“Thinking must stand beyond all anthropology and psychology if it wants to be equipped for the question of who man is; for as soon as, and wherever, one ‘asks’ about humanity in the anthropological manner, and everything is linked back to humanity (be it as the individual ‘subject’ or as ‘people,’ it makes no difference in this fundamental realm), a decision about humanity has already been reached, and every possibility of interrogating the essence of humanity on the basis of completely different connections (to the essence of being) has been excluded. Even all doctrines of humanity (e.g. the Christian-Jewish doctrine) that define man immediately on the basis of his relation to a ‘God’ are anthropological which is why, in non-Christian anthropology and in those that would like to be it and cannot, it is precisely /Christian anthropology and its body of doctrine that must play an essential role, if only in its mere reversal.” – Martin Heidegger
The ecological thought understands that there never was an authentic world. This doesn’t mean that we can do what we like with where we live, however. Thinking big means realizing that there is always more than our point of view. There is indeed an environment, yet when we examine it, we find it is made of strange strangers. Our awareness of them isn’t always euphoric or charming or benevolent. Environmental awareness might have something intrinsically uncanny about it, as if we were seeing something we shouldn’t be seeing, as if we realized we were caught in something.” -Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought
I rarely harp on primitivists even though I am both not one and also hostile to many of the positive politics of primitivists, in so much that they have positive politics. I have, however, felt many of the general critiques of primitivism conflate varieties of ecological thinking and argue from consequences first, thus avoiding any substance to the primitivist critique. A Heideggerian-inspired primitivist, a deep ecologist, a prepper, a tribalist, a hunter-gatherer, et al, do not necessarily share premises either. A primitivistically-inclined friend of mine asked to read Tucker’s The Sufffocating Void and asked me respond, adding the caveat, “I sometimes wonder if primitivism has a tendency to be asceticism for the middle class.” I am not entirely sure that is what is going on in Kevin Tucker’s case, but Tucker’s essay had me thinking about what exactly what constitutes my issues with this brand of primitivism. I have always been hesitant to debate the “natural,” particularly when using the natural as a normative value and not merely a descriptor. I have, in the past, critiqued John Zerzan for seeming going back and forth being seeing collapse as a descriptive inevitability and a normative value. This leads to some problems philosophically that then thus have profound implications for the success or failure of any such project. Tucker is not Zerzan, but Zerzan’s critique has often been based on a vision of a life that resists reification, even the point of giving up language. Yet, like most anti-philosophy, Zerzan’s critique of reification in human life cannot resist all sorts of reifications itself: one recounts the intellectual neologistic bromides of post-Heideggerian post-structuralist thinkers who attacked the conceptual logic of philosophy… which is a different form of that same logic of attempted escape.
When it comes to the “natural,” the problem is doubly there. We can argue about what the natural is, but then we presume necessarily what we must prove in our conception of natural. The criterion itself is where the differences emerge, and expressing that criterion is where the values are assumed. In this, one can be attempting to fight reification with seeming more concrete language that is, however, more nebulous than the technical jargon it seeks to replace. “Natural” is doubly problematic in so much that, from most common language use, it implies something that humans are necessarily alienated from and a continuous product of. I am not even sure Tucker would disagree with me that this conception of nature is, at best, “problematic.” The tension in that conception, however, creates a space for projecting on “the natural” any lack which to fix. It is a nebulous term. Tucker’s essay is full of both the extremely concrete and the very nebulous, and thus kind of conceptual problem starts to come into play.
This is mostly because Tucker is a very, very good writer of polemics and a fairly sound thinker. Tucker’s take-down of Derrick Jensen’s alternating concessions to the “mainstream left” as well as his militancy against very specific things is probably one of the best critiques of Jensen written–mostly because Tucker starts from a point of consistency to which Jensen’s claims to have fidelity and the destruction flows from that point forward. No one knows the weaknesses of your position more than the position who almost shares it and is more consistent with to what prompts that position. However, like Marx, a man whom I almost certain Tucker would not like to be compared, the clear thinking and the tendency for effective polemic can conflict. That conflict is where the more subtle problems are hidden.
What Tucker sees in modern social media is another revolution, but like prior revolutions of the means of production, Tucker sees more human domestication:
Like the Agricultural Revolution, Industrial Revolution, and the Green Revolution before it, the Interface Revolution propels civilization beyond the boundaries and limitations of earlier systems. The firewalls of Jericho have been breached. Progress innovated, the processes integrated.
