7. Mystifying the Primitive

Submitted by libcom on March 24, 2005

Mystifying the Primitive

The corollary of antitechnologism and anticivilizationism is primitivism, an edenic glorification of prehistory and the desire to somehow return to its putative innocence. Lifestyle anarchists like Bradford draw their inspiration from aboriginal peoples and myths of an edenic prehistory. Primal peoples, he says, 'refused technology' -- they 'minimized the relative weight of instrumental or practical techniques and expanded the importance of . . . ecstatic techniques.' This was because aboriginal peoples, with their animistic beliefs, were saturated by a 'love' of animal life and wilderness -- for them, 'animals, plants, and natural objects' were 'persons, even kin' (CIB, p. 11).

Accordingly, Bradford objects to the 'official' view that designates the lifeways of prehistoric foraging cultures as 'terrible, brutish and nomadic, a bloody struggle for existence.' Rather, he apotheosizes 'the primal world' as what Marshall Sahlins called 'the original affluent society,' affluent because its needs are few, all its desires are easily met. Its tool kit is elegant and light-weight, its outlook linguistically complex and conceptually profound yet simple and accessible to all. Its culture is expansive and ecstatic. It is propertyless and communal, egalitarian and cooperative. . . . It is anarchic. . . . free of work . . . It is a dancing society, a singing society, a celebrating society, a dreaming society. (CIB, p. 10)

Inhabitants of the 'primal world,' according to Bradford, lived in harmony with the natural world and enjoyed all the benefits of affluence, including much leisure time. Primal society, he emphasizes, was 'free of work' since hunting and gathering required much less effort than people today put in with the eight-hour day. He does compassionately concede that primal society was 'capable of experiencing occasional hunger.' This 'hunger,' however, was really symbolic and self-inflicted, you see, because primal peoples 'sometimes [chose] hunger to enhance interrelatedness, to play, or to see visions' (CIB, p. 10).

It would take a full-sized essay in itself to unscramble, let alone refute, this absurd balderdash, in which a few truths are either mixed with or coated in sheer fantasy. Bradford bases his account, we are told, on 'greater access to the views of primal people and their native descendants' by 'a more critical . . . anthropology' (CIB, p. 10). In fact, much of his 'critical anthropology' appears to derive from ideas propounded at the 'Man the Hunter' symposium, convened in April 1966 at the University of Chicago. [16] Although most of the papers contributed to this symposium were immensely valuable, a number of them conformed to the naive mystification of 'primitivity' that was percolating through the 1960s counterculture -- and that lingers on to this day. The hippie culture, which influenced quite a few anthropologists of the time, averred that hunting-gathering peoples today had been bypassed by the social and economic forces at work in the rest of the world and still lived in a pristine state, as isolated remnants of Neolithic and Paleolithic lifeways. Further, as hunter-gatherers, their lives were notably healthy and peaceful, living then as now on an ample natural largess.

Thus, Richard B. Lee, coeditor of the collection of conference papers, estimated that the caloric intake of 'primitive' peoples was quite high and their food supply abundant, making for a kind of virginal 'affluence' in which people needed to forage only a few hours each day. 'Life in the state of nature is not necessarily nasty, brutish, and short,' wrote Lee. The habitat of the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, for example, 'is abundant in naturally occurring foods.' The Bushmen of the Dobe area, who, Lee wrote, were still on the verge of entry into the Neolithic, live well today on wild plants and meat, in spite of the fact that they are confined to the least productive portion of the range in which Bushmen peoples were formerly found. It is likely that an even more substantial subsistence base would have been characteristic of these hunters and gatherers in the past, when they had the pick of African habitats to choose from. [17]

Not quite! -- as we shall see shortly.

