Friday, September 25, 2009

211. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 11 -- Myth and Counter-Myth

Alex Liazos appears to uncritically accept the revisionist counter-myth, though he is clearly not among those who substitute rhetoric for evidence, and his book on Turnbull is refreshingly free of jargon. Nevertheless, one wonders what evidence in Turnbull's field notes led him to characterize The Forest People as a misguided "projection into the past" (see Chapter 6, part C)?
Towards the end of the folder containing the field notes, in an unnumbered page entitled "Theory 1," Turnbull writes that we should study the Mbuti as a changing society. In many ways, The Forest People violates this advice. Turnbull seems to be imagining an ideal past, before the Europeans conquered the land, before even the villagers came, when the Mbuti must have lived entirely, or almost entirely, in the forest by gathering and hunting. . .

Intentionally or not, Turnbull projects into the past, to a time when all people did live by gathering and hunting, if we are to believe what anthropologists tell us. . .
It's true that Turnbull refers to the BaMbuti as "the real people of the forest," comparing them to "the other [non-Pygmy] tribes," who are "relatively recent arrivals," while "the Pygmies have been in the forest for many thousands of years." This is not baseless "projection into the past," nor the "imagining of an ideal past," but the reflection of a view commonly held among almost all anthropologists of that time. Turnbull supports this view by citing documented references to Pygmies living "in the great forest to the west of the Mountains of the Moon," dating to Fourth Dynasty Egypt, roughly four and a half thousand years ago. Moreover, "later records show that the Egyptians had become relatively familiar with the Pygmies, who were evidently living, all those thousands of years back, just where they are living today . . ." Additional ancient sources are provided, from Homer to Aristotle, who stated "categorically that their existence is no fable . . ." (The Forest People, p. 13-16).

Nor is there any debate regarding the relatively recent incursions of the various non-Pygmy groups into the Ituri region, as this too is a matter of historical record -- dating back nowhere nearly as far into the past, since these groups appear to have been forced into the Ituri region during the last four hundred years.

Be that as it may, a careful reading of The Forest People should make it clear that Turnbull is not attempting to project the various details of the life and culture of the particular Mbuti group he is studying back into the past -- there is, as far as I can see, no evidence of such speculations anywhere in the book, which is largely anecdotal and descriptive. In Wayward Servants, Turnbull spells out his intentions very clearly. While he asserts that "the structure of Mbuti society pivots around a powerful forest-oriented system of values," he immediately adds:
This is in no way to say that the structure to be found among the Mbuti is representative of an original pygmy hunting and gathering structure; in fact probably far from it, for the repercussions of the invasion of the forest by the village cultivators have been enormous (p. 16).
What Turnbull does claim is that "the peculiar structural development of the Mbuti does enable us to observe a pure hunting and gathering economy at work not only side by side with, but in opposition to, a cultivation economy" (p. 16-17). Such words make it clear that Turnbull is embracing a very different definition of "hunter-gatherer" than the extremely narrow one insisted on by the revisionists, whose views are echoed by Liazos as follows:
I do not know how long ago in the past the Mbuti were entirely gatherers and hunters. By the late 1950s, however, they seem a long way from that state. But they do gather and hunt for some periods, and during these periods it seems that much of their diet comes from forest foods. As a whole, however, the field notes do not support any claim of the 1950s Mbuti as a gathering and hunting people.
The word "pure" is, of course, guaranteed to raise the hackles of revisionists, who like nothing better than to work themselves up over this and similar terms, such as "pristine" and "quintessential," terms used almost exclusively by them, but presumed to express the essence of the "traditionalist" viewpoint. Nevertheless, Turnbull makes himself extremely clear in this regard, by defining hunter-gatherers, or if you insist, pure hunter-gatherers, according to a very specific, innovative model that he develops during the course of Wayward Servants (and to a lesser degree, The Forest People), a model in which a particular culture or lifestyle is defined in terms of long-standing traditions that have survived in spite of, and in opposition to, the forces of (to use Kisliuk's term) "modernity" currently arrayed against them. Under such a necessarily qualitative, rather than quantitative, definition, the amount of time the Mbuti spend in the village or the amount of village produce they consume is far less important than what they do and how they do it when they are no longer in the village, but living an apparently independent life in the forest.

Turnbull is fully aware of what he is up to, and makes it clear that he is reacting against the view, endorsed by Schebesta, that this particular group of Mbuti were too acculturated and dependent on the village-based farmers to represent a truly hunter-gatherer society. Turnbull feels confident he can demonstrate that this is not the case and, in Wayward Servants at least, presents literally a mountain of evidence to support his theory.

While it is true that, in this sense at least, Turnbull is projecting into the past, by refusing to accept that the Mbuti are no longer "pure" hunter-gatherers, it is also true that this is neither an idealization nor idle speculation, but an essential part of a carefully worked out and abundantly documented hypothesis that his entire project was designed to test.

(to be continued . . . )

No comments: