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Out of Joint

Nomi Claire Lazar—

The importance of genericism to the primitivist frame is evident from its reliance on abstraction. This becomes clear in contrast with an Aristotelian perspective on development. For Aristotle, the highest form of human personality is to become a person of virtue and sound judgment, engaged in a measured way in politics and philosophy. This is achieved after years of careful self-cultivation and exercising the faculty of judgment: choosing and acting. From this teleological perspective, commonality of characteristics among those who achieve this florescence grows from diverse practical and particular experiences. These continue to animate and modulate the exercise of those characteristics. All will share in good judgment, but each will exercise it in her own way, growing from her own particular experiences. Without particularity, no judgment could be cultivated, and this fruition takes place uniquely for each individual by means of an interactive flow of events and actions.

But primitivism invokes a pseudo-Platonic sense of essence. Rather than a path through particularity to achieve human fruition, primitivism implies that human nature is a pure instantiation of formality that, other than its specific extension, has no particular characteristics. A stable human essence is human nature, and that essence is what we have in common, in abstraction, not what we are able to become through self-cultivation. We are true to ourselves at the point of origin. It is in this way that the generic comes to be conflated with the natural. If pure humanity is found in this condition of instantiated abstraction (that is, a physical instance of the generic), then any determination or particularity is corruption of that essential condition. So to maintain this purity requires that we remain in a condition of temporal and developmental suspension. Both the generic and the primitive therefore must exist in a mode of temporality in which nothing, or hardly anything, happens. As an abstraction with no singular features, what is primitive can have neither agency nor the capacity for change. It intervenes in the actually existing world only through the deployment of its semiotic power by an actually existing particular agent. The primitive can be made to exhort, but it cannot act.

By virtue of its abstraction, actualized in its genericism, what is primitive is subject neither to development nor to degeneration. It thus becomes important not only that the primitive be generic but that the natural environment in which primitive figures dwell remain in a condition of possibility too. From a conceptual perspective, how could something generic construct without thereby becoming particular? From a rhetorical perspective, the rhetor who deploys a primitivist frame conflates this natural figure with his savage environment, his habitat, of which he is very much a constituent part, not just an inhabitant. To build that environment in any permanent or semi-permanent way would be to develop and therefore corrupt it. To be drawn out of the natural and into the built environment is precisely corruption. What was once a space and a condition of potentiality would then be straitjacketed by its determinate boundaries.

So the true primitive resists politics because there can be no internally generated event that does not, at the same time, corrupt and destroy. The moment the primitive emerges into politics as an agent, beyond the semiotic power of its sheer idea, it ceases to be primitive because it ceases to be generic, pure. The primitive is impervious to physical development, too, because this is a corruption of the physical space of which the primitive is a natural element. A corruption of space is a corruption of the inhabitants of that space also.

This combination of benign presence, resistance to events, and slow temporality is a feature of both the generic and the primitive, which reflected (and perhaps fed into) elements of early anthropologists’ descriptions of the lives of “primitive” people: in slow time, bound to the undulating cycles of nature. Anthropologists described cultures as existing in a state of suspension in a chronic condition of cultural (and sometimes individual) lethargy. In Evans-Pritchard’s description, for the Nuer, “the distance between the beginning of the world and the present day remains unalterable.” Lévi-Strauss describes “cold” societies for which history and events are alien: “Nothing has been going on since the appearance of the ancestors,” he claims, “except events whose recurrence periodically effaces their particularity.” And Gurvich, as I noted above, attributes to the French peasantry an “inclination to move in retarded time turned in on itself,” while Geertz once described Balinese time as “a motionless present, a vectorless now.” Rites and ceremonies have been interpreted as means of reinhabiting sacred, stopped time. Some, including Lévi-Strauss and Evans-Pritchard, have explicitly associated this condition of freedom from events or freedom from history with a condition of freedom more generally. “Nuer,” Evans-Pritchard tells us, “are fortunate.”

