Sunday, September 20, 2009

207. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 7 -- L'Affaire Turnbull

When we cast our gaze away from Turnbull (who may or may not, depending on one's point of view, be guilty of undue idealization) to the Mbuti themselves, it's clear, in the light of Lazios' research, that we need to reconsider certain commonly held assumptions, including some of those I've quoted earlier on this blog. Given what can be learned from Turnbull's field notes, which may or may not be adequately represented in his books (Liazos feels sure they aren't, I tend to think they are), just about everything we've come to accept about Pygmies generally and the Mbuti in particular can be called into question.

Can a society be regarded as egalitarian if wife and child beating are accepted practices, if women are excluded from important rituals, if someone unjustly accused of witchcraft can be systematically persecuted, if certain individuals and groups, such as Cephu and his family, can be ostracized? Can a society be considered non-violent if minor incidents can accelerate into bloody fights, wives and children can be beaten? Can the Mbuti truly be considered hunter-gatherers if most of their food comes from village farms and they participate in a money-based economy? If Pygmy culture is characterized by a high degree of cooperation, then why is there so much squabbling? If individual autonomy is encouraged, then why are certain "strange" individuals, such as Sau, treated so badly? Finally, if the equal sharing of resources is such an essential aspect of the Mbuti lifestyle, then why does the "lazy Pygmy," Pepei, feel it necessary to steal food, and what does it mean when Turnbull asserts that "it would be a rare Mbuti woman who did not conceal a portion of the catch in case she was forced to share with others . . ." (Wayward Servants, p. 198)?

Regardless of whether Lazios has been completely fair to Turnbull, his relentless focus on such details of everyday life, too often overlooked when broad generalizations are formulated, forces us to think more clearly about what it means to characterize a certain population as conforming to one or another pre-established category. Is it acceptable to claim, for example, that a particular group is "egalitarian" or "non-violent," or "gender-equal," when we have no way of knowing exactly how certain individuals may behave in situations we might not have anticipated? On the other hand, do we have the right thereby to simply dismiss all attempts at generalization simply because we can't anticipate every possible exception?

What all of the above tells me is that there is a significant difference between the systematic study of the social structure and culture of a community as a whole, and the psychology of individual behavior and personality. The two realms can never be completely separated, of course, but there are significant differences. Which returns me to the issue first raised back in post #193, regarding the importance of "core premises and embedded values," as so eloquently expressed by Cornelia van der Sluys. What determines whether the Mbuti can be regarded as egalitarian is not the question of whether each and every Mbuti is "naturally" endowed with an acute sensitivity to the needs and feelings of his or her fellows and behaves accordingly, but, on the contrary, the inference, based on the consensus of just about everyone who has lived among them, that the Mbuti have inherited powerful cultural traditions that promote egalitarianism regardless of individual proclivities that might from time to time break through the culturally sanctioned bonds.

Thus the important role played by women in Mbuti life, fully complementary to that of men (though certainly not identical); the freedoms they enjoy, to participate actively in the hunt, to choose their own mate, to freely explore their sexual inclinations, both before and after marriage, to speak up freely and participate openly in decision making, even to fight back when challenged by their husbands, as Turnbull claims is expected of them; is a role enshrined by tradition -- but not necessarily guaranteed in each and every individual case. If it is considered "a good thing" for men to occasionally beat their wives, this may well be, as Turnbull suggests, a reaction against the same egalitarian tradition, as a means of making sure the women don't take their independence too far. But that same independence is enshrined in tradition, which would explain why they are expected to fight back. While women's relative lack of physical strength can often make them victims of male agression, that has no bearing on the fundamental tradition which guarantees their socially sanctioned and reinforced right to assert themselves, nonetheless. And if there are any doubts regarding the efficacity of the values behind that tradition, one has only to compare the role of women in Mbuti society with their role in almost any other society one could name.