For the programmers, this is no small feat. This is the dream of every domesticator: people lining up and fighting for the latest technology, fighting for a place in line, paying top dollar for devices with built in tracking and data mining software and willing to remain in debt to sustain the terms of our bondage. Never mind that the world is suffocating under piles of waste, choking down makeshift mines for rare and difficult to extract metals, while workers are forced to sign anti-suicide clauses, villages are displaced, and sustained low budget warfare are both form and function; the expectation isn’t just that all of this will be ignored, but that you, the consumer, will be back for more next year. Or sooner.
In this description of the situation, Tucker is not wrong, but the focus on resistance and on the idea of domestication creates a problem. Like Camatte, the left communist who saw the subsuming of everyday life in capital as so complete and so dangerous, the only possibility to go to something like community was no longer communism, but into the wild. Re-wilding was a form of strategic retreat. However, Camatte could not do this. Furthermore, as Zerzan showed on his writings on Adorno, the various forms of reason thrown up by the Enlightenment were almost all heading towards instrumental reason. Not abstract logic, not universal teleology of mankind, not linguistic or emotional reasoning, but the brutal reasoning that lends itself towards a singular goal with unique and total abandon–the goal generally be a fetish of wealth above and beyond any human need. Zerzan pointed out that Adorno could not escape the logic of Enlightenment himself, and Zerzan, for all his protests about reification, cannot escape the reification of nature. For Tucker then, the very notion of volunteeristic re-wilding becomes necessary, but that itself remains vague and abstract. This is the very tendency that Tucker needs to criticize because this is where a real limit to his thought may be.
To be fair, Tucker is most definitely aware of this tension in his writing. The irony that he must use those very technologies he sees as related to domestication to get his message out about writing is not lost on him. Nor is it fair to just call him a hypocrite: the Marxist must sell pay for food and earn wages, the conservative will receive the social benefits he does not want to fund, and the liberal will turn illiberal the movement their projects are threatened. Even the diehard materialists with a vision of absolute freedom knows they cannot escape their context alone, by their sheer will, or they already would have.
This makes Tucker’s slip into moralism also a slip into borderline conspiracy:
The unprecedented nature of this has led two industry proponents to applaud the near universal acceptance of mobile phones as the most quickly adopted consumer technology in the history of the world. Gloating in their sickening book, Networked, authors Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman state: “the Mobile Revolution has allowed [Information and Community Technologies] to become body appendages allowing people to access friends and information at will, wherever they go.” The key being “always accessible”, but, in true form, they see “the possibility of a continued presence and pervasive awareness of others in the network” positively.
The architects of civilization have long understood that the power of the domestication process lies in its ability to be internalized. The mythos of Progress requires daily affirmation. The programmers, however, realized that affirmation could become integrated.
Progress is a myth in an absolute form. Progress, to be meaningful, is a term relative to another term. Yet in its fetishization we realize its weakness: it can be separated from that context and treated as a noun. Everything can be deemed “progress” if there is no referent or standard, and what progress actually refers to a secularized teleology. Nature too is a myth and by the same logic of fetishized abstraction. There are things in the world that are inhuman, there are systems beyond any individual or society or species, and these systems have logics that can be disruptive but are rarely ever intentional–even by those that create them. This is where the vision of nature as what humans lack becomes a limit to seeing what we and the inhuman are. The mythos of progress doesn’t not require daily supplication: it just requires you to need the tools to communicate in the context given to you. To deny that is to call for aesthetics and aseticism in the face of a society that you cannot cut yourself totally off from without being alienated from the very social necessities to which one is trying to return:
To assume such a process needs daily affirmation is to see it as religious. This attributes to it more agency than it has, and so to the individual fighting against voluntarily. To go back to Tucker’s argument:
What you see when you step into public places are faces illuminated by backlit devices. Groups of teens walking together and each lost in their own virtual presence. 1.3 million car accidents in the US during 2011 were caused by drivers distracted with their cell phones. You will see people constantly swiping their screens to look for updates, feeds, messages, or just blindly glancing out of habit at their phones, most seemingly with no recognition of what they are doing.
