Symposium Introduction

Decolonizing Primitivism

If you’re a literary scholar, and not a modernist, you might be inclined to neatly tuck primitivism into a series of equations and associations—the visual arts, Picasso, white Europeans. If, like me, you thought that you didn’t need to know much more than that about primitivism, Ben Etherington’s new book Literary Primitivism gently reminds us, and especially postcolonial scholars, that we might have a little more homework to do. In the first overview of the topic in quite some time (since perhaps Michael Bell’s work on the subject), Etherington forces us to take a good look at what the implications of a truly decolonial approach to the topic reveals: that primitivism was more important for those attempting to imagine life free from imperial rule than for those living more comfortably at its center.

In two parts, Etherington maps out first the historical and material conditions for the rise of the aesthetic project of primitivism, and then provides a series of compelling case studies examining the work of Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, D. H. Lawrence, and Claude McKay. Although the book sets its analysis on a global scale and world stage (employing key theorists of totality such as Lukács and Adorno), the Caribbean beats at its heart and center, and Caribbean scholars will be particularly interested in Etherington’s readings of Césaire and Fanon together. In fact, the chapters on Césaire, Fanon, and McKay offer such compelling readings of their work as part of the literary primitivist project that it would be difficult to ignore how this new paradigm asks us to reconsider the politics and aesthetic consequences of negritude and black liberationist politics.

While these new ways of seeing this particular moment and these particular literary works (his reading of Césaire’s famous poem Notebook of a Return to My Native Land is particularly compelling) offer exciting possibilities to reconsider past assumptions, they also spark a number of controversial points, as the reviewers highlight here. Alys Moody takes issue with Etherington’s refusal to consider literary primitivism as a part of a larger modernist project, and sets out her own set of reasons why we should reconsider that position. Moody also remains cautious about the political implications of understanding primitivism in this way—although Etherington carefully handles the question, she nonetheless asks how his methodology of reading the texts in their historical context enables the projection of a masculinist, patriarchal utopianism that poses particular dangers for the present, as she writes: the “anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism that Literary Primitivism discovers is also an anti-feminism. . . . It suggests, somewhat dishearteningly, that racial capitalism is the horizon of domination for this study, gender merely an optional extra.”

In his review, Victor Li highlights three key concepts which allow Etherington to reconceive primitivism: “the concept of delimitation and periodization, the concept of the primitive remnant, and the concept of aesthetic immediacy.” Li carefully walks us through these important points of the argument, asking whether the narrowly defined and carefully plotted conception of literary primitivism as particular to a certain historical moment, and doing particular aesthetic work, allows us to see only what we want to see. These narrow definitions, Li points out, could lead to the problematic exclusion of other literary works that might be participating in the primitivist project. The concept of the primitivist remnant is developed in the book as that which sparks the project of literary primitivism. It is this imagined piece of human existence outside of imperialist capitalism that motivates the writers in the study. Li suggests that the remnant in Literary Primitivism might remain too abstracted, and could use more clarification, as could the concept of aesthetic immediacy.

Finally, Michael Bell continues the discussion by highlighting the watershed moment of Edward Said’s Orientalism and its implications for discussions of primitivism, arguing that Said’s work converted “orientalism from an academic specialism into an ideological sin.” Bell notes this is where Etherington respectfully departs from Said and takes up a much more nuanced approach to primitivism that understands it not as a product of imperialism but rather a response to it. Bell also comments on the order the case studies are presented in the book—curiously ending with McKay when chronologically we might have begun with him to see the development of literary primitivism in relation to previous writers.

Alys Moody


Utopianism of the Remnant

Primitivism is an unfashionable idea. Long deployed as the centrepiece of arguments about modernism’s racist, imperialist impulses, it has become easy to dismiss it out of hand as a classic instance of what we would now call Western cultural appropriation. Ben Etherington’s Literary Primitivism offers a powerful and persuasive rebuff to this conventional wisdom. Etherington argues that to treat primitivism as simply a Western fetishization of non-Western cultures is to fail to grapple with its seriousness as a project particular to its historical moment. Instead, he wants us to recognize primitivism as a utopian project, one that contains within it a radical impulse towards capitalism’s negation. To make this case, he situates the high-water mark of the idea in the historical moment just prior to capitalism’s complete subsumption of the globe into its totalizing purview. Against this backdrop, Etherington proposes that primitivism is best understood as an attempt to reanimate the remnant of the pre-colonial, pre-capitalist societies which were then being forcibly integrated into the capitalist world-system. In this sense, he argues, primitivism holds alive the utopian prospect of social forms and modes of experience outside capitalism. Moreover, as an aesthetic project, it seeks to use literary form to rekindle them, to make them come alive in the present.

This is a powerful and original way of reconceptualizing primitivism. I admire in particular the prospect that it opens for repositioning the racial politics that have long been recognized as a central feature of primtivism within the capitalist world-system, and thereby of thinking race and class together. This approach allows Etherington to reconceive primitivism not as something that white Europeans do to colonized black peoples, but as a racialized structure for imagining a non-capitalist world, one that has been equally available to black and white writers, albeit operating differently in their different positions. As such, primitivism emerges as a project that brings together the usual suspects of white European writers such as D. H. Lawrence, with negritude poets like Aimé Césaire, and earlier black writers such as Claude McKay. Seen from such a vantage point, the history of negritude in particular emerges in a new and compelling light, and its long-acknowledged connections to anti-capitalist, as well as anti-colonial, thought begin to make a fuller kind of sense.

In this short essay, I want to push Etherington’s thinking in a couple of related directions, considering its relationship to modernism and its viability as a political program. Throughout, I am interested in the consequences of producing a utopianism from the remnant of past, pre-capitalist societies. To begin, I want to suggest that to make sense of this book’s accomplishments, it helps to understand primitivism as part of a larger modernist project. I should be clear that Etherington would vehemently resist this move. Although (or perhaps, because) primitivism in its derogatory sense has for so long been conceptualized as an integral part of the modernist project, Literary Primitivism is eager to resist this identification. Primitivism, he insists, “must be understood as a very different kind of concept from ‘modernism’ and ‘expressionism,’” for, unlike modernism, it is not “a concept that draws attention to a revolution in how artistic practice is conceived and conducted in general” (163). Nonetheless, and despite the author’s resistance, I think it’s worth keeping alive the link between modernist and primitivist practice. Etherington’s resistance to this connection seems to be rooted in an understanding of modernism as an exclusively European project, characterized by formalist experimentation for its own sake, and especially by the teleological progression towards abstraction. This definition, which recalls Clement Greenberg’s classic account of modernism in the visual arts as a teleological progression towards a pure encounter with the medium itself, has never been a particularly persuasive account of literary modernism. It has become dramatically less so in recent years, as work within modernist studies has undertaken to reconceptualize modernism along lines that chime productively with Etherington’s account of primitivism. Scholars of the subfield known as global modernism have undertaken a concerted project of thinking modernism’s relationship to non-European sites, languages, and literary traditions. In so doing, they and others have begun questioning the assumption that modernism can be straightforwardly reduced to formal experimentation and still less to abstraction. Seen in this light, Etherington’s rereading of primitivism as a project equally available to white and black, and to British and Caribbean writers, is not opposed to modernism, but rather forms part of a larger current of recent scholarship that rereads modernism as a global affair, produced by both European and non-European writers, sometimes working in dialogue, sometimes at odds, but always seeking to grapple with modernity in the domain of the aesthetic.

The modernism of Etherington’s primitivism is important not just as a matter of terminological quibbling (and nor as a purely selfish attempt to drag this wonderful book kicking and screaming into my own subfield). It matters because such an account provides the foundation for a wider contextualization of this powerful argument. Modernist studies is, after all, the subfield that has most extensively studied and theorized the literature of the period that stretches from the complete global expansion of the world-system at the end of the nineteenth century through to decolonization in the mid-twentieth—precisely the period in which Etherington argues primitivism had its moment of possibility. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised to find that primitivism, as described in this book, in fact forms part of a constellation of literary and other aesthetic practices and projects, proper to this historical moment—a constellation that modernist studies scholars are inclined to call modernism.

Seen in this light, some of the features that Etherington ascribes to primitivism emerge as part of a larger set of aesthetic aspirations in the period. One of Etherington’s most compelling methodological-theoretical claims, for instance, is that literary primitivism must be studied as what he calls an “aesthetic project,” which aims to produce “a process of transformation toward the primitive” (10). His claim is that what he calls “emphatic primitivism”—the subject of this book—is distinguished from what he calls “philo-primitivism” by the former’s attempt to reanimate a primitive state in and through the artwork itself. This emphasis on the artwork’s transformative potential, its capacity to not just depict but actually bring to life a utopian political arrangement or mode of life, is widespread in modernism—from some perspectives, it may even be one of the central impulses of certain strands of modernism, from Anglo-American conservatives, to early Russian communism, passing through virtually all manifesto writers.