Non-violence can be understood in essentially the same terms, as a culturally determined value, sustained through a tradition passed on over countless generations, which places strong social sanctions against overly assertive or aggressive behavior. The fact that psychological tensions due to certain unresolved conflicts may result in violent behavior nevertheless, by no means contradicts the basic principle, since cultural values are expressed by the society as a whole, not necessarily by every individual. Again, any doubts one might have will easily be dispelled if one compares the generally pacifist behavior of literally all Pygmy groups, where we find no warrior class, no weapons of war, no history of warlike behavior, with the behavior of so many other societies, with long histories of conflict with neighboring groups, out and out warfare and the glorification of war.

Hunting and gathering are similarly part of a value system so powerful that it persists even in the face of all the many forces opposing it, from the influence of neighboring farming societies, to the inroads of a modern money-based economy. Which is one of the principal points expressed over and over again by Turnbull in both books. The failure of the Mbuti to conform to a very narrow definition of what foragers ought to be doing most or all of the time is beside the point when we consider the foraging tradition as an enduring, though admittedly endangered, way of life.

More or less the same considerations can be applied to values such as cooperation, individual autonomy and the sharing of resources. And once again, it is when we compare both Pygmy traditions and overall behavior with the traditions and behavior of just about any other people anywhere on the globe, the enduring importance of these traditions becomes obvious. When a society values both cooperation and individual autonomy, squabbles are going to emerge inevitably, and from time to time they could turn violent. This does not by any means negate the importance of both cooperation and individual autonomy as socially sanctioned values, as has been documented for so many Pgymy groups. And if it's not unusual for certain individuals to hide away certain items for fear they might be expected to share, this is the sort of exception that not only proves the rule, but demonstrates its power.


k. grady said...

Do you know if Turnbull was involved or knew others who were involved in getting medicine for these people? In which case he might have been inclined to accent the darker aspects less as it would influence his or others ability to get such things donated?

DocG said...

I don't think he actually did minimize the darker aspects, either in The Forest People or Wayward Servants. They are there in both books and they aren't hidden away in a corner either. What seems to have happened is that readers of The Forest People saw what they wanted to see and passed over what disturbed them, which is why the book now has the reputation it has.

Some of the things Turnbull wrote in Chapter One are certainly idealizations and that may have set the tone for how most people read everything else. Turnbull can certainly be criticized for romanticizing the Mbuti in such passages, but they constitute only a tiny fraction of the book as a whole, which is in many ways brutally honest and definitely disturbing.

Turnbull does try to soften the impact of some of the more disturbing stories, but that has more to do, I think, with the importance he gives to the presence of social constraints, governed by traditionally maintained value systems, as I've tried to convey in the above blog post. His point is that violence occurs and is not uncommon, but that there are usually people around to restrain the participants so that things don't usually get out of hand. These people are expressing the "core value" of non-violence, which for Turnbull is of greater significance for anthropology than the behavior of individuals who might, from time to time, violate the culturally sanctioned code.

DocG said...

Yesterday I received an email from Alex Liazos, with an attachment containing his responses to my thoughts on his book as presented in Posts 202-207, and a request to add them here as comments. I'm pleased that Alex, with whom I've been in touch since first reading his book, and who very kindly supplied me with a copy of Turnbull's field notes, has finally found the time to respond. I'll leave it to our readers to decide just how different our interpretations are, but I'm happy to say that our dialogue has remained friendly throughout. I'll repeat what I've said before, that regardless of our differences, I see Alex's book as an important contribution that should be studied by everyone planning or currently involved in field work, as well as anyone concerned with the interpretation of culture and the analysis and evaluation of cultural practices among indigenous peoples.

Since the space of each comment is limited by the blogging software, I'll be forced to break it up into shorter segments.

DocG said...

Commentary by Alex Liazos, part 1:

I should make it clear that I did not set out to debunk Turnbull (as I explain in the ms.).
And I still hold egalitarian and socialist values and views, partly derived from my reading of hunting and gathering societies (such as the Mbuti), even after I have written a critique of The Forest People based on Turnbull’s field notes.

When I finished reading Turnbull’s field notes, I faced a decision: write nothing, in fear that critics of The Forest People might use my writings to argue against the values I hold, or present what I found in the field notes and then have debates on the implications of what I found. I chose the second course, because it would be dishonest to do otherwise, and counterproductive in the long run to the values I hold.

I should note that my email address is I created this address at exactly the same time I began reading the notes and finding the problems I discuss in the ms. “Zituri” is a word created from Ituri, the forest where the Mbuti live, and the Greek letter Z, whose sound ZEE means “lives” in Greek. Thus, I am saying that I think and hope the spirit of the Ituri still lives, despite the critique I went on to write.

I summarized and presented what I found in the field notes, as accurately, fully, and honestly as I could. I was, and I am, being specific and precise in exploring one main issue: do the field notes support or modify the description of the Mbuti people in the Ituri forest of the 1950s? I hoped, and still hope, that there might be much debate and discussion on the implications of what I present in my ms. I hope people read the book again, read what I wrote, read Victor Grauer’s blog, and hopefully read the field notes themselves – and then we can have friendly and fruitful debates on the The Forest People, egalitarian and hunting and gathering societies, and related matters.

DocG said...

Alex Liazos' commentary, part 2:

I believe that Grauer has made an excellent beginning in such a debate, and I am very thankful to him. I value his contribution and friendly debate, and I hope we can continue. Let me now respond to some of what he wrote, not necessarily in order of importance. (This is not a complete or final response to everything he wrote.)

1. Grauer says that chapter one of The Forest People does indeed present an idyllic and romantic view of the Mbuti, but he insists that the rest of the book presents an honest and complete portrait of their lives, including the violence, conflicts, and other problems that I argue in my writings Turnbull ignores or minimizes. I do note that almost everything I found in the field notes is present in the book, but almost all of it is minimized, diminished, and made to appear funny and entertaining. For example, to use the best argument that Grauer presents, chapters 5 and 6 of The Forest People do present many conflicts, arguments, and fights. But to speak for myself, if not most other readers, after at least twenty readings over the years, these fights never seemed serious; indeed, they seemed amusing and entertaining. The fights described in the field notes, however, never seem amusing

Let me cite again Turnbull’s paraphrase of Atete that “he was very content with his wife, and he had not found it necessary to beat her at all often” (p. 205). It’s playful and clever phrasing, but it hides the serious violence against women. This is but one example where Tunbull’s words minimize and hide serious problems.

Let me also note that the idyllic presentation of the Mbuti does not end with chapter 1. Chapter 3, “The Song of the Forest,” is quite idyllic, mystical, and spiritual. In the first paragraph of chapter 8, also devoted to the molimo, he writes: “At Apa [camp] Lelo, one day followed the last in this happy-go-lucky way as though this was all there was to life” (p.144). The scene of Kenge dancing with the moon, and its spiritual implications, is included in the last chapter (p. 272). In 1971, in a letter he wrote me from the forest, he said that “after twelve years away and now over a year back here, I find the pygmies as beautiful and warm and human as ever. It would be next to impossible to romanticize them.” Perhaps the best evidence that Turnbull did indeed believe the Mbuti led an idyllic, if not perfect, life, is found in an interview he gave to Omni magazine in June 1984 (parts cited in my ms.).

Grauer says that the romantic and idyllic view of the Mbuti is what readers have chosen to find in the book, but a close reading of The Forest People shows a more realistic account of their lives, including violence and contradictions. He may be right. If so, thousands of readers through the years must have made that mistake. Speaking for myself, never once did I even suspect the serious problems, violence, and the persecution of Sau I found in the field notes. Ultimately, people will need to read those field notes (which I am authorized by the Avery Research Center to copy and sent to whoever asks for them), and decide for themselves whether they accept Grauer’s or my interpretation.

DocG said...

Alex Liazos' commentary, part 3:

2. In post 204, Grauer worries that some people may use my “well-intentioned probings … to bury, completely and forever, both Turnbull and his book, along with the notion, highly disturbing to some, that indigenous people like the Pygmies and Bushmen might, as Turnbull argues, represent more than what meets the eye.” It could happen, at least for a while and for some people. But in the long run, any lasting lessons we learn from the Mbuti and others must be based on the realities of Mbuti society. All I am saying is that the 1950s Mbuti in Turnbull’s field notes do not seem to provide evidence of an egalitarian society I would want to emulate.

