This book is a primitivist critique of education and domestication which, AbdelRahim argues, is at the heart of civilization. Whereas empathy is at the heart of wilderness (and the capacity to live well in it), civilization is characterized by alienation, hatred, destruction and violence. All of these values, she argues, are instilled by education, which works through routine and coercion, destroying kids’ capacities for curiosity and instilling obedience and apathy. At the center of the whole problem, AbdelRahim argues, is domestication: the ways in which other living beings are violently diverted from their own purposes, and made to serve the purposes of human masters. Animals, plants, and other humans are all domesticated, and often internalize their own domestication: they become civilized themselves, and all of this becomes naturalized. AbdelRahim shows how these values of civilization are internalized: not just mentally, but folded into bodies through discipline, routine, and the naturalization of domestic life. She draws on Bourdieu and his conception of habitus to emphasize the ways in which education—and other institutions of civilization—reproduce themselves, and continue to work regardless of the intentions of those participating in them.
AbdelRahim weaves in her experiences of parenting and learning from her daughter, Ljuba, which helps reveal the powerful creative and free-thinking capacities of children, and the reactionary and domineering tendencies of education and civilized parenting. It helps to show how folks can live and relate to one another differently—in this case, in terms of parenting and unschooling—as a way to create alternatives within and against civilization. I wish the author had discussed her own experience more, and talked about her own strategies and practices around parenting, given her radical critique of civilized child-rearing. The use of narrative personalizes the text, so that the author appears as a parent figuring out how to raise a kid in a radical, compassionate way, rather than just an author that writes about it. Knowing that someone is trying to live the thing they’re talking about always makes me a more compassionate reader, too.
She also introduces the concept of dominanta: the force that drives humans to learn and grow. People thrive when the dominanta is allowed to flourish through curiosity, investigation, and creative experimentation. It requires willful effort, and so it’s quashed by the coercive and regimented patterns of schooling: children are lumped together into regimented instruction sessions and their own curiosity and capacity for self-directed learning is stifled. “Rearing and caring for the dominanta, says Arshavsky, is the ultimate expression of love” (98). It creates conscientious and compassionate people, whereas education creates obedient, violent, and oppressive people.
AbdelRahim raises a number of really important and interesting questions about civilization. The complexity of the problems is often obscured by her polemical approach (see below) but she also opens them up in interesting ways. I think some of her definitions and solutions to these problems are inadequate, but the inadequacy is thought-provoking in itself:
What is domestication? AbdelRahim argues that “distinctions between husbandry and domestication are of little relevance here,” lumping them together as practices that “stem from interference in the reproductive strategies of others for the purpose of consumption or the benefit of the one who interferes” (2). Civilization is then the “sum outcome of the products of domestication” (3). The domesticated victim’s resistance is rendered illegitimate in this process, and “it needs schedules, curbs imagination and eliminates playfulness and improvisation” (3). I had a conversation with a friend about this book before I read it, and we ended up discussing this definition. I asked whether the Lekwungen peoples whose land we’re on would be considered “domesticated,” because (among other practices of cultivation) they use controlled burns to cultivate camas bulbs. They clearly interfered with the reproductive cycles of numerous plants, in order to decrease competition and allow the camas bulbs to grow larger than they would without human intervention. Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island cultivate plants (and did before colonization), the most famous example being the “three sisters” guild of squash, corn and beans. Undoubtedly these crops were “domesticated” in the sense that they were progressively selected for taste, yield, disease resistance, hardiness, and other traits–this would seem to be a form of domestication for AbdelRahim. At the same time, these practices are much less regimented than European agriculture, and they exist in a symbiotic relationship with ecosystems. They don’t seem to be ‘wild’ but they also don’t have the destructive effects that AbdelRahim ascribes to ‘domestication.’ I think there’s a wide array of practices in this in-between space, and it’s not clear how to think about them. At other times she locates the problem in the conception of “resources;” as soon as this category comes into existence, humans “invented the concept of the right to consume the labour, life and/or flesh of that resource” (12). Is there are a hard-and-fast distinction between recognizing something that sustains me—like the beans in my garden—and conceiving it as a resource? For sure, there are distinctions here: of course monoculture really is different from biodiverse wild food sources; however, for most people, the lived realities of these food sources will be totally impure: a tangled hybrid of domestic and wild. Foragers might drive their cars to harvest wild berries, and farmers might have more intimate and compassionate relationships to non-humans than the staunchest urbanized animal liberationists. So how can the concepts of ‘domestic’ and ‘wild’ be made useful in terms of thinking about our own (impure) practices in everyday life? If the radical critique of civilization is really compelling, what concepts, values, relationships, and lifeways might help us live differently? If, as AbdelRahim seems to suggest, almost everything and everyone is under the grip of civilization, how do we begin from this impure, at-least-partly-domesticated space? AbdelRahim does have some tidbits here:
- Seeing life as a gift “impels people to honour the earth and safeguard its diversity” (13)
- “societies that see prosperity in terms of secured access to food, fresh air, water and health for all, understand safety as community with their surroundings” (18)
- “Symbiotic relationships stem from wild intelligence where each individual is part of a diverse yet interdependent group and thus knows how to attune to the real, unrepresented and unmediated experiences of others always and necessarily in a new way” (30)
- “Spaces of wilderness are places of introspection, of privacy, of trust, of relationships and of respect. Because these spaces exist for their own purpose and are in constant dialogue with the unpredictable yet viable chaos that is life, humans must learn to trust wilderness, including their own and that of their children” (78).
- “When we spend time and effort making our own things, we make only what is necessary, mostly of recycled matter, and do not need to exploit the natural and human “resources” in order to buy superfluous things” (84).
- “Our healing depends on community. It depends on diversity in that community and that extends across species, across the binding dimensions of time and space, even across the borders that delimit our notions of life” (111).
One of the most interesting examples here is her discussion of a sports complex in their house, with rings, ladders, ropes, a swinging bar and a slide. AbdelRahim explains how she doesn’t interfere with suggestions or help when her daughter Ljuba is playing, allowing her to learn for herself and become capable. After discussing the example, they admit that the complex is “only an artificial substitute for the endless possibilities offered by forests, riverbank slopes, country house roofs, and so forth,” and that these are inaccessible because of “the underdeveloped public transportation infrastructure [it should be developed more?], hefty fees, private property laws and the destruction of natural habitat” (79). AbdelRahim argues that it’s less about the object itself, and more about “our approach to the object, to the meanings attached to this object and to the limitations or the liberties that we ascribe to our child” (79). Without dismissing the connections to civilization here, AbdelRahim develops an analysis of the ways in which what she calls ‘wildness’ can be cultivated in cities, with objects that are products of domestication or civilization: it’s more about the ways they’re approached and used, and the relationships they sustain. Is this a clue for thinking constructively about creating alternatives within a civilized, domesticated context?
The text is extremely polemical, seeking to establish certainties about the immorality of civilization and its insidious effects on us. I think this approach creates a number of weaknesses:
It leads AbdelRahim to emphasize civilization and wilderness as a binary, as if they are mutually exclusive or opposed ‘wholes,’ rather than exploring the complicated relationships between civilization and wilderness (there are “cultures of domestication” and “cultures of wildness” (2); the “wild person knows the self in relationship to a world that iexists for its own purpose, while the civilized knows the self as master of a world to be conquered, modified, tamed, educatied and possessed” (29); “love and reproduction” versus “personal gratification and “the desire to possess” (96)). At times, she suggests that there is resistance everywhere, and there’s a constant possibility that bits and pieces of civilization will ‘go feral.’ But at other times, wilderness seems like a romantic and lost past, hopelessly buried by literacy, education, agriculture, and the other interlinked institutions and processes of civilization and domestication. In this tendency, ‘the wild’ appears as an Eden that is both perfect and impossible.
The polemical style prevents AbdelRahim from exploring some of the more ambivalent and ambiguous aspects of domestication and civilization. Sometimes she presents civilization in a fairly linear and deterministic way: “Ultimately, the type of life and system of subsistence we envisage for ourselves leads to the type of socio-ecological relationships which, in turn, leads to the question of whether children are seen as capable of learning how to live in this world on their own or whether they need to be taught” (4). Or elsewhere: “literacy has become the DNA of oppressive and concurrently oppressed brains, which by means of apathy and abstraction brought about a significant shift in the nature of intelligence causing serious deterioration in understanding, knowledge, and relationships (96). Does civilization have any ‘root’ (Literacy? Domestication? Agriculture? War?) Or is it more about the ways in which all these practices become linked together over time as part of a networked apparatus? AbdelRahim seems to want to locate the root, and this sometimes prevents her from foregrounding and analyzing the complicated networks of these institutions and practices. It also prevents her from acknowledging what these practices make possible: literacy and education are subjected to a radical critique (and rejection?) in this text, but this text is also a product of education and literacy. What does it mean to make use of civilized tools and practices in this way? Are there ways of using them that can help destabilize or create alternatives to civilization?
The text doesn’t discuss much in the way of alternatives and resistance to civilization, focusing instead on civilization, domestication, and education. AbdelRahim weaves in examples of deschooling from her own life, but doesn’t say much about other practices. One of the few examples is drawn from a therapist she interviews, who argues that collective therapy based in empathy can be a way of healing from the trauma of civilization. AbdelRahim draws on her twice in the book—near the beginning and near the end—but doesn’t say much, analytically, about how this person’s therapeutic practices (or her own unschooling practices) might relate to other contexts and broader movements against civilization. Similarly, she mentions the ELF, the ALF, Kroptkin, William King, and others who chose to “renounce their privilege to oppress and join the ranks of the oppressed,” but this falls back into the binary: they’ve chosen to “stop doing what causes others to suffer” (43). Is this possible? As AbdelRahim argues elsewhere: “not everyone is this utterly and hopelessly civilized, and therefore not everyone rapes literally. Many continue to fight for wild relationships even if they do not always call them so. Still, we are all implicated in this system and our interests are enmeshed in its hierarchical chain of predation, where each of us is concomitantly predator and prey” (58). Yes! So in a world where—as AbdelRahim argues convincingly—we’re immersed in civilization and complicit with it in ways far beyond our control, what does it mean to ‘renounce privilege’? She argues that Kropotkin and others “sought to build intelligent communities based on diversity” and I was hoping to find more discussion about what that looks like. It’s not really fair to criticize a book for what it’s not saying, but I think this relates to her approach, as well. If civilization is everywhere, then there’s not much to say about alternatives and resistance. But if, as AbdelRahim sometimes suggests, that resistance and wilderness are everywhere too, then one can’t talk about civilization without talking about the constant battles, struggles, and transformations taking place. In other words: when civilization is emphasized over resistance and alternatives, doesn’t it bely a certain pessimism about what’s possible? Is it possible that civilization has already achieved a certain kind of victory when it’s the central object of analysis and critique, rather than multiplicity of creative ways that people are subverting, resisting, and enacting alternatives to it?
Finally, like many primitivist writers, AbdelRahim uses indigenous peoples to legitimize some of her arguments against civilization, and in favour of wilderness. Specifically, she draws primarily on anthropology to subsume (certain) indigenous peoples into the ‘wild’ side of the binary. She draws on Sahlins and other anthropologists to argue that “noncivilized gatherer societies are the ones who had the most and the highest quality time of all” (103). Conveniently, she leaves out any mention of hunting, because it doesn’t seem to fit with her earlier argument that humans are natural herbivores. Many indigenous people have pointed to the importance of deep connections with the natural world as a core of living a rich life and being indigenous. But there’s something creepy about making this point by drawing primarily on anthropology and history, in order to represent indigenous peoples as ‘feral’ or ‘wild’. Indigenous peoples are represented as part of a romantic past, easily combined with AbdelRahim’s own romantic views of non-civilized life (“the wild purpose of life is to live for one’s own pleasure and leisure” (116)). This dovetails with dominant (“civilized”) representations of indigenous peoples as noble savages from the past: they’re inspiring, they lived better than we do, but they’re also irrevocably lost. It’s important to acknowledge that AbdelRahim never says this directly, but I think it’s a tendency in her narrative and in other primitivist texts. Representing indigenous peoples as wild beings makes it difficult to think through colonialism and decolonization here-and-now, including the ways in which indigenous peoples and settlers might relate to each other, share responsibilities, and decolonize themselves and their relationships to land. I don’t think these questions are necessarily incompatible with AbdelRahim’s critique of civilization and domestication, but they would add another layer of complexity.
I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone seeking to think through civilization, domestication, education, and their interlinkages. Even if you totally disagree with AbdelRahim’s conclusions, the problems she raises are really thought-provoking and important to think through.