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Is that subtext, or are you just happy to see me?

Luke Hortle

Posted on Thursday 28 March 2013

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Last night I went to hear Ellen Dissanayake’s lecture, ‘The Deep Structure of the Arts’, which was about the role of art in human evolution. I went because I thought I should, cringing slightly because the whole thing sounded too damnably Mona-ish, and left feeling awkward—not because of the lecture or Dissanayake’s ideas (which were methodical and measured, although I craved a more emphatic statement of her argument), but because of the awkward atmosphere of the question time that followed. Awkward, because the long-winded monologues were not questions, and setting them loose in the lecture hall shifted the mood. The air between people thickened. It felt compromising to be situated within a group of other humans. A caveat: I’m not sure if this awkwardness was objectively so, or more a self-absorbed by-product of my own thought-stream, which is decidedly awkward and neurotic anyway, regardless of any objective social scenario. Performing the opposite of that state of mind is probably a necessity of contemporary social interaction, unless you’re a ‘creative’ and can get away with a whole lot of really irritating shit while other people make excuses for your unconventional and fucking vexing disposition. (Also, I didn’t take a pen and paper.)

The guts of it.
Dissanayake argued in the lecture that art, or ‘artification’ as the behaviour of making art, has a deep structure, and one that is comparable to the deep structure of language advocated for by some linguists and psychologists. She claims that this behaviour is essential and intrinsic to being human. That it’s innate and natural. That it’s universal. She argues that this behaviour has evolutionary benefits. Apparently, behaviours such as singing and dancing with other people produce a hormone called oxytocin, which is also elicited during sex. One of the benefits of oxytocin is that it counteracts cortisol, a stress hormone. I’d like a clarification though. Do you only get the oxytocin hit if you’re having sex with another person, or can you replenish your hormonal stores by treating yourself (singular) to a nice night in?

Interlude: A masturbatory call to arms

No one ever talks interestingly about masturbation. Faux Mo flashback: I’m in a darkened cinema and it’s black-bruised-red like the insides of a vital organ. A woman is dancing naked in front of hundreds of pissed people, alternately with a black sack over her head or wearing a gorilla mask. I’m trying to work out what to think of it, when a young balding guy, not unattractive, stands next to me, grinning, and asks, ‘Do you reckon she’s going to flick the bean?’ Oh Christ. If this is indicative of masturbation discourse (and I suspect it might be) then I’m putting a call out for people to lift their game. Pun entirely intended.


I can’t comment on the scientific validity of Dissanayake’s claims; I don’t know enough (read: not much at all) about evolutionary biology and I’m not remotely interested in making those kinds of comments about her work. It’s boring (that kind of discussion; not her research, necessarily). My main problem with the lecture was her use of the word ‘human’. It became an oblique invocation of the term, which was disappointingly predictable. Using ‘human’ in such a way is commonplace, but that shouldn’t equate to an excuse. ‘Human’ has a subtext. An uncontainable one. Bare it. Refusal to do so turns use of the word into an act of effacement. It becomes another form of exclusory language, and one that relates only, within the parameters of Dissanayake’s argument, to those types of humans that enjoy regular heterosexual sex and the possibility, and propensity, for procreation. Speaking of the human, and using the term in a critically savvy manner, has to be provisional. I suspect I’m against its use as a commonplace and absolute term because it kills my identity politics boner. Yours too. Oh, the critical impotence. Humanness, particularly in the context of evolution, is anything but a constant or endpoint or intellectual dead-end. If we’re speaking of evolution (and we don’t have to be, not really, not if you don’t want to, but we are), then using ‘human’ as a static term sets up a disconnect with the premise and ideological underpinning of the subject matter. Being human is a state of modulation, of unfinished-ness, regardless of how aware we are of this process. Being human isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a matter of common sense. In other words (and with some quite unrelated, juvenile, yet suspiciously apt imagery), it’s an intellectually stimulating cock and it’s happy to see you.

It boils down to this: given the broad and fascinating cultural implications of Dissanayake’s research into the origins of art as a human behaviour, with art seen as a shaping force of humanness, linguistic and experiential invocations of the ‘human’ demand to be given the commensurate critical attention they deserve.

Death illiterate.
As an English graduate, I’m supposed to be interested in how being human is culturally produced, rather than how it is inherently and essentially substantiated. I get trapped between thinking about myself as a culturally and linguistically realised entity, and the biological reality of my humanness. Because if I’m biologically and genetically human, if I am irrefutably so, then why am I even talking about this? Why are discussions of humanness, life and species booming in politics, the arts and that ever so sexy world of critical theory? Are we just a narcissistic species?

It’s particularly pertinent now, in this contemporary moment, to think about this. Contemporary anxieties, and the various discourses they infiltrate, are underpinned by an almost unspoken fear of extinction. (I could be inflammatory and drop the ‘C’ bomb—climate change—but I won’t.) Perhaps it’s the reality of living out our humanness, the reality of being a species—to be perennially haunted by various other states, those innumerable modes of not-life. The bottom line: we face the fact of our own death, and perhaps our broader concerns with extinction work to absolve personal responsibility for having to deal with the relatively imminent occurrence of our own dying. An implicit choosing of collective anxiety over the personal realities of being a fleshy composite with an expiry date.

I don’t know how to think about my own death. The pure facts of its reality are subsumed, immediately, by the romance of the language I use to talk about it. The word itself, ‘death’, is shockingly seductive. And biologically, I’m at a loss. The biological facts of my bodily aliveness refuse to cross the threshold of my conscious awareness. I can’t ruminate on them. They might enable my consciousness, but they never become usable and recognisable terms within that swarming and personalised mindfuck. Biological subtext, rather than readable narrative. Ungraspable, even in their physical immediacy. It’s terrifying.