Last Sunday I attended a talk and discussion with the well-known anarcho-primitivist theorist, John Zerzan, at the Cowley Club. The event had been much talked about before and was well attended. I was expecting an interesting debate as he has many fans in the anarchist scene but there are also others who are strongly critical of anarcho-primitivism.
I ended up sitting with John over lunch before the talk. I had the impression of a relaxed, friendly, open-minded and down to earth character. Much of the table conversation was taken up by an episode of a long-running debate between me and another Brighton anarcho character who like many others is strangely defensive of the absolute superiority of corporate medicine, in the patronising scoffing manner that often accompanies naive materialist beliefs. During this exchange, which was enthusiastic, John seemed to observe us with amused interest.
The first part of the talk was somewhat rambling. There didn't seem to be much of a theme to it. John didn't really get going until the questions started. I found it admirable that in general he did not give the impression of defending a stereotyped position, which allowed him to disarm some of the questioners who were doing that. Some points he answered with anthropological or political arguments; at other times he answered, "Yes, that's a good point," or just, "I don't know." However, after the talk I still had a similar feeling about anarcho-primitivism to before: that there is much strength in its critique, but that it is weaker as a positive theoretical position - indeed I sometimes feel that way about anarchism in general. In his essays and in this talk, John is very clear and quite plausible in tracing the roots of oppression and hierarchy to very early specialisation of labour, and crucially agriculture, but when expressing a positive position he tends to resort to slogans like, "Get rid of the lot."
I found it wryly amusing to observe people asking questions from their entrenched positions, especially the leftist ones and the anarcho-primitivists who were more attached to John's position than he was, and being effectively disarmed by his more open, questioning attitude. But there was some ambivalence about this, perhaps because of his need to maintain a political stance against the risk of degenerating from an activist to an intellectual: it seems inconsistent to express a flexible, exploratory position at one moment and then to define oneself as anarcho-primitivist, taking on the whole baggage of dogmas and sub-sub-cultural shibboleths. He seems to be caught between these two conflicting postures.
I was struck by the question of the value of taking up theoretical positions in general. What exactly does it mean to give one's assent to a particular theoretical proposition, especially when with these theoretical questions we are taking a certain critical perspective on discursive thought? To me, it's a bit like ticking an imaginary box in front of some sentence or other. From a certain perspective there is a self-contained circularity to discursive thought and the formation of theoretical positions, and some people do seem to get over-excited about it, as we saw at this event. Unfortunately in political activist culture there is a certain taboo around discussion - or, more importantly, around realisation - of mental faculties other than discursive thought, perhaps due to an assumed historical association of discursive thought with liberation from religious dogma. I suspect that the aggressive and surprising defence of corporate medicine I mentioned above is also in part connected with this questionable historical accident, and the equally questionable exclusive equation of corporate science with reason.
While I'm here, I might as well record something that struck me after that pre-lecture argument. Medical knowledge based on statistics (ignoring for now the essential corruption of the system that produces the knowledge) treats the body-mind relationship as a black box. What's going on inside the box is taboo. Subjectivity is regarded as meaningless. The variety of medicine that I practice, on the other hand, requires one to look inside the box. And what one finds inside the box is the truth of one's own subjective being. Facing one's own subjective reality may be a daunting experience - we see all our faults, our weakness and falsehood. It's not surprising that some people will go to almost any effort to avoid looking inside the box, even denying their own self-consciousness. Perseverance, however, yields a type of certainty which cannot be proved or disproved or explained intersubjectively but to which the piecemeal adolescent sneering of corporate statistical knowledge is pathetically illusory. There's no point in trying to argue about what's in the box with someone who refuses to look inside, but it does little harm to state my case here. The corporate medicine hardliners can sneer as much as they like.