Literary Primitivism
Ben Etherington


Chapter 1

Primitivism After Its Poststructural Eclipse

A Conceptual Reappraisal

The title of this book might be taken to indicate an intention to survey its subject—a work similar in scope to the monographs, catalogues, and anthologies on primitivism in the visual arts that go back to Robert Goldwater’s Primitivism in Modern Painting.1 In literary studies it is a surprise to find only one monograph that addresses literary primitivism in general: Michael Bell’s slim 1972 volume Primitivism. Even here the author refuses to be drawn into attempting a survey, choosing instead to concentrate on “critical problems raised by the literature to which this term is commonly used.”2 This reticence is connected, no doubt, with his sense that the term refers to a “dauntingly ancient and universal human characteristic with a correspondingly wide range of manifestations.”3

If a survey of literary primitivism were to set its scope according to received usage, a rigorous account would indeed present challenges that could take a career to surmount. Primitivism typically refers to the act of idealizing people, or entities of any sort, deemed “primitive.” It can be used even more broadly to refer to any activity that in some way pertains to the primitive. In both cases the term primitive is conceptually prior to “primitivism”: it is the primitivity of the entity that determines the nature of the primitivist idealization. I will come to the difficult question of what the term primitive might signify shortly. For the moment it is enough to note that its resonances are specific to the material circumstances in which it is used and that it tends to point to a condition in which humans are united with nature. Michel de Montaigne’s famous statement “On Cannibals” contains a comment that is broadly representative: “that blessed state of desiring nothing beyond what is ordained by their natural necessities.”4 Its conceptualization thus is dialectical, emerging where humans are aware of themselves in contradistinction to nature.

Given the conceptual priority usually assigned to historical notions of the “primitive” in discussions of primitivism, it seems only logical that a competent account, whether in literature, art, music, intellectual discourse, or culture more broadly defined, will need to begin by outlining a history of ideas of the “primitive” before moving to consider the forms of primitivism that correlate to those ideas. When we sketch the expanse that a survey study would reach if it undertook to cover the history of primitivism approached in this way, we can see why Bell found the prospect daunting, especially if it also attempted to synthesize the existing scholarship.

Such a study would encompass the work of an array of eminent thinkers, the most prominent of whom are the focus of scholarly fields in their own right (the likes of Montaigne, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud), not to mention the history of an entire discipline, anthropology, which was founded on the civilized/primitive distinction.5 Current standards of historical research would not admit such an account unless it established the circumstances in which these theorists came to be concerned with the notion. At the very least this would entail a consideration of the history of European colonial expansion that brought those who considered themselves to be civilized into contact with the peoples and objects that they contraposed as primitive.6 There are also the related scholarly discussions concerned with the country-city relationship and the question of the origins of humanity.7

Before turning to the literature, we would want to note that primitivism flourished in a variety of artistic media,8 flagging multidisciplinary aesthetic movements like German expressionism, French surrealism, Italian futurism, and the Soviet avant-garde,9 and the work of figures long associated with primitivism, such as Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, and Igor Stravinsky.10 Maintaining a rigorous historicism, we would need to keep in frame the historical processes that brought into their paths the objects and texts that catalyzed their primitivism, such as the “discovery” of African masks in prewar Paris.11

Moving to literary texts, the relevant writers and works would need to be demarcated. This is easiest where writers have engaged demonstrably with the history of ideas or representations of the primitive—D. H. Lawrence, certainly.12 T. S. Eliot’s anthropological interests would require attention,13 and, with him, surely W. B. Yeats, taking us to other Irish revivalists and modernists like J. M. Synge, Lady Gregory, and James Joyce.14 Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha has received attention as a primitivist work,15 leading us to scholarship on the primitivism of other North American writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.16

Thus enlarged, the scope still includes only canonical white Irish, British, and American modernists. There is the question of primitivism in Europe’s “peripheries” such as Poland,17 and scholarship of the last thirty years has shown repeatedly that the work of Europeans by no means exhausts modernism, leading us to writers whose work displays primitivist tendencies, even if their modes of intention are shaped by vastly different social circumstances and cultural projects.18 The Jamaican Claude McKay cannot be ignored.19 Nor can the New Negro movement with which he is conventionally associated, drawing in the likes of Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes: “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the / flow of human blood in human veins.”20 McKay’s quest for a primal African self was important for the Caribbean and African writers who would form the Négritude movement in Paris in the 1930s, bringing us to the work of Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, Léon Damas, and their peers.21

