Sunday, 25 November 2012

No Way Out?

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Agriculture is the founding model for all the systematic authoritarianism that followed, certainly including capitalism, and initiating the subjugation of women. Very early farming settlements contained “as many as 400 people” (Mithen et al, 2000). We know that expanding population was not a cause of agriculture but its result; this suggests a basic dynamic of the population problem. It appears that societies organized on a truly human scale fell victim to the exigencies of domestication. It may be that we can only solve the planet’s overpopulation problem by removing the root cause of basic estrangement from one another. With the advent of domestication, reproduction was not only rewarded economically; it also offered a compensation or consolation for so much that had been eradicated by civilization.



Amid the standardizing, disciplinary effects of today’s systems of technology and capital, we are subjected to an unprecedented barrage of images and other representations. Symbols have largely crowded out everything real and direct, both in the daily round of interpersonal interactions and in the accelerating extinction of nature. This state of affairs is generally accepted as inevitable, especially since received wisdom dictates that symbol-making is the cardinal, defining quality of a human being. We learn as children that all behavior, and culture itself, depend on symbol manipulation; this characteristic is what separates us from mere animals.

But a close look at Homo over our many, many millennia challenges the inexorability or “naturalness” of the dominance of symbols in our lives today. New discoveries are making newspaper headlines with increasing frequency. Archaeologists are finding that more than a million years ago, humans were as intelligent as ourselves—despite the fact that the earliest evidence to date of symbolic activity (figurines, cave art, ritual artifacts, time recordings, etc.) date to only 40,000 years ago or so. People used fire for cooking 1.9 million years ago; and built and sailed seagoing vessels at least 800,000 years ago!

These people must have been very intelligent; yet they left no tangible trace of symbolic thought until relatively recently. Likewise, although our ancestors of a million years ago had the I.Q. to enslave each other and destroy the planet, they refrained from doing so, until symbolic culture got going. Civilization advocates are making a concerted effort to find evidence of symbol use at a much earlier time, paralleling the unsuccessful effort in recent decades to locate evidence that would overturn the new anthropological paradigm of pre-agricultural harmony and well being. So far, their searches have not borne fruit.

There is an enormous time gap between clear signs of mental capacity and clear signs of any symbolizing at all. This discrepancy casts serious doubt on the adequacy of a definition of humans as essentially symbol makers. The apparent congruence between the beginnings of representation and the beginnings of what is unhealthy about our species seems even more important. Basic questions pretty much formulate themselves.


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The innate sensual acuity of human infants steadily atrophies as they grow and develop in interaction with a symbolic culture that continues to infiltrate and monopolize most aspects of our lives. A few remnants of the unmediated, the direct still survive. Lovemaking, close relationships, immersion in wild nature, and the experience of birth and death awaken our senses and our intelligence, stimulating an unaccustomed hunger. We long for something other than the meager, artificial world of re-presentation, with its second-hand pallor.

Communication remains open to those invigorating flashes that pass, nonverbally, between people. All the crabbed, crimped, conditioned channels might be chucked, because we can’t live on what’s available. As levels of pain, loss, and emptiness rise, the reigning apparatus pumps out ever more unsatisfying, unsustaining lies.

Referring to telepathy, Sigmund Freud wrote in his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, “One is led to a suspicion that this is the original, archaic method of communication.” Enculturated down to his toes, Freud didn’t celebrate this suspicion, and seemed to fear the life force that accompanied such non-cultural dynamics.

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Source: John Zerzan, No Way Out?

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