Moreover, those strands of modernism that, like Etherington’s primitivism, seek to use the artwork to reanimate a utopian world also very often imagine this utopia to reside in the remnant of a pre-capitalist world, now lost or passing. This broad formulation, for instance, provides a compelling account of Ezra Pound’s momentous, doomed project in The Cantos, which seeks to reanimate lost pre-capitalist worlds—Confucian China; medieval Provence—in order to generate a fascist utopia, and which takes the sprawling, hyper-ambitious form of his epic as its vehicle for just such a reanimation. In a somewhat less monumental mode, it also offers a fine account of T. S. Eliot’s grappling with tradition across his work. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” he famously proclaims: what is this but a declaration of the poet’s attempt to reanimate the remnant in the era of its disappearance? Nor is this ambition confined to Europe. The question of how and whether artworks might reanimate lost worlds as new utopias, capable of repairing the damage wrought by the capitalist world-system, is one of the enduring questions of global modernism. Sometimes this takes the form of a primitivist mode, as in the Caribbean texts Etherington outlines in this book. At other times, it operates through the ennobling of traditions cast as primitive, as in many of the attempts to reclaim oral traditions and pre-colonial customs in decolonial African modernism. Elsewhere, it resides in the reanimation of pre-capitalist traditions, as in for instance Arabic modernism’s grappling with poetic tradition in literature and the history of calligraphy in the visual arts.

Reading Etherington’s primitivism as a modernist project highlights the fact that primitivism was one of an array of aesthetic projects in the period, many of which aimed to reanimate the remnant through the production of a work of art. This constitutes, I think, a helpful intervention into modernist studies. It suggests that there is scope in this project for a novel rereading, not just of modernism’s relationship to primitivism, but also of the central and long-standing question of modernism’s engagement with tradition and myth. Indeed, it suggests that three modes often treated separately—primitivism, the use of Western tradition and myth, and the Orientalist turn towards traditions of the East—might actually form part of a shared project, and it requires that we work harder to specify precisely how far and in what senses these modes functioned and functioned differently. It also moves us beyond accounts of modernism, like that of the Warwick Research Collective, which emphasise its “registration” of modernity, and towards Etherington’s more productive and more accurate account of these movements as aesthetic projects, which aim at reimagining, not just registering, the capitalist world-system. Taken together, Etherington’s account of primitivism provides us new ways of thinking about how modernism engaged with both tradition and modernity, under the conditions of the capitalist world-system. It highlights, in this sense, ways in which this account has a purchase that extends beyond the scope that Etherington prescribes for himself.

This constellation, however, also underscores what I have found persistently, if inchoately, troubling about this book: the question of what kind of utopianism it represents, and thus what kind of political project it holds out. It’s a question that presses itself particularly forcefully when read in the light of modernism, because so many modernist projects that seek to reanimate the remnant do so as part of a fascist or reactionary political program. While some forms of leftism with strong nationalist commitments also had recourse to such a project, leftist utopianism in this period was in general less likely to seek a return to pre-capitalist forms than it was to seek its utopia in the emergence of something entirely new (this is, after all, the Hegelian-Marxist way of understanding the dialectical progression of history: we do not seek a return to the ancien régime simply because it is not capitalist). My qualms on this point would not surprise Etherington and, indeed, the question is one whose troubling dimensions he does not shy away from. He acknowledges from the outset that primitivism does not have a determinate political content, making itself amenable to both fascist and revolutionary leftist political programs, and representing both impulses in his case studies. Moreover, as he seems at times acutely aware, “the dangers of a politics driven by an aesthetics of immediacy would soon become apparent, especially with the ascendency of the twin of fascist populism and consumer satisfaction” (35).

The reason why I remain troubled by the political valence of the primitivist project despite Etherington’s careful handling of the question lies I think in the book’s method. Literary Primitivism is committed to a reading of texts that meets them in their historical context. It constitutes, in effect, a kind of historicist phenomenology, an attempt to feel our way back into not just the intellectual commitments but also the affects and aesthetics of a now lost historical moment. It aims, we might say, to reanimate the remnant of the reanimated remnant. To do this, we are required to suspend our presentist impulse to critique, our desire to insist on the constructedness of the primitivist utopia or to hastily condemn the politics that makes us uncomfortable. This project is admirable in its humility in relation to its object, as well as in its ambitious attempt to keep the past alive as something that we can imagine as a truly habitable moment.

At the same time, however, the book returns to primitivism precisely in order to learn something that we might carry forward into the present. As he argues in the conclusion, “If we are to gain footholds for a critical perspective on our present at a moment when the unified yet constitutively uneven nature of the global capitalist system again is nakedly apparent, we need to be able to call on all the resources of utopian memory” (161). Like primitivism itself, Literary Primitivism’s attempt to reanimate the remnant is a utopian project. To function in this utopian mode, it needs to take as read both the accessibility of the remnant to thought in the present and the desirability of its reanimation. To mount a critique of the politics enfolded in the primitivist move is thus already to move against the spirit of the project, introducing layers of mediation and distance that are inimical to its nature. But—and this is my discomfort—if we want to draw upon this aesthetic as a resource in imagining an anti-capitalist politics for our present time, surely we need more than the amorphous sense that others once lived under capitalism but sought to imagine their way out of it. Utopianism is only admirable if the utopia itself is desirable: after all, fascism too has its utopias, many of them elaborated by modernist writers. And not all non-capitalist systems represent an improvement on capitalism. Utopianism alone is insufficient as a ground for leftism. Even if, as Etherington believes (and as I’m willing to grant, at least provisionally), we need utopianism at this historical moment, to remind us that other forms of social organisation are possible, it will only advance our political aspirations if the utopia in question is a genuinely progressive one. One of the consequences of thinking primitivism as part of a constellation of such projects is the realisation that we have many choices, many utopian projects. Our options in this period are not primitivism or capitalism, but include a whole array of different anti-capitalist, non-primitivist utopias. If we want to take primitivism as a vehicle for our contemporary utopianism, we need to justify this choice.

Is, then, the utopianism of emphatic primitivism the one on which a leftist politics should ground itself in the present? My answer, if I am frank, is a flat no. While I greatly admire Etherington’s account of primitivism as a historical project, I do not want to live in the world that such a utopianism seems liable to produce. One initial reason for this is the extent to which the mode of primitivism developed here is irrevocably masculinist. This is a utopia of male bodies and male sexuality, grounded in a glorification of the phallus and in the eroticism of male homosociality. Worse, it is a utopia that, as Etherington acknowledges, is built on acts of violence against women. I do not necessarily think this masculinism is an inevitable correlate of primitivism. I can, for instance, see the glimmer of a feminist primitivism in Mina Loy’s “Parturition,” a poem that, intriguingly, locates the unmediated encounter with what she calls “the subliminal deposits of evolutionary processes” in the female body at the moment of childbirth. But whatever alternate primitivisms Loy or Zora Neale Hurston (Etherington’s suggested woman primitivist) might produce, the fact remains that the primitivism of the case studies selected for this book finds its subject in the dream of a virile masculinity whose primitivist ecstasy leaves as its casualties beaten, strangled, and violated women. The anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism that Literary Primitivism discovers is also an anti-feminism. If the claim of this book is that primitivism provides us with tools to imagine a world liberated from capitalism and colonialism, if one of its strengths is the way in which it insists on the intertwining of these systems, it troubles me that its case studies’ wholehearted defences of patriarchy are so untroubling for its argument. It suggests, somewhat dishearteningly, that racial capitalism is the horizon of domination for this study, gender merely an optional extra.

But I do not want to live in the world that Loy’s utopianism seems liable to produce, either. Even if we were to discover a feminist primitivism, I would still have at least two reservations about the political desirability of this utopia. First, I worry about making an aesthetics of immediacy into the agent of utopian thought. We have already observed, with Etherington, the tendency of such an aesthetics to incline towards fascism or capitalist consumerism. The underlying problem, I think, lies in the fact that this aesthetics of immediacy gives us a utopia without social organisation. While conventionally, utopias have sought to imagine new forms of social organisation, the primitivist utopia generates social relations only as a side effect of its real concern: the generation of new forms of self-consciousness and (affective, sexual, emotional) experience. If this is indeed a utopia, it is a utopia grounded in what it feels like to live without mediation, not necessarily in a different way of arranging society. But I think, ultimately, that society itself may necessitate mediation, at least on the kind of scale that we must operate under any form of capitalist or non-capitalist modernity. While I would happily accept this primitivism as an aesthetic project, then, the attempt to make this aesthetics into a politics strikes me as worryingly unpolitical in its disregard for the forms society would take under this utopia.