If the currents of influence move back and forth across the Black Atlantic, so, too, do they flow down the Seine.22 We could hardly overlook the primitivist work of Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, and other literary surrealists with whom we might have started had our investigation been bilingual.23 And it would be hard to maintain a bilingual focus. German expressionist writing is often considered literary primitivism’s fulcrum.24 Worse, we would soon discover that the attempt to limit ourselves to the domain of modernism is futile.25 If we accept the claims of Erik Camayd-Freixas, we could not disregard hispanophone primitivism, especially in Latin America; so our study swells to encompass the writers he discusses, such as Alejo Carpentier, Miguel Angel Asturius, Juan Rulfo, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez.26 What of the primitivism of an indigenizing movement like the Jindyworobaks in 1930s Australia?27 Likewise, it would be hard to keep the reins on chronology. Moving forward in time, the word has been used to discuss a number of postwar countercultural figures,28 taking us in the direction of present-day anarcho-primitivism and Deep Ecology.29 Moving backward, Michael Bell considers Moby-Dick to be archetypally primitivist, and there is James Baird’s oft-cited study of Melville’s work in terms of primitivism.30 We would want to understand Robert Louis Stevenson’s attempts to create literary forms that could synthesize Scottish and Polynesian legend.31 If we were to follow Frances Connelly in tracing the lineage of primitivizing styles to the moment at which, she argues, the “primitive” comes to designate the binary opposite of Enlightenment Europe,32 we would need to turn the clock back to the early eighteenth century, raising the painful possibility that we would be obliged to discuss the writers of the romantic movement, or at least spend time distinguishing primitivism from romanticism,33 and perhaps naturalism too.34 Then there is the huge body of scholarship on the “noble savage,” a subject on which debates are hardly settled.35 Diligent historicism would require that we now have in view European colonialism in the longue durée, not just its late-Victorian apotheosis.

How far back, exactly, would we need to go? Nagging at us would be the study that did the most to shift the discussion of primitivism from race to culture and that has remained current in scholarship for eighty years: George Boas and Arthur Lovejoy’s Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (1935). It was the first installment of a projected multivolume work that aimed to index the entire history of primitivism up to their time. Not surprisingly, it remained unfinished.36 Boas and Lovejoy do not consider primitivism a phenomenon solely of the modern era but a constant feature of Western civilization, if not all civilizations. Perhaps the template for our hypothetical survey will not be the authorcentric literary history that we set out with but something more along the lines of Edward Said’s Orientalism. We might be tempted to speculate that primitivism is a transepochal binarizing “discourse” according to which the Civilized, in the very act of constituting themselves, necessarily define themselves against that which they are not, the Primitive, only, in despair at their alienation, to then idealize this Other. Primitivism would not be something confined to a particular civilization but more like a structure of desire inherent to civilized life. Literary primitivism might thus be understood as one kind of manifestation of this broader primitivist “discourse.”37

As useful as such a metacritique of literary primitivism might sound, the present study will not be taking this path. I will argue that the prevailing assumptions that would lead to the ever-widening scope just outlined need to be reassessed and the phenomenon, if there is such a thing as “literary primitivism,” brought newly into the open. My intention is to change the object of primitivism. The title Literary Primitivism thus indicates a conceptual reappraisal rather than a survey of primitivist writing as determined by received usage.

Four Theses

What I hope to establish in this first part of Literary Primitivism is that if we were to embark on the hypothetical study just outlined, we would lose sight of literary primitivism at the first turn—that is, the moment that we accepted that notions of the “primitive” are conceptually prior to primitivism—and that it would therefore be necessary to ground our study in ideas of the “primitive” before moving to consider their various historical idealizations. If we assume that ideas (or representations or discourses or ideologies) of the primitive prefigure primitivizing idealization, we have put the cart before the horse, though this metaphor should not be stretched too far: the surging primitivist yearning that seeks out particular notions of the primitive comes to know that it cannot realize itself through an external vehicle. To reach its destination it must itself become primitive and so break free of any prior primitive concept or representation. It will emerge that it is constitutive of primitivism to be always in the mode of transcending any determinate notion of the primitive.

This is not to say that primitivism has no representational (or ideological) content. As it attempts to make itself primitive, primitivism gropes for concrete evidence that such a condition is or has been possible, and it is through such reaching that primitivism makes itself apparent to us. That which is yearned for, however, is inherently unstable for historical reasons that I will discuss in detail. As such, the aesthetic phenomenon of primitivism is historically specific, coming at a moment when what I will call the primitive remnant was yet believed to be enchanted with an alternate world. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we should disregard historical conceptions of the primitive. Rather, the task is first to identify the circumstances in which the desire to become primitive through the agency of aesthetic experience took hold, before looking to any determinate notions of the primitive that might then have been in circulation. We will discover that “the primitive” is more like a dialectical principle of aesthetic exploration than something that can be nailed to any particular conception.

This may strike some as counterintuitive. In her learned study Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Revival Sinéad Garrigan Mattar astutely comments that “primitivism cannot be so easily pinned down because it is not a thing, but a process: a process of self-referential idealization that can constitute an ideology, a poetic mode, a form of satire, a social contract, a religious instinct, an intrusive element in a ‘scientific’ discourse, or an instrument of tyranny.”38 Pursuing this insight, she demonstrates that W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Lady Gregory shifted from a romantic into a modernist mode following their encounter with the new discipline of cultural anthropology. Effectively, she divides the process of primitivization into separate moments. First there are the fields of inquiry that produce ideas of the primitive and, subsequently, the thinkers and artists who pursue their idealization.

If it seems self-evident that primitivism must idealize ideas of the primitive, the grammar of such a definition already starts to obscure the idealizing motion at hand. Literary primitivism does not start with the mold of a notional primitive entity into which is poured its idealizing zeal. Primitivism is the shape of the idealization in question. Its source is not an idea or representation but the anguished yearning of discontent that seeks self-transformation toward the primitive. It is not an idea lurking somewhere in the work that the literary critic must excavate. It is the work’s aspiration and potentiality. It is thus somewhat misleading to speak of primitivism “in” literature (or music or sculpture or other artistic media). When it is appreciated that primitivism is the activity of coming into the primitive, we realize that its literariness is essential to it.

This is not to say that we should pass over any ideological untruth discerned in particular acts of reaching for the primitive. But the untruth of reaching for this specific thing—say, Parisian painters for masks from West Africa—should not cast the idealization as only a false consciousness to be unmasked as another colonial habit of mind. While always keeping in view primitivism’s deep entanglement in colonial reality, the task here will be to recover its longing. It is important, therefore, to be able to distinguish between primitivist longing and that which is longed for. For this we can adapt Ernst Bloch’s concept of nonsynchronicity, a term he devised to characterize the ways in which the remnants of a society’s past persist in shaping social expectations and practices when their immediate utility has lapsed.

Particularly useful is Bloch’s distinction between “subjective” and “objective” nonsynchronicity. He develops these concepts when considering the conditions that enabled the success of Nazism. The experience of continually being overwhelmed by capitalism’s creative destructions, of not being able to keep up, had caused a buildup of subjective anger among Germans; a curmudgeonly “not wanting of the Now.”39 At the same time, the remnants—and this is a crucial concept for my study—of technologies, social relations and practices from the past served as objective reminders of previous social realities. Gothic churches, for instance, stand for a once common theology, and the exigencies of their upkeep require the otherwise redundant skills of the stonemason. The fascists, he argues, successfully had steered nonsynchronous discontent with the current capitalist crisis toward an irrational affirmation of the remnants of the surpassed social reality.

We will return to Bloch in Chapter 3 when adapting the chronological notion of nonsynchronicity from a German to a broader imperialist context. For the moment he helps us to distinguish between the subjective discontent that prompts primitivism and the objective remnant to which it appeals when trying to imagine its ends and thus to reorient our discussion so that the former no longer is understood as only an ideological reflex symptomized by an appeal to the latter. Rather than speculate about ideas or discourses of the primitive that might have informed literary works, it will be better to look for the actual remnants that get drawn into and set into motion by primitivist works themselves. Jean-Claude Blachère puts it well in his study of André Breton’s primitivism: “Primitivist writing . . . does not speak about, it speaks like; it does not have a subject but a project, that of the simultaneous metamorphosis of the writer in enunciating the primitive tribe and of the savage mask in the poem.”40 This does not align exactly with my conception of literary primitivism, but Blachère is unusual for having grasped the difference between a weak primitivism that merely concerns a “primitive” object or notion and an emphatic one that projects itself toward the social world perceived to be latent in it.41

The understanding of literary primitivism that proceeds from this conceptual reorientation can be distilled into the following theses:

  1. Literary primitivism was a project. It strived to realize a primitive condition that was perceived to be at the point of obsolescence. As such, its destination was ultimately speculative and could not be reached by mimetic means only.
  2. Literary primitivism was an aesthetic project. It sought transformation toward the primitive condition in and through the artwork, which served as the vehicle of its negation.
  3. Literary primitivism was a project most energetically pursued at the height of European imperialist expansion, when the belief that there could be an actually existing and autonomous primitive way of life somewhere else was at its vanishing point.
  4. Literary primitivism was a mode of aesthetic negation immanent to the capitalist world-system. It did not stand against “civilization” or “the West” but rather this new and all-pervasive form of social domination.

These claims are intended only to prepare the way for the readings that follow. They are not hypotheses to be tested analytically in sequence. We can only bring literary primitivism into the open through the interpretation of literary works.

Also, I am not suggesting that all usages and considerations of “primitivism” need be confined to these claims. The term rightly will continue to be used to refer to practices founded on ideas of the primitive or to that which has perceived primitive characteristics, and scholars in cultural studies and the history of ideas will inquire into and critique such phenomena as such usages dictate. Perhaps the most straightforward way of distinguishing what I will be calling emphatic primitivism is to consider in what way the -ism modifies the stem. Previous scholarship has tended to take the suffix as denoting either “the name of a system of theory or practice . . . founded on the name of its subject or object” or “forming a term denoting a peculiarity or characteristic” (“-ism,” OED, 2a and 3). The gloss closest to the view of primitivism that is taken here is: “Forming a simple noun of action (usually accompanying a vb. in -IZE suffix) naming the process, or the completed action” (OED, 1a).42 Literary primitivism is to be found where a process of transformation toward the primitive is being undertaken. It involves what we could call “primitivizing” acts of writing.43 For this reason any attempt to circumscribe the subject by drawing up an itinerary of primitivist techniques would be pointless. The primitivism of a work can only be perceived in its aspiration and desire, qualities to be identified by attending to the dynamic relationship of its artistic elements.

Instead of considering primitivism as a cover concept for any idealization of a form of life reconciled with nature, the studies in this book seek to illuminate an emphatic primitivism. (The term primitivism henceforth will refer to “emphatic primitivism” unless otherwise indicated.) This can be contrasted with what I will call philo-primitivism, something that has a broader historical purchase, and whose tenets have been well articulated in a recent study of postwar French primitivism: “an expressed affinity for people or peoples believed to be living simpler, more natural lives than those of people in the modern West.”44 I will argue that emphatic primitivism was manifested within a much more specific historical zeitgeist during which it attained the illusion of artistic necessity.

It might well be asked: if you mean to foreground the action, the “-ism,” of primitivism, why retain the stem? Are we dealing with primitivism or any activity that seeks an absolute break from modernity and aspires to the condition of “nature”? Certainly the way to address this is not to fall back into the habit of identifying conceptions of the “primitive” that are common to all primitivizations. This study is concerned with a morphology of process, not of ends, and the end in question is highly variable because the project is so tenuous. Here the historical dimension is crucial. Primitivism emerged when a window of opportunity opened between a relatively unselfconscious globalization of capitalism through various specific colonial acts and the moment when late capitalism appeared irrevocably to have subsumed all human communities—a sudden and vertiginous realization that all humans were about to be drawn irretrievably into this world-system but when the remnants of alternate realities yet appeared to have life. The remnant, thus, is essential, not because it supplies a complete image of the objective but because it contains within it the sense of a lost whole.

Primitivism’s Poststructural Eclipse

To break with the intuition that sets ideas of the primitive in advance of any consideration of primitivism is to bring into question a cluster of world-framing assumptions that have produced and been produced by prevalent methodologies in literary and cultural studies, particularly those that have persistently steered criticism toward questions of representation and identity.

The apparent tendency of works typically identified as primitivist to idealize those peoples who, speaking broadly, Europeans once regarded as “primitive,” “savage,” or “barbaric” had been regarded with suspicion well before primitivism’s deconstruction in the 1980s. Yet, given the inversion that valorized the “primitive” over the “civilized,” scholars had not quite been able to put their fingers on what was wrong. In 1984 William Rubin could still claim that the notion that primitivism is pejorative “can only result from a misunderstanding of the origin and use of the term, whose implications have been entirely affirmative.”45 This comment comes in his introductory remarks to the catalogue of the widely discussed Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. If one were not so biddable, one might have spoken of infantilizing “stereotypes.” Yet such criticisms seemed to require uncomfortable counterclaims regarding the actual realities of the falsely accused “primitive” peoples. The situation changed when scholars across the humanities began to focus concertedly on the ways in which representations are mediated by power. It could now be argued that representations that appeared to idealize outsiders, foreigners, or strangers of any kind might nevertheless unconsciously manifest a will-to-power over them. As there was no need to credit any truth claims outside the domain of representation, one did not need to justify one’s critique by resorting to empirical evidence concerning these outsiders. The phenomenological category of “the Other” was mobilized to critique representations of “primitive” peoples from non-European societies in the circumstances of colonial expansion, and, henceforth, any consideration of primitivism would be obliged to pass through this concept.

Armed with the procedures of discourse analysis and deconstruction, scholars in the humanities were poised to dispatch primitivism with the same demystifying force that had just been applied to representations of the “Orient” by Edward Said. The galvanizing moment was the MoMA exhibition. Rubin, the head curator, had hoped to sidestep any need to consider in depth the historical relationship between European modernists and the cultures of the African and Oceanic objects they drew on by claiming that “primitivism” had to do with “the history of modern art” (PT, 319) and that the relation was a matter of aesthetic “affinity.” Critics seized on this: how could the curators pretend that there was a benign relationship between Western artists and the colonized cultures from which were drawn the objects that excited them? They argued that Rubin’s approach unconsciously repeated the pseudocolonial appropriation inherent in primitivism.46 Kurt Varnedoe, another of the curators, pointed out that the “focus of the exhibition was not on the Primitive . . . but on primitivism” (PT, 379), but this was precisely the move the critics sought to delegitimize. Appropriative primitivism stood revealed. So, too, the polemicizing ego of the deconstructive critic: Hal Foster boasted that the “‘eclipsed’ or sublated primitive reemerges in Western culture as its scandal—where it links up genealogically with poststructuralist deconstruction and politically with feminist theory and practice” (PT, 389). Varnedoe wryly countered: “Art thus approaches correctness as it aspires to the condition of criticism” (PT, 377).

Such protestations were futile. A broad moral and methodological consensus had formed, which determined that all primitivist idealizations were an ideological reflex. To understand this phenomenon one would need to deconstruct its practices of representation. This constituted a basic reorientation of the thinking on primitivism that had been established by Lovejoy and Boas in the 1930s. They argued that there was no inherently primitive entity and that “primitivism” was a perceptual frame. With poststructuralism the historical and ideological character of this frame becomes the object of critique.

In what is probably the most frequently cited comment from this period, Marianna Torgovnick characterizes Western conceptions of the primitive as “our ventriloquist’s dummy”: “the primitive can be—has been, will be (?)—whatever Euro-Americans want it to be. It tells us what we want it to tell us.”47 Accordingly, Torgovnick’s object of study is the “image” of the primitive that formed in a wide range of intellectual disciplines and cultural practices at the beginning of the twentieth century. This image was consolidated when a range of “tropes” “slipped from their original metaphoric status” and were naturalized.48 Whether a “rhetoric of control” or a “rhetoric of desire,” primitivism constituted a self-deluding subsumption of the Other.49 For Torgovnick the conceptual impasse between Western frames and the unrepresentable Other can only be solved by “making a space” for the authentic primitive. She sees hope in (then) recent approaches to the problem that use “dialogic models.” These might afford the Other a “full voice.”50

Torgovnick’s stridency does not make hers a more notable scholarly achievement. Her broad and confident claims, however, allow us to see clearly the terrain onto which the subject of primitivism was drawn at the time. To be fair, her subject is not really primitivism but the “discourse” of the primitive. In conflating literary, theoretical, and other modes of discourse, though, primitivism was effectively eclipsed. The same moves can be perceived in more reserved studies such as Colin Rhodes’s Primitivism and Modern Art, which concludes by considering the “dilemma of post-colonialism.”51 Rhodes cites what, in 1994, were recent examples of European artists who had used “extra-European material culture without attempting to conceal its particular identity.”52 The more the call to “make a space” for “the Other” was repeated, the more it started to resemble the idealizing logic it hoped to supplant. As Robert Young perceives with clarity: “The concept of the other, in short, simply comprises the modern form of the category of the primitive.”53 The obeisance to “the Other,” not as a category for phenomenological reflection but as a designation for actual social groups, echoes the wishful a priorism of which primitivism stands accused. Rather than dismantling primitivism’s idealism, deconstruction drove its logic deeper by further abstraction.

This process has been explained in detail by Victor Li. He shows that arguments like Torgovnick’s were typical of a “neo-primitivist” trend at the time. This also includes the work of such figures as Hal Foster, Gayatri Spivak, Jean Baudrillard, and Jürgen Habermas. The postmodern critique of primitivism is, Li concludes, “primitivism without primitives.”54 It feels it can subtract the faulty concept of the “primitive” and retain the trace of the pure Other.55 This “point-zero primitivism” thus believes it has avoided the constitutive problems of representation and authority: “if the referential absence of primitives absolves neo-primitivism of the ‘Orientalist’ sin of representing or speaking for concrete others, it also affords neo-primitivism the power to judge whether the speech or self-representation of others measures up to its non-referential, spectral ideal of the primitive. Neo-primitivism’s safeguarding of the other from the power of representation is, at the same time, its power to police all representations of otherness by determining how far they fall short of the ideal Other.”56 Not only does neo-primitivism persist in making a fetish of absolute authenticity; it speaks as its witch doctor.57

Determinate negation and utopia are the cues for the current study, which aligns with the thinking of a different formation within postcolonial and world literary studies, one that begins with the assumption of a single, commonly experienced modern world-system.58 The recasting in world-historical terms of notions of the “avant-garde” and “modernist utopianism,” by Keya Ganguly and Nicholas Brown respectively, exemplify this trend. For Ganguly, provincializing the European avant-garde is not to confine it to an increasingly notional “Europe” or “West” but to situate it within the twentieth century as a “total conjuncture and geopolitical whole.”59 It includes not just the revolt of rebellious Europeans but the entire backdrop of global social ferment that also encompasses anticolonialism and nascent internationalism. Consequently, those artists and movements that might fruitfully be considered within the scope of the term avant-garde change, as well as which artistic techniques, or antiartistic ones, are considered as the manifestation of its praxis.

Likewise, in Brown’s wide-ranging study works of modernism and decolonization are read alongside one another in such a way as to make them “comprehensible within a single framework within which neither will look the same. This framework . . . hinge[s] neither on ‘literary history’ nor abstract ‘universal history’ but on each text’s relation to history itself.”60 Brown’s study reminds us that the concept of totality does not block but rather enables a vision of the constitutive incompleteness of any given historical moment. Both Brown and Ganguly make it clear that direct historical connections between the artists that they discuss may well exist, but this is not their focus. They are concerned with the way diverse art practices align within a social totality as its historical shape evolves. We will observe direct connections between expressionism and D. H. Lawrence, Lawrence and Claude McKay, and McKay and negritude writers in the studies that make up the second part of this book, but the point is not to suggest a causal chain. Our purpose is to bring primitivism to shine forth by situating it in its proper totality and, thereby, to disclose its truth content.

If the postmodern fetish of the “Other” can be considered a kind of late incarnation of primitivism, the historical argument of this study might help to explain how such a metamorphosis came to pass. If there is continuity in the structure of primitivism beyond primitivism, it will also help to delineate the phenomenon if we can specify the moment at which the primitivist project gained urgency. We need to return to the period when there yet was belief in the primitive remnant.


1. Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Painting (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1938); see also Charles Wentinck, Modern and Primitive Art (Oxford: Phaidon, 1979); William Rubin, ed., “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984); Jack D. Flam and Miriam Deutch, eds., Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); and Colin Rhodes, Primitivism and Modern Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994).

2. Michael Bell, Primitivism (London: Methuen, 1972), 2.

3. Ibid., 1.

4. Michel de Montaigne, The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, trans. M. A. Screech (London: Allen Lane, 1991), 236.

5. See Adam Kuper, The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion (London: Routledge, 1988). Perhaps the most succinct summation of the history of primitivism qua philosophical framework that idealizes the idea of the primitive is provided by Armin W. Geertz in “Can We Move Beyond Primitivism? On Recovering the Indigenes of Indigenous Religions in the Academic Study of Religion,” in Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity, ed. Jacob K. Olupona (New York: Routledge, 2004), 37–70. References in the following survey of scholarship on primitivism are representative. They do not constitute an exhaustive list.

6. See David Ciarlo, Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); and Annie E. Coombes, “Ethnography of National and Cultural Identities,” in The Myth of Primitivism, ed. Susan Hiller (London: Routledge, 1991), 156–78.

7. See Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975); and Stephen Horigan, Nature and Culture in Western Discourses (London: Routledge, 1988).

8. See Charles Harrison and Gillian Perry, Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); Daniel Albright, ed., Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Emmanuel Gorge, Le primitivisme musical: Facteurs et genèse d’un paradigme esthétique (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000); and Susan Jones, Literature, Modernism, and Dance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

9. Jill Lloyd, German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991); Vincent Debaene, “Les surréalistes et le musée d’ethnographie,” Labyrinthe, 12 (2002), 71–94; Iris Därmann, “Primitivismus in den Bildtheorien des 20. Jahrhunderts,” in Literarischer Primitivismus, ed. Nicola Gess (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 75–91; Joseph Masheck, “Raw Art: ‘Primitive’ Authenticity and German Expressionism,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 4 (1982), 92–117; Lucia Re, “‘Barbari Civilizzatissimi’: Marinetti and the Futurist Myth of Barbarism,” Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 17 (2012), 350–68; Jeremy Howard, Irēna Bužinska, and Z. S. Strother, Vladimir Markov and Russian Primitivism: A Charter for the Avant-Garde (Surrey: Ashgate, 2015).

10. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Going Native: Paul Gauguin and the Invention of Modernist Primitivism,” Art in America, 77 (1989), 118–29; Patricia Leighten, “The White Peril and L’Art nègre: Picasso, Primitivism, and Anticolonialism,” Art Bulletin, 72 (1990), 609–30; Sarah Kennel, “Le Sacre du Printemps: Primitivism, Popular Dance, and the Parisian Avant-Garde,” Nottingham French Studies, 44 (2005), 4–23; Carol McKay, “Modernist Primitivism? The Case of Kandinsky,” Oxford Art Journal, 16.2 (1993), 21–36.

11. See part 1 of Flam and Deutch; and T. J. Barringer and Tom Flynn, eds., Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture, and the Museum (London: Routledge, 1998).

12. Michael Bell, D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Jack Stewart, The Vital Art of D. H. Lawrence: Vision and Expression (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999); Dolores LaChapelle, D. H. Lawrence: Future Primitive (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1996); B. Neilson, “D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Dark Page’: Narrative Primitivism in Women in Love and The Plumed Serpent,” Twentieth Century Literature, 43.3 (1997), 310–25.

13. Robert Crawford, The Savage and the City in the Work of T. S. Eliot (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987); William Harmon, “T. S. Eliot, Anthropologist and Primitive,” American Anthropologist, 78 (1976), 797–811; Ronald Bush, “The Presence of the Past: Ethnographic Thinking/ Literary Politics,” in Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism, ed. Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 23–41.

14. Sinéad Garrigan Mattar, Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Revival (Oxford: Clarendon, 2004); Maria McGarrity and Claire A. Culleton, eds., Irish Modernism and the Global Primitive (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

15. Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 59–76; Susanna Pavloska, Modern Primitives: Race and Language in Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Zora Neale Hurston (London: Routledge, 2013), 31–54.

16. Mark Whalan, Race, Manhood, and Modernism in America: The Short Story Cycles of Sherwood Anderson and Jean Toomer (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007), 73–122; Suzanne Del Gizzo, “Going Home: Hemingway, Primitivism, and Identity,” Modern Fiction Studies, 49 (2003), 496–523; Dominique Viart, “Faulkner et les paradoxes du primitivisme,” Revue des sciences humaines, 227 (1992), 196–219; George William Sutton, “Primitivism in the Fiction of William Faulkner” (PhD diss., University of Mississippi, 1967).

17. Edward Manouelian, “Invented Traditions: Primitivist Narrative and Design in the Polish Fin de Siècle,” Slavic Review, 59.2 (2000), 391–405.

18. Sieglinde Lemke, Primitivist Modernism: Black Culture and the Origins of Transatlantic Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Carole Sweeney, From Fetish to Subject: Race, Modernism, and Primitivism, 1919–1935 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004).

19. See Chapter 7 for further discussion of the scholarship on McKay and primitivism.

20. Tracy McCabe, “The Multifaceted Politics of Primitivism in Harlem Renaissance Writing,” Soundings, 80 (1997), 475–97; David Chinitz, “Rejuvenation Through Joy: Langston Hughes, Primitivism, and Jazz,” American Literary History, 9 (1997), 60–78; Kurt Eisen, “Theatrical Ethnography and Modernist Primitivism in Eugene O’Neill and Zora Neale Hurston,” South Central Review, 25 (2008), 56–73; Paul Stasi, “A ‘Synchronous but More Subtle Migration’: Passing and Primitivism in Toomer’s ‘Cane,’Twentieth Century Literature, 55 (2009), 145–74.

21. A. James Arnold, Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981); Mara De Gennaro, “Fighting ‘Humanism’ on Its Own Terms,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 14 (2003), 53–73; Celia Britton, “How to Be Primitive: Tropiques, Surrealism and Ethnography,” Paragraph, 32 (2009), 168–81.

22. Michael Richardson, ed., Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean, trans. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijałkowski (London: Verso, 1996).

23. Katia Samaltanos, Apollinaire: Catalyst for Primitivism, Picabia, and Duchamp (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984); Jean-Claude Blachère, Les totems d’André Breton: Surréalisme et primitivisme littéraire (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1996); Georges Bataille, Documents, ed. Bernard Noël (Paris: Mercure de France, 1968); Rosalind E. Krauss, “No More Play,” in The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 42–85; Marie-Denise Shelton, “Primitive Self: Colonial Impulses in Michel Leiris’s L’Afrique Fantôme,” in Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism, ed. Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 326–38.

24. Rhys W. Williams, “Primitivism in the Works of Carl Einstein, Carl Sternheim and Gottfried Benn,” Journal of European Studies, 13 (1983), 247–67; David Pan, Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001); Andreas Michel, “Formalism to Psychoanalysis: On the Politics of Primitivism in Carl Einstein,” in The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and Its Legacy, ed. Sara Friedrichsmeyer, Sara Lennox, and Susanne Zantop (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 141–61; Nicola Gess, ed., Literarischer Primitivismus (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2012).

25. A volume that exemplifies the tendency to tie primitivism to modernism is Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush, eds., Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).

26. Erik Camayd-Freixas, “Narrative Primitivism: Theory and Practice in Latin America,” in Primitivism and Identity in Latin America: Essays on Art, Literature, and Culture, ed. Erik Camayd-Freixas and José Eduardo González (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000), 109–34.

27. Peter Kirkpatrick, “‘Fearful Affinity’: Jindyworobak Primitivism,” in Adelaide: A Literary City, ed. Philip Butterss (Adelaide: Adelaide University Press, 2013), 125–46.

28. Paul Sherman, In Search of the Primitive: Rereading David Antin, Jerome Rothenberg, and Gary Snyder (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986); Jon Panish, “Kerouac’s The Subterraneans: A Study of ‘Romantic Primitivism,’MELUS, 19.3 (1994), 107–23.

29. Peter C. Van Wyck, Primitives in the Wilderness: Deep Ecology and the Missing Human Subject (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997); John Zerzan, Future Primitive and Other Essays (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1994).

30. Bell, Primitivism, 3; James Richard Baird, Ishmael: A Study of the Symbolic Mode in Primitivism (New York: Harper and Bros, 1960).

