#143 | The New Primitives: The Reverse Teleology Of Primitivist Transformation w/ Ben Etherington

Our guest for this episode is Ben Etherington — author of 'Literary Primitivism' and the long-form essay, published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, titled 'The New Primitives' — the themes of which we discuss in this episode. In this discussion, Ben lays out a nuanced examination of Primitivism — a “mode of aesthetic idealization that either emulates or aspires to recreate ‘primitive’ experience.”☽ 

In modern Western societies, the primitivist ideal is expressed though various means — a few examples being contemporary dietary fads like the “Paleo Diet,” fitness regimens like barefoot/minimalist running, radical anti-civilizational and anti- technological political philosophies (e.g. the works of anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan and the manifesto of the UNABOMBER Theodore Kaczynski) — as well as in popular films, literature, and art. Primitivist themes and aesthetics run through several popular films, most notably in James Cameron’s blockbuster film ’Avatar.’ To quote from Ben’s essay: “The plot of the film follows the tested formula of primitivist transformation. A man of civilization, in this case the paraplegic US marine Jake Sully, is sent to colonize the primitive lands beyond civilization’s perimeter only himself to ‘go primitive’ after learning of their innocent beauty and recognizing the barbarism of his own destructive civilization.”✛ 

Ben, in this essay and in this discussion, understands Primitivism as a reverse teleology: “Marx’s communist society or the techno-utopias of Silicon Valley are premised on transcendence. When workers own the factories or robots do the menial labor, humans will be free to pursue their inmost desires. For primitivists, humans have previously achieved this state, and our urgent project is to restore it. We are to move forward into our past; or, equally, backward into our future.”✛

What does this theme of “primitivist transformation” tell us about our current set of living arrangements in the “modern” world? What does this longing for more “primitive” forms of living and being mean within the broader scope of historical development, especially as we enter into the late stage of capitalist development on this planet?  We delve into this rich subject in this episode.

Ben Etherington is senior lecturer in postcolonial and world literary studies in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and a member of the Writing and Society Research Centre. He holds honours degrees in Musicology and English from the University of Western Australia. He was awarded a General Sir John Monash Award to undertake an MPhil and PhD in English at the University of Cambridge, where he was later a Faculty of English research fellow. His publications include ‘Literary Primitivism’, the ‘Cambridge Companion to World Literature,’ and ‘Unsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry.’☯︎

☽ Source: http://bit.ly/Primitivism
✛ Source: http://bit.ly/NewPrimitives
☯︎ Source: http://bit.ly/LARBbio


Episode Notes:

- Read Ben’s essay ‘The New Primitives’ here: http://bit.ly/NewPrimitives

- John Zerzan’s response: http://bit.ly/ZerzanLetter

- Learn about and purchase Ben’s book ‘Literary Primitivism’ here: http://bit.ly/LiteraryPrimitivism

- The songs featured in this episode are “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” and “Apocalypse Dreams” by Tame Impala from the album Lonerism.