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Archive for Issue #1

John Zerzan’s “Twilight of the Machines”

John Zerzan's Twilight of the Machines

Twilight of the Machines – John Zerzan

John Zerzan’s         Twilight of the Machines

 

Twilight of the Machines by John Zerzan (Feral House, Port Townsend, WA, 2008) 141pp. $12.00 paperback.

John Zerzan is now one of the most well-known of contemporary North American anarchist writers and theorists, along with Noam Chomsky and Hakim Bey (and formerly, prior to his definitive renunciation of his already questionable anarchism, also Murray Bookchin). Zerzan is best known as one of the major proponents of anarcho-primitivism and green anarchy, along with Fredy Perlman and others. Beginning with his essays appearing primarily in The Fifth Estate in the 1980s (collected in his central and still most important work, Elements of Refusal), Zerzan has built an impressive edifice of documentation, critique and speculation ranging over the lifeways of nomadic paleolithic gatherer-hunters to the origins of symbolic culture and civilization to the intensification of contemporary alienation in runaway technology, hyperurbanization and the emptiness of everyday life in mass consumer society and post-modern culture. Twilight of the Machines contains Zerzan’s latest essays from the new millennium, this time primarily collected from Green Anarchy. This new book follows Running on Emptiness: The Failure of Symbolic Thought and Future Primitive, both of which collected essays mostly appearing in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed during the 1990s.

For the most part, Twilight of the Machines is an eloquent call for each of us to face the appalling predicament of the entire human species as the globalizing spread of modern techno-industrial civilization continues to destroy the natural world, degrade what’s left of face-to-face communities, and lead human society towards an impending global collapse. While not light reading by any means, the essays in Twilight of the Machines are all fairly short (the longest seems to be only 11 pages). And although the book might seem a bit thin at 141 pages, the short format, like that of his previous two collections, will most likely make it more approachable for a larger range of potential readers than a more intimidatingly long volume might. One small problem is that since the book consists of a collection of relatively short essays often dealing with similar or parallel topics, there is a fair amount of repetition of arguments. For example, the same general (and accurate) criticisms of postmodernism sometimes appear in one form or another in essay after essay.

        Zerzan’s forte has been the persistent raising of basic questions which have expanded the realm of radical investigation and critique into areas heretofore too often avoided, marginalized or ignored.

Zerzan’s forte has been the persistent raising of basic questions which have expanded the realm of radical investigation and critique into areas heretofore too often avoided, marginalized or ignored. Even, or maybe especially, for those who disagree with his overall speculations and conclusions, this has led to a widening of awareness of the deep roots and pervasive extent of our contemporary predicament. This alone makes John Zerzan’s a highly important voice to be reckoned with by all radicals who are serious about exploring the full extent of what is needed for the abolition of capitalism, the state and the other forms taken by social alienation and enslavement. However, this valuable expansion of investigation and critique has from the beginning been accompanied by often seemingly reified or even Manicheaen conceptions of the origins of human alienation. Following publication of Fredy Perlman’s seminal critique of civilization in Against His-Story, Against Leviathan, Zerzan indicted agriculture, language, art and number as centrally complicit in the origin and development of civilization. And since then, he has continued to focus his critiques more and more tightly on division of labor and the whole range of symbolic culture as the generative principles of human social and natural alienation.

Central to many of Zerzan’s arguments is a scorched earth attitude in which just about any particular aspect of life which has been colonized to any significant degree by capital, state, technology or ideology is deemed to be not accidentally, but essentially complicit with the domination and alienation of techno-industrial civilization and, thus, to be in need of complete removal. No nuanced analyses or shades of gray are allowed. Everything is simply black and white, and you’re either for (his vision of ) life or against it. In many essays, an army of quotations and notes from an array of writers and texts (some revealingly relevant, but others at times rather irrelevant) are marshaled to the particular task at hand of critically destroying whichever aspect of life is targeted this particular time (the essays on the origins of civilization in Elements of Refusal on agriculture, language, art and number are paradigmatic here). If he was a physician, Zerzan’s diagnosis would appear to always be the same, complete corruption, with amputation of the offending body part the only solution ever offered.