It is all too common for those who swoon over 'primal life' to lump together many millennia of prehistory, as if significantly different hominid and human species lived in one kind of social organization. The word prehistory is highly ambiguous. Inasmuch as the human genus included several different species, we can hardly equate the 'outlook' of Aurignacian and Magdalenian foragers (Homo sapiens sapiens) some 30,000 years ago, with that of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo erectus, whose tool kits, artistic abilities, and capacities for speech were strikingly different.

Another concern is the extent to which prehistoric hunter-gatherers or foragers at various times lived in nonhierarchical societies. If the burials at Sungir (in present Eastern Europe) some 25,000 years ago allow for any speculation (and there are no Paleolithic people around to tell us about their lives), the extraordinarily rich collection of jewelry, lances, ivory spears, and beaded clothing at the gravesites of two adolescents suggest the existence of high-status family lines long before human beings settled down to food cultivation. Most cultures in the Paleolithic were probably relatively egalitarian, but hierarchy seems to have existed even in the late Paleolithic, with marked variations in degree, type, and scope of domination that cannot be subsumed under rhetorical paeans to Paleolithic egalitarianism.

A further concern that arises is the variation -- in early cases, the absence -- of communicative ability in different epochs. Inasmuch as a written language did not appear until well into historical times, the languages even of early Homo sapiens sapiens were hardly 'conceptually profound.' The pictographs, glyphs, and, above all, memorized material upon which 'primal' peoples relied for knowledge of the past have obvious cultural limitations. Without a written literature that records the cumulative wisdom of generations, historical memory, let alone 'conceptually profound' thoughts, are difficult to retain; rather, they are lost over time or woefully distorted. Least of all is orally transmitted history subject to demanding critique but instead easily becomes a tool for elite 'seers' and shamans who, far from being 'protopoets,' as Bradford calls them, seem to have used their 'knowledge' to serve their own social interests. [18]

Which brings us, inevitably, to John Zerzan, the anti'civiliza'tional primitivist par excellence. For Zerzan, one of the steady hands at Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, the absence of speech, language, and writing is a positive boon. Another denizen of the 'Man the Hunter' time warp, Zerzan maintains in his book Future Primitive (FP) that 'life before domestication/agriculture was in fact largely one of a leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health' [19] -- with the difference that Zerzan's vision of 'primality' more closely approximates four-legged animality. In fact, in Zerzanian paleoanthropology, the anatomical distinctions between Homo sapiens, on the one hand, and Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and the 'much-maligned' Neanderthals, on the other, are dubious; all early Homo species, in his view, were possessed of the mental and physical capacities of Homo sapiens and furthermore lived in primal bliss for more than two million years.

If these hominids were as intelligent as modern humans, we may be naively tempted to ask, why did they not innovate tech'no'logical change? 'It strikes me as very plausible,' Zerzan brightly conjectures, 'that intelligence, informed by the success and satisfaction of a gatherer-hunter existence, is the very reason for the pronounced absence of 'progress.' Division of labor, domestication, symbolic culture -- these were evidently [!] refused until very recently.' The Homo species 'long chose nature over culture,' and by culture here Zerzan means 'the manipulation of basic symbolic forms' (emphasis added) -- an alienating encumbrance. Indeed, he continues, 'reified time, language (written, certainly, and probably spoken language for all or most of this period), number, and art had no place, despite an intelligence fully capable of them' (FP, pp. 23, 24).

In short, hominids were capable of symbols, speech, and writing but deliberately rejected them, since they could understand one another and their environment instinctively, without recourse to them. Thus Zerzan eagerly agrees with an anthropologist who meditates that 'San/Bushman communion with nature' reached 'a level of experience that 'could almost be called mystical. For instance, they seemed to know what it actually felt like to be an elephant, a lion, an antelope'' even a baobab tree (FP, pp. 33-34).

