When We Are Human, by John Zerzan – a review

WWJZD? i ask myself as i go about my day

From Eco-revolt by Julian Langer

When I found that a copy of Zerzan’s new book, When We Are Human, had reached me I was immediately excited and keen to read. I am continually moved by Zerzan’s thought and writings, despite many points of difference in perspective or approach. It was largely a desire to encounter these differences that motivated me to email John and ask him to send me a copy of the book, to review. As I encountered these points of difference in perspective I was mostly very glad to experience them, because they affirmed my experience of John Zerzan as someone who is not me and someone I can appreciate for being-them and the thought being-theirs – there is one point of the text, which I go into more detail on in a more critical section of this review, that, I will share at this point, did offend me and is in my eyes the worst thing I’ve ever read by Zerzan; but I will state that much of this text is some of the best and most beautiful writings by Zerzan. 

This book, in my eyes, is largely a response to anti-humanist thought – thought that is critical of the concept of “human” – and misanthropic thought – thought pertaining to human-hating collectivised bigotry – within anarchist and environmentalist theory and practice. I have described my thought as anti-humanist and feel that label is somewhat fair placed on me, and with this encounter this quality of the book as an attempt to save an aspect of Zerzan’s thought that is very intense – anthropological-realism. It seems clear to me that Zerzan believes in Humanity, very much from an anthropologically-centred world-view, and I appreciate this quality of his thought, as Zerzan seeks to defend Humanity from misanthropic hatred, bigotry and abuse – though it is undeniable that there is a strong anthropocentrism within Zerzan’s thought, with animal, floral and mineral life being all-but-excluded from the thought within this text (perhaps there is potential for a follow up from Zerzan, drawing from anthrozoology and zoopoetics[?]).

There are some stunningly beautiful pieces of writing in this collection. An example of this early on in the text is a section on fire, where Zerzan shares personal encounters with fire in a way that I thoroughly enjoyed. While the book is somewhat history-dense, I enjoyed Zerzan’s affirmation of the Luddite rebellions, his (attempted) destruction of Enlightenment thought and a section affirming anti-history that also acknowledges that “this book … is a testimony to the need for historical awareness” – a wonderful contradiction/paradox, which I feel truly embodies so much of Zerzan’s work. Like many other of his books, there are excellent diatribes seeking to destroy time, technology and the failure that is civilisation. My favourite section of this book, which I think might be Zerzan’s best piece of writing, is the section titled Experience, where he affirms that “(w)e must uncover, reclaim, the immediacy of lived experience …” and that “(t)he absence of mediation doesn’t last …”. These are all aspects of the book that I value and feel appreciation for. 

The positioning of this critical turn is very intentional and I believe that this would likely be obvious if I were not stating it outright here. I go into more detail on the aspects of the book that I am critiquing here than those I am affirming as valuable, as I feel that the desirable qualities of this book need my affirmation less than the undesirable qualities deserve my destruction. It should be clear that I am positing value in this book as worth-reading-and-considering and I encourage no one reading these critical points to reject the book because of them. The three areas being critiqued are a section on autism, Zerzan’s anti-philosophy and the matters of individualism, egoism, nihilism and postmodernism (and how much [perhaps] John misses the fucking point[!]). 

The piece on autism is the only piece of writing by Zerzan that has ever left me feeling utterly disgusted by him and I will not deny that it is offensive to try and save John some face. Zerzan attempts to make the argument that autism is a product of civilisation and contemporary domesticating-distance, and that Humanity is losing its humanness to becoming-autistic, relying on many stereotypes regarding individuals we call autistic that I can tell you, from my lived experience of working with autistic individuals, are often bullshit. From a primitivist historical-anthropological-realist ideology, Zerzan’s positioning of autism is easily rejectable, given the likelihood of autistic individuals having distinct advantages in hunter-gather contexts [1] and the likelihood of their being “championed” in the context of pre-civilised communities [2]. Positioning individuals this culture calls autistic as being not-desirable, or less-than(-Human), is the worst part of this book and the worst I’ve ever read by Zerzan. 

