Episode 14: John Zerzan
John Zerzan is an anarchist and primitivist writer and speaker. His books include Against Civilization and Elements of Refusal. We spoke about his critique of technology and civilization, moving on to discuss the origins of the biocentric philosophy that lies at the core of much of his thought. The Conversation itself was a major theme in our talk: John is the only participant in The Conversation (at least at this point) who openly advocates targeted property damage to change minds, so I was especially curious to ask whether his ideas can participate in The Conversation or if they are uncompromising. Micah and I discuss this more at the end of the episode.
There are an abundance of intellectual connections in this episode. My actual talk with John lasted nearly four hours but the edit you are hearing is only 25 minutes long, so a lot of interesting material didn’t make it in, but we do discuss Gabriel Stempinski’s ideas of community and Timothy Morton’s deconstruction of “nature.” Coming back-to-back with Ariel Waldman, John’s conversation offers a very different measure of “progress.” Also, Micah references an op/ed piece I wrote about the connection between community and the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. If you are interested in reading my article, it is here.
One more thing of note: Micah and I feel that it is extremely important to include John Zerzan in the project because his ideas question just about every commonly held assumption about normality. At the same time, it would be impossible to include his voice without mentioning that many people associate him with anarchist violence during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and Theodore Kaczynski. Both stories are amply discussed online and I encourage you to do your background research. For my part, I wanted to steer our conversation away from events and towards philosophy–Kaczynski and the WTO protests only make brief appearances to illustrate examples. We’re all big kids here, but I think it’s worth stating the obvious: the opinions of the interviewees are theirs alone. Micah and I believe it should be possible to discuss any idea without endorsing it or suggesting that it is held by other participants in the project, even when we draw intellectual connections between thinkers.
What an awesome interview. I don’t want to take anything away from the others, but I think that this one, as the two of you mentioned in your outro, provides the project with some much needed contrast. And I would also like to say that I found the characterization of Slavoj Žižek as a Stalinist pig to be hilarious. Ha! I do love me some Žižek, but in many was I can’t argue with Mr. Zerzan’s assessment.
I would like to add my two cents to your discussion regarding optimism and hypocrisy. First of all, I find it a little troubling that when evaluating outlooks we are forced to operate under the constraints of the dichotomy of optimism-pessimism. I don’t know how to remedy this, but, in the end, it seems a bit limiting and idea-stifling. I know that some would argue that “realism” is some sort of third option; but I think that realism operates on a different level, having much more to do with receptive perception, and less to do with productive outlook. The truth is (if I might be so bold as to speak for the truth) that human beings cannot, by their very nature, be wholly optimistic or pessimistic. Obviously, some might tend to lean in one direction or the other, but I would argue that there is a great deal of interplay and shifting at work. Also, when you ask someone if they are optimistic or pessimistic, the answer you will receive might not have much to do with the actual state of their perspective. In other words, there is a difference between what they are and what they want to be (or what they want to be seen as being). Considering all of this, hypocrisy is a bit difficult to pinpoint. We cannot help being hypocritical, but I think the real issue is intentional hypocrisy, or at least being intentionally blind to our own hypocrisy.
I think that the point Mr. Zerzan raised concerning choice is right on. Whether or not one wishes to live in a cave, in this day and age it is quite difficult to choose to live in a way that doesn’t mesh with the current social and economic standards. And if the ability to choose is a part of the good, as many of the interviewees have stated, we have severely limited this ability. The only “choices” we have are simply variations on a modern, progressive theme – the spectrum of choice, therefor, seems to exist solely on a horizontal axis, leaving out any possible vertical considerations.
I think we also need to consider, or reconsider, what it is we mean when we employ the term “technology.” Even if we were to go back to a Paleolithic lifestyle, we would still be using quite a bit of technology. It would be difficult indeed to bring down large prey without the help of spear points, or to survive the cold of winter without some kind of clothing or harnessing fire. Of course, Mr. Zerzan seems to locate the cutoff point at the Agricultural Revolution, but in many ways this seems to be a problematic line to draw in the untilled sand. Many of the indigenous cultures he would want to preserve cultivate their surrounding environments in ways that would be alien in a pre-domesticated world. I believe that these are all things that one should consider before advocating a course as radical as his. But, then again, one man’s radical course is another man’s self-evident path to preserving the species and the environment in which it exists.
