Modernity is inseparable from a permanent questioning of the origins, as it emerges as an instance of reflexivity (history) on what humans have built throughout time and in their occupation of space (Vico). Therefore, it is named by some as the «age of ages» (Blumenberg), i.e. the age in which the notion of age is reinvented and radicalized. Clearly, its empirical origins cannot be retrieved and the very notion of origin corresponds to an idealization of multiple processes, unfolded over time, which can converge in more prominent moments or situations. In this sense, modernity is inextricable from a patrimonial or archival drive that seeks to classify and store everything in a kind of gigantic archive, of which contemporary databases are an overwhelming sign. Ideologically, nineteenth-century historicism and the various mythologies of progress it has given rise to, correspond to the idea that it is possible to close the circle of history by determining its beginning and ending points. The catastrophes of the past century proved this vision wasan illusion. Everything depends on the responsibility of humans and on how they act in the present (actual), in light of their images of the past and future. The deep truth about the vivid controversies on primitivism, the archaic and the elementary - which characterized contemporary thought, arts and science - lies in the fact that we are entering a crucial moment for the community of humans. This moment is increasingly marked by technology and the need to reformulate the ways in which the Earth was shared throughout history, as well as the forms assumed by the individual body and the collective, social or national «bodies».
The theories on the end of history that go back to Hegel and were the base of all theodicies, imply that, in modernity, the most archaic and the most contemporary permanently meet, collide and reshape each other. Everything happens as if the circle uniting beginning and end had come to a closure. Primitivism was a first symptom of this process, referring to the search for the origins but serving to ground the fundamentally ethnocentric or Eurocentric theories of civilization. The primitive, seen as barbaric and savage, was a stage preceding development and indicating mythical, intuitive - basically, non-rational - forms of action. This prevailing vision made the fame of Lucien Lévy-Brühl (1857-1939). We owe him the influent book La mentalité primitive (1922), which he later reformulated.
Contemporary anthropology, for example with Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908), will not cease attacking this interpretation. In La pensée sauvage (1962), Lévi-Strauss shows there are no significant differences between the modern and the archaic ways of thinking, but rather distinct modalities of using the available materials - some more concrete and imagetic and others more abstract, both combining intricately. Another form of primitivism was Romantics’ resistance to modern rationality, driving them to advocate a spontaneous relation with «nature» and to favour sensibility and passion. Nostalgia towards nature and primeval spontaneity explain the modern appeal of exoticism that highly regards distant cultures, such as those from Oceania, Japan or China. The arrival to Europe and the United States of cult objects from Africa or the overseas, with the concomitant creation of ethnography and ethnographic and anthropological museums, as well as the discovery of Palaeolithic and Prehistoric artefacts, deeply disturbed Western self-awareness, both politically – where resorting to themyth as a means of attacking or refounding democracy had catastrophic effects - and aesthetically. The apparent artistry of archaic objects disturbed the hierarchy separating utilitarian andartistic objects, and archaic objectsthus became enigmatic or unclassifiable. The growth of art in the twentieth century rests on the destabilization of the difference between utilitarian and artistic objects (Duchamp), i.e. on the transformation of Western, post-Christian and post-Renaissance forms of art. Many artists like Picasso, Klee, Braque, Breton, etc., created new, hybrid works, resorting to «primitive» forms or archaic conceptions of space-time, to propel the avant-gardes. Surely, the underlying ideology of primitivism that somehow supported those trends was vigorously criticized, following the famous exhibitions, “Primitivism in 20th Century Art” (1984) at the MOMA in New York, and “Magiciens de la terre” (1989), organized by the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Primitivism disappears as an artistic ideology at the precise moment when art is globalized and pluralized.
Another tradition had appeared in the nineteenth century, questioning the survival of the past in the present, seeking to reshape the present from an archaic layer, lingering subterraneously in modernity. Thus, for Freud, the archaic survives through traces buried in the unconscious, affecting collective life, as Totem and Taboo (1913) seeks to demonstrate. Karl Marx too, through the notion of «exploitation», will draw his attention to the uses of bodies, in an effort to detect, beyond modern legalism, the survival of archaic forms related to slavery and to the use of human bodies, as well as to the sharing of land which he associates strictly to the idea of «private property». That path will be followed by many other important authors, such as Aby Warburg (1866-1929) who will make the idea of survival an essential, methodological tool for analysing contemporary images, or still, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). More recently, that trend is present in the work of Michel Foucault, to whom we owe insightfulness on this matter. The archaic is the effect of decisions taken historically, which recur in times of crisis, allowing us to decide consciously what had been unwittingly decided in/by history. This call for a reading practice affects the analysed phenomena, as is well exemplified by the explanation of Palaeolithic works through function or shamanism. Each of these visions is an integral part of the problem they seek to apprehend.
The return of the archaic is inextricable from a critique of modernity or at least of its dominant forms. Against juridical abstraction, some authors insist on the presence of a primeval violence, stemming from hunting or predation, and that would be present in the apparently anodyne forms of contemporary gaze. We are indebted to René Girard’s enlightening inquiries of these processes where history hangs from the answer that can be given to that archaic violence, with a particular consideration of the emergence of sacrificial structures. In economy, the convergence of the archaic and the hyper-modern has proven to be quite productive, aiming at the critique of market economy or capitalism. Within this context, it is worth referring to the famous study by Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) on the gift (Essai sur le don, 1924), as well as to the historical works of Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) on the origin of capitalism. This type of critique of economy, starting from an archaic or primitive economy, tends to legitimize the welfare forms of the modern State.
The widespread replacement of the theories of civilization - characterized by an irresistible evolving of history through phases and stages – by universal, social forms and abstract, general reason - to which the barbarity of both World Wars was not without relation - is at the root of the predominance of the idea of culture and the discourse it involves and produces. Primarily connected with Romanticism - with its emphasis on national legends and myths, its favouring of historical languages and its stress on the uniqueness of each national tradition -, the idea of «culture» becomes widespread in the course of the twentieth century. Critically inheriting the notion of «civilization», the category of culture largely results from the secularization, in the modern age, of religion as an explanatory, universal principle and a source of moral authority. That secularization has not only allowed religion to become an object of cognitive inquiry, but alsoculture itself, to the extent that it is an essential, human fact. Henceforth, culture presents itself as a provider of answers to the anthropological question which philosophical modernity establishes as grounding all rational enterprise. The emergence of theories of culture thus becomes possible, and inside them religion is objectified as a cultural fact. In turn, the diversity and variability of the systems of beliefs can cease being reduced to the category of idolatry, to become liable for analysis, from the standpoint of a universal and original prevalence of myth and magic.
Mythical narratives of the origins – which present man, in one way or the other, as imago dei, and are coextensive of a logic of the creation of humankind as sacrifice of its animality or carnality, reflected in turn in the systems of prohibitions – are replaced by history as asymbolic, if not even technical construction of men’s humanity. However, theories of culture dealing with becoming human, are coextensive to the tension between nature and culture, and between culture and civilization (that only very recently has started to be overcome). Theories of culture cannot avoid being confronted with and incorporating evolutionist contributions of hominization, as well as the evidences of the presence of a material culture whose roots lie in the earliest of archaic, lithic artefacts. The freeing of the hand and the production of the tool combine in this way, mutually interfering with each other in a process which imbricates the biological, the technical and, finally, the symbolic.
The unfinished journey in time which, from the pre-human animal leads to ourselves and remains open, is stratified in space by a tectonics, with its sedimentations, layers and plates. This tectonics is not only offered as a metaphor for the construction of the human, but rather as a very real object of palaeontological research. Its evolution starts in a pre-human, biological evolution, relayed by symbolic, anthropo-evolution, and currently projected into techno-evolution. Rather than pointing to the post-human, it mainly states the ever-changing condition of humankind, self-propelled by the search for itself, according to the famous Heraclitian statement. That is why, if something is to remain unchanged in the species’ and individual’s process of becoming human, that is the tension of opening up possibilities which, one must acknowledge, necessarily includes undesirable, as well as desirable, possibilities. Countless literary and artistic forms – from the mythological heritage of all civilizations to modern science fiction – focus on the distinction between the two. Mythologies share the same view of nature as anormative framework which imposes boundaries to technological manipulation, thus binding it to the imperatives of mimetic reproduction. The same applies to the technological manipulation of man, whose imago is dictated by archetypes. On the other hand, science fiction proves how much we have withdrawn from those cultural frameworks - namely, from the binary opposition between natural and artificial - and embraced an understanding of nature as indefinitely available, prime matter, and of man as body, i.e. a mouldable ductility, both symbolically and technologically, a construction without a prior model that might be used as guide and evaluation criterion.
At the end point of the ensuing desacralization of the relationship of man with nature, with his fellow human beings and with himself, we find modern sexuality. If it was always the axis orienting the individual’s animal-becoming, it is from now on orienting its machine-becoming. Thus, mythology and science fiction meet and interconnect, both in the shaping of utopian attempts to overcome the human condition, and in the fall into the inhuman – whether shaped according to the animal or according to the machine. Therefore, the return of the primitive in the actual and the contemporary should come as no surprise. We (re)encounter the primitive in what comes ahead of us. It returns to us the future projection of our present condition, whenever, in the process of overcoming it, we aim to go deeper into what we are, into the available possibilities of our being. Such retrieving and exploring correspond precisely to the operation of biotechnosciences and communication technologies which translate those possibilities into information, storable in an archive or database, be it the genome or cultural products. Potentiated by virtualization and virtual animation, the retrieval and reconstruction of the past change it into a present availability like any other, which is something so akin to cyberculture. Therefore, it is through the registering, classifying, measuring and processing, as well as indefinitely productive gaze of mnemotechniques, that we can see ourselves as humans.
If some ethnocentrism from Western traditions is to remain, perhaps we can identify it in the universal expansion of that form of systematization, assimilating all cultural differences, that was brought about by their reduction to informational data and that ultimately is one of the technological corollaries of globalization. The self-proclaimed multiculturalism of modern, Western society would thus present itself as a new and equivocal, all-encompassing system of equivalences. From it stems the inherent ambiguity of an industry like cultural tourism, by means of which we both visit the difference between cultures - in space and time, running the risk of translating it as a value-neutral and, ultimately, undifferentiated possibility – and allow ourselves to be exposed to cultural alterity, relentlessly unique and irreducible to our translation processes and assimilation apparatuses.
All these phenomena are inseparable from contemporary technology, increasingly digital and virtual. Modern technology is determining the growing acceleration of culture, characterized by velocity and expeditiousness, at the same time it implements an extensive program of globalization. However, contrarily to the notion according to which myth and irrationality reigned in archaic communities, all the signs conveyed to us by Prehistory reveal the situation was quite different. The Côa images, the archaic statuettes, the hunting artefacts that survived, the diverse tools, the traces of coloured matter, etc. are signs of a complex and unitary situation, characterized by the will to endure– making stone a material which is good to use and efficient to think – and by the technological thrust, so finely surveyed by André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986). Although it is not possible to establish a clear line of origin, it is clear, as Jan Assman states, that cultura facit saltus, i.e. that culture originates in a distancing from nature and in the possibility of actually placing it at a distance (Hans Blumenberg). In this sense, culture is a kind of conveyance of the human, allowing for the confrontation with nature and autonomous self-shaping. The emergence of distance serves simultaneously as 1) protection, 2) enchantment of the world, and 3) form of control. All these elements are intertwined, and the myths are its symptom. Their separation and specialization is a product of history, and they are again converging.
The idea of an insufficient reason at the very origin of the human is inconsistent. We can find countless traces of a very ancient mnemotechnique, as well as signs of an attempt to make danger and risk visible, in order to escape from or anticipate them. The Palaeolithic images in Côa and Lascaux required technical mastery and great ingenuity. The enchantment that is apparent in myth, inhabited by hybrid and fantastic beings, is inextricable from an attempt to exert control over the primeval Awe, and from the instauration of methods of precaution and mastery. The withdrawal from nature was effected through the building of physical and symbolic «walls» that govern primordial oppositions: close/distant; inside/outside; friend/foe, etc. The theory of architecture controversy over the origin of the tectonic – the drive to build –, whether it was the cave or the hut, ends up being a false debate. Everything suits the tectonic drive - from repetition, to the weaving of trees or furs, to the construction of the most solid buildings. All these elements were bound together and began to disintegrate, showing that instead of a solution, they are becoming the very problem. Absolute reason tends to be destructive, just as absolute myth blinds completely. Therefore, what characterizes modernity is the destruction of absolutes and the need for new beginnings. The lesson of the Côa Masters makes itself heard once again and we need it today, more than ever.
José A. Bragança de Miranda
António Fernando Cascais