Once you begin retrieving the concept of “civilization” as a core concept of social thought you start to suspect that most of the theoretical discussions of civilization, and many of the more interesting ones, come from those opposed to civilization. (There are exceptions, of course, but outright defenders of civilization tend to not want to look too closely at how the sausage has been made, vitiating their analyses.) I have come across the work of the anti-civilization thinker John Zerzan. Zerzan defines “civilization” very broadly, it seems to me, including any social order above the most primitive, egalitarian, hunter-gatherer communities. He also gets at the heart of civilization in deferral of desire and the division of labor. He even considers the invention of language to be destructive, introducing the abstract, distancing, thought that makes the road to civilization possible, if not inevitable. Zerzan is uncompromising, and therefore clarifying in his attack on civilization, to the point of contending that its much to be desired demolition, and the emergence of a “future primitive,” is possible, and something worth working towards.
Civilization, for Zerzan, is alienation, inequality and violence. Each step along the way in the civilizing process involved new innovations imposed upon an enslaved majority by an expropriating minority. As for what kind of human existence preceded civilization, that can be summed up in terms of “presence” (the very experience metaphysics has sought out and imagined, artists have tried to recreate, and ordinary humans try to recapture through sex, drugs, and other time-suspending absorbing activities). Prior to civilization, there really was Eden: food was plentiful and easily obtainable, conflict was minimal, desire never needed to be deferred, time was non-existent, and each individual was thoroughly in the present moment at all times. Interestingly, Zerzan contends that the first use of language was probably to lie. He mobilizes copious anthropological evidence in what seem to me selective ways, but the more important question is whether, from an originary perspective, we have any reason to dispute his claims; and, following up on that question, would it make any difference to a civilizing politics which I would assume, in some minimal form, to be shared by all originary thinkers?
My answer to the first question is “no.” Nothing in the originary hypothesis is affected by the anti-civilization creed. The originary hypothesis assumes an increase in the mimetic proclivities of the advanced hominid that was our immediate predecessor. This corresponds with the account given by Merlin Donald in his Origins of the Modern Mind. We assume this mode of existence was ended by the originary event, but it may very well be that it was, for the most part, Edenic. With the increase in mimetic capacity and activity must have come increased conflict, but maybe the order maintained by the alpha male was fairly benign, and violence was a rare occurrence. Moreover, the very increase in mimetic activity would have cast an entirely new light on the world, made it come alive as it never had before—the desire of everyone around you multiplying your own might have given objects a kind of halo. This transitional period (of course, calling it “transitional’ already presupposes the inevitability of its demise, but on what grounds?—perhaps pre-humans lived like this for longer than we have lived as humans) might have been one best characterized by perpetual delight.
The originary hypothesis assumes an event in which the general convergence upon the central object injected a new kind of fear into the proto-human community, but it does not assume (or at least it need not) that this fear was justified. Indeed, as I have argued previously (in the post, “The Violent Imaginary”), it is hardly likely that the struggle over the central object would have led to a melee resulting in the death of most of the population. It would certainly break up well before that happened, probably with minimal injury, reinstating the rule of the alpha (I suspect Zerzan would reject the assumption of the need for an alpha—maybe in a plentiful environment there wouldn’t be much need for one). The implication would be that the originary sign was a brilliant solution to a problem that didn’t exist. The reign of earthly delights need never have come to an end (at least by the species’ own hands). If we take this analysis one step further, and consider that the sign might very well have been discovered in an even less consequential (for the group as a whole, at least) encounter by just a couple or a few members, and then brought back to and “imposed” on the rest (something which is much more obviously true with the later emergence of big and ever bigger men, and probably with monotheism and metaphysics as well), then the correspondence between the anti-civilizational argument and the originary hypothesis is complete—and without the least harm or distortion done to either. The originary hypothesis could take on the anti-civilizational argument without modification of either that argument or itself.
