This classic booklet of post-Situ flyers was made by John Zerzan and Dan Todd, probably in 1985. The version this is made from lists the publisher as Oh! Press in San Francisco.
Archive for the 'Primitivism' Category
Book of Levelling
And the Prime levelling, is laying low the Mountaines, and
levelling the Hills in man. But this is not all.
Abiezer Coppe, A Fiery Flying Roll
Let history be your hymn of penance,
Farm your parents and the races in the ground,
Not for pelf but for remembrance,
And make ready for the festival of ruin.
Edward Dahlberg, Cipango’s Hinder Door
IT IS THOSE WHO ARE LEFT BEHIND, NOT THOSE WHO GO BEYOND, that are sad. The shape shifters have their own concerns. But this is a text as much concerned with life as with death. The metaphors are there for all to see. In the tradition of the I Ching and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, this is a book of change, a book of transformation, transmogrification, a book of insurrection and resurrection… a book of levelling.
St. Ives, Cornwall
1 January 1995
SO THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED.
I’m going to chop it off, she said.
Why?, I said. What for?
I want to, she said. And anyway you don’t need it anymore.
That’s true, I said. But what will you do with it?
There are all kinds of things I can do with it, she said. You’ll see. Bring it here.
With this she motioned me toward an old, unvarnished kitchen table. The surface was grainy. As I was naked already, I placed my cock flat on the surface, pressing my groin tightly to the edge. It was just the right height. My cock laid there, flaccid and shrivelled. The tabletop was cold.
RADICAL ARCHIVES is happy to finally present our ‘Origins of Primitivism’ set. It consists of 16 documents related to the development of contemporary primitivist thought, which were first printed in Fifth Estate between 1977 and 1988. All of these documents (listed at bottom) are available online for the first time.
Additionally, David Watson has contributed a short introduction and reflection on these texts for the occasion of putting them online; it is available here.
The most important of the these texts is David Watson’s “Against the Megamachine” (originally published in 1981), which outlines his distinct version of primitivism. Watson renounced ideological primitivism with 1997’s “Swamp Fever, Primitivism and the ‘Ideological Vortex': Farewell to All That”, two years before the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO. Partly because of Watson’s exit from the discourse, Zerzan’s version (which actually had been developed later) became synonymous with the concept “anarcho-primitivism”.
Watson’s essay is the only document of this set which was previously in print; it is available as the title essay of the Autonomedia book Against the Megamachine: Essays on Empire and Its Discontents. Prior to this, the other texts were only accessible in specialized archival holdings.
Also of importance is “Confronting the Enemy: A Response on Time”, which is a long critique of Zerzan’s article “Beginning of Time, End of Time” (which was the first of his five “origins” essays). Written under Watson’s pen name “George Bradford”, this much-overlooked critique summarizes what are the basic objections to Zerzan’s view from a sympathetic perspective: that the notion of purely unalienated being (and along with it, the abolition of agriculture) is a misguided – and impossible – approach to these issues. Paralleling many discussions within the Western Marxist and Existentialist milieu (especially regarding Georg Lukács’s early work on reification), Watson argues that separation is something intrinsic to human nature, and cannot be seen as ‘outside’ of our own human existence. To abolish separation is to return to the womb or ascend into heaven.
The third essay of special importance is Bob Brubaker’s “Community, Society and the State”. Brubaker was a Fifth Estate writer who was involved in the magazine’s dialogue as primitivism was developed. Brubaker’s work has been largely forgotten.
The fourth essay of special importance is Fifth Estate‘s 1977 review of Gary Snyder’s The Old Ways, Six Essays. Steve Millett has identified this as the first complete statement of a primitivist perspective to appear in Fifth Estate.
Last, a letter from Marcus Graham, who had edited the anarchist magazine MAN! in the 1930s, shows the issues Fifth Estate was grappling with around technology, organization, etc. had been long-standing discussions in the anarchist milieu, well back into the classical era.
By making these documents available online, hopefully a richer understanding of the different strains of primitivism will result, as well as a constructive and critical dialogue regarding this intellectual and political current. Important questions were asked by the founders of primitivism, including: critiques of political organization, spontaneity and resistance; the role of technology and the question of its autonomy; and basic ontological questions about civilization, alienation and environmental domination. With the partial exception of insurrectionism, these questions have largely been shelved by the post-Seattle anglophone anti-authoritarian milieu.
While Radical Archives is neither “primitivist” nor “anti-civ”, our position is that these questions have not been answered by Murray Bookchin’s brand of social ecology, John Zerzan’s version of primitivism, or any version of ‘green syndicalism’.
It is partly for this reason, and partly out of interest in anarchist intellectual history, that we are returning to the time in which these questions were being actively grappled with in the anti-authoritarian milieu.
Radical Archives would like to thank Steve Millet for pointing out many of these works in his dissertation, as well as to David Watson and Peter Werbe for their help in identifying who wrote many of these articles. We would also like to give special thanks to Dylan Smith for the many hours he spent transcribing all of these works; without his labor, none of this would be possible.