3. Also in post 204, Grauer presents a thoughtful discussion of what I call “the persecution of Sau.” I will not summarize it here. I think we agree on what happened. We differ in our interpretations. People need to read both discussions carefully and decide which one makes sense to them. Anne Putnam, who witnessed the persecution of Sau (some of her notes are found in Turnbull’s field notes), and who later wrote her version of the events in National Geographic (February 1960), also found the treatment of Sau serious and disturbing.

4. Also in post 204, Grauer writes that “we can allow a certain amount of ‘poetic license’ in a publication of this kind” meant for a general audience. I think what Turnbull does is well beyond any poetic license, as I try to show throughout what I wrote.

5. Later in post 204, Grauer writes that Sau was accused of witchcraft “not by her fellow Mbuti but their Bantu ‘masters’…” If the Bantu began the accusation of witchcraft, soon the Mbuti accept it wholeheartedly and persecute Sau on their own. The field notes leave no doubt about that.

6. In post 206, Grauer writes: “I have been able to find no reference to such a claim [that Turnbull spent three years with the Mbuti] in either The Forest People or Wayward Servants.” The claim is on the book jacket of the hard cover edition of The Forest People, which says that “Turnbull lived among them [the Mbuti] for three years.” (See the discussion in chapter 2, section B of my ms.). It is not repeated in Wayward Servants.

7. The last three paragraphs of post 207 present an excellent discussion of the generally non-violent nature of hunting and gathering societies. It is one very much worth pursuing in the future.

Despite my continuing disagreement with Grauer on many points of interpretation of The Forest People and of Turnbull’s field notes, I find his discussion in posts 202-207 friendly, and very helpful in the search to understand Turnbull, the Mbuti, gathering and hunting societies, and much else. I hope others join us in the same spirit.

DocG said...

Alex: "Let me cite again Turnbull’s paraphrase of Atete that “he was very content with his wife, and he had not found it necessary to beat her at all often” (p. 205). It’s playful and clever phrasing, but it hides the serious violence against women. This is but one example where Tunbull’s words minimize and hide serious problems."

I agree that this is indeed a failing, and perhaps even a serious failing, of "The Forest People," where Turnbull does seem overly willing to minimize or trivialize very real problems in favor of an idealized view. I would recommend "Wayward Servants" as a more balanced, realistic and professional treatment of Mbuti life. "The Forest People" is indeed, as Alex reminds us, a book very much of its time, a time that has now, for better or worse, passed. As I see it, "Wayward Servants" represents both the Mbuti's and Turnbull's legacy in a more meaningful and enduring form.

Alex: "In 1971, in a letter he wrote me from the forest, he said that “after twelve years away and now over a year back here, I find the pygmies as beautiful and warm and human as ever. It would be next to impossible to romanticize them.”"

I think it necessary to read Turnbull's statement very carefully and without jumping to conclusions about its meaning. I see no problem with his view of the pygmies as "beautiful," and certainly from everything we've read, including the field notes themselves, even as seen through Alex's critical eyes, they can be described as "warm," especially if excitability, emotion, and force of personality are aspects of "warmth." And they can certainly be regarded as "human," if we allow that one can be very "human" despite a variety of flaws of the sort that might make one want to comment that the pygmies may indeed be "all too human." What it seems to me that Turnbull is trying to convey is his admiration for a certain spontaneity, honesty, and genuineness in the character of most of the Mbuti he encountered. He was clearly impressed by the unspoiled and honest aspect of their personalities, which comes through despite all their very real failings. It's not so much what Turnbull says in his letter to Alex as what he does not say that for me is the real problem. His statement, while possibly accurate and even meaningful, also hides a reluctance on his part to come to terms with the more disturbing aspects of Mbuti society that are revealed in the notes and were perhaps repressed by Turnbull, who obviously became more interested in what the Mbuti might symbolize for Western society than what they actually were in day to day life.