The conscious 'decision' to refuse language, sophisticated tools, temporality, and a division of labor (presumably they tried and grunted, 'Bah!') was made, we are told, by Homo habilis, who, I should note, had roughly half the brain size of modern humans and probably lacked the anatomical capacity for syllabic speech. Yet we have it on Zerzan's sovereign authority that habilis (and possibly even Australopithecus afarensis, who may have been around some 'two million years ago') possessed 'an intelligence fully capable' -- no less! -- of these functions but refused to use them. In Zerzanian paleoanthropology, early hominids or humans could adopt or reject vital cultural traits like speech with sublime wisdom, the way monks take vows of silence.

But once the vow of silence was broken, everything went wrong! For reasons known only to God and Zerzan.

The emergence of symbolic culture, with its inherent will to manipulate and control, soon opened the door to the domestication of nature. After two million years of human life within the bounds of nature, in balance with other wild species, agriculture changed our lifestyle, our way of adapting, in an unprecedented way. Never before has such a radical change occurred in a species so utterly and so swiftly. . . . Self-domestication through language, ritual, and art inspired the taming of plants and animals that followed. (FP, pp. 27-28, emphasis added)

There is a certain splendor in this claptrap that is truly arresting. Significantly different epochs, hominid and/or human species, and ecological and technological situations are all swept up together into a shared life 'within the bounds of nature.' Zerzan's simplification of the highly complex dialectic between humans and nonhuman nature reveals a mentality so reductionist and simplistic that one is obliged to stand before it in awe.

To be sure, there is very much we can learn from preliterate cultures -- organic societies, as I call them in The Ecology of Freedom -- particularly about the mutability of what is commonly called 'human nature.' Their spirit of in-group cooperation and, in the best of cases, egalitarian outlook are not only admirable -- and socially necessary in view of the precarious world in which they lived -- but provide compelling evidence of the malleability of human behavior in contrast to the myth that competition and greed are innate human attributes. Indeed, their practices of usufruct and the inequality of equals are of great relevance to an ecological society.

But that 'primal' or prehistoric peoples 'revered' nonhuman nature is at best specious and at worst completely disingenuous. In the absence of 'nonnatural' environments such as villages, towns, and cities, the very notion of 'Nature' as distinguished from habitat had yet to be conceptualized -- a truly alienating experience, in Zerzan's view. Nor is it likely that our remote ancestors viewed the natural world in a manner any less instrumental than did people in historical cultures. With due regard for their own material interests -- their survival and well-being -- prehistoric peoples seem to have hunted down as much game as they could, and if they imaginatively peopled the animal world with anthropomorphic attributes, as they surely did, it would have been to communicate with it with an end toward manipulating it, not simply toward revering it.

Thus, with very instrumental ends in mind, they conjured 'talking' animals, animal 'tribes' (often patterned on their own social structures), and responsive animal 'spirits.' Understandably, given their limited knowledge, they believed in the reality of dreams, where humans might fly and animals might talk -- in an inexplicable, often frightening dream world that they took for reality. To control game animals, to use a habitat for survival purposes, to deal with the vicissitudes of weather and the like, prehistoric peoples had to personify these phenomena and 'talk' to them, whether directly, ritualistically, or metaphorically.

In fact, prehistoric peoples seem to have intervened into their environment as resolutely as they could. As soon as Homo erectus or later human species learned to use fire, for example, they seem to have put it to work burning off forests, probably stampeding game animals over cliffs or into natural enclosures where they could be easily slaughtered. The 'reverence for life' of prehistoric peoples thus reflected a highly pragmatic concern for enhancing and controlling the food supply, not a love for animals, forests, mountains (which they may very well have feared as the lofty home of deities both demonic and benign). [20]

Nor does the 'love of nature' that Bradford attributes to 'primal society' accurately depict foraging peoples today, who often deal rather harshly with work and game animals; the Ituri forest Pygmies, for example, tormented ensnared game quite sadistically, and Eskimos commonly maltreated their huskies. [21] As for Native Americans before European contact, they vastly altered much of the continent by using fire to clear lands for horticulture and for better visibility in hunting, to the extent that the 'paradise' encountered by Europeans was 'clearly humanized.' [22]

