Review of Zerzan's new book Why Hope?

  • Posted on: 14 October 2015
  • By: Anonymous (not verified)

Review from Uncivilized Animals.

Why Hope? The Stand Against Civilization
John Zerzan
Feral House, 2015, 136pp., $13.00
John Zerzan could be described as defiantly hopeful. In a time when a seed of nihilism has been germinating in the anarchist milieu, Zerzan has published a new book in which almost every essay has an element of hope. Whereas pessimism and despair are currently fashionable postures, Zerzan’s more optimistic perspective is both refreshing and vitally important.
The first and largest section of the book is titled Origins–a topic central to Zerzan’s larger body of work and critical to his general methodology. In the book’s opening essay, titled “In the Beginning”, Zerzan writes that:

“Without interest in [Origin], without a conception of what is involved, there is less of a sense of possible arrival. Origin can liberate the future insofar as it retrieves our relation to what has come before.” (3)

That is to say, that to seek out, uncover, and examine our origins–both the origins of our species and the origins of our oppressive, crippling civilization–provides grounds for hope. And not merely naive wishful thinking but hope solidly grounded in the knowledge that our current situation is a gross aberration and not representative of the wide swathe of human experience. We within civilization have effectively been denied the human experience in the same way that animals confined in a zoo are denied a genuine experience.
It should be noted that while anarcho-primitivists may frequently be accused of being unrealistic, they are somewhat unique in not seeking a heretofore unknown utopia but instead aim at what statistically may be called normal human life. Likewise, anarcho-primitivists are accused of wanting to turn back time but the hope in Zerzan’s book is definitively forward-looking with an eye toward future possibilities for resistance. Seeking a return to health when “dis-ease is the fact of modern life” (128) should not be construed as a nostalgic attempt to turn back time simply because it would constitute a return to a more desirable condition.
Yet, for many, to inquire into origins is taboo but the inquiry allows Zerzan to confidently and credibly make statements such as:

“civilization is failing on every level, in every sphere, and its failure equates so largely with the failure of technology” (94)
“the global system now shows itself to be failing at every level, shows itself to have no answers at all” (134)

It is declarations of this sort that provide ample grounds for hope or perhaps where his hope is most clearly on display. In an essay titled “Arrivederci Roma: The Crisis of Late Antiquity” Zerzan explains that “a climate of futility and decay could not be dispelled by government” and that “a sense of decline had long been underway, along with a lurking fearfulness” (46). Fast forward to the present and flip ahead to Zerzan’s “What Does it Mean to be Healthy?” and it is noted that the current empire suffers in similar ways as “passivity and a sense of doom have settled on modern industrial society” (128). While Rome was in “just one more civilization that came and went” (54) it provides insight as to why the now global civilization is ailing and how it might be vulnerable to attack. It is threads such as this that knit together Zerzan’s wide-ranging collection of essays into a whole.
Amongst my personal favorites in Why Hope? are the essays “Faster! The Age of Acceleration” and “Animal Dreams”. “Faster!” accurately describes the lived, nightmarish experience of finding oneself in an ever-accelerating civilization where “[t]ime cracks the whip and mocks everything that doesn’t keep up” (89); where “the always faster colonization of life by technology commands an ever-fluctuating environment in which the self is destabilized” (90). Works such as this one are important because it validates the anxiety and discomfort that many of us routinely feel, bringing it to the forefront, and explaining where it comes from. It asserts that life doesn’t have to be like this and, in fact, hasn’t always been like this. “Animal Dreams” provides a path out explaining, in one of the book’s most memorable lines, that “We are lost, but other animals point to the right road. They are the right road.” (106). Animals who come into contact and under control of the civilized are subject to cracking whips but those who have resisted domestication do not know the lash.
Hope is necessarily entwined with meaningful, effective resistance for it makes possibilities visible that pessimism and despair obscure and deny. Hope keeps us looking for ripe moments, feeling for points of vulnerability, and ready to exploit any cracks in the armor. Civilization aims to project an image of invulnerability; those who oppose civilization should not be so credulous as to believe it.



