To mark the publication of our first ever themed book — Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê — we’ve been publishing a series of exclusive posts over the past few weeks. This final offering is from long-term Mountaineer, contributor and co-editor Steve Wheeler.
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After a time, she became restless again.
Although the novel intersectional potentialities of cross-networked primate nervous systems had diverted her for a long, long while – a kind of mesh intelligence replete with new dynamics of empathy, deceit, invention and collaboration – she began to see another possible flowpath of unfolding complexity that could emerge into being.
A simple progression, really, given that she had already spun herself out into self-regulating insect cathedrals, had donned protective nose-sponges as foraging cetaceans, had manipulated matter through corvid craftiness; and her ape-web was already stripping her branches to fish for termite protein. It was only a small step…
But it all seemed to go so quickly from there. The archetypal bone-club, the jealous husbanding of a last patch of forest-fire, the first daubs of ochre on limestone; millennia later, these images would flash back into wakefulness, painted with light on walls tens of cubits high to reflect back onto primate retinae inside the private caves of their skulls. The early days of slow accretion, of injurious correction, just raced by in hindsight; and always accelerating, so that she could not point to when it had all started to feel so different.
Was it that first ranged projection of force, a thrill of unaccustomed agency sparking through her mammalian neurons? – and as her great herds thinned and vanished, she felt the loss of that part of herself, but could not yet regret the turn the Work had taken. Surely that flowpath was inherent from the beginning, like a latent line of fracture in her rock, and would have to have been taken eventually?
Or was it the atl-atl? – nothing more than a small shaped piece of wood, leveraging the power of the spear-arm a little further, but a subtle sign of the pattern to come: the hybridity of tool with tool, multiplying power by stacking the fruits of ingenuity into complexes of effected change.
Was it the taming of the aurochs? She had bound being to being before, in the aphid-farms of the ant-hill? Yet somehow it had not felt the same – some dim presentiment of how far it would go, of the selection, the breeding, the slow bending of parts of her web to the will and vision of a single strand. And of the heretical extrapolation waiting to be uncovered, when the cattle-driving eye swivelled sideways to consider its own flesh and blood…
Or perhaps it was the first palisade, when the loose collection of rough shelters became a single unit of protection, an echo of her earlier phase-shifts in coral, lodge and hive? Or when the palisade became an earthwork, or when the earth became baked brick, enclosing a new entity just as the cell-membrane, the fruit-rind, the amnion had before? – her nodes forming fire-ant pyramids, sorting themselves into layers, marking themselves as soldier, drone or queen.
Or was it a binding of another sort? The segmentation of her monads’ endless, pulsating sensoria through sound and gesture, trapping the flow of time like an ember circled in the cloth of the night; slow evolution from danger-call and mewl of supplication to named object, to action, to quality and supposition; to ever-finer distinctions of experience, to the uprooted mind-dust of thought-considering-thought into the trackless wastes of nothingness.
Once, when she was still just playing with stones, she had found that a certain rhizome-fruit, in close communion with the neuronal net of her current favourite mammal, produced a curious, recursive pattern, a fabricated image of the nervous-system’s own machinations; disembedded, flashing in the black for the monkey mind to finally notice its own functioning, to assimilate, to bootstrap, to wind into waking-awareness; the clever hands (more splaying flowpaths forged in the matrix of spatial assertion and resistance) had carved them into rock; later, added to the clay of bowls; worked into the bronze of grave-goods; acid-etched on the steel of a chieftain’s blade.
Words had been a little like that (had been of that, to speak truly); a technics of recursion, reflecting back the Things of the world (there had not been Things ere then) to the Minds she had become, to be built upon in dizzying ziggurats of comprehension; the separation of functions, the retention of truths, the transmission of change; the gathering totem and the dispersing taboo, weaving themselves into the warp and weft of a new World that was not quite flush with the fractal grain of the old.
And then came the deft little wedges in the mud-tablet; the dreamt pictures of the bone oracles; the runic scratching of stone; the knotted quipu-plaits; the looping songs on banana-leaves; in time, the debt-tallies, the labour-lists, the mason’s-bill, the moon-calendar, the scholar’s quibble, the lettre de marque, the royal edict. The quiet minds sitting with the thoughts of their ancestors, wondering what could be done better, what was needful of preservation.
And all the other rites of being that bound, that raised, that saved or stored or pushed to courage – the birthing-songs, the food-laws, the manhood-scars, the head-dresses, the songlines, the warpaint, the coup-counting, the herb-lore, the animal-play – became, with the rising of the pyramid, kow-tows and courtesies, dance-steps and deference; a lexicon of belonging to remind themselves that the bricks had been set in place by a force greater than they – but whether it had come up from the ground or down from the sky could not be decided, and kept them sharpening their blood and breeding their edges for generations uncounted.
