Failure of Symbolic Thought
(Bold type has been added by this website.)
we do not 'come
to our senses' soon, we will have permanently forfeited
the chance of constructing any meaningful alternatives
to the pseudo-existence which passes for life in our current
"Civilisation of the Image". -
To what degree can it be said that we are really living
? As the substance
of culture seems to shrivel and offer less balm to troubled
lives, we are led to look more deeply at our barren times.
And to the place of culture itself in all this.
An anguished Ted Sloan asks (1996), "What is the
problem with modernity ?
Why do modern societies have such a hard time producing
adults capable of intimacy, work, enjoyment, and ethical
living ? Why is it
that signs of damaged life are so prevalent ?" According
to David Morris (l994), "Chronic pain and depression,
often linked and occasionally even regarded as a single
disorder, constitute an immense crisis at the centre of
postmodern life." We have cyberspace and virtual reality,
instant computerised communication in the global village;
and yet have we ever felt so impoverished and isolated
Just as Freud predicted that the fullness of civilisation
would mean universal neurotic unhappiness, anti-civilisation
currents are growing in response to the psychic immiseration
that envelops us. Thus symbolic life, essence of civilisation,
now comes under fire.
It may still be said that this most familiar, if artificial,
element is the least understood, but felt necessity drives
critique, and many of us feel driven to get to the bottom
of a steadily worsening mode of existence. Out of a sense
of being trapped and limited by symbols comes the thesis
that the extent to which thought and emotion are tied
to symbolism is the measure by which absence fills the
inner world and destroys the outer world.
We seem to have experienced a fall into representation,
whose depths and consequences are only now being fully
plumbed. In a fundamental sort of falsification, symbols
at first mediated reality and then replaced it. At present
we live within symbols to a greater degree than we do
within our bodily selves or directly with each other.
The more involved this internal representational system
is, the more distanced we are from the reality around
us. Other connections, other cognitive perspectives are
inhibited, to say the least, as symbolic communication
and its myriad representational devices have accomplished
an alienation from and betrayal of reality.
This coming between and concomitant distortion and distancing
is ideological in a primary and original sense; every
subsequent ideology is an echo of this one. Debord depicted
contemporary society as exerting a ban on living in favour
of its representation: images now in the saddle, riding
life. But this is anything but a new problem. There is
an imperialism or expansionism of culture from the beginning.
And how much does it conquer ? Philosophy
today says that it is language that thinks and talks.
But how much has this always been the case ? Symbolising
is linear, successive, substitutive; it cannot be open
to its whole object simultaneously. Its instrumental reason
is just that: manipulative and seeking dominance. Its
approach is "let a stand for b" instead of "let
a be b." Language has its basis in the effort to conceptualise
and equalise the unequal, thus bypassing the essence and
diversity of a varied, variable richness.
Symbolism is an extensive and profound empire, which reflects
and makes coherent a world view, and is itself a world
view based upon withdrawal from immediate and intelligible
James Shreeve, at the end of his Neanderthal Enigma
(l995), provides a beautiful illustration of an alternative
to symbolic being. Meditating upon what an earlier, non-symbolic
consciousness might have been like, he calls forth important
distinctions and possibilities:
"...where the modern's gods might inhabit the
land, the buffalo, or the blade of grass, the Neanderthal's
spirit was the animal or the grass blade, the thing and
its soul perceived as a single vital force, with no need
to distinguish them with separate names. Similarly, the
absence of artistic expression does not preclude the apprehension
of what is artful about the world. Neanderthals did not
paint their caves with the images of animals. But perhaps
they had no need to distill life into representations,
because its essences were already revealed to their senses.
The sight of a running herd was enough to inspire a surging
sense of beauty. They had no drums or bone flutes, but
they could listen to the booming rhythms of the wind,
the earth, and each other's heartbeats, and be transported."
Rather than celebrate the cognitive communion with the
world that Shreeve suggests we once enjoyed, much less
embark on the project of seeking to recover it, the use
of symbols is of course widely considered the hallmark
of human cognition. Goethe said, "Everything is a symbol,"
as industrial capitalism, milestone of mediation and alienation,
took off. At about the same time Kant decided that the
key to philosophy lies in the answer to the question,
"What is the ground of the relation of that in us which
we call 'representation' to the object ?"