I enjoyed attempting to conceptualize how some of these concepts would even be possible with the number of people on earth. Practically, how could you have this society with so many people who would be cut off from nature? Preserving nature with billions and no tech would be impossible, unless they were all still bundled into cities, but again, without tech, those people would be isolated from the very value of nature their city preserved, and that assumes you kept enough tech around to keep them fed. I suppose these questions go hand in hand with Zerzan’s own spoken questions of effectiveness.
In times of “closer” community it seems psychopaths were more common in all strata, with waring tribes, bandits, highwaymen, etc. etc. Growing up in a close, rural, poor community before the internet, I can easily recall that relationships weren’t much of a deterrent to crimes, even violent ones. Crimes were most often committed against people the perp knew rather than strangers, because strangers represented an unknown level of threat. The few exceptions were crimes committed by people passing though in groups, usually migrant workers. I would like to see more data on that.
I just revisited this conversation after listening to your episode with Robert Zubrin (having discovered the project recently, I’m listening through the archive in a somewhat eclectic order). While listening to Zubrin something struck about Zerzan’s view that is extremely troubling.
If Zerzan’s standard for The Good is human relationship, then wouldn’t a much smaller population (as implied by the carrying capacity of the lifestyle he recommends) mean geometrically fewer relationships and hence way way less Good? Zerzan seems to be imagining that he would be one of the few left over capable of enjoying that simpler lifestyle which is unlikely (just numerically since at least 5 of 6 people would have to die to get down to a population of the size he’s talking about). He’s suffering from The Outlier Fallacy where he imagines himself as one of these unlikely survivors (and invites us to do the same). It’s a fundamentally selfish position with no accounting for the rest of us non-existers. It’s not just that Zerzan wants to measure the world in the quality of human relationships, it’s also that he’s implicitly willing to sacrifice quantity of those for quality as long as they’re his.
Interesting. I didn’t entirely get this sense from Zerzan, but there was considerably more in the interview that I wasn’t able to include in the edit. Moreover, he may be of multiple minds about how such a primitivist future could be achieved.
The impression Zerzan’s conversation left me with was that a population decline could be voluntary and gradual rather than associated with a collapse. Which isn’t to say he thought collapse was impossible—he’s advocated for it elsewhere—but merely that his thinking is more complex. Likewise, I hope Micah and I didn’t suggest that Zerzan measures the Good in terms of the aggregate number of human relationships. That does sound like Zubrin’s metric, but I suspect Zerzan would reject quantification entirely and wouldn’t be interested in creating more people to create more good. An intriguing connection though…
I got the outlier sense more strongly from Lundberg’s interview. Micah and I actually spoke about exceptionalism in the outtro, specifically his use of the world “culling.”
I wasn’t trying to imply that Zerzan measures the Good in terms of aggregate numbers of human relationships. Quite the opposite. I was trying to say that not taking that measure into account seems like a troubling hole in his accounting to me. Zerzan values the quality of individual human relationships. And, while Zerzan may not always advocate “culling”, I think it’s an undeniable part of the lifestyle he proposes (and his opposition to technology). Most technologies that have had a large scale impact on human life have evolved to increase the size of populations that can be sustained with a given set of resources — that’s almost the sole definition of “technology” that works to cover everything from language (as Zubin emphasizes) to the anaerobic farming process Wes Jackson credits with enabling the lives of 40% of living people.
Advocating a non-technological (or minimally technological) lifestyle inherently involves advocating for a smaller population. And the thing that bothers me about Zerzan’s position (as well as Lundberg’s) is that it seems to weigh what he sees as the better life of this non-technological lifestyle against the non-existence of most of the world’s population and find that to be an adequate trade-off.
Ironically, I think this retrogressive emphasis makes people like Zerzan and Lundberg miss a place they could make a large contribution to the conversation. If, as most demographers now think, the world population will likely peak at around 9 billion with the falling birth rates associated with the move to most people living in cities, we’re going to be faced with a major change to our way of life involving a shrinking number of people, but that world is going to look nothing like the one that Zerzan and Lundberg imagine. It’s going to be radically urban and technologized. We could use people thinking about how to find sustainability and increased human happiness in this situation. Zerzan and Lundberg seem like they could be of help here, if only they’d throw off the fundamentally conservative fantasy of a return to a non-technologized utopia. (Philip Longman gave a great talk at the Long Now about The Depopulation Problem http://longnow.org/seminars/02004/aug/13/the-depopulation-problem/ maybe he’d be a good person to bring into the Conversation…)