Sunday, 3 August 2014

On the Transition: "Future Primitive"

A reminder from a posting a couple of days ago
- in the light of a proposal to work less and take more time out:

Jared Diamond, the scientist who has done more than anyone to draw lessons from “the world until yesterday”, argued that “Hunter-gatherers practised the most successful and longest-lasting lifestyle in human history”

Futures Forum: In Praise of Idleness: 
"If Hadza nomads get by on 14 hours’ work a week, why can’t we?"

It seems, then, that the
 hunter-gather way of life could be quite attractive...

Over the years, cinema has explored this option.
The latest offering opens with extraordinary scenes...

With humanity all but wiped out following a simian flu epidemic caused by all that hubristic monkeying around with experimental drugs, the apes have been left relatively free to develop a new society, one comprising treetop fortresses, evolved hunter-gatherer techniques, a sophisticated form of sign language and an idealistic set of principles...

Film review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12A) - The Scotsman
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) | Political Film Blog

And the cult film 'Fight Club' provides another vision of a post-apocalyptic world:

"In the world I see – you're stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway."

Tyler Durden - In The World I See (Fight Club Scene Videosu - Mynet SahneTv
After the Beginning on Pinterest
Future Wilderness | “In the world I see you’re stalking elk through...

All these ideas touch on so-called 'primitivism':
John Filiss: What Is Primitivism?
Richard Heinberg: The Primitivist Critique of Civilization

One of the foremost writers on 'primitivism' is the American writer John Zerzan:
John Zerzan: anti-civilization theorist, writer and speaker

Here is a profile from the Guardian some years ago:

Anarchy in the USA
John Zerzan doesn't have a car, a credit card or a computer. He lives a quiet life in a cabin in Oregon and has sold his own blood plasma to make ends meet. So why does corporate America think he is the Antichrist? Duncan Campbell meets an improbable guru
The Guardian, Wednesday 18 April 2001
[Zerzan] is not alone in his disquiet. Last year, in a fascinating treatise in Wired, Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, one of whose friends was a victim of Kaczynski, said that although he believed that the Unabomber's actions had been criminally insane, there had been some merit in the case he made against a headlong technological rush to the future. He and Zerzan have since corresponded.

Profile of American anarchist John Zerzan | World news | The Guardian

Zerzan makes some very provocative and challenging proposals - if we are going to be able to 'transit' from today's society to a truly-sustainable one:

On the Transition: Postscript to Future Primitive

John Zerzan

Transporting food thousands of miles, not an atypical pursuit today, is an instance of pointless activity, as is producing countless tons of herbicide and pesticide poisons. The picture of humanity starving if a transformation were attempted may be brought into perspective by reference to a few other agricultural specifics, of a more positive nature. It is perfectly feasible, generally speaking, that we grow our own food. There are simple approaches, involving no division of labor, to large yields in small spaces.

Agriculture itself must be overcome, as domestication, and because it removes more organic matter from the soil than it puts back. Permaculture is a technique that seems to attempt an agriculture that develops or reproduces itself and thus tends toward nature and away from domestication. It is one example of promising interim ways to survive while moving away from civilization. Cultivation within the cities is another aspect of practical transition, and a further step toward superseding domestication would be a more or less random propagation of plants, a la Johnny Appleseed.

Regarding urban life, any steps toward autonomy and self-help should be realized, beginning now, so that cities may be all the more quickly abandoned later. Created out of capital's need to centralize control of property transactions, religion, and political domination, cities remain as extended life-destroying monuments to the same basic needs of capital. Something on the order of what we know now as museums might be a good idea so that post-upheaval generations could know how grotesque our species' existence became. Moveable celebration sites may be the nearest configuration to cities that disalienated life will express.

Along with the movement out of cities, paralleling it, one might likely see a movement from colder climes to warmer ones. The heating of living space in northern areas constitutes an absurd effort of energy, resources, and time. When humans become once again intimate with the earth, healthier and more robust, these zones would probably be peopled again, in altogether different ways.

As for population itself, its growth is no more a natural or neutral phenomenon than its technology. When life is fatally out of balance, the urge to reproduce appears as compensation for impoverishment, as with the non-civilized gatherer-hunters surviving today, population levels would be relatively quite low.

Enrico Guidoni pointed out that architectural structures necessarily reveal a great deal about their social context. Similarly, the isolation and sterility of shelter in class society is hardly accidental, and deserves to be scrapped in toto. Rudofsky's Architecture Without Architects deals with some examples of shelter produced not by specialists, but by spontaneous and evolving communal activity. Imagine the inviting richness of dwellings, each unique not mass produced, and a part of a serene mutuality that one might expect to emerge from the collapse of boundaries and artificial scarcities, material and emotional.