Unavoidably, many Indian tribes seem to have exhausted local food animals and had to migrate to new territories to gain the material means of life. It would be surprising indeed if they did not engage in warfare to displace the original occupants. Their remote ancestors may well have pushed some of the great North American mammals of the last ice age (notably mammoths, mastodons, longhorn bison, horses, and camels) to extinction. Thickly accumulated bones of bison are still discernible in sites that suggest mass killings and 'assembly-line' butchering in a number of American arroyos. [23]

Nor, among those peoples who did have agriculture, was land use necessarily ecologically benign. Around Lake P'tzcuaro in the central Mexican highlands, before the Spanish conquest, 'prehistoric land use was not conservationist in practice,' writes Karl W. Butzer, but caused high rates of soil erosion. Indeed, aboriginal farming practices 'could be as damaging as any pre-industrial land-use in the Old World.' [24] Other studies have shown that forest overclearing and the failure of subsistence agriculture undermined Mayan society and contributed to its collapse. [25]

We will never have any way of knowing whether the lifeways of today's foraging cultures accurately mirror those of our ancestral past. Not only did modern aboriginal cultures develop over thousands of years, but they were significantly altered by the diffusion of countless traits from other cultures before they were studied by Western researchers. Indeed, as Clifford Geertz has observed rather acidly, there is little if anything pristine about the aboriginal cultures that modern primitivists associate with early humanity. 'The realization, grudging and belated, that [the pristine primality of existing aborigines] is not so, not even with the Pygmies, not even with the Eskimos,' Geertz observes, 'and that these people are in fact products of larger-scale processes of social change which have made them and continue to make them what they are -- has come as something of a shock that has induced a virtual crisis in the field [of ethnography].' [26] Scores of 'primal' peoples, like the forests they inhabited, were no more 'virginal' at European contact than were the Lakota Indians at the time of the American Civil War, Dancing With Wolves to the contrary notwithstanding. Many of the much-touted 'primal' belief-systems of existing aborigines are clearly traceable to Christian influences. Black Elk, for example, was a zealous Catholic, [27] while the late-nineteenth-century Ghost Dance of the Paiute and Lakota was profoundly influenced by Christian evangelical millennarianism.

In serious anthropological research, the notion of an 'ecstatic,' pristine hunter has not survived the thirty years that have passed since the 'Man the Hunter' symposium. Most of the 'affluent hunter' societies cited by devotees of the myth of 'primitive affluence' literally devolved -- probably very much against their desires -- from horticultural social systems. The San people of the Kalahari are now known to have been gardeners before they were driven into the desert. Several hundred years ago, according to Edwin Wilmsen, San-speaking peoples were herding and farming, not to speak of trading with neighboring agricultural chiefdoms in a network that extended to the Indian Ocean. By the year 1000, excavations have shown, their area, Dobe, was populated by people who made ceramics, worked with iron, and herded cattle, exporting them to Europe by the 1840s together with massive amounts of ivory -- much of it from elephants hunted by the San people themselves, who doubtless conducted this slaughter of their pachyderm 'brothers' with the great sensitivity that Zerzan attributes to them. The marginal foraging lifeways of the San that so entranced observers in the 1960s were actually the result of economic changes in the late nineteenth century, while 'the remoteness imagined by outside observers . . . was not indigenous but was created by the collapse of mercantile capital.' [28] Thus, 'the current status of San-speaking peoples on the rural fringe of African economies,' Wilmsen notes, can be accounted for only in terms of the social policies and economies of the colonial era and its aftermath. Their appearance as foragers is a function of their relegation to an underclass in the playing out of historical processes that began before the current millennium and culminated in the early decades of this century. [29]

The Yuqu' of the Amazon, too, could easily have epitomized the pristine foraging society extolled in the 1960s. Unstudied by Europeans until the 1950s, this people had a tool kit that consisted of little more than a boar claw and bow-and-arrows: 'In addition to being unable to produce fire,' writes Allyn M. Stearman, who studied them, 'they had no watercraft, no domestic animals (not even the dog), no stone, no ritual specialists, and only a rudimentarycosmology. They lived out their lives as nomads, wandering the forests of lowland Bolivia in search of game and other foods provided by their foraging skills.' [30] They grew no crops at all and were unfamiliar with the use of the hook and line for fishing.