31. Julia Reid, “Robert Louis Stevenson and the ‘Romance of Anthropology,’Journal of Victorian Culture, 10.1 (2005), 46–71.

32. Frances S. Connelly, The Sleep of Reason: Primitivism in Modern European Art and Aesthetics, 1725–1907 (University Park: Penn State Press, 1999). Maximilian Novak also speaks of primitivism “flourishing” in the eighteenth century precisely because the binary of civilized and primitive first became distinct at this time. See “Primitivism,” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 4, The Eighteenth Century, ed. H. B. Nisbet and Claude Rawson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 456–69.

33. Irving Babbitt, “The Primitivism of Wordsworth,” Bookman, 74.1 (1931), 1–10; Anne McWhir, “Purity and Disgust: The Limits of Wordsworth’s Primitivism,” Mosaic, 24.2 (1991), 43–58.

34. Gina M. Rossetti, Imagining the Primitive in Naturalist and Modernist Literature (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006).

35. For more on this see Chapter 2.

36. Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935).

37. Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

38. Garrigan Mattar, 3.

39. Ernst Bloch, “Nonsynchronism and the Obligation to Its Dialectics,” trans. Mark Ritter, New German Critique, 11 (1977), 31.

40. Blachère, 233 (my translation).

41. The notion that primitivism is a project is announced by the title of Barkan and Bush’s edited volume Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism. The editors do not explain in their introduction in what sense they employ the term project, however.

42. Oxford English Dictionary Online,, s.v. “-ism.”

43. In assuming that primitivism implies the verb, I follow Robert Goldwater. He writes, for instance, of “primitivizing elements,” “primitivizing works,” and “primitivizing style,” and uses the verb form throughout his study. See Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage, 1967), 139, 243, 213.

44. Daniel J. Sherman, French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire, 1945–1975 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 3. The distinction with philo-primitivism is not the same as that made by Lovejoy and Boas between “hard” primitivism, which idealizes a savage and brutish condition, and “soft” primitivism, which idealizes a tranquilly Arcadian state—a categorization that seeks a transhistorical axis. Rosalind Krauss’s essay “No More Play” has done much to keep this distinction current in the scholarship. Krauss, 42–85. For more on this see the discussion in Chapter 2.

45. Flam and Deutch, 319; herein PT. I reference the Flam and Deutch anthology because the responses to the MoMA exhibition that I go on to discuss can also be read in that volume.

46. Thomas McEvilley spoke of “an ethnocentric subjectivity inflated to co-opt such cultures and their objects into itself”; James Clifford of “the restless desire and power of the modern West to collect the world”; Hal Foster of primitivism as “a fetishistic recognition-and-disavowal of difference . . . a (mis)construction of the other.” Flam and Deutch, 249, 356, 386.

47. Torgovnick, 9.

48. Ibid., 3, 8.

49. According to Torgovnick, D. H. Lawrence hopes for “systems of thought which might critique Western ones,” but he can only think of primitive societies “in Western terms.” So “thinkers like Lawrence yearn for, but lack the ground for, radical critique” (173). As with Foster, Torgovnick can only perceive Lawrence’s intent in the terms of her own ambitions. The novelist is presumed to be aiming for “critique,” even to the point of needing to supply adequate “grounds” for this.

50. Ibid., 247.

51. Rhodes, 195. For Rhodes, “primitivism does not designate an organised group of artists, or even an identifiable style . . . but rather brings together artists’ various reactions to ideas of the primitive” (7). He first establishes what these ideas might have been and then runs through an impressive array of movements, artists, and works that were stimulated by them.

52. Ibid., 200.

53. Robert Young, “Postcolonial Remains,” New Literary History, 43 (2012), 38.

54. Victor Li, The Neo-primitivist Turn: Critical Reflections on Alterity, Culture, and Modernity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 32.

55. To be “haunted by the aboriginal,” in Gayatri Spivak’s righteous words. Quoted in Li, 32.

56. Li, 38.

57. Having decisively shown that you cannot subtract domination from concepts by trimming off their ideological component or finding new ones, Li finds his own study at an impasse. He has argued that the deconstruction of the primitive requires the standpoint of an unknowable alterity but then admits that he himself has relied on this structure of critique. What Li has forgotten by the end of his study is the importance of the historical content that deconstruction hollowed out—what I am calling primitivism’s nonsynchronous remnant.

58. Three signal collections within this research paradigm are David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins, and Nirvana Tanoukhi, eds., Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Jed Esty and Colleen Lye, eds., with Joe Cleary, “Peripheral Realisms,” special issue, Modern Language Quarterly, 73.3 (2012); and Warwick Research Collective, Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015).

59. Keya Ganguly, Cinema, Emergence, and the Films of Satyajit Ray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 2.

60. Nicholas Brown, Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 3.