John Zerzan (born 1943) is an American anarchist and primitivist philosopher and author. His works criticize agricultural civilization as inherently oppressive, and advocate drawing upon the ways of life of prehistoric humans as an inspiration for what a free society should look like. Some of his criticism has extended as far as challenging domestication, language, symbolic thought (such as mathematics and art) and the concept of time. His five major books are Elements of Refusal (1988), Future Primitive and Other Essays (1994), Running on Emptiness (2002), Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections (2005) and Twilight of the Machines (2008).
Early life and educationEdit
Zerzan was born in Salem, Oregon to immigrants of Bohemian heritage. He studied as an undergraduate at Stanford University and later received a Master's degree in History from San Francisco State University. He completed his coursework towards a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California but dropped out before completing his dissertation.
Zerzan's theories draw on Theodor Adorno's concept of negative dialectics to construct a theory of civilization as the cumulative construction of alienation. According to Zerzan, original human societies in paleolithic times, and similar societies today such as the !Kung, Bushmen and Mbuti, live a non-alienated and non-oppressive form of life based on primitive abundance and closeness to nature. Constructing such societies as a kind of political ideal, or at least an instructive comparison against which to denounce contemporary (especially industrial) societies, Zerzan uses anthropological studies from such societies as the basis for a wide-ranging critique of aspects of modern life. He portrays contemporary society as a world of misery built on the psychological production of a sense of scarcity and lack. The history of civilisation is the history of renunciation; what stands against this is not progress but rather the Utopia which arises from its negation.
Zerzan is an anarchist, and is broadly associated with the philosophies of anarcho-primitivism, green anarchy, anti-civilisation, post-left anarchy, neo-luddism and embodiment, and in particular opposition to technology. He rejects not only the state, but all forms of hierarchical and authoritarian relations. "Most simply, anarchy means 'without rule.' This implies not only a rejection of government but of all other forms of domination and power as well."
Zerzan's work relies heavily on a strong dualism between the "primitive" — viewed as non-alienated, wild, non-hierarchical, ludic, and socially egalitarian — and the "civilised" — viewed as alienated, domesticated, hierarchically organised and socially discriminatory. Hence, "life before domestication/agriculture was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health."
Zerzan's claims about the status of primitive societies are based on a reading of the works of anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins and Richard B. Lee. Crucially, the category of primitives is restricted to pure hunter-gatherer societies with no domesticated plants or animals. For instance, hierarchy among Northwest Coast Native Americans whose main activities were fishing and foraging is attributed to their having domesticated dogs and tobacco.
Zerzan calls for a "Future Primitive", a radical reconstruction of society based on a rejection of alienation and an embracing of the wild. "It may be that our only real hope is the recovery of a face-to-face social existence, a radical decentralization, a dismantling of the devouring, estranging productionist, high-tech trajectory that is so impoverishing." The usual use of anthropological evidence is comparative and demonstrative - the necessity or naturality of aspects of modern western societies is challenged by pointing to counter-examples in hunter-gatherer societies. "Ever-growing documentation of human prehistory as a very long period of largely non-alienated life stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly stark failures of untenable modernity." It is unclear, however, whether this implies a re-establishment of the literal forms of hunter-gatherer societies or a broader kind of learning from their ways of life in order to construct non-alienated relations.
Zerzan's political project calls for the destruction of technology. He draws the same distinction as Ivan Illich, between tools that stay under the control of the user, and technological systems that draw the user into their control. One difference is the division of labour, which Zerzan opposes. In Zerzan's philosophy, technology is possessed by an elite which automatically has power over other users; This power is one of the sources of alienation, along with domestication and symbolic thought.
Zerzan's typical method is to take a particular construct of civilisation (a technology, belief, practice or institution) and construct an account of its historical origins, what he calls its destructive and alienating effects and its contrasts with hunter-gatherer experiences. In his essay on number, for example, Zerzan starts by contrasting the "civilized" emphasis on counting and measuring with a "primitive" emphasis on sharing, citing Dorothy Lee's work on the Trobriand Islanders in support, before constructing a narrative of the rise of number through cumulative stages of state domination, starting with the desire of Egyptian kings to measure what they ruled. This approach is repeated in relation to time, gender inequality, work, technology, art and ritual, agriculture and globalization. Zerzan also writes more general texts on anarchist and primitivist theory. critiques of "postmodernism" and of perceived opponents such as Hakim Bey
Template:Refimprove In 1966, Zerzan was arrested while performing civil disobedience at a Berkeley anti-Vietnam War march and spent two weeks in the Contra Costa County Jail. He vowed after his release never again to be willingly arrested. He attended events organized by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and was involved with the psychedelic drug and music scene in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
In the late 1960s he worked as a social worker for the city of San Francisco welfare department. He helped organize a social worker's union, the SSEU, and was elected vice president in 1968, and president in 1969. The local Situationist group Contradiction denounced him as a "leftist bureaucrat. He became progressively more radical as he dealt further with his and other unions. He was also a voracious reader of the Situationists, being particularly influenced by Guy Debord.
