Loaded Words: On writing and revolution

An article, Loaded Words, from a writer and activist who has been very influential to me, Derrick Jensen. One of Derrick’s most quoted and most controversial lines: “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself whether I should write, or blow up a dam.” (see Actions Speak Lounder than Words, 1998, and/or Derrick’s book, A Language Older than Words, a book very influential to me, personally)

In a more recent article, Derrick revisits. If you are a writer or activist, you’ll very much appreciate reading the full article, but these lines in and of themselves are important:

“….words can be used as weapons in service of our communities. Far too many of us have forgotten, or never knew, that words should be used as weapons in service of our communities. For far too long, too many critics and teachers have told us that literature should be apolitical (as though this were possible…”

On the other hand…

…words themselves do not topple dictators, they do not stop capitalism, they do not stop oppression, they do not halt species extinction, they do not stop global warming, they do not remove dams. At some point someone actually has to do something. At some point someone needs to physically dismantle the infrastructures that allow capitalism to metastasize, oppression to continue, species extinction and global warming to accelerate, dictators and dams to stand.

That job is up to all of us.

And lastly….

A friend and mentor once asked me, “What are the largest, most pressing problems you can help to solve using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe?” That question shows precisely where I have succeeded as a writer and human being, and precisely where I have failed…..”

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

5 thoughts on “Loaded Words: On writing and revolution”

  1. Your words my words other bloggers words reach out and do touch people we will never encounter. It is for that reason we all must continue to write and ‘plant’ seeds of reality in those just beginning life’s road… maybe one day that seed will bear fruit in ways we never could imagine.


  2. Jensen is posing himself a serious question in this 14-year revisit, but I’m not sure he answers it very well. He acknowledges that things have gotten far worse ecologically during that span, and so he doubts whether his writings have done any good. His answer: I’m following in a long literary tradition of great writers, or at least well-known ones, who sought to change the world through their writings. I.e., they became his role models in forming a career, which he acknowledges has been a successful one for himself personally.

    But do writings change the world? If so, how and to what extent? Do writings change individual opinions, and do individual opinions change individual actions, and does the accumulation of individual changes wrought through writing change the world? Or do writings serve more to reinforce opinions that their readers already hold, emotional reactions that they already feel? Does this reinforcement lead to action, or does the passionate agreeing with a text tend to serve as an alternative to direct action? These questions aren’t just a matter of opinion; they are empirical questions. And the studies I’ve read aren’t particularly encouraging about the impact of writing on readers’ attitudes and actions.

    In 2015 the US government signed the international Paris Agreement, a written document that calls for limiting greenhouse gas production. Simultaneously, the US government during the Obama administration has massively relaxed environmental regulations, allowing domestic oil production to increase over 70%. Now the US is — or, rather, the cabal of US-domiciled oil corporations are — the largest producer of oil in the world. The US stock market is languishing in part because of the decline in the price of oil, which is a direct result of overproduction. The cheaper supply also means that more oil is being bought and used, rather than users looking to possibly less harmful alternative energy sources that have become relatively too expensive compared to oil. I can write this, expressing my outrage; you can read it and be outraged by it too. But didn’t we both already agree in our outrage already?

    Maybe that’s the main use of such writings: to find the kinds of people we already agree with, so we can go down with the ship together with others who share our outrage. Or maybe we can jump ship together, strap together a raft, try to ride out the holocaust, or find a deserted island somewhere…


  3. I think it’s worth noting where Jensen is coming from. He believes that we are doomed, ecologically, completely fucked. He doesn’t go into too many specifics about how that will happen, whether homo sapiens will remain and to what extent ecosystems will remain in tact and functional. He believes that civilization, itself, is inherently unsustainable, relying on hierarchies of violence, control, and exploitation to maintain itself; but this is a house of cards that will collapse. The question is when and what kind of damage civilization will inflict on the world before she collapses.

    Derrick’s first publication was A Language Older Than Words. It’s a brilliant work of nonfiction because it is informed, brutally honest, and deeply personal. I highly recommend it, and I haven’t yet read another Jensen book that is as compelling as Language. It is, above all, rooted in love — a love of the world, of all species. This is not, however, in the tradition of the romantics. It’s raw and painful, because this world Derrick loves has been destroyed, is being destroyed, and more destruction is to come.

