Sunday, September 27, 2009

213. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 13 -- Myth and Counter-Myth

Probably the best known and most often cited attempt to debunk the "Pygmy myth" can be found in Houses in the Rain Forest (1994), a study of pygmy-villager interaction by anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker (who was ultimately to write a relatively sympathetic biography of Turnbull). For anyone intent on deconstructing "the postmodern condition," this book makes a handy target -- for reasons that will presently become clear.

Grinker makes no secret of his revisionist intentions right off the bat, acknowledging on the very first page the influence of "anthropologists who criticize the anthropological fascination with foragers as windows to the Paleolithic, as living fossils, or models of a lost prelapsarian past" (p. ix). Fully in the spirit of the Kalahari revisionists (see post 64 et seq), several of whom he specifically cites, he writes that
The various Pygmy groups, and the San [the acceptable euphemism for "Bushmen" at that time, though now "San" is regarded as an insult], living in the heart of Africa, where we now locate our human origins, have been seen to exemplify the purest forms of a timeless hunting and gathering way of life shared by the first human beings, and yet we know that they live side by side with nonforager groups (pp. ix-x).
Acknowledging that "Turnbull's classic works addressed the question of forager-farmer interaction far more completely than any researcher before him," he declares that his view of that interaction is in opposition to that of Turnbull:
My study, in contrast, focuses on a group of farmers in the Ituri forest. My view, the opposite of Turnbull's, is that these groups are integral parts of one another -- indeed, that they share the same ethnically differentiated social system (p. xi).
And here we have arrived at the first deconstructible portion of the book. To understand the deconstructibility of such a statement, we need to better understand what it is that Grinker himself is attempting to deconstruct. This is going to be fun!

On page 28, after considering theories offered by Schebesta and Turnbull regarding evidence for an original Pygmy language, Grinker rejects such possibilities, accusing both of making unacceptable assumptions:
[T]here are too few data to support generalizations about prior unity, and the hypotheses are fueled less by scholarly investigations than by the assumptions that foragers and farmers entered the forest independently, and that all Pygmies were at one time a single, undifferentiated cultural group.
After considering the history of the relations between the groups he is studying, the Lese farmers and the Efe foragers, he goes on to conclude that "[it] is unlikely that the Lese and the Efe of today resemble those of yesterday." Indeed, pervading the entire length and breadth of the revisionist program is the warning that we cannot and must not extrapolate past "ahistorical" conditions from ethnographic evidence revealed in the present.

However: if foragers and farmers did not enter the forest independently, but were already closely bonded prior to their migration into the Ituri, as Grinker suggests; if the Pygmies were never "a single, undifferentiated cultural group," a theory the revisionists have unanimously rejected as a myth; if it is indeed "unlikely that the Lese and the Efe of today resemble those of yesterday," then, how is it possible for his view of Lese-Efe interaction to be in opposition to Turnbull's view of Bira-Mbuti interaction?

If the notion of "the Pygmies" as an integral group is simply a myth, if the various Pygmy bands were "always" attached to groups such as the Lese and Bira, and never had a prior identity of their own, then how can any pygmy-farmer alliance be compared to any other? Aside from the observation that both the Efe and Mbuti are shorter than the Lese and Bira, aren't we dealing with apples and oranges? And if you want to argue that in fact there are a great many similarities between each pair, and that even the differences are similar, how can that be if "the Lese and Efe of today" are different from the Lese and Efe of the past? And how could the Mbuti be opposed to the Bira in such a similar way to the way the Lese and Efe oppose each other, unless both Pygmy groups had a great deal in common, and the farmer groups as well. And how could such clearly opposed commonalities have developed unless the history of the Pygmies were fundamentally different from the history of the farmers?

Kisliuk makes essentially the same error when she assumes that her study of the Aka can function as a test of Turnbull's theories regarding the Mbuti. Such a test would make sense only if the Aka and Mbuti could be considered part of a unified "Pygmy culture," exactly the sort of idealized "essentialization" she rejects.

(to be continued . . . )

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