Monday, September 28, 2009

216. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 16 -- Myth and Counter-Myth

While much in Grinker's preliminary critique of Turnbull strikes me as empty revisionist posturing, when he finally focuses in on certain specific issues he does have some things to say that are well worth considering. A key issue for him, as for Turnbull, is the notion of "dependence."
Turnbull wishes to demonstrate that the Mbuti are separate and independent of the farmers, but, at the same time, he says that the Mbuti are actually dependent upon the farmers for cultivated foods, iron, pottery, and fire, among other things. . . Nonetheless, Turnbull gets around these sticky facts by adopting the Mbuti classification of the world into two spheres, the village and the forest world. In the village, the Mbuti choose to be dependent upon the farmers; in the forest they are totally independent of the farmers (p. 7).
This is the beginning of an interesting and meaningful argument, but before continuing with it, I'd like to comment on the validity of the above characterization. First of all, I see nothing "sticky" about the Mbuti being dependent on the farmers for farm produce, iron and pottery, since these are items they can -- and do -- live without. As far as fire is concerned, Turnbull reports that they do not know how to make fire and must keep embers burning at all times in order to ensure access to fire when needed. While they know how to use matches, the forest environment is too damp for them to be reliable. One would assume that under such conditions their hearth fire embers might all go out from time to time and that they might then be dependent on their Bira partners to build fresh fires for them, which would, indeed make them dependent on the Bira, at least to that extent.

Interestingly, a similar situation exists in the Andaman Islands, where the Onge and Jarawa foragers have lived in a similar rainforest environment in total isolation for thousands of years without knowledge of how to build a fire:
In their humid climate - with a rather damp "dry season" and a truly wet "wet season," merely to keep a fire going was no mean achievement. Uniquely among living human groups, the Andamanese did not know how to kindle new fire. . . [my emphasis]

"They are very careful of their fires, always carrying smouldering logs with them when they travel either by sea or land, and so sheltering the stock log that even in the most inclement weather the fire does not become extinct. Should such a mishap however befall a village, the people would go to the next encampment and obtain fire from there. According to a story resembling that of Prometheus, fire was stolen from Heaven and has never been allowed to become extinct since." (George Weber, The Andamanese, Chapter 17).
If the Andamanese could survive in their island rainforest in total isolation for thousands of years without knowing how to build a fire, there is no reason to assume the Mbuti could not have done the same -- and if that were the case, they need not be dependent on the Bira for fire. Though Grinker cites studies suggesting that humans cannot survive in a rainforest environment without carbohydrates provided by agricultural produce (see p. 28), this theory is also refuted by the Jarawa and Onge, who have in fact managed to survive as hunter-gatherers in exactly that sort of environment. There is consequently no reason to assume that the Mbuti are dependent in any way on the Bira farmers for any of life's necessities.

For Turnbull, it is simply common sense to concur with the Mbuti's own view that they are not really slaves or servants of the Bira because they could, if they wished, at any time move permanently into the forest and survive very well there as "pure" hunters and gatherers (and by "pure" Turnbull clearly means, very simply, that all their food with no exceptions would be harvested from the forest). Since there is no evidence the Bira would have been either capable of or willing to follow them into the forest to retrieve them, it's difficult to see any flaw in this reasoning. Yet, Grinker insists that this is an ideological argument, based on an "essentialist" romantic fantasy: "In sum, Turnbull enshrines the opposition between the village and the forest." I see no sign that he's "enshrined" anything, or even set up some sort of formal opposition. He is simply being logical -- and practical.

Grinker is more interesting when he presents his own view of the village-forest dichotomy:
We can see the forest-village dichotomy as an ethnic division in which the Mbuti define themselves in terms of the Bila [sic]. In this case, the local model is analyzed as a product of intergroup relations rather than group autonomy. . . Precisely because these groups "depend" upon one another, I resist Turnbull's reification of the village and the forest, indeed of the foragers and the farmers. The essentialist definition of these domains threatens to prohibit us from seeing them as mutually constitutive (p. 9).
The above analysis is based on one of the central themes of his book, as expressed in the preface:
I take issue with the fact that [earlier] studies usually stress the terms "forager" and "farmer" as markers of ecological adaptations rather than as markers of ethnicity. Material culture is assumed to be the independent variable in the construction of group boundaries, and the exchange of material goods resulting from subsistence practices is accepted as the dominant discourse of interaction. As a consequence, the ideas and belief systems underlying the interactions between these foragers and farmers . . . have been largely ignored [my emphasis] . . . My major concern is with the ways in which the Lese culturally represent their relations with one another and with the Efe . . . (p. xii).
On this point I couldn't agree more. Anthropologists have placed far more emphasis on the study of material culture and subsistence practices than cultural representations, symbolism and value systems -- what Grinker has termed "ethnicity" -- and as a result much that is essential has been lost. Though Turnbull provides rich and deeply meaningful descriptions of a great many aspects of Mbuti non-material culture, his principal argument hinges nevertheless on material considerations, especially subsistence techniques, which become the defining difference between the forest and the village. Thus the question of whether the Mbuti can truly be regarded as "pure" hunter-gatherers or not would appear to override all other issues.

Grinker makes a great deal of sense, therefore, when he decides to focus on "ethnicity" (i.e., cultural symbolism and identity) rather than subsistence, and has a very interesting point to make when he suggests that the real issue could be one of mutual definition rather than the simple opposition of two totally different subsistence types. Thus Grinker proposes the notion of "ethnic process" as "the ways in which these groups [the Lese and the Efe] define themselves in opposition to each other" (p. 13).

So far so good. There is definitely an insight here, based on a rare understanding of culture as a semiotic process. Unfortunately, revisionist dogma trumps common sense when Grinker insists that by defining themselves in this "mutually constitutive" manner, the two groups literally become one, and can be understood only as a single social unit: "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" (xi). Or, as he later puts it, "this ideology of inequality bears directly on the argument that the two groups must be considered as one" (p. 87 -- my emphasis).

While there is some sense in such a claim, which can certainly be considered as one way of looking at such relationships, Grinker appears to be insisting that it is the only aspect, that all other possibilities and all other possible oppositions are necessarily false or beside the point. This is all too convenient from the revisionist standpoint, as it does the exact opposite of what Grinker claims Turnbull is doing: it enshrines the forager-farmer relationship as a mutually defined, timeless whole, as though social structure could be reduced to pure semiotic logic. Within the workings of such a rarefied system, history no longer has any meaning, since what really counts is the "mutually defined" opposition between two static cultural ideals that have always since time immemorial defined themselves in this manner. Under such a regime, there is no longer any point in even considering the possibility that the Mbuti or Efe might at one time have led an independent common existence simply as Pygmies, because the only source of their identity as Pygmies is their mutually opposed and thus mutually defining "relation of inequality" with farmers.

It does something else as well, and here I think we get to the heart of the matter. It completely eliminates what I see as the real key to the entire problem: the all important role of tradition.

(to be continued . . .)

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