Second, I remain sceptical of primitivism’s embrace of the non-capitalist past as the site of its utopia. I think, in fact, that this contributes to the anti-feminism of the primitivism in this study, for while there is a strong argument that racial capitalism might be a single formation, the same cannot be straightforwardly claimed for patriarchy, which has existed over millennia, in non-capitalist as well as capitalist societies. The gender problem is, in this sense, a side effect of the fact that this utopianism seeks its teleology in a return of a lost past, without pausing to evaluate the merits of the society to which we are returning. This problem persists, however, even if we look back to a past that is not patriarchal, as in strands of feminism that have sought their utopias in real or imagined archaic matriarchies. There has, simply, never been an ideal form of social arrangement; and if there had been, the conditions that made it possible would no longer be in place. If we want something better, we will have to make it ourselves, starting not in a nostalgia for lost forms of experience but with the materials at hand today.

  • Ben Etherington

    Ben Etherington


    Response to Alys Moody

    Thank you Alys for your wonderfully lucid summary of Literary Primitivism’s argument and for your forthright engagement with it. The two overarching questions that you raise—whether primitivism would be better understood if conceptualized as belonging to a globally expanded conception of modernism, and whether primitivist utopianism was “irrevocably masculinist” and an aesthetic and political dead-end—are both given too short shrift in the book (especially the latter, something I admit in the conclusion). I’m glad to have the opportunity to think more concertedly about these two areas and to set the course for further thinking.

    You outline two reasons for the usefulness of regarding primitivism as a “mode” of modernism. It would accord with compelling revisionist understandings of modernism and it would enable comparative work by allowing primitivism to be seen as part of a “constellation” of cognate modes of modernism. Especially, it would allow us to perceive a spectrum of modernist practices built on the utopian affirmation of what the book calls the primitivist “remnant.” There may be a bigger story here, a “shared project” linking modernism’s various appeals to myth and tradition; one which the concepts forged in my study might help to tell.

    In a Venn diagram of our respective conceptions of primitivism and modernism it may be that the circle encompassing primitivism would be entirely contained within that encompassing modernism. I’m open to seeing how my argument might be further developed were it to treat primitivism as a mode of modernism, with all the interpretative possibilities that this could unlock. I have only a passing familiarity with the contemporary debates in modernist studies (in no small part due to learning from you), though, so I will need to start reading! It is worth pointing out that the section of the book most concerned with disentangling primitivism from modernist-oriented understandings—the first section of chapter 4—stipulates that it deals with modernism as “conventionally conceived.” I probably should have written more specifically: “as conceived according to received Eurocentric and formalist understandings.” That usage is quite different to the comment that you cite from the conclusion—“a revolution in how artistic practice is conceived and conducted in general”—which has a broader conceptual remit. Taking into account your critique, “revolution” should probably have been pluralized.

    Without wanting to preempt where a more comprehensive reading of contemporary modernist scholarship might take the argument, I do have doubts whether considering primitivism as a mode of modernism would catalyze the conceptual, interpretative, and comparative possibilities that you point to. I suspect one of the main reasons that my work chimes productively with recent work in modernist studies is that both are stimulated by even broader currents. As you well know, these are usually associated with the terms “transnationalism” and “world literature,” though I prefer to think of them as arising from literary scholars adopting what Lukács called the “point of view of totality.” Also, your example of a study of the various ways in which modernists made artistic use of the “remnants” of past social realities seems to me to rest more heavily on the category of “remnant” than that of modernism. I can’t immediately see why it would be helpful to limit a study of artistic treatments of remnants to works that might also be considered modernist unless one’s ambition, from the outset, were to say something about modernism.

    Looking to the bigger picture, a comparative project is gestured to (fleetingly!) when I state that primitivism “was just one form of the proliferation of radical utopianisms in the early to mid-twentieth century, though perhaps unique in its gravitation toward the perimeter of the imperial totality” (xvi). Again, I can’t immediately see the advantage in limiting a comparative study of radical utopianisms to those also deemed modernist. And isn’t an “emphasis on the artwork’s transformative potential” a characteristic of modern art more generally?

    I can also see reasons, substantive and disciplinary, why regarding primitivism as a mode of modernism could be counterproductive. As formulated in the book, the primitivist project makes use of aesthetic materials to realise its end: it seeks a transformation toward a “primitive” condition through the agency of the artwork. This means that aspects of many primitivist works will satisfy the most familiar criterion for considering an artwork as modernist—that it be formally experimental (leaving aside any claims about the nature and purpose of the experimentation involved). I take your point that modernism should not be reduced to this criterion, but if, as you have put it elsewhere, modernism responds to a crisis in the social role of art (Moody, 204), it seems likely that some kind of formal experimentation will remain a hallmark even of revisionist and globally expanded definitions of what counts as modernism. I don’t think that primitivism is productively constrained by this criterion and that there are significant primitivist works that are not productively considered as being modernist. When researching the book, I found that literary primitivism tends to lean just as heavily on received conventions of expression as it does new ways of thinking about and fashioning art. This is because primitivist works typically seek to give a vivid and recognizable presence to the idealized remnant and to attempt to recreate that “primitive” condition perceived within it. It typically sets in train a dialectic of convention and experimentation in which the former just as often prevails.

    Coming to the disciplinary question: to describe something as “modernist” is not just to invoke definitions (and counter-definitions), but to be drawn into the crossfire of position-taking around those definitions. Granted, this is not a substantive matter, but it can nevertheless shape one’s sense of critical purpose. To proceed on the basis that primitivism is a mode of modernism likely would take it into a realm in which its value would be judged in the terms of its contribution to those debates (as you put it, the book is “a helpful intervention into modernist studies”). I’m glad that you think that it has made an unforeseen contribution in another field but there are other fields that the study is more immediately concerned with. One is the (increasingly defunct) field of postcolonial studies, in which the dominance of deconstructive and discourse-based methodologies had made any reckoning with literary primitivism’s breadth and complexity as an aesthetic project almost impossible to countenance. A key catalyzing term for the study, though, is decolonization, and the troubling relationship that primitivism had to that still vital aspiration. What I found most fascinating and disconcerting in my reading for the book was the way in which primitivism continually yoked anti-imperialism to a yearning for an originary natural condition. It is for this reason that the postcolonial generation of scholars wished either to critique negritude, indigenism, and nativism as essentialist or to claim that such works were really involved in a covert deconstruction. On thing that I hope readers of the study will register is the deep damage done by global imperialism to our collective capacity to imagine our origins.

    This brings me to the second part of your response. Once again I am impressed by the conciseness with which you gloss the book’s purpose—it does indeed aspire to present a historical phenomenology of primitivism so as to feel our way back into the primitivist structure of desire. However, I think you take the comment I make on needing to call on “all the resources of the utopian memory” in order to gain “footholds for a critical perspective on our present” in a different direction to that which the comment, and the study as a whole, points. I concede that it is a somewhat gnomic phrase, and, in the absence of clarifying paraphrase, it’s possible to read it as a more affirmative statement than was intended. To be clear: no, I do not think that primitivism can do much in the way of helping us to imagine an “anti-capitalist politics for our present time” and much less serve as a “vehicle for our contemporary utopianism.” (Indeed, I wonder whether any past utopianism can serve as a vehicle for contemporary utopianism, just as past social revolutions [realized and unrealized] cannot provide blueprints for present social movements.) I do think it can help us to understand the shape that such aspirations can take and give us a way of understanding the desire for authentic immediate experience without preemptively subjecting it to facile deconstruction.

    At the risk of instrumentalism, here’s an example of how thinking about primitivist utopianism might give a critical vantage on contemporary utopianism. Let’s say you’re the kind of person who thinks that the solution to looming ecological catastrophe is to reconnect with nature in the form of personally seeking out and being at one with the “wild.” You might learn several things from a study of primitivist utopianism. You might learn that the desire immediately to grasp the condition of nature tends to bring to the surface all those mediations that stimulated your desire to be at one with nature in the first place. This might lead to the realization that much of the “wild” survives only by dint of being curtained off by the state and that its material condition of possibility rests in it serving as a commodity for tourists. As you jostle with the selfie-takers, you might swivel 180 degrees and reach the conclusion that the “wild” is actually a big fat lie, a mere fantasy of the alienated subject of late capitalism. Here you might also learn from a study of primitivism that the fact that something is mediated needn’t invalidate the wish for the immediate. The question becomes: what to do with that wish? If a personal reconnection with the wild is not desirable, what is required to make possible again a meaningful experience of the wild? You might also learn that simply sharing a yearning for the wilderness with others does not entail a common purpose. The utopian yearning for the wild may entail multiple praxes, some which you agree with, and others which appall you.

