“Some place some time [. . .] people began to scratch soft clay bricks with sticks, and then burned them to harden the scratched surface. And although we no longer do such a thing very often, it is this half-forgotten gesture of scratching which is the essence, (“eidos”), of writing. It has nothing to do with constructing. It is, on the contrary, a taking away, a de-structing.”
At the end of the twenty-second century and in the midst of the explosion of what people across many parts of the world spontaneously began to refer to as “collective earth aesthetics,” it is perhaps disconcerting to return to a discussion of art and literature. This willingness to forget is entirely understandable, though, in light of the painful relationship that united art and literature with capitalism during the period of late colonialism, that historical period a little more than a century and a half ago, when human life on this planet almost ceased to be viable. The utter devastation wrought by climate change in different regions of the world and the loss of many lives—in such excruciating and terribly unjust ways—has meant as a consequence that contemporary aesthetic manifestations have little or no desire to engage with the art and literature produced at the dawn of the great breakdown.
It is not our intention here to dwell unnecessarily on what has been called the Dark Night of Capitalism, nor to engage in a debate about the words used to refer to it, about which interesting controversies have emerged on occasion. There are a variety of analyses about that fateful period: of course, Federico Tabellini—in his groundbreaking and essential work published more than seven decades ago, A Future History of the 21st Century: How We Overcame the Crisis of Civilization—explained the problems of late capitalism and how we arrived against all expectations to our contemporary situation and to this period in which, in his words, “the balance between human society and the environment is a natural thing.” If this harmonious relationship was already deemed natural and established by 2097, when Tabellini finished his manuscript, to speak now of late capitalism and late colonialism is perceived in many quarters as an exercise specific to scholars. Only these academics could be obsessed with a period of indisputable stupidity in which humanity, chasing a pipe dream of economic growth founded on illogical ideas, was inexplicably hell-bent on its own extinction. Luckily, the new schools of historical thought have worked hard to complicate our understanding of that period and to make certain distinctions that disallow a simplistic analysis and the attendant conclusion that, during the era of capitalism and colonialism, all of humanity opted for collective suicide. Today, it is possible to develop more complex analyses that show how rebellions during this period marked the beginning of a new order. Far from the vast metropoli and the elites mesmerized by unlimited consumerism on a planet with limited natural resources, the resistance of miniscule social structures, like those of the so-called Indigenous nations and movements of collectivist resistance, made it possible to circumvent a complete breakdown and to create the contemporary world. Now, collective earth aesthetics seem to us to be the most normalized possible manifestation of humanity’s creative drives. The road to collapse seemed entirely mapped out and unavoidable, but what emerged was a slim possibility for life that now is a reality, that today is the norm: a well-balanced coexistence between humanity and nature, a humanity that now conceives of itself as a part of nature.
In contrast to the wealth of information about the social and economic order that began to collapse more than a hundred and fifty years ago, little has been mentioned about the relationship between collective earth aesthetics and the art and literature produced during the Dark Night of Capitalism. It is possible that this attempt to relate them to one another might engender—not entirely erroneously—vehement critiques. What possible relationship could exist between contemporary aesthetic manifestations and the art and literature that were part and parcel of the voracious depredation of the environment during the late capitalist period? No relationship at all, the answer would come from all corners. Though, rightfully, the Dark Night of Capitalism has been so demonized that simply accusing someone or something of being “capitalist” has become a dreadful offense. This idea permeates contemporary debate and impedes the development of a more complicated analysis of the diversity of aesthetic manifestations that were then in existence. The current zeitgeist—to recycle a now forgotten term—impedes us from recognizing that even in the late capitalist period, not everything was actually capitalist; not every aesthetic manifestation was art, nor was every poetics in fact literature. For this reason, though today collective earth aesthetics are deeply naturalized and in opposition to what was called art and literature, we would like to endeavor a reexamination of that period in an effort to bridge the gap between the two. On the one hand, this might allow us to build a relationship with contemporary creative systems and, on the other, to contrast them with the creative systems of capitalism.