With regards to Zerzan’s anti-philosophy, while I am sympathetic to his rejection of Enlightenment thought (perhaps from a slightly different route there) and his rejection of much of the thought that Enlightenment builds from; I feel that Zerzan both misses something and thoroughly fails to affirm those aspects of philosophy – as a lived experience, not an ideology bound to the Academy – that has impacted his thought and life. Zerzan makes it clear at one point of his attacks against philosophy that he does not identify as a philosopher, which I find strange, as I certainly consider Zerzan to be a philosopher, with his anti-philosophy being a philosophy-of-philosophy – to the extent that there are these objects called “philosophy” and “philosophers” I’d affirm is only true in name, but still hold discursive relevance. Zerzan calls philosophy an “impersonal pursuit”, which (again) strikes me as bizarre, as I couldn’t imagine a more personal area of study than philosophy. In a section titled A Note On Freedom, Zerzan affirms freedom, mostly through affirming resistance from within death camps – in a very similar way to that done in the anarcho-nihilist book Blessed is the Flame – and this is perhaps the most intensely personal-philosophical act I can imagine any individual doing, as I am aware that I often experience my individuality most intensely through the experience of pain, with all the existential aspects that invokes. I do love that Zerzan’s final paragraph in his essay The Case Against Philosophy affirms Diogenes of Sinope (who is a personal philosophical hero of mine) and cynicism, while noting a peculiarity to this, given Diogenes’ mockery of Plato, who Zerzan draws from at one point (though perhaps missed Plato’s meaning in the allegory of the cave).

This final critical thought (obviously drawing from the last one) regards another paradox/contradiction within Zerzan’s writings/philosophy/thought that I can understand and appreciate, but encounter often as disappointing. Now, it seems clear to me that Zerzan’s desires are rooted in an affirmation of Life over anthropological-machinery/Leviathan/civilisation, or as I will term it here the System – this is not being questioned in any way. What I notice though is that, when Zerzan is attempting to negate art, poetry, Decadence, aestheticism and nihilism, he is not doing so from any affirmation of the Life that is the experience of being-individual, but from a Systemic-perspective, opposing them as a mode-of-Systematising – I will note here that in my book Feral Consciousness I affirm the hyper-exploitation(/acceleration) of symbolic-aestheticism, to its inevitable point of collapse, to affirm the post-collapse eco-aestheticism; in my book Feral Life affirm poetry and art for their non-systematising and animalising potential; and in my book Feral Iconoclasm affirm a life-affirming nihilism, based in absurdity. (These areas are those where I most intensely differentiate from Zerzan’s thought.) Alongside the intensely Systematic qualities of Zerzan’s writings, the individual gets affirmed in this book in his critique of ritual, his extremely beautiful (philosophical) piece on death (very relevant within mass-extinction culture) and in other sections, that are far less Systems-oriented. I notice this Systemetic quality most when, like when Zerzan seeks to negate art and poetry, Zerzan fails to recognise, or even affirm an inability to recognise, what nihilism and the destruction (de-struction/de-structuring/de-constructing [which I affirm as a positive-activity]) of value might mean to individuals who find beauty (or, dare I say, value) in them. Those individuals are life, the are alive, not the Systems that Zerzan places as more valuable than their lived experience. And it should be noted that, within all this Systematising, sadly, the individual most lacking within this book, like most of Zerzan’s writings, is the individual writing the book – I feel so much affirmation for those points where we do encounter this individual within the text. 

Being honest, I am uncertain how to end this review. This book truly embodies both the best and the worst of Zerzan’s thought, and I am sincerely grateful for having been sent the copy that is in front of me now, for the purpose of writing this review. I am intending to write John a poem, in pen, and send him a couple of my drawings, in the hopes that he might receive them and experience an affirmation of poetry and art that is individual, non-Systematic and perhaps stupid and absurd (but okay). I guess, my final thought regarding this book is that this book has really affirmed to me that it is okay to feel conflictual, contradictory and split feelings about any book, writer and individual – I can survive the confusion and, I believe, you can too!


[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110603122849.htm?fbclid=IwAR3kRdCe8I-ty8uTuqPGI58M3rAf3v9kF4Z8TmNUmxAuzrXTKDdj-I5tDOs

[2] https://www.zmescience.com/science/news-science/autism-stone-age-evolution/?fbclid=IwAR1DgcYRGMuC_tr4JgsWQXQpeaYCcLDOxqa9frBbJB8QhyNIuLuOUW5PbO0

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I'm grateful to Julian Langer for writing this piece, and to whoever posted it on Anarchist News; this is the first I've heard of Zerzan's new book, which I'm looking forward to starting next week (too bad I had to order it on Amazon). I'll have to leave any critical judgements of my own until then, but I wonder if Langer is aware that Asperger's Syndrome - one of the key diagnostic terms for autism - was named after a doctor who enthusiastically participated in the Nazi child euthanasia program while working at a hospital in Vienna during World War II? It was there that he studied children who had been confined because they didn't fit in - exhibiting what were considered anti-social tendencies; the more unfortunate inmates were killed, if they were considered irredeemable. From the very beginning, Asperger's Syndrome has been an inherently subjective diagnosis, shaped by the political, social, and intellectual climate of the times (remember that homosexuality was classified as a mental illness until just a few decades ago).