Unfortunately, he divined for modern thought an ahistorical
and fundamentally inadequate answer, namely that we are
simply not constituted so as to be able to understand
reality directly. Two centuries later (1981), Emmanuel
Levinas came much closer to the mark with "Philosophy,
in its very diachrony, is the consciousness of the break-up
Eli Sagan (1985) spoke for countless others in
declaring that the need to symbolise and live in a symbolic
world is, like aggression, a human need so basic that
"it can be denied only at the cost of severe psychic disorder."
The need for symbols - and violence - did not always obtain,
however. Rather, they have their origins in the thwarting
and fragmenting of an earlier wholeness, in the process
of domestication from which civilisation issued. Apparently
driven forward by a gradually quickening growth in the
division of labor that began to take hold in the Upper
Paleolithic, culture emerged as time, language, art, number,
and then agriculture.
The word culture derives from the Latin cultura,
referring to cultivation of the soil; that is, to the
domestication of plants and animals - and of ourselves
in the bargain. A restless spirit of innovation and anxiety
has largely been with us ever since, as continually changing
symbolic modes seek to fix what cannot be redressed without
rejecting the symbolic and its estranged world.
Following Durkheim, Leslie White (1949) wrote,
"Human behaviour is symbolic behaviour; symbolic behavior
is human behavior. The symbol is the universe of humanity."
It is past time to see such pronouncements as ideology,
serving to shore up the elemental falsification underneath
a virtually all-encompassing false consciousness. But
if a fully developed symbolic world is not, in Northrop
Frye's bald claim (1981), in sum "the charter of
our freedom," anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1965)
comes closer to the truth in saying that we are generally
dependent on "the guidance provided by systems of significant
symbols." Closer yet is Cohen (1974), who observed
that "symbols are essential for the development and maintenance
of social order." The ensemble of symbols represents the
social order and the individual's place in it, a formulation
that always leaves the genesis of this arrangement unquestioned.
How did our behaviour come to be aligned by symbolisation
Culture arose and flourished via domination of nature,
its growth a measure of that progressive mastery that
unfolded with ever greater division of labor. Malinowski
(1962) understood symbolism as the soul of civilisation,
chiefly in the form of language as a means of co-ordinating
action or of standardising technique, and providing rules
for social, ritual, and industrial behavior.
It is our fall from a simplicity and fullness of life
directly experienced, from the sensuous moment of knowing,
which leaves a gap that the symbolic can never bridge.
This is what is always being covered over by layers of
cultural consolations, civilised detouring that never
recovers lost wholeness. In a very deep sense, only what
is repressed is symbolised, because only what is repressed
needs to be symbolised. The magnitude of symbolisation
testifies to how much has been repressed; buried, but
possibly still recoverable.
Imperceptibly for a long while, most likely, division
of labour very slowly advanced and eventually began to
erode the autonomy of the individual and a face-to-face
mode of social existence. The virus destined to become
full-blown as civilisation began in this way: a tentative
thesis supported by all that victimises us now. From initial
alienation to advanced civilisation, the course is marked
by more and more reification, dependence, bureaucratization,
spiritual desolation, and barren technicization.
Little wonder that the question of the origin of symbolic
thought, the very air of civilisation, arises with some
force. Why culture should exist in the first place appears,
increasingly, a more apt way to put it. Especially given
the enormous antiquity of human intelligence now established,
chiefly from Thomas Wynn's persuasive demonstration (1989)
of what it took to fashion the stone tools of about a
million years ago. There was a very evident gap between
established human capability and the initiation of symbolic
culture, with many thousands of generations intervening
between the two.
Culture is a fairly recent affair. The oldest cave art,
for example, is in the neighborhood of 30,000 years old,
and agriculture only got underway about 10,000 years ago.
The missing element during the vast interval between the
time when I.Q. was available to enable symbolising, and
its realisation, was a shift in our relationship to nature.
It seems plausible to see in this interval, on some level
that we will perhaps never fathom, a refusal to strive
for mastery of nature. It may be that only when this striving
for mastery was introduced, probably non-consciously,
via a very gradual division of labor, did the symbolising
of experiences begin to take hold.
But, it is so often argued, the violence of primitives
- human sacrifice, cannibalism, head-hunting, slavery,
etc. — can only be tamed by symbolic culture/civilisation.
The simple answer to this stereotype of the primitive
is that organised violence was not ended by culture, but
in fact commenced with it. William J. Perry (1927)
studied various New World peoples and noted a striking
contrast between an agricultural group and a nondomesticated
group. He found the latter "greatly inferior in culture,
but lacking [the former's] hideous customs." While virtually
every society that adopted a domesticated relationship
to nature, all over the globe, became subject to violent
practices, the non-agricultural knew no organised violence.
Anthropologists have long focused on the Northwest Coast
Indians as a rare exception to this rule of thumb. Although
essentially a fishing people, at a certain point they
took slaves and established a very hierarchical society.
Even here, however, domestication was present, in the
form of tame dogs and tobacco as a minor crop.
We succumb to objectification and let a web of culture
control us and tell us how to live, as if this were a
natural development. It is anything but that, and we should
be clear about what culture/civilisation has in fact given
us, and what it has taken away.
The philosopher Richard Rorty (1979) described
culture as the assemblage of claims to knowledge. In the
realm of symbolic being the senses are depreciated, because
of their systematic separation and atrophy under civilisation.
The sensual is not considered a legitimate source of claims
We humans once allowed a full and appreciative reception
to the total sensory input, what is called in German umwelt,
or the world around us. Heinz Werner (1940, 1963)
argued that originally a single sense obtained, before
divisions in society ruptured sensory unity. Surviving
non-agricultural peoples often exhibit, in the interplay
and interpenetration of the senses, a very much greater
sensory awareness and involvement than do domesticated
individuals (E. Carpenter 1980). Striking examples
abound, such as the Bushmen, who can see four moons of
Jupiter with the unaided eye and can hear a single-engine
light plane seventy miles away (Farb 1978).
Symbolic culture inhibits human communication by blocking
and otherwise suppressing channels of sensory awareness.
An increasingly technological existence compels us to
tune out most of what we could experience. The William
Blake declaration comes to mind:
"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything
would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed
himself up, 'till he sees all things through narrow chinks
of his cavern."
Laurens van der Post (1958) described telepathic
communication among the !Kung in Africa, prompting Richard
Coan (1987) to characterise such modes as "representing
an alternative, rather than a prelude to the kind of civilisation
in which we live."
In 1623 William Drummond wrote, "What sweet contentments
doth the soul enjoy by the senses. They are the gates
and windows of its knowledge, the organs of its delight."
In fact, the "I," if not the "soul," doesn't exist in
the absence of bodily sensations; there are no non-sensory
conscious states. But it is all too evident how our senses
have been domesticated in a symbolic cultural atmosphere:
tamed, separated, arranged in a revealing hierarchy. Vision,
under the sign of modern linear perspective, reigns because
it is the least proximal, most distancing of the senses.
It has been the means by which the individual has been
transformed into a spectator, the world into a spectacle,
and the body an object or specimen. The primacy of the
visual is no accident, for an undue elevation of sight
not only situates the viewer outside what he or she sees,
but enables the principle of control or domination at
base. Sound or hearing as the acme of the senses would
be much less adequate to domestication because it surrounds
and penetrates the speaker as well as the listener.
Other sensual faculties are discounted far more. Smell,
which loses its importance only when suppressed by culture,
was once a vital means of connection with the world. The
literature on cognition almost completely ignores the
sense of smell, just as its rôle is now so circumscribed
among humans. It is, after all, of little use for purposes
of domination; considering how smell can so directly trigger
even very distant memories, perhaps it is even a kind
of anti-domination faculty. Lewis Thomas (1983)
remarked that "The act of smelling something, anything,
is remarkably like the act of thinking itself." And if
it isn't it very likely used to be and should be again.
Tactile experiences or practices are another sensual area
we have been expected to relinquish in favor of compensatory
symbolic substitutes. The sense of touch has indeed been
diminished in a synthetic, work-occupied, long-distance
existence. There is little time for or emphasis on tactile
stimulation or communication, even though such deprivation
causes clearly negative outcomes. Nuances of sensitivity
and tenderness become lost, and it is well known that
infants and children who are seldom touched, carried and
caressed are slow to develop and are often emotionally
Touching by definition involves feeling; to be "touched"
is to feel emotionally moved, a reminder of the earlier
potency of the tactile sense, as in the expression "keep
in touch." The lessening of this category of sensuousness,
among the rest, has had momentous consequences. Its renewal,
in a re-sensitised, reunited world, will bring a likewise
momentous improvement in living. As Tommy cried out, in
The Who's rock opera of the same name, "See me,
feel me, touch me, heal me...."
As with animals and plants, the land, the rivers, and
human emotions, the senses come to be isolated and subdued.
Aristotle's notion of a "proper" plan of the universe
dictated that "each sense has its proper sphere."
Freud, Marcuse and others saw that civilisation demands
the sublimation or repression of the pleasures of the
proximity senses so that the individual can be thus converted
to an instrument of labor. Social control, via the network
of the symbolic, very deliberately disempowers the body.
An alienated counter-world, driven on to greater estrangement
by ever-greater division of labor, humbles one's own somatic
sensations and fundamentally distracts from the basic
rhythms of one's life.
The definitive mind-body split, ascribed to Descartes'
17th century formulations, is the very hallmark of modern
society. What has been referred to as the great "Cartesian
anxiety" over the spectre of intellectual and moral chaos,
was resolved in favour of suppression of the sensual and
passionate dimension of human existence. Again we see
the domesticating urge underlying culture, the fear of
not being in control, now indicting the senses with a
vengeance. Henceforth science and technology have a theoretic
licence to proceed without limits, sensual knowledge having
been effectively eradicated in terms of claims to truth
Seeing what this bargain has wrought, a deep-seated reaction
is dawning against the vast symbolic enterprise that weighs
us down and invades every part of us. "If we do not 'come
to our senses' soon," as David Howes (1991)
judged, "we will have permanently forfeited the chance
of constructing any meaningful alternatives to the pseudo-existence
which passes for life in our current 'Civilisation of
the Image."' The task of critique may be, most centrally,
to help us see what it will take to reach a place in which
we are truly present to each other and to the world.
The first separation seems to have been the sense of time
which brings a loss of being present to ourselves. The
growth of this sense is all but indistinguishable from
that of alienation itself. If, as Levi-Strauss put it,
"the characteristic feature of the savage mind is its
timelessness," living in the here and now becomes lost
through the mediation of cultural interventions. Presentness
is deferred by the symbolic, and this refusal of the contingent
instant is the birth of time. We fall under the spell
of what Eliade called the "terror of history" as representations
effectively oppose the pull of immediate perceptual experience.
Mircéa Eliade's Myth of the Eternal Return
(1954) stresses the fear that all primitive societies
have had of history, the passing of time. On the other
hand, voices of civilisation have tried to celebrate our
immersion in this most basic cultural construct. Leroi-Gourhan
(1964), for instance, saw in time orientation "perhaps
the human act par excellence." Our perceptions have become
so time-governed and time saturated that it is hard to
imagine time's general absence: for the same reasons it
is so difficult to see, at this point, a non-alienated,
non-symbolic, undivided social existence.
History, according to Peterson and Goodall (1993),
is marked by an amnesia about where we came from. Their
stimulating Visions of Caliban also pointed out that our
great forgetting may well have begun with language, the
originating device of the symbolic world. Comparative
linguist Mary LeCron Foster (1978, 1980) believes
that language is perhaps less than 50,000 years old and
arose with the first impulses toward art, ritual and social
differentiation. Verbal symbolizing is the principal means
of establishing, defining, and maintaining the cultural
world and of structuring our very thinking.
As Hegel said somewhere, to question language is to
question being. It is very important, however, to
resist such overstatements and see the distinction, for
one thing, between the cultural importance of language
and its inherent limitations. To hold that we and the
world are but linguistic creations is just another way
of saying how pervasive and controlling is symbolic culture.
