Monday, August 10, 2009

183. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 2

I feel a bit guilty about challenging Michelle Kisliuk, especially since I've learned so much from her very thorough and thoughtful research, profited from her valuable advice, and am personally grateful for her interest in my work and her encouragement. In my opinion, the great bulk of what she's written on BaAka music and dance in their sociocultural context represents ethnography at the highest level of both achievement and integrity.

Her theoretical assumptions are another matter, however, especially because what's at stake in this regard is so important. I find her intellectual position suspicious for two reasons. First, it represents what looks like a somewhat forced effort to place her fieldwork experiences within the straitjacket of the dominant academic ideology of the day, what could be characterized as "militant postmodernist revisionism"; second, it would appear to be in direct conflict with her own personal experiences, as recounted so eloquently in her descriptions of BaAka life, and especially her strong sympathy and even advocacy for a value system she clearly admires, but feels constrained to question, because correcting Colin Turnbull's "utopian narrative," based on an "idealized image of African pygmy life," and thereby challenging all such "reductive representations," was part of her stated project from the beginning (see Seize the Dance, pp. 5, 4, 13).

Surprisingly, every single reference to Turnbull in the body of her book (check the index if you don't believe me) registers her substantiation of his findings. It is in fact clear that she has come to share and approve, rather than question, Turnbull's view of pygmies as essentially egalitarian (pp. 131-133), yet individualistic (p. 73); complementary rather than male-dominant with respect to gender relations (p. 144); generous among themselves to a fault, with no expectation of repayment (p. 132); fundamentally independent of their Bantu "masters" (p. 145); and lacking in warlike or aggressive tendencies (entire book), though she is quick to note the occasional exception. While she makes some brave attempts to relate aspects of current BaAka life to the inroads of "modernity," it's clear that such influences (mostly regrettable if not disastrous, in her view as well as mine) are relatively recent, with no bearing on traditional views, held by "old school" anthropologists and pygmies alike, of pre-colonial BaAka (and Mbuti) as true "children of the forest."

I won't attempt here to defend Alan Lomax and Cantometrics from the attack she launches on a "scientistic" methodology based on the "reduction of worldwide music and dance to quintessential examples and simplistic analyses taken out of context," or Lomax's "binary opposition between 'pure' folk musics . . . and 'degraded' cultural environments . . . ," or the "net of reifications" she credits Steven Feld with revealing at the heart of Lomax's thinking (see "Performance and Modernity," p. 45). A defense of Lomax would take me too far afield and distract from my principal point, which is not dependent on either Lomax or Cantometrics (though I am certainly indebted to both). Suffice it to say that, as I see it, her criticisms, while not completely off-base, reflect unfair assumptions and irrational biases (not to mention narrow mindedness, small mindedness and sheer ignorance*) still all too common among her colleagues in both anthropology and ethnomusicology.

Lomax notwithstanding, what I find most significant in the work of Kisliuk is her affirmation and validation, in spite of herself, of the supposedly "utopian" and "idealized" lifestyle and value system she is at such pains to "deconstruct." Indeed, her revelations in this respect conform remarkably closely to those of predecessors such as Arom, Bahuchet, Turnbull, Lomax, Sarno, etc., not to mention strikingly similar accounts of Bushmen life by John Marshall, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Richard Lee, etc., or the extensive study of Bushmen music by Nicholas England.

(to be continued . . . )

*Ah, the joys of blogging. No editor to tone me down or cool me out. Though I'll probably regret my words in the morning -- some of the people I most admire are anthropologists and ethnomusicologists. :-(

No comments: