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  • 8/12/2019 Vden Anarchist Theory Language


    Anar ist Developments in Cultural Studies Ten Years A er 9/11: An Anar ist Evaluation2011.1

    Notes on an Anar ist eoryof Language, or, A SympatheticCritique of Zerzans Primitivist

    Refusal of Symbolic LanguageTere Vadn


    Abstracte anarcho-primitivist ref usal of symbolic language is typically pre-

    sented in writing or in speech . i s obvious paradox can be alleviatedby adopting a notion of language that is both more naturalistic andmore phenomenological than the one included in the primitivist cri-tique. From the primitivist point of view, a positive consequence is thepossibility of a non-hierarchical theory of experience and language,one in which the cut between the two is erased. At the same time,this asubjective theory of experience and language means that thecritique of technology and civilisation can not be based on the notions

    of sub jectivity and individuality; a consequence that does not sit wellwith all of the tenets of anarcho-primitivist thought.


    Tere Vadn teaches philosophy and interactive media in the University of Tampere,Finland. He is also an editor of the Finnish philosophical journal niin & nin .

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    242 Tere Vadn

    e Problem: Primitivist Paradox

    In Fragments of an Anar ist Anthropology (2004: 15) anthropolo-gist David Graeber credits author and poet Robert Graves with the(most recent) invention of two major intellectual traditions: theidea of a Great Goddess (Mother Earth, Gaia) and a rejection of in-dustrial civilisation. Graeber goes on to say that while pagans haveadopted the rst idea, a group of primitivists with John Zerzan asthe most famous proponent, have taken the rejection of civilisation

    and hope of its collapse even f urther by suggesting that the adop-tion of agriculture was a Big Mistake.1 Graeber agrees with one of the central claims of primitivist theory: there have been and stillare societies (peoples, groups, bands) that display very li le of thehierarchical and violent traits of modernity. is is something thatthe anthropological record is clear on, and while Graeber relies alsoon contemporary work (partly his own) on contemporary societies,the l ocus c l ass i cus of primitivism, Zerzans essay Future Primitive

    (1994), credits the seminal work of anthropologists like MarshallSahlin and Richard Lee. Another common belief f or Graeber andZerzan is that the study of these (typically non-Western) non-hierar-chical societies may yield fruitful experiences and knowledge abouthow to overcome the current unsus tainable practices socially, eco-logically, politically, spiritually.2

    What does the an thropological record tell, then , according to Grae-ber, Zerzan and others? Both the examples we have and a theoreticalanalysis of the reasons of why they are good examples point to thecovariant absence of violence and alienation with the absence of agriculture, division of labour and symbolic culture. ese threecharacteristics agriculture/domestication, division of labour andsymbolic culture form an interweaving common target for prim-itivist critique. ey are not only historically linked in that theyseem to arise in human evolution roughly simultaneously, but arealso conceptually connected, in that agriculture demands d ivision of labour and symbolic culture, without which it would be impossible

    1 Zerzan (1994: 42) sees the idea of the Mother Earth as a feature of agricultural societies.2 See also Douglas P. Frys path-breaking e Human Potential for Peace: An Anthro-

    pological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence (2005). Fry shows thataggression and wa r are not natural to human soc ieties. On the other hand , he doesnd both agricultural and gatherer-hunter societies that have a culture of peaceful-ness.

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    Notes on an Anar ist eory of Language 243

    in any large scale. As Zerzan (1999: 41) points out, writing arisesas accounting; it is a tool of hierarchy from its very inception: eearliest writings are records of taxes, laws, terms of labor servitude.Zerzan sees that even if these three and other interconnected phe-nomena such as hierarchy, gender systems, organised violence,etc. could in abstract thought be picked apart and analysed inseparation, such an analysis is not helpful as it loses the integrallive phenomenon: Self-domestication through language, art, andritual inspired the taming of animals and plants that f ollowed (ibid.:28). One important consequence to remember is that f or Zerzan, the

    progress of domestication implies the increase of violence contraryto the received understanding of the meaning of the term.ese two anarchists, Graeber and Zerzan, part ways in suggest-