Twilight of the Machines opens with “Too Marvelous for Words,” contrasting language as “a powerful instrument for technological and social disenchantment” with the alternative of direct, unmediated presence (though he never explains what it could possibly mean for unmediated presence to be – self-contradictorily – “enchanted”). For Zerzan, it seems, everything about language (and symbolization in general) is bad news and not just unnecessary, but even (at least metaphorically) pathological. No attempt is made to chronicle any redeeming qualities of human communication through use of languages. Nor, does it seem, is there any possibility within his perspective for the existence of any worthwhile, freely-chosen, unalienated linguistic communication at all. Radical writers and theorists who might distinguish the ideological debasement of language from more convivial and authentic linguistic communication are simply ignored. In Zerzan’s view it is language itself which is inescapably ideological. At one point he argues that: “The grammar of every language is a theory of experience, and more than that, it’s an ideology.” (p.5) Beyond this, Zerzan repeatedly argues throughout the book that all use of language (and other forms of symbolic communication) is necessarily alienating. But somehow it must be possible to use grammar and language in at least relatively non-ideological ways, else why does Zerzan continue to speak and write his critiques rather than foregoing writing and speech for the more direct communication he advocates? And if Zerzan can make worthwhile use of language for liberatory purposes is there any reason why anyone else should not do the same, while leaving behind the self-contradictory, ideological weight of a dogmatic denunciation of all symbolic culture?

In “Patriarchy, Civilization and the Origins of Gender” Zerzan asks if patriarchy and civilization are “at base synonymous?” He argues that (the history of) “Civilization…is the history of the domination of nature and of women,” (p.11) leaving out the inescapable fact that civilization has always also included the domination of men. In fact, civilizations seem to have involved the progressive institutionalization of political, economic and social domination of anyone and everyone caught in their nets of control.

Inevitably, the critique of symbolic culture in itself as the prime cause and motor of human alienation will continue to be viewed skeptically by most radicals, since the development of alienation is more plausibly described and explained as a larger social process in which particular aspects of symbolic culture are progressively reified, enlarged and turned against the individual and society, just as aspects of every other sphere of human life are progressively reified and turned against us. The identification of a fundamental and seemingly prime cause of human alienation which can be potentially separated, isolated and demonized will inevitably appeal to some of those who prefer relatively easy answers to highly complex questions. But there is no evidence that symbolic culture in itself is necessarily a form of human alienation. However much symbolic culture may involve less direct and more abstract forms of interaction with the human and social world, these forms of interaction are never in themselves necessarily alienating. The systems of symbolization and highly complex forms taken by communication using these systems will certainly always be fraught with opportunities for the creation of ideological justifications and apologies for alienating human activities and relationships. But just as certainly, these same complex forms of symbolic communication can also be used to expose and subvert ideologies. They are not themselves simply and reductively identical with ideology.

Similarly, social alienation does not arise in every instance of the division of labor – at least not in every instance as long as the freely-chosen coordination and division of convivial tasks also falls under this label. (And if it doesn’t, where else is it being hidden in Zerzan’s writings?) There is never a problem if one person enjoys hunting and another leisurely gathers in order to share the fruits of their activities later. Nor is it a problem if one group of people in a community builds a house while another group gardens and others pursue different complex tasks they set for themselves in coordination with their families and friends. Rather it is the forced division of labor that always involves human social alienation. It is when people are enslaved, trapped in their activities, see no way out and eventually stop trying to escape from their prisons that they alienate their activities and lose sight of their original desires to live freely.

The important aspect of truth in Zerzan’s formulations is that as the various forms of human social activity and communication become more abstract, complex and distancing they become less and less likely to be freely desirable or communally sustainable absent self-alienation. The more elaborate and rigid that divisions of activities become, and the more intricately systematic their required symbolic and technological infrastructures, the more likely it will be that these divisions of labor and complex infrastructures will also require manipulation and, ultimately, force to maintain them. In this process their human participants begin to mimic the behavior of machines in order to fulfill their roles in an increasingly alienating division and coordination of tasks. And the more human beings reduce themselves to machinelike activities, the more likely they will then be further forced to do so – rather than participating of their own genuinely free wills – in the ever-intensifying process of self-alienation and its accompaniments, forced labor and its ideologies.