In 1974, Black and Red Press published Unions Against Revolution by Spanish ultra-left theorist Grandizo Munis that included an essay by Zerzan which previously appeared in the journal Telos. Over the next 20 years, Zerzan became intimately involved with the Fifth Estate, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, Demolition Derby and other anarchist periodicals. After reading the works of Fredy Perlman, David Watson and others, he slowly came to the conclusion that civilization itself was at the root of the problems of the world and that a hunter-gatherer form of society presented the most egalitarian model for human relations with themselves and the natural world.
Zerzan and the "Unabomber"Edit
In the mid-1990s, Zerzan became a confidant to Theodore Kaczynski, the "Unabomber", after he read Industrial Society and Its Future, the so-called Unabomber Manifesto. Zerzan sat through the Unabomber trial and often conversed with Kaczynski during the proceedings. It was after becoming known as a friend of the Unabomber that the mainstream media became interested in Zerzan and his ideas.
In Zerzan's essay "Whose Unabomber?" (1995), he signaled his support for the Kaczynski doctrine, but criticised the bombings:
- ...the mailing of explosive devices intended for the agents who are engineering the present catastrophe is too random. Children, mail carriers, and others could easily be killed. Even if one granted the legitimacy of striking at the high-tech horror show by terrorizing its indispensable architects, collateral harm is not justifiable...
However, Zerzan in the same essay offered a qualified defense of the Unabomber's actions:
- The concept of justice should not be overlooked in considering the Unabomber phenomenon. In fact, except for his targets, when have the many little Eichmanns who are preparing the Brave New World ever been called to account?… Is it unethical to try to stop those whose contributions are bringing an unprecedented assault on life?
Two years later, in the 1997 essay "He Means It - Do You?," Zerzan altered his position:
- Enter the Unabomber and a new line is being drawn. This time the bohemian schiz-fluxers, Green yuppies, hobbyist anarcho-journalists, condescending organizers of the poor, hip nihilo-aesthetes and all the other "anarchists" who thought their pretentious pastimes would go on unchallenged indefinitely - well, it's time to pick which side you're on. It may be that here also is a Rubicon from which there will be no turning back.
Zerzan and Pacific Northwest anarcho-primitivismEdit
On May 7, 1995, a full-page interview with Zerzan was featured in The New York Times . Another significant event that shot Zerzan to celebrity philosopher status was his association with members of the Eugene, Oregon anarchist scene that later were the driving force behind the use of black bloc tactics at the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington. Anarchists using black bloc tactics were thought to be chiefly responsible for the property destruction committed at numerous corporate storefronts and banks.
News media coverage started a firestorm of controversy after the riots, and Zerzan was one of those that they turned to in order to explain the actions that some had taken at the demonstrations. After gaining this public notoriety, Zerzan began accepting speaking engagements and giving interviews around the world explaining anarcho-primitivism and the more general Global Justice Movement. Recently Zerzan has been involved with the Post-left anarchist trend, which argues that anarchists should break with the political left.
Zerzan is currently one of the editors of Green Anarchy, a journal of anarcho-primitivist and insurrectionary anarchist thought. He is also the host of Anarchy Radio in Eugene on the University of Oregon's radio station KWVA which airs Tuesday nights 9 to 10 pm Pacific Standard Time (PST) as of March 11th 2008. He has also served as a contributing editor at Anarchy Magazine and has been published in magazines such as AdBusters. He does extensive speaking tours around the world, and is married to an independent consultant to museums and other nonprofit organizations.
- Green anarchism
- Surplus, a Swedish movie (atmo, 2003) which contains an interview with John Zerzan
- John Zerzan's website
- Green Anarchy web site
- Insurgent Desire – John Zerzan writings and interviews can be read online
- Primitivism.com – Writings by Zerzan and other primitivist authors and essayists
- Creel Commission – June 2006 conversation with John Zerzan and the UK band
- ZNet's Primitivism Debate, Michael Albert vs John Zerzan, Eric Blair and the Green Anarchy Collective
- Guide to John Zerzan's papers at the University of Oregon
- John Zerzan's conferences in Montreal, intro and videos (May '08)
- John Zerzan's Turkish articlesde:John Zerzan
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