To Tell the Old, Old Story

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet had a problem: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches. Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.

 -Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

In the work I’m doing with anarchist themes in postsecular theology, I’ve identified five topoi of Christian anarchism — I call them the “Five E’s” — which serve as rubric by which I can make comparisons. These are ethics, economics, ecclesiology, eschatology, and etiology. The alliteration is designed to conjure Catherine Albanese’s four C’s (creed, code, cultus, and community) and, well, every evangelical sermon you’ve ever heard.

 That last one, etiology, is the wildcard, partially because a lot of us don’t immediately know what it means, and because I use it in what might be a slightly idiosyncratic way. Broadly speaking, etiology has to do with origins, more specifically with the kinds of stories that get told to explain how something got that way. My favorite example comes from Genesis 32, where we’re told that the Hebrew people don’t eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip because that’s where Jacob was touched by God. It’s a bizarre little etiological detail: who knew that theophany had such gastronomic consequences?

My use of etiology stretches to include the way in which Christian radicals construct Jesus and the early church as proto-radicals. Part of the reason they do what they do is because Jesus did it first. This, to me, is legitimately a kind of origin story, and it’s not unique to radicals: the imitation of Christ often serves this kind of etiological function in Christian theology. I also include the (perhaps more conventionally) etiological narrative in which Jesus’s example is given meaning: etiology in my work also has to do with the relationship of the creation and fall narratives to the larger theological project. More specifically, the more anarchistic streams of Christian radicalism at least make gestures toward a kind of anarcho-primitivism.

This is most obvious in the Jesus Radicals, whose website boasts a fairly significant raft of primitivist material, and whose annual conference has recently included arch-anarchist (get it?) John Zerzan, one of the most prominent voices of the primitivist critique. But it’s in other places, too. John Howard Yoder posited a peaceful prelapsarian order, which John Nugent further develops in The Politics of Yahweh. John Milbank’s “ontology of peace” speaks to this, though Milbank does much less with the anthropological or historical details. Even John Dominic Crossan gets into the act, arguing that Paul’s criticism of Rome was really a critique of civilization itself, and that Jesus called us to be “post-civilizational,” whatever that means.

Anarcho-primitivism takes the anarchist critique as far back as possible — it is, in that sense, the most radical radicalism. It’s not just the state that’s the problem for AP’ers, nor is it simply industrialization (which is why anarcho-primitivism is not necessarily luddism, even though they are related). It goes all the way back to the shift from paleolithic to neolithic. For the anarcho-primitivists, the neolithic turn to agriculture introduced a host of problems even as it gave us unprecedented power over our circumstances. Christian anarcho-primitivists associate this with, and sometimes narrate it as, the Fall. Capitalism, then, is merely one symptom of civilizational excess, but economic critique has been part of this body of thought at least since Marshal Sahlins’s The Original Affluent Society.

The gist is that humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, organized in tribes. The tribe is to humans, writes Daniel Quinn, as the pod is to whales or the hive is to bees. This need not be romanticized. Depending on the anthropological sources you want to consider, hunter-gatherers may or may not have been inherently healthier or more peaceful or more egalitarian. It’s just that this is the life to which, as a species, we’re biologically (and perhaps psychologically if there’s a difference) best adapted.

Civilization is a 10,000-year-long evolutionary strategy that is biting us in the ass because it is reshaping our environment faster than we can adapt to it biologically. In some ways, we’ve checked out of the evolutionary process itself, bypassing it in favor of shaping our own destiny, which doesn’t sound all that bad — but apparently it’s a gamble. We’ve basically become an auto-domesticated species, alienated from feral life to the point that most of us could not return to it even if we found it desirable.