Aesthetic Manifestations during the Dark Night of Capitalism
We can all agree that, during the Dark Night of Capitalism, art was the name used to encompass all aesthetic manifestations. Due to the nature of our work, focused in particular on the Nääjxwi’nyët Y’ää Y’ayuujk (“collective earth poetics” in a lax translation from the Ayuujk language), we will attend to the particular manifestation of art that was referred to as literature. Due to the particular animosity in our own times toward everything having to do with the Dark Night of Capitalism, it has become unthinkable for us to call visual aesthetic manifestations art, in one instance, or for us to call the poetic manifestations literature. What’s more, the categorical division into subdisciplines posited by the artistic system of the time doesn’t make sense anymore. Art and literature have become inseparably linked to late capitalism and late colonialism, and that interconnection makes clear why these terms are no longer used to name the aesthetic manifestations of our own times. Just as, previously, poetry created in royal courts by the orders of monarchs was met with disdain, art and literature are read in the current moment as aesthetic manifestations at the service of capitalism.
To say that art and literature are capitalist seems—to our contemporary ear—to be an obvious pleonasm. It was not always this way. A hundred and fifty years ago, both were thought to be timeless and universal, to the point that certain aesthetic manifestations were classified as literature even though they clearly were not, whether due to temporal or cultural differences: the popular lyrics of oral traditions, for example, were studied as a literary manifestation. The Homeric poems were studied in the same way, even though these were composed thousands of years before the rise of literature. If we approach this period—which we would rather forget—with a curious and inquisitive mind, we will be able to discern, beyond the generalizations we are so accustomed to, that the Dark Night of Capitalism was not homogenous: during this period, there also were structures and currents that questioned and situated the art and literature of the time. In an all but forgotten book by John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, literature is clearly identified as having begun toward the end of the eighteenth century with the rise of the bourgeoisie, that is, concomitant with capitalism. The critical positions of the same period have little force today, but they make clear that within the very culture of the elite, there were individuals who attempted to locate literature as a temporal and culturally situated phenomenon. There were also movements that attempted to eradicate the system that created the literary and artistic canon, albeit to little effect. From our own vantage point, art and literature have very little to do with the corresponding collective earth aesthetics and poetics of our contemporary world. In the following section, we will outline the very obvious differences, which have not been methodically delineated because the very comparison tends to offend.
Art and Literature Versus Collective Earth Aesthetics and Poetics
To compare current aesthetic manifestations and art, particularly literature, during the Dark Night of Capitalism, we will look at a few of the basic elements of aesthetic work, and in particular poetic work, so that we might outline the primary differences. Art and literature were totally dependent on a basic element of the capitalist system: the workings of the market. Unlike what occurs today, literary and artistic productions became products, that is, commodities. As strange and scandalous as it might seem to us now, the books that contained the literary creations of a certain person became mass-produced products that were sold in specialty stores. These commodities necessitated the extraction of natural resources and were thus incorporated into the chain of capitalist production, to such an extent that people spoke of a “publishing industry.” In the present day, it seems natural to us that poetic works can take a wide array of virtual and physical forms—many of which entail some element of writing. These forms have multiplied: writing fashioned on clay as a kind of sculpture, texts in a digital format, texts that live in people’s memories, texts that can be read in the interactions of fungal systems that enable communication among all the inhabitants of a colony of trees, decodable texts woven into the patterns of the music that we listen to, texts in agricultural fields, and—in some cases—texts that live on papers handmade on a small scale. These are just a few of the options that can be found in the conglomeration of minuscule and multicultural sociopolitical structures that form the communal life of contemporary human societies.
This almost unimaginable multiplicity of forms taken by aesthetic manifestations prevents segmentation into disciplines; for example, we can observe the constant symbiosis between poetic work and visual or musical manifestations. A piece made by weaving music can also, at the same time, have a poetic, narrative, visual, or ritual nature, depending on the culture that created it. What is now regarded as an organic element of all aesthetic manifestations was regarded as an innovative and risk-taking sort of interdisciplinary experimentation during the Dark Night of Capitalism. By contrast, almost all literature appeared in one particular privileged form, in a solitary object that needed writing: the book (on paper as well as in a digital format). As was mentioned previously, the mass production of these objects had a resounding impact on the environment and was rationalized through the logics of the capitalist marketplace. Although clearly a digital format is one option among an array of creative forms taken by poetic manifestations around the world and across cultures, the enthusiasm shown 150 years ago with regard to the digital world seems inexplicable to us now. Somehow people believed that the materiality of the book would be undermined by the experimental possibilities of digital formats, but they lost sight of the fact that digital formats had their own carbon footprint and that the mass-produced technological devices needed for the existence of the digital world required natural resources whose extraction in open-pit mines put the Earth itself at risk. Although contemporary aesthetic practices still make use of digital formats, this is done in an organic way and is only one possibility among many others. In the current moment and in contrast to what occurred during the Dark Night of Capitalism, the formats that exist in thousands of towns and cultures are closely linked to the possibilities provided by the natural resources of each biome. The concrete, material possibilities offered by each ecosystem mean that the aesthetic manifestations become a complex response to the creative and spiritual needs of each society and culture, not commodities to be produced for market consumption.
