reprinted from Modesto Anarcho #3
Modesto Anarcho: How is civilization linked with mental illness within modern society?
John Zerzan: Durkheim in the 19th century found that civilization and cities in particular greatly increase suicide and insanity. The correspondence is as easy to see as the correlation between Global Warming and industrialization: the former is a function of the latter. We are all damaged. More and more so, more transparently so. As you say, who doesn't have close friends who suffer from severe depression, anxiety, has thought seriously of suicide, etc.? Domesticated life is increasingly barren and desolate and this is registered in so many sad ways.
Modesto Anarcho: How is civilization linked with mental illness within modern society?
John Zerzan: Durkheim in the 19th century found that civilization and cities in particular greatly increase suicide and insanity. The correspondence is as easy to see as the correlation between Global Warming and industrialization: the former is a function of the latter. We are all damaged. More and more so, more transparently so. As you say, who doesn't have close friends who suffer from severe depression, anxiety, has thought seriously of suicide, etc.? Domesticated life is increasingly barren and desolate and this is registered in so many sad ways. One of my touchstone reference points is Freud's Civilization and its Discontents, which predicted - accurately, 75 years ago - that the more civilization there is, the more neurosis there will be. Because domestication, the sine qua non of civilization, is a crippling, enduring wound. We have been domesticated just as a horse is 'broken', our instinctual freedom crippled. Freud said that civilization is impossible without this move, in order to get humans to leave eros and freedom for work and symbolic culture.
Derrick Jensen: The short answer, is that the culture drives us crazy. We can talk about this on so many levels, from the level of the majority of people spending the majority of their hours doing things that they don’t want to do, I mean that’s crazy making. We evolved not in isolated little nuclear families, but we evolved in communities, and we also didn’t evolve in cities. We have lived, forever, as members of tribes, and clans, and villages. The social arrangements [of the present order] make us crazy. Another way that the current social situation drives us crazy, [is] the level of trauma and abuse in this culture. 25% of all women are raped in their lifetime and 19% more fend off rape attempts. [That’s] almost half of the women [being] sexually assaulted and the majority of those sexual assaults come from those that purport to ‘love them’. I mean their fathers, their brothers, their uncles, their ‘caretakers’ of one sort or another. That sort of betrayal of trust is huge. So that’s another thing that simply drives us crazy. I’m also not just talking about the women, the men are obviously crazy to be doing that in the first place and they’ve been driven crazy. The other thing is that Johnny Livingston who wrote, The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation and a bunch of other really good books, one of the things that he said was that, ‘cities drive us crazy’. One way cities drive us crazy, [again from] John Livingston, is that a lot of people say humans are really violent, but if you pack any other mammal that tight they’ll be blood flowing in the streets every night. We’re not supposed to be that packed in together, it’s insane. Whenever I fly anywhere, I always think, “Gosh, if they stuck us on a tarmac and we were just stuck here, packed in like that in an airplane, how long would it take before we’d be at each other’s throats?” Anyway, back to the other thing John Livingston says, is that a lot of people say that cities have an overload of senses. It’s sensory overload when you go to cities, but he said it’s the exact opposite. What I’d like readers in the interview to do right now is to look around and see how many of the sensations, how much of what you are perceiving right now, comes directly from a non-human [thing], and how much of it is mediated by humans, or originates in humans? Once again, we evolved with this wide variety of sensory perception, and we don’t have it [now]. Almost everything that we experience is mediated or created by humans and so what Livingston says, (and I really agree), is that we’re suffering from sensory deprivation. What happens if you’re in an echo chamber? We say something and it bounces back right to us, as opposed to the tree saying something, or opposed to the cloud saying something. What happens to someone that is in a sensory deprivation chamber? What happens is that they begin to hallucinate. So what Livingston says, (and once again I agree), is that most of our ideology, basically all of our ideology is hallucination. I mean it’s absolutely insane that the world is being killed, and yet the thing that is not negotiable is this culture. It’s like Cheney says, “The American way of life is not negotiable.” That’s absolutely insane, because without a land base you don’t have a way of life. A land base is everything. I just read this today, that there was a woman on NPR, or something, up in Wisconsin, I think and she was talking about how bad global warming is, blah blah blah. Someone called in and said, “You know, there are those who are saying, that since civilization is killing the planet, that we need to bring down civilization.” It was absolutely unthinkable to the woman, she was offended by the question. That’s really crazy, when this [civilization] is killing the planet. I’ve got a new slogan, “Protect your land base, you can’t have sex without it”, because you can’t have anything [without protecting it] and it’s crazy to think that you can. Another way it makes craziness is, think about school. This is something that I’ve written about, that the real purpose of school is not to convey information, the real purpose of school is to get [everyone] used to sitting in plays and wishing their life away. That’s an insane way to live. I mean, there’s all this insanity thrown at us. Valuing money over life. That’s really insane.RD Lang talked about the dynamics that abusive families [have] so they can maintain themselves. He has the three rules of a dysfunctional family, which are also the three rules of dysfunctional culture. Rule A 1. Is don‘t. Rule A.2 is rule A.1 does not exist, and rule A.3 is never discuss the existence of rules A, A.1, or A.2. The point is that, that is crazy making. That’s true in an abusive family and it’s true on a larger scale. And another thing that’s really important, is that everything within an abusive dynamic is set up to protect the abuser. Once again, that makes craziness. Here’s another really small example, but it’s just horrible. I’m doing a book right now that basically has to do with shit. It really has to do with waste products and how [in] any sustainable culture, the waste products have to help the land base, (it’s pretty obvious). But things like a candy bar wrapper, nobody even knows how the polymers in the candy bar wrapper break down. Nobody bothered to find out! Or there’s two million dams in the US, which is pretty obsessive. 60 thousand dams over 13 feet tall, and 70 thousand dams over 6 ½ feet tall. All of those big dams have to have FEMA reports, to say what happens to cities and bridges and everything else, if the dam collapse, because of course every dam will eventually collapse. Guess how many studies have been done on the events of catastrophic dam failure on fish habitat? Zero. That’s really fucking insane. I mean, this culture is changing the planet, all this stuff. Everything about this culture makes insanity.
Modesto Anarcho: In what ways has the increased amount of time that people spend working added to the levels of mental illness?
John Zerzan: The more symbolic culture there is, the more work in society. Marshall Sahlins pointed this out. Extraordinary perhaps, but undeniably true. In the US now both parents work, the pace of work - largely due to computerization - is faster, so exhaustion and stress have increased a lot recently. This also goes back one may say, to the origins of the factory system/industrialization, when a big factor was centralizing of producers at long hours: to curb the constant rioting in the countryside, to put it succinctly. It is obvious that when people have little time or energy they are less likely to rebel. A fact that Marx missed.
Derrick Jensen: There’s a line by Joseph Campbell, where he talks about that something that was understood by everyone up until the present day, is that to have anything approaching a spiritual life, the first thing that you have to have is leisure. Part of the reason that I am so prolific now, and part of the reason that I am so happy now, is because I spent a lot of my 20’s, you could say on one hand getting grounded, and you could say on another hand doing nothing. But I was sitting around by a river, for a couple of years really, I was really really poor, and I was really sick so couldn’t do anything, (really sick with Crohn’s disease). I spent a lot of time not doing very much, and that really helped to allow me to sort of vomit up the affects of my schooling, and to teach myself how to think, to teach myself how to feel. And to just start feeling, and that sort of leisure, is absolutely crucial. I don’t know how people, who work regular jobs survive, much less physically survive. I mean, why are we here? I think one of the reasons that we are here is to have fun. Here’s another insane thing, I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase, “Thank God It’s Friday!”, what a horrible horrible phrase, what that [is] saying is that “Thank god another week of my precious life has disappeared”! I used to teach at a university, I always taught just one quarter at a time (the same students) and I always thought that if I had two quarters what would I teach? The first quarter would have been all about freedom, the second quarter would have been all about responsibility. Because if you have freedom without responsibility, that’s just immaturity, and if you have responsibility without freedom, that’s just slavery. People have to have both. Basically, it’s like when I was in my late 20’s, I was sitting around, and the moment when I stopped sitting around doing nothing in one sense and started working toward something was I had this conversation with a friend of mine. I had just basically been hanging out for a couple years and this friend of mine says, “You know, you have so many gifts, you’re not using those gifts to help the universe, to help communities, and if you’ve been given gifts and you don’t repay the universe for giving you those gifts, you’re not worth shit.” He said this at the exact right moment to me - and I was ready to move on. [Even] today I still have a lot of leisure. But I’m focused with that and I’m serving a community. That’s one of the things to, is who do you serve? Where is your allegiance to? Who does your life serve? For me, I try to make it so that my life serves the land where I live and the community of people that I love. My work doesn’t serve Exxon Mobile, that’s not who I’m serving. That’s the question, who are you in service to and what are your gifts and how can you best use them in service to your community, and who is that community? Is that community Chevron? Is that community IBM? Is that community Monsanto? Who is your life actually serving, that’s a really important question. When you have no time, having no time drives you crazy. So it’s really really important to have time to reflect, and to ruminate, I love that. You know like a cow, you eat something, and then you sort of digest it, and then you bring it back up and sort of chew on it for a little while, and send it back down and digest it a little bit more. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s like I interviewed Vine Deloria several years ago, and one of the things I asked him, was from an indigenous perspective, what is the point of life, and he said “maturity”, the point is to become mature. To reflect on what you have experienced and to play your part in the symphony at the right time, that’s one of our jobs is to find out what our role is supposed to be in this wonderful symphony of life and then to play it. That’s totally different than what we’re supposed to do in industrial culture, where everything is cookie cutter, where everything is supposed to be standardized. It’s like it really pisses me off when people write to me and they say, (I get this actually quite a bit), they say, “You know you’re books are great and you know you’ve written all you’ve need to write, so now I think that you should be an organizer like I am.”! It’s like FUCK YOU, you know? It’s insulting on many levels, but it’s also the same old cookie cutter thing, that I’m supposed to be like them, and that’s crazy. You (I’m talking to you), you have different gifts than I do, and it would be insane for me to try to form you into a mold that looks like me. Yet constantly that’s what our culture does, in part because it’s so terrified of difference.
Modesto Anarcho: How does civilization/industrial culture tie into sexual violence and abuse?
John Zerzan: Civilization inaugurates, in my view, the systematic objectification of women and this introduces systematic violence against women. That is why I think that civilization and patriarchy are roughly identical.
Derrick Jensen: Well, part of the difficultly is, as I talked about in Culture of Make Believe , is this culture is based on utilitarianism. There’s a great line by a Canadian lumber man, “When I look at trees, I see dollar bills”, and if you perceive you see dollars bills when you look at trees, [you’re] going to treat them one way, if I look at trees and see trees I treat them differently. When I look at this particular tree, I see this particular tree, then I’ll treat it differently still, and the same applies to women. If when I look at women I see orifices, I’m going to treat them one way, if when I look at women I see women, I’ll treat them differently, and if I look at this particular woman I see this particular woman, I’ll treat her differently still. When this culture is based on perceiving everyone as to how you can exploit them, or how you can use them, how you can turn them to your advantage, when you perceive everyone else like that, then of course you’re going to abuse them, and you’re not going to stop voluntarily either because for the most part, abusers almost never stop voluntarily, because they’re gaining tangible benefits from what they are doing. Another fundamental way that this culture contributes to that - it fucks people up by abusing them in the first place. So if you were abused as a kid, it’s a lot easier for you to end up perceiving others as terrifying, so you need to control them. So, not only on a personal level does this happen where people get traumatized as a child, both by their parents and by the schooling system and everything else, and so they come to perceive relations with others as scary, and then not only that, but in addition everything is reinforced with this culture. It’s like even something as small as if I was to type a sentence into my word program that says, “There is a tree outside who is dropping needles”. The “Word”, would say, that the word “who” was wrong, and I’ve had to fight copy editors over that, because they say a tree is not a who. I mean, it’s at every level. There was somebody who really liked my work when we talked before she read A Language Older Than Words, and then she read [it], and she said that she didn’t like it at all because she thought that it was insane to talk about hearing the natural world. And that of course is the fundamental difference between western and indigenous ways of being. Even the most open minded Westerner, [view the listening] of the natural world as a metaphor. It’s insane to close off all of that communication.
Modesto Anarcho: Do hunter gatherer societies have histories of mental problems or sexual abuse? How do these groups solve social problems?
John Zerzan: In a less mediated, artificial life-world there seem to be far fewer emotional diseases. A face-to-face society (band society) is based on direct responsibility to solve problems, the opposite of the case in mass society. I saw something of this in my 15 years in a housing co-op; if someone was pulling something it was easier to deal with, in fact almost unavoidable. So much healthier that resorting to any outside authority.
Derrick Jensen: Well I think that the answer to that would be different by different cultures. Morris Berman wrote a book where he talked about how one of the conflict resolution methods among hunter gatherings, is simply to leave. You and I have some big conflict, well I just go form another band. It depends on which problems we are talking about. Obviously [the indigenous people where I live] didn’t destroy the planet, they didn’t destroy the region. And the indigenous people who lived where you live, you know the central valley wasn’t a toxic cess pool at that point, it was I’ve heard, extraordinarily beautiful, filled with wildlife, filled with birds, so they obviously didn’t have those problems. So far as problems of sexual abuse, I know that that’s pretty widely varied. We need to say that there are some indigenous cultures, that in which women were treated extremely poorly and there are some where women are treated very well. I don’t think that you can make an across the board statement, that sexual abuse was non-existent among all hunter gatherers, I don’t think that that is true. At the same time, I think that we can say that there are many indigenous cultures, (and I recognize that indigenous and hunter gather are not necessarily the same thing), [where] sexual abuse was not an issue. Basically if there is one culture that existed that didn’t have sexual abuse, that means it’s a human possibility and so we can aim for that and we can ask what are the characteristics of that culture. Cause sometimes, people, who accuse me of the whole “noble savage” thing, and I have two response to that. One is that, I rely on contemporary accounts, I rely on accounts written by people at the time. So it’s not noble savage bullshit, it’s simply what people were saying. The other is that I recognize that there were some indigenous cultures who were really really nasty, or course their nastiness is nothing compared to this culture.
Modesto Anarcho: Can ‘re-wilding’ be a practical way to heal from mental trauma?
John Zerzan: "Re-wilding" or re-connecting with the earth is very difficult in the context of today and there is no cure-all panacea. But I do think it is vital to our healing. A healing, respectful attitude to the earth leads to one toward each other. We can see that the opposite has been the record of domestication and civilization. All of the qualities needed for the one are needed for the other, it seems to me.
Derrick Jensen: That’s a great question, to which I don’t really know the answer. I’ll tell you my concern. I’m sure it could really help, but I have a concern that [because] the work of sort of healing yourself from this trauma is really difficult work and painful, and I don’t think it can be short circuited. I’ve known a lot of people who have very serious problems, and they go to a month of therapy, and they say, “Boy I’m cured”, and then they go back to the same old patterns. Or they dive into this New Age stuff, and do a few rituals, and think “Oh I’m cured”, or they do this or that, and think “Oh I’m all better now”. I can see people using rewilding as an excuse to avoid doing the ’real work’. Do you see what I’m trying to say?
Modesto Anarcho: Basically escape instead of confrontation.
Derrick Jensen: Thank you, yes.
Modesto Anarcho: Can militant resistance to the forces that control our lives possibly help heal mental trauma?
John Zerzan: The film Breaking the Spell expresses that idea by its title: breaking the spell of conditioning and debilitating helplessness begins with resistance. That breakthrough is immensely therapeutic, I believe! It is anything but healthy to be subjugated, a basic degradation that obviously must be overcome.
Derrick Jensen: Yeah I think it really could. It’s like one of the things that I’ve heard people say, and god, I said this in Language Older than Words and I’m so embarrassed, is that if you fight back you run the risk of becoming like they are, but I think that that’s bullshit. I think that if you don’t fight back, you run the risk of becoming a further slave, you know? I’m not saying you know, reflection by itself once again doesn’t do shit, that’s just a part of the process. It really pisses me off, I read this thing by some pacifist a while ago, couple years ago, where he said that “The way I work for peace and social justice in this world is by chopping wood and carrying my own water”. It’s like fuck you, you narcissistic little, whatever. Because “Yes, I’m going to work on my own precious little self, and not do anything larger”, it’s just crap. But on the other hand once again, I have known people who like a friend of mine [who] was in Earth First! back in the early 80’s, and he left in the early 90’s, because he said that when he joined there were a lot of people who were really angry about forests, and when he left there were a lot of people who were really angry, and they put that anger onto forest issues. Do you see the distinction that I’m trying to make? There was a guy who wrote to me a while back, he was all upset at me because his son read my books and then wanted to blow up a dam. I wrote back to him and said, “Look, I don’t want your son to blow up a damn because Derrick Jensen says so. What I want your son to do is do the analysis himself, and if his analysis leads him to that, great, and if his analysis leads him to something else, then that’s great to.” Here’s what I’m trying to get at: Yes, I think that fighting back can be a tremendously healing, and helpful, and wonderful, and important thing, but I don’t think that people should fight back, for the purpose of gaining healing. I think it can be a really nice and wonderful and powerful side affect, and it can be incredible liberating, to stand up on your hind legs and fight back. Through whatever means are appropriate. But once I again, I don’t think that someone should pretend that militant resistance by itself is enough to bring about significant healing. I think that militant resistance in addition to that leisure time, in addition to having a supportive community where you can talk about the issues, having a safe space where you can talk about your trauma as well. I think that another thing that’s really important, is that when one fights back, to think very clearly about one’s targets. Something that’s happened to me, it actually hasn’t happened in a long time, but it used to happen in my 30’s, that was really distressing. There were a few women whom I dated who I would be like the nicest guy they’d ever met, and the least patriarchal, and everything else, and that’s all wonderful, and we start some sort of relationship and then because I’m so safe, that way, all of the anger that they’d ever had toward men comes rushing out and get’s projected onto me, because I’m safe. I mean, it’s a classic thing, that a lot of times, the adult survivors of child abuse end up hating the bystander more than the perpetrator, because the bystander is always safe. If you’re going to lash out, then I think it’s really important to do a lot of [figuring] out, and make sure that you’re lashing out at the right person.
Modesto Anarcho: Do you think that there is a similarity between the ADD/ADHD hype of the 1990’s and the mainstream Bipolar Disorder hype of the 2000’s?
John Zerzan: I don't know but I do see things like the huge rise in the incidence of autism as real and troubling. Perhaps there has been an over-eagerness to 'medicalize' so many behavioral phenomena but there is also an undoubted increase in suffering, I would say, and at earlier and earlier ages. The climate of dis-ease is palpable, which at least demonstrates that they haven't turned us into zombies - if they had, we wouldn't be registering so much pain, eh? A very bad bargain I'd say, given the consequences.
Derrick Jensen: I was talking to my mom, two days ago, and she had just finished reading a book about the use of toxic waste as fertilizers. What she said to me, was that she always thought that the ADD, and the ADHD thing was exactly what you said, hype and a lot of it was simply children misbehaving, a lot of it was not children misbehaving, but children being forced into classrooms, etc, etc. But she said, “I don’t know, we are swimming in such a toxic stew, that it’s also possible that people [are getting affected].” Who knows what all the doses of toxic waste in our blood stream, who knows what those are doing to our psyches? I know that pesticides for example can make children really really stupid. And I’m using stupid in a value neutral sense. Just developmentally, destroy their brains. Before I might have given you some long answer about hype, but now I’m not sure, because the chemicals are fucking us up. I’m not opposed to short term chemical assistance to problems, or even long term chemical assistance to problems, but it strikes me as really an atrocity that children are being drugged in massive, massive experiments, that make shit loads of money for pharmaceutical companies and make it so that Mommy and Daddy and teacher don’t have to actually deal with the child, and instead they drug them out of their skulls. That’s reprehensible and inexcusable, that I can say very clearly.