I recently read In Search of the Primitive, anthropologist Stanley Diamond’s classic critique of civilization from the perspective of someone who studies existing tribal cultures. The book is comprised of essays Diamond wrote in the 1960s and ’70s.
Just to make sure you know you’re not in for a celebration of the march of progress or anything, the book’s first line is “Civilization begins with repression at home and conquest abroad.”
Diamond’s prose swings between dense academic verbiage and (more often than not, thankfully) an elegant and engaging essay style. One of the more fundamental of his insights is that while primitive cultures conceive of time as cyclical, we moderns think of time linearly – almost as something to be conquered, rather than lived in. And we call that progress.
Needless to say, such thinking has rather direct, and dire, consequences for how we treat the environment. I’d say it’s one of our most basic cultural flaws. For nature’s narrative too is cyclical, not linear, and if we wish to get in tune with it we need to understand that, and begin thinking of ourselves as part of that cycle.
On a related note, here’s Diamond on magical thinking, which we’re pleased to ascribe to primitives and chuckle about it. Characteristically turning the tables, Diamond argues that technology, the very keystone of our sense of progress, is the focus of our magical thinking:
“Despite Western civilization’s pride in science, and perhaps because of it, its mode of behavior is increasingly magical, publicly, with reference to commodity fetishism, and behavior-istic and mechanical manipulation of all sorts including advertising; and privately, the equivalent of these public expressions, with reference to obsessive-compulsive neuroses. These identifications of the ‘ego’ with externals, these security operations[,] absorb far more energy in our society than they do among primitive people; that is, what can be tchnically defined as magical behavior has grown, not diminished with civilization.”
The reference to advertising reminds me of all our car commercials, which are usually designed to reassure us that to purchase the proper vehicle is to buy unlimited personal power — the sort that can alter the very landscape around you to your whim (pursuant, of course, to the ad agency’s budget for computer-generated imagery).
We can’t solve any of our most pressing societal problems, including the relentless poisoning of the environment — but Ford can make us all-powerful? Magic, indeed.