But Hegel's claim goes much too far, and George Herbert
Mead's assertion (1934) that to have a mind one
must have a language is similarly hyperbolic and false.
Language transforms meaning and commumcation but is not
synonymous with them. Thought, as Vendler (1967)
understood, is essentially independent of language. Studies
of patients and others lacking all aspects of speech and
language demonstrate that the intellect remains powerful
even in the absence of those elements (Lecours and
Joanette 1980; Donald 1991). The claim that language
greatly facilitates thought is likewise questionable,
inasmuch as formal experiments with children and adults
have not demonstrated it (G. Cohen 1977). Language
is clearly not a necessary condition for thinking (see
Kertesz 1988, Jansons 1988).
Verbal communication is part of the movement away from
a face-to-face social reality, making feasible physical
separateness. The word always stands between people who
wish to connect with each other, facilitating the diminution
of what need not be spoken to be said. That we have declined
from a non-linguistic state begins to appear a sane point
of view. This intuition may lie behind George W. Morgan's
1968 judgment that "Nothing, indeed, is more subject to
depreciation and suspicion in our disenchanted world than
Communication outside civilisation involved all the senses,
a condition linked to the key gatherer-hunter traits of
openness and sharing. Literacy ushered us into the society
of divided and reduced senses, and we take this sensory
deprivation for granted as if it were a natural state,
just as we take literacy for granted.
Culture and technology exist because of language. Many
have seen speech, in turn. as a means of coordinating
labor, that is, as an essential part of the technique
of production. Language is critical for the formation
of the rules of work and exchange accompanying division
of labor, with the specializations and standardizations
of nascent economy paralleling those of language. Now
guided by symbolization, a new kind of thinking takes
over, which realises itself in culture and technology.
The interdependence of language and technology is at least
as obvious as that of language and culture, and results
in an accelerating mastery over the natural world intrinsically
similar to the control introduced over the once autonomous
and sensuous individual.
Noam Chomsky, chief language theorist, commits a grave
and reactionary error by portraying language as a "natural"
aspect of "essential human nature," innate and independent
of culture (1966b, 1992). His Cartesian perspective
sees the mind as an abstract machine which is simply destined
to turn out strings of symbols and manipulate them. Concepts
like origins or alienation have no place in this barren
techno-schema. Lieberman (1975) provides a concise
and fundamental correction: "Human language could have
evolved only in relation to the total human condition."
The original sense of the word define is, from Latin,
to limit or bring to an end. Language seems often to close
an experience, not to help ourselves be open to experience.
When we dream, what happens is not expressed in words,
just as those in love communicate most deeply without
verbal symbolizing. What has been advanced by language
that has really advanced the human spirit ?
In 1976, von Glasersfeld wondered "whether, at some future
time, it will still seem so obvious that language has
enhanced the survival of life on this planet."
Numerical symbolism is also of fundamental importance
to the development of a cultural world. In many primitive
societies it was and is considered unlucky to count living
creatures, an anti-reification attitude related to the
common primitive notion that to name another is to gain
power over that person. Counting, like naming, is part
of the domestication process. Division of labor lends
itself to the quantifiable, as opposed to what is whole
in itself, unique, not fragmented. Number is also necessary
for the abstraction inherent in the exchange of commodities
and is pre-requisite to the take-off of science and technology.
The urge to measure involves a deformed kind of knowledge
that seeks control of its object, not understanding.
The sentiment that "the only way we truly apprehend things
is through art" is a commonplace opinion, one which underlines
our dependence on symbols and representation. "The fact
that originally all art was 'sacred"' (Eliade, 1985),
that is, belonging to a separate sphere, testifies to
its original status or function.
