The Parable of the Magician

In Repent to the Primitive, p. 49, I write:

Consider a parable. A magician, through a great feat of sorcery, creates a golem that provides everything he needs. The catch? The magician must continually offer the golem his blood. The golem, who wants to survive and carry out its purpose, develops techniques that encourage the magician to keep giving the blood offerings, and eventually they become so efficient that when the golem stops providing, the magician cannot break away, and he lives in sickness and despair the rest of his life.

What did I mean by this?

I

In this section I was primarily responding to people who say “civilization is natural” as an objection to primitivist thought. I was assuming that they were correct, insofar as they mean “civilization arose from material processes.” This was because I was instrumentalizing my thought for political purposes. I figured that since I was already convinced of primitivism — I had seen it validated by so many ways of looking at the world — I could attempt to articulate the politics starting with the assumption that “civilization is natural,” which no one had done yet. Perhaps this would yield yet another confirmation of primitivist ideas. But I was not sure of the assumption. I went with it provisionally, and it only happened to yield good insights. “I have not done anything; the world has gifted me with I. Highest state of consciousness one of thanksgiving, affirmation, awe” (“You Can Call Me Jacobi,” note I).

I did this because of my earlier research on the philosophy of science. The method of problem-solving is similar to the way Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos understand scientific thinking: as a cycle of competing “paradigms.” A scientist throws an idea out there, and it is accepted if it can piece together previously fragmented ideas, if it can predict accurately, if it can explain more easily what was once difficult to explain, etc. I summarize this perspective in “The Revolutionary Importance of Science.”

In the Reflections bulletin I’ve mentioned a few ideas that have been common in primitivist thought but that I have previously ignored. I hope now to demonstrate how they integrate into the rewilding framework I offered in Repent to the Primitive, so that I can better explain the parable of the magician.

II

There is a debate in anthropology over whether or not human beings caused the Quaternary extinction event at the end of the Pleistocene. Normally the political primitivists have argued that humans were not responsible. If humans were responsible, they would be unsuited to nature, or so the argument goes. This is not a very sophisticated primitivism. The unexamined assumption is that humans must be able to return to a state wherein they behave similarly to animals. Bogged down by early environmentalist rebukes of “anthropocentrism,” radical environmentalists were not inclined to admit that humans are, in some ways, at least, unique. But clearly they are.

Theorists have variously named this unique trait of human beings as “consciousness,” “magical thinking,” “symbolic thought,” etc. It appears that this ability appeared sometime in the Late Stone Age, when we find the first records of Paleolithic art (see “Prehistoric Art: Imagined and Real“). In other words, symbolic thought appeared pretty much at the same time as the Holocene extinction event. Shortly after, civilizations appeared, usually paired with religious mythologies that have striking similarities across cultures.

III

As I wrote in “Toward a Human Rewilding Method,” note III, humans are unusual among animals in that a striking amount of their development occurs outside the womb. The baby zebra is born knowing intuitively, already, how to walk; the human animal is born entirely helpeless, completely dependent on its mother. Developmental and cognitive psychologists have demonstrated already how this plays out for the human psychology. Baby humans go through a series of regular and discernable stages of development in regards to their sense of time, their sense of identity, their morality, their sexuality, etc.

Paul Shepard, drawing from ideas in neotony, argued that civilization can exist because it can prolong the childhood stage of human development, allowing them to be herded like cattle without being domesticated like cattle. Because children are prone to “magical thinking” that was once satisfied by glistening tree-leafs or intricate spider webs, civilizations can create highly artificial environments in which they replace these natural items with spectacles, logos, and stories that shape humans as needed for economic purposes. Shepard also notes that domesticated animals have facial features more similar to their wild counterparts in younger stages of development; and that human facial features are getting more and more babylike. This would suggest that humans are currently undergoing a process of domestication.

Jon Savage makes a similar argument, pointing out that around the turn of the century an entirely new phase of human development was created: the teenager. He argues that this teenage phase was well-suited to capitalist and totalitarian purposes. In the former case, teenagers provided a malleable and exploitable market of consumers. In the latter case, they provided fodder for ideological wars — which is why we had Hitler Youth or the Communist Youth Leagues. Again, it seems that civilization’s domination of human lives is enabled by extending their state of helpelessness in childhood.

IV

I write in “Toward an Antimodern Metaphysics, or Epistemology,” note II:

When I was younger, I rebounded from my lost Christianity with the energy of a pinball, bouncing from ideology to ideology — anything to fill the terrible void. At each serious turn, everything I believed prior seemed foreign to me. How could this be?