THE ORIGINS OF PRIMITIVISM SET
One thing I would say and may have already said in my books Beyond Bookchin and Against the Megamachine and my essay “Swamp Fever, Primitivism and the ‘Ideological Vortex': Farewell to All That” is that I am not opposed at all to some kind of reasoned primitivism. I just distrust all “isms,” and in the case of much of self-proclaimed anarcho-primitivism, the insights of a primitivist view (for example, to be found in Stanley Diamond’s In Search of the Primitive, The Old Ways, much anthropological literature, and the writings and testimonies of native peoples) has become a simplistic, dogmatic, and sometimes fascistic response to problems that demand instead our humanity, compassion, and humility.
I admire so-called primitive or original and tribal societies and believe they offer profound answers to what it means to be human, particularly in the present crisis in world industrial capitalist civilization. They don’t have all the answers, and there is no way they can be fully reproduced, but we need to pay attention to all our ancestors, and to the great traditions – primitive, archaic, and modern – in our evolutionary experience. I think Gary Snyder’s Practice of the Wild one of the most powerful expressions of respect for primitive and archaic traditions, and search for a synthesis of ancient and modern, today, and I recommend it emphatically for its wisdom, beautiful writing, erudition, sense of humor, humility, and humanity.
I must confess that I am pessimistic about our capacity to save ourselves and the complex web of planetary life we know with any insight or political outlook, but I don’t see any reason to give up, and I admire and try to find ways to support those who continue to seek answers and to fight back. Caring about and responding to the crisis in a humane way is one of the few things remaining that keep us human.
I may look at this later and want to modify (or clarify) what and how I am saying this, but it is largely how I have felt about these matters since the days when we were first exploring and debating these ideas. I am grateful to Dylan Smith and Radical Archives and everyone else who did the hard work to make these texts available.
Almost all John Zerzan essays feature accompanying introductions in which the word most frequently used to describe his method and conclusions is “provocative” (see, for instance, Anarchy, Summer 1987). Some may think this only an ugly little term meant to distance a publication from the wild assertions that John so often makes in his writings (“wild”, by the way, is a word which I know he will not take as a pejorative). Realistically though, provocative accurately describes what is the common reaction to reading a Zerzan article – you are provoked, to anger or to thought.
Anger because he states everything with such a sense of certitude even when it does not seem entirely plausible to do so, i.e. liberation is impossible without the dissolution of agriculture, language is the original separation, etc. Indeed, a web of these certainties have come to form a chinese puzzle foundation for his view of alienation and domination leaving his partisans and detractors arguing about how well it all hangs together. John sees the human collapse from our original paradisial state beginning when language, time, number and art entered human consciousness which then formed the basis of agriculture, itself the institutionalization of those earlier forms of separation.
But John provokes anger also because he steps on toes – he says you can’t hide from the leviathan of civilization with the expressiveness of words or the exquisiteness of art, for they are part of the body of leviathan.
However, whether one agrees with his assertions or not, John also provokes his readers to think; witness the substantive replies which have appeared in these pages alongside his previous essays (see FEs, Summer 1983, “Time, the First Lie of Social Life;” Fall 1983, “Responses on Time;” Winter 1984, “Language – Origin and Meaning;” Summer 1985, “Number – Its Origin and Evolution;” and Fall 1986 “The Case Against Art” available from us at 75¢ each). He means to examine everything, but only on his terms – a sometimes maddening methodology of formulaic speculation and eclecticism; one that almost forces those who resist his conclusions to begin their own work on the subject under question.
John will allow nothing of this world to be taken for granted nor to be part of a new one, producing a revolutionary nihilism which many find hard to swallow. His vision in a world in which language, art, time, number and agriculture have disappeared led one friend who read his manuscript to charge that “Zerzan wants to return to the womb.” Maybe so, but it would be back to the womb of the planet in a distant epoch where perhaps an earlier species of humans communicated intuitively, gratification was instantaneous, and joy the character of existence – this before we bit into the apple of knowledge and began our descent into the “terror of history,” as Frederick Turner puts it.
John’s desire to shed the pain of modern consciousness and all of its institutions is understandable in a frightening and miserable world, but his approach in writing has led some to question whether it is critical theory they are confronting or sheer, unrealizable utopianism and psychic escapism. I am not sure whether such a distinction has to be made at a point where all we have to sustain ourselves is the stuff of our dreams. The value of John’s ongoing investigations is contained within his intransigent insistence that nothing be free of critical examination, even if it is those qualities that some would contend make us human (we should remember that marxists insist that it is work which separates us from the animals). His fear that our desires will be corralled into a blind canyon by what society dictates as possible at this time is justifiable. When an authentic revolutionary movement is created, perhaps than it will then begin to shape what a new world will look like, but at this point no speculation should be spurned.
