Abandoning the Ship of Fools: Postmodernist and Wildist Responses to Civilization


By Jeriah Bowser

Source: The Hampton Institute

Once upon a time there was a people who lived with the Sea; living in connection, intimacy, and harmony with their aquatic environment for a very long time. Then one day a dangerous and powerful man had a bold idea. He thought that if he could build a Ship to sail over the Sea, he might find a better world to live in, a Paradise. He had a hard time convincing others that this Paradise was something to pursue, however, so in order to accomplish this he had to enslave lots of other sea-people to make the voyage possible. The sea-people, under threat of violence and death, built a large ship out of dead plant and animal people, stocked the ship with supplies, and took their place at the oars of the slave-galley. This great Ship then sailed away from the sea-people’s ancestral homeland and headed into the great unknown. After a long time at sea, the slaves forgot they were slaves. As they adapted to their new life of labor and hardship aboard the Ship, they forgot what life was like as sea-people and began identifying with the Ship and its mission. As they forgot how to live on their own away from the Ship, their survival and happiness became inextricably bound up with the Ship and the Captain, until they no longer saw themselves as slaves at all, but as willing participants onboard this fantastic adventure. Their language, culture, rituals, and mythology transformed to reflect their new way of life. They now worshipped the Captain and Paradise Gods as they saw themselves fundamentally separated from the Sea and its ways. The Captain created laws and morals with which to guide correct behavior aboard the Ship. They created rituals for themselves which gave them context for their roles on the Ship and gave meaning to their lives of labor and struggle. They lost all contact with their former ways of being and understanding the world. They were truly unanchored in the world; the Ship being their only reference point for Truth and Deception, Meaning and Nihilism, Beauty and Ugliness, Community and Individuality, Pleasure and Suffering, Sacredness and Profanity.

After a while, some of the slaves felt uncomfortable with what they perceived as unjust treatment aboard the Ship. They were tired of being beaten and starved and worked to death and wanted a better life. But instead of abandoning the Ship, they simply asked for more participation. The slaves had forgotten what life was like before the voyage, they couldn’t imagine living without the Ship and the Captain. They had begun identifying with the Ship and its mission so much that they wanted an equal role in participating.They were tired of just rowing and thought that the Navigator’s job might be fun, along with some of the other jobs on board the Ship that were usually reserved for the Captain’s friends. When this discontent reached a certain point, there would be mutinies where the slaves would demand equal access to the Ship, they demanded equal rights. The Captain, being a shrewd man, would listen to their requests and grant them greater access to the Ship. He even let some of the slaves take the wheel for a few minutes on special occasions; it was always a great spectacle when a slave would be called up from the galleys to the captain’s chair for a few minutes, turning the wheel this way and that, grinning idiotically as a rush of power, purpose, and meaning rushed through the slave until their turn was up and they were sent back down to the galleys. The hope of getting a turn at the wheel inspired much enthusiasm and loyalty to the project. Of course, no-one, not even the Captain perhaps, knew that the wheel had been broken for a long time now – it was merely a symbol. Even if the wheel did work, the Ocean current the Ship was now in was much too strong to break out of with a mere wheel turn. The Ship was now caught in a force much larger than itself, it had started on a voyage which it now had no control over.

One day, a few of the more clever slaves got together and started whispering to each other about some things that seemed strange about the whole affair. They couldn’t really put their finger on exactly what was wrong, they just felt that… something was wrong, so they began poking around and investigating. Some of these clever slaves had access to navigation equipment and, after much calculation, discovered that not only was the wheel broken, but the Ship was caught in a huge ocean current that was going in a giant circle and heading nowhere which meant that… there was no Paradise. This was very troubling news. Another member shared that he had discovered a mask with the Captain’s face on it – it seemed that the all-powerful Captain was a mere puppet. Was he in hiding? Was he still alive? Who had killed him? Was he ever real? These were even more troubling discoveries. A few others gained access to the forbidden areas of the Ship: the secret rooms and cellars where the Ships records were stored. As they began exploring the dark and musty belly of the Ship, they discovered that the Ship itself was starting to sink – water was slowly leaking in through the rotting hull and pulling the Great Ship down. Terrified and angry at having been lied to, they decided to try and jettison from the Ship as quickly as possible. They tore apart a section of a storeroom and, using the lumber and tools from the Ship, made a small dinghy together. They launched their dinghy one dark and stormy night, and spent a long time celebrating and high-fiving each other, full of self-congratulatory exhilaration at having escaped the fate of the other slaves. What they didn’t yet realize, however, was that they were caught in the same current as the Mother-Ship. They were headed for the same fate, they had no bearings in the great Sea, no ability to change their course even if they did know where they were, and their dinghy (having been made of the same tools and materials as the Mother-Ship) was already starting to rot and leak.
The mythology of the Ship of Fools is very old, it is first attributed to Plato, a 4th century BCE Greek philosopher. He used the Ship as an analogy for the fragility and irrationality of a democratic society, as only a strong Captain (a rigidly Rational and authoritarian political system) could maintain order and keep the Ship on course. Some have translated Plato’s metaphor (as well as the remainder of the Republic) as a work of psychology a well, as we mustn’t allow the chaos of our irrational desires and whims (the passengers) distract us or drown out the one voice of Reason (the Captain) in our heads. [1] Various philosophers and writers have since used this metaphor as a literary device and point of philosophical inquiry. Michel Foucault, a 20th century French postmodernist, used the story as a reference point in his book, “Madness and Civilization,” where he explored the history of the social construction of mental illness. In Foucault’s book, he talks about the mythological and historical legacy of the legend and discovered that there were indeed floating insane asylums – the “Narrenschiffs” – which carried those deemed insane from port to port in Europe, particularly in Germany, in the early 15th century. These floating asylums were eventually retired in favor of prison-like insane asylums, which eventually became our mental hospitals.[2] Sebastian Brant, a late-fifteenth century German theologian, used the mythology of the Ship of Fools as a satirical device as he mocked politicians, academics, and various prophets of Modernism during his time.[3] Ted Kaczynski used the Ship of Fools as a metaphor for industrial capitalism in order to critique the role that leftism/reformism plays in distracting and co-opting dissent, and his essay on the topic is considered to be Ted’s most coherent and accessible work.[4] In Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno’s landmark 1947 book, “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” they explore this myth by working from Homer’s epic poem, “The Odyssey.” Horkheimer and Adorno portray the epic story of Odysseus as a metaphor for humanity’s journey away from wildness and into civilization. [5]

Since my first introduction to this myth, I felt that it was heavy with archetypal symbolism which begged to be explored. I searched for an explanation which would satisfy my curiosity, but found none that sufficed. It looks like this task has fallen to me.

The Ocean is steeped in archetypal symbolism, most of it revolving around the theme of wildness, as it is the largest and most inaccessible wilderness on our planet. Jung described the Ocean as the very embodiment of the unconscious, with our consciousness a tiny island in the midst of it. [6] While every corner of land on our planet has been thoroughly mapped, every animal or plant we come across has been catalogued and placed on an evolutionary tree, and every “resource” depleted for human consumption, the Ocean still remains vast, mysterious, and elusive from the greedy hands of Science and Progress. The Sea still holds its own against those who would colonize it, although it is slowly being killed despite its resistance. As such, the Ocean holds great symbolism as our unconscious shadow side, our repressed hidden instincts and urges, the dark and dangerous animal that lies in us all.

In my retelling of the Ship of Fools, the Ocean also represents our ancestral homeland, as (according to evolutionary biologists) mammals came from the Ocean and I believe a part of us still recognizes that. I feel it when I stand on a beach and find myself staring out into the vast wild ancestral homeland of my species. I also made the Ocean our home because having a land-destination brings up to possibility of a destination and a potential rescue, it dangles the carrot of Paradise out in front of the Ship. No, there is no land, no destination, no possibility of a safe landing, there will be no survivors washing ashore. There is just more Ocean everywhere you look, more wildness, there is no escaping it. This also brings up the point that there never was a destination in the first place, just an inevitable return and release to wildness.

The Ship is an excellent metaphor for Civilization, as it is the great technological project that carries us to Paradise. Although I found scant mentions of ships in Jungian symbolism (not that I am an authority on Jung), the few mentions of it I did find present the Ship as the Animus (male quality) to the Anima (feminine quality) of the Sea. Therefore, ships refer to the Ego-consciousness and masculine energy, as these man-made floating islands rise above and ride on top of the vast feminine unconscious that is the Sea.[7] Trying my hand at depth psychology, I find that it also represents Technology, as a Ship is a piece of advanced technology which requires division of labor, slavery, private property, objectification, and anthropocentrism to exist. The presence of a slave-galley requires all of those ideas to become systemic and normalized, as well as the ever-present but invisible social violence of civilization which keeps the slaves rowing. A ship is made of dead trees, tar, rope, metal hardware, cloth sails, etc. It is a floating human container made of tree corpses, a vessel built out of and predicated on death. This technological vessel of death allows us to float a few feet above the reality of wildness, allowing us to act like the Ocean isn’t there while we go about our business aboard the floating Machine. It is literally a manufactured barrier between us and the cold, dark, mysterious reality of the Ocean. But no Ship is infinite. No matter what materials they are made out of, they will eventually succumb to the law of return: wood will eventually rot, metal will eventually rust, and fiberglass will eventually break down. The thin barrier between us and wildness will eventually erode; our model of infinite growth on a finite planet will have to face reality sooner or later.