There is something in the human consciousness that yearns to make connections, to impose some kind of order on the “outside,” which it perceives through its senses. If there is a will to believe, man has seemingly unlimited ability to identify with any knowledge-system and even to become trapped in it. But ultimately, each of these knowledge-systems can explain their corner of the human experience fairly well, and if he so chose man could flit between them, dance between them, as he wished. Cf. Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchy.

V

In October 1938 when Orson Welles was a radio broadcaster, he decided to pull a prank by telling his viewers that Earth was under attack by an extra-terrestrial invasion. Apparently, people went crazy:

Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic broke out across the country. In New Jersey, terrified civilians jammed highways seeking to escape the alien marauders. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas and asked electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn’t see their lights. One woman ran into an Indianapolis church where evening services were being held and yelled, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”

There are many examples throughout history of governments lying to achieve a certain psychological effect. Is it hard to imagine governments using Orson Welles’ technique to instigate certain behaviors from them? Is this not what the Fake News debate is all about?

VI

In Industrial Society and Its Future Kaczynski writes that as human beings enter into more and more artificial environments, they do not have to exert as much effort to attain the necessities in their lives, resulting in boredom. But because, Kaczynski believes, humans are born with an innate drive for goal-setting and achievement, they divert their unspent energies to other activities, like art, scientific investigation, architecture, etc.

There is a unique similarity between all the religious myths and mystical systems of civilizations, and not all of this can be explained by cultural transmission. Several psychologists, like Jung, point out that there are universal archetypes that appear across cultures, and appeal to people across cultures. He attributes this to a “collective unconscious.” I do not know whether or not Jung meant this literally or metaphorically. But since human ecology and all its sub- and sister fields (human ethology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, etc.) have demonstrated the general biological unity of the human race, I think we can attribute mythological similarities in human cultures as due to the universal structures of the human mind. And, as Kaczynski pointed out, humans engage in making these systems to account for unfulfilled needs, as surrogate activities. This would explain why many mystical and religious systems do, in fact, help ameliorate some of the psychological problems of civilization.

VII

In “Technical Autonomy” and Repent to the Primitive, pp. 38-49, I explain how civilization’s develop autonomously of the will of human beings. This allows us to explain how something humans kicked into gear could get out of control and start working against their own interests. See the music video of “Blockhead – The Music Scene” for an artistic rendition of this view.

VIII

Let’s return to the Quaternary extinction event. Taken what was established above, we might interpret this as the first sign that human beings were being pulled along by their own artificial environments, allowing them to establish dominance over earth unlike any creature before. Of course, human beings are not that much different from other animals. They, too, want to provide for themselves with as little effort as possible, and civilization provided this opportunity for many people, at first those who stood on the backs of slaves, now for those who stand on the backs of slaves and machines, and perhaps soon for those who stand on the backs only of machines. It seems as though humans are a sort of race of magicians, able to create fire and people and even machines with life-like qualities that provide them what they need. Recall though, the parable of the magician.

VIII

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

— H. P. Lovecraft

It seems that there is no way to return to the state of humans before they acquired consciousness, at least not wholesale. But the arguments I and Ted Kaczynski have offered suggest that humans can at least limit the damage they can do by limiting their civilizations’ technical capabilities. Many religious myths already tell this story. Kabbalah, for example, speaks of an infinite light that filled the whole existence. It “restricts” itself in order to create an Other, an empty vessel, which it fills with its light. But the light is too powerful for it, causing the vessel to shatter into “6,000” pieces. The task of man today is tikkun olam, “restoring the world” — in other words, putting the pieces of the vessel back together. How could humans so early in history know this? They delved into the nature of their own consciousness, which parallels the development of the human species. It is like the evolutionary biologists say: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

Nietzsche wrote that modern technology would create in humankind an overabundance of energy, which it would then use to create it’s “one goal.” Zarathustra prophesies:

A thousand goals have there been so far, for a thousand peoples there have been. Only the yoke for the thousand necks is still lacking: one goal is lacking. As yet humanity has no goal.

But tell me, my brothers, if the goal of humanity is still lacking, is there not also lacking — humanity itself?

Well, now we have our one goal: destroy civilization.

 

…primitivism is not a solution to all of man’s ills. Unchained from civilization, individuals will still draw blood against thorns, will still fight and kill, will still feel the shadow of existential dread. But consider a madman who finds a hammer and cannot control his irresistible urge to bash and smash and trash everything he sees. It compounds his madness and consumes him. What man of grace would not gently pry the hammer from the lunatic’s hands, even if it does not cure his fundamental madness?

