Our Feral Selves
My blog has benefited from the recent comments of kulturcritic, aka the Critical Anarchist, who has brought a new, anthropological/spiritual perspective to the discussion of revolutionary development. He was kind enough to send me a copy of his latest work, The Recovery of Ecstacy - Notebook from Siberia which chronicles his personal journey and the realizations which are the fruit of his meditations and travels. It is a passionate, thoughtful and well researched argument concerning our species inability to live in harmony with each other, ourselves or our environment, and it is done in a very accessible, not overly scholastic style.
Let me start with the many things I found agreement with, and I will move to some criticisms, to which I hope he will respond. I remain an idealistic believer in discursive possibilities and that ideas do still matter. ( completely different from Obama-hope!)
The book begins by examining the authors first experience of "otherness" or duality/ alienation, brought upon by childhood congenital illness and how this awakening opens certain doors of perception and frees him to begin viewing his own cultural and psychological/mythical baggage critically. This experiential development particularly resonated with me, a child of the sixties, a "stranger in a strange land" who did the whole counter-cultural "tune in,drop out" thing and emerged with his own passion for philosophy and spiritual connectedness. This brings him to the concept of atomization, seeing a society of "isolated individuals estranged from, and in conflict with, a fragmented, alienated world."
Marx found it in early industrialization, Debord and I found it in the deadening soul-lessness of suburban life, but it is a common enough thread running through much of the critique of modernity, consumer society, and technological "progress" and this is where the authors thesis leads directly.
Much valid criticism of Marxism in general springs from the fact it has little to say about the soul, that it is economistic and overly dependent on a scientific rationalism, and Krolick eloquently explores a determining breach which he posits occurred several thousand years ago as our species abandoned hunter/ gatherer in favour of agriculture. He sees an over-dependence on the visual and too little emphasis on hearing and touch, the "tactile", on how we moderns experience the world, resulting in a lack of "rootedness in the land" and alienation from our authentic, "ecstatic, feral" selves. In other words, we have lost our inner barbarian and compensate with dysfunctional, destructive and unhealthy behaviors. He uses this anthropological exploration to develop a theory of modern man's enslavement by our notion of linear/historical time and "progress" which leads to a sort of civilizational psychosis related to "fear of death". This is a superficial run-down of the main themes but much of it is a study in the contrasts between modern American culture (such as it is one) and the culture he discovers in Siberia, where he has lived and travelled extensively, and which actually reminded me of Montana to a certain degree.
The first question that came to mind on finishing the slender work (140 pages) was : Has he read Murray Bookchin? There is much here reminiscent of Social Ecology, with it's critique of the "pathological" nature of growth and it's ( in my mind)similar but dubious reliance on a "rational, scientific" anthropological analysis. As with Marx, ( or D.H.Lawrence's The Etruscans) I find this leap from the Particular to the Universal based on pop anthropolgy a bit fascile and really unneccessary for producing a viable theory. Along with Bookchin, who proposed libertarian municipalism,Krolick sees a tribal ethic and return to small, self-managed groupings as necessary for human flourishment.
Even accepting the anthropological premise, a statement such as " with the birth of cities on the heels of agriculture, it was necessary to develop stable and uniform systems of social and political control.." exposes what I feel is the political shortcoming of this analysis, namely, the lack of identifieable agency or materialistic power relations. In other words, necessary for WHO to develop such systems? How is the division of labor labor or authority or hierarchy explained? Aren't we talking about economic control bleeding into the cultural sphere?
While I agree there is something primal or "feral" in my experience of gardening ( feel and smell of rich earth, etc) or hunting ( ecstatic tension of the kill, gutting, butchering), I again hesitate on putting too much evolutionary weight on such "instinctual memory" as a deterministic principle. I know far to many hunters and farmers who lack in empathy, understanding and "soul" to think civilization and it's participants can be so neatly categorized.
Another area where I took exception was the discussion on the role of language, in particular where Sandy states "Language has become trivialized in our modern world, stripped of it's depth and power" due to it's being based on "a strictly logistical principle...reducing the word to a mere symbol, a simple placeholder in a syllogism...having a single, unambiguously identifieable referent." I would argue that language still has incredible power but that it has been colonized and put in the service of capitalist ideology. The word "civilization" is a perfect example. Where the author argues for an organic multiplicity or sublime comprehension, he fails to see this as the site of real political struggle, the contested territory where the battle for meaning determines hegemony. Again, I believe, with objective economic rather than psychological or evolutionary roots. Think of "The War on Terror, Drugs, Poverty" etc or the contest over the meaning of "democracy, equality, liberty, justice". I still believe these meanings are bound up with class struggle and that logic is necessary to understanding leading to classlessness. This may sound overly economistic but it is a question of dialectics, the antagonism needs that most basic of principles.
I was also struck by the almost universal dismissal and negation of technology. This anarchistic strain is derived from a broad critique of consumer culture, such as when the author states "In their way, technologies are valuable social tools, distracting our attention and diminishing the likelihood of these potentially jarring experiences of alienation that underlie our comfortable ,civilized existence." Again, who is They ( that control these "tools") and who is We ( that are distracted)? Is it more likely the worker producing such technology would be "jarred" out of comfort by realizing his own exploitation ( revolutionary consciousness through estrangement) or that the consumer of such technology would be "jarred" through some sort of post-modern "alienation"? Leading to what action?
Finally, just a comment on certain references to the Russian soul, such as when the author reflects "I was beginning to understand why these people were so susceptible to the promise of Lenin..". I have read a little Gorky and Dosteyevsky as well as a little Lenin and Trotsky , enough to shy away from broad generalizations. From celebrating music, sex, dancing and revolt to the cruelty of war-time rape and murder or gulags it is a complex stew full of ambiguity and dysfunctional, creative genius. But aren't all people? Aren't we all "susceptible" to the Utopian imaginary and potential of the human spirit? Much of America (and the West) is lost in a dark maze of alienated, estranged, atomized pathology, no doubt, but some part of the self, whether "feral" or "kairotic" is irresistable in it's determination to find a way through. I encourage everyone to visit kulturcritics site at www.kulturcritic.com and hear this unique voice.