    This is what I intended to gesture to when I spoke of gaining a critical perspective on our present: a vigilant yet non-cynical appraisal of the persistent desire for authenticity and immediacy, one that humans in so many different situations have associated with an idealized originary state. Now you or I might want nothing to do with such utopianisms. (I agree with much of your final paragraph, even if I wonder if it does justice to the persistence into our present of non-capitalist social forms.) But it cannot be doubted that utopianisms of a similar structure to that identified by my book continue, and perhaps are regaining strength (something I consider in this essay). As it did a century ago, such aspirations mix with other utopianisms, for instance those associated with “decolonial” struggles of indigenous peoples (look at the feed of the decivilized group, for example). To understand these developments and to make discriminations, it helps to be able to call on all the resources of the utopian memory, and not only those that accord with one’s preexisting moral and political disposition.

    And, as you rightly point out, a reason to be especially vigilant when it comes to primitivist and primitivist-like utopianisms is that they tend to be masculinist. This is especially problematic when primitivism extends the logic of patriarchy into a putative originary condition of nature. You are also spot on when you insist that attempting to neutralize such a critique by pointing to those who have wanted to discover archaic matriarchies, or by seeking out and celebrating examples of female primitivists is wrongheaded. It is no coincidence that it largely was men who were drawn to this structure of utopianism.

    I do think you overstate things, though, when you say that works of primitivism discussed in the study collectively present: “a utopia of male bodies and male sexuality, grounded in a glorification of the phallus and in the eroticism of male homosociality. Worse, it is a utopia that, as Etherington acknowledges, is built on acts of violence against women.” I want to point briefly to two readings in the book. In Langston Hughes’s “The Blues I’m Playing,” the young female black pianist protégé of a rich white female patron ultimately rebuffs her patron’s attempt to culturally assimilate her in a scene that draws heavily (and sincerely) on primitivist tropes (similar to those used by Zora Neale Hurston in an essay I discuss on pp. 200–201.) This is part of the more subtle primitivism of Hughes’s work which tends to gesture to latencies rather than indulge in hyperbolic exhortation. One of the central claims I make about Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love is that the primitivism of his male characters present woeful dead-ends. When Gerald Crich strangles Gudrun and then kills himself, Lawrence is narrating the morbid trajectory of a white masculinist primitivism (what I call “blancitude”). Lawrence is showing us what happens if those whose habits have been shaped by patriarchal European capitalist modernity abandon themselves to their instincts. So aspects of your critique are already embedded in the novel’s narrative structure. The narrative vehicles for a “good” primitivism in the novels I discuss lie more with the female protagonists, Ursula Brangwen and Kate Leslie. Perhaps the quintessential primitivist moment in Lawrence’s oeuvre is that cited in chapter 4, where Ursula stands before the rainbow and sees “the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away” (cited p. 55). (By this stage Skrebensky’s dark racialized masculinist primitivist energy has been recontained within a hasty marriage and a colonial posting.)

    Now, I hardly want to claim that Lawrence’s primitivism is actually feminist! To an extent you are right to say that Lawrence’s primitivism is “built on” violence against women, insofar as it creates spectacles of violence as it strains to imagine new primitive orders (just as much as it works its way through all kinds of racist notions). The same could be said of Bita Plant in McKay’s Banana Bottom. What struck me, and perhaps it is because of Lawrence’s irrevocably racialist and masculinist imaginary, is that his primitivism ultimately is very thin. It’s no better than pure colours, nakedness, some crass stereotypes about pre-colonial rituals, and a putative “beyond” civilization. Dead-ends and clichés—not the kinds of things to build a political movement on . . .

    I want to end, though, with Césaire, Suzanne Césaire. Not because her thinking is unproblematic, but because she’s concerned to work through those layers of historical mediation in a more critical vein without giving up on the deep conviction that the persistence of an “Ethiopian sentiment of life” (Césaire, 98) provides a real resource for breaking free of the strictures of the given world of modernity. She is careful to avoid nostalgia, but also insists that those “pent-up forces” and desire for “abandon” need to be drawn on in their “plenitude without deviation or falsification” (Césaire, 98–100). This is not a wholesale restoration of the past, but nor does it simply give up on everything from the past that modernity has sought to destroy. The memory and felt persistence of those things are real resources from which she draws strength and with which she proposes to imagine her way out of the inevitability with which the current arrangement of things wishes to present itself.


    Works Cited

    Césaire, Suzanne. “Malaise d’une civilization.” Tropiques 4 (January 1942). Republished and translated as “A Civilization’s Discontent,” in Refusal of the Shadow, edited by Michael Richardson, translated by Michael Richardson and Kryzysztof Fijałkowski, 96–100. London: Verso, 1996.

    Moody, Alys. The Art of Hunger: Aesthetic Autonomy and the Afterlives of Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


Victor Li


Reopening the Question of Literary Primitivism

In the conclusion to Literary Primitivism, Ben Etherington writes: “The purpose of this book has been to reopen the question of primitivism. It has not been to have the final say” (161). But this statement is rather too modest and concessionary. It does not capture the book’s bold and radical challenge to what it describes as “the consensus view” (161) of primitivism as a Western practice that is problematic and troubling in its appropriative idealization or its racist degradation of the primitive Other. The book is, in fact, far more ambitious since it not only challenges the consensus view but also forwards the provocative thesis that primitivism, when properly periodized and reconceptualized, can have a politically progressive and decolonizing effect. This is an audacious, against-the-grain theoretical move that transforms primitivism from something offensive or misguided that is to be wholly avoided into an aesthetic and political tool that can be effectively deployed in decolonizing struggles against a racist and imperialist capitalism.

The book cogently demonstrates the power of literary primitivism to “negate the social logic of globalizing capital” (xiii) through often dazzling readings of the work of D. H. Lawrence, Claude McKay, and Aimé Césaire. But it is through Césaire’s work and his theorizing and promotion of Negritude, the literary movement he and others founded, that the book demonstrates how an exemplary decolonizing primitivist practice can be brought into existence. The centerpiece of the book is the chapter titled “Césaire, Fanon, and Immediacy as a Project” in which, through a careful, slow reading of Césaire’s great poem Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land) in relation to Frantz Fanon’s chapter “The Lived Experience of the Black” in Black Skin, White Masks, Etherington offers us an eloquent and novel account of how what he terms literary or emphatic primitivism resisted the racist grip of imperialist capitalism by reanimating primitive remnants that still existed as alternatives to that stranglehold.

While Literary Primitivism’s recuperation of primitivism’s decolonizing impulse is refreshingly original insofar as it challenges negative views and standard critiques of primitivism, the success of its recuperative project requires us to accept three enabling concepts that, in my view, need further scrutiny. The three concepts which enable the project of literary or emphatic primitivism can be listed briefly as the concept of delimitation and periodization, the concept of the primitive remnant, and the concept of aesthetic immediacy. In what follows, I want to take up the book’s generous admission that it does not seek “to have the final say” by raising some questions with regard to these three concepts.

To support the argument that primitivism in its emphatic literary form opposes the logic of imperialist capitalism, the book has to perform a delimitation and periodization that selects and narrows the range of definitions for primitivism. “This study,” we are told, “has argued for a limited and historically delineated conception of primitivism considered as an aesthetic phenomenon” (162). Literary or emphatic primitivism, the study’s chosen and politically approved subject, is forcefully distinguished from other broader and looser transhistorical uses of the term. It is contrasted, for example, to “philo-primitivism” which is described as “a broad interest in or felt affinity for the primitive” (20) manifested through ideas and representations in different historical periods. Literary primitivism, on the contrary, is subjected to a very specific periodization. It “was an aesthetic project formed in reaction to the zenith of imperialist expansion at the start of the twentieth century” (xi). We are further informed that “primitivism’s epoch of possibility was, in the end, relatively short, spanning the period between the advent of finance-driven imperialism and the global movement of decolonization, after which the capacity to motivate an aesthetics centered on the pre-colonial or (noncolonial) remnant fell away” (162). A further delimitation occurs when literary primitivism is defined as an aesthetic project which has as its objective the realization of “a primitive condition that was perceived to be at the point of obsolescence” (9). Such a project required not only a belief “in the capacity of aesthetic practice to revive the remnants of ‘primitive’ social realities” (162), but also the capacity to conceive of primitivism as itself the literary activity of “coming into the primitive” (8), that is, to become, through aesthetic agency, a “primitive in a world where, it seemed, such a possibility had been voided” (xi).