    ing the lessons of the anthropological observations. While Zerzanthinks that only primitive conditions may provide f or f ull human re-alisation, Graeber (2004: 16) does see something quixotic in ana rcho-primitivism, comparing it again to Graeves work: [ . . .] it is reallyimpossible to know on what level one is supposed to read it. Its

    both ridiculous self-parody, and terribly serious, at the same time.ough Graeber does not elaborate, one can guess that one supposed

    element of self-parody in primitivism is the fact that primitiviststexts, including Zerzans o en erudite and richly sourced essays,read a lot like highly civilised treatises, thus in a way taking partin the specialised, mediated and symbolic culture they at the sametime ref use. Zerzan himself notes the paradox at the end of the essayLanguage : Origin and Mean ing (in Zerzan 1999), but goes on to saythat he has to use words in order to speak. Indeed , we might want toaccept Zerzans primitivist analysis of the Big Mistake only to endup with a conund rum: if symbolic though t is necessary to reication,objectication and alienation, how is it possible to work against itin words, by writing and speaking? One of the things that makeswriting and speaking about primitivism ridiculous is, presumably,precisely this strict impossibility of practising what one preaches an impossibility that is in a sense as troubling as the practicalimpossibility of gatherer-hunter livelihoods on the contemporarydepleted and overpopulated planet.

    i s paradox might also be at the hea rt of a curious passage in aninterview of Zerzan by Derrick J ensen . e context is a discussion onviolence and wo rds as weapons . J ensen is frustrated by the f act thatwhile talking is being done , the wo rld deteriorates f urther and na tureis being destroyed. Jensen (2000) says: Or to take another example,

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    244 Tere Vadn

    I recently read that Gandhi wrote a le er to Hitler appealing to hisconscience, and was amazed that it didnt work. Here is Zerzansanswer: Gandhis failure doesnt mean words must always fail.He was obviously directing his words at the wrong place. Had hespoken mo re radical and eff ective words to his f ellow Indians, thingsmight be different there now. is is a relatively surprising answer,compared, for instance, with the blanket statement: Along theselines, in terms of structure, it is evident that freedom of speech doesnot exist; grammar is the invisible thought control of our invisibleprison. With language we have already accommodated ourselves

    to a world of unfreedom (Zerzan 1999: 34). Do or do not wordsalways fail? Or, to put it in another way, where does the obvious liberating and healing power of language stem from?

    To answer these questions we have to look closely at Zerzanscritique of symbolic culture and language, at the same time remem-bering that these a re not tobeseparated from the larger phenomenonof which they are parts. Hopef ully, this way we might be able toalleviate the paradox without throwing the baby out with the bath-

    water; that is, without losing the overall critical analysis of civilisa-tion and the Big Mistake.

    What is Wrong with Language?

    e quote above already locates the crux of the critique: languageis a structure set upon more amorphous and free experience. Moreparticularly, Symbolising is linear, successive, substitutive; it canno tbe open to its whole object simultaneously. Its instrumental reasonis just that: manipulative and seeking domination. Its approach islet a stand for b instead of let a be a. Language has its basis inthe eff ort to conceptualize and equa lize the unequa l, thus bypassingthe essence and diversity of a varied, variable richness (Zerzan2002: 2). e claim that symbols and language have a petrifyingeffect is, as such, a relatively well-known theme even in standardWestern philosophy of language3 and philosophical anthropology,

    3 For instance, the anarchist philosopher Paul Feyerabend devoted his posthumouslypublished work Conques t o f Abundance . A T a l e o f Abs tr ac ti on v e r sus t he R i ness o f Being (1999) to the theme of how Western philosophy has been obsessed with a trendof oversimplication and a habit of glorifying the oversimplied.

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    Notes on an Anar ist eory of Language 245

    as Zerzan demons trates with ample quotations in Language : Originand Meaning.

    Tobesure, most contemporary philosoph ical though t on languageagreeswith Zerzan that symbolisation in somesense obs tructs or con-structs experience. ere are some schools in the so-called analytictradition of philosophy of language , where though t (proposition) andlanguage (representation) are seen as independent. Consequently,the dependence of thought on language (i.e., linguistic relativism) isdenied, and the u ltimate freedom of symbolic though t asserted. Ho