[In the spirit of last week’s post, I offer further reflection on our modern predicament and its attendent cultural alienation, as well as the potential for recollecting our primitive core.]
The tame and domesticated contours of civilized life have eclipsed our sense of the feral in everyday experience – that irrepressible anchor of human embodiment and our elemental interlacing with nature, “that subtle knot which makes us man.” Neglecting this wild core, we abandoned our original gift of freedom, the inherent power of just being-there, outside the chains of time and the terror of historical consciousness. Forsaking that primal autonomy – not to be confused with the modern ideal of unrestrained individual freewill or license – the groundwork was laid for our own entrapment, the beginning of our enslavement. But we might again reawaken that sense of primitive sovereignty by recollecting the untamed power of life-in-the-body-in-the-world.
I hear some of my critics in the back of the room shouting, “What are you talking about? Are you crazy? It was civilization that bought us our freedom, and brought us out of savagery and our slavery to the waywardness of nature’s wild and uncertain bounty!”
“Oh really? And agriculture was a liberating enterprise? Not quite,” I would retort.
To the contrary, farming required constant diligence, daily planning, control, and management of the land, leading to our own self-domestication, as it led to domestication of the earth and other creatures. It was the initiation of enslavement – the very opposite of independence.
Neither was the birth of the city an actualization of human autonomy; it was a yoke around the neck of manager and laborer, landlord and tenant, legislator and citizen alike. Do we not now find ourselves preoccupied with the daily obligation of urban wage-slavery, ensuring the emptying of the present moment, with extended focus on an ever-receding future where we can plan our release from such drudgery? Is this not the elusive promise of every modern rational politics, especially that which underlies the American Dream?
I wager that genuine self-rule can emerge only with the recollection and re-instantiation of a more primal psychic state – delivering us from subjugation to the inflexible demands of artfully constructed and controlling institutional hierarchies, releasing us from the hypnotic attachment to some promised future, and ultimately, liberating us from the terror of history and the fear of death. This, however, requires overcoming the learned-forgetfulness concerning our phylogenetic inheritance — our pre-civilized, feral ground.
In our current state of forgetfulness we are strangers to ourselves, having been molded into artfully crafted products of an epochal cultural construction. But we also remain strangers to our culture because we come to civil society from a wilder, pre-civilized past – each person bearing within him or herself a certain surplus of being, a feral core, that does not fit naturally (or comfortably) into domesticated patterns and cannot easily be assimilated into the hierarchical, institutional milieu.
By virtue of natality and the ability to act, each new individual poses a threat to civilization… The child carries barbarism within him or her. [Einer Overenget, Hannah Arendt]
This forgotten and well hidden feral core represents, in my view, the authentic and ultimate source of our experience of self-estrangement in civil society today. Yet, for most individuals, understanding the source of this alienation and recovering its liberating potential is at best an intellectual exercise or a romantic dream. For some, whose self-estrangement is identity itself, it could be a frightful nightmare.
Recollection of that genetic memory trace is key to owning and then breaking through the experience of alienation – an estrangement not only from one’s culture, but from the civilized sense of self as well. In this way, cultural disaffection becomes a gateway for returning to and recovering the underlying veracity of my lived-body in its primal and autochthonous intimacy with nature. It is a liberating event and a rebirth of spontaneity in the midst of everyday life.
This is, perhaps, part of what the Russian expat, Mikhail Epstein (Transcultural Experiments), was referring to when he spoke of life’s ordinariness, the spontaneous emergence of a rent or tear in the fabric of our civilized life, offering a glimpse of that inchoate, undomesticated heart that unwaveringly beats beneath the surface of each citizen – a potential occasion and haunting reminder of our ineluctable beginning, and our underlying engagement within the world!
So where is this experience – liberating, spontaneous, autochthonous – to be found in the midst of civilized life today? As I had learned, this memory trace remains embedded deep within the flesh of every human animal (a phylogenetic gift, if you will) – present even within the symbolic systems we create – granting the possibility for episodic and periodic recovery of that primal integration at any moment. This feral memory calls us back to that chiasm, the pre-reflective intertwining of my body-as-subject and the world-as-lived-by-my-body (Merleau Ponty, The Visible and The Invisible). But today this call seems most dominant within those marginalizing experiences in a culture already made crazy by its own unyielding, domesticating demands. This chiasm seems to find its voice in those culturally ambiguous or extreme circumstances where our normal (rationalized) frameworks come into question or simply no longer function properly – conditions that breed alienation and cultural ambiguity.
Whether such indeterminateness emerges in more private moments of extreme distress or euphoria, or in more public experiences, like foreign travel, emigration, or cross-cultural exchange, a common thread seems to be the emergent feeling of difference, of otherness – either in the sense of ‘being-beside’ oneself, coping with the alterity of a strange world or a stranger in our midst, or a growing awareness of the otherness of our own cultural landscape. As Georg Simmel writes:
The stranger [the Other], like the poor and sundry ‘inner enemies,’ is an element of the group itself. His position as a full-fledged member involves both being outside it and confronting it… (The Sociology of Georg Simmel)
It is here that otherness, strangeness, difference become positive, stimulative catalysts of primal recollection because these are fundamentally marginalizing elements buried within each of us. Whenever we are confronted by such marginality or have the feeling of being adrift without the safety and security of our cultural world (psychically, semiotically, or physically), it is precisely in these gaps that we may be struck by the uncultivated, untamed “ordinariness” of life hiding just beneath the veneer of civilized artifice. Perhaps wherever we come face to face with our own facticity (being-there), we recover the experience of life as it once was and always remains. Perhaps this is why the barbarian within us poses such a threat to civilization, because a citizenry so exposed would be very difficult to control.
It is in these chiaroscuro moments, at once clarifying, obscuring, and disaffecting, that a schism, breach, or fracture in our typical, everyday world becomes like a beacon pointing us back toward that chiasm, that subtle knot which makes us human. It is here that we can gather up the surplus of existence lying just beneath the surface articulations of our civilized selves, find the energy to return to that feral core in an act of retrieval, of recollective resolve, recapture the intimacy of a kairotic moment, beyond historical consciousness, a moment that reestablishes us on a new path in the midst of the confusion and helter skelter of modern civilized life.