    As such, one of the strands of Language was something of a therapeutic project. If civilization is doomed, how should those of us respond, given our deep connection to and love of the world? Jensen addresses this through his own story, through his own pain, and accesses the trauma of his own suffering (sexual abuse as a child).

    In terms of what we do, Derrick’s answer, at the end of Language is: fight like hell. Although he is highly critical of all religion, including Buddhism, he accesses a death-of-self motiff. As he puts it:

    In the seventeenth century the Zen poet Bunan wrote, “Die while you’re alive and be absolutely dead. Then do whatever you want: it’s all good.” We are, of course, already dead. There is no hope. The machine is too powerful, the damage too severe….Give up. Capitulate. Realize there’s no hope, then have at it. If you’re dead, you have nothing to lose and a world to gain…..

    A Language Older Than Words is an excellent work of nonfiction, and I highly recommend it. It launched his career, but eventually Jensen formed Deep Green Resistance, an activist group that supports sabatoge and any form of aggression aimed at bringing down the system that is destroying the planet.

    Now, I’m not sure that any of that addresses your questions, and I have more thoughts, but I’ll put those in the next comment.


  4. A few days ago I opened my Facebook Instant Message app and found that someone had sent me a vitriolic and insulting message. It was in relation to my recent Facebook posts (both on my own page and in a private Facebook group that I just started) supporting the Standing Rock protests.

    Here is an excerpt:

    Please my friend get over yourself. You can type forever. You will never be effective this way. I do like your style though. You are the problem Jonathan, you really fucking are. Take a couple hours and think about it. YOU are the problem my friend….Type type type blog blog blog blog…. f’n puke pike puke….DO you not hear yourself? Your ridiculous dude. I love it but you are a moron like we all are. Get over yourself.

    I’ve deleted some insults that (even for me) are a bit too much to post on my blog. In response I posted this article by Jensen, where he says (among other things): words can be weapons.

    I think history supports this. It’s at least a possibility. Before the abolitionsists started printing pamphlets, publishing periodicals, and writing novels that dramatized the evils of slavery, abolishing slavery wasn’t even on the radar as a possibility in America. It was their writing that pushed history forward in a progressive direction.

    For all of the criticism of so-called “slactivism,” the recent Arab Spring uprisings were facilitated by social media, and of course quite infamously, the violent Islamic movements rely on distributing their divine messages via the Internet.

    In fact, in a twist of irony, despite the string of insults that he sent me, the person who penned the above message told me that he was going to fly to the Dakotas, to the Standing Rock protests. Unlike me, who just wrote about it, he was going to actually do something. (Of course, I can’t help but think it has to do with the fact that he was so pissed off at me for writing so much about it.) In fact, there are several white people I know who are going to Standing Rock, and it certainly has to do with the fact that the events were dramatized on social media.

    All of this is not to say that I think writing changes the world. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes reading is a substitute for action, as you said. We read an article about Standing Rock, about natives once again being screwed in the name of making profits for white people, and we click LIKE and move on. That could have happened. This time there was action, but it doesn’t work that way everytime.

    On the other hand, I would note that taking action, in and of itself, does not bring about change, and when it does bring about change, it isn’t always the change we had in mind. It’s not a sure bet. History indicates that sometimes people push and push and push but change does not occur, and sometimes activists push so hard against the system that there is a push-back that actually winds up regressing. I’d say that something like this happened after the baby boomers (hippies and the New Left) stirred up protests in the late sixties. They couldn’t organize effectively enough to sustain the movement and fend off the conservative backlash that eventually led to Reagan and the neoliberal disaster that we’ve been living with for decades now.

    I’ve recently been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari. He says that our great accomplishment as a species is to be able to network. This happened because we made a linguistic leap, evolutionarily, and were able to communicate. It was a cognitive revolution.

    Writing is one of the ways we network. The Internet is one of the ways we spread writing and disseminate ideas and stories. I don’t believe in the power of writing or the Internet, but neither do I disbelieve. I simply don’t know if something I write will be impactful or not. No one does. But I like to write, and I’m in a position in life where I can write. So, that’s what I do. I do the best I can, and I hope that it makes a difference, but whether or not my writing “matters” for social change or whether my words “mean something” to anyone else — that I have to leave to “God,” or to “fate,” or to the random intersection of events that we call “history.”


Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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