And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
Michelle Kisliuk, an ethnomusicologist/ethnographer who has devoted much of her life to studying the music and dance of the BaAka pygmies of central Africa, has written eloquently of the reasons initially prompting her to undertake such research. She cites the influence of Simha Arom, who has described BaAka music as "collective . . . [with] no apparent hierarchy in the distribution of the parts; [with] each person [appearing] to enjoy complete liberty; . . . [reflecting] perfectly the social organization of the pygmies."
Writing skeptically of "A seductive vision of pygmy song as an 'emblem' for utopian human potentials as well as for quintessential origins," Kisliuk quotes Alan Lomax, as a prime example of such hyperbole: "The Bushman and Pygmy peoples living close to the source of man's known beginnings have a music that might have come from the Garden of Eden. In their complementary, chiefless, egalitarian, and pacifist societies, men and women, old and young, are linked in close interdependence by preference and not by force. . . "
She is fascinated and incredulous, but also curious:
Part of what attracted me to study among pygmies was the very suggestion that the structure and performance style of their singing might be consistent with an overall egalitarian lifestyle. As I read about pygmies and their music, however, I wondered to what extent the real people embody the images that scholars, artists and journalists have enthusiastically claimed they do, and I designed my research to address this question (Michelle Kisliuk, Performance and Modernity among BaAka Pygmies: A Closer Look at the Mystique of Egalitarian Foragers in the Rain Forest, in Music and Gender, ed. Moisala and Diamond, U. of Illinois Press, 2000, pp. 25 - 26.)Kisliuk very quickly and unexpectedly answers her own question, in the very same paragraph, albeit in passing: "Having read -- and then observed [my emphasis] -- that pygmies have a relatively egalitarian society, I wanted to know in detail whether and how such egalitarianism might take shape in performances controlled by women." She then goes on to highlight another question, that of "modernity," to "underline that BaAka and other forest peoples -- so often imagined as representing a mythical past -- are living as you or I within the modern world" (ibid., p. 26).
It soon becomes clear that the egalitarian nature of BaAka society has been so clearly manifested in her own field work that she feels no need to either question it or argue on its behalf, but simply takes it for granted. Indeed, this is the impression one gets from reading everything she's ever had to say on this topic, as affirmed on page after page of her major work, the excellent Seize the Dance, which I have studied in some detail. But there is a problem for her in this respect, since any assertion in line with the supposedly "romantic" and "idealistic" view of pygmies as "representing a mythical past," would challenge some of the most basic tenets of the "revisionist" ideology that has for so long dominated both anthropology and ethnomusicology -- as exemplified in the Kalahari debate, a topic on which I have already spilled a considerable amount of (virtual) ink.
She is quick to cite Chandra Jayawardena, who "suggests that egalitarianism is notably present among people who share a 'lower-class' status. He states that 'notions of human equality are dominant in a subgroup to the extent that it is denied social equality by the wider society or its dominant class.' If one were to view BaAka and Bagandou villagers [Bantu farmers who have established close ties with the BaAka] as subgroups of a single regional society . . . one might explain BaAka egalitarian values as having arisen in reaction to their oppression by their neighbors" (p. 28). In other words, although the BaAka are unquestionably egalitarian, to the extent that there is no need to even argue the point, their egalitarian behavior need not be attributed to "utopian" myths of "quintessential origin," so often associated with the typically romantic "Western" view of indigenous peoples, but to the sort of class distinctions so characteristic of "modernity." Kisliuk thus implicitly aligns herself with the fashionable revisionist view that has emerged so strongly in the Kalahari debate, where the very notion of an 'indigenous people' is dismissed as 'essentialist' and relying 'on obsolete anthropological notions and on a romantic and false ethnographic vision'" (Adam Kuper, as quoted by Alan Barnard in "Kalahari revisionism, Vienna and the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate," Social Anthropology 14 (1), 2006. p. 2 -- see my paper "New Perspectives on the Kalahari Debate" for more on this issue). Or, more to the point, in the words of leading revisionist Edwin Wilmsun, writing of the Kalahari Bushmen:
Their appearance as foragers is a function of their relegation to an underclass in the playing out of historical processes that began before the current millennium and culminated in the early decades of this century. The isolation in which they are said to be found is a creation of our view of them, not of their history as they lived it (Wilmsen, Land filled with flies. A political economy of the Kalahari. University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 3).I won't get into the Kalahari debate again here (see post 64 et seq.), but I will comment on the view, expressed by Jayawardena and at least tentatively endorsed by Kisliuk, that egalitarian behavior can be regarded as a function of lower class status. It is on its face a completely tendentious and totally unsubstantiated, not to mention patently romantic and essentialist, assumption that has no basis in fact. While we have no reason to believe that many members of the "underclasses" don't behave decently toward one another much of the time, the very serious and pervasive social tensions and in many cases violence that's become so endemic in American inner-city communities makes a mockery of Jayawardena's theory. And if an African example is more to the point, we need go no farther than Turnbull's experiences among the underclass he referred to as the "Ik."
(to be continued . . . )