Possibly most interesting in Twilight of the Machines, at least in relation to the general theme of the Modern Slavery journal project, is Zerzan’s essay on “Globalization and its Apologists: An Abolitionist Perspective.” Here he explicitly aims his anarcho-primitivist critique at “our century’s version of slavery.” He plausibly identifies the rise and spread of domestication with the rise and spread of civilization. And he definitely understands that (in his terminology) “globalization” – understood as the latest stage of domestication and civilization – is so overwhelmingly parasitic on our lives that it is now threatening to overwhelm and destroy its hosts. But he is nowhere able to focus on the process of self-alienation itself as the target for abolition, rather than the particular places it happens to inhabit.

In any case, it is abundantly clear that modern divisions of labor, technological systems and their mass consumer cultures have long passed the point of no return for potential desirability or sustainability in any humanly free and consenting ways.

Review by Jason McQuinn

Strangers in an Alien World

Some thoughts on being an anarchist at the beginning of the 21st century

A serialized book-in-progress by Wolfi Landstreicher

Introduction

“…we are alone, with an entire world ranged against us.
-Andrea Dorea

I have been an anarchist for well over thirty years now. For me this has never been an identity to which to cling, a label to give me a sense of belonging. It has rather been an ongoing challenge to face my life in a particular way, constantly raising the
question of what it means to reject every form of domination and exploitation in my life on a practical level. This is not a simple question with easy answers, but a problem that I have to wrestle with constantly, because I am facing a world here and
now in which domination and exploitation define social relationships, in which most individuals are dispossessed of every possibility of determining their own existence, alienated from the creative energy through which such a project could be
realized. As an anarchist, I have made a decision to reject and fight against this world. This makes me a deserter, an outsider, indeed, a stranger in an alien world. Obviously, this is not an easy choice. Several years ago I wrote: “I am not a peaceful man, a man content and willing to accept the will of the gods No, I am a man at war – with the world and with society, indeed, but also with myself and those I love the most.” And I think that this is inevitably true for any anarchist who is sincere in her desire to live her refusal of the impositions of the ruling order. To overcome the isolation of this refusal it is necessary to seek accomplices with whom to steal back the creative energy with which we can build our lives together on our own terms and with whom to use that energy to destroy the alien world that the ruling order imposes on us. I wrestle constantly with the question of how to go about living in this way and carrying on this project with joy. The thoughts that follow stem from this questioning.

     As an anarchist, I have made a decision to reject and fight against this world. This makes me a deserter, an outsider, indeed, a stranger in an alien world…. To overcome the isolation of this refusal it is necessary to seek accomplices with whom to steal back the creative energy with which we can build our lives together on our own terms and with whom to use that energy to destroy the alien world that the ruling order imposes on us.

If I refer mainly to anarchists in speaking of the projects I pursue, it is because I am an anarchist and choose to carry out my projects in a certain way because of this. At the same time, I am quite aware that complicity cannot be limited to anarchists. There are those who hate the habitual, unthinking daily activities, relationships and roles that make up this society and that by their nearly universal unconscious acceptance are imposed on all of us, but who do not express this through revolutionary or anarchist ideas. Nonetheless, they act against this society in their lives, and they are also potential accomplices. In fact, only by being open to such relationships can we anarchists break out of the ghettos in which we so easily lose ourselves. So I am addressing these thoughts mainly to anarchists, but also to anyone who despises the enslaving impositions of this society. » Read more..

Egoism versus modernity: John Welsh’s dialectical Stirner

A review of Max Stirner’s Dialectical Egoism by Wolfi Landstreicher

Max Stirner’s Dialectical Egoism: A New Interpretation by John F. Welsh (Lexington Books, Lanham, MD, 2010). 293 pp., $85.00 hardcover / $34.95 paper.