Art is among the earliest forms of ideological and ritual
expressiveness, developed along with religious observances
designed to hold together a communal life that was beginning
to fragment. It was a key means of facilitating social
integration and economic differentiation (Dickson,
1990), probably by encoding information to register
membership, status, and position (Lumsden and Wilson
1983). Prior to this time, somewhere during the Upper
Paleolithic, devices for social cohesion were unnecessary;
division of labor, separate roles, and territoriality
seem to have been largely non-existent. As tensions and
anxieties started to emerge in social life, art and the
rest of culture arose with them in answer to their disturbing
Art, like religion, arose from the original sense of disquiet,
no doubt subtly but powerfully disturbing in its newness
and its encroaching gradualness. In 1900 Hirn wrote of
an early dissatisfaction that motivated the artistic search
for a "fuller and deeper expression" as "compensation
for new deficiencies of life." Cultural solutions, however,
do not address the deeper dislocations that cultural "solutions"
are themselves part of. Conversely, as commentators as
diverse as Henry Miller and Theodor
Adorno have concluded, there would be no need of art
in a disalienated world. What art has ineffectively striven
to capture and express would once again be a reality,
the false antidote of culture forgotten.
Art is a language and so, evidently, is ritual, among
the earliest cultural and symbolic institutions. Julia
Kristeva (1989) commented on "the close relation
of grammar to ritual," and Frits Staal's studies of Vedic
ritual (1982,1986,1988) demonstrated to him that
syntax can completely explain the form and meaning of
ritual. As Chris Knight (1996) noted, speech and
ritual are "interdependent aspects of one and the same
Essential for the breakthrough of the cultural in human
affairs, ritual is not only a means of aligning or prescribing
emotions; it is also a formalization that is intimately
linked with hierarchies and formal rule over individuals.
All known tribal societies and early civilisations had
hierarchical organizations built on or bound up with a
ritual structure and matching conceptual system.
Examples of the link between ritual and inequality, developing
even prior to agriculture, are widespread (Gans 1985,
Conkey 1984). Rites serve a safety valve function
for the discharge of tensions generated by emerging divisions
in society and work to create and maintain social cohesion.
Earlier on there was no need of devices to unify what
was, in a non-division of labour context, still whole
It has often been said that the function of the symbol
is to disclose structures of the real that are inaccessible
to empirical observation. More to the point, in terms
of the processes of culture and civilisation, however,
is Abner Cohen's contention (1981, 1993) that symbolism
and ritual disguise, mystify and sanctify irksome duties
and roles and thus make them seem desirable. Or, as David
Parkin (1992) put it, the compulsory nature of
ritual blunts the natural autonomy of individuals by placing
them at the service of authority.
Ostensibly opposed to estrangement, the counterworld of
public rites is arrayed against the current of historical
direction. But, again, this is a delusion, since ritual
facilitates the establishment of the cultural order, bedrock
of alienated theory and practice. Ritual authority structures
play an important part in the organization of production
(division of labor) and actively further the coming of
domestication. Symbolic categories are set up to control
the wild and alien; thus the domination of women proceeds,
a development brought to full realization with agriculture,
when women become essentially beasts of burden and/or
sexual objects. Part of this fundamental shift is movement
toward territorialism and warfare; Johnson and Earle (1987)
discussed the correspondence between this movement and
the increased importance of ceremonialism.
According to James Shreeve (1995), "In the ethnographic
record, wherever you get inequality, it is justified by
invoking the sacred." Relatedly, all symbolism, says Eliade
(1985), was originally religious symbolism. Social
inequality seems to be accompanied by subjugation in the
non-human sphere. M. Reinach (quoted in Radin, 1927)
said, "thanks to magic, man takes the offensive against
the objective world." Cassirer (1955) phrased it
this way: "Nature yields nothing without ceremonies."
Out of ritual action arose the shaman, who was not only
the first specialist because of his or her role in this
area, but the first cultural practitioner in general.
The earliest art was accomplished by shamans, as they
assumed ideological leadership and designed the content
This original specialist became the regulator of group
emotions, and as the shaman's potency increased, there
was a corresponding decrease in the psychic vitality of
the rest of the group (Lommel, 1967). Centralised
authority, and most likely religion too, grew out of the
elevated position of the shaman. The spectre of social
complexity was incarnated in this individual who wielded
symbolic power. Every head man and chief developed from
the primacy of this figure in the lives of others in the
Religion, like art, contributed to a common symbolic grammar
needed by the new social order and its fissures and anxieties.
The word is based on the Latin religare, to tie
or bind (back), and a Greek verbal stem denoting attentiveness
to ritual, faithfulness to rules. Social integration,
required for the first time, is evident as impetus to
It is the answer to insecurities and tensions, promising
resolution and transcendence by means of the symbolic.
Religion finds no basis for its existence prior to the
wrong turn taken toward culture and the civilised (domesticated).
The American philosopher George Santayana summed it up
well with, "Another world to live in is what we mean
Since Darwin's Descent of Man (1871) we
have understood that human evolution greatly accelerated
culturally at a time of insignificant physiological change.
Thus symbolic being did not depend on waiting for the
right gifts to evolve. We can now see, with Clive Gamble
(1994), that intention in human action did not
arrive with domestication/agriculture/civilisation.
The native denizens of Africa's Kalahari Desert, as studied
by Laurens van der Post (1976), lived in "a state
of complete trust, dependence and interdependence with
nature," which was "far kinder to them than any civilisation
ever was." Egalitarianism and sharing were the hallmark
qualities of hunter-gatherer life (G. Isaac 1976, Ingold
1987, 1988, Erdal and Whiten 1992, etc.), which is
more accurately called gatherer-hunter life, or the foraging
mode. In fact, the great bulk of this diet consisted of
plant material, and there is no conclusive evidence for
hunting at all prior to the Upper Paleolithic (Binford
An instructive look at contemporary primitive societies
is Colin Turnbull's work (1961, 1965) on pygmies
of the Ituri forest and their Bantu neighbors. The pygmies
are foragers, living with no religion or culture. They
are seen as immoral and ignorant by the agriculturalist
Bantu, but enjoy much greater individualism and freedom.
To the annoyance of the Bantu, the pygmies irreverently
mock the solemn rites of the latter and their sense of
sin. Rejecting territorialism, much less private holdings,
they "move freely in an uncharted, unsystematised, unbounded
social world," according to Mary Douglas (1973).
The vast era prior to the coming of symbolic being is
an enormously prominent reality and a question mark to
some. Commenting on this "period spanning more than a
million years," Tim Ingold (1993) called it "one
of the most profound enigmas known to archaeological science."
But the longevity of this stable, non-cultural epoch has
a simple explanation: as F. Goodman (1988) surmised,
"It was such a harmonious existence, and such a successful
adaptation, that it did not materially alter for many
thousands of years."
Culture triumphed at last with domestication. The scope
of life became narrower, more specialised, forcibly divorced
from its previous grace and spontaneous liberty. The assault
of a symbolic orientation upon the natural also had immediate
outward results. Early rock drawings, found 125 miles
from the nearest recorded trickle of water in the Sahara,
show people swimming. Elephants were still somewhat common
in some coastal Mediterranean zones in 500 B.C., wrote
Herodotus. Historian Clive Ponting (1992) has shown
that every civilisation has diminished the health of
And cultivation definitely did not provide a higher-quality
or more reliable food base (M.N. Cohen 1989, Walker
and Shipman 1996), though it did introduce diseases
of all kinds, almost completely unknown outside civilisation
(Burkett 1978, Freund 1982), and sexual inequality
(M. Ehrenberg 1989b, A. Getty 1996). Frank Waters'
Book of the Hopi (1963) gives us a stunning
picture of unchecked division of labor and the poverty
of the symbolic: "More and more they traded for things
they didn't need, and the more goods they got, the more
they wanted. This was very serious. For they did not realise
they were drawing away, step by step, from the good life
A pertinent chapter from The Time Before History
(1996) by Colin Tudge bears a title that speaks volumes,
"The End of Eden: Farming." Much of an underlying
epistemological distinction is revealed in this contrast
by Ingold (1993): "In short, whereas for farmers
and herdsmen the tool is an instrument of control, for
hunters and gatherers it would better be regarded as an
instrument of revelation." And Horkheimer (1972) bears
quoting, in terms of the psychic cost of domestication/domination
of nature: "the destruction of the inner life is the penalty
man has to pay for having no respect for any life other
than his own." Violence directed outward is at the same
time inflicted spiritually, and the outside world becomes
transformed, debased, as surely as the perceptual field
was subjected to fundamental redefinition. Nature certainly
did not ordain civilisation; quite the contrary.