One answer to this, and the one most associated with anarcho-primitivsm, is to nevertheless look to the “re-wilding” of humanity. Anarcho-primitivists are divided as to how possible this actually is, or how desirable, and some feel this will only happen on the heels of a catastrophic (dare I say apocalyptic?) collapse.  Another answer is to see the shift to the neolithic and the concomitant changes in human cognition (these seem to have happened at the same time, but I am skeptical of attempts to assign specific causality) as part of our human destiny. In both cases the thinking is teleological: either we were never meant to live this way and we’ve strayed from the true path, or we’re destined for a greatness we have yet to realize. Let’s call the former a teleology of declension — we headed away from an ideal — and the latter a teleology of progress.

It is this latter direction that my friend Mike Morrell takes. In a recent post, he frames the debate in terms of the two trees in the Hebrew creation narrative:

This ‘Tree of Life’ consciousness, which is more a practice than anything (a practice I call eating God), is both backward-reflecting on our deep-time roots as humanity and forward-looking to our aspiration of integration: Taking the best attributes of our recent 10,000-year adolescence in division, judgement, and Fruit of Knowledge indigestion, putting us on a Tree of Life de-tox regimen so that unripe knowledge is purged from our systems, making way for the ripened fruit of the Wisdom we need before it’s too late for us as a species or an ecosystem.

I consider Mike a friend, but I’ve never met him in person. We got acquainted through a mutual friend, and we’ve traded emails and blog comments and even some editing work. We also have a long-standing feud; he’s mystic, I’m a nihilist. It’s a wonder we even like each other. He’s constantly posting things that are hopelessly woo-woo; I’m constantly posting things that are hopeless.

The thing I don’t like about teleologies of declension is that I don’t think there’s anything that meant for us to do one thing or another and we can only assign value to the path that we have taken in retrospect. It’s really only a declension if things don’t work out, and while I find the anarcho-primitivist critique a trenchant one, the jury is still out to some extent. I don’t think the prognosis looks good, but I’ve been wrong.

The problem with teleologies of progress, including Mike’s, is that they often seem to assume that the evolutionary impetus has moved to the arena of culture and/or consciousness. Mike calls evolution “emergent nested creativity, a divine spark that is ever-expanding in complexity and empathy, bringing us, quite possibly, to an approximation of Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin‘s idea of an Omega Point, where the universe is becoming conscious of itself (vis-a-vis us) and all of reality is forming the cosmic Body of Christ.”

Or maybe — and I’m just spitballing here — evolution is impersonal, and by some evolutionary accident (of which we happen to be fond) we’ve constructed an artifice upon, over, and in defiance of our biological base. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t do that, and I’m certainly not an advocate of biological determinism, but we need to face the possibility that everything beyond that is just stuff we’ve made up because we can. Our ability to offer a complex map of this artifice doesn’t make it less one (and again, this doesn’t make it bad, either).

We happen to be self-aware, sure, but this is pretty much the reason we’re so tempted to see ourselves as special, as destined. Or, slightly differently: the capacity that we think makes us so special is the one that allows us (and even tempts us) to think we’re so special. It’s the eye we cannot see because we’re seeing out of it.

Mike’s vision, and he is hardly alone, is deeply humanistic. I don’t think he’d be offended at that. I think he’d say he sees beyond that, that this is not merely humanism but goes much further. There’s a link here to some posthumanist and transhumanist issues which I assume Mike at least finds interesting. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends are interesting.) I can’t brook this humanism, however. I think we’re just a species that got kind of lucky and/or kind of unlucky. Time will tell.

At least we got digital watches.

5 thoughts on “To Tell the Old, Old Story

  1. (not sure where my previous half-comment went)

    I’m in the weird position of agreeing with you *and* Mike. Don’t have time time atm for a long response, but my review of Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants covers the gist of it [here: http://hewhocutsdown.net/blog/2012/03/10/responding-to-the-technium/].

    Would be happy to coordinate a dialogue of sorts sometime between the three of us, I think it’d be intriguing.

  2. “Resetting society back to some sort of idyllic hunter-gatherer state would, in the long term, merely be a rewind; given time, the same or similar problems are likely to play out as civilization makes the same mistakes over again.”

    I definitely agree with that. Interesting review. :)

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