The conclusion of the Megamachine, the necessary step to furthering the goals of Progress, was to eliminate barriers. To make it so we treat phones as an appendage, while the Programmers dream of making them one.
To make us complicit.
To make us comply without even noticing it.
The conclusion of the Megamachine? You will notice the continuing poetic metaphor. The agency attributed to ideas. The moral terminology as a call-to-action. What does this actually get the primitivist? The idea that the human has not been changed by 5000 years of agriculture despite the dominance of hunter-gatherer societies prior seems to be flatly contradicted by human development of its society. To say this is a megamachine that aims to make us all complicit is a dangerous metaphor. The machine doesn’t care about you. It also doesn’t care about your complicity. The programmers may be embarking on cybernetic social engineering, but they are probably just trying to make a product for which they can make money. Like most domestication, if it becomes intentional, it is for practical reasons, and generally it seems to begin by some kind of accident. The majority of social life is reactive to the conditions in which we live, and to dream that is imposed upon us or that it requires anyone to have agency over it can lead to very moralistic tactics that doesn’t realize the problems at hand.
If anything, this moralistic element in Tucker’s writing actually mitigates the true nature of damage done to all things non-human and also thus to the human being as well. IF there is an agent, we can reverse the trend. We can fight it off. However, if it the result of systems that developed from unintended consequences, then the chance we would ever understand enough to reverse it becomes less likely.
There is much that is right about Tucker’s argument, and he is right on the facts about around social media involvement: declines in the ability of self-control and executive function, an increased sense of depression, and inflated sense of status competition between relative peers, constantly performing a personality in a “discourse community” which warps one’s sense of self. He’s right. That is the result of this technology, but where I think he is wrong is here:
Progress remains. Mythos adapt.
Except it doesn’t. Concepts don’t do anything. This is to attribute for more power to ideas than is warranted, and this is where my friend’s fears that this can all lapse into a kind of moralism against the dross of current capitalist life starts to ring true. If we take people as animals in complex systems that are given to collapse and whose effectiveness at abstraction makes them dangerous to themselves, we must also assume that this do not emerge as an conspiracy or some kind of alien element to “nature.” It happened.
Archeological evidence from early agricultural settlements show that the spirit of relative egalitarianism does remain in the beginnings of the establishment of a settled culture, but it never remains that way. Agriculture was not a conspiracy, it was probably a response to over-foraging or to some other notion of society. Nomadic cultures are not hunter-gatherers necessarily either, but even there we can see similar patterns. Progress isn’t the cause. It was what we call the call the cause. The cause is responses to inhuman and the unintended consequences thereof.
I doubt Tucker would even disagree with me on any of this, but a belief in the sacrosanct individual may be the issue. I actually can’t speak for Tucker on this nor do I actually deny the individual per se. But I do deny that the individual is sui generis and can escape a context not of one’s singular making by an act of will. Perhaps it is a my historicism, but such volunteerism seems dangerously optimistic about what humans are.
But again, we can come down too hard on Tucker’s argument because the one intentionality I think he is absolutely right about was the purpose of social media. Lately, I saw a post about “never let limits stop your dreams: uber is the largest taxi company and owns no cars, facebook is the largest media provider and creates no content, AIRBNB is the largest hotel service and owns no buildings.” This inspirational message misses the point–all of these were attempts to disrupt the economy and lower overhead, but it necessarily had to do so weakening any labor. AirBnB is probably the least offensive on this front as it generally is just a aggregating service, but no so for facebook and uber. I don’t think, however, this was an attempt break individuals explicitly, but it requires such breaking. The purpose was to profit on someone’s labor without even providing the means of production: it is the means of access that matters.
This, however, follows from profit imperatives as much as any conspiracy: the intentionality was probably not malicious. Or, at least, not more malicious that any attempt at profit. It’s effects, however, will be wage suppression and labor precariousness. These companies are aware of that now and must continue to do it to exist, but I highly doubt their intentional intentions were that systemically thought through. One thing I noticed when I did work in the business world is that it is very good at analysis as long as that analysis doesn’t require a system understanding more than a year or two out in any direction and with “externalities” more than one or two sectors removed from their own.
Tucker asserts, “We chose to take part in this inexplicably vast social experiment and database without seeing it as a choice” I found his essay on what amounts to a database that is just as embedded in that world as any facebook post, just as likely to be monitored by the NSA, just as likely to be traceable from google.