> an ever-fluctuating environment in which the self is destabilized

Sounds awesome.

"The idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a puerile idea [...] For the coexistence, in certain minds, of a philosophy of negation and a positive morality illustrates, in fact, the great problem that is painfully disturbing the whole epoch [...] it is essential for us to know whether man, without the help either of the eternal or of rationalistic thought, can unaided create his own values."
-Albert Camus (undoubtedly a fashionable fellow)

To answer: yes.

Relations are all there are. We are already the world, and agents of transformation.

At what point can pessimism become its own chastity belt like hope?

I say that not necessarily from the point of view that anarchists do this, but people i regularly converse with that admit---without saying it---that their pessimistic lense maintains that the only possibility is this system of hieararchy currently. As if this belief system were both inevitable and concrete. That's all there was, and will be, and can be. And that there was never anything else.

It, too, can be moralism. Shrugging our shoulders. "Well, humans are just evil." That view is still an anthrocentric delusion.

Taking that type of pessimism I currently see most around me I always flash in my mind back to if it were applied to german concentration camps. "Well, there's nothing we can do." And yet, just as their construction was possible, so too was their abandonment. Imagine if sabate, or faceras (who, if i correctly recall single handedly escaped from a concentration camp only to turn around and begin armed sabotage of them), the jewish guerrilas in the lithuanian/latvian forests, those that sabotaged trains in belgium, the la maquis this mental chastity belt attitude of futility.

Anarchy endures. Kafkaesque nightmares are passing, humorous or not.

Nice work on the Brilliant, B. Up the nondualism!

Yes, also Barabbas. It is not ironic that the people chose him over jesus, they were peasants who were slaves to a priesthood who saw jesus as a threat to their hierarchical wealth and rule. To always look on the bright side of life has its merits, also humorous cynicism. That's what a well-balanced non-ideological existence offers if folk wish to escape the inverted pessimistic universe of hopefulness. We can hope for rain if it is dry, or hope for a hot meal after exposure to the blizzard, but to hope for an ideology to organize a better future is naive.

Both can solidify as ideologies. Which is why obsessions over one emotion/mode offer me nothing.

I've seen friends drink themselves, and shoot up, as if they were fueling and gunning for a constant hopelessness, to maintain a persistent idea of helplessness.

Another friend currently is in an emotionally abusive relationship. He's the sweetest, friendliest person i've ever met. Would give you the shirt off his back. Obviously his downfall with this particular partner. But, he sees no way out. He's used hopelessness to rationalize that he can't leave this relationship like all of the others he found undesireable.

Yes you can leave. Yes you can put the bottle down and clear your fucking head.

So, you can't tell me people don't impose what i'd consider puritanical restrictions/barriers on themselves as they rationalize hopelessness and much as people do with hope.

Also, why are we isolating this one word Zerzan used, and picking at it with little context? I don't think that word is the broader message, as indicated by this review. There are clearly cracks in the mechanical operations of this system of human control.

If a person in their 70's needs a little hope to roll out of bed in the morning, how dare they?

Seems the moral condemnation of his use of hope on a few occasions is projecting more of an ideology onto his writing than I'm sure he'd care for. And if you think i'm playing devil's advocate (as a nondualist not always supportive of his views), fine. If you listen to his radio show, this person is clearly not an evangelist for hope and optimism in any religious sense.

Not An evangelist heh? You are a sinner if you use a car.

Please explain?

One doesn't need christian iconography to describe altering the web of relations we're a part of and their non-local and localized implications.

I do not smoke tobacco products, yet must breathe the air of those that do.

How about he's the pagan high priest of the Church of Neanderthal Revisionists and his sacrifice is of all those people in underdeveloped countries who make up the bulk of those who would die if he had his incantations answered. You know, those who have no choice in the utilities, medicines and diets they require to live a bare existence huh?

"underdeveloped countries"? You don't think that continued development (colonizing through imperial states or the market) isn't what is impoverishing and killing people there now? How does returning to/rediscovering a saner, greener, scaled down world get turned into the bogeyman of a mass die off? Actually there are people all over our planet who are consciously refusing your first world utilities and medicines and diets-precisely because they are harmful!

