Letter to the Editor: John Zerzan and Ben Etherington

June 24, 2018   •   By John Zerzan, Ben Etherington

BEN ETHERINGTON’S “The New Primitives” (LARB, May 24, 2018) is an ambitious overview of what he rightly sees as an anti-civilization current that is “gaining traction.” This current is in fact based on “the promise of a truer, more natural self,” and some of us are indeed “targeting the institutions and infrastructure of civilization.”

But it isn’t true that primitivism tells us nothing “meaningful” about non-civilized forms of life. In general, it is anchored in basic, orthodox anthropology. Band society/hunter-gatherer modes were egalitarian; sharing was the fundamental ethos — before organized violence, the objectification of women, the systematic ruin of nature, over-population, overwork. Beginning with a slow increase in division of labor or specialization, differentials of authority arose, setting the stage for domestication. The latter is the ethos of control, domination, the inner dynamic of civilization.

Always more control, leading to an ever deeper, broader domination, from nanotechnology to the privacy-free surveillance society. The “pathology” is not primitivism, but civilization. Every civilization heretofore has collapsed, and this now-global one is visibly failing, bringing ruin environmentally, socially, psychically.

It is bizarre to call primitivism racist. To point out the victimization involved in colonialism and civilization itself is in no way racist. It has been fashionable in a globally postmodern culture to sneer at primitivism’s supposed “noble savage” orientation. I’m not sure what noble consists of, but it’s very clear what is ignoble.

I have speculated about symbolic dimensions (e.g., time, art), noting that their emergence seems to coincide with the emergence of hierarchy and alienation. But this is not a dogma for me or for anyone else.

Some of us have been inspired by a life-way that was the norm for over a million years. Civilization, a far briefer development, exhibits ever more clearly its calamitous character. Little wonder that primitivist currents have arisen. None too soon!

John Zerzan
June 6, 2018

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I thank John Zerzan for his response and comments. Whatever intellectual and ideological differences we may have, I certainly have been stimulated by reading his work over the years.

To an extent, I think we’re writing at cross-purposes. My essay seeks to place the resurgence of primitivism in historical perspective. While I am very skeptical about the “rewilding” strain of contemporary primitivism, I have no interest in the wholesale debunking of primitivist idealism, as was popular among the postmodern critics of the ’80s and ’90s. I believe that the radical desires impelling primitivism should be redirected toward supporting real and ongoing political struggles faced by groups that have not been wholly co-opted into “civilization.” In this respect, I applaud online groups like “Decivilized,” whose feed regularly brings to attention the struggles of various indigenous and semi-autonomous societies.

When we look at primitivist idealism over time we find that the forms of life venerated by its proponents have been highly variable (this will not be news to Zerzan, who is a noted anthologist of primitivist and anti-civilizational ideas). The trend of idealizing specifically “hunter-gatherer” modes of life is a relatively recent one, and has emerged as a response to imperatives arising from the current phase of global capitalism. These are, namely, an ever-deepening awareness of humanity’s cumulative and combined impact on the Earth’s ecology and the global nature of inequality produced by the full geographical expansion of capitalist production. This hunter-gatherer ideal is virtually unrecognizable when set alongside the notions impelling the primitivist idealism associated with the “noble savage” in the 17th and 18th centuries, or the white modernist primitivism made famous by artists like Gauguin, Picasso, and D. H. Lawrence in the early 20th century. The former was associated with a number of forms of social organization including, for instance, the entirely agrarian Incas (see William Davenant’s The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru or Voltaire’s Alzire). The scope of latter was likewise broad, encompassing the diverse peoples of the Pacific, agrarian and otherwise, and Africans from both hunter-gatherer groups like the Khoisan and people living in state formations such as those established by the Bantu peoples. Hence, historically speaking, what white primitivists have regarded as being properly “primitive” tells us nothing meaningful about the forms of life idealized as such. It does tell us a lot about the particular historical shape of the yearning for an originary natural condition that has prompted their idealism.

As for primitivism’s racism, here I need to make a conceptual clarification. Insofar as primitivism is regarded as a utopian ideology that posits an originary natural condition as its end, we can find primitivist idealism among an enormous range of societies, including among those that white primitivists have idealized as being “primitive.” Aimé Césaire’s long poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land brilliantly mocks the negrophilia of European primitivists while holding true to a speculative vision of Africa as an idealized lost condition. In other words, not all primitivism is racist (even if much of it racialist), but the history of primitivism among that social group largely responsible for the globalization of capital and industrialization — white Europeans — aligns strongly with racist ideas and tropes about so-called primitive peoples. As the postmodern critics were right to point out, the veneration of yet-to-be-colonized non-Europeans as “innocent,” “primitive,” “savage,” and, above all, “natural” was merely the flip side of the rationalizations used to conquer and rule over them. And, I hate to say it, there’s a trace of this when Zerzan casts these groups as the “victims” of civilization. There’s a very good reason that the moniker “primitivist” has been adopted almost exclusively by those of a European background.

Ben Etherington
June 14, 2018

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John Zerzan is an American anarchist and primitivist philosopher.

Ben Etherington is a writer and lecturer at Western Sydney University. His book Literary Primitivism was recently published by Stanford University Press.