The Rise of Neo-Primitivism

I’ve become increasingly interested in nostalgia, especially when used as political discourse (following the scholarship of my friend Matthew Gabriele (@prof_gabriele), a professor at Virginia Tech).

It reminded me of this recent essay from Andrew Potter, the editor of Ottawa Citizen, on the “Rise of Neo-Primitivism.” Potter describes the “neo-primitives” imagined by speculative fiction author William Gibson, and links these fictional people to moderns. He writes:

From the paleo diet to the “ancestral health” craze to the criminals leading the anti-vaccine movement, we live in neoprimitivist times, in precisely the manner sketched by William Gibson. A disturbingly large segment of society has adopted a highly skeptical and antagonistic relationship to the main tributaries of modernity. But as in The Peripheral, these people are not opting out of modernity, going off the grid or deciding to live in caves. Instead, they are volunteering for “another manifestation” of modernity, living in the modern world, without being entirely of it, or even understanding it.

It’s an interesting essay throughout, talking about the faux authenticity ascribed to “natural” and “nature” in this modern world, and the consequences.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell once noted that the misfortunes that can befall humanity can be sorted into two broad categories: things that are inflicted by nature, and things that are inflicted by humans. For most of our history, a great deal of suffering was due to natural causes such as famine, disease, and disaster. But as we have developed in knowledge and skill, the class of harms inflicted upon humans by other humans has come to occupy a greater chunk of the total. Put simply, there is less disease but more war, and as a result, we’ve come to believe that “nature” is relatively benign, while “civilization” is increasingly a threat.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Yet we are caught in the grip of a fierce nostalgia, where the thought of contracting a disease like the measles is not something to be feared, but to be welcomed as a sign of our profound connection to nature.

We live in neoprimitivist times. Authenticity seeking wedded to technophobic irrationalism has led us to a bizarre situation where we are increasingly ignorant and suspicious of the scientific and technological underpinnings of our world. It’s like fish deciding that water is their enemy.

I don’t know that I agree with all his conclusions – some of the mistrust of technology is learned, rational, behavior. But I like the concept of nostalgic neo-primitivism.

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