Ben Etherington Seminar 2012

Reconsidering Literary Primitivism, Or Putting the '-ism' back into Primitivism 

'Primitivism', which can be summarised as 'the idealisation of the primitive', and which is most often used to describe aesthetic practices, has not fared well in recent scholarship. Scattered through the mountains of ideological critiques of Western art are any number of blithe deconstructions of primitivism. These tend go something like 'the primitivist myth of the x', or 'such primitivist fantasies reveal y', or 'such primitivist tropes are part of an attempt to control z'. In many ways, primitivism was too easy a target. Mariana Torgovnick's 1990 study Gone Primitive, an orthodox product of the linguistic turn, has virtually monopolised the field. It presents its reader with a number of handy aphorisms that can be wielded to demonstrate that primitivism is aligned with racist assumptions that formed part of the imperial West's desire to rule over its 'others'. Such studies, this paper will argue, are actually attacking a primitive-philia (and rightly so) and as a result of this deconstructive zeal the phenomenon of primitivism has fallen out of sight. It will be suggested that primitivism is not the attempt to represent, and through such representation dominate, a primitive 'other', but consists in the attempt, through aesthetic practice, to come into a primitive condition. At the height of colonial expansion, the point at which all human societies were being integrated into a single world-system, this 'primitive' state was increasingly a speculative one. Certainly, there is an uncomfortable overlap of primitive-philia and primitvism and this is to be considered for all its unsettling ramifications. However, if it is accepted that primitivism is the project of becoming primitive it may be possible to reconstruct, even restore, its anti-civilisation impulse. Authors discussed will include D.H. Lawrence, Claude McKay and the poets of négritude.

Ben Etherington Delivering His Seminar Bio: Ben Etherington is a Research Lecturer with the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and a member of the Writing & Society Research Centre at UWS. The overarching concern of Ben Etherington's work is with decolonization and the emergence of literary materials and communities before, during and after that process (which must include the consideration as to whether a thorough-going decolonization has yet been possible). His current project is on the poetics of dialect verse in the Anglophone Caribbean as it evolved from the late 19th century until independence. A related project is a philological study of the use of 'enlightenment' and related terms in the writing of significant anti-colonial thinkers. Ben was awarded his doctorate by the University of Cambridge for a thesis titled Literary Primitivism: Essence, Aesthetics and Politics, which he is currently completing as a monograph.

Audio: Listen to Ben's seminar presentation (right click and "save link as" to download).
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