Time’s arrow is not a choice.
Tucker then ends with the nebulous we and they that most polemics end in:
The problems that surround us, the emptiness of Modernity, the thing that has us looking at screens instead of into eyes is a distraction. It is life automated. As you shudder away from that frightening noise, the clutter, the crowds, the moment you look up mindlessly from your phone; you are confronted with all of this.
And it is too much.
It is suffocating. It is an endless nothingness, a weight on the lungs, a turning in the stomach, an unidentified repulsion.
The temptation is to look away. That is why we don’t even have the words to address this plague, to address how the hardwired matrix became an invisible leash. We aren’t confronting it. And the programmers, the domesticators of Modernity, are counting on the fact that we are losing the very ability to even situate or reconcile our loss and context.
They are counting on our inability to recognize the world around us.
No, frankly, “they” aren’t. “They” are counting on the fact that even if you do recognize the world around you, once the arrow is shot, you can’t reverse it without other unforeseen consequences. This does not mean we should just passively accept whatever is thrown our way but to pretend that one’s, essentially, consumer choices matter that much is to not realize where exactly one is that. The idea that getting off facebook will break a social conspiracy: that’s more than just volunteerism, that’s pretending to be in a situation one is not actually in.
“They” don’t even need “us” that much anymore. “They” can find a market elsewhere. “They” may even develop robots that renders most of the human population irrelevant to production or consumption. Furthermore, the problem is deeper than these dystopic visions. As the aforemetioned friend pointed out to me in a different context,
Assuming that most hunter-gatherer cultures had about 10,000 years of experience (if not more including our evolutionary past) to practice and figure out how to survive in a given terrain, I think prepper-primmo rewilders are pretty deluded if they think they can suddenly just prosper in that situation. You can take two issues as examples: bird song and selected burning. Kalahari Bushmen and many other “primitive” people could go into a landscape and know pretty much what was going on by listening to the birds, since the birds signal to each other when a predator or intruder is in the vicinity, etc. That, and tracking, which is one part actually looking at tracks, and one part listening to the patterns of bird song to see which way the prey went. And as for burning, that was a managing of landscape that even surpasses much of current wild land science. Once those ways of life ended, they were done. You simply can’t replicate them. Like that Aboriginal tribe that had an absolute sense of cardinal direction. Primmo-prepper-permaculturalists would do best to not be deluded about their efforts. Survival in that sort of doomsday scenario would be pure luck, and it might be the lucky who get killed off right away.
In other words, not only is time’s arrow going to go in ways we can predict or control, the idea that there is a wildness just waiting to come out instantly upon the removal of “civilization” is frankly something that we don’t have evidence for. We have changed. Even assume that the stuff of human beings are relatively consistent over time because of minimal natural selection pressures, historical pressures and sexual selection would have altered our genome. Even as individuals, we may not be completely determined by our environments in consistently predictable ways, but we do exist in context with that environment and our skills sets come from essentially practical needs. Even when those conditions are of our own making, we often have no idea the full impact.
So here Tucker ends:
To see this world the way our bodies feel it and our minds know it, there is no other option but the annihilation of civilization. We have guides. We have instincts.
We have our wildness.
So before we are lost in a sea of unending, constant nothingness: to take the first step, we must first look up. Breathe deep.
And fight back.
Nothingness can only be expressed in symbols. Our “wildness” is not some static species being that will emerge, and even if it was, turning your computer off may help your depression, but its not going to do a damn thing about world as whole. This is the danger of the conflation of between the normative and descriptive: It is just obvious that you like me, that you know what I know, that we have the same instincts.
The rub, though, is if we did all feel this instictively, our current state of development never would happened. To fight back, one must never give into a Mythos even if it is fight another mythos. This moralism deludes an individual as much as the computer and the market. It sees some parts of life as practical, but creates a state of exception for the rest of it. It zeros in on one part of our becoming to the exclusion of other parts of our becoming.
You cannot pour new wine into old wine skins. When the wine expands, the skin explodes and you lose both. That is the danger of reification that even the primitivists seem unable to escape, but unlike Tucker, I don’t see this as personal failing of will. I see it as a consequence of what we have become. We will adapt or die: progress is just a conceptual apparatus, it didn’t cause any of this, and I suspect our belief in it was a rationalization without much real consequence.