Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Science in Art & Design: Justin Taylor’s “The Gospel of Anarchy”

Posted 07 Oct 2011 / 0

There are so many science books that I want to read that I frequently neglect to read fiction. This is too bad, because good fiction can be as rich with interesting hypotheses about human nature and evolution as any book illuminating evolutionary theory. Towards the end of thinking about how my field informs and can be informed by works of art and design, I am introducing a new regular feature to my blog called “Science in Art & Design”. During these regular reviews I will look at a particular work of art or designed object through the twin lenses of ecology and evolution.

Justin Taylor‘s The Gospel of Anarchy, a novel about a group of late 1990’s anarchist punks who concoct their own religion, is the first work I subject to my scientific scrutiny. Taylor is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute who teaches writing, so he is a colleague in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I only recently met him, so my critique of his work is only influenced by the fact that I will run into him at periodic meetings of our school. I do not generally make it a habit to read the fictional works of all our faculty, but the Pratt connection combined with the anarchopunk theme piqued my interest.

Although the book uses the culture of underground anarchopunk as a backdrop to great effect, the book is not really a chronicle of this culture. Instead, it uses some unique features of alternative culture to tell a tale rich with insights about modern life. The nature of “punk” varies greatly across and within local regions, and punk is remarkably international in its spread. Taylor’s book focuses on a particular brand of punk which has thrived since at least the late 1980’s: anarchist “drop out” culture. Here the “dropping out” refers not so much to the involuntary failure to thrive in mainstream society but the conscious choice to abandon many of the standard life habits associated with life in Westernized consumer cultures.

The Gospel of Anarchy begins with the first-person narrative of a young man who has literally dropped out of college yet remains mired in modern society. He lives in a bland apartment owned by a major development corporation and works for a company that administers telephone surveys through cold-calling. He has become detached from social connection and spends much of his time surfing the internet, seeking out novel pornographic images. His life is transformed when he is confronted with the emotional chasm created by his job: the company requires him to serve its needs by administering surveys without deviating from a strict script. But when one of his surveys requires that he repeatedly ask an old lady whose poor eyesight prevents her from using a car about her driving habits, he realizes that by following company protocol he is compelled to bring a vulnerable elderly woman to tears. He is reprimanded when he deviates from the script in order to insulate the old lady from more painful questions, and never goes back to work. Having now dropped out of both the academic and work worlds, he stumbles upon an old friend who has become a ‘crusty punk’, dumpster diving for food and living in a communal household. This crisis leads us into the world of the Fishgut House, a community hub for anarchopunks.

Once the main character enters this world, the narrative ceases to be about him, and most of the remaining tale is told from the perspective of the whole community. Those unfamiliar with the philosophical underpinnings of anarchopunk culture will get a decent education from the various characters that live in the Fishgut  house: heterosexual monogamy is generally abandoned as part of oppressive mainstream culture, mainstream work is frowned upon (if not a bit necessary to pay the minimal rent), and gathering of food and other resources is a communal task. Based on my own experience as a visitor to a variety of anarchopunk houses in the 1990’s, Taylor does a good job of portraying this lifestyle.

The book takes an unorthodox turn when we learn of a strange Christian subculture that has taken root at the Fishgut house. Many of the residents have taken to viewing a former resident who disappeared months ago as a kind of prophet, and anarchism and the teachings of Jesus somehow meld into a culture that is simultaneously tolerant of both reverent worship and debauched orgies (sometimes in sequence). In choosing this plot device, Taylor diverges from any punk culture I have known, although he makes the merging of politics and religion seem feasible. Interestingly, Taylor claims to be most influenced by the writings of the Crimethinc Collective, a group that to my knowledge had no connection to Christianity.

So what does this all have to do with science?

I think that Taylor’s story provides a lot of insights that are consistent with what we know about human evolution. A prominent evolutionary perspective is that of “mismatch theory”: the contention that because human culture evolves so rapidly, we are biologically mismatched to our current cultural environment. Although mismatch theory is far from being well-supported by evidence, it is also a promising way of understanding a host of modern maladies. One feature of modern society is that it has pulled us away from the kind of social interactions that were typical throughout most of our evolutionary history. Until very recently (at least in evolutionary terms), humans lived in small tribal groups; if you buy Robin Dunbar’s analysis (Dunbar 1993), these tribes were probably comprised of around 150 people. While small, these tribes would be highly integrated: those within the tribe gained an intimate understanding of other members of the tribe.

Modern society requires a very different scale of social interaction. On the one hand, we interact on much smaller scales: for many, the chief social unit is the nuclear family. On the other hand, we are also asked to be members of much larger units of social organization: cultural institutions and corporations, cities, states, and whole countries. Gone are the wider-but-manageable units of social organization, our tribes. In The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor compellingly portrays how the punk subculture recreates this tribe by rejecting (at least in part) the demands of the larger society. We can see that the social connections between the members of the Fishgut house and their wider community are far more meaningful and rich than the general connections between people in the larger society, and that a fair amount of angst is relieved by enjoying connection to this punk tribe. As I have discussed before, much of modern life is “empty in the middle” — deficient in meaningful social interactions at a scale above the nuclear family and small groups of friends — and dropout cultures typically provide their members with rich communities of intermediate size. If we were shaped by evolution to be members of a larger tribe with intimate social interconnections, most of us are mismatched with our current environment. Taylor’s punks suggest a different way, and a rationale for rejecting mainstream society.

Seen through this lens, the turn from anarchism to Christianity seems less absurd. If there is one source of social connection in modern society that retains the tribal-scale interdependence, it can be found in religion. Local congregations mimic the support structure of a tribe, even if the members of a congregation are no longer economically interdependent. While many punks reject religion for its large-scale suppression of individual freedoms and motivations, religion also serves important social functions that are not enjoyed by non-religious members of our society.

The Gospel of Anarchy also challenges the reader to consider the role of sexual fidelity in modern society. Anarchopunk has always leveled a critique of monogamy, as early theorists like Emma Goldman (1931) railed against the institution of marriage and the assumption of monogamy that pervades modern industrial societies. As we see how the members of the Fishgut  house interact sexually, the socially-connective potential of sexual intimacy is made more clear. I do not know if Taylor read Sex at Dawn (Ryan and Jethá 2010) before writing The Gospel of Anarchy, but the bonds that his characters build through sex seem like strong evidence in favor of the idea that humans did not evolve to be monogamous. Again, scientific consensus has not been reached in this area, but a growing number of anthropologists are questioning whether we evolved under social conditions that required monogamy. Do non-monogamous subcultures solve the problem of being mismatched biologically to our social demands for monogamy? The Gospel of Anarchy suggests that this might be the case.

At the end of The Gospel of Anarchy, the punk culture of the Fishgut house literally goes up in flames. Members of this once-flourishing community are scattered, the tribe disbands. Sadly this portrayal is, in my experience, all-too-accurate: the demands of the larger, socially-barren society often end up fragmenting meaningful communities of resistance. Currently the war of social scale is being won by the largest scales: resistant intermediate scales of social organization struggle to remain stable, so that only the smallest family-scale units persist. Whether this puts us ‘out of our evolved element’ is still a matter of contention, but the hypothesis that we have culturally evolved into a place that runs counter to our evolved social instincts is still worth exploring.

Books, Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, Fiction, Group Selection, Happiness, Human Evolution, Human Nature, Multilevel Selection, Pratt Institute, School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Science in Art & Design, Superorganisms

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