To maintain this luck necessitates ferocious resistance to the incursion of events. To resist events is to resist degeneration and decay, and this means that the continuation of an existence in stalled or slow, cyclic time is crucial. Indeed, here is the crux of the moral confrontation captured in the deployment of generic aboriginality in these examples of popular environmental politics. The passage of linear chronotic time is the intrusion of the particular—particular action, particular events—into the course of what is natural, cyclic, suspended. The linear and chronotic is the bringer of decay and death. Hence, the primitivist temporal frame does its semiotic work not merely by reference to the generic abstraction of aboriginality or of the primitive, but specifically through the contrast of this abstraction with the intrusion of the chronotic and degenerative, objects associated with machines and with speed but also with rust and dirt. Consider, in this light, the juxtaposition of the Crying Indian with the factory, Chief Sealth with the train.

This is how the primitive comes to represent the radically free, the space of nondomination that does rhetorical work. Any form of particularity is always and necessarily a form of negation and loss: whether it is the individual’s choice of a path of action, the shape of the collective (political) order that necessitates maintenance, or the particularity of the construction of a physical space in a specific shape (the layout of buildings and roads). Any nonnatural or nonspontaneous order, and any determinate path or action, necessarily involves closing off every other possibility. Any actuality is loss—loss of freedom, loss of potential. And any constructed order necessitates domination for its preservation, ruling out alternatives, normally by force. Freedom exists only in a condition of abstraction, on this view, only in the primitive or original condition.

Ultimately, loss drives primitivism, the loss of the freedom of abstraction, the freedom of space to move and be without being in particular. As Spinoza wrote to his friend Jarigh Jelles, “Determinatio est negatio.” Whenever there is order—physical, conceptual, political, or psychical—there is determination, and order instantiates a shape, a set of boundaries, that negates whatever it is not, but could have been. Determination is always the negation of possibility. In giving shape, providing the instantiation of boundaries, physical or psychical, we necessarily constrain. All functioning human societies are necessarily ordered and constraining, and all must use the ultimate threat of force to maintain order and promote (self)-constraint. And so every order is, necessarily, ultimately, a dominating order, despite tacit or even explicit consent. Primitivist framing appeals to the sense that physically-psychically open space, a space that is all potential, without negation, is the space of real freedom, where the whole of our needs and experience of the world is immediate.

Thus the purpose of primitivist rhetoric is not insight or knowledge—it rests on a genericism that is necessarily false. Rather, primitivism frames a mirror of shame. The mirror is held up by a generic entity true to human essence and uncorrupted by civilization. Gaze at the “noble savage,” uncorrupted, true to his essential self, and see, in the mirror he holds, how ignoble you are. Glancing between the degenerate reflection in that mirror and the exotic, primitive other who holds it emphasizes the deformity of the civilized. And so it does not ultimately matter, for rhetorical purposes, whether or not these humans are generic, or whether or not they accurately reflect a mode of life. Their function is only to show, by contrast with the generic ideal, our own degeneracy. This is what makes the facts irrelevant to the success of the primitivist temporal frame.

The peculiar cases of the Crying Indian and Chief Sealth’s speech now make sense. The generic aboriginals featured are not the protagonists, nor are they the subjects. Rather, these constructions carry the frame of the environmental message. While legitimation worked in part through frame alignment with an already accepted form of order, here primitivism frames the corruption of order as such. Both genericism and the form of aboriginality exploited by what we can call (with some violence) the white imagination here are mutually reinforced by their situation in primitivism’s particular kind of temporality: both the generic and this constructed aboriginality exist outside of regular chronotic time. These are evocative metaphors, not people. The Crying Indian constructed for the Keep America Beautiful campaign exhorts by means of his very presence; he does not even speak. Chief Sealth’s words at a time and place, at a specific political event, are erased in favor of generic words that do not belong to him particularly.

From Out of Joint by Nomi Claire Lazar. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.


Nomi Claire Lazar is Associate Dean of Faculty and Associate Professor of Politics at Yale-NUS in Singapore.


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Featured photo by Daan Huttinga on Unsplash

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