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ajnabi ([personal profile] ajnabi) wrote2010-02-08 06:53 am

Philosophy of Civilizations: assignment 1

Response to Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn

Ishmael proposes an end to the tyranny of human civilization. Through Ishmael, the gorilla and teacher in the book, Quinn describes the ways in which civilization goes against the natural order of things. Ishmael's theories are interesting because they make a distinction between civilized and uncivilized cultures, thereby assuming that such a division exists and that civilization has not become quite completely a hegemonic force. The civilized, or the Takers, must be taught to accept the ways of the Leavers, or the uncivilized. According to Ishmael, the ways of the Leavers represent the true natural order of things. In such an order, members of a species may compete with each other for resources, but cannot wage war or deny resources altogether to each other. This seems to propagate a sort of more "benevolent" capitalism. It also oversimplifies theories of evolution around the idea of "survival of the fittest".

Although the novel does acknowledge the problems of technological and agricultural revolutions, and questions the necessity or benefits of civilization, Ishmael ultimately does not offer a radical critique of civilization. This is evident in the insufficient critique of capitalism as a cornerstone of (the hegemony of western) civilization, and correlating it with evolution, as mentioned above. Also, it is impossible to "return" to a past where people did not manipulate nature for their own convenience. Although Ishmael does say that it is inane to consider going back to a society of hunter-gatherers, at the same time in proposing a reversal of the story of the Takers, he is proposing a simplistic return to a place where that story could be reinvented. He talks about destroying the prison rather than reforming it, but it is several different kinds of oppression that create the prison, not one central idea of humans as above all other species. The whole notion of destroying the prison oversimplifies the cultural and physical complexity of our current existence. Ishmael reiterates that in the end, we are all prisoners, but that is a dangerous line to tread, as it often excuses oppression on axes of race, gender, class, ability, etc that may seem to take place only between humans.

Quinn's reinterpretation of religious tenets of civilization is also problematic. He chooses the stories that perhaps he is the most familiar with, i.e. The Garden of Eden and Cain & Abel, for example, and it is in the reinterpretation of these select stories that the problems with his ideas begin to emerge. If the Leavers really are the supposedly uncivilized peoples of the world, then Quinn should not have chosen fundamental western texts as originally being their story to explain the Takers. Again, the idea that there could ever have been a conscious split as such ignores the systemic ways in which human society has come to be what it is today. Although Quinn raises important ideas about the ways in which we think of predominant religious stories today, it is still problematic that he chose those particular texts. It illustrates the problem with destroying the "overall" prison, because Quinn's very conception of that prison is rooted in the context of his present. It is because of that that he has to choose these Biblical stories (and if he chose others, it would probably be in an appropriative context).

Both wishing to return to a past or hoping to invent a new future are fanciful goals. To truly challenge and destroy current structures of civilization, we need to hold ourselves accountable for what we are and what we have done, not attempt to recreate ourselves.