement GDP as the sole indicator of economic well-being for some time, with what has come to be called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that takes into account not only the amount of money that changes hands but free time, air and water quality, and access to education, culture, and healthcare.

I first heard about the GPI watching The Other Final, a film about a soccer match between the world’s two lowest-ranked teams, Monserrat and Bhutan. In the course of this documentary, H. E. Lyonpo Jigme Y. Thinley, Bhutan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, explains in an eminently educated English his country’s political philosophy, one focussed on “Gross National Happiness” (GNH), a focus turning on the insight, as he explains, that, since the ultimate goal of every human is happiness, the happiness of the nation’s citizens is therefore the responsibility of government. At these words, I clapped my hands and yelled out, “We’re moving to BHUTAN!”, never had I heard anything so plainly sane. As naive, belatedly Utilitarian, or even silly as the expression “Gross National Happiness” must sound to Western ears, it is inspired by very real concerns. In 1972, as Bhutan opened itself to modernization, its Buddhist monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was eager to avoid the social and environmental damage too often occasioned by “development” and so sought an alternative to GDP as the sole instrument of economic performance, a tool insensitive to precisely the woes development brings. Instead, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Bhutan developed a GNH index to measure time use, living standards, good governance, psychological well-being, community vitality, culture, health, education, and ecology, alongside the developed world’s more mainstream economic markers. The Bhutanese search for a more balanced economics was not without influence or collaborators. In 1994 the economic think tank Redefining Progress was established and the GPI was first articulated there by Clifford Cobb, Ted Halstead, and Jonathan Rowe.

The flipside to the work of institutions like TEEB, Redefining Progress, or Canada’s Pembina Institute is the continuing perversely exclusive reliance on Gross National Product (GNP) or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures by, among others, the Canadian government. This reliance is mystifying and frustrating in equal measure given the consistent criticism of just such a reliance by the architects of GDP themselves. Simon Kuznets, the inventor of the concept, famously declared to the American Congress that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP…goals for ‘more’ growth should specify of what and for what.” The progressive economist Mark Anielski explains the problem vividly:

The GDP is simply a gross tally of the monetary transactions in the nation. The more people spend, the more the GDP goes up. If the result is greater than the year before then we say the economy has “grown” and that we are better off. The word “growth,” which pervades economic reportage and debate, means simply this: Americans and Canadians spent more money than they did the year before. The ideal economic or GDP hero is a chain-smoking terminal cancer patient going through an expensive divorce whose car is totalled in a 20-car pileup, while munching on fast-take-out-food and chatting on a cell phone. All add to GDP growth. The GDP villain is non-smoking, eats home-cooked wholesome meals and cycles to work.

Perhaps Robert Kennedy summed it up best:  “(GNP/GDP) measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Despite such consistent, long-term criticism of the GDP fixation and even debate in the Canadian Parliament concerning the GPI, I’m pessimistic Canada’s ministers of finance, federal and provincial, will change their thinking. Of all the national political parties, only the Green Party has the implementation of the GPI as part of its official platform. But a deeper problematic encompasses all these instruments. The GPI and TEEB were developed to measure increasingly — sometimes acutely — scarce resources to enable us to manage them better;  however, their scarcity is the result of precisely our perceiving nature as merely a resource to be exploited and thereby needing to be managed. A truly green economics would need to be a branch of ecology rather than a field of the social sciences. And that would be a revolution in thinking even more utopian than one that could imagine implementing policies conducive to Gross National Happiness.