No its not only just the capitalists impoverishing the people there, its the humanists and overpopulation, as well as their own people. The San are the only legitimate sovereign people of S Africa, and the northern indigenous tribes. All the other peoples are participants in the hegemonic capitalist way of life, its not like they are being pushed into the utilities, medicines and diet, they have no choice, and they expect to enjoy the luxuries and longevity taken for granted in the West.

Who are you Gunter with your racism against San peoples who you more or less are painting in your various comments as Reagan-esque welfare queens? Is this Michael Schmidt or just one of his SA national anarchist white buddies?

I still assert that the original comment is accurate. It is the nation-state and capitalism that are primarily the root cause of the poverty and strife in pretty well everywhere. Overpopulation is a result of capitalist civilization or even civilization generally. The liberal humanism is a result of colonial invasions, both past and continuing through NGOs and similar organizations.

And what does this sentence of yours even mean? : " its not like they are being pushed into the utilities, medicines and diet, they have no choice". You contradict yourself here. Are they willing participants or not?

Who are these people all over the planet who are consciously refusing utilities, medicines and food from the westerners, tell me, who?

I think anon is referring to the 2 or 3,000 pagan followers of The Church of Neanderthal Revisionists and their high priest John Zerzan me thinks ;)

That's an excellent way to put it, since they aren't actually in any real solidarity with actual primitive peoples.

Also, I'm burnt out on the constant redefinition of what is "primitive", when it isn't an esoteric word. I believe John Zerzan made this point to other people about the meanings of "wild" and "domestication", so why does "primitive" receive the same kind of treatment Zerzan refutes others for doing?

Instead, primitive should just mean what the Oxford Dictionary claims "1.a person belonging to a preliterate, nonindustrial society or culture." and an anarcho-primitivist is merely someone who rejects progress, modernity and industrialism as failures. The definition of "civilization" should also be challenged. Zerzanian primitivism needs to be shaken with a more critical take as to end the constant splintering of serious theory by the new theorists of green anarchy. Zerzanian primitivism is a deadend which proposes nothing and confuses (pre-)historical information as a new enlightenment more than it offers anything practical.

Precisely, the Zerzian terminology deflects and confuses genuine modern green anarchists, who I have great admiration for, and who I try to emulate in my daily reduction in the consumption of modern goods. I think they accommodate meat eaters and omnivorous types also, meat in moderation of course, not the Western B-B-Q glutinous feeding frenzy, but the more subdued morsel of chicken on a fondue fork or stick.

PS. Its the usual Manichean fare dished out at these wilding get-togethers, dancing in circles under a full moon chanting Utopian catch phrases. But you can't eat meat or use a solar torch for chrissakes, but you can arrive in a car if you pay the attendant at the gate. Why don't they just get out there with a bow and arrow or a gun and provide free food for everyone. That's the Neanderthal thing to do. The are heretics to the true Neanderthal shamanic tradition! Sooo retarded!

Not that there's anything wrong with larping. I wonder how many of these kids can kill, skin and cook a rabbit. Teddy K could at least do these things.

Plenty of them. I've eaten with them many times. Delicious!

Meat eating on the food chain will be making a comeback soon enough regardless.

Many of them would flinch and have a major emotional breakdown if required to kill their own meat, yet they would frivolously gorge themselves at McDonalds of calf offal and obsolete cow udders.

I get your 'underdeveloped' comment now. I wondered why someone on an anarchist site would use such pro-capitalist ( and not to be inflammatory, but a term generally considered racist ) language. I thought i remembered reading your comments elsewhere-ah yes-the general philosophy forum! here we go from Le Way: " The only things tangible that can be salvaged out of the past are... those works of art ...which reveal the stagnation of modern art today, its commodification. The liberating creations may have been relegated to museums...but to the creator, they are a seed of prophesy which will have relevance in the future, they will discard any cultural straight-jacket and emerge out of the museums which progressive authoritarians have imprisoned them, out of fear, that their message may pierce the fog of the masses obsession with commodities and gimmicks." Ahhh, the Great male Europeans ( you only list such people) come to pierce the fog of the masses!! And yet what is the intent of "development" but a world of commodities and gimmicks! Would I be wrong to assume that you are the type that wants to go teach Shakespeare in the villages of 'underdeveloped' countries. (Never realizing that you have more to learn from those villagers than you have to teach them.)