In many ways, as he indicates, John is not telling a new story in his present essay. The era of the dawn of agriculture has always been seen by historians as the epochal watershed which produced the basis for civilization. Points of departure come over the affirmation of the Neolithic Age by bourgeois and marxist theorists (who view it within their mystified social schema as a “progressive stage” of history) and those who see it as John does, as a defeat for humanity which left its nomadic and wild status for one of sedentary domination. This newspaper, as well, has long affirmed the validity of hunter-gatherer society as one in which humans were better able to act out a balanced relationship to nature and each other than in state societies which have followed.
Still, even among those who share a common hatred for this society and the desire for a new one some take issue with John’s conclusions and with some of his individual contentions; they will have their say in the next issue.
In the meantime, we should realize that while reading this essay that all of the social sciences are highly ideologized with archeology perhaps being the foremost among them due to the scantiness and ambiguity of available evidence. For instance, the right-wing paleontologist Adrey could find a crushed skull and contend from that the confirmation of the Hobbsian dictum that life before the state was “nasty, brutish and short.” However, his findings are also used contradictorily to support the notion that modern violence –particular interstate violence – is an extension of an inherent human quality.
Similarly, the more liberal Leakeys discovered Paleolithic era burial sites and concluded that prehistory was based on cooperative and caring values with the implication that it has been the modern world which has twisted basic human traits, and the species retains the capacity to return to them. Our acceptance of one interpretation or another depends mostly on our view of contemporary society, which is why I like the Leakey story better than Adrey’s. So, while reading what follows, perhaps think, what story do you want to be told, and maybe it will provoke you to act in terms of it.
- E.B. Maple
= = =
from Fifth Estate #329 (vol. 23, no. 2), Summer 1988, p 17.
Neither the simple abuse by Ratticus nor the extended commentary by George Bradford seemed to me to engage the two most basic points or arguments of “Language: Origin and Meaning” (Winter ’84), namely that language is the model of ideology and that it derives from earliest division of labor. Thus they rejected the piece while failing to deal with the essentials referred to by its title, an odd tack possibly reflecting on my craftsmanship as its author.
To evoke the world as it encountered what are perhaps the original viruses of alienation (time, language) and to ask whether they are inevitable is to wonder whether we can supersede a condition in which anguish and repression have been with us so very long.
The old question, ‘where did we go wrong?’ challenges us to aim our critical inquiry far enough back, into prehistory. If part of the progression is something like time, language, art, myth, religion, private property, the state, can we refuse only the latter two or three of these inventions and find this adequate to solve the long, deepening neurosis called civilization?
The madness of today and our desperation within it may be helping us to see how profound the sickness has been, the easier perhaps to raise questions as to how deep the healing must go.
= = =
letter to Fifth Estate #316 (v19, #1), spring 1984, p 2.
CONFRONTING THE ENEMY: A RESPONSE ON TIME
The following article by George Bradford continues the discussion of time and alienation initiated by John Zerzan in his article “Beginning of Time, End of Time,” which appeared in the Summer 1983 FE.
A project such as ours, based as it is on our mutual desire to abolish technological civilization, capital and domination, has to eventually take up the problem of time. All of us know with a visceral vengeance the horrid role of the clock in our lives. We don’t have to be convinced: we measure out our precious, limited im/mortality against the days, the hours and minutes of captive time. So it was with great sympathy that I began John Zerzan’s ambitious essay on time. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was dampened significantly by what I think were flaws not only in the form but in the intention or trajectory of the piece.
John felt the need, it seems, to sledgehammer his readers with deluge of ambiguous and at times downright dubious quotations in order to defend a thesis which he had already set out to prove no matter what. Bob Brubaker, in the Summer 1983 issue of the FE, points out a number of such problems with citations, and having had the privilege of seeing the footnotes, I would concur. One also gets the eerie sensation that for all its “anti-time” spirit, the article follows a strangely linear and incremental development – the whole world from the Book of Genesis and the Fall into an eschatology of the apocalyptic dissolution of time (followed by paradise) – which forces the entire human universe from prehistory onward into a procrustean apparatus built around a single element. Hence it becomes “not inconceivable,” for example, that even the Bubonic Plagues of the mid-14th century were “in a sense a massive, visceral reaction to the attack of modern time”! (Of course, it’s obvious in this one extravagant case that a morbid time sense accompanied the plagues – evidenced by chilling protests against death in poetry and in the danses macabres. We tend to think of time when we think of death. But I plan to return to this question later.)
Perhaps we should all follow Brubaker’s advice to consider the article an impressionistic survey of sorts, get the footnotes and go over for ourselves the fascinating material that Zerzan has collated. And though I fully agree with Brubaker’s criticism, I would like to add my own two cents (or two minutes if you like) to the discussion. The mass of quotes and the occasional vagueness of their presentation make it impossible to respond to everything, but I should like to focus on four major areas which I think are problematic.