To continue from the other day, re. Gould, McLuhan, and their shared vision of a world retribalized with the help of electronic media:
What’s interesting about McLuhan isn’t whether he’s right or not. His notion that an electronic “global village” would bring back tribal society throughout the technologized West seems crazy now, but as I like to say, cultural theory, McLuhan’s especially, is often best read as if it were a kind of speculative fiction. The collisions of different and incommensurable frames of time and space that both Gould and McLuhan are here imagining — the ancient and the modern, the tribe and the nation — are also everywhere in science fiction, or, for that matter, in the anarcho-primitivist political imagination. Or some combination of both.
Did you watch Fight Club? Perhaps you remember this passage, part of which appears in one of Tyler Durden’s monologues:
We wanted to blast the world free of history.
We were eating breakfast in the house on Paper Street, and Tyler said, picture yourself planting radishes and seed potatoes on the fifteenth green of a forgotten golf course.
You’ll hunt elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center, and dig clams next to the skeleton of the Space Needle leaning at a forty-five-degree angle. We’ll paint the skyscrapers with huge totem faces and goblin tikis, and every evening what’s left of mankind will retreat to empty zoos and lock itself in cages as protection against bears and big cats and wolves that pace and watch us from outside the cage bars at night. . . . ”
“Imagine,” Tyler said, “stalking elk past department store windows and stinking racks of beautiful rotting dresses and tuxedos on hangers; you’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life, and you’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. Jack and the beanstalk, you’ll climb up through the dripping forest canopy and the air will be so clean you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway stretching eight-lanes-wide and August-hot for a thousand miles.
This is a vision of the primitive breaking out within the modern world, bursting out of it and tearing it apart in the process. The special pleasure it offers comes from putting the modern and the primitive in the same mental frame; the resulting collisions of time and space (the ancient jungle in the concrete city, etc.) allow our ordinary workaday world to become newly mysterious and exotic. As I argue in my forthcoming Representations essay, exotica entertainments, including the music of Les Baxter, are structured by this trope of temporal disjuncture.
But what’s interesting about this trope of representation is that it’s never entirely clear whether the picture of the world it paints is for entertainment purposes only or whether it is meant to offer a serious theory. McLuhan’s notion of technologized retribalization was certainly intended as a theory, which is to say, as a comprehensive understanding of how the world works and what direction its operations are leading it. But inasmuch as this theory has turned out to be spectacularly wrong, perhaps it’s now more interesting to think about its late-1960s vogue the way we might understand the 1950s vogue for exotica pop—as a collective fantasy, a way of viewing the world that that was less about finding enlightenment than finding pleasure. In short, we could read cultural theory as a fiction — that is, as a notion entertained not because it might be true, but because it is fun to imagine.
Fight Club is entertainment, right? It had Brad Pitt and Meat Loaf and everything. But the passage I quoted is also basically a blueprint for the anarcho-primitivist conception of revolution. The idea is, at some point we’ll stop being passive consumers, we’ll stop allowing ourselves to be penned like veal calves in fluorescent-lit cubicles, we’ll wake up: suddenly aware of our alienation, we will erupt in a sudden and spontaneous paroxysm of smashing and burning (the necessary and inevitable moment of creative destruction), and then a tribal, archaic, peaceful anarchy will be born from the broken shards of the old consumerist technocracy. This is, I think, as wildly unpersuasive a theory as McLuhan’s retribalization thesis. It has the same underpants gnome business structure as other theories of revolution with a counterculture/left flavor—Step 1: develop revolutionary consciousness. Step 2: ??? Step 3: Revolution! But as a theory it is no less seriously meant than McLuhan’s (with which it shares some obvious similarities). This wordless series of comics panels (done in the style of those instructional laminated cards that show you how to use the safety equipment on an airplane) lays out the anrcho-primitivist theory of revolution in graphic form. (Warning — some sex and nudity, not safe for work. Actually, even without the sex and nudity it would unsafe for work anyway, inasmuch as it promotes the violent destruction of the corporate workplace. “Unsafe for work” gets a new meaning here.)
I found these images here, but it originated in a West Coast anarchist group’s project to put Fight Club‘s Project Mayhem into practice: this flier was produced to be mailed to corporations in their business reply mail envelopes.
A side note about anarchism in general: I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to anarchism, being anti-statist myself, but I acknowledge that as a political philosophy it doesn’t yield many feasible plans for alternatives to the various kinds of statism currently on offer. That’s kind of the point, I guess. But anyone who’s spent any time in a place that’s experiencing real anarchy — for example, Haiti in 1993, where I was working for the summer — isn’t going to recognize the peaceful, creative society of panels 10-16. Indeed, a lot of anarchists don’t seem to have much in mind beyond panels 1-9. I sometimes wonder if “anarchism” isn’t usually a way of dressing up a general desire to break things in the clothes of serious-sounding political critique. Even pacifist anarchists seem to place just a little too much faith in purgative violence — putting off the personal responsibility for peaceful action onto the idea that revolutionary violence is a necessary and unavoidable historical stage. (This trick of putting things off onto History — what I want is irrelevant, the logic of history dictates that heads must roll, etc., is a bad habit borrowed from Marxism, about which a lot of self-described anarchists really should be a bit less credulous.) The comic V for Vendetta, probably the most remarkable single anarchist piece of pop culture, plays the standard line on violent revolution:
. . . then meet with them no more, he continues in the next panel. But they never seem to want to leave on their own, you know? That’s always the problem.