On the Transition
Future Primitive (John Zerzan) | The Anarchist Library
Future Primitive Revisited: Amazon.co.uk: John Zerzan: Books
Future Primitive and Other Essays - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Zerzan counters the notion that a rejection of the modern lifestyle means we must all go away and 'live in caves':


By Roc Morin Jun 27 2014

“Whenever I think of [inventor of the computer] Alan Turing, I think about the Apple logo,” began John Zerzan. “The logo is an apple with a bite out of it. Of course, Turing supposedly smeared cyanide on an apple and bit into it after being persecuted by the government for being gay. A bite from an apple is also associated with our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. I don’t think that’s quite the message they’re trying to convey, but there it is.”

I had arranged an interview with arguably the world’s most prominent anti-technology philosopher via email. The interview was to be conducted via Skype.

VICE: You advocate for all of civilisation to abandon technology and return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. How do you feel about the Skype call that we’re having right now?

John Zerzan: I was on the Art Bell show years ago and he kept saying that to be consistent with my philosophy, I should live in a cave. I said, “Yeah, you’re right, but then this conversation wouldn’t be possible.” You have to try to connect with people. You have to be part of the conversation in society or else you’re not serious.

The Anarcho-Primitivist Who Wants Us All to Give Up Technology | VICE United Kingdom

One of the first to challenge the stereotypes of the 'primitive' was Marshall Sahlins:

The "original affluent society" is a theory postulating that hunter-gatherers were the original affluent society. This theory was first articulated by Marshall Sahlins at a symposium entitled "Man the Hunter" held in Chicago in 1966. The significance of the theory stems from its role in shifting anthropological thought away from seeing hunter-gatherer societies as primitive, to seeing them as practitioners of a refined mode of subsistence.

At the time of the symposium new research by anthropologists, such as Richard B. Lee’s work on the !Kung of southern Africa, was challenging popular notions that hunter-gatherer societies were always near the brink of starvation and continuously engaged in a struggle for survival.[1] Sahlins gathered the data from these studies and used it to support a comprehensive argument that states that hunter-gatherers did not suffer from deprivation, but instead lived in a society in which "all the people’s wants are easily satisfied."[2]

Original affluent society - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

And there has been considerable research since:

Jared Diamond's most recent book, The World Until Yesterday, published in 2012, asks what the western world can learn from traditional societies. It surveys 39 traditional small-scale societies of farmers and hunter/gatherers with respect to how they deal with universal human problems. The problems discussed include dividing space, resolving disputes, bringing up children, treatment of elders, dealing with dangers, formulating religions, learning multiple languages, and remaining healthy. The book suggests that some practices of traditional societies could be usefully adopted in the modern industrial world today, either by individuals or else by society as a whole.

Jared Diamond - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Play Makes Us Human V: Why Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Play:
Hunter-gatherers made work play by making it optional.

Published on July 2, 2009 by Peter Gray in Freedom to Learn

Our word 'work' has two meanings. It can mean any unpleasant activity; or it can mean any productive or useful activity, regardless of its pleasantness or unpleasantness. The first of these meanings is the opposite of play; the second is not. We use the same word for the two meanings, I suppose, because in our culture's history the two meanings have so often overlapped. Productive activity conducted by slaves, servants, and hired hands with no sense of choice about what they are doing indeed is work in both senses of the term.

Play Makes Us Human V: Why Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Play | Psychology Today

How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways
The important lessons from hunter-gatherers are about culture, not genes. 

Published on May 16, 2011 by Peter Gray in Freedom to Learn

I have in previous posts commented on hunter-gatherers' playfulness; their playful religious practices; their playful approach toward productive work; their non-directive childrearing methods; and their children's playful ways of educating themselves. In all of those posts I emphasized the egalitarian, non-hierarchical nature of hunter-gatherer society.

If just one anthropologist had reported all this, we might assume that he or she was a starry-eyed romantic who was seeing things that weren't really there, or was a liar. But many anthropologists, of all political stripes, regarding many different hunter-gatherer cultures, have told the same general story. There are some variations from culture to culture, of course, and not all of the cultures are quite as peaceful and fully egalitarian as others, but the generalities are the same. One anthropologist after another has been amazed by the degree of equality, individual autonomy, indulgent treatment of children, cooperation, and sharing in the hunter-gatherer culture that he or she studied. When you read about "warlike primitive tribes," or about indigenous people who held slaves, or about tribal cultures with gross inequalities between men and women, you are not reading about band hunter-gatherers.