The cultural transition of the slaves into willing participants represents the process of domestication. This is also known as trauma-bonding, colonization, or the Stockholm syndrome. When an animal becomes totally dependent on their domesticators for survival, approval, meaning, and validation, we begin to identify with our oppressors, releasing our hatred/resistance towards them and accepting their needs, beliefs, and desires as our own. [8] This takes place on many levels, and when a culture has become domesticated enough we will begin adapting our language, symbols, mythology, and rituals to correspond to our new reality. The old ways of understanding the world no longer make sense in a new world of separation, trauma, and domination. Mythology is a means of situating oneself within a community, a way of deriving meaning from a seemingly chaotic and uncontrollable reality. Ritual is a way of initiating one into and reaffirming cultural mythology. In the civilized world, our rituals reflect our mythology perfectly: we participate in self-destructive, dangerous, and meaningless rites of passage such as gang initiations, getting drunk, graduating high school, getting our driver’s license, or having sex, and our initiation societies are those which inculcate us further into Empire: academia, military, business, and street gangs invite us in, given us our identities, give us a role within a community, and use us until they are done with us and they find another young person desperate for meaning and purpose in their life. Aboard the Ship, we completely lose our bearings to reality as we are swept away into the future. All of our symbols reflect those of the Ship: we understand ourselves and the world around us only through the medium of Ship language and culture. We forget that another way of being in the world ever existed or even could exist.

The Captain represents God, Morality, Modernism, Science, and Objective Truth. The Captain is whatever or whomever currently holds Truth and Power. Of course, there actually is no Captain, nor was there ever, but that doesn’t stop everyone onboard from emphatically believing in his existence and striving to live their lives in ways that are acceptable to the Great Captain. His presence in this story is important for two reasons. One, it is important to realize that domestication is never a voluntary activity. That is, it is always done through oppression, violence, and Trauma. The slaves did not join this Ship voluntarily, they were forced into it – civilization is predicated on violent domination and slavery. Two, the Captain represents the ever-present specter of Morality/Truth/Power within civilized cultures. The Captain may have never existed, or he may have died a long time ago. It makes no difference to domesticated people, for once he has colonized us we reserve a special place for Him in our heads: He is always watching, and any infraction of His rules brings swift judgment from above in the form of conscience/guilt.

The slave revolts that take place aboard the Ship are the central focus of Kaczynski’s version of the story, as he was focused on exposing leftism/reformism as ultimately futile within the larger context of the Ship’s course. Conversations on “rights” or “equality” always take place within the larger context of civilization. “Granting Rights” is a legal term, it uses the language of Power, it means granting a person or a living thing a privileged position within the hierarchical structure of Power; it does not mean destroying the power structure. The critics of Wildism will point out that this itself is a privileged position: we must not care about the injustices of oppressed groups of people in order to take such a dismissive stand. This entirely misses the point. Do I want cops to be able to kill black people whenever they want? Do I want men to able to assault women whenever they want? Of course not. Leftism acts as a co-opting tool, it obfuscates power by playing with symbols. Police brutality in the US did not end with “racial equality,” because equality in this context means giving people with darker skin equal access to systems of oppressive power. I don’t want white cops killing anybody and I don’t want black cops killing anybody. I don’t want men assaulting anybody and I don’t want women assaulting anybody. I don’t want Latino lawyers or women presidents, I don’t think giving historically oppressed people an opportunity to share in oppression is progress at all… but of course it is Progress. Leftism serves as a safety-valve for cultural resistance. When the pressure gets a bit high, oppressed cultures can let off steam by participating in symbolic protests or fighting for equality, so long as they don’t actually challenge the dominant narrative, as long as they never question or challenge Civilization or Progress. Now, that doesn’t mean that resistance is always leftist/reformist, it just means that resistance to domination/oppression/domestication often gets subverted into some bullshit political agenda that challenges nothing and changes nothing.

The instances of slaves taking the wheel is of course a metaphor for the political system in general, as the entire puppet show is a complete distraction and has no bearing on the course of the Ship. The wheel has been broken for a long time, and even if a group of people genuinely tried to fix the wheel and steer the Ship somewhere else, they would find themselves trapped in the Ocean current. We are caught up in forces way beyond our comprehension or control. Civilization is experiencing massive overshoot, and the planet simply cannot continue supporting this way of being. But the wheel still sits there, tempting us to try and do something, fix something, if we can just be creative and committed enough… but even this great symbol of Hope and Progress will go down with the Ship.

