Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World ends with the protagonist dangling from a noose. Technology pervasive to the point of sterilizing society, John the Savage felt suicide was the only escape. John Zerzan’s 2008 Twilight of the Machines would have society take the same figurative step.
A grand denouncement of civilization, past to present and future, Twilight of the Machines is a collection of essays which scathingly rebuts all –isms not beginning with primitive. Bluntly critical, Zerzan dismantles the Western worldview one agricultural, political, economic, technological—even lingual and epistemological—block at a time. Despite that the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle is identified as the optimum societal state, the book is not a primitivist manifesto; no path is laid toward achieving primeval utopia, nor is any creed presented in 1,2,3 format.
Broken into two halves, Twilight of the Machines first presents/attacks civilization from a historical context before moving on to assail it from a modern perspective. Material in the first half includes such topics as language, patriarchy, war, technology, communal existence, and knowledge. The basic approach of these essays is to contrast positive aspects of the past, e.g. bliss in ignorance, with the present state of affairs, e.g. the burden of wisdom. Zerzan’s conclusion, backed by limited archeological research, is that primitive man had a higher quality of life. Though not directly stated, the improvements of medicine and relative elimination of food scarcity are rendered unimportant in the face of prehistoric lifestyle attributes.
The second half of the book examines the symptoms of a disease Zerzan terms postmodern civilization. This includes environmental degradation, health problems, the detrimental effects of globalization, and the isolating effect of virtual reality, to name a few. The increasing rates of mental disorders, obesity, and resource deprivation are just a few of the specific examples cited in support. In full attack mode, Zerzan’s relates civilization today as a bubble about to burst, the blackest of motives and devices underlying it all.
Readers interested in primitivism will undoubtedly take something away from Twilight of the Machines. A more urgent and explicit version of Spengler’s Decline of the West, Zerzan fills his short book with an eclectic plethora of research. (There is an eighteen page bibliography.) However, many of the quotes are thrown together in a rushed, haphazard fashion. At times cohering into powerful arguments, the tremendous leaps in logic can disorient readers at others. In this regard, the book would benefit from a fuller realization—a more lengthy exposition—linking contentions and supporting scholarship closer together, thus improving credibility.
There are some additional loopholes in Twilight of the Machines, particularly ideological. As if intending its development to take on such a destructive role, Zerzan continuously works under the assumption humanity controls its destiny. All of the current ills are spoken of in an implicative tone, for example, “If humans would never have developed written language, we wouldn’t find ourselves in our current predicament.” The crux of this perspective is obvious. In the same vein of assumption, Zerzan places an overwhelming amount of trust in archeological research, not only into recent millennia, but information propagated by researchers regarding 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. Humanity still unsure what happened decades ago, the dependence sans caveat is worrisome. Other arguments readers may find specious include “The general crisis of modernity has its roots in the imposition of gender.", or "Among the specific reasons [war] doesn't go away is the desire to escape the horror of mass-industrial life." Some readers may revel in such quotable material, while others may feel Zerzan’s zeal overcomes logic.
Some viewing it as an inexcusable flaw, others unaware of the elision, the fact Zerzan never proposes a manner in which society can once again obtain primeval status—return to its prehistoric roots, as it were—remains an observation of the book. The negative critique of modern society unending, Zerzan meekly writes a few words to the effect “the time is ripe for revolution” when discussing possibilities for the future. Never is the next logical step taken: offering solutions to the problem identified.
Readers will love or hate Twilight of the Machines. The author’s narrow view will quickly push a person to one side of the fence or the other. But no matter societal wake-up call or conspiracy theory, the collection of essays is at heart nihilist: no plausible solution is offered for the variety of social ills pronounced. Therefore, readers expecting discussion and commentary on the manner in which civilization can dig itself out of its holes will be disappointed. However, those who enjoy rancorous language censuring current civilization integrated with an impressive quantity of scholarly texts will walk away satisfied. In the end, the reader must decide whether cultural suicide is the only way to societal utopia.