The preface introduces the book's central thesis, that literary primitivism was an aesthetic project whose emergence coincided with the climax of European imperialist expansion, and explains that its purpose accordingly is to change the object to which primitivism refers. The preface details the historical and critical methodology of the book, with reference to the concept of totality in particular, and conducts a short reading of Aimé Césaire's short poem "Barbare." It suggests that the current phase of globalization and the critical concern with "world literature" have opened up the possibility for reconceiving of primitivism as a utopian project, albeit a vexed and problematic one.
Chapter 1 focuses on the conceptual and theoretical problems that pertain to literary primitivism. It surveys the breadth of previous scholarship and points out that a comprehensive study that proceeded according to received usage would be hopelessly vast owing to the ahistorical presuppositions that have tended to inform its use. It sets out the terms by which the book redefines the term—especially, that primitivism was an aesthetic project specific to the historical moment when the possibility of primitive experience was perceived to be at the point of obsolescence. Transformed thus into an inherently speculative notion, it fell to the capacities of art to revive and reanimate the remnants of "primitive" (i.e., noncapitalist) social realities. The chapter reviews the previous postmodern generation of scholarship on primitivism, arguing that the historical nature of primitivism was obscured when scholars, employing the methods of poststructuralism, restricted their inquiries to questions of representation.
Chapter 2 advances the historical side of the argument by drawing a distinction between "philo-primitivism" and "emphatic primitivism." It finds that the philo-primitivist ideal of the "noble savage" was the product of earlier periods of European colonial expansion when there yet existed social worlds beyond the perimeter of the capitalist world-system. As the "primitive accumulation" of noncapitalist societies accelerated, so the ideal of the primitive became entirely speculative and utopian. Emphatic primitivism's emergence coincides with the period that political economists at the time labeled "Imperialism," a concept explored with reference to the work of Rosa Luxemburg in particular. The chapter ends with a discussion of the notion prevalent at this time that the "primitive" was in fact the product of "civilized" sublimation. Other writers and artists discussed include John Dryden, George Catlin, Charles Darwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robert Louis Stevenson, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Chapter 3 considers a range of manifestoes and essays that articulate the primitivist project. Anchoring the discussion with Ernst Bloch's conception of objective and subjective "nonsynchronicity," it goes on to look at the ways in which artists appealed to the remnants of "primitive" societies when forming anticapitalist aesthetic programs that aimed to revive the possibility of primitive experience. It is argued that this program appealed above all to the colonized "conscripts" of capitalist modernity, something clearly in evidence in the early manifestoes and theorizations of "négritude." Across the board, it is found that the primitivist project was conceptualized in terms of an idealized immediacy that could be reached only by breaking through the mediations of a totalized capitalism. Artists and writers discussed include Carl Einstein, T. E. Lawrence, Aimé Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, René Ménil, and Alain Locke.
Chapter 4 reconsiders the question of primitivist representation in light of the theoretical and historical arguments presented in Chapters 1 through 3. Discussing works by Emil Nolde, D. H. Lawrence, Langston Hughes, and Jacques Roumain, it argues that primitivism has an inherent tendency to transcend any fixed notion or representation of the primitive, and that it is the work itself that must produce the sought-for primitive experience. Thus we find a vacillation between concrete representations of "primitive" remnants and an abstracted, nonspecific ideal of the primitive to come.
Chapter 5 is the book's central literary study. It "slow reads" Frantz Fanon's epochal essay "The Lived Experience of the Black" as a critical dramatization of Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land). Reconstructing the full literary and philosophical context of the essay, the chapter argues that Fanon's riposte to Jean-Paul Sartre's misreading of the primitivism of the negritude poets consists of himself enacting Césaire's primitivism. In Fanon reading Césaire, we observe literary primitivism achieving consciousness of itself as a historical phenomenon. The chapter argues for the centrality of Césaire's achievement to literary primitivism, at the heart of which lies a poetics of passionate sarcasm.
Chapter 6 presents a detailed consideration of the style and narrative structure of D. H. Lawrence's major primitivist work, Women in Love. It begins with Wyndham Lewis's attack on Lawrence's primitivism in Paleface, a book that undertakes an ironic defense of white supremacism, before considering how Women in Love pursues its own kind of "blancitude." Finding that Lawrence's prose "techniques of immediacy" are not sufficient in themselves to bring about primitivism's end, it traces the narrative logic that pushes Lawrence's characters to seek spaces beyond the perimeter of imperial civilization. The chapter closes with a discussion of Lawrence's attempt to narrate a primitivist insurrection in his late work The Plumed Serpent.
This chapter considers Claude McKay's novels Home to Harlem and Banjo as attempts to undertake literary primitivism's project of immediacy by means of a musical aesthetics. Exploring his relationship both to the negritude poets and to Lawrence, especially the latter's Aaron's Rod, it argues that of all the writers discussed in this book, McKay's work most strenuously attempts to enter the immediate mode. In McKay's novels the hope for a reconciliation of reflexivity and immediacy, the primitive and the civilized is enacted simultaneously at the level of prose style and narrative structure. This allows us to identify a number of fissures and contradictions that beset the aesthetics of primitivism, especially the pitfalls of a utopian racialism.
The conclusion recapitulates the central claims of the study, especially with regard to the phenomenological notion that primitivism was a "project," and points to areas for further research. It also discusses in greater depth the politics of primitivism, especially the notion that it had a "decolonial horizon." This is undertaken through a brief comparative discussion of two accounts of the Haitian revolution written in the 1930s, Guy Endore's Babouk and C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins. It finishes by considering in what respects literary primitivism might be considered an event of "world literature."