Saturday, September 19, 2009

206. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 6 -- L'Affaire Turnbull

The Forest People is a book written in the 1950's, but read, for the most part, during the 1960's and 70's. If it is now seen as a typical product of 60's idealism, that may have more to do with the mindset of its readers than its author. Upon studying the field notes on which the book is based, Alex Liazos felt "an obligation to communicate with other readers and admirers of the book, and tell them that the Mbuti of the field notes led more complex, difficult, and different lives than did the Mbuti of The Forest People. The Mbuti did not live in the idyllic paradise the book presents."

In fact the book does not present the Mbuti as living in an idyllic paradise, far from it. Though it may very well seem that way. For reasons that require an explanation.

When Liazos writes, in his Introduction to the web site, that "Many of us have been inspired by Turnbull’s message that a simple and peaceful life is possible, one where social equality, sharing, cooperation, and carefree living are possible," is he actually summarizing Turnbull's book, or his own subjective impression, influenced by the Zeitgeist of a period when a great many Americans were themselves contemplating the possibility of "a simple and peaceful life" imbued with "social equality, sharing cooperation and carefree living . . ."?

When Liazos refers to the tensions that "seem to pervade both village and forest camps," he acknowledges that "Turnbull does mention them in the book. In fact, he devotes all of chapter 6 to the discussion of three incidents of disputes and conflicts."
He adds, however, that "even after many readings of the book and of chapter 6 through the years, I did not find these disputes problematic or upsetting. They did not challenge the portrait of a happy people living mostly in forest camps." Was it the book itself that misled Liazos in this respect? Or was it the mindset he, like so many others during the Sixties and Seventies, brought to the book, at a time when so many were dreaming of a lifestyle free from conflicts, tensions and disputes?

Not that Turnbull bears no responsibility whatsoever. His first chapter does a lot to set the tone for how the reader will respond to what follows, and this chapter does indeed, without question, present the Mbuti in an idealized, romanticized light. It's as though Turnbull is trying as hard as he can to compensate for all the many portraits of Africa as a fearfully primitive "heart of darkness," filled with every imaginable sort of savagery, depravity and barbarism. For whatever reason, and it is not easy to determine his motives, he does lay it on pretty thick, with phrases such as "beauty and truth and goodness," "for them it is a good world," "simple, unaffected people," and finally, the lyrical description, as misleading as it is memorable, of Pygmy life as "a wonderful thing full of joy and happiness and free of care." There is one passage in this chapter where Turnbull pulls in the reins a bit, reminding us that "the Pygmies are no more perfect than any other people, and life, though kind to them, is not without hardships." If one's life is "not without hardships," then it is certainly not going to be "free of care," but such a blatant contradiction may have been lost on the majority of his readers.

Dark clouds appear in the very next chapter. We are introduced to Sau, the "witch," who "certainly seemed sinister, as she gazed without blinking, taking in everything that was going on, not moving hour after hour." Maybe no one ever told her that her life was "a wonderful thing full of joy and happiness and free of care." We learn that "essentially a camp is a happy-go-lucky, friendly place, but it is also full of all sorts of little tensions that can suddenly become magnified out of all proportion and lead to full-scale disputes." We learn of Cephu and his family, who "keep to themselves" at night, "seldom venturing into the main camp. They sat around their own fire, offended, aloof, and rather unhappy . . ." But how can this be? Don't they appreciate their life in Utopia?

As Turnbull settles into his story, it seems to me that most if not all of his idealizing tendencies have been spent, and he is, for the most part, writing honestly -- though of course, since this is a "trade publication" and not an academic tome, always making an effort to engage his readers by turning sometimes disturbing material into amusing anecdotes, a tendency which Liazos finds disturbing and I agree. If, in chapter Four, "The Song of the Forest," he waxes perhaps a bit too lyrical over the power and beauty of Pygmy music, I can hardly blame him, since his recordings of their music had a very similar effect on me. The following chapters, which I've already described, bring us back to reality with a thud -- but perhaps many readers never got that far, or preferred to skim over the more disturbing incidents, which might have jarred too harshly against the utopian images impressed on their minds by chapter One.

All in all, as I see it, The Forest People taken as a whole presents a reasonably realistic picture of Mbuti life, though certainly, as Liazos attests, many examples of violence and injustice, as presented in the field notes, are omitted. It's not necessary, however, to look to the field notes to find glaring contradictions between genuinely disturbing facts of Pygmy life, such as wife and child beatings, mixed with other forms of violence and discontent, and Turnbull's all too lyrical idealizations -- they are already there in the book. Thus, while it is possible to accuse Turnbull of sometimes romanticizing and idealizing the Mbuti and their "utopian" life in the Ituri forest, it is unfair to ignore the fact that many other passages in the same book give the lie to that view, and that the book as a whole is reasonably honest, at least for a work of that genre.

Turning to his other major work on the Mbuti, the far more thorough Wayward Servants, there is no longer any question that Turnbull is presenting an honest and realistic, unvarnished picture, which in its almost compulsive accumulation of facts, both raw and interpreted, is probably among the most thorough and complete studies of any such group in the anthropological literature. In its almost 400 pages of densely packed detail, it's hard to believe that anything of importance in the field notes has been omitted -- but I'll leave that accounting to Lazios, as I don't (yet) have access to those notes. If there is any bias in this work, it is in Turnbull's presentation of his theory that the Mbuti are basically independent of their village "masters," a somewhat romantic hypothesis I suppose, which is nevertheless very carefully and logically argued, and supported with a wealth of factual evidence, based for the most part on direct observation. Whether right or wrong in this respect, Turnbull's theory is clear, coherent and reasonable -- and he is certainly entitled to his opinion.