No obvious implications for either ethics or the theory of history follow from this. One could argue that humanity is the result of a mistake, or a long series of mistakes, without concluding that those mistakes could be corrected, or could have been (deliberately) avoided in the first place, or that the alternative pathways our species might have taken wouldn’t have consisted of more devastating mistakes or vulnerabilities. We live and think under the authority of the sign, and can’t imagine living and thinking otherwise. But we might have the memory of earthly delight inscribed in our language (language in the broadest sense, including gesture and shared feelings—issues that Rene Harrison started to raise for us at our recent conference), even if that might be a mistaken memory as well, constituted by the resentment of the central object on the originary scene. Resentment of civilization, with the deferrals and discipline it demands, would draw heavily on this originary memory, as would the apparently inextricable utopian fantasies that resentment generates. As I argued in the first of these posts on civilization, the basic principle of civilization, that deferral yields returns in increments proportionate to the deferral, is itself an article of faith that may be often or rarely true—it is hard to imagine what the “metrics” would be by which we could settle this question. It’s easy to see why someone might want to go back rather than continue to trudge forward, seeing such “trudgery” as rather MacBethean: “I am in blood/Stepped so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as to go o’er.” We arrive at an incommensurability here: any argument I might make for “going o’er” would only be convincing for someone already steeped in the hope of receiving the bounty of civilization—some who finds returning to be less tedious will consider such hopes to be nothing more than an ideological scam, meant to keep the masses slaving away. We could say going back is unrealistic, but that is becoming the weakest of arguments—who among us could with any confidence predict the shape of the world 50 years from today? We don’t know what’s “realistic” and what’s not. Those who would like to go back think our current civilization is unsustainable—I couldn’t, in good faith, try to refute them.
There is an anarcho-primitivist politics, and it is global. It overlaps with the left, and with victimary politics, but is irreducible to it. It is probably more intransigent than the victimary, which operates exclusively on civilized terrain (and would make no sense otherwise), while also capable of doing less harm at the moment. It is probably evident from my discussion that I am far more sympathetic to anarcho-primitivism than I am to the vindictive bio-politics of the victimary (anarcho-primitivists would presumably consider me, a civilized drone trudging along, as much a victim as anyone else), even though I am well aware that the former is capable of violent outbursts—Zerzan is supportive of the Unabomber, Ted Kacynski, (he has published his manifesto, anyway). But more important to me than any of that is the possibility that a kind of aura of a pre-violent mimetic garden of earthly delights is a part of our basic constitution as sign using but also biological beings. This would be a pre-human feeling (with, probably, many shades of feeling) that is part of what makes us human. It seems to me that such a concept would illuminate a great many anthropological issues, such as our vulnerability to various addictions, what Freud called the “death drive,” what Julia Kristeva once called “jouissance,” fantasies of immersion in a thoroughly natural or thoroughly technological environment (or a natural environment thoroughly technologized), the “Question of Being,” a “cratylian” feeling about the fit of words to their meanings, the feeling of being “in” love, the Garden of Eden story (in all its variants across cultures) and perhaps much else. It may very well be that in our use of signs we are really doing nothing more than attempting to approximate and correspond to the “continuous present” (to use Gertrude Stein’s term—for which she was indebted to William James, who was in turn indebted to Charles Sanders Peirce) of delight. Our tacit knowledge of how to arrive at the equipoise between converging desires might rely upon our originary memories of delight, in a place where things shone forth, lit up by desires cascading back and forth.
This raises one more issue for originary thinking. If we can trace a resentment toward civilization back to the emergence of the sign, we can also trace it forward as a resentment renewed and sedimented with each forced march to more civilized conditions. It’s easy enough to imagine what destruction must have been wrought on small primitive communities in the construction of the ancient empires; the Bible provides us with some clues regarding what it must have taken to root out those inveterate tendencies toward “idol worship.” The wars and pacification of honor communities in the creation of the absolute monarchies of early modern Europe are also well known; nor does there seem to me any reason to believe that the modern market order was embraced by the agricultural communities swept into it. At each point along the way the vanguardist “firstness” of the pioneers of a new set of constraints required the expenditure of vast quantities of disciplinary force. Again, nothing obvious follows from all this civilizational overkill (which may, in fact, have been necessary)—I remain firmly in favor of trudging forward and resisting those who want to pull us back. But, in ways and with consequences we couldn’t wholly account for, each and every one of us “remembers” all this. Those of us committed to the civilizing process might keep this in mind instead of wondering why the civilizing project that seems to us so obvious rarely goes according to plan. Perhaps the civilizing process must find ways to indulge originary memory—maybe that will turn out to be the civilizing contribution made by hedonistic modern art.