The clever slaves represent the postmodernists – those who, having investigated the Ship and its Captain, have figured out that we have been duped, and are therefore trying to escape by jettisoning from the Mother-Ship. A noble effort, for sure, but ultimately doomed because they never looked past the Ship itself to see what lies beneath. Their survival craft is built with the same materials as the Mother-Ship, the postmodernists have not let go of any of the pillars of civilization but have instead tried to re-imagine them through language games and attempts at subjective Truth. Except for a thoroughly consistent rejection of Power and Objective Truth, the rest of the pillars of civilization remain present throughout much postmodern work: Anthropocentrism, Androcentrism, Progress, Atomization, Dualism, Hierarchy… the gang’s all here, sometimes questioned but never examined to their origins and then rejected. The postmodernists went all the way to the cellar of the Ship, but they stopped at the hull. They never tried to look past the thin barrier of death that lay between them and wildness, they never questioned what was on the other side, they simply took the Ship as an unfortunate but necessary reality and tried to rebuild a new Ship from some spare materials. Those clever slaves found themselves again stranded in the middle of nowhere in a rotting and leaking dinghy, this time without even the reassuring lies of Objective Truth to comfort them. They are truly a sorry lot. With no cultural mythology, context, or ritual to guide them, without connection, they are aimlessly and meaninglessly floating next to the Mother-Ship, caught in a current of impending destruction, in an Ocean of terrifying wildness.

Postmodernism has failed to provide meaning or connection primarily because it begins its search for meaning within the confines of civilization. Any course or book on Western philosophy begins with the Ancient Greeks: the Pre-Socratics. They call this period of time “Premodernism” and proceed from there, accepting the words and thoughts of these thoroughly domesticated humans as somehow representing our origins as humans. Postmodernism accepts radical disconnection/domestication/Trauma as a given, fast-forwards 8000 years, and then wonders why we are so disconnected/domesticated/Traumatized today.

Postmodernists ask a lot of really good questions; they relentlessly critique and question Power and Objective Truth, and they understand that Modernism has failed us miserably. However, they offer nothing better! In fact, one could make the argument that telling a thoroughly domesticated/traumatized person that Truth is subjective is almost a cruel joke; without context for understanding subjective experience, without connection, subjective Truth is terrifying and overwhelming. It is no favor to tell a civilized person that their entire framework for understanding reality is false, you leave them stranded on a leaky dinghy in the Ocean, with no context for how to find meaning in the universe, no guidance for situating themselves within their human and biotic communities, no advice for restoring connection and returning to wildness.

To return to the Ship metaphor, what other option is there? What are the anti-modernists, the anarcho-primitivists, the rewilders, and Wildists doing? Well, we are either actively sabotaging the Ship by attempting to burn it down and drilling holes in the hull, or we are literally jumping Ship – actively seeking a return to wildness and embracing the dark icy chill of the unknown. We know that the wheel of political change is a joke, there is no Paradise, the Captain is a lying sadistic tyrant (who doesn’t actually exist), the postmodernist dinghy is doomed to failure, and to stay aboard the Ship is to go down with it… so we are done with the whole thing. This does not mean that we will escape any of the consequences of civilization or that we will somehow survive the impending collapse of the Ship and the rise of Wildness, it simply means that we are done rowing and believing in the Ship, in Paradise, in the Captain, or in any false hope of rescue. Like the postmodernists, we emphatically reject any notion of Objective Truth, but our rejection is grounded in the context of relationship and connection. Our growing connection to the wildness both inside and outside of us orients us as we abandon Ship, as we allow the great terrifying, wild mystery of the Ocean consume us, destroy us, heal us, and take us home.



[1] “Republic: Book Six” – Plato

[2] “Madness and Civilization” – Michel Foucault (1964)

[3] “Ship of Fools” – Sebastian Brant (1494)

[5] “Dialectic of Enlightenment” – Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno (1944)

[6] “The Portable Jung” – C.G. Jung, edited by Joseph Campbell (1976)

[7] “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious” – C.G. Jung (1981)

[8] Frantz Fanon has explored this phenomenon of trauma-bonding, or colonization, exhaustively.I cannot more highly recommend his works for those interested in exploring the impacts of domestication on humans.

This entry was posted in culture, Environment, History, Philosophy, society, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Abandoning the Ship of Fools: Postmodernist and Wildist Responses to Civilization

  1. Heather Awen says:

    So beautiful! Heart smile.

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