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  • Interview with John Zerzan
  • Arthur Versluis

John Zerzan (born 1943) is the most prominent living American anarchist and primitivist philosopher. His works criticize modern civilization as inherently oppressive, and encourage modern people to draw on "primitive" ways of life in developing new cultures. His rhetorical attacks on modernity are intense and extend beyond technology to even more basic elements of civilization, like domestication, language, symbolic thought (such as mathematics and art), and the concept of time. His books include Elements of Refusal (1988), Future Primitive and Other Essays (1994), Against Civilization: A Reader (1998), and Running on Emptiness (2002). He has published articles in Telos, Green Anarchy, and Fifth Estate, and is widely published on the web. He has been featured in articles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and he has been influential both in intellectual and in activist circles for several decades. According to a recent article on him in Orion magazine, his thought is the wellspring for much contemporary radical activism. We spoke with him in a café during his visit to Michigan in the spring of 2007. It is perhaps symbolic that our digital voice recorder broke just prior to the interview, and the two substitute recorders also malfunctioned during the interview. Nonetheless, the conversation provides insight into Zerzan's thought and into how he came to his radical ecological critique of contemporary technological society.

AV: Maybe we should start by talking about the fact that we are so enmeshed in technological society. Even coming here, we had to go back and forth by email and through cell phones. We're dependent on machinery and on getting the digital voice recorder to function for the interview. There is a comical [End Page 155] element, in some respects, to the degree to which we're immersed in this technology. I wondered what sorts of remarks you might have about that?

JZ: That's for sure—there is an ever greater amount of mediations. People have brought up the question of direct experience and what's happening to it with the welter of technological mediations, because you can't do anything now that isn't technologically mediated. How do you get out of this morass? Think about the technoculture and how enveloping it is. That's probably the central question: If you come up with an indictment against it, then, well, what are you going to do about it?

I am an editor of Green Anarchy magazine, and we use the computer in every respect, from the layout, and of course the email that you mentioned—all of it. I resent it, having to get email, since a few years ago, but there is no way around it. Of course, then one is subjected to that very criticism. I was in London a few years ago, and a guy jumped up and starting yelling, "How did you get here, how did you get here, did you swim here, did you swim here?" I said, "Oh no, I took a big smelly jet, of course I didn't swim here—no, you got me." We are all part of this: these contradictions are here, like it or not. I could go live in a cave, as some people have suggested, but I am trying to be a part of the dialogue, trying to make some kind of contribution here. So that is just the nature of the reality that we are in.

AV: One of the questions that I have concerning that, though, is how one practically moves toward what you see as a more stable way of existing in the world, or a more balanced one, given the pervasiveness of the machinery. You have written recently that Marxism is dead, and that there may be some liberatory potential from the death of the Left as a whole. Ideologically one can understand that, but on a practical level I'm not seeing how one gets from A to B. In other words, what kind of transitional framework or means do you see to achieve the society you envision?

JZ: That's just a profound challenge: how to make a break from our contemporary, technological...


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