Ben Etherington: Primitivist Transformation & The Utopia Of Pre-History*

In this segment, writer and lecturer Ben Etherington and I discuss Primitivism in contemporary culture and media, using the highest grossing film of all time, James Cameron’s ‘Avatar,’ as the focus of the discussion.

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. It’s a structure that underlies other blockbusters like ‘Dances with Wolves,’ its sci-fi equivalents, and numerous journey-into-the-interior classics (especially the work of Joseph Conrad). Eros is built into this formula. Coition marks the point at which the civilized man gives himself over to the primitive tribe and discovers, or recovers, his primitive self. Primitivist utopias, in short, are fuckable utopias.”

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?

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.’

Read Ben’s essay ‘The New Primitives’ published in the Los Angeles Review of Book:

Read anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan’s response to the essay:

This is a segment of episode #143 of Last Born In The Wilderness “The New Primitives: The Reverse Teleology Of Primitivist Transformation w/ Ben Etherington.” Listen to the full episode:

*Changed the title from what is displayed in the video at the request of Ben.