I haven't, and am most likely never going to, read Zerzans book. And I can understand how a humanist describing someone or something as inhuman can be harmful. However I don't think we should, in reaction to Zerzans dismissal of autistic as inhumane, kneejerkingly assert that they are human. This seems to me just a very ingrained moral position, to affirm other humanity. But I think descriptive Zerzan is right, or at least getting on the right track even if he takes it the completely wrong direction. Autistic people, like most if not all other marginalized identities are not seen as human. To Mt knowledge this is already commonly recognized in anti-humanist thought, no? And the autistic is no different, anti-social tendencies (not even just limited to autism) do bar one from aspects of humanity. Especially those who represent the extreme, such as those who do not communicate verbally at all, are often dehumanizing to some of the greatest extent, some even go as far as to bar them from their understanding of being alive. But it is only when one sees humanity as some goodness, as this thing we want access too, that this becomes "problematic" (which seems to be the problem in Zerzan's analysis). The reason autistic people, like other marginalized people, aren't human, is because this idea of the human, and "human society" (the systems of the human) are not built for them, and in fact are often built off extracting from them (extracting from the inhumane). And so unless I need wants to beg for liberal reforms, to get recuperated into the human, so you too can extract from the inhumane, I don't see any problem with this inhumanity. It is the human, specifically the systems built around it, that make inhumanity a problem. So we should not beg to become human, but attack the very notion of humanity.

You'd think someone who uses the term "feral" so much in a book review would've made this connection already.

I only just got the book today, but I was curious to see just what Zerzan did say on the topic of autism. His main interest in the short essay, "Not So Close Encounters: Distanced In the Age of Autism" is in using autism as a metaphor for what he sees as the alienating conditions of life in a modern technological society. What he says about autism as such is largely drawn from the works of several authors whom he quotes - Leo Kanner, Stuart Murray, Clara Clairborne Park, and Alexander Durig, as well as a study called "Researching the Autism Perspective".

To quote Zerzan:

The social world is fragmented, and there is indeed a worrying trend toward greater fragility and emotional instability. The most severe example is likely autism, for which the prevalence estimates have risen almost exponentially. If the capacity for empathy is a defining feature of human relationships, autistic individuals are more or less cut off from the human experience. Characteristically, they don't like to be touched. Autism literally means "self"-ism and is an inability to form affective, emotional contat with others, living in "a world in which they have been total strangers from the beginning." ...

There are just three more paragraphs of the piece that address autism directly, and I don't see any of them as particularly objectionable. My main criticism is that Zerzan seems to uncritically accept scientific labels for various manifestations of human behavior.

the problem may lie in thinking what the human being is supposed to be. Zerzan (and anarcho-primitivism generally) seems to seek what the human is meant for, and where it went wrong: a qualitative reduction. at the other end of the pole, transhumanists seem to seek how the human can break the boundaries of ephemerality (death) and unpredictability (chaos): a quantitative expansion.

maybe something like a qualitative expansion, through forming and experimenting with a variety of perspectives as to what the human can become (or unbecome), could open up pathways unforeseen and leave the dead ends of this polarity behind.

I'm not going to read Zerzan's book.

If that pull quote is correct Zerzan is implying that autistic people lack a capacity for empathy and that is very much not the case. Autistic people feel empathy we may just express it or communicate it differently. A good book on the basics is Steve Silberman's "Neurotribes"

It is also highly disputed that there is an increase in the number of people with autism. More likely, there is just more diagnosing. Basically, judging by the quote, JZ has no idea what autism actually is. And his apology on his show was not one.

over the past four decades, JZ has written essays on multiple subjects about which he knows only what he's read in the NYTimes and/or whatever single book was available at the Eugene public library. he's made controversial conclusions based on flimsy research and near-ignorance. his analysis of autism is no different than lots of other topics; the only difference is that now people with more personal interest/knowledge can call him on his bullshit via email

Yes, I have noticed this phenomenon. Cherry picking quotes to bolster an argument but not understanding the quote in its original context is my favorite (not) Zerzan move.

I oppose the whole nomenclature attached to Western psychological description and diagnosis and regard society as the condition and disease and not those who cannot function within its restrictive and imperative customs and requirements.
To me, autism does not exist.

You're on to something here. I believe neurodivergence is a thing*, and so in that light, it is beneficial to have some idea of differences in thought or in processing thought. But yeah, a functional world, we would just say "oh yes, that person is just different in that way," it wouldn't be seen as deficiency or a problem.

*but what do I know? I'm stuck in this society.

This sounds very similar to me the idea of the social construction of disability. I've always heard these arguments associated with anti-hunanism, but i think deaf people especially used to put forward these sorts of arguments, I cannot think of any texts I specifically know that hit at the heart of this topic though.

While this text doesn't really discuss the construction of the human ideal explicitly this is exactly the sort of text I had in mind. Thank you for sharing.

