Review of Zerzan's new book Why Hope?
Why Hope? The Stand Against Civilization
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.