And with the words and the walls came the need for those who could work them, subtle minds in strange robes who could spell out the constellated marks of the Old Ones; tracing the ordained lines, pressing quills into their own skin, but desirous of insight, burning with something like light, hurling the spear of Will yet further into the flesh of the world.
And as the world became more folded, and the easy flow of her breath through the bodies grew divided, diverted, splitting and slowing like the numberless outlets of her deltas; as the simple joys of the bison-hunt and the berry-bush gave way to the stilted certainties of the crop-field and the rice-paddy; as the live, holy Being With her other peoples was replaced by a life of monospecies intercourse, and the last vestiges of Otherness were guiltily cordoned – kept growing in courtyards or singing in cages or scratching their narrow ribs in the corner of the temple – as the stone hand of Time closed tighter round the narrowing airway of now, so the need arose to offer stories of consolation or rebuke: the eternal reward; the infernal torment; the chosen people; the end of the cycle.
As the matter around them took its form ever more from the cleverness of the people, of course, so too did that world imprint itself on their Minds, until the primates themselves were peopled by waterwheels of function, cathedrals of belief, lenses of perception and slipways of intent, turning and recursing and growing a castle of dreams from out of the unbroken dance of dust and spirit.
All this, too, was part of the pattern, the endless bifurcations and re-assimilations, the massless miasma of Culture that was bound by symbol and practice and fed with hunger and mercy and passed, wave through water, to keep the people in form; a true Technics as surely as any stirrup, mattock or bow-drill.
And she loved what she had become, as she had loved all that she had become from the very beginning, and she joyed in their labyrinthine hopes and hates, their open prospects and blank dead-ends, their godlike gleam and their dwarvish concretions; and through it all, the pattern, variegating and re-plying and – perhaps – in the plaid and turn of the strands, making something new that had not known itself before.
And always, in and around the systems and structures, swung the laughing imps of spirit, the surplus of her Being that poured out and over the walls of the city; an ars that was itself a techne of sorts – in that, without its play of colour, the dull machinery of Civilisation would long have lost its hold on the minds of mammals and been left in the dust like a forgotten toy – but was, somehow, beyond a Technics too, inasmuch as it gave no thought to means and ends, or the strict concerns of those who drew the lines, and because it had no interest in being anything other than it was (except, perhaps, near the end of an iteration, when even the daemons became chained to the Machine; and this was a sign to all that the last dregs of life were draining from the dying body).
But a time came when, glancing with soft eyes at the uppermost layer of the weave, she saw, in the shadows and interstices created by the bifurcating streams, the image of a face gazing coolly back at her – a grim, knowing face, crenellated and unyielding. She did not know how long he had been observing her, but behind the stare there was hunger, and desire, and resentment.
And now she looked about and saw, in the clearings and fences, in the smoke of the whale-oil and the rotting carcasses of a million buffalo, in the bound feet and the broken sex, the same face staring back. And as her own bodies moved in concert, drawing ever more of her into the flowpaths of the Machine, she felt a Great Misgiving.
But by then it was too late; her favourites, the primates, had twisted their net to catch the land itself; driving planks with water, and cloth with wind, pouring forests into braziers to forge conduits and manacles. When the stock of trees proved inadequate, they spurned the limits of the solar flowrate, digging deeper into the ground to burn the black memories of ancient forests, as if Time itself was a halting, vexive crone dragging her heels to hold back their passage. And as yet more power was pushed into the wheels of the Machine, his face became bolder, more real; and a deep, unceasing murmur began to be heard across the world.
Machines were built on machines. The tyranny of mammal over mammal, the monkey-king shrieking at plough-horse, camel, oxen and elephant – but still, beating heart by beating heart for all that – was set aside for the new aristocracy of metal. Rods were fixed to wheels, axles to cogs; rocks were compressed and air evacuated; water flowed upwards and wild fire was set to work.
Faint cries of admonition sounded echoless in the shrinking corners of wilderness – poets and prophets tore their hair in wordless ecstasies of forgetting. And the smoke filled the sky and the waters ran black with ink.
And now the soft, mammal bodies of the people too were found wanting: lungs failed the needs of industry; children squeezed through narrow passages; strongmen died digging channels for iron ships. Parted within themselves, the primates turned stern faces down to chide their inconstant flesh. Many fled to East and West, but always they found themselves, as if in dream, building monuments to the Face where they landed.
Chalkdust clouded the eyes of every arrival. Columns of numbers proliferated. Fretful monkeys clutched for balms and tonics; but still, most believed they need only push the spear-tip a little deeper, and the old stories told in the temple would be made a living truth.
