Future Primitive and Other Essays is a collection of essays by anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan published by Autonomedia in 1994. The book became the subject of increasing interest after Zerzan and his beliefs rose to fame in the aftermath of the trial of fellow thinker Theodore Kaczynski and the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle. It was republished in 1996 by Semiotext(e), and has since been translated into French (1998), Turkish (2000), Spanish (2001), and Catalan (2002). As is the case with Zerzan's previous collection of essays, Elements of Refusal, Future Primitive is regarded by Anarcho-Primitivists and technophobes as an underground classic.
Future Primitive is an unequivocal assertion of the superiority of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Zerzan rejects the thesis that time and technology are neutral scientific realities, arguing instead that they are carefully constructed means of enslaving people. He cites as examples the computer and the Internet, which he maintains have an atomizing effect on society, creating novel divisions of labour, demanding ever increasing efficiency and portions of leisure time. Life prior to domestication and agriculture, Zerzan argues, was predominantly one of "leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality and health". In the Paleolithic era, as The Wall Street Journal summarized Zerzan's thesis, "people roamed free, lived off the land and knew little or nothing of private property, government, money, war, even sexism. In the wild, the shackles of civilization weren't necessary, as people were instinctively munificent and kind, the primitivist argument goes."
- ^Campbell, Duncan (April 18, 2001). "Anarchy in the United States". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 2008-10-06.
- ^Works by or about Works by or about John Zerzan in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- ^Noble, Kenneth B. (May 7, 1995). "Prominent Anarchist Finds Unsought Ally in Serial Bomber". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 2008-10-06.
- ^Gowdy, John (1998). Limited Wants, Unlimited Means. Washington: Island Press. p. 220. ISBN 1-55963-555-X.
- ^ abVeseth, Michael (2002). The New York Times Twentieth Century in Review: the Rise of the Global Economy. New York: Routledge. p. 515. ISBN 1-57958-369-5.
- ^Bookchin, Murray (1995). Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism. Stirling: AK Press. p. 39. ISBN 1-873176-83-X.
- ^Waldman, Peter (December 6, 1999). "An Anarchist Looks to Provide Logic To Coterie Leading WTO Vandalism". The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company. Archived from the original on December 29, 2004.
Zerzan’s literary form is typically the academic-styled manifesto, the short screed, and the interview—and some of these have been published as collections, one being Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization.
Primitivism, in summary, starts with the observation that people have been civilized or domesticated or what-have-you for only the last 10% or so of the time we’ve been on the planet—so civilization isn’t a necessary part of being human, just what we happen to be up to these days. Next comes a critical examination of civilization with an eye to answering the question: are we better off now, or were we better off then (hint: then). Lastly comes advocating a new organization of society that discards the pathology of civilization.
Despite Zerzan’s prominence and his years of speculating, exploring and theorizing in these areas, I’ve never much enjoyed his writings.
This book doesn’t make it any easier. First off, the publisher has (understandably) tried to take advantage of Zerzan’s notoriety—lots of play on the whole Unabomber/Seattle connection. The front cover blurb has a reviewer calling John Zerzan “the most important philosopher of our time. All the rest of us are building on his foundation.” That’s a bit of an overstatement, and makes me suspect that he’s got more of a fan base than a school of critical inquiry.
Essay #1 in the collection is “The Failure of Symbolic Thought”. Part of what makes it hard to swallow is that it is genuinely, thoroughly radical. Zerzan isn’t just an anarchist—he wants more than the dissolution of the state or of capitalism. And he’s not just a luddite—pre-industrial just isn’t “pre” enough for him. He’s even a little far out for the hard core primitivist crowd. He thinks we took a wrong turn even before civilization, before agriculture. Symbolic language itself was a fuck-up.
I’m not saying he’s wrong. It’s an intriguing hypothesis and I think it might be supportable, but it’s not intuitive or easy. More to the point, if you’re going to argue it, you’re going to need to be clear, thorough, and intellectually honest. Zerzan isn’t up to it.
I want to avoid the cheap irony of saying something like “how can Zerzan be arguing that language is so bad for us when he’s using language to make the argument” because it really is cheap and doesn’t say much—like the whole “hey, look, it’s a luddite website—snort” joke. But, there’s a kernel of truth here.
It’s not that Zerzan is using language, but the sort of language he’s using that’s the problem. His argument is that language, and symbolic representation in general (in such forms as art and ritual), are inferior ways of experiencing the world to that of direct sensory and sensual experience and that symbolic representation serves to encourage separation, dominance, pathological culture and the like.
But to make the argument, he uses sentences like: “The constant urge or quest for the transcendent testifies that the hegemony of absence is a cultural constant.” And he commits the mortal sin of using the verb “obtain” in its archaic sense of “to prevail” instead of its near-universal modern use of “to gain possession of”:
Either the non-symbolizing health that once obtained, in all its dimensions, or madness and death.
Writing like this, abstract and academic and full of ten-dollar words, is elitist—only appealing to that percentage of the literate percentage of the population who are practiced in juggling abstract concepts and archaicisms. And it’s absurd in the context of his argument, which in part is that the more abstract language becomes the more it becomes inherently fantastic, dishonest, and mentally domineering.
He’s got a term-paper-writer’s lack of confidence in just saying what he thinks, too. He’s always quoting obscure authorities, who most of the time simply appear somewhere to voice a thought that coincides with the point Zerzan is making, only to vanish again without another mention. In the 16-page essay, we’re introduced to Sloan, Morris, Freud, Debord, Shreeve, Goethe, Kant, Levinas, Sagan, Durkheim, White, Frye, Geertz, Cohen, Malinowski, Wynn, Perry, Rorty, Werner, Blake, Coan, Drummond, Thomas, Marcuse, Howes, Lévi-Strauss, Eliade, Foster, Peterson, Goodall, Mead, Hegel, Vendler, Morgan, Chomsky, Lieberman, von Glasersfeld, Hirn, Miller, Adorno, Kristeva, Knight, Cohen, Parkin, Reinach, Cassirer, Gamble, Douglas, Goodman, Ingold, Waters, Tudge, Horkheimer, McFarland, and Lomas. And most of these show up just to make a single observation, for example:
In 1976, von Glasersfeld wondered “whether, at some future time, it will still seem so obvious that language has enhanced the survival of life on this planet.”
That’s the beginning and end for von Glasersfeld. He wonders what Zerzan wonders, so Zerzan quotes him. I’d be happier if Zerzan would just stick to telling us what’s going on in his wonderings, and save the quoting of outside authorities for when they’re actually doing research and uncovering facts that I might want to look up some day.
Instead, some of the most pivotal assertions in his account are left as simple assertions (or harmonic quotes from his stable of dropped names), and some relatively unimportant points are referenced but are hardly made more believable thereby (“the Bushmen… can see four moons of Jupiter with the unaided eye,” “telepathic communication among the Kung in Africa”).
Other eternal philosophical debating points are treated as having already been solved and concluded—“there are no non-sensory conscious states,” Zerzan informs us. I had money on the other team and didn’t think the last seconds had ticked off the clock yet.
Aside from this, part of my distaste is that I just can’t buy the whole unabomber-as-hero scenario. I tried, I’m sorry to admit. I read his manifesto and I still have some admiration for it, but, dude, the guy killed and maimed people with mail bombs. Gotta factor that in, I say.
I may be reading from biased or corrupted sources here, but it seems like that whole primitivist angle was Kaczynski’s after-the-fact justification for what he really thought was important—blowing people up.
If you’ve got to kill off secretaries, professors, pilots, and geeks to usher in the primitivist paradise, that’s a little too much blood for me. Besides, I think I’m on the hit list somewhere, so count me out.
Not Zerzan, though. When the manifesto came out, primitivists everywhere thought “woah, he’s one of us” and then scrambled to figure out whether or not this was a good thing. Most kept quiet, suspecting that Kaczynski would be an embarrassment. Some, though, came to embrace him, and none more fondly than John Zerzan.
In “Whose Unabomber?” (1995), he’s taking his first steps in that direction, but is still hedging his bets:
…the mailing of explosive devices intended for
the agents who are engineering the present
catastrophe is too random. Children, mail
carriers, and others could easily be killed.
Even if one granted the legitimacy of striking
at the high-tech horror show by terrorizing
its indespensable architects, collateral harm
is not justifiable…
The concept of justice should not be
overlooked in considering the Unabomber
phenomenon. In fact, except for his targets,
when have the many little Eichmanns who are
preparing the Brave New World ever been called
to account?… Is it unethical to try to stop
those whose contributions are bringing an
unprecedented assault on life?
(That's the source of that “little Eichmanns” quip that got Ward Churchill in so much trouble later on.) By 1997 (“He Means It—Do You?”), Zerzan has stopped being wishy-washy:
Enter the Unabomber and a new line is being
drawn. This time the bohemian schiz-fluxers,
Green yuppies, hobbyist anarcho-journalists,
condescending organizers of the poor, hip
nihilo-aesthetes and all the other
“anarchists” who thought their pretentious
pastimes would go on unchallenged indefinitely
—well, it’s time to pick which side you’re on.
It may be that here also is a Rubicon from
which there will be no turning back.
Some, no doubt, would prefer to wait for a
perfect victim. Many would like to unlearn
what they know of the invasive and
unchallenged violence generated everywhere by
the prevailing order—in order to condemn the
But here is the person and the challenge
Anarchists! One more effort if you would be
enemies of this long nightmare!
Oh, I hope not. I have a hunch that the end of this long nightmare isn’t going to come about by idolizing or emulating Mr. Kaczynski. That’s the trick, you see. Figuring out—once you, too, have the insight of the true primitivist believer and understand the urgency of the situation—what to do next.
As far as I can tell, that’s another one of those open questions. And it’s not getting any less open the more Zerzan I read. The book that helps close that question will be a useful book in a way that Zerzan’s isn’t.