Thursday, October 1, 2009

217. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 17 -- TRADITION!

Grinker's insistence that the Lese farmers and Efe Pygmies must be regarded as two opposing elements in a single social system is an interesting and original idea that is, nevertheless, both unscientific and reductive -- unscientific because there is no conceivable evidence that could support it, nor any conceivable test that could falsify it; reductive because it rules out any other possible way of accounting for the constitution of either group or their relation to one another.

While Grinker amasses a considerable amount of evidence in support of his theory that each group defines itself in opposition to its "other," he does not present, nor could he possibly present, any evidence to support the notion that this sort of opposition is a fundamentally unifying force, much less the dogma, implied by the word "must," that this is the only possible means through which either their individual identity or their relationship could be understood. It is also an argument in bad faith, because it negates ahead of time any interpretation other than that offered by the revisionist program, which absurdly refuses to recognize any forager group as ever having existed outside of a relationship with non-foragers.

From my perspective, the most serious problem with Grinker's formula, if not his entire approach, is his refusal to give sufficient attention to what I have come to see as the all important element in the understanding of culture and cultural evolution generally: tradition. If each group derives its identity solely from its logical opposition to the other, then any traditions of one group not directly comparable to those of the other will be, ipso facto, irrelevant.

Grinker's failure to recognize the importance of the very different traditions of the Efe and Lese, based in radically different core value systems, is not entirely surprising, because the full impact of tradition can only be appreciated, as I see it, through comparative study, which he believes he can safely do without. As does, ironically enough, Turnbull himself, who also makes it clear that he is not doing a comparative study of Pygmies generally, but concentrating on only one particular group.

As we have seen, however, it is only when we compare the "core values" of different Pygmy groups, not to mention Bushmen groups such as the Ju/'hoansi (who share not only essentially the same values, but also very similar behaviors in resistance to those values), that we are capable of recognizing the central role of tradition in maintaining such value systems (and behaviors) over such a wide geographical area and for such a long period of time. (See my "parenthetical" post on the Digital Transmission of Culture for an explanation of how the maintenance of a single tradition for tens of thousands of years is not only possible, but, under certain circumstances, almost inevitable.)

We must also, of course, not forget the musical practices so clearly shared by all these groups, strong evidence of a common cultural tradition -- evidence which ought to have made it clear from the start, especially to Turnbull, who recognized the stylistic unity of Pygmy music generally, that many Pygmy and Bushmen groups share a common cultural ancestry dating to well before any possible association with farmers or herders. When Turnbull denies "that the structure to be found among the Mbuti is representative of an original pygmy hunting and gathering structure" (Wayward Servants, p. 16), he makes clear both his unwillingness to speculate regarding the possibility of commonly held traditions, and the overriding importance he gives to subsistence as a measure of historical continuity generally, as opposed to traditions based in core values, as expressed so clearly in their musical practices, which in other respects he sees as such an important element of pygmy culture.

Neither Grinker nor Turnbull is able to adequately explain why either the Mbuti or the Efe are willing to tolerate their subservient and indeed humiliating relation with their corresponding village "masters" when they could so easily retreat back into the forest and resume their identity as "pure" hunter-gatherers, an identity that Turnbull insists they still retain, despite their "taste" for village food, tobacco and alcohol. For Turnbull it is this very "taste" (which could even be regarded as a type of addiction) that prevents them from reverting to their "primal" state, despite the fact that for him they remain essentially independent nevertheless. For Grinker it is the essentially semiotic "logic" of their relationship with their Lese "masters" that provides them in the first place with their identity as foragers, an identity they would not be able to maintain outside that relationship.

Turnbull's explanation is not convincing because the attraction of village produce hardly seems worth all the trouble of dealing with controlling and often abusive villagers, not to mention the village itself, which they see as evil, dangerous and unsanitary. Grinker's explanation is not convincing because it fails to account for the many traditions held in common by the Mbuti and Efe that have nothing to do with farmers or farming and could easily provide both groups with a sense of identity sufficient for them to break with oppressive and frequently offensive masters.

As I see it, the only meaningful "explanation" for this odd state of affairs lies with the persistence of certain practices in and for themselves, a persistence which requires no explanation, but simply gets handed down from one generation to the next through sheer inertia -- and for no particular reason -- but with all the authority of: tradition! If the Pygmies remain in "bondage" to the villagers, therefore, it is because this has become a tradition which must therefore be followed and which binds both parties with invisible bonds that are no less powerful -- and in fact more powerful -- than actual chains. If the Mbuti feel constrained to put their boys through the rigors and extreme pain of a Bira initiation ritual based on circumcision; if both the Mbuti and Efe feel constrained to spend time working in the Bira and Lese fields, providing their "masters" with meat and building materials, enduring their insults and patronizing attitudes, permiting them to have sexual relations with Pgymy women and girls, while such relations between Pygmy men and village women are forbidden; all this can be explained as the result of traditions established some time ago for reasons that can perhaps best be summed up in the now immortal words of Tevye: "I don't know."

Actually, Turnbull provides a reasonably convincing explanation, dating to the early period of Ituri settlement by various farming groups, some hundreds of years ago, groups that were continually at war with one another -- a threatening situation for the Pygmies that could have encouraged them to form alliances with more powerful Bantu tribes. Since such alliances could not have been other than one sided and to some extent exploitive, we see a possible source for the development of master-servant relations -- and various traditions that would have cemented such alliances. Now, many years later, under very different conditions, the same traditions persist, only now for no other reason than the force of tradition itself. The formidable power of sheer tradition in itself can therefore explain not only the willingness of the Pygmy groups to accept their subservient status vis a vis their village masters, but also the now quite intricate and complex set of inherited relations and mutual obligations, as described in such detail by both Turnbull and Grinker, that now characterize the mutually defining interaction of all such pygmy-farmer pairings.

But maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe it's my Jewish background that causes me to give such inordinate importance to tradition. After all, if it weren't for tradition I myself would have been spared the pain -- and indignity -- of circumcision. On the other hand, tradition is important to many people, all over the world, even among the Japanese we find it:

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