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The Allure of the Primitive

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Organizer: Katryn Evinson

Co-Organizer: Noel Blanco Mourelle

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In a present marked by capitalist exhaustion and ecological collapse, we ask what underlies the return of the primitive as a collective desire. The symptoms of this desire bring together conflicting political impulses, which would be attributed to the problematic nature of the concept. These range from the emergence of individual fantasies of survival based on assumptions in which the possibility of social bonding has been abolished, collective ideals of autarchy and self-sufficiency giving way to a movement for the return to the land, to a utopian dimension of the primitive that rejects capitalist social relations to reclaim instead pre-capitalist communitarian ideals. This seminar aims to interrogate the political valences not of our return to the primitive but of the return of the primitive to our collective imaginary. Marx was one of the main proponents of this notion through his well-known formulation of “primitive accumulation,” which has engendered a lengthy debate. “Primitive accumulation” has been criticized as an inaccurate translation of Marx’s original German expression (ursprüngliche Akkumulation). Furthermore, the deployment of the term “primitive” has also been used to justify a stagist history that reinforced European colonialism and its ideologies. If figures such as Claude Lévi-Strauss challenged the concept of the primitive to expose the Eurocentric colonial mind—a debate that has been extended and deepened by postcolonial theorists, from Edward Said and Gayatri C. Spivak to Franz Fanon and Homi K. Bhaba— here, we put forward a reappropriation of the primitive that seeks to recover its potentialities without shying away from its problems. In this vein, we are interested in thinking about how primitive accumulation defines three moments in the history of capitalism in Marxian terms: the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist modes of production, the transition from formal to real subsumption under industrial capitalism, and the contemporary emergence of cognitive capitalism in post-industrial societies. Ultimately, the panel’s engagement with the primitive is neither culturally nor temporally restrictive, insofar as we understand the primitive as that which reappears in every form of historical metanarrative to undermine the illusion of its own linearity. This is because, in a simplified way, societies articulate a version of the primitive as a vanishing point through which fantasies of opting out of technological and economic development can be imagined. In this sense, the return of the primitive is also a symptom of an inability to organize politically. This symptom is located at the intersection of the limits of resource exploitation and the process of neoliberal atomization of the collective. We invite participants to analyze the primitive as a category that deserves to be criticized, but also as a metaphorical utopian desire that appears in art, literature, philosophy, anthropology, and other disciplines.

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