Since its publication in 1844, Max Stirner’s book Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum (entitled The Ego and Its (or His) Own in the currently available English editions1) has rarely been dealt with on its own terms. When not simply suppressed, it has been misrepresented or used as a foil to promote agendas foreign to it. Alfredo Bonanno described it well in his book Max Stirner when he says, “The first duty toward Stirner: incomprehension.” Certainly, the few books written about Stirner and his ideas in English in the past century have reflected this lack of even a minimal understanding of what Stirner was doing. This is what makes John F. Welsh’s book distinctive.

I consider much of the “incomprehension” in the face of Stirner’s book to be a choice made by his various critics and commentators. It is true that Stirner’s thinking is difficult, but not in the sense of being hard to understand – and in his masterwork, Stirner presents it in a clear, even blunt, language. Rather its difficulty lies in the fact that it removes every abstract ground of certainty from beneath our feet, leaving us to rely only on ourselves. This is why he begins and ends the book with the cry: “I have set my cause upon nothing.”2 And very few want to face this prospect of total self-responsibility. Welsh seems to be one of those few, and this makes his book worth reading. Unlike all of Stirner’s critics whose works I have been able to read and most of his defenders as well, Welsh comes to Stirner with no obvious preconceptions about what Stirner was saying. Instead he attempts to understand what Stirner’s project actually was and how it might be useful to us now. The flaws in Welsh’s understanding relate to the most difficult aspects of Stirner’s thinking, his attempts to use language to point to the inconceivable, the unspeakable unique, and to the equally non-conceptual union of egoists. I will go into this more later. » Read more..

Mutual Acquiescence or Mutual Aid?

Ron Sakolsky

 

Most of us have made a compact, saying “Let us make a convention. Let us agree to call what we are feeling not ‘pain’ but ‘neutral,’ not ‘dull unease’ but ‘well enough,’ not ‘restless dissatisfaction intermitted by blowing up,’ but average ‘hanging around.’ Our consensus is that how we live is tolerable. If I ask, ‘How are you?’ you must say, ‘Pretty good.’ And if I do not remind you, you must not remind me. To all this we swear.”1

-Paul Goodman

The hugger-mugger totality wants nothing and does nothing. They are entangled with one another, do not move, prisoners; they abandon themselves to opaque pressures but they themselves are the power that lies upon them and binds them, mind and limb.2

-Robert Walser

What I will refer to here as “mutual acquiescence” is the social adhesive that cements the bricks of alienation and oppression which structure our daily lives into a wall of domination. It is a major obstacle to the practice of what anarchists refer to as “mutual aid” in that the latter is concerned with providing the cooperative means for vaulting that wall. While cooperation can take many forms, for Peter Kropotkin, who developed the evolutionary theory of mutual aid3 in relation to human behavior, its quintessence in the political realm is anarchy. With that in mind, I will take the liberty here of referring to the concept of mutual aid only in the anarchist sense, and will consider those cooperative human relationships associated with welfare state capitalism and state socialism as being built upon forms of mutual acquiescence because of their implicit or explicit statist assumptions which run counter to anarchy.

Even in its least cooperative and most authoritarian forms, mutual acquiescence cannot simply be equated with unmediated mass conformity to societal norms. The hierarchical power of rulers and ruling ideas are reinforced by the interpersonal collaboration of the ruled in their own servility. Such collaboration is composed of the paralyzing intermediary social relationships that are the scaffolding of conformist assimilation to the ideological authority of society and state. What makes mutual acquiescence so insidious is that it is a form of social control that is rooted in the everyday psychological and social relationships of consent that compose the lived experience of domination. Accordingly, an analysis of how mutual acquiescence prevents and immobilizes individual and collective forms of direct action allows for a more nuanced model of domination and resistance than can be afforded by merely referencing the devastating effects of conformity imposed from above. » Read more..

Hunting Seasons

The story by Dan Todd is presented here in the original verse format. The book is currently in print in a prose edition published under the pseudonym Lang Gore.

. . . I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey. And I took the little book out of the angel’s hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey; and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.
-Revelation 10:9, 1

 

Chapter 1

 

     Bay grimaced. “Fucking bladder is about to burst;

I know there is no way in fucking hell

That I will make it off this goddamn bus

Before I piss my fucking pants;

I will piss my fucking pants before we stop,

I know I will, I know I will,”

He malevolently muttered beneath his breath. » Read more..

The Archimedean Point? Self-Activity

Where is the ultimate point to which each of us can apply the most leverage for changing our world?

This question has already been answered in a thousand ways in just about every religion, philosophy and ideology produced in history. However, all of these answers are useful primarily to priests, dogmatists and ideologues rather than to those of us who refuse ideologies. They each require first and foremost that we adopt a necessary ideological standpoint, including its pre-given attitudes and values. And that we simultaneously renounce our own actual standpoint – our attitudes and values, our own selves – as the price of ideological submission.

The physical point from which Archimedes of Syracuse claimed that he would be able to move the Earth off its foundation is obviously mythical. As is the ideal “Archimedean point” from which an observer could be said to obtain a purely objective and therefore complete view of an object. The first is an imaginary point of leverage (application of force using a lever to magnify its effectiveness), the second an imaginary point of view (a perspectiveless perspective like that attributed to an omniscient god). Neither is of much use to those of us who want to actually change our world in our own liberating, non-ideological ways. » Read more..

A Plea for Captain John Brown

Based on a speech given in Concord on October 30, 1859

-Henry David Thoreau

I trust that you will pardon me for being here. I do not wish to force my thoughts upon you, but I feel forced myself. Little as I know of Captain Brown, I would fain do my part to correct the tone and the statements of the newspapers, and of my countrymen generally, respecting his character and actions. It costs us nothing to be just. We can at least express our sympathy with, and admiration of, him and his companions, and that is what I now propose to do.

First, as to his history. I will endeavor to omit, as much as possible, what you have already read. I need not describe his person to you, for probably most of you have seen and will not soon forget him. I am told that his grandfather, John Brown, was an officer in the Revolution; that he himself was born in Connecticut about the beginning of this century, but early went with his father to Ohio. I heard him say that his father was a contractor who furnished beef to the army there, in the War of 1812; that he accompanied him to the camp, and assisted him in that employment, seeing a good deal of military life – more, perhaps, than if he had been a soldier; for he was often present at the councils of the officers. Especially, he learned by experience how armies are supplied and maintained in the field – a work which, he observed, requires at least as much experience and skill as to lead them in battle. He said that few persons had any conception of the cost, even the pecuniary cost, of firing a single bullet in war. He saw enough, at any rate, to disgust him with a military life; indeed, to excite in him a great abhorrence of it; so much so, that though he was tempted by the offer of some petty office in the army, when he was about eighteen, he not only declined that, but he also refused to train when warned, and was fined for it. He then resolved that he would never have anything to do with any war, unless it were a war for liberty.

When the troubles in Kansas began, he sent several of his sons thither to strengthen the party of the Free State men, fitting them out with such weapons as he had; telling them that if the troubles should increase, and there should be need of him, he would follow, to assist them with his hand and counsel. This, as you all know, he soon after did; and it was through his agency, far more than any other’s, that Kansas was made free. » Read more..

MS #1 Contributors

Émile Armand (1872-1963) was the pseudonym of Ernest-Lucien Juin Armand, an influential French anarchist and individualist who wrote extensively for L’Ère nouvelle, L’Anarchie, L’EnDehors and L’Unique. He was imprisoned many times for his anarchist, pacifist and anti-militarist activities. And he was an outspoken advocate of free love, publishing Révolution sexuelle et la camaraderie amoureuse in 1934.

Bob Black is the author of many interventions, as well as a number of books, including The Abolition of Work and other Essays, Anarchy after Leftism, Beneath the Underground, and Friendly Fire, along with the yet-to-be published Nightmares of Reason. He has contributed to many periodicals, including Anarchy: a Journal of Desire Armed.

Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912) was one the most well-known of North American atheists and anarchists in her day, turning to anarchism after the hanging of the Haymarket radicals. She was a prominent spokesperson for “anarchism without adjectives,” including both individualist, mutualist and communist themes in her speeches and writings.

Karen Goaman has a PhD in Anthropology, University College London. She has written numerous articles in anthologies (2009, Jun & Wahl eds., New Perspectives on Anarchism; 2008, Roca Martínez ed., Anarquismo y Antropología; 2004, Purkis & Bowen eds., Changing Anarchism; 1997, Purkis & Bowen, Towards a 21st Century Anarchism) and in Anarchist Studies. She has worked as a Senior Editor in book publishing and as a part-time Lecturer in Communications at London Metropolitan University. » Read more..

Modern Slavery Notes: New Journal on the Planet!

Welcome to Modern Slavery #1. The first full issue of this journal has now taken half a decade to come to fruition. It’s been a struggle on many fronts to turn the original impulse and idea into reality. But from here on there’s no turning back and we refuse to be stopped!

The Modern Slavery project is a direct successor to previous C.A.L. Press projects. These include the magazine Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed (published since 1980, and now produced by an independent collective since 2006), the North American Anarchist Review (published for a few years in the ’80s), the Alternative Press Review (another magazine, published from 1993 well into the 2000s, with a web site that’s still occasionally updated at both www.altpr.org & www.alternativepressreview.org), and the C.A.L. Press book publishing project (with titles including Future Primitive, Anarchy after Leftism and Elements of Refusal).

The original idea for this new journal was to provide a space within the libertarian and anarchist milieu for the publication of some of the really important, critical and creative material that has too often fallen into the cracks between what will fit into the inadequate spaces available in libertarian periodicals and what has been publishable in book form.

The original idea for this new journal was to provide a space within the libertarian and anarchist milieu for the publication of some of the really important, critical and creative material that has too often fallen into the cracks between what will fit into the inadequate spaces available in libertarian periodicals and what has been publishable in book form. Most of us probably already know that there are far too few libertarian and anarchist periodicals in the first place. Of those that exist most are infrequent, small and undependable. And of those that do publish more than one issue, many have very narrow editorial conceptions, excluding even the possibility of presenting much new, original and creative material – which also tends to result in restricting their availability to tiny circulations of the like-minded. But even for those that are open to publishing the most important and exciting material, the ability to present more than short essays, reviews and other material is lacking due to limitations of format, space and frequency of publication. To make this sad situation even worse, libertarian book publishing is largely in the same situation. A relatively small number of very small publishers exist (like C.A.L. Press itself, with only three titles in print) that usually cater to very narrow editorial niches, along with even fewer larger libertarian publishers. The smaller publishers have perennial problems with funding and distribution, while the larger publishers tend to function as ideological gate-keepers preventing more creative and challenging material from appearing in editions that might get more circulation, in favor of mediocre material that often promotes popular ideologies – often whether or not they have any significant libertarian content, coherence or value. You know this stuff. It’s often, though luckily not always, poorly written, poorly edited and poorly produced. It includes boat-loads of uncreative, uncritical material pushing a full spectrum of left and right-wing ideologies, like social democracy, liberal feminism, identity politics and postmodernism. At best it’s provided with thin libertarian coatings. At worst with heavy-handed ideological pronouncements that can be mistaken as (or occasionally actually are) Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist or Maoist in inspiration. » Read more..

An Introduction to Modern Slavery

Modern slavery should need no introduction. Modern slavery already intrudes into every aspect of life, debasing all it touches. It is the underlying organizing principle for all major economic institutions east and west, north and south. Its support and defense are the unspoken but automatically-understood objects of all major – and the vast majority of the minor – social, political and cultural institutions. Its infrastructure and demands extend into the deepest levels of modern consciousness, coloring our dreams as well as our nightmares. Yet modern slavery is largely invisible.

Modern slavery is officially non-existent. It has been tossed down the memory hole. It is not spoken of in polite company. Every institutional and government functionary, from the lowest levels of bureaucratic purgatory to the upper levels of elite power, knows instinctively that any explicit mention of its name as a contemporary reality means instant social death within the hierarchy. It is a rare day when it is acknowledged in any public context, even by the most radical or reckless of iconoclasts. » Read more..