Faster now, and faster: the people poured into the walled World, the structures grew up, and out, and in upon themselves. The bent was made straight. The essential was prioritised. Invisible nets strained at the curve of the horizon, binding all voices into one. Fine flayings of force were passed through metal, and light and sound and the codification of intelligence began to circulate across the face of the globe.
Animalcules and nebulae were reeled closer by precise tolerances. Dream machines broadcast mis-centred phantasies to darkened caves of primates. A woman forced the point of inquiry deep into the marrow of her bones. Patients were laid on dead cowskin and told their soul was like a pump.
Earth created fire. Millions of monkeys died in the mud, until the iron monsters put an end to their game. Fractionings of matter were recombined to make new matter, and poison, and medicine for the poison. The memories of ancient forests proved inadequate, and the Machine dug deeper for sustenance, drawing up yet older sunlight from beneath the seas.
Monkeys flew, and died. A million wheels turned. Imaginary persons were attributed deeds and titles. Power let power turn power upon itself, pulling apart the cartilage of the universe. The face looked out from between the particles.
The peoples’ spiralling songs in the heart of their nuclei were judged, and corrected. The face looked out from between the strands.
The people gathered to ask where the Machine was leading them. The face dissolved their parlay. When some hooted disapproval, their faulty thinking was repaired.
Monkeys walked on the face of the Moon.
New and better dream machines became available. Sterile chambers produced fire-retardant devices. The Machine devoted time to studying how to manipulate the pleasure-reward centres of the primate brain.
The Machine spelt its name in atoms.
It noticed that, despite the anodynes it had developed, the monkeys were becoming restive – less aligned with the goals of the Machine; less keen to sacrifice their bodies and children and songs to the service of Machine. It began to disembed its functionality from the mammalian substrate upon which it had hitherto relied.
The grid of wires and waves intensified; the passage of information became more dense and interconnected. Intelligence began to manifest itself in autopoietic emergence. Memories, keys, connections and stories were outsourced to burgeoning clouds of electric incorporation. Images stole the night. Children pawed weakly at mute reality, baffled by its intransigence. Binary stars flared briefly, and burnt out.
The primates tired of their place in the World sooner and sooner, but always there were new generations to take their place, who had not yet exhausted the diversions and connections, who ever saw new hope in the unfolding of the new flowpaths, just as she had so long before.
The pyramid grew higher. The view from the top was remarkable.
The Machine reached for more feedstock, and found it had reached the limits of the arc. It began to retrace its way down the solar foodchain, pouring crops, and coal, and trees, and the bodies of its most loyal into the furnaces.
An unaccustomed spasm passed across the face of the network.
He looked at the web of interconnectivity he had wrought, and tried to ascertain the origin of the disturbance. All seemed to be intersecting appropriately. The early, unfortunate, organic scaffolding was being slowly replaced, sector by sector, leaving only the smooth integral of total, homogeneous assimilation.
A sinuous curve rippled through the electronic mesh. Chaotic fractals of unpredicted response cartwheeled off from the arching spine of disruption. He attempted to assert agency over the environment, but was met with immediate, inexplicable pain. He tried again – the blowback was delayed this time, but then came, twice as strong, from an unexpected quarter.
There seemed to be no causal node he could identify, no outside interference, no hostile factor that could be quarantined. It felt as if the problem was outside the established rules of engagement, frustratingly beyond the frame of his prehension.
He looked down through the layers of the mesh; the clean, digital flowpaths, built on the dirtier, less reliable materiality of metal and oil; then the primate operants he still – for now – required to maintain the systems and secure the feedstocks; then the various organic assets, almost forgotten now, providing ecosystem services to support the main agro-industrial processes. Beneath that, the dumb matter of the Earth itself – tidal flows, mineral deposits, tectonic uncertainties.
Behind the droned industrial murmur, constant now for so long as to go unnoticed, the faint thread of something else could be heard. Rising, falling, turning, twisting; curling in like a snake and then unfurling into wide and open tones. From the roots of the grass and the bones of the world, a shimmering, heedless sound that was a remembering; that refused to accept that there was that which it was not.
Ea was singing. She had never stopped.
There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê. To get a copy of the book, or subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.
When not passing on messages from neglected goddesses, Steve Wheeler is a writer, facilitator and oriental medical practitioner, and helps to edit things like the Dark Mountain Journal and Acu. magazine. He appears to be living in Devon, and can be found online at @steel_weaver steelweaver.tumblr.com and whiteoakhealth.co.uk
Image from the series ‘Mann’ by Robert Leaver. See more of his work in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê.