Modern Primitives:
The Accelerating Collision of Past and Future In The Postmodern Era

Steve Mizrach

Today, largely thanks to publishers such as Re/Search and Loompanics, Autonomedia, and Amok Press, many people are familiar today with the "modern primitive" movement. They know that it involves some sort of strange juxtaposition of high technology and "low" tribalism, animism, and body modification - a kind of `Technoshamanism,' if you will, at once possession trance and kinetic dance. In books like William Gibson's Count Zero , ultracomplex Artificial Intelligences (AIs) take on the personality of Haitian Voudoun deities, seizing the minds of initiates through neural networks, creating an ersatz technoreligion.

The idea of the "primitive" is of course one from anthropology's abandoned socioevolutionary past. While invented to simply function as a descriptive for temporal phases, it inevitably also functioned as an evaluative term, suggesting that those societies to which it was applied were inferior in terms of literacy, knowledge, technology, social organization, or moral judgement - in a word, they lacked `civilization.' The notion was of course inescapably ethnocentric, since it assumed that all societies on the planet were on an undeviating climb toward the standards of Western culture with regards to religion (monotheism), marriage practices (monogramy), economics (the free market), governance (representative democracy), etc. The `primitive' was at once reviled and romanticized, especially by Romantic artists fascinated with the taboo and the exotic, and philosophers swayed by the image of the unfettered Noble Savage.

While a more culturally relativist anthropology has sought to cleanse the perjorative ideas associated with `primitivism,' preferring to describe idiographically rather than evolutionarily the less `advanced,' pre-modern, indigenous societies of the planet, the notion of the "primitive" remained a powerful one in Western culture, which internalized representations of "primitives" from both within (the Native Americans) and without (Oceanians, Africans, etc.) To many people within Western civilization's orbit, (which increasingly encompasses the entire planet), the "primitive" still signifies a premodern, "untainted" alternative to industrialization, capitalism, and the European Enlightenment. It represents a preferred "Golden Age" past, of things left aside in the march of "progress", to which might be juxtaposed a dystopian technological future.

And, then, of course, there is modernity. What it means to be a modern is still being argued about, as well as whether we have left the condition of modernity behind. If anything, modernity was probably the vision that the future would be radically different (and most likely better) than the present. Certainly, in the arts, modernity was associated with Futurism, involving a penchant for action, speed, power, abstraction, and change, as well as other movements in the avant-garde - Surrealism, Dadaism, Expressionism, etc. Modernity basically meant experimentation to many people; a refusal to be fettered by conventions of the past, and a demand to shock the morals and traditions of the bourgeouisie. New territories - the unconscious mind, for example - were being opened to investigation and creation.

Postmodernism, if anything, is in essence a combination of modernity and the premodern - a genre blurring of the abandoned and the untried. In a world where the old (tradition, superstition, folk beliefs, etc.) is increasingly being abandoned, there can be nothing more new and avant-garde than to reintroduce it once more... thus the ironic state of postmodernity. There can be no more postmodern movement than that of the "modern primitives," determined to follow the simultaneous tracks of the past and the future toward their inevitable collision. Having at once embraced a mythical "low-tech" past and a mythical "high-tech" future, the "modern primitives" are preeminent denizens of the postmodern, cyclical-time era...

The "modern primitives" like Stelarc and Fakir Mustafar are perhaps best known for their use of body distortion, modification (elongation, coloration, etc.), and piercing. Many moderns were familiar (from visual anthropology) with the practices found in less `civilized' cultures such as footbinding, elongating the neck or skull, or ritual incision. Body manipulation is not anything alien to modernity, with its use of more antiseptic and clinical plastic surgery, but then neither is tattooing or piercing either. Moderns never gave up the urge to inscribe and mark the body, or to alter and distort its features... indeed, Foucault's biopolitics suggests that a preeminent feature of modernity was the pursuit of unattainable somatic norms, especially for women. Still, many people see body marking (tattooing) as transgressive, exotic, and `primitive,' and this is one reason why modern primitivies embrace it as a custom. What does make the modern primitive movement unusual is its pursuit of sensation. Borrowing from the S & M sexual subculture, the modern primitives suggest that one of the effects of modernization and

industrialization has been psychic numbing. People no longer know either authentic pleasure or pain, and have forgotten the curious neurochemical ways in which they are interwoven. Piercing is more than just inscription; piercing of the genitals or other sensitive areas of the body means pain, especially during sexual intercourse... but it is a pain that becomes part of the ecstasy for ModPrims... there is this idea of a knowing through pain which modernity has forgotten.

When Mustafar or Stelarc hang themselves from hooks, or pierce themselves with sharp painful implements, they are only duplicating a practice found all over the world. It is a key ritual for many "primitive" and other societies for the person to go into trance and to demonstrate their "absorbtion" by the divine through the negation of pain and injury. The ModPrims claim that their performances are a pursuit of transcendence, proving the ability of the mind to go beyond the taxings and limitations to the body. Stelarc calls himself a "Cyberhuman," pointing to his belief that the future of human evolution toward a greater interconnection of men and machines will require humankind's mastery over (rather than suppression of) passion, suffering, and pain.

Futher, within the ModPrim movement, there is this sort of obsession over technological invasion of the body, through prosthetics, genetic modification, implants, and so on. This bodily invasion is at once feared (as a colonization by capital) and desired (by permitting people to directly neurally link into the "consensual hallucination" of Gibson's Virtual Reality.) The body is seen as information (DNA provides the `code') and its invasion as either `scrambling' (through viruses, cancer, etc.) or `purification' (by removing `noise' or `distortion.') The technological modification of the body is seen as a reworking of the shamanic `deconstruction' of a past era, where the shaman is torn apart by the gods of his tribe, and then his bones and flesh are replaced with quartz or fire or something else...

The limitations of the body need not be obeyed. It can be made to live longer, or be healthier, through artificial organs and nanotech `magic bullets.' It can be made stronger and more dextrous through steroids and enhancing nervous signal transmission. The mind can be extended as well, its memory or perceptions or intelligence increased. The "primitive man's" desire to imitate and become like his gods can be met. But ModPrims also know that there is the danger of forgetting the body as well - that in cyberspace, people will no longer be "in tune" with their tangible physicality... thus they push for ways in which the "feedback" from the Matrix will be at once tactile and visual...

ModPrims also embrace the rave as a sign of the uniting of past and future. The rave is at once `primitive,' with its gathering of `tribes' of young people for the experience of Levy-Bruhl `participation mystique' through kinetics and MDMA (Ecstasy), and `futuristic' (or modern) with its use of digitally sampled and remixed music, laser and light effects, and multimedia expositions. Ravers at once dress in way that signifies past and future - piercing their ears with computer chips, wearing 70s (or earlier) clothes with futuristic hologram jewelry, combining the fashion of folk and punk. They consider themselves the heirs of the 60s counterculture, and also its antithesis, since they reject its anti-technology, pro-natural, `peace and harmony,' and idealist emphases for a more pragmatist, aggressive, and techno-positive viewpoint... to the raver, whether a drug is synthetic or organic is besides the point.

Besides raves and piercing, ModPrims are perhaps best known for their attempts at juxtaposing magick and science. Publications like Virus 23 juxtapose Crowleyan occultism with chaos theory, Neo-Paganism & Wicca with memetics and information theory, and use of ancient hallucinogens with the latest findings in neuroscience. Shamanism is shown to have a basis in quantum mechanics, and Hermeticism in astrophysical cosmology. Fringe science publications, full of diagrams of Tesla machines, antigravity motors, UFO propulsion systems, free energy devices, perpetual motion machines, and radionic/psychotronic boxes, combine at once the impossible fascinations of past eras with the latest technological principles... Computer hackers often call themselves "wizards," for good reason. Abstruse computer programs are not all that dissimilar from blasphemous incantations; electrical logic diagrams often look like mystical Tables of Correspondences from olden times; complex systems are inevitably suspect to the interference of unguessable entities variously called "bugs," "glitches," or "gremlins." The technoshaman/computer hacker knows that he is part of an elite whose knowledge is mystifyingly undecipherable to the general public, and that society has placed an almost religious faith in the power of computers to solve the problems of society, from traffic routing and personal communications, to psychiatric diagnosis and aiding athletic performance...

The ModPrims eagerly embrace technoshamans like Timothy Leary, John Lilly, Terrence McKenna, and Jose Arguelles. The I Ching really becomes a computer code, connected to the rhythms of history and the codons of the DNA sequence. The hallucinogenic mushroom really becomes an extraterrestrial colonizing spore, seeking to link human consciousness with its cosmic roots. The use of mystical drugs like LSD really becomes a means to activate normally dormant "circuits" within the "biocomputer" known as the brain, thus making "metaprogramming" possible. Human-animal communication becomes at once a technological duty, and a necessity for realizing the interconnectedness of "Gaia," or the collective identity

created by organic life on the planet... The ModPrims themselves point to the collision of the past and future. Reading McKenna, they point to the cycles of history, and the way in which many linear trends (scientific invention, etc.) are reaching bottleneck points where they may accelerate exponentially (this being thought to be "TimeWave Zero," or the "Omega Point.") The Principia Cybernetica Newsletter advances the idea that the new webs of telecommunications networks are creating a "global brain" in which humans are the individual neurons. Others suggest that the Human Genome project may unlock the means for humanity's next great evolutionary advance. Many ModPrims think that we have passed out of linear, past-to-future, historical time, and entered some other new kind of cyclical time or maybe even the "end of history"...

People interested in materialist analyses of culture wonder whether this efflorescence of modern primitivism, with its explicit rejection of older notions of linear progress and evolution, has anything to do with the changing material basis of culture. Has the fact that we have entered a post-industrial, service/information economy, `disconnected' from material production because of automation and other forces, similarly `disconnected' people from the idea of a rational, orderly march of time? Such a sense of time was essential to industrialism, in which time was money and the Puritan criterion beyond all others was time-efficiency, e.g. not `slacking' or `wasting time.'

In his book "Time Wars," Jeremy Rifkin suggests that many of the conflicts between groups may have been over competing notions of time. Rifkin sees the conflict of our era as being between `industrial' time, which is individualistic, atomistic, quantitative, utilitarian, artificial (clock-based), centralized, and mechanistic; and what might be called `postindustrial' time, which is communitarian, participatory, qualitative, empathetic, rhythmic, cyclical, decentralized, and organic. From the `industrial' viewpoint, time is a resource for the progressive creation of wealth, which is not to be squandered. Perhaps from the `postindustrial' viewpoint, time is a resource for human lives and experiences... recognizing entropy, the person living in `postindustrial' time knows that material `progress' is not indefinite or without external cost. I would suggest that the way ModPrims can perhaps best be understood are as people living in a different time-order or

time-value-system. This ideological shift is partly due to the transition of people toward a post-industrial economy, where the previous system of linear industrial time no longer makes sense. For them, there is no contradiction between past and future. If time is a circle, then of course past and future are heading toward their point of uniting. In the postmodern world of the ModPrims, the "moderns" have much to learn from the ecological sense of interconnectedness of the "primitives," and vice versa, the "prims" can learn from the experimental sensibility of the "mods." Together, they can perhaps turn the spiral of time back to its point of origin, at a higher level of existence.