Years ago it may have been Foucault who described the post-enlightenment constructions of rational humanist institutions, and the transition from fuedalist to industrial metropolises and their obsession with functionality. Corporate state capitalist and communist managers defined social values and mentalities to a prioritized system of abilities and production rates and cataloged its own encyclopedia of worth and purpose upon the individual.

In the last anarchy radio show Zerzan accuses "anti-vaxxers" of spreading the virus across USA, going further to say they are killing people... What a shame Mr. Zerzan, you are spreading the same narrative as world governments and thepharma industry. So much writing against civilization and then not being able to see any corruption in the main narrative about the pandemic... Would you throw away civilization and keep the vaccines? Ted K. was right, you and the "primitivists" like you live full on empty, innocuous phantasies. Did you dare to check if there is even a scientific unanimity about the current covid vaccines? Or if there was during this pandemic an open horizontal and honest debate about all the measures and decisions concerning this virus? Of course there wasn't, and you even didn't realize that. Because otherwise you will know that current vacinnes do not block the transmission of the virus. They are not live attenuated virus vacinnes. Even common people knows that. Why writing so many books about the maladies of civilization if you not even grasp the basics?

You don't seem to know how vaccines work. :)

Please develop a bit more your affirmation. Hiding behind an empty accusation is not so brave.

That doesn't mean they should be the only solution however. I personally don't want to take it and this IS personal in that I suspect I was vaccine injured as a child/infant(being in the autistic risk groups). Having said that I'm not against them. There should however be a multi-factorial approach to something like Covid. Functional wellness strategies such as a vitamin and herbal antibiotic regimen would go along way in curbing the numbers. I take C B n D plus zinc and a multi-vitamin plus oil of oregano capsules. This to me as the best long term approach as you want to create multitudinal healthy terrains that make infections of various colds and flues less recurring. Anecdotally I haven't had a cold or flue all year starting at the mid point of July and I use to get them inside 6 months(2 or 3 a year).

I think vaccines work just as advertised but the science overlords need to be honest about the tradeoffs and stop making them single factor solutions and downright sacrosanct. Let functional medicine also be a key factor along with less working hours as well. There's the whole elaborated germ theory problem which assumes the existence of an immune system but I won't get into that. Peeps who've seen enough of my posts know my alternative position on why vaccines actually work(hint hint it's all about toxic commensalization)

I never said vacinnes in general do not work. The problem with all current covid vaccines is that they are effective in reducing desease, but not effective in preventing virus transmission. None of those current vaccines work for sterelizing immunity. This means that vacinated people also spread the virus (no only anti-vaxxers like Zerzan and Fauci say).

Appart from that, mass vacination during a pandemic, with non-live attenuated virus vacinnes was never done in history of humankind. So let's hope more virulant escape variants will not arise in the next month's, in response to the growing pressure of mass vacination with non sterelizing vacinnes during a pandemic.

That scientific consensus cuck and bluechurch breadtube bitch. I certainly don't think that vaccines cause what is essentially an epigenetic phenomena like autism but they MIGHT contribute to it by worsening an already preexisting condition. Funnily enough he doesn't touch the vaccine damage cases in the US which are a recurring problem that the US gov has to deal with in order to prevent the damn from breaking. He's have to deal with this story


Jon Poling's view are basically my own btw. I'm not anti-vax but it's time to cut down their sacred status and have proper informed consent on things like epigenetic risk factors.

Also the one thing that would settle this once an for all would be a definitive vaccinated non-vaccinated study.


you understand your link is just about a court case, right? not much to do with science. the beginning of the article even points this out?

But it's one court case among many that happen year after year where the US doles out vaccine damage cash. These niggas hold off apologies to historically fucked over groups over what are essentially litigation issues. These year on year recurrences at the very least warrant a major vaccine non-vaccine study. Also when there is clear scientific bias you need to look in other areas such as the court cases.

with most biases, one can carefully select sources to confirm, especially when working backwards from a conclusion!

The scientific blue church consensus types on the other hand have made them sacrosanct. Again, I'm not inherently against them nor do I think they actually cause autism in any single factorial sense but I am more then convinced there is a link to at least suggest that they co-factor. Once again the definitive thing that would settle this would be a vaccinated non-vaccinated study.

There are of course all kinds of examples of tertiary causation. Chiropractic neck manipulations for instance correlate with debilitations and death every so often and while I do think there is a link(sorry chiros) there are probably other factors as well. Hallucinatory drugs co-factoring with psychotic shocks would be another example. As Hamilton Morris would point out, the preconditions were already there. I don't see why vaccines would be any different in regards to greater epigenetic risk ESPECIALLY if you've looked into the latest data on gut-brain connection.

As I've said, do the fucking study and let's find out in regards to more or less neurological diseases.

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