Sunday, September 27, 2009

215. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 15 -- Myth and Counter-Myth

Operating under the dubious assumption that Turnbull's view of the Mbuti has somehow been undermined by his own research on the Efe-Lese relationship, Grinker mounts a full scale attack, beginning on p. 6 of his introductory chapter. The heart of his criticism is presented in a quotation from an earlier Grinker essay:
I continue to be struck by the persistence with which anthropologists embrace Turnbull's romantic characterization of the Mbuti. . . Turnbull's work presents few data to support the ways in which he represents Mbuti life and thought; there are few or no narratives, analyses of mythology, or cultural descriptions based on a knowledge of the native Mbuti language. . .
To my knowledge, no subsequent fieldwork among the Mbuti or Efe, including my own, has revealed indigenous conceptions of the forest as a soul or life-force. Furthermore, as in this paper [he is reviewing a paper by Nurit Bird=David], the Mbuti are frequently appropriated as immediate returners without including in the analysis the Bila [sic] farmers with whom they live, and without a knowledge of the cultural constitution of the Mbuti and Bila economy.
First of all, as I've already made clear, I see no reason to characterize Turnbull's work overall as producing a "romantic characterization" of the Mbuti, though this is certainly not an uncommon view. Turnbull does bear the responsibility for rather shamelessly idealizing his subject in a very few brief passages from the first chapter of The Forest People, and Grinker certainly has a right to challenge those passages. However, as I have already demonstrated, the book as a whole, along with its successor, Wayward Servants, very clearly presents the Mbuti warts and all, replete with bloody violence, wife-beatings, child beatings and more, and, contrary to a very commonly held opinion, Turnbull does not argue on behalf of some quintessentially primeval status for the Mbuti -- on the contrary he makes clear his belief that their lifestyle at the time he encountered them is probably very different from the way it was in the past.

Secondly, it's very hard to believe that anyone who'd read the almost 400 pages of Wayward Servants could claim that Turnbull presents "few data to support the ways in which he represents Mbuti life and thought." This book is full of data, presented in great and sometimes numbing detail. Thirdly, I see no basis for Grinker's accusation that Turnbull had no knowledge of the "native Mbuti language" (actually there is no such thing -- the Mbuti spoke a version of the Bantu language of their Bira "masters"). If there is some evidence to support such an assumption he never presents it. Nor does he make any attempt to explain how Turnbull managed to translate the two Mbuti legends presented in the appendix to Wayward Servants (pp. 303-310) if he had no knowledge of the language -- each line of the text is presented first as spoken by an Mbuti, with its English translation just underneath. If he didn't translate these texts, then who did?

As far as Turnbull's alleged failure to analyze the Bira villagers or his lack of knowledge of the "cultural constitution of the Mbuti and Bila economy" it's hard to understand how Grinker could have arrived at such conclusions, since The Forest People contains an entire chapter on "The World of the Village" and the economic relationship between the Mbuti and Bira is covered at great length and in considerable detail in Wayward Servants, which perhaps he never read.

Very unfortunately, Grinker continues in the same vein, presenting a caricature of Turnbull's work of the sort that has become all too typical:
The Forest People . . . is in many ways a thinly veiled attempt to use the idea of the "Pygmies" as a way to make universally valid statements about human nature. Turnbull played upon a deep-seated need throughout much of the West to invent a "primitive" and original form of human society [and here he cites Wilmsen, the most notorious of the angry revisionists], and toward this goal he draws an idealized picture of the Mbuti living a romantic and harmonious life in the bountiful rain forest of the Congo (p. 6).
The above can only be characterized as a cheap smear with very little basis in fact. The Congo rain forest is indeed bountiful and Turnbull does indeed describe it in such terms. Turnbull does indeed make some pointed comparisons between the simplicity and honesty of Mbuti life as compared with our own, and I fully concur, as would a great many others, especially at this time. As for the rest, there is no basis in any of Turnbull's books for such views, nor do I see the evidence for "a deep-seated need throughout much of the West to invent a "primitive" and original form of human society," which strikes me as far more "essentialist" and "reductive" than anything Turnbull ever wrote. It is in statements such as this that we find the postmodern "counter-myth" at its most dishonest and destructive.

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