Even today some people who should know better confuse primitive agricultural societies with hunter-gatherer societies and argue, from such confused evidence, that hunter-gatherers were violent and warlike. For example, one society often referred to in this mistaken way is that of the Yanomami, of South America's Amazon, made famous by Napoleon Chagnon in his book subtitled The fierce people. Chagnon tried to portray the Yanomami as representative of our pre-agricultural ancestors. But Chagnon knew well that the Yanomami were not hunter-gatherers and had not been for centuries. They did some hunting and gathering, but got the great majority of their calories from bananas and plantains, which they planted, cultivated, and harvested. Moreover, far from being untouched by modern cultures, these people had been repeatedly subjected to slave raids and genocide at the hands of truly vicious Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese invaders.[1] No wonder they had become a bit "fierce" themselves.

How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways | Psychology Today

This is borne out by one of today's foremost anthropologists:

A review of David Greaber's 'Anthropology Against the State'
November 3, 2005 By S. Shukaitis

Rejecting both the Hobbesian fable of the "war of all against all" and the blatant forms of racism and Eurocentrism used to argue that so called "primitive" societies have no bearing on and are completely removed from the world we live in, Graeber explores the endless variety of political and organization which have existed throughout the world. From the Tsimhety of northwest Madagascar to Amazonian tribes what emerges are the dynamics of struggle and contention, of insurrection and resistance that have existed not just through the past two hundred years of European history but arguably since the dawn of human existence.

The anthropological cannon, from James Frazer to Pierre Clastres, once removed from its arcane status as obscure purely academic knowledge, brims with ideas and examples of social organization that could be of use to organizers seeking for alternatives practices. Organizers and radical theorists have long drawn from anthropology to find useful ideas for their work, from the Situationists usage of the potlatch of the Kwakiutl to current practices of consensus, which have existed through numerous indigenous societies throughout the world long before activists began to employ them for spokescouncils. Anarchism in this light is revealed not to be a political philosophy invented by a particular set of bearded European males sometime in the 1800s, but rather the practices of voluntary association, cooperation, and egalitarian social arrangements pervading societies worldwide.

Anthropology Against the State
Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

To finish with Zerzan and his overview of anthropology:

Future Primitive: John Zerzan

This ideological view of our past has been radically overturned in recent decades, through the work of academics like Richard Lee and Marshall Sahlins... archaeologists John Fowlett, Thomas Wynn, and others have shown, those humans possessed an intelligence at least equal to our own.

Robert Ardrey (1961, 1976) served up a bloodthirsty, macho version of prehistory, as have to slightly lesser degrees, Desmond Morris and Lionel Tiger. Similarly, Freud and Konrad Lorenz wrote of the innate depravity of the species, thereby providing their contributions to hierarchy and power in the present.

Fortunately, a far more plausible outlook has emerged, one that corresponds to the overall version of Paleolithic life in general. Food sharing has for some time been considered an integral part of earliest human society (e.g. Washburn and DeVore, 1961). Jane Goodall (1971) and Richard Leakey (1978), among others, have concluded that it was the key element in establishing our uniquely Homo development at least as early as 2 million years ago... 

One of the telling arguments in favor of the cooperation thesis, as against that of generalized violence and male domination, involves a diminishing, during early evolution, of the difference in size and strength between males and females. Sexual dimorphism, as it is called, was originally very pronounced, including such features as prominent canines or "fighting teeth" in males and much smaller canines for the female.

Electron microscope studies of fossil teeth found in East Africa (Walker 1984) suggest a diet composed primarily of fruit, while a similar examination of stone tools from a 1.5 million-year-old site at Koobi Fora in Kenya (Keeley and Toth 1981) shows that they were used on plant materials. The small amount of meat in the early Paleolithic diet was probably scavenged, rather than hunted (Ehrenberg 1989b).

Lewis Binford's "Were There Elephant Hunters at Tooralba?" (1989) is a good instance of such a closer look, in which he doubts there was significant hunting until 200,000 years ago or sooner. Adrienne Zihlman (1981) has concluded that "hunting arose relatively late in evolution," and "may not extend beyond the last one hundred thousand years." And there are many (e.g. Straus 1986, Trinkhaus 1986) who do not see evidence for serious hunting of large mammals until even later, viz. the later Upper Paleolithic, just before the emergence of agriculture.

Though of course the much-maligned Neanderthal has been pictured as a primitive, brutish creature - in keeping with the prevailing Hobbesian ideology - despite manifest intelligence as well as enormous physical strength (Shreeve 1991)...

The start of an appreciation of domestication, or taming of nature, is seen in a cultural ordering of the wild, through ritual. Evidently, the female as a cultural category, viz. seen as wild or dangerous, dates from this period. The ritual "Venus" figurines appear as of 25,000 years ago, and seem to be an example of earliest symbolic likeness of women for the purpose of representation and control (Hodder 1990). Even more concretely, subjugation of the wild occurs at this time in the first systematic hunting of large mammals; ritual was an integral part of this activity (Hammond 1974, Frison 1986).

Agriculture enables greatly increased division of labor, establishes the material foundations of social hierarchy, and initiates environmental destruction. Priests, kings, drudgery, sexual inequality, warfare are a few of its fairly immediate specific consequences (Ehrenberg 1986b, Wymer 1981, Festinger 1983). Whereas Paleolithic peoples enjoyed a highly varied diet, using several thousand species of plants for food, with farming these sources were vastly reduced (White 1959, Gouldie 1986).

Given the intelligence and the very great practical knowledge of Stone Age humanity, the question has often been asked, "Why didn't agriculture begin, at say, 1,000,000 B.C. rather than about 8,000 B.C.?" I have provided a brief answer in terms of slowly accelerating alienation in the form of division of labor and symbolization, but given how negative the results were, it is still a bewildering phenomenon. Thus, as Binford (1968) put it, "The question to be asked is not why agriculture...was not developed everywhere, but why it was developed at all." The end of gatherer-hunter life brought a decline in size, stature, and skeletal robusticity (Cohen and Armelagos 1981, Harris and Ross 1981), and introduced tooth decay, nutritional deficiencies, and most infectious diseases (Larsen 1982, Buikstra 1976a, Cohen 1981). "Taken as a whole...an overall decline in the quality--and probably the length--of human life," concluded Cohen and Armelagos (1981).

Duffy (1984) points out that the present day gatherer-hunters he studied, the Mbuti Pygmies of central Africa, have been acculturated by surrounding villager-agriculturalists for hundreds of years, and to some extent, by generations of contact with government authorities and missionaries. And yet it seems that an impulse toward authentic life can survive down through the ages: "Try to imagine," he counsels, "a way of life where land, shelter, and food are free, and where there are no leaders, bosses, politics, organized crime, taxes, or laws. Add to this the benefits of being part of a society where everything is shared, where there are no rich people and no poor people, and where happiness does not mean the accumulation of material possessions." The Mbuti have never domesticated animals or planted crops.

Among the members of non-agriculturalist bands resides a highly sane combination of little work and material abundance. Bodley (1976) discovered that the San (aka Bushmen) of the harsh Kalahari Desert of southern Africa work fewer hours, and fewer of their number work, than do the neighboring cultivators. In times of drought, moreover, it has been the San to whom the farmers have turned for their survival (Lee 1968). They spend "strikingly little time laboring and much time at rest and leisure," according to Tanaka (1980), while others (e.g. Marshall 1976, Guenther 1976) have commented on San vitality and freedom compared with sedentary farmers, their relatively secure and easygoing life.

Flood (1983) noted that to Australian aborigines "the labour involved in tilling and planting outweighed the possible advantages." Speaking more generally, Tanaka (1976) has pointed to the abundant and stable plant foods in the society of early humanity, just as "they exist in every modern gatherer society." Likewise, Festinger (1983) referred to Paleolithic access to "considerable food without a great deal of effort," adding that "contemporary groups that still live on hunting and gathering do very well, even though they have been pushed into very marginal habitats."

As Hole and Flannery (1963) summarized: "No group on earth has more leisure time than hunters and gatherers, who spend it primarily on games, conversation and relaxing." They have much more free time, adds Binford (1968), "than do modern industrial or farm workers, or even professors of archaeology."

The non-domesticated know that, as Vaneigem (1975) put it, only the present can be total. This by itself means that they live life with incomparably greater immediacy, density and passion than we do. It has been said that some revolutionary days are worth centuries; until then "We look before and after," as Shelley wrote, "And sigh for what is not...."

The Mbuti believe (Turnbull 1976) that "by a correct fulfillment of the present, the past and the future will take care of themselves." Primitive peoples do not live through memories, and generally have no interest in birthdays or measuring their ages (Cipriani 1966). As for the future, they have little desire to control what does not yet exist, just as they have little desire to control nature. Their moment-by-moment joining with the flux and flow of the natural world does not preclude an awareness of the seasons, but this does not constitute an alienated time consciousness that robs them of the present.

The Andaman Islanders, west of Thailand, have no leaders, no idea of symbolic representation, and no domesticated animals. There is also an absence of aggression, violence, and disease; wounds heal surprisingly quickly, and their sight and hearing are particularly acute. They are said to have declined since European intrusion in the mid-19th century, but exhibit other such remarkable physical traits as a natural immunity to malaria, skin with sufficient elasticity to rule out post-childbirth stretch marks and the wrinkling we associate with ageing, and an `unbelievable' strength of teeth: Cipriani (1966) reported seeing children of 10 to 15 years crush nails with them. He also testified to the Andamese practice of collecting honey with no protective clothing at all; "yet they are never stung, and watching them one felt in the presence of some age-old mystery, lost by the civilized world."

Also in the Kalahari Desert, van der Post (1958) meditated upon San/Bushman communion with nature, 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, a steenbuck, a lizard, a striped mouse, mantis, baobab tree, yellow-crested cobra or starry-eyed amaryllis, to mention only a few of the brilliant multitudes through which they moved." It seems almost pedestrian to add that gatherer-hunters have often been remarked to possess tracking skills that virtually defy rational explanation (e.g. Lee 1979).

Turnbull (1976) looked on the structure of Mbuti social life as "an apparent vacuum, a lack of internal system that is almost anarchical." According to Duffy (1984), "the Mbuti are naturally acephalous - they do not have leaders or rulers, and decisions concerning the band are made by consensus." There is an enormous qualitative difference between foragers and farmers in this regard, as in so many others. For instance, agricultural Bantu tribes (e.g. the Saga) surround the San, and are organized by kingship, hierarchy and work; the San exhibit egalitarianism, autonomy, and sharing. Domestication is the principle which accounts for this drastic distinction.

Domination within a society is not unrelated to domination of nature. In gatherer-hunter societies, on the other hand, no strict hierarchy exists between the human and the non-human species (Noske 1989), and relations among foragers are likewise non-hierarchical. The non-domesticated typically view the animals they hunt as equals; this essentially egalitarian relationship is ended by the advent of domestication.

When progressive estrangement from nature became outright social control (agriculture), more than just social attitudes changed. Descriptions by sailors and explorers who arrived in "newly discovered" regions tell how wild mammals and birds originally showed no fear at all of the human invaders (Brock 1981). A few contemporary gatherers practiced no hunting before outside contact, but while the majority certainly do hunt, "it is not normally an aggressive act" (Rohrlich- Leavitt 1976). Turnbull (1965) observed Mbuti hunting as quite without any aggressive spirit, even carried out with a sort of regret. Hewitt (1986) reported a sympathy bond between hunter and hunted among the Xan Bushmen he encountered in the 19th century.

As regards violence among gatherer-hunters, Lee (1988) found that "the !Kung hate fighting, and think anybody who fought would be stupid." The Mbuti, by Duffy's account (1984), "look on any form of violence between one person and another with great abhorrence and distaste, and never represent it in their dancing or playacting." Homicide and suicide, concluded Bodley (1976), are both "decidedly uncommon" among undisturbed gatherer-hunters. The `warlike' nature of Native American peoples was often fabricated to add legitimacy to European aims of conquest (Kroeber 1961); the foraging Comanche maintained their non-violent ways for centuries before the European invasion, becoming violent only upon contact with marauding civilization (Fried 1973).

Coontz and Henderson (1986) point to a growing body of evidence in support of the proposition that relations between the sexes are most egalitarian in the simplest foraging societies. Women play an essential role in traditional agriculture, but receive no corresponding status for their contribution, unlike the case of gatherer-hunter society (Chevillard and Leconte 1986, Whyte 1978). As with plants and animals, so are women subject to domestication with the coming of agriculture. Culture, securing its foundations with the new order, requires the firm subjugation of instinct, freedom, and sexuality. All disorder must be banished, the elemental and spontaneous taken firmly in hand. Women's creativity and their very being as sexual persons are pressured to give way to the role, expressed in all peasant religions, of Great Mother, that is, fecund breeder of men and food.

The men of the South American Munduruc, a farming tribe, refer to plants and sex in the same phrase about subduing women: "We tame them with the banana" (Murphy and Murphy 1985). Simone de Beauvoir (1949) recognized in the equation of the plow and the phallus a symbol of male authority over women.

As Wilson (1988) put it succinctly, "Revenge, feuds, rioting, warfare and battle seem to emerge among, and to be typical of, domesticated peoples."

Sahlins (1972) spoke of this eloquently: "The world's most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all, it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization."

Future Primitive (John Zerzan)
Running on Emptiness: The Failure of Symbolic Thought (John Zerzan) | The Anarchist Library

No comments: