Tuesday, September 22, 2009

208. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 8 -- L'Affaire Turnbull

With regard to "core premises," "embedded values," ethos, etc., and the types of behavior that can either reinforce or undercut such cultural ideals, when we look at the literature on hunter-gatherers generally, we find what seems to be a mass of contradictions. As is well known, Turnbull describes the Mbuti as living a carefree life of egalitarian, non-violent freedom, joy and total independence in the bosom of their beloved Ituri forest. He also describes extremely violent, bloody fights, wife-beatings, child beatings, witch-baitings, banishments, jealousy, resentment, and patently selfish behavior, along with a surprising degree of dependence on Bantu "masters" with respect to an important initiation ritual and access to highly desirable agricultural produce. Such contradictions are not limited to Turnbull, however, but in point of fact pervade the writings of just about everyone who has spent much time with any Pygmy group.

To Father Paul Schebesta, the first to systematically study the African Pygmies, the pygmy is "congenitally a carefree fellow, with a very optimistic outlook on life. This accounts for his jollity and cheerfulness so long as he is not molested and left in peace. And on account of this carefree and cheerful attitude towards life -- an attitude which we civilized folk have lost, the Bambuti are most decidedly to be envied" (Revisiting My Pygmy Hosts, 1936, p. 55). Sound familiar? Then this too will sound familiar:
Pygmies lose their temper so unexpectedly and on such slender provocation that their impromptu squabbles frequently end tragically. When two pygmies show signs of getting heated in an argument you will see the shrewd old people in the camp quietly hiding any bows and arrows or spears that may be lying about. Pygmies are only all too prone to fly from violent words to violent deeds (ibid., p. 208).
Such behavior seems inconsistent with a "carefree and cheerful attitude," to say the least. Schebesta immediately reassures us, as follows:
If, however, there is any danger of two men suddenly attacking one another, neighbors immediately separate them, knock them down, and keep a firm hold on them until their fury has spent itself. And it spends itself just as suddenly as it has started. Presently the combatants have completely forgotten what they were bickering about (ibid.).
If such constraints on violence are as reliable as he makes them sound, then how is it that "their impromptu squabbles frequently end tragically"?

And if, on the one hand, "Pygmies are very punctilious about avoiding the risk of trespassing on the territories of their neighbors," nevertheless "Hostilities frequently break out between Pygmy groups as the result of poaching on each other's hunting preserves" (p. 151).

We find similar contradictions in Michelle Kisliuk's Seize the Dance, where, for example, she illustrates the egalitarian spirit of the Aka as follows:
On another occasion I brought a tomato to the Bagandou camp . . . I gave a wedge to Bandit sitting beside me, expecting him to pop it in his mouth. Instead, he proceeded to call for a knife and cut the wedge into about sixteen tiny pieces, sharing it with everybody in sight (p. 132).
Although I often perceived BaAka to be "egalitarian" in their interactions, people's deeds did not always fit that ideal, or at least my perception of it. Sandimba once concealed some peanuts I had bought even though I asked her to distribute them to everyone in camp (p. 132-33).
I've already discussed the very interesting contradiction between Kisliuk's determination to "debunk" Turnbull's "reified" and "reductive" view of Pygmy life and the many occasions on which she finds her own experiences in accord with his nevertheless.

Interestingly, we find very similar contradictions among those who have studied various Bushmen groups. For instance, the authors of the article on the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers sound almost as upbeat as Schebesta and Turnbull:
Overall, the quality of Ju/'hoan life as hunter-gatherers was relatively good. Their diet and level of exercise have been characterized as among the world's healthiest . . . They had few of the "civilized" world's diseases . . . They suffered mainly from introduced infectious diseases like tuberculosis. Thus, Ju/'hoansi contradict the popular belief that hunting and gathering is a risky or unreliable form of existence. Though strenuous at times the way of life involves plenty of leisure time. . . This led Sahlins . . . to call Ju/'hoansi and other hunter-gatherers "the original affluent society" ("The Ju/'hoansi of Botswana and Namibia," by Megan Biesele and Kxao Royal-/O/OO, p. 206).
In a similarly positive spirit, they point out that "the frequent visiting and sharing among the different groups smooths out local disparities. Groups related by marriage cooperate," and "when food is brought into camp, it is distributed widely. Many hxaro gifts of tools and clothing are given and received among group members, so that an individual can still rely on the community's resources" (p. 206-207). As far as gender is concerned, it is noted that "divorce, not infrequent, was usually initiated by women," and that the Ju/'hoansi "are known for their gender egalitarianism" (p. 207).

In terms that similarly echo almost word for word what has so often been observed among various Pygmy groups, the authors note that
Ju/'hoan political ethos abhorred wealth and status differences. No one should stand out from the rest of the group. If someone returned from a successful hunt showing excessive pride, he was put firmly in place, even if the kill was large. Emphasis on sharing and lack of status roles produced a high degree of egalitarianism. . . . Anger and resentment were low as each person's opinion was respected. Conflicts could be terminated by a disputant leaving to join another group (p. 208).
Nevertheless, the same authors note the presence of "drunkenness, and violence among Ju/'hoansi" since the 1970's, though this is attributed to their involvement in South Africa's civil war, "soldier's pay and alcohol" (p. 209).

Richard Lee, a noted authority on hunter-gatherers generally and Bushmen in particular, and his collaborator Richard Daly, note that
Hunter- gatherers are generally peoples who have lived until recently without the overarching discipline imposed by the state. They have lived in relatively small groups, without centralized authority, standing armies, or bureaucratic systems. Yet the evidence indicates that they have lived together surprisingly well, solving their problems among themselves largely without recourse to authority figures and without a particular propensity for violence (Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, Introduction, p. 1).
However, as Alex Liazos has pointed out, Lee himself uncovered "evidence of conflict and violence among the Ju/'hoansi [that] seemed to contradict the general description of them as "harmless people" (Opening of Chapter Three).

Patricia Draper has written a fascinating study of exactly this sort of contradiction, as applied to the Bushmen group most intensely studied by anthropologists, especially Lee, the !Kung (aka Ju/'hoansi):
The !Kung have been described as a “harmless people” by [Elizabeth Marshall] Thomas (1958) in a book-length account of the social life and cultural values of !Kung who lived in South West Africa. An opposite characterization of !Kung emerges from an unpublished study by Richard Lee. This study, based on interviews and examination of genealogical records collected in the field, reports on incidents of homicide among !Kung. The murder rate, according to Lee, is rather frequent for a people purported to be harmless and unaggressive. . . The !Kung, therefore, are a provocative case study; a controversy exists as to whether they are harmless or, in fact, murderous. ("The Learning Environment for Aggression and Anti-Social Behavior among the !Kung," in Learning Non-Aggression: The Experience of Non-Literate Societies, Ashley Montagu, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 31).
(to be continued . . . )

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