This connection between the world of aesthetic creation and the immediate natural environment of contemporary cultures and societies has meant that several world regions now use the term “earth aesthetics,” since the forms utilized respond to natural ecosystems, building an organic relationship with them that does not put life itself at risk. For example, let’s discuss that marvelous contemporary linguistic creation, the widely known and celebrated Mux ëëp (Song of the Fungal World). This piece, created and re-created with the cloud forest of the northern mountain range of the Mixe territory of Mesoamerica, displays the poetic constructions built through the interactions of mycorrhizal networks in communication with the trees. This song is simultaneously biological, poetic, linguistic, and graphic; the piece was created as a spontaneous form of appreciation of the earth as we began to recover from the effects of climate change. Amid the joy of seeing the forest come alive again and the mycorrhizal networks re-established, collectives of xëëmaapy (Mixe specialists of the sacred and the counting of time) observed the patterns of communication in the pine-oak forests through the fungal networks and their nocturnal luminescence. The xëëmaapy assigned distinct grammatical relationships to these patterns, made possible through the poetic corpus of the Mixe language, so that now the natural activity of the fungal networks generates linguistic texts both acoustical and visual through its luminescence. One has to visit the forest at night to witness the poetic interweavings in this dreamscape and to hear the whispering of the winds as they pass through the forest’s vegetation. Various generations have intervened in the creation of this song, updating and adapting it continually. One is able to read the work only as one passes through it. In addition to this creative work, and within the same social and cultural context, the mnemonic tradition continues to transmit and re-create the Mixe pueblo’s poetic corpus—both narrative and non-narrative—a tradition that has existed since long before the establishment of the Dark Night of Capitalism. This corpus is sheltered within the memory of the xëëmaapy, specialists of the sacred, and it finds oral form in specific moments connected with ritual. This is just one of the thousands of possible manifestations that speak to the relationship between each culture and society and their environment.
Another basic difference is to be found in the idea of authorship. During the Dark Night of Capitalism, one of the foundations of art and literature was the notion of authorship. In this period, an entire system of awards and a legal framework administered by nation-states were built around an idea of genius and individual talent that today is inconceivable. Typically, prizes, grants, and other supports provided money for individuals who presented themselves as the authors of artistic or literary works. Although today this is seen as something quite surprising, within the legal system there were specific laws, called “authors’ rights,” that regulated the authorship of pieces of art and literature; the infringement of these could lead to very strange litigation, as seen from our vantage point today. This might make more sense if we simply recall that works of art and literature were inscribed within the logic of private property, which was held as sacred during the first years of the twenty-first century, leading people to believe that the only thing necessary was individual talent, as if creativity did not depend on collective and historical processes. In this context, it is not surprising that, once an artistic or literary work was completed, it would be registered and, therefore, become practically set in stone, providing very few avenues for its reinvention. By contrast, in the aesthetic manifestations of the present day, the idea of authorship has been diluted: the collectivities and subjectivities that participate in the spontaneous creation of aesthetic pieces think of their work as being just as organic and necessary as the cultivation of food or the education of children. The same people who handle the multiplicity of tasks needed for the reproduction of life can also participate in the creation of aesthetic and poetic pieces, and those individuals who spend more time on aesthetic pursuits are well aware that the creative process necessarily requires the eyes, attention, and participation of others. The fact that aesthetic creations have not been converted into commodities also allows them to be seen as an open corpus. Who can claim authorship of the Song of the Fungal World? It sounds absurd even to make such a claim when multiple generations have continually re-created it collectively, adapting and expanding the Song whenever the rituals associated with its creation have required it.
Let’s look at another example: Jalkutat, a narrative piece of the mnemonic tradition of the Paipai pueblo that has existed for many centuries. The territory of the Paipai is located in the northern part of the island that previously was known as the peninsula of Baja California. This piece—which is singular and at the same time plural—exists in a particular medium: the memory of all the people who continually bring it into oral form as they narrate it on winter days (there is a cultural prohibition that prevents it from being narrated in summer, since snakes are bothered by hearing these stories and they become more aggressive to humans). The Paipai pueblo is both aware of and accepts the simultaneous existence of all of the different versions that exist in each person’s memory. Over time, those versions will be altered by other generations and will continue to multiply to render Jalkutat a corpus that is poetic, narrative, living, multiple, and open to constant tweaking, which would be unthinkable if Jalkutat were a book-commodity subject to the legal framework of authorial rights. These characteristics are integral to the aesthetic and poetic creations of our own times, and Jalkutat is a creation that always existed outside of the logics of the market and that can be considered one of the predecessors and anchors of our contemporary creative systems. For this reason, these contemporary systems are called not just “earth aesthetics” but also and in addition “collective earth aesthetics.” Although these manifestations are as diverse as cultures and minuscule sociopolitical organizations themselves, what they all share are the characteristics outlined in this essay: they are collective and in close relationship with the ecosystems of the planet, which themselves are converted into poetic forms and texts.
Collective Earth Aesthetics Since the Dark Night of Capitalism
Now that we have laid out our ideas about the differences between collective earth aesthetics and the art and literature of the Dark Night of Capitalism, we would like to make another argument that might at first seem incongruous. As we mentioned previously, we risk offending some people when we attempt to establish a relationship between these two systems that deny each other’s very existence. Nevertheless, in the light of a more detailed historical analysis, what is revealed are aspects that we deem important to name. There is a generalized belief that all of the aesthetic manifestations during the Dark Night of Capitalism were known as art and all manifestations of poetic working of languages were called literature; however, no matter how unbelievable it might seem, this was not actually the case.
If all we do is pick through the hegemonic social, political, and aesthetic structures of the Dark Night of Capitalism, we will find only what is called art and literature. But if we understand the Dark Night of Capitalism as the imposition (which was never all-encompassing) of a dominant structure—the Western one, as it was called in the texts of the time—we will comprehend that not all societies nor all human cultures followed the suicidal path of voracious capitalism. In certain texts by the K’iche’ thinker Gladys Tzul, written during the second decade of the twenty-first century, the communal structures in resistance to Western capitalism are described as archipelagos that dot the ocean and prevent the world from being inundated by its waters. In alignment with this idea, perhaps describing the Dark Night of Capitalism as a huge tsunami would be a more appropriate metaphor: a gigantic, powerful, and destructive wave that attempted to destroy the cultural territories of a wide diversity of cultures and societies of the world. Nonetheless, small islands persisted despite the constant threat of being devoured by the logics of the market; much of life on these islands was molded by that fear and in that resistance. Far from the large Western metropoli (both physical and intellectual) studied by historians, where elites locked humanity on a path straight to environmental cataclysm, we can find traces of an array of minuscule social islands living in veiled or active opposition to the capitalist tsunami. Many of these islands were made up of people who, at this time, were designated as “Indigenous pueblos” or “Indigenous nations” and also urban groupings dubbed as “anarchists.” These were the places where a process began that would unexpectedly reverse the terrible effects of climate change, ushering us into this future that would have undoubtedly seemed wildly utopian at that time.
In these other cognitive and social territories of that period, we can find evidence that aesthetic manifestations—and poetic ones, in particular—worked in a similar way to how they operate today. The poetic corpuses of traditional narratives of the Yoruba people in Africa, for example, used a medium that could not be converted into a commodity within the logic of capitalism: the medium was the actual memory of the people who bore these aesthetic manifestations, just as happens in many regions and cultures. The authorship of Tzeltal shamanic songs that were used in rituals did not have to be awarded prizes or money, nor did they have to be protected by legal restrictions of “authors’ rights.” Those songs and traditions were no doubt manifestations of the poetic workings of language, but they were not literature. In light of this evidence, which historians are increasingly researching, we believe it necessary to reject that period and everything tied to the Dark Night of Capitalism. We can begin to explore those islands, the pericapitalist spaces, that made life itself a possibility, and to find traces of multiple manifestations of what today we would call “collective earth aesthetics.” That is, we might find in those islands the elements of aesthetic phenomena that were neither art nor literature. Perhaps in those territories of creation where resistance to the Dark Night of Capitalism flourished, we might find a genealogy for our own contemporary systems of creation, along with the joy that comes from identifying our connections to that past.
Ayutla, Mixe Region, August 2172.
First published in Spanish in En una orilla brumosa. Cinco rutas para repensar las artes visuales y la literatura (Gris Tormenta, 2021), edited and with a prologue by Verónica Gerber Bicecci.