Monday, August 17, 2009

187. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 6

A three-part question:
Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?

Pretty basic. But overwhelming? We all ask ourselves more or less the same question, don't we? Isn't it one of those metaphysical questions that can't ever really be answered? And wasn't Gauguin one of those typically Western, colonialist romantics, whose idea of the "noble savage" stemmed more from his own romantic fantasies than the realities of Tahitian life?

I'd like to think we can give Gauguin credit for getting beyond such cliches. As I see it, his words should not be taken as the typical metaphysical questionings of Western philosophy -- as should be clear from his writings, he'd gotten far beyond that -- but as a reflection of the much more down to earth mode of thought we find, time and again, in the words of indigenous people. A typically idealistic Westerner might respond, for example, that we come from God; a typically scientific Westerner might be more matter of fact: we come from our mother's womb; but for literally all indigenous people, there is only one answer: we come from the ancestors. As for "who are we"? what the ancestors want us to be. "Where are we going?" Back to join the ancestors. (What suggests to me that this was Gauguin's intention, is the mysterious bird we see on the lower left, next to the old woman contemplating her death.)

So. Our question should not be understood as the usual Western, "metaphysical" question to which we have for so long become accustomed, but the fundamental historical question of the greatest interest to all humans: who were our ancestors and what were they like? And what makes this an overwhelming question is that, astonishingly enough, for the first time, thanks to recently developed research of a totally surprising and unexpected kind, we are actually in a position to meaningfully propose some likely answers.

But, again, I am getting ahead of myself. Despite all the many arguments, there may still be room for doubt. Is it really reasonable to assume that certain pygmy and bushmen groups of today are perpetuating age-old traditions going all the way back to those of their (and our) earliest common ancestors? Or is this some sort of illusion, based on wishful thinking backed up by the selective cherry-picking of data?

While it might seem unlikely that three different groups in three distant regions of Africa could have independently arrived at such similar lifestyles, convergent evolution has been known to occur and will always remain a possibility. The persistence of essentially the same lifestyle over tens of thousands of years might seem even more unlikely, so on what basis should we prefer one unlikely interpretation over another?

Moreover, while most anthropologists are willing to accept, or at least consider, the implications of the genetic evidence, this in itself does not necessarily imply cultural continuity, a position neatly summarized in the words of bushman specialist Alan Barnard, as quoted in my article on the Kalahari debate:
Recent interdisciplinary work among Darwinian anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, archaeologists, linguists and geneticists hints that there really was an Urrasse, and there really was an Urkultur . . . Both are represented in the ‘anatomically modern’ Homo sapiens population that gave rise to the ‘Out of Africa’ migration about 80,000 years ago. This migration spread early symbolic culture; let us call it Urkultur. However, the relation between this Urkultur and the cultures of today’s so-called ‘indigenous peoples’ is no greater that that between this Urkultur and the cultures of all peoples ("Kalahari revisionism, Vienna and the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate." Social Anthropology 14 (1), p. 13).
As I argued in my paper, it is the musical evidence that finally, and decisively, tips the balance in favor of the "traditionalist" position in the Kalahari debate. But what I've been proposing here goes beyond the premises of that controversy, which was more about the status of the bushmen as legitimately indigenous than anything else. What I'll be discussing in subsequent posts is another aspect of the musical evidence that I haven't fully explored before, but which, as it seems to me, offers the most conclusive evidence yet that the culture of today's pygmies and bushmen is likely to be a survival from the deepest reaches of the past.


Maju said...

Besides the abstract debate, I think that there is something within us, something we can call "instinctive" (human instinct, fundamental emotions maybe, not the rough simplification of "dog eats dog"), that somehow is telling us that "sure: that is it", that we aren't but "bushmen" who have lost their roots.

The revisionists would be people with too strong superego who can't admit that. Those who are overcodified can't easily admit that such quite, not decodified but simply un-codified humankind can exist, much less be ancestral and "natural". On the other side the decodifying ones can't but see in such "Arcadian" reality the almost perfect reference for their longing for being just human without that artificially hyper-demanding cultural burden of normativity.

DocG said...

I tend to agree with you, Maju, but only up to a point. Because there is a danger here of reverting to the old "Romantic" view of the unspoiled "child of nature," which is not my intention at all. If our investigations lead us to recognize a kind of Utopia in this culture, I want us to have earned that recognition through a careful, critical process of relentless investigation rather than jumping to premature, ideologically driven conclusions, based on what we might want to see. I'm still scratching my head over the question of whether their music can be regarded as "natural" or contrived, un-codified or highly codified, and the same sort of dilemma could lie at the heart of their culture generally. We still have a lot to learn about that culture -- and the degree to which our "Romantic" ideals could be a survival from it.