I’ve been doing a bit of anti-civilization reading for a while now, chosen mostly from among John Zerzan’s rich writings. The thing is I’ve been told by a good and quite brilliant friend not so long ago that to him “civilization” was a “non-term.” This was meant to point to the lack of a firm criterion enabling one to distinguish between the different modes of anthropic life as civilized and non-civilized. I came to realize that that is probably true and that the drawing of any solid line between the two would probably have to be, at least to a degree, arbitrary. I pondered this further, though, sometimes in my usual daydreams, with attention quite dispersed, unfocused, free-flowing. It is with this sort of attitude–quite appropriate to the sort of inquiry at hand, I now think–that I came to realize this: the phenomenological difference, the difference preceding explanation and categorization, between the experiences of encountering, say, the localized being of a foraging society, and that of universalizing, massive, gigantic, mega-structured, imposing modern industrial megalopolis is so huge and mind-blowing that one cannot possibly believe, upon trying to analyze those experiences comparatively, that they relate to two kinds of the same general category. To claim otherwise is akin to saying that a caress is a kind of slap, just because both constitute acts of touching. But the disparity between the encountered phenomena is staggering. They reveal themselves to be qualitatively different. It is from this experientially infused perspective that one can speak of a pre-civilizational mode of human life, wherever the line referring to its “objective” conditions and characteristics may later be drawn. It is also from this vantage point that once can speak of “civilization” and criticize it as such, without lapsing into non-terms. To call civilization(s), and so also non-civilization(s), non-terms, may be to inadvertently acknowledge how the latter are disappearing into the ever-hungry stomach of the former. Civilization-free living can more and more seldom be experienced, and so it increasingly appears, as far as experience or lack thereof inform us of this, that civilization is the exclusive mode of anthropic being. Insofar as discourse plays a part here, there’s a politics to it that goes easily goes unnoticed, one that consists in rhetorical erasure accompanying the extinction, or rather eradication, of actual phenomena. It is important to recover civilization as an object of critique regardless of whether or not one agrees with any of its particular expressions. To take civilization to be a non-term disables such a critique before it can even be appraised. And it needs to be: many of the ills of the modern, globalized society, including the ecological havoc it wreaks upon the world, the organized oppression and exploitation of innumerable animals day to day, and the wholesale suppression of anthropic sensuousness, seem to be overt culminations of processes set in motion long before modernity itself came into being.
(Photo credits are due to their respective authors. I’m not sure who they are, however, and so they’ll remain anonymous)