Literary primitivism thus appears to be defined quite narrowly through a series of exclusions; literary primitivism is because it is not that. To be sure, Etherington admits that he is “not suggesting that all usages and considerations of ‘primitivism’ need be confined to these claims” (10). Still, the fact that there are scare quotes around the other usages of “primitivism” suggests that literary primitivism (without scare quotes) is the real thing worthy of our attention. While the book’s delimitation and periodization of primitivism enable it to avoid a loose and baggy use of the term “primitivism” and help it achieve a certain terminological and methodological precision, one can argue that its precision is perhaps too procrustean. To say that literary primitivism is possible only in the world-historical situation in which an expanding imperialist capitalism is on the verge of obliterating all primitive social forms is to forward a historically and theoretically overdetermined view that sees only what it wants to see. Is the short period between the zenith of capitalist imperial expansion in the early twentieth century and the era of decolonization after the Second World War the only period in which the remnants of primitive social forms still existed? The conclusion one takes away from this periodization of a literary primitivism energized by primitive remnants is that after decolonization the remnants disappear into a globally integrated capitalism and that, as a consequence, “the capacity to motivate an aesthetics centered on the pre-colonial (or noncolonial) remnant fell away” (162). What then should we make of the Adivasi (indigenous tribal groups) that number in the millions in India? They and their pre-modern, non-capitalist social forms, like those of many other indigenous peoples around the world, have not fallen away or disappeared altogether despite exaggerated accounts of capitalist globalization. I wonder what Adivasi activists and writers in India today would make of the argument that the end of colonialism and the ensuing integration of national economies into the global market “extinguished the smouldering light that had given the primitivist project its impetus” (43). Is literary primitivism as a mode of expression to be denied to a writer like Mahasweta Devi, whose stories closely follow the lives of tribal peoples, because most of her work was written in the Seventies and Eighties in postcolonial India? More generally, can we include in the category of literary primitivism works that attempt, with varying degrees of success, to revive primitive remnants or incarnate the primitive but fall outside the period stipulated by Etherington’s book? I have in mind novels like Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps, Wilson Harris’s Palace of the Peacock, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, and Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, among others. Do these works fail to meet the rather procrustean criteria of what counts as literary primitivism? Are they to be consigned to that vast reject bin marked “philo-primitivism”? While Literary Primitivism is to be admired for its definitional exactitude and methodological consistency, that exactitude and consistency come at a cost.

The primitive remnant is “a crucial concept” for Etherington’s study (8). It is crucial because it is the disappearing element which stimulates literary or emphatic primitivism and allows it to become primitive itself. It is a concept, however, that remains rather vague and empirically emaciated. Primitive remnants are described as “objective reminders of previous social realities,” that is, reminders of a pre-colonial or pre-capitalist era (8). Only a few concrete examples are given: “gothic churches,” the theology they represented, and the stonemasons who built them (8); “the organic social relations of Tom Brangwen’s farm,” “Will Brangwen’s Lincoln Cathedral,” “Anton Skrebensky’s racialized ‘negro’” (56) in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow; and “the red flesh of the soil” in Césaire’s Cahier (100). Citing Ernst Bloch, Etherington admits that some of these remnants were mobilized by fascist ideologues who were equally disenchanted by capitalism’s crises (8–9). Nor can we overlook, he reminds us, “Léopold Senghor’s affirmation of Nazi blood and soil ideology in the early 1930s anymore than we can Lawrence’s statements about strong leaders and blood consciousness” (42). For these reasons, the book steers us away from the objective empirical remnants towards the subjective aspect of literary primitivism’s longing for the remnant as primitive alternative to imperialist capitalism. We are told that “the remnant is something more like a wish” (49), that it is important “to distinguish between primitivist longing and that which is longed for,” and that the book’s task is “to recover its [primitivism’s] longing” (8). For writers from the non-West or imperial peripheries, primitive remnants “yet seemed real, or they more urgently needed to believe in the illusion of their reality” (38). The subjective dimension of desire is clearly present in words like “seemed” and “illusion.” What is important then is the wish or longing for the remnant even more than the remnant itself which can remain vague and illusory since it will be aesthetically transformed and surpassed by the writer’s activity. What we should therefore pay attention to is “that movement of primitivist striving that tends inherently to surpass any fixed representation or form” (43). Nevertheless the remnant is still needed because though it “may only be an illusion, . . . it is one that is necessary to stimulate the yearned for vitality” (42). As Etherington remarks, “The charged remnant holds the promise of the charged self” (42).

One suspects that the primitive “charged remnant” has to remain somewhat illusory or virtual for it to function as that non-empirical, immaterial, and somewhat unrepresentable form that motivates the self to engage in its self-charging primitivising activity. The primitive remnant thus seems to be an idealized figure, a kind of primitive sublime that escapes complete objective intelligibility or representational capture, yet has the power to call forth in the Negritude movement a self-primitivising literary project opposed to imperialist capitalism. This concept of the primitive remnant, a concept so pure it cannot but be virtual, can be compared to Frantz Fanon’s more historicized and materialist conception of cultural remnants. In the chapter titled “On National Culture” in The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon writes: “By the time a century or two of exploitation has passed there comes about a veritable emaciation of the stock of national culture. It becomes a set of automatic habits, some traditions of dress, and a few broken-down institutions. Little movement can be discerned in such remnants of culture; there is no real creativity and no overflowing life” (238, emphasis added). I can accept the argument that certain primitive remnants may have the utopian political function of suggesting alternate realities to an imperializing capitalism. But as Fanon has reminded us, not all remnants can be detached from an unfortunate history of degradation and idealized as generators of utopian striving. Remnants thus need to be evaluated and judged, but how can we accomplish this if they are also theoretically required to be merely wishful, illusory, and not manifested or fixed through any representation or form?

Like the concept of the remnant, the concept of aesthetic immediacy in Literary Primitivism needs further clarification. There seems to be an element of self-contradiction in the book’s account of immediate experience. It rightly argues that we should see primitivism as “a movement through the mediate toward the immediate. Just as any claim to the spontaneous reappearance of the German volk is bogus, so negritude poets discovered that any claim to an immediate access to ‘Africa’ is blocked by colonial mediations” (35). At the same time, however, it approves of Sinéad Mattar’s description of primitivism as a “process of self-referential idealization” (7). Primitivism’s source, we are told, “is not an idea or representation but the anguished yearning of discontent that seeks self-transformation toward the primitive. . . . Primitivism is the activity of coming into the primitive” (8). A literary, emphatic primitivism therefore requires no external mediation as its task is that of achieving by itself a condition of primitive immediacy: “To reach its destination it must itself become primitive and so break free of any prior primitive concept or representation. It will emerge that it is constitutive of primitivism to be always in the mode of transcending any determinate notion of the primitive” (7). But to achieve aesthetic immediacy through a process of self-referential idealization that has no need of external mediation is to perform a kind of impossible existential bootstrapping, like Baron Munchausen pulling himself by his hair out of the bog.

The book attempts to escape from the double bind posed by the contending pair of immediacy and mediation by citing Adorno: “Thought remains faithful to the idea of immediacy only in and through what is mediated; conversely, it falls prey to the mediated as soon as it tries to grasp the unmediated directly” (epigraph; see also 35). What the reader gathers from the book’s Adorno citation is that the work of art cannot achieve immediacy directly or immediately but has to first register and suffer, and then surpass mediation through aesthetic transformation on its way to immediacy. Thus a distinction is made between Alioune Diop’s “false immediacy” which ignored the context of colonial mediation in its direct affirmation of an authentic African identity and Césaire’s attempt to achieve immediacy which required him to testify to the brutality of colonial mediation as well as undertake an “aesthetic modification of the human project” that sought to transcend such mediation (89). But I’m not sure if the aesthetic immediacy achieved by Césaire’s literary primitivism / Negritude poetics can ever fully surpass mediation or shake off its signs. Arguably, the immediacy achieved can only ever display itself with its mediations fully visible. That is to say, if immediacy is not to fall prey to the Munchausen effect of self-referential idealization, it will have to make mediation its very ground of possibility. This is in fact what Adorno wanted to convey in the essay from which Etherington excerpted the citation above. The cited excerpt appears to give priority to immediacy. But a fuller citation from Adorno’s essay will show that it is mediation as “second nature” that exposes the “first nature” of primordial immediacy as illusory:

[EXT]Instead of “reducing” cultural phenomena, the essay immerses itself in them as though in a second nature, a second immediacy, in order to negate and transcend the illusion of immediacy through its perseverance. It has no more illusions about the difference between culture and what lies beneath it than does the philosophy of origin. But for it culture is not an epiphenomenon that covers Being and should be destroyed; instead, what lies beneath culture is itself thesis, something constructed, the false society. . . . It does not glorify concern with the original as more primordial than concern with what is mediated, because for it primordiality is itself an object of reflection, something negative. This corresponds to a situation in which primordiality, as a standpoint of the spirit in the midst of a societalized world, becomes a lie. The lie extends from the elevation of historical concepts in historical languages to primal words . . . and to primitiveness pursued as a handicraft, to recorders and finger painting, in which pedagogical necessity acts as though it were a metaphysical virtue. Baudelaire’s revolt of literature against nature as a social preserve does not spare thought. The paradises of thought too are now only artificial ones. . . . Since, in Hegel’s dictum, there is nothing between heaven and earth that is not mediated, thought remains faithful to the idea of immediacy only in and through what is mediated; conversely, it falls prey to the mediated as soon as it tries to grasp the unmediated directly. (Adorno, 19–20)[/EXT]

I have quoted Adorno at some length because his critique of primordial immediacy can be equally directed at literary primitivism’s aesthetics of immediacy. If Adorno is right, then primitivism’s aesthetics of immediacy can only ever be a “second order” immediacy. To say this is not to disparage Etherington’s reading of Césaire’s Cahier as “the great work of literary primitivism” (42). Rather, it is to complicate his reading by suggesting that the Cahier’s greatness can be found as much in its transformation of French colonial mediations as in its animation of African remnants. It can be argued that Césaire’s literary primitivism, described by Etherington as the plunge into the immediacy of black identity, has to be seen in relation to the poem’s attempt to situate and even to immerse itself in colonial mediations (such as the French language) in an attempt to affect a revolutionary transformation of these mediations. Thus Etherington’s comment that Césaire’s use of repetition and parallelism can be seen as “an attempt to seize an originary ontology as though by the determination of will alone—magic by means of syntax” (96), though highly perceptive, is not complete unless we seriously acknowledge not only that its magical immediacy is made possible by means of French syntax but that the mediating French syntax is, in turn, decolonized, released from colonial imposition into creative new meanings. In other words, while we have to accept that the Cahier’s aesthetic immediacy is inescapably mediated by the French language, the poem’s true genius lies in its marvelous ability to use mediation for its own emancipatory ends. That is why the poem foregrounds the Cahier in its title. It could just have been titled Un Retour au Pays Natal thus dropping the mediating cahier (French for notebook or exercise book in a pedagogical context, or even a book of grievances, un cahier de doléance, the most famous of which was that presented to Louis XVI in 1789 on the eve of the Revolution) and emphasizing the immediacy of the retour. Instead Césaire retains the mediating cahier but changes it into a revolutionary notebook in which French, the language of the colonizer, is subjected to a process of creative destruction, its semantics and syntax wrenched into new vectors of meaning. In his introduction to a new translation of the Cahier, F. Abiola Irele remarks: “[Césaire’s] way with [the French] language involves a prior disinvestment of an imposed medium and its transvaluation in the direction of a new and original expressive project. His poetry represents a purposive alienation of French from its native speakers and from its normal context of reference, and its transformation into the antagonistic language of the Other” (Irele, 57). The concluding lines of the Cahier—“c’est là que je veux pécher maintenant la langue maléfique de la nuit en / son immobile verrition” (“that’s where I now long to fish out the night’s malicious tongue in its / sweeping stillness”)—epitomize Césaire’s ability to force a malicious colonial tongue into uttering a new word like “verrition,” not a French word but an invented neologism derived from the Latin verb “verri,” to sweep—a neologism designed to sweep into action or mobilize a dormant creativity. It can therefore be argued that the Cahier’s aesthetic project not only moves from colonial mediation toward Negritude’s primitive immediacy, but also takes a further step in the other direction, from colonial mediation to a poetics of neologism—not concluding with literary primitivism’s regression to a pre-colonial or noncolonial primordiality, but taking up the revolutionary task of inventing new beginnings for a new humanity:

instead the work of man has only just begun

the task remains for man to overcome all taboos rendered powerless in

the corners of his fervor

and no race has a monopoly on beauty, or intelligence, or vitality

and there is room for all at the appointed place of conquest. (Journal/Cahier, 139)


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. “The Essay as Form.” In Notes to Literature, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholson, 3–23. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Césaire, Aimé. Journal of a Homecoming / Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal. Translated by N. Gregson Davis. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1963.

Irele, F. Abiola. Introduction to Journal of a Homecoming / Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal, by Aimé Césaire. Translated by N. Gregson Davis. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

  • Ben Etherington

    Ben Etherington


    Response to Victor Li

    Thank you, Victor, for being a part of this symposium, for attentively reading Literary Primitivism, and for your lively engagement with the book’s argument. As you know, The Neo-Primitivist Turn was immensely important for Literary Primitivism. It helped me to see clearly the patterns in the poststructuralist generation’s treatment of primitivism, and thus better to grasp the ways in which my research deviated from those patterns.

    It was always my hope that my book would stimulate new ways (and I emphasise the plural) of understanding primitivism, even if it meant that the book’s quite decisively asserted theses would be tested and perhaps surpassed in the process. It seems to me that a subject as vexed and historically complex as primitivism can only be satisfactorily understood in the interplay of different perspectives and the methodological orientations that underpin those perspectives. As I try to wrap my mind around the lines of critique from which you have probed the argument in order to respond without succumbing to point-by-point pedantry, it is to the question of methodological orientation that I am drawn. I’m reminded of the strikingly forthcoming way in which you conclude The Neo-Primitivist Turn:

    Thus, it would be a failure of critical vigilance on my part were I to refuse to admit that my own book contains the trace structure, the spectral presence of neo-primitivism itself. I cannot escape from this aporia of at once criticizing neo-primitivism and of relying on certain of its theoretical assumptions. I can only acknowledge my dilemma. (227–28)

    It seems only right that you would exercise similar critical vigilance when assessing a book that you surmise to advocate for primitivism as an “aesthetic and political tool that can be effectively deployed in decolonizing struggles.” Where Literary Primitivism periodizes the moment at which primitivism’s project had urgency, you point to the ongoing struggles of indigenous groups that never have been wholly co-opted into the globalized capitalist system. At the same time, you also point to authors whose work seems to share the impulse to “revive primitive remnants or incarnate the primitive” but which lie outside the “window of opportunity” proposed by the book. Where Literary Primitivism posits that the basic morphology of primitivist yearning involves an appeal to an objective “remnant” of a “primitive” social world, you point out that such remnants tend to be “empirically emaciated” and are more “a kind of primitive sublime.” Where Literary Primitivism suggests that primitivist works share a desire to recover immediate experience, you suggest that “primitivism’s aesthetics of immediacy can only ever be a ‘second order’ immediacy.”

    Throughout, and with delicious provocation, you enlist the key theoretical and literary protagonists of Literary Primitivism. So, far from endorsing the pre-colonial remnant, Fanon argues that colonialism had reduced such remnants to a stock of empty habits and broken institutions; Adorno’s comment on staying faithful to immediacy through that which is mediated—something of a mantra for the book as a whole—is really a matter of exposing the illusion of primordial immediacy; and Césaire’s Cahier is not principally an act of neo-African longing, but, rather its “true genius” lies in its iconoclastic attack on the mediations of French colonialism. Each of these thinkers plays their part in helping to deconstruct the positive claims made by Literary Primitivism.

    The problem, though, is that Fanon, Adorno, and Césaire are not deconstructive critics but dialectical thinkers. To redeploy their ways of thinking as antidotes to Literary Primitivism’s theses you treat the intricate movements of negation in their work as terminating in one-sided critiques. As many of the key sections of my book are dedicated to slowly unpacking those movements of negation, this in turn prompts you to isolate what are contingent claims from their place in an unfolding discussion. So for example, immediately after citing Adorno on immediacy/mediation, I comment: “The aspiration to the immediate—to natural society, to unmediated necessity—encounters at every turn the dissolution of nature in culture” (35). This is more or less the same point you make in your critique. When observing that aspects of a passage in Césaire appear to will an originary ontology by means of syntax, I immediately point out that the passage is stated in the conditional (96). As for Fanon, the fourth chapter of Wretched famously outlines a (perhaps overly programmatic) dialectic of national culture in which the wilful and passionate wielding of the residues of pre-colonial culture, however “emaciated,” nevertheless constitute an essential moment in the emergence of a properly politicised national culture. He is not deconstructing pre-colonial longing, as though such desires are mere error, but showing that they form an essential moment in the dialectical emergence of decolonizing cultural praxis. In a similar vein, what you call the Cahier’s poetics of neologism is driven by the poem’s primitivist idealism; one cannot be extricated from the other as exhibiting the poem’s “true genius.”