Yet far from being egalitarian, the Yuqu' maintained the institution of hereditary slavery, dividing their society into a privileged elite stratum and a scorned laboring slave group. This feature is now regarded as a vestige of former horticultural lifeways. The Yuqu', it appears, were descended from a slave-holding pre-Columbian society, and 'over time, they experienced deculturation, losing much of their cultural heritage as it became necessary to remain mobile and live off the land. But while many elements of their culture may have been lost, others were not. Slavery, evidently, was one of these.'[31]

Not only has the myth of the 'pristine' forager been shattered, but Richard Lee's own data on the caloric intake of 'affluent' foragers have been significantly challenged by Wilmsen and his associates. [32] !Kung people had average lifespans of about thirty years. Infant mortality was high, and according to Wilmsen (pace Bradford!), the people were subject to disease and hunger during lean seasons. (Lee himself has revised his views on this score since the 1960s.)

Correspondingly, the lives of our early ancestors were most certainly anything but blissful. In fact, life for them was actually quite harsh, generally short, and materially very demanding. Anatomical assays of their longevity show that about half died in childhood or before the age of twenty, and few lived beyond their fiftieth year. They were more likely scavengers than hunter-gatherers and were probably prey for leopards and hyenas. [33]

To members of their own bands, tribes, or clans, prehistoric and later foraging peoples were normally cooperative and peaceful; but toward members of other bands, tribes, or clans, they were often warlike, even sometimes genocidal in their efforts to dispossess them and appropriate their land. That most blissed-out of ancestral humans (if we are to believe the primitivists), Homo erectus, has left behind a bleak record of interhuman slaughter, according to data summarized by Paul Janssens. [34] It has been suggested that many individuals in China and Java were killed by volcanic eruptions, but the latter explanations loses a good deal of plausibility in the light of the remains of forty individuals whose mortally injured heads were decapitated -- 'hardly the action of a volcano,' Corinne Shear Wood observes dryly. [35] As to modern foragers, the conflicts between Native American tribes are too numerous to cite at any great length -- as witness the Anasazi and their neighbors in the Southwest, the tribes that were to finally make up the Iroquois Confederacy (the Confederacy itself was a matter of survival if they were not to all but exterminate one another), and the unrelenting conflict between Mohawks and Hurons, which led to the near extermination and flight of remanent Huron communities.

If the 'desires' of prehistoric peoples 'were easily met,' as Bradford alleges, it was precisely because their material conditions of life -- and hence their desires -- were very simple indeed. Such might be expected of any life-form that largely adapts rather than innovates, that conforms to its pregiven habitat rather than alters it to make that habitat conform with its own wants. To be sure, early peoples had a marvelous understanding of the habitat in which they lived; they were, after all, highly intelligent and imaginative beings. Yet their 'ecstatic' culture was unavoidably riddled not only by joy and 'singing . . . celebrating . . . dreaming,' but by superstition and easily 'manipulable fears.

Neither our remote ancestors nor existing aborigines could have survived if they held the 'enchanted' Disneyland ideas imputed to them by present-day primitivists. Certainly, Europeans offered aboriginal peoples no magnificent social dispensation. Quite to the contrary: imperialists subjected native peoples to crass exploitation, outright genocide, diseases against which they had no immunity, and shameless plunder. No animistic conjurations did or could have prevented this onslaught, as at the tragedy of Wounded Knee in 1890, where the myth of ghost shirts impregnable to bullets was so painfully belied.