Today it is fashionable, if not mandatory, to maintain
that culture always was and always will be. Even though
it is demonstrably the case that there was an extremely
long non-symbolic human era, perhaps one hundred times
as long as that of civilisation, and that culture has
gained only at the expense of nature, one has it from
all sides that the symbolic — like alienation — is eternal.
Thus questions of origins and destinations are meaningless.
Nothing can be traced further than the semiotic in which
everything is trapped.
But the limits of the dominant rationality and the costs
of civilisation are too starkly visible for us to accept
this kind of cop-out. Since the ascendance of the symbolic
humans have been trying, through participation in culture,
to recover an authenticity we once lived. The constant
urge or quest for the transcendent testifies that the
hegemony of absence is a cultural constant. As Thomas
McFarland (1987) found, "culture primarily witnesses
the absence of meaning, not its presence."
Massive, unfulfilling consumption, within the dictates
of production and social control, reigns as the chief
everyday consolation for this absence of meaning, and
culture is certainly itself a prime consumer choice. At
base, it is division of labor that ordains our false and
disabling symbolic totality. "The increase in specialization...,"
wrote Peter Lomas (1996), "undermines our confidence
in our ordinary capacity to live."
We are caught in the cultural logic of objectification
and the objectifying logic of culture, such that those
who counsel new ritual and other representational forms
as the route to a re-enchanted existence miss the point
completely. More of what has failed for so long can hardly
be the answer. Lévi-Strauss (1978) referred
to "a kind of wisdom [that primitive peoples] practised
spontaneously and the rejection of which, by the modern
world, is the real madness."
Either the non-symbolising health that once obtained,
in all its dimensions, or, madness and death. Culture
has led us to betray our own aboriginal spirit and wholeness,
into an everworsening realm of synthetic, isolating, impoverished
estrangement. Which is not to say that there are no more
everyday pleasures, without which we would lose our humanness.
But as our plight deepens, we glimpse how much must be
erased for our redemption.
by John Zerzan >
A comment by Anthony Weir
Yet it is precisely intellectuals in charge of their own
lives (like John Zerzan and myself) as well as the out-and-out
(workshy) hedonists who do best out of this unredeemable
As I watch us all sliding into 'global melt-down' enhanced
(I hope) by human extinction, I am sometimes wonderfully
happy. I can kiss my favourite tree and listen to my favourite
dog singing. I can play recordings of Dhrupad and Saami-electronic,
I can eat delicious fresh vegetables sold in the market
by their growers; I can bake my bread and enjoy it, make
my jam from wild fruit, eat my buddy's fabulous cooking,
listen to Tennessee Williams on the BBC, write to sympathetic
people who visit my website, sniff my armpits, watch "Stalker"
on DVD, grow rare shrubs, paint satisfying pictures, take
rewarding photographs, and so on.
Of course all this came at a price. Those who have not
grieved cannot be happy. Nor can those who hope for happiness.
I had to learn that our culture - like our minds - is
shit. It took me 60 years to realise that human beings
are sadly contemptible. From that basement of truth the
only direction is up. From all other floors, the only
direction is down.
Colin Turnbull's books (mentioned above) THE
FOREST PEOPLE and WAYWARD SERVANTS
changed my life. But so did Zola, Dostoyevsky, Hamsun,
Grass, Nietzsche, Musil, and many others - including Carlos
Castaneda! Embracing homosexuality at the age of 39 (and,
latterly, abandoning sexuality altogether) also changed
my life. Meeting my buddy Malcolm and, consequently, Oscar,
and certain human individuals along the way also helped.
Even self-help books (by Chögyam Trungpa, R.A. Masters
and others, including psychiatrists!) propelled me along
a road where I was alone but rarely lonely. Another condition
for happiness is that it not be conditional on company
or moral support.
So the horrible truth is that while humans breed and create
ever more misery, there is a privileged few who can feel