Cover of Literary Primitivism by Ben Etherington
Literary Primitivism
Ben Etherington


December 2017
240 pages.

Cloth ISBN: 9781503602366
Digital ISBN: 9781503604094

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Winner of the 2018 AUHE Prize for Literary Scholarship, sponsored by Australian University Heads of English.

This book fundamentally rethinks a pervasive and controversial concept in literary criticism and the history of ideas. Primitivism has long been accepted as a transhistorical tendency of the "civilized" to idealize that primitive condition against which they define themselves. In the modern era, this has been a matter of the "West" projecting its primitivist fantasies onto non-Western "others." Arguing instead that primitivism was an aesthetic mode produced in reaction to the apotheosis of European imperialism, and that the most intensively primitivist literary works were produced by imperialism's colonized subjects, the book overturns basic assumptions of the last two generations of literary scholarship.

Against the grain, Ben Etherington contends that primitivism was an important, if vexed, utopian project rather than a form of racist discourse, a mode that emerged only when modern capitalism was at the point of subsuming all human communities into itself. The primitivist project was an attempt, through art, to recreate a "primitive" condition then perceived to be at its vanishing point. The first overview of this vast topic in forty years, Literary Primitivism maps out previous scholarly paradigms, provides a succinct and readable account of its own methodology, and presents critical readings of key writers, including Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, D. H. Lawrence, and Claude McKay.

About the author

Ben Etherington is a lecturer in Literary Studies at Western Sydney University.

"Etherington's is a bold and cohesive argument, one that is aware but by no means a reiteration of the by-now-standard defenses and critiques of various modes of primitivism. One might have thought that enough had been said on the topic, but this is a new and important, even decisive intervention."

—Nicholas Brown, University of Illinois, Chicago

"Literary Primitivism is a highly original, detailed, and compelling investigation of a series of canonical works of modernist literature, one that proposes a novel refashioning of the primitivist impulse."

—Nick Nesbitt, Princeton University

"The book... forwards the provocative thesis that primitivism, when properly periodized and reconceptualized, can have a politically progressive and decolonizing effect. This is an audacious, against-the-grain theoretical move that transforms primitivism from something offensive or misguided that is to be wholly avoided into an aesthetic and political tool that can be effectively deployed in decolonizing struggles against a racist and imperialist capitalism."

—Victor Li, Syndicate

"Long deployed as the centrepiece of arguments about modernism's racist, imperialist impulses, it has become easy to dismiss [primitivism] out of hand as a classic instance of what we would now call Western cultural appropriation. Ben Etherington's Literary Primitivism offers a powerful and persuasive rebuff to this conventional wisdom."

—Alys Moody, Syndicate