- On Victor Li’s The Neo-Primitivist Turn: Critical Reflections on Alterity, Culture, and Modernity
In his study of primitivism as a subject and a concept in recent criticism and theory, Victor Li uses the words good and bad a lot. What’s “good” also gets described as “insightful” or “brilliant.” What’s bad gets described as “reductive” or “contradictory.” Discussed, as they are, in substantial detail, the theorists in the subtitle of Li’s book—Baudrillard, Lyotard, Sahlins, Habermas, and myself—are sometimes “good” and sometimes “bad.” Even though most of these theorists have a strong deconstructive and relativist streak, it’s hard for anyone to meet Li’s stringent standards and be deconstructive and relativist enough, which, for Li, requires not only the exposure or deconstruction of binary thinking but also thinking and writing without the use of binaries at all.
At times, I found myself wanting to remind Li that tentative categories and place markers often have to be used in writing, that thought evolves and changes, often within the act of writing itself, and that writing can be playful as well as earnest. But by the end of the book—perhaps in the process of writing the book—Li becomes less judgmental and more generous, so the theorists of the primitive who have been exhaustively analyzed and both praised and criticized are recuperated in the end.
I felt grateful that Li’s book ends on a generous note, because I had done a “bad” thing when I began to read by looking first at the section on my work. I thought, correctly, that the section would be of most immediate interest to me and would be the one I’d be best equipped to judge. Still, reading the section [End Page 545] about myself first was absolutely a bad thing to do, because it’s almost impossible to forget what an author thinks of your work as you evaluate his.
If I were Li, I’d be pulling the sentence I’ve just written apart for the contradiction between its saying “absolutely” in a sentence that also includes an “almost impossible.” Since I’m not Victor Li, I see “absolutely” and “almost impossible” not as inconsistent but rather as capturing (even in a straw man of a sentence like the one above) the both/and rather than either/or quality, the progressive, volatile, and labile quality of so much thought and perceived experience. Instead of “inconsistency,” one might also see play with language or with the possibility of multiple judgments, or a combination of relativism and the pragmatic need to settle somewhere in order for thoughts to have consequences.
Because Li is by and large respectful and always serious, I felt grateful for his careful, detailed reading of my work and the work of other writers on the subject of the primitive. His readings operate at the level of the sentence and the paragraph, the essay and the book, but they also consider a total oeuvre of writing, so that (in my case) Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives is read in terms of Primitive Passions: Men, Women, and the Quest for Ecstasy, a sequel. That move seems to me fair enough, but it also seems to distort my overall argument in each book. The books address substantially different aspects and manifestations of primitivism, and I wouldn’t apply everything I say in Primitive Passions to the topics and subjects in Gone Primitive. Li, however, introduces a certain element of misreading when he does so. When I talk, for example, in Primitive Passions, about traditions that recognize “the oceanic” within premodern cultures and within the West, I’d hate to be seen as maintaining that tribal peoples exist constantly and continuously within states of mind accessed mostly during ritual and meditation, states of mind not coextensive with or fully viable in quotidian life. I state, or thought I did, quite clearly, that such a belief in the continuously spiritual primitive is in itself a major form of primitivism. At...