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Primitive Communism and Armadillo Legs; Jangle, Fuzz and Transcendence

Two recommendations today, one via Marginal Revolution, the other from Hacker News, both worth the time.

Manvir Singh on the Myth of Primitive Communism

In 1985, he [Kim Hill] started working with another group, the Hiwi of Venezuela. He didn’t expect dramatic differences from the Aché. The Hiwi, too, were hunter-gatherers. The Hiwi, too, lived in lowland South America. Yet Hiwi society felt like a new world. The Aché lived in mobile bands of 20 to 30 people. The Hiwi lived in villages of more than 100 people for most of the year. The Aché neither did drugs nor danced. The Hiwi snorted hallucinogens and had tribal dances near-daily. The Aché spent most of each day strenuously getting food. The Hiwi foraged for barely a couple hours, preferring to relax in hammocks. The Aché divorced constantly. The Hiwi, virtually never.

Then, there was food-sharing. In the primitive communism of the Aché, hunters had little control over distributions: they couldn’t favour their families, and food flowed according to need. None of these applied to the Hiwi. When meat came into a Hiwi village, the hunter’s family kept a larger batch for themselves, distributing shares to a measly three of 36 other families. In other words, as Hill and his colleagues wrote in 2000 in the journal Human Ecology, ‘most Hiwi families receive nothing when a food resource is brought into the village.’

Interdependence might seem enviable. Yet it begets a cruelty often overlooked in talk about primitive communism. When a person goes from a lifeline to a long-term burden, reasons to keep them alive can vanish. In their book Aché Life History (1996), Hill and the anthropologist Ana Magdalena Hurtado listed many Aché people who were killed, abandoned or buried alive: widows, sick people, a blind woman, an infant born too soon, a boy with a paralysed hand, a child who was ‘funny looking’, a girl with bad haemorrhoids. Such opportunism suffuses all social interactions. But it is acute for foragers living at the edge of subsistence, for whom cooperation is essential and wasted efforts can be fatal.

The Aché had among the highest infanticide and child homicide rates ever reported. Of children born in the forest, 14 per cent of boys and 23 per cent of girls were killed before the age of 10, nearly all of them orphans. An infant who lost their mother during the first year of life was always killed.

Hunter-gatherers shared because they had to. They put food into their bandmates’ stomachs because their survival depended on it. But once that need dissipated, even friends could become disposable.

The popularity of the idea of primitive communism, especially in the face of contradictory evidence, tells us something important about why narratives succeed. Primitive communism may misrepresent forager societies. But it is simple, and it accords with widespread beliefs about the arc of human history. If we assume that societies went from small to big, or from egalitarian to despotic, then it makes sense that they transitioned from property-less harmony to selfish competition, too. Even if the facts of primitive communism are off, the story feels right.

More important than its simplicity and narrative resonance, however, is primitive communism’s political expediency. For anyone hoping to critique existing institutions, primitive communism conveniently casts modern society as a perversion of a more prosocial human nature. Yet this storytelling is counterproductive. By drawing a contrast between an angelic past and our greedy present, primitive communism blinds us to the true determinants of trust, freedom and equity. If we want to build better societies, the way forward is neither to live as hunter-gatherers nor to bang the drum of a make-believe state of nature. Rather, it is to work with humans as they are, warts and all.

Manvir SinghPrimitive Communism in Aeon Magazine

Mitch Therieau the Jangle in Rock and Pop

Jangle first emerged as a pop and rock aesthetic in the 1960s, as musicians sought to expand the electric guitar’s expressive range. I imagine this project’s operating principle as a version of seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s slogan: We do not yet know what an electric guitar can do. While you could feel the early guitar heroes of the 1950s straining against some serious technical limitations—Chuck Berry’s famous ‘duck walk’ dramatizes his struggle to squeeze more, more power, more sustain, out of his brittle guitar and diminutive amplifier—by the 1960s, new possibilities were opening up. With larger amplifiers, the increasing availability of solid-body guitars that resisted audio feedback, and a new glut of mad-scientist-designed effects pedals, the electric guitar was becoming less a mechanical challenge to conquer and more a blank, infinitely labile canvas for experimentation. Suddenly it seemed like a guitar could be anything. In Keith Richards’ hands, it was an angry baritone sax. In Hendrix’s, it was everything: an air raid siren, a conflagration of napalm, a dispatch from a distant moon, the dying cough of empire.

But if the fuzzbox, that device for overloading bass frequencies, clipping the signal and turning it into endlessly sustaining muck, was the guitar-transforming device of choice for Hendrix and Richards, jangle represented the opposite approach. The opposition goes beyond fuzz’s sludgy bass versus jangle’s brittle treble. I’m going to risk embarrassment and say that it seems to me the impulse behind the fuzzbox is a kind of will to transcendence. Infinite sustain, soaring above the rest of the band. Think of Eddie Hazel’s lead in ‘Maggot Brain’, or Jeff Beck’s in ‘Over Under Sideways Down’. The fuzz guitar wants to be anything but a guitar. That was the goal from the beginning: to turn the guitar into a horn. This willingness to abandon the guitar, to kick it away like so much scaffolding, accounts for the survival of the fuzz aesthetic long after the guitar all but disappeared from pop radio. It’s a mobile aesthetic that can work with any instrument. You don’t even have to look to retro-rock holdouts like the Black Keys. In the mangled, distended bass that underpins so much electronic music, and in trap’s overloaded kick drums, fuzz lives on.

When Roger McGuinn hooked up his twelve-string Rickenbacker to not one but two compressors, then straight into the recording console, and cut the opening riff to the Byrds’ version of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, the guitar didn’t exactly transcend itself. But something about it was stretched. Listen. The delicate brush of his attack on the strings—plucked banjo-style, with the kind of fingerpicks you wear like rings—that gives way to that metallic pulse of treble. The telltale signs of jangle. McGuinn’s guitar is no klaxon, no laser beam from outer space. It is very much a creature of this earth, and a fragile one at that: simply wood and plastic and twelve lengths of nickel stretched within an inch of their capacity to withstand tension. There’s no transcendence, no soaring, but there is strain. McGuinn’s fingerpicks trip over the strings in part because the strings are so delicate. They have been pushed to their limit, and one wrong move will snap them. If jangle shimmers, it does so because, as artist Ross Bleckner put it, ‘things shine with their maximum brilliance just at the point that they’re about to die.’

When I hear McGuinn’s Rickenbacker, I don’t hear somebody winding up for an impossible leap into the wild blue. I hear somebody trying to stretch what we have here, in this world, into a new shape. Trying to wring more out of this world rather than turning our backs on it. ‘There ain’t nowhere I’m going to’: transcendence isn’t here—no need to excuse yourself for kissing the sky—but maybe there is fullness around the corner. Maybe we can finally get this fullness under our fingers if we risk giving more: more tension, which equals more pressure, more weight, more investment in this world. Maybe it’s this commitment, this tension, this doubling down, that is so beautiful about jangle. The objectively existing daydream that we can stretch this fragile world further through sheer exuberance. An embarrassing, toothache-inducing kind of sincerity, to be sure. But one that just might be worth risking. It’s not exactly bubblegum, but surely this is a kind of sweetness.

Mitch TherieauSomething Sharp in The Oxonian Review

Most of the links are worth following. Here are two.

McGuinn (Jangle)

Eddie Hazel (Fuzz and Transcendence)

One of the greatest solos of all time on any instrument”?

Rod Stewart (Jangle)

The Yardbirds (Fuzz)

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...