Posts Tagged ‘Civilization’

“Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home. Each is an aspect of the other.” – Anthropologist Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive

I led off my last post with a photo of Ishi, perhaps the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, and the caption “Ishi, the last of the Yahi. His story is not identical to John’s in Brave New World.”  While this framing makes perfect sense to me, and I did so with some hope of people actually looking him up, I feel like I should explain briefly before finishing the second post (on Brave New World).  What follows are some brief, deliberately provocative, and unfinished ideas about Ishi’s legacy.

Ishi’s story is sad and horrific, and I won’t try to fully summarize it here.  Everyone who is remotely well-read should be familiar with it.  I’ll even use the second person address here since I feel so strongly:  You should begin with the obvious online sources (this timeline is also a good summary) and then you need to read Theodora Kroeber’s book Ishi in Two Worlds.  Then maybe Ishi in Three Centuries or Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America.  Theodora Kroeber is, incidentally, Ursula K. Le Guin’s mother.  Le Guin’s father, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, was one of the scientists who had the opportunity to work most closely with Ishi.  Arthur’s relationship with Ishi, like that of all those who studied the “wild Indian” is one that can easily be criticized in hindsight, and I won’t defend the exhibitionism and exploitativeness of anthropological science at the time.  However, the Kroebers’ interactions with and documentation of his story are invaluable documentation of  a remarkable man and an awful, yet common, story.


The simple divisions of civilized versus primitive or civilization versus wilderness are rarely actually simple.

Ishi, the last of the Yahi. His story is not identical to John’s in Brave New World.

Dystopian fiction is often concerned with what can easily be presented as simple dualisms: freedom/restriction, happiness/misery, individual/collective, logic/passion, reason/emotion, civilization/wilderness, and so on.  When I have taught dystopian works, I use these to give students an anchor and rubric for their reading and thinking about the texts.  However, these pairs can also become blinders for analysis of such works, allowing critics, including authors of the works themselves, to over-simplify the complexity of ideas therein into a simple “this or that” option that neglects so many questions of politics, philosophy, and definition.

To my mind, the most glaring examples of this over-simplification are in the spacially-oriented conception of civilization versus wilderness and, by extension, the more complex idea of civilized versus primitive.  In the two posts that will follow, I’m going to take a look at how these concepts are flattened, simplified, and misrepresented in the two defining texts of dystopian literature: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.