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Thursday, June 02, 2005

In Search Of The Primitive

A Critique of Civilization

by Stanley Diamond

from his book of the same title (Transaction Publishers, 1987)

In machine based societies, the machine has incorporated the demands of the civil power or of the market, and the whole life of society, of all classes and grades, must adjust to its rhythms. Time becomes lineal, secularized, "precious"; it is reduced to an extension in space that must be filled up, and sacred time disappears. The secretary must adjust to the speed of her electric typewriter; the stenographer to the stenotype machine; the factory worker to the line or lathe, the executive to the schedule of the train or plane and the practically instantaneous transmission of the telephone; the chauffeur to the superhighways; the reader to the endless stream of printed matter from high speed presses; even the schoolboy to the precise periodization of his day and to the watch on his wrist; the person at "leisure" to a mechanized domestic environment and the flow of efficiently scheduled entertainment. The machines seem to run us, crystallizing in their mechanical or electronic pulses the means of our desires. The collapse in time to a extension in space, calibrated by machines, has bowdlerized our natural and human rhythms and helped disassociate us from ourselves. Even now, we hardly love the Earth or see with eyes or listen any longer with our ears, and we scarcely feel our hearts beat before they break in protest. Even now, so faithful and exact or the machines as servants that they seem an alien force, persuading us at every turn to fulfill our intentions which we have built into them and which they represent - in much the same way the perfect body servant routinizes, and finally, trivializes his master.

Of such things, actual or possible, primitive societies have no conception. Such things are literally beyond their wildest dreams, beyond their idea of alienation from village or family or the earth itself, beyond their conception of death, which does not estrange them from society or nature but completes the arc of life. There is only one rough analogy. The fear of excommunication from the kinship unit, from the personal nexus that joins man, society and nature in an endless round of growth (in short, the sense of being isolated and depersonalized and, therefore, at the mercy of demonic forces - a fear widespread among primitive peoples) may be taken as an indication of how they would react to the technically alienating processes of civilization if they were to understand them. That is, by comprehending the attitude of primitive people about excommunication from the web of social and natural kinship we can, by analogy, understand their repugnance and fear of civilization.

Primitive societies may be regarded as a system in equilibrium, spinning kaleidascopically on its axis but at a relatively fixed point. Civilization may be regarded as a system in internal disequilibrium; technology or ideology or social organization are always out of joint with each other - that is what propels the system along a given track. Our sense of movement, of incompleteness, contributes to the idea of progress. Hence the idea of progress is generic to civilization. And our idea of primitive society as existing in a state of dynamic equilibrium and as expressive of human and natural rhythms is a logical projection of civilized societies and is in opposition to civilization's actual state. But it also coincided with the real historical condition of primitive societies. The longing for a primitive mode of existence is no mere fantasy or sentimental whim; it is consonant with fundamental human needs, the fulfillment of which (although in different form) is precondition for our survival. Even the skeptical and civilized Samuel Johnson, who derided Boswell for his intellectual affair with Rousseau, had written:

When man began to desire private property then entered violence, and fraud, and theft, and rapine. Soon after, pride and envy broke out in the world and brought with them a new standard of wealth, for men, who till then, thought themselves rich, when they wanted nothing, now rated their demands, not by the calls of nature, but by the plenty of others; and began to consider themselves poor, when they beheld their own possession exceeded by those of their neighbors.

This may be inadequate ethnology, but it was the cri de couer of a civilized man, for a surcease from mere consumption and acquisitiveness, and so interpreted, it assumes something about primitive societies that is true, namely, predatory property, production for profits does not exist among them.

The search for the primitive is, then, as old as civilization. It is the search for the utopia of the past, projected into the future, with civilization being the middle term. It is birth, death, and transcendent rebirth, the passion called Christian, the trial of Job, the oedipal transition, the triadic metaphor of human growth, felt also in the vaster pulse of history. And this search for the primitive is inseparable from the vision of civilization. No prophet or philosopher of any consequence has spelled out the imperatives of his vision of a superior civilization without assuming certain constants in human nature and elements of a primitive condition, without, in short, engaging in the anthropological enterprise. A utopia detached from these twin pillars - a sense of human nature and a sense of pre-civilized past - becomes a nightmare. For humanity must be conceived to be infinitely adaptable and thus incapable of historic understanding or self amendment. Even Plato's utopia presumes, at least, a good if no longer viable prior state, erroneously conceived as primitive by the refined Greek when it was merely rustic; and the republic was, after all, founded on a theory of human nature that was certainly wrong. Nevertheless, it was a saving grace, for Plato believed that his perfectly civilized society would realize human possibilities not merely manipulate them.

Even the most brilliant and fearful utopian projections have been compelled to solve the problem of the human response, usually with some direct or allegorical reference to a prior or primitive level of functioning. In Zamiatin's We, a satirical work of great beauty, the collective society of the future is based on, and has become a maleficent version of, Plato's Republic. The people have been reduced to abstract ciphers, their emotions have been controlled and centralized (as in the Republic, mathematics is the most sublime language; but it is not a means of human communication, only an abstract dialogue with god); and history has ceased to exist. Zamiatin documents the growth of the internal rebel who is gradually educated in the experience of what the regime defines as love. When the revolt against this state of happiness occurs, the civili power uses two ultimate weapons: one is a method of instantaneously disintegrating the enemy. Since the enemy is legion, the other method is the "salvation" of the person, as an eternal civil servant, through a quick, efficient operation on the brain that results in a permanent dissociation between intellect and emotion without impairing technical intelligence. Zamiatin's description of the rebel rendered affectless, lucidly describing the changes on his beloved coconspirator's face and feeling nothing as she dies, anticipates Camus and transmits in its terrifying, poignant flatness a psychological truth about our time that has become a dreadful clich. Zamiatin informs us that such a materialist, secularized and impersonal utopia can function only by altering human nature itself.

And, outside the glass wall of this utopian city which had arisen out of the ruin of the "final" war between the country and the city is a green wilderness in which primitive rebels live off the land, alive to their humanity, and seek to free the ultimately urbanized brother within.

Bill Totten


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