    So Literary Primitivism does not discover that primitivism is able to serve as an “aesthetic and political tool that can be effectively deployed in decolonizing struggles.” Those who set out with a desire to recover a lost “natural” self by undertaking primitivizing acts of writing were constantly forced to confront the racialized layers of “civilizational” mediation that stood between them and that which they desired. They did not end up at the destination that they initially reached for. What the book does discover is that primitivism has an inherent tendency to shift dialectically from being a past-oriented desire that wants to recover an originary natural self to a future-oriented one intent on intervening in the world to reopen the possibility of the restoration of that self. This is why, quite unexpectedly, Fanon proved to be such a pivotal figure. In his work negritude surpasses itself towards political praxis. As I put it in what is perhaps the book’s culminating claim: “For even as Fanon knows his primitivism is mediated by colonial habits of mind, it is a primitivism that nevertheless holds true to the immediacy which it must satirize” (101).

    A crucial question that arises from this discussion is the question of what exactly gets mediated in primitivist literary works. It’s one thing for me to claim that concrete representations of a primitive condition are negated in the process of opening new primitivist possibilities, and for you to be sceptical of any project built on desire to restore/reanimate pre-colonial origins. It’s another thing to confront the scandalous implications of the primitivist fixation on an originary natural self as being manifest in this or that pre-colonial remnant. As contemporary anarcho-primitivists insist, primitivism is premised on the notion that things have been better. As we realise with increasing clarity that European imperialism set the scene not just for the conquest and degradation of innumerable non-European human worlds, but also the exhaustion of the earth’s ecology, it’s possible that something like primitivist utopianism will only regain strength as people become convinced that we have already known how best to live on this planet and no longer have faith in a transcendence to an undeclared future “to come.”

    Finally, I’m glad that you have probed the historical claims made by Literary Primitivism, perhaps its riskiest move. First, to address a misunderstanding: I do not claim that all human societies were in fact wholly consumed by and integrated into the capitalist world system in the period of primitivism’s flourishing (something stated outright on p. 26). What I do claim is that primitivism followed from “an anguished world-historical consciousness that perceived that the condition of possibility for primitive experience had been eliminated” (162). Primitivism was an aesthetic pursued by those who believed their horizon of ontological possibility to be determined by this global system. As I outline in the second chapter, the reason that the capacity to motivate an aesthetics centred on the precolonial remnant fell away was that the global capitalist system was no longer perceived to be a single homogenous system marching inexorably towards imminent systemic disaster. Rather it was one in which “spatiotemporal dislocations in patterns of accumulation [. . .] could clearly be understood as systemic and ongoing” (27). Here we might contrast the analyses of André Gunder Frank, Walter Rodney, and Immanuel Wallerstein to those of Luxemburg, Lenin, and Schumpeter. To be clear, I do not regard the struggles of indigenous peoples against colonial co-optation, both in the period covered by the book and after, as “primitivist.” To bestow that label would be inaccurate if not offensive.

    I agree wholeheartedly that Alejo Carpentier’s work presents a particularly interesting case for the periodization. In his response (below), Michael Bell also suggests Carpentier. (I should also acknowledge Chris Warnes who, many years ago, encouraged me to include him.) Were I to have attempted a comprehensive study, I would have included a discussion of Carpentier as an author writing in the twilight of primitivism’s “window of opportunity.” My energies were directed towards readings of works that seemed to exemplify an intensive literary primitivism. The downside of this approach, is that my historical claims remain somewhat (and perhaps unsatisfactorily) speculative. It has been a while since I read The Lost Steps. From memory, though, it’s a novel about the closure of the possibility of ongoing contact with the “primitive.” The question to pose is whether the book’s aesthetic structure aims thus to effect a transformation towards the primitive. To be continued . . .

Michael Bell


Primitivism Revisited

Ben Etherington has revisited the important and highly visible, yet curiously neglected, topic of literary and cultural primitivism. Etherington comments on this surprising absence of discussion noting that his one immediate predecessor is my own short volume of 1972 in Methuen’s Critical Idiom series and I indeed have the sense of a conversation continuing after a long hiatus. No doubt the principal reason for the neglect of this topic during the intervening period is its apparent self-evidence. The orthodoxy of post-colonial critique made it, in the full sense of the word, blindingly obvious. Edward Said’s deservedly influential Orientalism was a striking instance of the endemic principle of scholarly culture noted long ago by Nietzsche:

He who nowadays knows how to open up a new field within which even the weakest heads can labour with some degree of success becomes famous in a very short time: so great is the crowd that at once presses in. Every one of these loyal and grateful people is at the same time a misfortune for the master, to be sure, since they all imitate him and his defects then seem disproportionately great and exaggerated because they appear in such tiny individuals, while it is the opposite with his virtues, which are proportionately diminished when these same individuals display them.1

The impact of Said’s volume was to convert orientalism from an academic specialism into an ideological sin. It became difficult in principle to believe that a “western” individual of good will could exercise a sympathetic, informed appreciation of non-Western peoples and cultures, and improper even to consider degrees of success in doing so. The project is contaminated at its root by imperial projection and condescension; a cultural structure most notably encapsulated in the very use of the word “primitive.” Etherington is properly respectful of the cultural turn represented by Said but resists the tendency to such sweeping judgements. Indeed, he makes the case for serious uses of “primitivist” motifs precisely by discriminating them from more naïve or defective instances. Where primitivism is concerned critical, as well as historical, analysis is of the essence. For this combined purpose he gives close readings in turn of Aimé Césaire, D. H. Lawrence, and Claude McKay.

By the twenty-first century, of course, the word “primitive” cannot be used without at least implicit quotation marks. Primitive is necessarily a judgement made from a given point of view. Nothing is primitive in and of itself. This recognition developed over the, at least formally, decolonising twentieth century which is why Etherington takes this period as a defining parameter of his theme delimited as “emphatic primitivism.” Or that at least is my way of understanding it as an internal cultural development. Etherington’s geopolitical causality, informed by Marxist analysis, defines his period as the point where the globalisation of capitalism has increasingly destroyed the sense of the primitive other; a period in which the experience of the primitive is at once more existentially precious and conceptually problematic. But whatever its aetiology, the new awareness of the “primitive” as a necessarily shifting, projective, hypothetical order of judgement aligns with Etherington’s other defining emphasis on literary primitivism. He is concerned with these motifs as deployed within consciously aesthetic and imaginative orders. This focus is strongly underwritten in turn by a third significant aspect: he includes as notably successful cases of literary primitivism writers from regions, notably the Caribbean, whose peoples have historically been thought of as instances, rather than imaginative exploiters, of the “primitive.”

These considerations bear significantly on the generation now thought of as modernist including such writers as Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence. However critical in intent, both of these were creatures of their time sharing many of its assumptions and thinking within its discourse. It is therefore easy, especially by means of decontextualized quotation, to present them as simply endorsing racist or imperial values. Yet Conrad and Lawrence radically questioned these values. In this respect, primitivism has two interrelated aspects: it may make a historical or ethnographical claim about a way of life identified as primitive or it may express dissatisfaction with the writer’s own culture by imagining an alternative form of life with an essentially utopian status within the work. The trouble is that both these dimensions, the ethnographic and the utopian, are likely to occur within the same work which is why Etherington insists on the literary, rather than the anthropological, dimension as governing the significance of the whole. Whatever their ethnographic limitations in their day, and however literal their beliefs, Conrad and Lawrence used their best understanding, whether at first or second hand, of ancient or tribal peoples to identify the moral or spiritual deficit in their own European modernity. It is the latter critique which makes them significant writers and places them among the initiators of the post-colonial late twentieth century.

By the same token, of course, such primitivist projects are intrinsically fraught with ambivalence and subject to damaging naivety both in the writing and in the reception. No doubt for this reason Etherington presents his most positive case first. After an extended analytic and historical introduction, he reads the poetry of Césaire as a sophisticated use of primitivist motifs to affirm a cultural identity in apposition, if not opposition, to the white European norm. It is also surely relevant here that Césaire is a poet in a highly accomplished idiom of the Francophone avant-garde. An idiom that might otherwise be a too rarefied verbal symbolism is given urgency by its resonances for a particular history and identity. And by the same token, the obliquity and ambivalence of this poetic symbolism make it an apt means of representing a history which persists significantly as psychological forms and cultural traces in those who have inherited it. The poetry expresses a present consciousness rather than a past experience.

  1. H. Lawrence provides a sharply contrasting case in his Mexican-based novel The Plumed Serpent which Etherington offers as the primary instance of Lawrence’s primitivism. Setting its action almost contemporaneously in the early 1920s when the bloodshed of the Mexican Revolution was finally coming to an end, Lawrence imagined the possibility of a new state based on the pre-Columbian religious sensibility of Mexico which, in many people’s view, has left psychological as well as archaeological traces in modernity. The religious revival is led by the patrician anthropologist Don Ramón Carrasco along with the army under General Cipriano Viedma. Few people see this novel as a success, and Lawrence himself soon rejected the element of political leadership which it entailed. Yet Etherington is right to see it as a complex and illuminating instance of the primitivist impulse. It is best read as a thought experiment although this constantly conflicts with the mode of narrative realism in which it is conceived. Or to express the same point more positively, it is the work in which Lawrence pushed his primitivist speculation to its limits and tested it within, or against, the realism of the novel form. It is significant in this regard that an earlier draft, now published as Quetzalcoatl, offers a more moderate version of the theme.

Lawrence’s primitivism finds other expressions such as his sympathetic creation of ancient Etruscan life from the evidence of its funerary decorations or his essays on the Pueblo Indians as he tries to enter imaginatively into the cosmic beliefs underlying their way of life while always conscious of the danger of white liberal sentimentalising of Native American culture. Lawrence was at once the greatest exemplar and the most penetrating critic of modern primitivism and these two aspects meet head on in The Plumed Serpent which hovers constantly between affirmation and self-critique. Lawrence’s speculation in this book has been crudely read to accuse him of fascism tout court. Etruscan Places is an eloquent antidote to such a claim and, insofar as fascism is one of the forms of modern primitivism, The Plumed Serpent remains a rare example of internal dramatic investigation of this potent modern phenomenon by a non-fascist writer. Readers of Lawrence may well think of more successful and varied instances of the primitivist impulse throughout his oeuvre. The Africa theme in The Rainbow, for example, analyses very acutely Anton Skrebensky’s projection of his own inner darkness onto the continent and its people before he goes off to serve the empire in India. Etherington’s purpose, however, is not to explore the full range of Lawrence’s art but to exemplify a spectrum of possibilities in modern primitivism and in that regard his choice of this novel is apt and effective.

For his third case study, Etherington focuses on the fiction of another Caribbean writer, Claude McKay. Reversing the formula of Lawrence’s “Narrative Primitivism,” he sees in McKay a “Primitivist Narration” which is to say the very premises of the narrative are naively primitivist. The narrative expresses rather than examines the primitivist beliefs. In this respect, the sequence of writers overall makes for an anticlimactic structure and left this reader wondering if a reversed order might be more effective in highlighting the imaginative achievement of a sophisticated primitivism.

Reviewers should refrain from criticising a book for not being the one they would have written but this study stimulates me to wonder, in view of the geopolitical purview of the argument, and the crucial role of the aesthetic condition in defining the significance of the primitivist motif, whether use might not have been made of Alejo Carpentier, and particularly of The Kingdom of This World which recounts the slave rebellions in Santo Domingo at the time of the French Revolution. Carpentier, whose parentage was part French and part Cuban, reflected in this novel the impact of the Caribbean on one steeped in Parisian literary and artistic culture. Although written in prose, the work is densely poetic and metaphorical in its imaginative structures. Moreover, it critiques a European conception of aesthetic detachment and isolation in contrast to the holism of the African-derived culture of the slaves. The same expressive impulses, such as music-making, reflect in their case a communal experience which their music in turn serves to nourish as solidarity. Yet for all this cultural integrity, the partial success of the slave rebellions only introduces a new cycle of oppression. The “primitive” proves to be no answer either. Meanwhile the novel itself, in recognising this fact, is squarely in the “European” aesthetic tradition of impersonal understanding. So the novel, while powered by a primitivist critique of the European and colonial mentality, affirms no primitivist faith and its representation of European aesthetic culture requires it to thematise self-critically the very artistic mode on which it depends. It is a magnificently complex and concentrated exemplar of Etherington’s principal themes.

It is, I think, appropriate to add such a suggestion since Etherington’s closely-argued study implicitly invites the reader to reflect on further instances as well as on the critical and analytic paradoxes of a modern primitivism. It will be interesting to see what conversation, if any, it now provokes.

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, translated by R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 171–72.

  • Ben Etherington

    Ben Etherington


    Response to Michael Bell

    Thank you Michael for your generous gloss of Literary Primitivism’s argument, especially in view of the evident differences in our approach to the subject. I returned to your book on primitivism many times over the course of preparing mine, and your book on Lawrence was key for the sections of the book on his work (particularly your reading of The Plumed Serpent). I’m also glad that you focus on the readings in the second part of the book. They are the pudding for the broad claims made in the first part, and the book stands and falls on their strength.

    With that said, I want to begin by responding to your characterization of the historical and theoretical analysis as following from “geopolitical causality.” It might suggest that the book follows that vein of Marxian thinking that understands culture as the expression of underlying social and economic factors (if not the infamous “base”). This characterization doesn’t flow on into your engagements with the readings, though, so I hope you don’t think I’m being touchy in wanting to insist that I do not intend for the argument to be understood as a matter of causality. The aim was to identify the historical conditions in which “emphatic primitivism” gained traction as an aspiration and aesthetic project. This is no more ambitious a historical claim than the common view that romanticism was connected to the onset of the industrial revolution. Above all, I wanted to ensure that the distinctive quality of the primitivist works of this period, which actively seek to generate primitive experience, could be distinguished from the so-called primitivism of work that merely represents “primitive” life in a positive light. Existing definitions of primitivism could not effectively distinguish between Dryden and Lawrence, or George Catlin and Picasso without recourse to other periodizing and stylistic concepts.

    The conception of emphatic primitivism also provides a means for making synchronic distinctions between authors who conducted thematic explorations of the primitive in the context of the zenith of imperialism and those for whom a primitive condition presents the telos of their work. Here I would distinguish Lawrence from Conrad. In Lawrence, perhaps more than any other writer, the striving for the primitive is both a narrative theme and aesthetic aspiration. For Conrad, it is clearly a theme, but far from an aspiration. Those of his characters who “go primitive” are narrated in just as critical a light as the imperialist ideologies which drive them to the limits of the colonial peripheries. (It might be worth saying that until quite late on, I intended to include a chapter on Conrad and anti-primitivism.) Also, I disagree with your assessment that the discussion finds McKay’s work to be naively primitivist. Much of that chapter focuses on the relationship between the reflective intellectual Ray and the vital characters that he idealizes but whom he cannot ultimately emulate.

    With Carpentier, I agree, an engagement with his work would make a compelling addition. Had the book attempted a comprehensive chronological account, The Lost Steps would have made a neat, perhaps too neat, work with which to conclude: a story written in the latter days of my suggested periodization about the moment in which the portal to the “primitive” closes. The interesting question (raised also in my response to Victor above) is whether this theme is meaningfully connected with the work’s poetics. The Kingdom of This World is less straightforward on a thematic level. I need to revisit it, but your reading already suggests that it too is skeptical of the primitivist project. Perhaps I should have compared it to Guy Endore’s histrionic treatment of the Haitian revolution in Babouk (discussed in the conclusion). This would also afford an opportunity to link the end of the primitivist moment to the rise of what would come to be called magical realism. The latter might prove to be an aesthetic in which the attempt to reconcile myth and the realist mode is also a way of moving past the fraught contradictions that make primitivism such a pungent aesthetic mode. This would correspond to a quite a different historical zeitgeist for which the uneven and haphazard aspects of capitalist totalization are understood to be endemic rather than signaling some final crisis.

    To conclude, a comment on the structure of the studies in part 2. Each of the essays was undertaken as an open exploration of the primitivist mode; they were not intended to be additive. They could be shuffled with only minor rhetorical adjustments. Each of Césaire/Fanon, Lawrence, and McKay seemed to present especially intensive developments of the primitivist mode. These studies present only the beginnings of a reckoning with the revised conception of primitivism proposed by the book. No doubt further studies would stretch some of the book’s theses, perhaps surpass them. By presenting quite definite claims, the book sets the stage for its own rebuttal. A more couched treatment might have left the concept where I found it: a transhistorical catchall term for any idealization of the “primitive” condition. Finally, there is a substantial section in chapter 4 dedicated to a reading of The Rainbow.