Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under We Can't Have Nice Things

Andrew Potter, editor of the Ottawa Citizen, taught me a new word today. Neoprimitivism was apparently a Russian art movement in the early 20th century – I know this because the human species has advanced to the point where machines memorize hopelessly arcane trivia for us – but Potter uses neoprimitivism to mean something different. He writes about a different movement, full of magical-thinking people suspicious of science, who eschew vaccines and decry GMO foods:

The moral imperative driving this is what we can call the quest for authenticity. This is the search for meaning in a world that is alienating, spiritually disenchanted, socially flattened, technologically obsessed, and thoroughly commercialized. To that end, “authenticity” has become the go-to buzzword in our moral slang, underwriting everything from our condo purchases and vacation stops to our friendships and political allegiances.

There are two major problems with this. The first is that authenticity turns out to be just another form of hyper-competitive status seeking, exacerbating many of the very problems it was designed to solve. Second, and even more worrisome, is that the legitimate fear of the negative effects of technological evolution has given way to a paranoid rejection of science and even reason itself.

Potter starts with the new William Gibson, The Peripheral, makes a left turn onto historical anthropology and the psychology of “the authentic” (see above), and pivots to modern cases of neoprimitivism all very adroitly. This is a wonderfully written editorial, all in all. Plus, it enhances that feeling of smug superiority I feel when I walk by a Whole Foods.

Meanwhile, this reminds me of the state of humanity in the unbearably grim future of Warhammer 40,000, a tabletop war game set in the 41st millenium. There, the human species has colonized millions of planets across the galaxy, with spaceships the size of the island of Manhattan and legions of Space Marines in robotic power armor.

This sounds almost utopian, but people in the Warhammer universe coexist with unfathomably advanced machines that they know nothing about. The technology is so advanced and so robust that it’s outlived the people who designed it, the people who maintained it, and the people who understood how it works.

The concept of humans-as-space-barbarians was also fleshed out nicely in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and probably served to some extent as inspiration for Warhammer. In fact, since there aren’t even any spacefaring orcs in Foundation, humankind is the most primitive society by default. But still. No orcs?

Who’d want to live in that kind of future?