Sunday, July 5, 2009

162. The Pygmy/Bushmen Nexus -- Part 2

Several things motivated me in writing about the Kalahari debate. For one thing, I've been a confirmed skeptic regarding the movement known as "post-modernism" for a long time now. Back in the early Eighties I wrote what seemed a blistering attack on the artistic movement of that name, naively believing I could ridicule it out of existence. Little did I realize, back then, that a reactionary artistic movement, aimed at the modernism of people like Picasso, Mondrian, Pollock, Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, Joyce, Cummings, etc. would ultimately become confused with an ideological attack on a very different sort of modernism, the modernism associated by historians and political scientists with the origins of experimental science and the Enlightenment; and then, among social scientists, in an even more confusing development, turn into a full fledged attack on the "romanticism" of certain views regarding indigenous peoples, who now, apparently, needed to be defended from traditionalist purists, whose obsessions with notions like indigeneity and authenticity were increasingly seen as sinister and destructive efforts to impose Western values on the pathetic victims of colonialism, by, horror of horrors, essentializing them. I have always found such attacks both simplistic and, to appropriate a favorite pomo putdown, reductive. I discuss my views of this aspect of revisionist ideology in some detail on this blog, particularly here and also here.

Another thing that motivated me was my recently developed interest in the truly revolutionary research that so many geneticists are devoting to the reconstruction of humankind's earliest history by studying the various ways in which genetic markers enable us to trace our ancestry back into the earliest reaches of the Paleolithic, all the way back to our origins -- apparently in Africa. One thing that struck me was the almost sublime indifference of so many anthropologists and other social scientists (such as ethnomusicologists, for instance) to this extremely promising and actually very exciting development. Though Cavalli-Sforza was already pioneering this sort of research back in the 1960's, you will find hardly any references at all to any of it in the anthropological literature, neither the academic journals nor the books. Even in the relatively new and innovative journal, Before Farming, I believe my article was the first to even mention the genetic findings. The great majority of writing in this area can be found almost exclusively in journals specializing in biological and genetic research. I need to mention, by the way, one of the great exceptions to this rule, a fascinating and very important blog run by an anthropologist named Dienekes.

Finally, and probably most important for me personally, was a desire to impress on social scientists, particularly anthropologists, the relevance of musical traditions, and music-related behavior, to their work. Here again, we find only very rarely much reference to music in the anthropology literature, and, if I may say so, wherever we do find such references, the musical findings tend not to be taken very seriously, since music has apparently little to do with the principal preoccupations of most ethnologists, i.e., kinship relations, modes of subsistence, adaptation to the environment, warfare, etc. And of course it leaves relatively little in the way of relics for archaeologists to mull over.

So. In the very special and in my view rather dramatic evidence afforded by the musical practices of certain Pygmy and Bushmen groups, filtered through an honest to God methodology (Cantometrics) through which meaningful comparisons could be made with some degree of objectivity and control, I thought I had an especially powerful tool for making a difference, hopefully changing forever the way the anthropologists view musicological research.

I'm still hopeful, after two years, that this paper will eventually have the intended impact. But so far the results have been discouraging, I must admit. The readers and the editor of Before Farming expressed the hope that my argument would be controversial enough to generate a fair amount of discussion, if not heated debate, but so far, to my knowledge, that has not been forthcoming.

I'm reminded of an old adage: "if your only tool is a hammer then you'll treat every problem like a nail." Or the story about the person who lost his keys under some bushes, in the dark, but insisted on looking for them under a street light, because that was the only place he could see clearly. I'm hoping that some day the anthropologists (and ethnomusicologists) will be willing to look for answers to some age-old problems in some of the dark shadows they've been avoiding simply because they don't feel comfortable there.

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