Never mind spears for hunting - what about receptacles for gathering? Ursula Le Guin's "Carrier Bag Theory" of history (and fiction)

Time to weave the community together and  tell stories

Time to weave the community together and tell stories

Sometimes a brilliant idea just flashes across the mind, clearly expressed.

For example the following, from the magisterial SF writer Ursula LeGuin, as explained by this post from The Outline:

The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, an essay Le Guin wrote in 1986, disputes the idea that the spear was the earliest human tool, proposing that it was actually the receptacle.

Questioning the spear’s phallic, murderous logic, instead Le Guin tells the story of the carrier bag, the sling, the shell, or the gourd.

In this empty vessel, early humans could carry more than can be held in the hand and, therefore, gather food for later. Anyone who consistently forgets to bring their tote bag to the supermarket knows how significant this is.

And besides, Le Guin writes, the idea that the spear came before the vessel doesn’t even make sense. “Sixty-five to eighty percent of what human beings ate in those regions in Paleolithic, Neolithic, and prehistoric times was gathered; only in the extreme Arctic was meat the staple food.”

Not only is the carrier bag theory plausible, it also does meaningful ideological work — shifting the way we look at humanity's foundations from a narrative of domination to one of gathering, holding, and sharing.

Because I am, despite my best efforts, often soppy and sentimental, I sometimes imagine this like a really comforting group hug.

But it’s not, really: the carrier bag holds things, sure, but it’s also messy and sometimes conflicted. Like when you’re trying to grab your sunglasses out of your bag, but those are stuck on your headphones, which are also tangled around your keys, and now the sunglasses have slipped into that hole in the lining.

Le Guin’s carrier bag is, in addition to a story about early humans, a method for storytelling itself, meaning it’s also a method of history.

But unlike the spear (which follows a linear trajectory towards its target), and unlike the kind of linear way we’ve come to think of time and history in the West, the carrier bag is a big jumbled mess of stuff. One thing is entangled with another, and with another. 

…This is a pretty radical way of looking at the world, one that departs from the idea of history as a long line of victories. Le Guin describes her discovery of the carrier bag theory as grounding her “in human culture in a way I never felt grounded before.”

The stick, sword, or spear, designed for “bashing and killing,” alienated her from history so much that she felt she “was either extremely defective as a human being, or not human at all.”

…As well as its meandering narrative, a carrier bag story also contains no heroes. There are, instead, many different protagonists with equal importance to the plot. This is a very difficult way to tell a story, fictional or otherwise.

While, in reality, most meaningful social change is the result of collective action, we aren’t very good at recounting such a diffusely distributed account. The meetings, the fundraising, the careful and drawn-out negotiations — they’re so boring! Who wants to watch a movie about a four-hour meeting between community stakeholders?

The introduction of a singular hero, however, replicates a very specific and historical power relation. The pioneers and the saviors: likely male, likely white, almost certainly brimming with unearned confidence. The veneration of the hero reduces others into victims: those who must be rescued.

“The prototypical savior is a person who has been raised in privilege and taught implicitly or explicitly (or both) that they possess the answers and skills needed to rescue others,” writes Jordan Flaherty in his book No More Heroes. To be a hero is fundamentally privileged, and any act of heroism reinforces that privilege.

The carrier bag story, with its lack of heroes, is a collective rather than individualist endeavor. It’s this that differentiates the carrier bag from Walter Benjamin’s “ragpicker,” an emblematic modernist figure who “early in the morning, bad tempered and a tad tipsy, spears remnants of discourse and fragments of language with his stick and throws them, grumbling, into his cart.”

Engaged in endless bricolage, the ragpicker is a serial appropriator — it’s John Cage taking the Balinese gamelan as his own, it’s Picasso’s “primitivism.”

The carrier bag gatherer, meanwhile, is no lone genius (genius being its own kind of heroism, after all), but rather someone rooted in a shared existence.

More here. It’s a startling point - that much of the burden of building human civilisation goes largely unnarrated, because it’s regarded as less dramatic. What does this say for our contemporary media, dominated by stories of linear, mutually attacking males?