— Repent to the Primitive, pp. 101-102

8 Comments

  • Robert McGuinn says:

    The un-civilization is project doomed to failure. All of the adherents to this philosophy will end up as depressed alcoholics and drug addicts or in jail (said with a laugh). Look at old Ted, most people don’t even realize he is still alive and he has become a complete subject of the state (or mainstream civilization). No regressive philosophy will ever prevail. Forward, forward, forward. There is no reverse gear on this machine. All we do is move forward and then die, move forward and then die again, even if some of us try to put on the brakes now and then. Don’t get me wrong, civilization is deadly to planet earth in the short run. But the ‘short run’ is simply the ‘short run’ and the ‘long run’ is all that matters. Humans have a very limited view of what the ‘long run’ really is. It is very long. It is so long, that the human mind is not equipped to embrace its full depth. It renders most of what we think and do irrelevant. I argue that embracing this true ‘long run’ is the ultimate strong nihilism. The uncivilization project itself is strongly anthropocentric in my opinion. The only truly non-anthropocentric view, and the ultimate strong nihilism, is to fully embrace the terrible loneliness of infinity and to give up on your futile attempt to steer this giant ship. Just ride along dude!

    I loved this particular post by the way! You are much more thorough than the average writer. Thank you for putting it out there!

    -Robert

    • admin says:

      I have no quibbles with being an anthropocentrist. See my comments on that term in Repent to the Primitive and “Taking Rewilding Seriously.”

      I believe you are wrong about a movement that is “regressive” (but still somewhat forward looking — see Nietzsche’s writings on modernity and “Words of Wisdom and Folly,” note I). Fundamentalist jihadis, fundamentalist Christians, Afrocentrist political movements, localist environmentalists — they are all reacting already — right now! It is only a matter of showing them their common threads. You’ll see.

    • Robert McGuinn says:

      p.s. Abstraction is inevitable for advanced animals. Greater and greater abstraction, and therefore, more complex ontologies, are the hallmark of forward motion in evolution. ‘Magical thinking’ is as natural as dirt. A philosophy which tries to eliminate ‘magical thinking’ is the most abstract (magical and symbolic) of all.

  • Robert McGuinn says:

    Well I do agree that fundamentalists jihadis and fundamentalist Christians definitely have more in common than they care to admit. I would love to be a fly on the wall at that barbecue. The same is true with the rednecks and the hippies. If only they could unite, they would be a powerful force. But all this social theory crap is checkers compared to the sweeping symphony of physics. I definitely have physics-envy. Social scientists, psychologists, and conservation biologists are fine folks, but theoretical physicists are the true thinkers of the world. When you can write your shit in equations, you have truly arrived.

    • The end assumption you have seems like it could be a result of a lot of values in our current epoch: what seems like the value of the infinitely small over the infinitely large; the association of (religious) mystery with the newfound complexity and relativity of physics–and how this in turn ties into the former value; the idea that math represents the true nature of the world (a long dead philosophical disposition that died out after Kant), and so on. But the dichotomies between the social sciences and physics (and even physics and romantic and humanities thought) which all too many talking heads place into intellectual hiearchies will turn out to be a practice shortsighted and painfully naive in the future. That is the point of consilience. Humanities hits upon what physics and other sciences cannot do–the primordial and imaginative feelings and wills that play a much bigger part in the world–and most likely a central part in how we perceive the world through science–than most reactionary neckbeards assume.

      • Let me correct the last sentence: the psychological sciences can damn well explain away with compelling clarity our psychological experiences (the feelings and wills of human experience) but as with all sciences, the validity is based upon ever changing and contradicting theories that we do our best with at the moment under the bias of (wait for it) human instiutions of which it is the point of sociology, anthropology, etc. to explain and investigate. Thus the fields can and need to work together to bring ever more holistic views of nature by engaging in synthesis, interinstiutional critique, and collaborative problem solving. And this leaves out the matter of my own personal view that understanding aesthetics is key to understanding more about the human mind, and, more subject to variation, civilization’s historical and current prospects. The instinct for aesthetics can be explained by sociobiology, but what counts as aesthetic in the act of encountering a work of written or visual art has to be dealt with on a basis that is not wholly scientific or psychological, but also on a basis of historical context, idiosyncratic perception, and the question of why these two even matter in the first place–especially the latter–in the context of our sociobiological chains. Admitedly, I am still on the fence on whether a reductionist path to sociobiology is worth it in the first place, but I would STILL put emphasis on that field as a much more significant path towards intellectual consilience than physics, contrary to what most think. Kant already proved that our minds our limited in understanding the world, and understanding physics fully will reveal much more about how our minds work rather than the world.

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