“We have taken a monstrously wrong turn with symbolic culture and division of labor, from a place of enchantment, understanding and wholeness to the absence we find at the heart of the doctrine of progress. Empty and emptying, the logic of domestication with its demand to control everything now shows us the ruin of the civilization that ruins the rest. Assuming the inferiority of nature enables the domination of cultural systems that soon will make the very earth uninhabitable.”
– John Zerzan
I have drawn great inspiration from writers like Marshal Sahlins, Derrick Jensen, and John Zerzan, but their work is just a starting point. They offer a salutary antidote to conventional assumptions of progress that I ironically term “the ascent of humanity”, but let’s be clear: a return to a hunter-gatherer way of life is tantamount to a death sentence for 99.9% of the human race, given the low carrying capacity of the planet for foraging. I accept their main point at face value, that Stone Age life was immeasurably richer than modern life in all the ways that really count. That is my starting point for thinking about technology. Fundamentally, technology is an attempt to control and thus improve on nature. In parallel, social technologies are an attempt to improve on human nature – for example to take the raw material of the undomesticated child and fashion it into something that the culture considers better.
If Sahlins, Zerzan, and the primitivist movement is right, if technology has wrought not an ascent but the opposite, then we must examine the very premise of technology—making the world better. It has not made the world better. But perhaps there is another purpose lurking beneath the ideology of progress, another purpose that will emerge when our basic conception of self and nature changes too. Can we reconceive technology other than as a program of domination and control?
Obviously, the program of control is nearing an end, foundering on a convergence of crises that themselves are the consequence of control. Control breeds the necessity for even more control, until the system collapses under its own weight. In no realm is this more evident than education. An “incident” occurs, and the automatic response of the school authorities is to clamp down tighter, until today we have schools with razor wire, video surveillance, random locker searches, metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, undercover police, and so on. Academically the exact same mentality has led to increasing reliance on standardization of curriculum, “standards”, testing, and so on. This is the mentality of the technological fix, attempting to repair the consequences of previous technology with yet more technology. In so doing we have indeed created a monster, a Hydra, in which problems proliferate to an intensity that eventually consumes every resource. The parallel with the “fix” of an addict is no accident.
On a deep level, the program of control makes sense if nature (including human nature) is seen as fundamentally bad—dangerous, harsh, brutal, etc. The ramifications of this view are deep. It echoes in religion, for example, in John Calvin’s doctrine of the “innate depravity of man.” Even more deeply, it echoes in the age-old division of the universe into matter and spirit, which leaves the former profane and the latter unworldly, setting up a war within ourselves to “be good” in parallel with the technological war of conquest against nature. Life becomes a struggle. We can see, therefore, that the “struggle for survival” we impute to the hunter-gatherer is actually a projection of our own anxiety.
This division between matter and spirit is actually quite new. Hunter-gatherers believed in a wholly enspirited world. It was really with agriculture that the concepts of good and evil emerged, along with the idea that some things are holier than others. Various religious reformers have noticed the error and tried to heal the division, only to have their teachings coopted and reversed. I could go on and on… and I have, for something like 600 pages, so I’ll spare you now.
Back to my starting point: I agree with Zerzan about one thing: Stone Age life was characterized by a wholeness, harmony, enchantment, and authenticity that is rare today. Recognizing this doesn’t mean we should dismantle the entire edifice of civilization though, just as recognizing the creativity, flexibility, and authenticity of a baby doesn’t mean we should imitate the physical condition of a baby. On the species level as well as the individual, we can integrate the virtues of our original state into adulthood.
As a species we are now in adolescence. The pre-adolescent has already reached the perfection of logical, rational thought (which can be quite aggravating sometimes! 🙂 ) The ego is fully developed by age 12 or 13. A discrete and separate self. However, contrary to the cultural assumption that this represents the highest degree of cognitive development, there is actually another stage (at least one) beyond this. Joseph Chilton Pearce describes it in terms of a development of the mysterious prefrontal cortex of the brain. In this stage, ego boundaries don’t dissolve, but are seen to be only provisionally real. Artificial. The self is experienced as something greater. Earlier cultures would quicken this transcendence through coming-of-age ceremonies that involved temporarily dismantling the ego through sensory deprivation, drumming, masks, psychotropic plants, pain, fasting, solitude, and so on.
Our species reached a state analogous to the pre-teen with the ascendency of the Newtonian-Cartesian world view and the apotheosis of reason. Over the past century, however, the scientific and cultural basis for the discrete and separate self has been crumbling. The present convergence of crises is humanity’s coming-of-age ceremony, our right of passage, into a new age of wholeness and connectedness. This is not a return to infancy, which is a state of wholeness yes, of non-individuation, but which has not yet integrated the experience of separation. For humanity to return to the hunter-gatherer womb would be a stillbirth. I am much more excited about the prospects for reaching adulthood. The powers of reason, science, technology will still be with us, just as a fully mature adult still has access to rational cognition, but it will be within a greater context. A cocreative partnership with the universe instead of domination and control. A cocreative partnership with the Wild. In education, a cocreative partnership with the child.
I’m not advocating a return to the Stone Age. More of a return to Stone Age values, thinking, and spirituality in a technological context. However, the technology that will emerge with such a return may be virtually unrecognizable.
I envision the induction of ecological principles into technological society. This would incorporate Hawken’s zero-waste “industrial ecology”, Silvio Gesell’s negative-interest “free-money”, a cultural belief in the innate divinity of all life and indeed all matter, an economics of The Gift (as per Lewis Hyde) in which people build careers based not on “how can I take enough?” but rather on “what can I best give?” And much more besides, including democratic and radical Montessori schooling, technologies of earth, light, and water, and eventually the full discovery of our role and function in the cosmos.
On a cosmic level, the purpose of our descent into Separation is to integrate that experience and return to Union at a higher level of consciousness. Our alienated adolescence is nearly at an end. From a certain perspective, yes, we have taken a monstrously wrong turn, as monstrous as the collective suffering of the last hundred generations. But just as with our personal suffering, sometimes we look back and understanding it all as part of our path to healing, to wholeness. Perhaps it is the same way with our species.
Charles Eisenstein, 2005