Friday, 10 March 2017

A Review of Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History.

This is by William H. McNeill and was published in 1995 and is available online under an academic POD scheme.
McNeills idea is that unified muscular action on the part of human groups, whether through dance, drill, calisthenics, or via some other means, plays a vital role in forming group solidarity in human societies, and that the effects of this keeping together in time have been used at various times, sometimes as a source of emotional resilience in societies under stress, and at other times as a kind of battery or power source for successful or expansionist societies.

He says a bit more than that, his initial observations are very interesting and the more reality-based aspects to his argument are compelling, but he has a flaky mind and slips easily into totalising statements and generalities more typical of the 70's than the 90's.

The strongest part of his argument is that certain kinds of work in which the muscular effort of large numbers of people are focused upon a narrow area, like a series of blacksmiths combining to beat a piece of metal in rhythm, or sailors pulling on a rope, or where all the bodies are not focused on one object but are arranged closely in space and performing the same action at the same time, like planters in a field or infantry on a battlefield, is either only possible, or massively enhanced when people act together in time.

McNeil would claim that this capacity is unique to man. or at least, he would say that the ability to move together in time, as a group, to music, is unique to man. Animals do flock and move as one, but not to music, and I do not think they manipulate as one.

The idea of this kind of very precise uniform rhythm being a uniquely human quality is fascinating to me. It lead me to consider if perhaps movement, or the body and it actions, are not the original syntax to language and that just as written and printed communication colonised verbal and spoke communication, absorbing its forms and then only slowly altering them, perhaps spoken language similarly absorbed the nature of muscular syntax, first simply emphasising motion like a tennis players grunt, then developing in complexity, then learning to create verbally the context and complexity that previously could be provided only by the body, and then expanding into new potentialities of description unbound by the body, but still ultimately rooted in it.

This would mean the existence of a pre-oral human culture that provided its basis.

Anyway, McNeill talks first about the importance of muscular bonding in small communities and in unified work, then goes on to religion and then finally to war and politics, essentially moving forward in time through all of these.

It's during the religion statement that we get the real motherload of surprisingly confident assertations and totalising statements. These are never frustrating, McNeil is a large hearted outgoing totalizer rather than a reductionist cutter-off, in which case his slight flakiness would be much more offensive, but he's still probably wrong about a fair amount of the specific stuff he says.

If McNeil is right in everything he says then muscular bonding is the secret engine behind almost every major shift in human culture, the rise and fall of empires and the identity of nations.

His work on religion is fascinating though, there seems to be a deep, permanent, continual and endless struggle for power between the head and the body in world religion. Powerful new forms of religious expression and feeling are continually being developed, often linked to complex emergent forms of muscular bonding that relate the transcendent directly through the movements of the body, then they become successful, then the hierarchy tries to tame or repress all the uncontrolled movement that originally went along with the first explosion of expression, then it happens all over again.

The body, it seems, is not just immediate, animal and rooted in the present, which we probably already suspected, but also timeless, outside cause and consequence, capable of directly connecting with the higher realities through movement. Dance as prayer. It is belief rooted in the people, emerging from their practice, often ignoring or escaping known structures of power and control.

The head by comparison, is highly aware of time and extremely aware of authority and hierarchy. It prefers to reach the godhead through introversion and separation from the body and it is continually frustrated that people keep. fucking. dancing and moving around in an irregular way.

The head is rather unaware of the achievements of the body and tends to either edit them out of its histories or just ignore them. Something carried on to the present day when we compare the staggering shitload of stuff we know about words and our comparative poverty of knowledge about movement and its place in our history and development, despite it certainly being more central and vital than words.

The chapter of politics on war looks at the development, and loss of close-order-drill (the Spartans were very dancy, Athenians refused to learn drill properly as messed with their individuality), then the loss or degradation of drill as a military technique, then its recovery in the early modern period and its effects in China and Europe.

Close-Order drill being part of a feedback loop with certain aspects of civilisation makes a lot of sense. The way it interrelates with the formation of a mass military identity, and the sometimes unpredictable way that interrelates with power structures, is interesting.

He also takes time to look at the development of calisthenics in the modern period and this is a little gem. We get to see the very different ways national cultures adopt (or refuse to adopt) the principals of civilian mass movement. The Germans are into it for masculine reasons. The Brits don’t mind women and the poor doing it but the ruling class prefer team sports. Same in the U.S. The Czechs fucking love it. The French absolutely despise it, and won't do that or sport, unless a bicycle is involved.

It's a fascinating and very short book and I would recommend it for anyone with even a general interest in the subject.


  1. There is any explicit reference to islamic prayers?

    1. Talks about the dervishes quite a bit; "I conclude that it is difficult to exaggerate the impact of dervish forms of piety on Islamic society in the centuries after 900. Everything turned on the emotional conviction aroused by mystic union with God; and that union was achieved through prolonged chanting, with a background of instrumental music and varying levels of rhythmic muscular engagement." There's quite a bit more spread about the book.

  2. I like the sound of this a lot. The theory intuitively seems to have the ring of truth to it.

    How would non-human intelligent races use muscular action to form group solidarity? Or would they use different means entirely?

    1. Creatures with simple or low-fidelity body languages might be hyper-verbose and aspergers specific. Orcs talking actually more than humans, using longer more redundant sentences. talking like instruction manuals.

      If we imagine creatures that share no species-rhythm, so that each of them was rhythmically individual, they couldn't dance and at a primitive level of technology it would be really hard for them to focus physical work upon a unitary object.

      They could still speak though, perhaps rythmless song, a song of tones and notes only might be replacement, as mutual song in our society still seems to achieve the same thing. This alien song would be a strange one without any precise mutual time, it might seem like an art project or like a natural phenomena to us.

      Creatures that were very powerful individually might be able to get away with not working together until they developed a level of intellect that meant they could swap abstract ideas. I'm thinking of Dragons but even Dragons can fly together, they can move together in space in a highly complex way, I suppose they could flock if they wanted to.

      There is visual art as well, even if you are out of time together you can still work on the same image if one individual steps back and another steps forwards.

      Not having the same timing would make an entire culture like a huge mobile phone conversation, with everyone out of time with everyone else. It sounds terrible.

      I don't know. It's very hard to imagine an intelligent species without mutual rhythm as intuition seems to suggest that all creatures have the basis for rhythm and that intelligence just comes along with the sharpening of that mutual beat, aiding in its development and being aided by it.

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  4. If you're not already up on McNeill's other books, I heartily recommend PLAGUES & PEOPLES -- I read it along with the first of Vandermeer's SOUTHERN REACH books and together they got under my skin in a wonderful nightmarish way.