Anarcho-primitivism for the win

Phil Ford

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.)

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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:

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. . .  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.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to Anarcho-primitivism for the win

  1. I think you misrepresent McLuhan’s thought somewhat in this post. As I understand his work, McLuhan’s concept of retribalization was never intended to refer to the collapse of civilized society into anarchy, but to a mental reorientation towards a pre-literate frame of mind. A scroll or book, with continuous printing from left to right along a series of pages until the narrative is over, implies a linear, progressive approach to thought. McLuhan’s contention is that we never used to think in this linear way before print, and that in the electronic age we will increasingly stop thinking this way, reorienting ourselves and our structures towards more non-linear and decentralized ideals.
    If McLuhan’s ideas have a major flaw, it was his assumption that electronic technologies would replace alphabetic literacy rather than supplement it. However, his basic premise of the media as extensions of the nervous system seem to me very sound, and many of his predictions seem to have come true. Intelligence have shown that children born since the advent of the mass media have dramatically higher skills in certain areas (certain types of spatial sense, for instance), which are generally accepted to be a result of our interactions with the mass media. We shape our tools, and our tools shape us.
    McLuhan’s writing is infuriating to read at times – highly aphoristic, and and sometimes seeming to be deliberately unclear – then he’ll quote Finnegan’s Wake in the hope that this will somehow clear things up. If you take him literally when he throws around words like “tribalization”, then he certainly will be “spectacularly wrong”, but I think his real message was more nuanced.

  2. Phil Ford says:

    Hi Osbert —
    Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to see someone else who reads and likes McLuhan! It’s probably not obvious from this context, but I’m actually an avid reader of McLuhan and don’t think he deserves his present neglect. I’m one of the few people who actually enjoys his literary style — I think he’s a much better writer than he’s given credit for. I should make it clear that I don’t think McLuhan himself had anything to do with anarcho-primitivism, or was himself an anarchist. He was a fairly conservative Catholic and I’m sure was rather bemused by all the attention that the hippies paid to him. But that’s the thing — there was something in his vision of retribalization that struck a chord with the hippies (particularly the anarchists and techno-libertarian types associated with the Whole Earth Catalog circle). His ideas gave them a theoretical scaffolding for their intuitions.
    You’re quite right that it doesn’t quite do to take McLuhan entirely literally on the “retribalization” thing. A lot of his most interesting ideas work best in a metaphoric (or at least semimetaphoric) way. On the one hand, the literal process of tribalization that McLuhan is picturing in the Playboy interview didn’t happen. But if you think about “tribes” in a slightly more extended sense — not in the sense pictured in the anarcho-primitivist comic, but as technologically-enabled affinity groups that behave in collectivized ways (like, for example, the miniature virtual society of readers and writers that congregates within the small minisphere of musicology blogs), then you realize that McLuhan figured something out that no-one else did until long after he was dead. This is what I like about McLuhan — you read things that sound crazy at first, but they stick in your mind and make sense more and more as you refract them through your mediated experience. Perhaps the single best thing about his thinking was his technique of crafting “probes” rather than fully-worked out theses. The probe was a structure that allowed him the latitude to be creative, to try out an idea to see how it worked. (He once said to a skeptical question, “You don’t like that idea? I have others.”) It was an anti-methodological methodology, which is one reason why academics don’t usually like him very much (he’s too unsystematic to be readily assimilated) but one reason why I *do* like him. The Playboy interview has my all-time favorite statement on methodology:
    “As an investigator, I have no fixed point of view, no commitment to any theory–my own or anyone else’s. As a matter of fact, I’m completely ready to junk any statement I’ve ever made about any subject if events don’t bear me out, or if I discover it isn’t contributing to an understanding of the problem. The better part of my work on media is actually somewhat like a safe-cracker’s. I don’t know what’s inside; maybe it’s nothing. I just sit down and start to work. I grope, I listen, I test, I accept and discard; I try out different sequences–until the tumblers fall and the doors spring open.”
    McLuhan defends this as a method appropriate for studying electronic media, but I actually think it’s a good way to make sense of anything. It’s the best statement I’ve ever read of the way I try to work.

  3. Rod Jones says:

    Your comment about reading cultural theory as speculative fiction reminded me of Daniel Dennett’s notion of an “intuition pump”. He says,
    “If you look at the history of philosophy, you see that all the great and influential stuff has been technically full of holes but utterly memorable and vivid. They are what I call ‘intuition pumps’ — lovely thought experiments … They’re not arguments, they’re stories. Instead of having a conclusion, they pump an intuition. They get you to say ‘Aha! Oh, I get it!’ ” (http://www.edge.org/documents/ThirdCulture/r-Ch.10.html).
    By the way, this is a topmodern blog; a pleasure to read.

  4. Glen says:

    Hi,
    Phil I really like your posts, very insightful. And yes, there are many McLuhan lovers out here, I think he’s making a comeback. To criticize his take on the “tribal” culture, I think it’s fair to say he had a profound misunderstanding of pre-historic life, even though he was really applying the terminology to pre-literate society. In any case, it’s a metaphor for a way of life in “acoustic space,” which is more malleable and resonant. He felt the printing press had the effect of dampening that resonant ability and forming a numb populace (“the masses”). The talk of electricity is also a metaphor, he felt that with new media people were able to feel again, because our nervous systems had been extended beyond our physical bodies and into a global consciousness. And here we are, using the internet…take it from there.
    I think McLuhan’s work was definitely misunderstood in his own time, and many people now base their criticisms on those misunderstandings. To me, his work has to be viewed in terms of his view of the Classical “model citizen,” with all the expectations of rhetoric and debate. In debate, all parties have to agree before they can disagree, at the very least they have to agree on the validity or authority of the evidence. They have to agree before they can begin disagreeing, it’s classic (zing). One probe I particularly enjoy goes something like this: “the more you make people alike, the more competition you have. Competition is based on the principle of absolute conformity.”
    This post made me think of the James Ivory film “Savages,” if you haven’t seen – it check it out asap.

  5. Phil Ford says:

    Rod — Wonderful Dennet quote! Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Yes, “intuition pump” is exactly the right description for McLuhan’s “probes,” as well as the notions of a great many cultural theorists. I just got done teaching a seminar that dealt with various media theories (McLuhan’s included) and was struck once again how certain ideas — Baudrillard’s notions of simulation and simulacrum, Benjamin’s “aura,” Derrida’s critique of the “metaphysics of presence” — work best in exactly this way.
    Glen — More good McLuhan notions, thanks. Glad you like the blog!

  6. Mark says:

    Phil, I’m really glad I found this site a couple weeks ago. Lots of good writing here.
    As a side note on your side note about anarchism, you might want to check out mises.org and libertarian/anarchist writers like Murray Rothbard and Hans Hoppe, if you haven’t already. They have plenty of excellent, provocative ideas.

  7. Mitch says:

    Phil,
    Your insights on the aranchism reflects the general mindset of “youth” culture. Looking at these political movements, it is based on being counter-cultural, fixated on youth, movements, and the need for “action” with a strong disdain for tradition – the democracy of the dead.
    If I am to describe the movement another way, it would be either “anti-Burkean” or “anti-Hayekean”.

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