Saturday, August 8, 2009

182. An Overwhelming Question

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,
T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

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 . . . )


Michelle Kisliuk said...

I've just come across this blog/post. I can't see a signature or author, but assume this is by Victor Grauer. An interesting and insightful commentary, but I must point out that the claim that my discussion of BaAka egalitarianism simply accepts the "egalitarian" label and does not argue or discuss the issue is patently incorrect. Both in the book, Seize the Dance! and in the related chapter in Music and Gender, I argue throughout that, first, the issue is *relative^ egalitarianism, and, perhaps more importantly, I emphasize that based on my research, egalitarianism can not be applied as a static label but an ongoing process -- that much in BaAka life could not be labeled as such, but that overall, as exemplified in performance, there is an egalitarian social aesthetic that must be regularly maintained if it is to prevail at any given moment.
I pose the Jayarwadena perspective as a possible explanation, but end that discussion by throwing into question if it applies to BaAka, especially to BaAka life before their close interaction with Bagandou people... To the contrary, the author's selective use of my material in the blog reveals an agenda that, while giving the impression of balanced and thorough discussion, is clearly invested in furthering an idea of utopian origins.
But I do appreciate the hard work, respectful use of material, and the apparent attempt to be thorough.
Michelle Kisliuk Nov 2009

DocG said...

I'm really pleased to see that Michelle Kisliuk has posted here --and taken the opportunity to clarify her position, which I was hoping she would do. It's not always easy to articulate someone else's thoughts accurately, especially when one perceives a certain degree of ambiguity therein.

In my defense I'll add that much in your book does appear to describe the BaAka as essentially "egalitarian," Michelle, though admittedly you do qualify this from time to time, either by placing the term in quotes, or adding the word "relative." And I completely agree, especially when it comes to the treatment of women, who do seem only relatively equal.

What interests me most about your book in this regard is your apparent endorsement of so much that Turnbull has to say about the Mbuti, despite your stated intention to "demystify" his overly "Romantic" view. And I'm wondering whether I've misunderstood your take on him or whether you've changed your mind, at least in certain respects.

Your own descriptions of BaAka life seem very often quite similar to his descriptions of Mbuti life -- in fact in some ways you seem even more approving, since Turnbull reveals many unsavory aspects of Mbuti life of a sort that I don't find in your book.

As far as Jayarwadena is concerned, I state that this position is "at least tentatively endorsed by" you, which I do think is a fair assessment of your presentation of this view, but perhaps I was being unfair.

"To the contrary, the author's selective use of my material in the blog reveals an agenda that, while giving the impression of balanced and thorough discussion, is clearly invested in furthering an idea of utopian origins."

If you read on in the blog, you'll see that this is not really true. If I have an agenda it involves deconstructing both the "idealist" view associated (unfairly imo) with Turnbull AND the revisionist position, which I find both dogmatic and narrowly academic.

What strikes me above all is the high degree of ambivalence to be found in just about all the field reports concerning life among both Pygmies and Bushmen, where aspects of their culture are idealized (even in your own book, Michelle) yet at the same time many examples of disturbing behavior are revealed that would appear to contradict the ideal view. I hope you'll take some time to read on, especially in posts 208 ( and beyond, where I point to the many contradictions I've found in the literature generally.