What is of crucial importance is that the regression to primitivism among lifestyle anarchists denies the most salient attributes of humanity as a species and the potentially emancipatory aspects of Euro-American civilization. Humans are vastly different from other animals in that they do more than merely adapt to the world around them; they innovate and create a new world, not only to discover their own powers as human beings but to make the world around them more suitable for their own development, both as individuals and as a species. Warped as this capacity is by the present irrational society, the ability to change the world is a natural endowment, the product of human biological evolution -- not simply a product of technology, rationality, and civilization. That people who call themselves anarchists should advance a primitivism that verges on the animalistic, with its barely concealed message of adaptiveness and passivity, sullies centuries of revolutionary thought, ideals, and practice, indeed defames the memorable efforts of humanity to free itself from parochialism, mysticism, and superstition and change the world.

For lifestyle anarchists, particularly of the anticivilizational and primitivistic genre, history itself becomes a degrading monolith that swallows up all distinctions, mediations, phases of development, and social specificities. Capitalism and its contradictions are reduced to epiphenomena of an all-devouring civilization and its technological 'imperatives' that lack nuance and differentiation. History, insofar as we conceive it as the unfolding of humanity's rational component -- its developing potentiality for freedom, self-consciousness, and cooperation -- is a complex account of the cultivation of human sensibilities, institutions, intellectuality, and knowledge, or what was once called 'the education of humanity.' To deal with history as a steady 'Fall' from an animalistic 'authenticity,' as Zerzan, Bradford, and their compatriots do in varying degrees in a fashion very similar to that of Martin Heidegger, is to ignore the expanding ideals of freedom, individuality, and self-consciousness that have marked epochs of human development -- not to speak of the widening scope of the revolutionary struggles to achieve these ends.

Anticivilizational lifestyle anarchism is merely one aspect of the social regression that marks the closing decades of the twentieth century. Just as capitalism threatens to unravel natural history by bringing it back to a simpler, less differentiated geological and zoological era, so anticivilizational lifestyle anarchism is complicit with capitalism in bringing the human spirit and its history back to a less developed, less determinate, pre'lapsarian world -- the supposedly 'innocent' pretechnological and precivilizatory society that existed before humanity's 'fall from grace.' Like the Lotus Eaters in Homer's Odyssey, humans are 'authentic' when they live in an eternal present, without past or future -- untroubled by memory or ideation, free of tradition, and unchallenged by becoming.

Ironically, the world idealized by primitivists would actually preclude the radical individualism celebrated by the individualist heirs of Max Stirner. Although contemporary 'primal' communities have produced strongly etched individuals, the power of custom and the high degree of group solidarity impelled by demanding conditions allow little leeway for expansively individualistic behavior, of the kind demanded by Stirnerite anarchists who celebrate the supremacy of the ego. Today, dabbling in primitivism is precisely the privilege of affluent urbanites who can afford to toy with fantasies denied not only to the hungry and poor and to the 'nomads' who by necessity inhabit urban streets but to the overworked employed. Modern working women with children could hardly do without washing machines to relieve them, however minimally, from their daily domestic labors -- before going to work to earn what is often the greater part of their households' income. Ironically, even the collective that produces Fifth Estate found it could not do without a computer and was 'forced' to purchase one -- issuing the disingenuous disclaimer, 'We hate it!' [36] Denouncing an advanced technology while using it to generate antitechnological literature is not only disingenuous but has sanctimonious dimensions: Such 'hatred' of computers seems more like the belch of the privileged, who, having overstuffed themselves with delicacies, extol the virtues of poverty during Sunday prayers.



14 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by AIW on January 11, 2010

The word prehistory is highly ambiguous. Inasmuch as the human genus included several different species, we can hardly equate the 'outlook' of Aurignacian and Magdalenian foragers (Homo sapiens sapiens) some 30,000 years ago, with that of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo erectus, whose tool kits, artistic abilities, and capacities for speech were strikingly different.

Prehistory means "before written records".

Wikipedia: Primitive Communism