I would now like to respond to certain other accusations and assertions of a somewhat different sort that should not be ignored. From Liazos Introduction:
•There is the persecution of Sau, an old woman who is accused of being a witch.
For my response, see previous posts.

•There is Turnbull’s implied and stated claim that the Mbuti are a gathering and hunting people. They are not. They rely as much or more on grown food from village plantations as they do on food they hunt and gather.
Whether the Mbuti can be characterized as "hunters and gatherers" is dependent on the definition one gives to this term. If it's defined as people who live solely or mostly on food either hunted or gathered in the forest, then the Mbuti are not hunter-gatherers. But then neither are almost all the other peoples so often described as such in the Anthropological literature, since very few have been unaffected by relatively recent encounters with farming or pastoralist groups. Even Roy Grinker, notorious for his dismissal of Turnbull as a hopeless romantic, often refers to the Pygmy group he's studied, a branch of the Mbuti called the Efe, as "foragers" (Houses in the Rainforest, pp. ix - xiv). This despite his efforts to demonstrate their heavy dependence on and interaction with the Lese, who supply them with considerable amounts of farm produce on a year-round basis. If neither the Mbuti nor the Efe are still foragers or hunter-gatherers in the narrowest sense, it seems clear that both groups still exemplify hunter-gatherer traditions that cannot easily be denied. And if we define the term as representing people whose only mode of food production is through hunting and gathering, then both groups are unquestionably hunter-gatherers still.
•A strong impression in The Forest People is that the Mbuti live primarily in forest hunting camps. They do not. Dates in the field notes show that they live as long or longer in the village next to the forest.
This is, for me, an especially troubling aspect of Liazos findings, because his very careful attention to the timing of events as described in both the field notes and the books is difficult to dispute. It would appear as though the impression Turnbull gives, that the Pygmies spend most of their time in the forest, is indeed misleading. There are many instances in the notes where Pygmies drop what they are doing in their forest camp to make excursions to the village for provisions, either purchased or stolen.
•Turnbull says that the molimo celebration of a beloved old woman who died while he was there lasts for three uninterrupted months. It does not. Turnbull’s dates and descriptions of people coming and going show that on many nights there is no molimo celebration. On many other days and nights many, often most, people, including Turnbull, are in the village, not in the forest.
Again, Liazos has unearthed convincing evidence that Turnbull is not being completely honest. It's difficult, however, to understand why it was so important to him that the molimo celebration should be uninterrupted, especially since he goes out of his way to characterize the Mbuti's lifestyle as informal and ad hoc.
•Turnbull seriously misrepresents where and how he spends his time with the Mbuti. The Forest People takes place mostly in forest camps, giving the impression that the Mbuti live primarily in the forest. But during his major stay, September 1957 to October 1958, he lives in forest camps with the Mbuti a total of at most three months. While in forest camps, he never stays more than two consecutive weeks in any one of them.
Again, Liazos has uncovered what would seem to be incontrovertible evidence of deception on Turnbull's part. And again, it's difficult to understand his motives, though Liazos suspects it has something to do with his desire to minimize the importance of the village, which is certainly possible.

[Added 10-1-09: Liazos also accuses Turnbull of claiming to have spent three years among the Mbuti, instead of the period of slightly more than a year reported in his notes (Sept. 1957 to Oct. 1958, as reported above). I have been able to find no reference to such a claim in either the Forest People or Wayward Servants. In the first chapter of Wayward Servants he states that "Field work was undertaken between the summer of 1957 and the late winter of 1958 (p. 6)." Given that the latter segment of his field work was spent traveling to other regions of Africa (op. cit., p. 6), I see no discrepancy between his reported stay and the dates recorded in his notes.]
  • Women and men have equal status, according to Turnbull. Why does he say this? Do you agree? Why are women excluded from the Molimo? What does it mean that women "tie up" the men at the end?
Liazos makes the perfectly valid point that women are not treated equally among the Mbuti, as evidenced by the frequent references to wife beating, as well as the fact that women are forced to retreat to their huts every evening during the course of the "great" molimo ceremonies, which can last for months at a time. But what does Turnbull actually say?
The woman is not discriminated against in BaMbuti society as she is in some African societies. She has a full and important role to play. There is relatively little specialization according to sex. Even the hunt is a joint effort (The Forest People, p. 154).
The above can certainly give a misleading impression, but strictly speaking it does appear to be, more or less, correct. Women are not discriminated against in our own society either, at least technically. Yet there are many instances of wife abuse, as is well known. And there are many roles that women are still expected to play, though many object to such stereotyping. Note also that Turnbull is comparing the role of women among the Mbuti to their role among other African groups, where discrimination, mistreatment and control of women can often be severe. While Mbuti women clearly do not have equal rights, as the book itself makes clear, they do appear to have considerably more freedom, including sexual freedom, than women in most other societies, including our own.

The only other significant point I can think of at the moment is what Liazos has to say about the Pygmy's involvement with money, and a money economy, which he accuses Turnbull of downplaying. Turnbull does mention money, to be sure:
I found that several of my old friends were working either at the Animal Station or the motel, buying their food with money at the local stores, instead of freely roaming the forest hunting and gathering for their needs (TFP, p. 29).
Whether the above reference is sufficient, or whether Turnbull is deliberately giving us a false impression of Pygmy independence from the modern world is difficult to say. At least he does not ignore the role of money, but perhaps he does tend to minimize its importance.

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