Letter to the Editor re Zerzan’s Warning

Date submitted: February 7, 2017
News outlet: Register-Guard

silicaJohn Zerzan’s recent letter [“Peaceful protest changes nothing,” Feb. 6] had the feel of an obligatory public service announcement or perhaps one of those overly cautious product warning labels. Like those quirky product warnings it compels one to think about the terribly, difficult life of those who genuinely require such elementary advice: the person who hadn’t realize he shouldn’t use his electric iron while under water, eat the silica packet that comes in a pair of new shoes, or place a baby into a washing machine. The warnings strike most of as silly and perhaps even insulting but for a small part of the population those warnings are presumably quite important.

Zerzan’s warning is addressed to those confused folks who are under the delusion that by simply marching a sufficient distance or as part of a big group they will thereby magically bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice and throw off the yoke of oppression. While the number of people attempting to use their toaster as a flotation device is probably fairly small, those who mistake good manners, well-planned marches, luncheons with cops, and letters to politicians for real resistance is embarrassingly large. It’s pathetic that we even need the reminder that Zerzan offers us: peaceful protest changes nothing.

 

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Review: Why Hope?

why-hope-460x746Why Hope? The Stand Against Civilization
John Zerzan
Feral House, 2015, 136pp., $13.00

John Zerzan could be described as defiantly hopeful. In a time when a seed of nihilism has been germinating in the anarchist milieu, Zerzan has published a new book in which almost every essay has an element of hope. Whereas pessimism and despair are currently fashionable postures, Zerzan’s more optimistic perspective is both refreshing and vitally important.

The first and largest section of the book is titled Origins–a topic central to Zerzan’s larger body of work and critical to his general methodology. In the book’s opening essay, titled “In the Beginning”, Zerzan writes that:

“Without interest in [Origin], without a conception of what is involved, there is less of a sense of possible arrival. Origin can liberate the future insofar as it retrieves our relation to what has come before.” (3)

That is to say, that to seek out, uncover, and examine our origins–both the origins of our species and the origins of our oppressive, crippling civilization–provides grounds for hope. And not merely naive wishful thinking but hope solidly grounded in the knowledge that our current situation is a gross aberration and not representative of the wide swathe of human experience. We within civilization have effectively been denied the human experience in the same way that animals confined in a zoo are denied a genuine experience.

It should be noted that while anarcho-primitivists may frequently be accused of being unrealistic, they are somewhat unique in not seeking a heretofore unknown utopia but instead aim at what statistically may be called normal human life. Likewise, anarcho-primitivists are accused of wanting to turn back time but the hope in Zerzan’s book is definitively forward-looking with an eye toward future possibilities for resistance. Seeking a return to health when “dis-ease is the fact of modern life” (128) should not be construed as a nostalgic attempt to turn back time simply because it would constitute a return to a more desirable condition.

Yet, for many, to inquire into origins is taboo but the inquiry allows Zerzan to confidently and credibly make statements such as:

“civilization is failing on every level, in every sphere, and its failure equates so largely with the failure of technology” (94)

“the global system now shows itself to be failing at every level, shows itself to have no answers at all” (134)

It is declarations of this sort that provide ample grounds for hope or perhaps where his hope is most clearly on display. In an essay titled “Arrivederci Roma: The Crisis of Late Antiquity” Zerzan explains that “a climate of futility and decay could not be dispelled by government” and that “a sense of decline had long been underway, along with a lurking fearfulness” (46). Fast forward to the present and flip ahead to Zerzan’s “What Does it Mean to be Healthy?” and it is noted that the current empire suffers in similar ways as “passivity and a sense of doom have settled on modern industrial society” (128). While Rome was in “just one more civilization that came and went” (54) it provides insight as to why the now global civilization is ailing and how it might be vulnerable to attack. It is threads such as this that knit together Zerzan’s wide-ranging collection of essays into a whole.

Amongst my personal favorites in Why Hope? are the essays “Faster! The Age of Acceleration” and “Animal Dreams”. “Faster!” accurately describes the lived, nightmarish experience of finding oneself in an ever-accelerating civilization where “[t]ime cracks the whip and mocks everything that doesn’t keep up” (89); where “the always faster colonization of life by technology commands an ever-fluctuating environment in which the self is destabilized” (90). Works such as this one are important because it validates the anxiety and discomfort that many of us routinely feel, bringing it to the forefront, and explaining where it comes from. It asserts that life doesn’t have to be like this and, in fact, hasn’t always been like this. “Animal Dreams” provides a path out explaining, in one of the book’s most memorable lines, that “We are lost, but other animals point to the right road. They are the right road.” (106). Animals who come into contact and under control of the civilized are subject to cracking whips but those who have resisted domestication do not know the lash.

Hope is necessarily entwined with meaningful, effective resistance for it makes possibilities visible that pessimism and despair obscure and deny. Hope keeps us looking for ripe moments, feeling for points of vulnerability, and ready to exploit any cracks in the armor. Civilization aims to project an image of invulnerability; those who oppose civilization should not be so credulous as to believe it.

Seven Types of Shit

There are seven types of shit. I mean that literally. There are seven types of human feces. Researchers have established a schema for sorting stools into seven distinctive types. The Bristol Stool Chart was developed in 1997 assigns a number one through seven to bowel movements. The numbers span a spectrum from watery, diarrhea on one end to hard, constipated stools on the other end. For those keeping score, numbers four and five and considered healthy stools.

Bristol

The Bristol Stool Chart has trickled down from researchers to medical professionals to caretakers and even to a small number of overly-fastidious laypeople. In fact, I had considered a joke about a future Bristol Stool Chart phone app but then soon discovered that it already exists. Those interested in the app may be disappointed to learn that it is really just the chart made available on your phone (“Brings the famous Bristol Stool Scale to your fingertips!” – hopefully you’re wearing gloves) coupled with a place to document (archive?) your movements and perhaps boast of your regularity. In the future one would hope that you might have the ability take a picture of your stool and have it categorized for you in the same way that someone can point their phone at a constellation in the sky and be told its name. This would go a long way toward minimizing the amount of subjectivity that still remains in using the scale.

More seriously though, the developers of the Bristol Stool Chart originally believed that the classification would correspond with the transit time of fecal material through the bowels. This claim has been called into question but the chart remains as a way for professionals and others to talk more precisely about the bowel movements of their patients and those in their care.

In the 2014 film The Giver starring Jeff Bridges (based on the 1993 book by Lois Lowry), one of the founding principles of the dystopian future society depicted in the film was “precision of language”. Mass society requires precise language in order to function. Indeed, complex phenomena may even need to be simplified for the purpose of capturing it with precise language. In the film, the protagonist uses the word “love” and is quickly reprimanded for deviating from the principle of precise language. To offer a real world example, in 1950 Alan Turing wrote that:

I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

John Zerzan has often pointed out that this passage from Turing does not speak to the ability of machines to think rather Turing’s prediction concerns how people will have changed so as to more closely resemble machines. If machines cannot be made into brains, it may be far easier to make brains resemble machines.

The Bristol Stool Chart provides the precise language necessary for a society where many people are going to be discussing and in some way vested in your bowel movements and/or where you may need to report the nature, frequency, time, and size of your bowel movements to professionals of various sorts. It is easier to report having a “medium sized, type 4” than to get to vivid (the phone app claims to “make it easy to discuss your bowel movements with your doctor”). Furthermore, “medium sized, type 4” is something that can be (and will be) quickly entered into a form or computer program because not only does information have to be relayed from person to person, specialist to specialist, but it needs to be stored and tracked over time. Precise language allows things to be more readily quantified.

“The processing of large quantities of information is an essential aspect of complex societies, and indeed the need for this processing is probably one of the reasons that such societies came into existence.” (Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, p. 99).

In this way, this silly chart that compares shit to sausages and snakes, can be understood as a technology that makes mass society possible. In smaller scale societies, people obviously know that diarrhea and constipation are undesirable and that it may be indicative of overall gastrointestinal health and yet they are somehow able to make do without articulating seven categories of shit.

An Unenviable Position

In the current issue of Fifth Estate (Fall/Winter 2014), John Zerzan writes:

“There is an understandable, if misplaced, desire that civilization will cooperate with us and deconstruct itself. This mind set seems especially prevalent among those who shy away from resistance, from doing the work of opposing civilization. There is also a tendency to see a dramatic showdown looming, even though history rarely seems to provide us with such a scenario.” [emphasis added] [1]

I immediately stopped, re-read, and churned over that potent phrase: “the work of opposing civilization”. To say it aloud is to wonder exactly what it’s comprised of. What exactly is the work of opposing civilization? To ask the question is to realize the unenviable position that those who oppose civilization find themselves in. We have the most grandiose of ambitions and yet possess the most meager of resources. For many or most of us, we barely know where to start.

Indeed, it is a question that is not too infrequently posed to Zerzan himself. Callers to his weekly radio show Anarchy Radio, sometimes new (and sometimes not) to anti-civ thinking ask: and now what? What is to be done? What should we be doing?

It’s an embarrassingly difficult question. There may be many answers but none seem to be entirely adequate.

Likewise, the recent issue of Black Seed (#2), includes an article from publisher Aragorn! in which he writes:

“Painfully, I don’t believe we are even at the stage of a debate about tactics, but are instead at a preliminary discussion on how to conceive of the problem, which at some point may turn into a sharing of ideas about strategy that may result in a debate about tactics.” [emphasis in original] [2]

So for Aragorn! “what should we do?” is not only a difficult question, it’s a premature question!

Given this unenviable position, which is exacerbated by the quickening pace of ecological devastation and the exponential spread of civilization’s poison, there exists the possibility that bad ideas will not be adequately scrutinized but instead acted upon by those who are understandably desperate for action.

A most obvious and fairly recent example of this is Derrick Jensen’s and Lierre Keith’s Deep Green Resistance (It’s a book! It’s group! It’s a new/old flavor of resistance!). The (seemingly brief) appeal of DGR is most readily explained by the fact that it is a plan even if it’s not a good plan. It’s a call for troops and with an evident war being waged against the planet there were many eager to sign up.

Another predictable reaction to the unenviable position of those opposed to civilization is to abandon hope, to accept and almost welcome defeat; to be aloof and above the fray, too cool to care. But this is a position more appropriate for a spectator placing bets on the outcome of a game than for a participant who has a stake in the matter. In the same issue of Black Seed as quoted above there is a column titled “It’s All Falling Apart” which is essentially a collection of somewhat absurd news items from the mainstream press included for their comic value. But the column itself is prefaced with the following text presumably from the editors:

“The end of the world will not come in a bang, a clarion call of trumpets, and the dawning of a new era. The end of the world will be decades, if not centuries, of immiseration and degradation that will humiliate and starve us…The end of the world isn’t going to be exciting or heroic, it’ll be bright, flashy, and mediocre.” [3]

The passage echoes Zerzan’s remark about the misplaced hope for a “dramatic showdown”; it is agreed that there will be no such event. But whereas Zerzan makes the point so as to urge greater levels of resistance, the Black Seed passage is thoroughly disempowering. No dramatic showdown on the horizon for Zerzan means that we must do the work of opposing civilization—whatever that may be. No dramatic showdown for Black Seed means a future of “immiseration and degradation” where we are starved and humiliated; the work to be done in this case would simply be to develop a thick hide and a tolerance for pain.

[1] John Zerzan. (Fall/Winter 2014) “A Word on Civilization and Collapse,” Fifth Estate (392): 17-18.
[2] Aragorn! (Fall 2014) “Answers to Questions Not Asked: Anarchists and Anthropology,” Black Seed (2): 10.
[3] “It’s All Falling Apart,” Black Seed (2): 26.

The Universe is Expanding

It takes a peculiar kind of mind–a highly civilized mind to be sure–to actively worry about the fact that the universe is expanding. The same could be said for worry about what will happen when the sun burns out. I say “civilized” because such anxiety seemingly stems from a perceived lack of control and the civilized, perhaps by definition, aspire toward complete control.

Only the civilized could interpret the fact that the universe is expanding as a problem which requires a solution rather than simply as a brute fact about existence. Indeed, refusal to accept things as given is both virtue and vice of the civilized mind.

In any case, rarely are such facts as the eventual burning out of our sun cited as grounds for accepting or rejecting a given political theory. Yet in a recent interview with John Zerzan, a VICE Magazine interviewer made the following observation:

One thing I wonder about—and Stephen Hawking has brought this up—is that life on Earth will eventually be destroyed by either a meteorite or finally the sun burning out. [Hawking] has suggested that our only hope of survival is to colonize outer space…

The implication being that anarcho-primitivism cannot provide the tools necessary for adequately responding to an expanding universe; it doesn’t place humanity in a position to colonize space and outlive the sun…consequently it must be rejected. The interviewer overlooks climate change, overlooks species extinction, overlooks how life on Earth is being destroyed right at this very moment in ways that are much more local and immediate than astronomical and distant.

An astute reader could point out that Hawking and the VICE interviewer are also concerned about meteorites and that the threat of meteorites cannot confidently be placed billions of years into the future. Perhaps meteorites are the reason that anarcho-primitivism should be rejected? Could The Argument from Meteorites be the silver bullet argument that renders primitivism implausible: we simply must prepare to obliterate any incoming meteor before it obliterates us–and primitivists are soft on meteorites.

In an article titled “We Can Survive Killer Asteroids–But it Won’t Be Easy” appearing in WIRED in 2012, Neil deGrasse Tyson explained that “[o]nce in about a hundred million years…Earth is visited by an impactor capable of annihilating all life-forms bigger than a carry-on suitcase.” A most interesting metric to be sure!

Tyson elaborates:

If humans one day become extinct from a catastrophic collision, we would be the laughing stock of aliens in the galaxy, for having a large brain and a space program, yet we met the same fate as that pea-brained, space program-less dinosaurs that came before us.

We cannot make the same mistake as the dinosaurs or be the butt of any alien jokes! And so Tyson would have us enter a space race with hypothetical aliens who are hypothetically in the lead.

At this juncture, I can only point out that the limits of anarcho-primitivism are precisely what make it compelling. An anarcho-primitivist society could not manage a nuclear power plant, rely on satellite communication, drop bombs from airplanes, etc. Likewise, as Stephen Hawking- and Neil deGrasse Tyson-inspired critics point out, they also could not chart the path of asteroids far into the future and actively avoid or destroy a devastating meteorite.

It is my position that the steps necessary to create a civilization capable of diverting meteorites would impose a worse cost on itself and its members than the meteorite could inflict.

There is a reason why anarchists tends to run things like coffee shops and bookstores rather than space programs. Anarchism does not scale up very well; to be plausible it must be primitivist.

Asteroid-impact-resize

Productive Personality Disorder

harold lloyd

“Time’s inexorable nature provides the ultimate model of domination.”
–John Zerzan, “Time and Its Discontents” [1]

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) was released last May and has since attracted a significant amount of criticism.  Many such as the Coalition for DSM-5 Reform have argued that:

“the lowering of diagnostic thresholds in several categories, rais[es] the spectre that thousands of individuals experiencing normative distress might be labeled with a mental disorder and treated with psychiatric drugs that have dangerous side effects” [2]

Normal human behavior is seemingly being pathologized with only a very narrow range of behavior being deemed healthy or normal and not in need of intervention.  Not only have additional disorders been added since the last edition (DSM-IV) but fewer criteria are now required in order to be diagnosed with a previously established disorder.  Allen Frances of Duke University has written that:

“Grief is now Major Depressive Disorder; medical illness is Somatic Symptom Disorder; everyday worries are Generalized Anxiety Disorder; the forgetting of old age is Mild Neurocognitive Disorder; being geeky smart makes you an Aspie; gorging is Binge Eating Disorder; having temper tantrums is Childhood Bipolar Disorder; and all of us have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).” [3]

Diversity is antithetical to industrial society where efficiency requires interchangeable parts.  Expanding what counts as illness therefore serves the both the function of creating new customers for high priced pharmaceuticals as well as providing rationale for modifying human behavior that is inefficient or otherwise undesirable from the perspective of industry.

While I wholeheartedly share these concerns, I am going to articulate a concern different from the above theme.  I am going to suggest a new disorder that could also be added to the DSM-5: Productive Personality Disorder (PPD).* So here it goes:

Do you feel the need to be always busy?  Do you feel compelled to “accomplish” something as a means of demonstrating your self-worth to others?  Do you mistake stillness for idleness? Quiet for deficiency?  Does a hectic schedule make you feel more important?  Do you feel the need to produce something simply to have “something to show for yourself”?

You may suffer from Productive Personality Disorder (PPD).

There is not a pill to take and consulting a doctor is not advised.  PPD is not an illness that simply afflicts individuals.  PPD afflicts whole societies and only derivatively afflicts members of a society.

The good news is that the harm imposed by PPD can be mitigated.  Unfortunately, the needed course of action is precisely what those afflicted with PPD struggle to do: pause.

Given the difficulty of such an instruction, some therapeutic exercises may be helpful.  In no particular order:

  1. Go outside.  Admire the shape of a nearby rock.
  2. Listen to any sound within earshot.  Recognize it as music.
  3. Look to the horizon.   Trace its contour.  Watch it move.
  4. Make eye contact with an animal.  Wish them well.

It’s important to remember that PPD is not your fault but has been imposed on you no less than the deliberately inflicted injuries imposed on nonhuman animals in a laboratory.  Your very birth may have been scheduled according to the needs of hospital bureaucracy or a doctor’s vacation schedule.  Compulsory factory style education is rigidly scheduled with ringing bells to set a prescribed pace and often includes paperwork to be completed before a student can relieve his or her bowels.  In “Time and Its Discontents,” John Zerzan writes:

 “In the world of alienation no adult can contrive or decree the freedom from time that the child habitually enjoys–and must be made to lose. Time training, the essence of schooling, is vitally important to society.”

Time training.  Learning to be busy and without opportunity to reflect.  To pack up your books and move to your next class when the bell rings and not until the bell rings.  Furthermore, all modern (read as: electronic) correspondence is now dated, time stamped, and archived (not simply by the NSA).  I can, for example, look back and learn that on November 27, 2009 at 6:26am, I shared a story online about a chupacabra sighting (the creature in question turned out to be a coyote—so really, it was a coyote sighting).

For many, the urge to do something (anything!) may be based on the realization that the current of our culture is towards destruction and therefore to simply be is to feel complicit.  The pace being set is that of a person with their hair on fire.  Yet, in a different time and place, with a different cultural current, to simply be would be to contribute; the practices of everyday life could potentially benefit others.  To exist would mean to be complicit.

This rationale for frenetic action even in the face of a world on fire is captured and defused by Paul Kingsnorth:

“Perhaps to a political activist, sitting by a stream in a forest seems like self-indulgence in the face of mass extinction and climate change, but it is the opposite. If you don’t know why that stream matters, you are not equipped to protect it. If you have forgotten how to listen to it, you may end up on the wrong side, as so many have before you.” [4]

It takes time to visit and to listen.  And to then, but only then, act decisively.

——————–

*It will be most embarassing for me if this fanciful disorder is actually included in the DSM-5.