An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 330-331.
Running On Emptiness:
The Pathology Of Civilization
By John Zerzan (Feral House, 2002)
ISBN 0 922915 75 X
You may have heard of John Zerzan - to some he is one of the great thinkers of our time, to others he is an idiot who writes untruths about pre-history in order to put forward his theories of a 'Future Primitive'. To the United States media he is 'the leader of the Eugene Anarchists'. So what's all the fuss about?
For those of you who have never read any of Zerzan's work before, I suggest you go out and get this latest anthology of his writings. Zerzan has been investigating the dark heart of civilisation for some years now. Never one to shy away from debate, or be afraid of making enemies within the anarchist scene, he has also written critiques of post-modernism and on the moribund nature of the left. Zerzan is a long-term contributory editor of US based publications Green Anarchy and Anarchy: A Journal Of Desire Armed, which is in my view the best anti-authoritarian journal coming out of North America. He has also had many articles published in the UK's Green Anarchist newspaper. At one time he was a regular contributor to the US's longest running anarchist paper, the once great, now worthless, Fifth Estate. Alongside Anarchy, Fifth Estate was one of the first periodicals to develop an anarchist critique of technology and civilisation. One of the other long-term contributors to this developing critique was Fifth Estate's David Watson - author of Against the Megamachine. (For a review of this book see Do or Die No. 9, pp. 193-194.)
Zerzan's groundbreaking book Elements Of Refusal really opened people's eyes to a wider critique of our situation, and what we might need to look at in order to create a more authentic liberated existence. These ideas were being developed in more radical anti-authoritarian circles, both in the US and here in the UK.
Building on Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! Fredy Perlman's 1983 epic book exploring the his-story of civilisation, in Elements of Refusal Zerzan explores the origins of agriculture, number, art and language - all of which are fundamental parts of civilisation. He then goes on to analyse their role in oppression, alienation and our separation from nature. Zerzan followed this up with his book Future Primitive, the title essay of which caused somewhat of a stir amongst the rather staid anarchist scene.
This latest collection has some strong essays. In fact this includes the introduction by Theresa Kintz, which is an insightful overview, not just to this collection, but to the broad range of Zerzan's work and the anarcho-primitivist tendency in general. Kintz sets the context for this book perfectly as she writes during the run up to the war on Afghanistan. In fact as I sit here writing this review we are in the midst of another part of the 'War on Terror', this time in Iraq - close to the origins of civilisation in the fertile crescent. Civilization has meant war since its inception. One leviathan swallows up another, devouring all that it comes across.
The title essay 'Running On Emptiness' is one of my personal favourites. Here Zerzan analyses what he describes as the "failure of symbolic thought". He critiques the symbolic and the culture that has arisen around this alienated form of expression. I think this builds on his 'Art', 'Number' and 'Language' essays from Elements of Refusal and is one the strongest essays in the collection, and in fact I feel completes his investigations into the links between the symbolic and civilisation which he started there.
Symbolism enabled our separation from nature and the creation of hierarchy between us, the replacement of the real with a mere representation of it. It is Zerzan's view that, "Culture has led us to betray our own aboriginal spirit and wholeness, into an ever-worsening realm of synthetic, isolating, impoverished estrangement. Which is not to say that there are no more everyday pleasures, without which we would lose our humaness. But as our plight deepens, we glimpse how much must be erased for our redemption." (p. 16)
If we are to go along with this analysis of the origins of specialisation originating in the origins of symbolic thought, then it seems to me that our liberation lies in the destruction of alienated reifying forms of interaction and expression, with non-symbolic and unmediated existences taking their place.
Other highlights include a transcription of a talk he gave at a university for technophiles entitled 'Against Technology'. This is a really good introduction to ideas around the role of technology and its inherently destructive qualities - both for the earth and for us. The essay 'That Thing We Do' explores reification (literally 'thing-ification'). The interview titled 'Enemy of The State' with Zerzan by Derrick Jensen, is a clear and concise overview of Zerzan's ideas and a lot of the key elements of the anti-civilisation critique.
Towards the end is an autobiographical piece, 'So How Did you Become an Anarchist?' Interesting for those who may think of Zerzan merely as an academic and those that are interested in his early role in the trade union movement, which led him to his critique of leftist politics and his part in the debate over the 'refusal of work' versus organised resistance within the workplace. Although the inclusion of such biographical details may seem egotistical or to encourage some 'icon' status (something which I feel is problematic within the milieu) the bottom line is that things come from our personal experiences.
The essays 'Whose Unabomber?' and 'He Means It. Do you?' are about Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Zerzan created a storm in the US media by being one of the first people to visit Kaczynski in prison. He went on to create a storm (again) in the anarchist movement by refusing to write off Kaczynski as a lunatic serial killer, rather painting a picture of him as an intelligent anti-tech anarchist, which is what Kaczynski claims he is, but many anarchists have arrogantly claimed he is not. More recently Zerzan was in trouble again to do with his associations with Kaczynski when Green Anarchy published a tactical essay entitled 'Hit 'Em Where It Hurts' by Kaczynski.
For me the weakest parts of the book are some of the shorter essays like 'Star Trek' and 'City of Light' which I don't really see the point in publishing here since they're not his strongest work, and they feel like mere padding.
This book will not provide you with answers, it is not an off the peg anarcho-primitivist manifesto - not another commodity in the market place of pseudo-radical ideas. It does not tell you what to do, or how to reach any 'future primitive' - that is for you to work out.