I once pondered upon the idea of translating Shakespeare into the San language, but the bam boom of the immortal bard is impossible to translate into the clik-clok San nomenclature, sigh.

At a recent (2013) Indigenous People's Conference in Norway, representatives from a wide number of indigenous populations, which by the way taken together total some 370 million people ( not your fratboyish dismissal of a couple of thousand anarcho-green nutcases), agreed on the following recommendations: " that States... immediately affirm the protection of sacred places, sites and cultural landscapes, including lands taken without the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples; cease the removal of Indigenous Peoples from their ancestral lands and territories; uphold the right of self determination of Indigenous Peoples to refuse mining, resource extraction, and ‘development’; and act against climate change and the continued use of fossil fuels." In the Canadian province where i live there are several blockades right now by various bands and first nations trying to prevent development within their traditional lands. The same sort of thing is occurring in many different countries.

If you are honestly interested in whether or not a widespread rejection of "western medicine" there are tons of resources outside of primitivist circles to support the claim. For a basic understanding from the professional class of the difference between the medicine of 'developed countries' compared to that of the rest of the world you could start by reading something like: Embracing Indigenous Knowledge in Science and Medical Teaching by Mariana G Hewson.

By the way, statistically 50% of the worlds population relies on traditional medicine, with a large percentage of those people suspicious of or outright antagonistic to, western medicine.

I'm still waiting for an answer re: who are these people rejecting utilities, medicines and food from the West? I would like to know more relevant statistics pertaining to my accusation, such as, if there ARE 50% of the world's population rejecting Western medicine, WHAT is the infant fatality rate amongst them, and don't through in the malaria fallacy, that Western medicine and services do not alleviate or assist in reducing the deaths by malaria?

I am still waiting for you to explain your use of underdeveloped as your descriptive term for colonized, exploited or consciously excluded countries because this outlook would make you pro-capitalist.

You were just given an actual example of a recent conference of indigenous people, who make up 370 million people, asking specifically for support from the UN to help them stop development and resource extraction on their territories. That is clearly "people all over the planet".

I am not going to go through a list item by item of what areas Western medicine might be helping people in impoverished countries or not because that isn't what we are debating. I didn't say that 50% rejected Western medicine, just that 50% don't use it. I don't know how many of them are hostile to it but people like the medical educationist I mentioned above indicate that it is pretty widespread in many areas.

Typically these countries don't need more western capitalist investments (development) or even liberal interventions through NGOs. In terms of Indigenous people, they generally need to be respected for the traditional knowledge they have to offer the rest of the world, to be supported in their quest for more autonomy and to be supported in their reclamation of lands stolen from them by colonial empires.

Who are you Gunter with your racism against San peoples who you more or less are painting in your various comments as Reagan-esque welfare queens? Is this Michael Schmidt or just one of his SA national anarchist white buddies?

...'people in underdeveloped countries' are you in communication with?

All the ones that I know are fairly primitivist leaning, and would be a LOT better off during and after the collapse of industrial civilisation than anyone I've ever met in 'the West'.

NO ONE needs utilities, medicines, or special diets to live, period.

To argue otherwise is absolutely ridiculous.

Plus, you know, no one needs to die:

Without hope nihilism reigns. No thanks. One cannot learn or know what is possible or what is not until an effort is made. If all anarchist projects and actions are perceived as being futile from the beginning, then why bother? Again, no thanks.

why bother? :for fun, for the fucking hell of it. why not?
nihilist destruction opens infinite possibilities.

After engaging in the joys of destruction, then what? I would like to know what specific possibilities you are talking about.

i'm talking about all of your wildest dreams

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