Sunday, October 4, 2009

220. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 20 -- Tradition

Actually Father Schebesta, despite some "offensive" language typical for his time, and despite a somewhat "idealized" viewpoint, also typical for his time, has some very interesting things to say, especially in those last two paragraphs (see previous post). It's all too easy to simply dismiss such views, in the skeptical spirit of postmodern revisionism, as idealized or outmoded; more challenging to analyze him, with the aim of understanding the conditions that most likely motivated a missionary such as Schebesta to see the pygmies in a certain light, as innocent, though mischievous, "children of nature"; but far more useful to take them at face value, at least provisionally, and ask ourselves, in the light of what is now known, whether some genuine insights are being expressed, or whether Schebesta is only speculating on the basis of what he would like to believe.

The first thing we need to keep in mind, it seems to me, is that Schebesta, like Turnbull, was actually there, in Africa, living among Pygmies, observing them, observing their habits, their customs, their behavior and their environment -- also observing their Bantu "masters." And that he, like Turnbull, had an impressive knowledge of African cultures and history. So even if he is wrong in certain respects, there may well be some things we can learn from him.

"If we assumed that the pygmies migrated into the forest from some other zone from which they brought their culture along with them they must have shed that culture in the course of time and developed a new one more in keeping with the environment of the forest."

I see nothing idealized or romantic in the above. And the lack of reference to any evidence is perfectly acceptable because, in this sentence at least, Schebesta is simply drawing inferences based on what seems reasonable. Does it seem reasonable to assume that the Pygmies would have shed an old culture and created a brand new one in adaptation to a new environment of the forest? According to Schebesta, "Such an assumption is, however, highly improbable, and there is nothing to support it."

He's right. There is no evidence to support the theory that Pygmies might have originally had a culture significantly different from what they have today, oriented toward a radically different environment. But lack of evidence does not in itself constitute proof. And it's not clear that culture is determined by the environment in any case, though Schebesta seems convinced it is. More on this presently.

"It is far more reasonable to suppose that under such circumstances they would have adhered to the culture of their forefathers. In short, they would have done as the negroes did when they went to live in the forest. The negroes introduced agriculture into the forest."

There is real insight here. Why would the Pygmies not have retained their old, pre-forest culture, after moving into the forest, just as the "negroes" retained their farming culture?

"There remains the possibility that the pygmies were nomad hunters of the steppes, that they were driven back into the depths of the forest, and that they there adapted their congenital instinct for hunting and for rambling to their new environment. But this assumption is negatived by the fact that the entire stretch of the central African virgin forest from Lake Albert to the Atlantic Ocean is inhabited by pygmies, and that they are in their element in the virgin forest only and nowhere outside its boundaries."

Again we have a genuine insight, based on Schebesta's extensive knowledge of the Ituri Forest and its inhabitants. If the Pygmies originated outside of the forest, then why don't we find any of them living outside it today; and why, moreover, are they so well adapted to forest life and so poorly adapted to any other environment?

"Thus no matter from what angle we look at the problem we cannot get away from the fact that pygmy culture is in keeping with the environment of the forest, that it originated in the forest, and that it is a very ancient culture, which has in its main features remained unchanged throughout the ages."

While Schebesta may be accused of promoting the usual "idealized" or "romantic" view of the Pygmies as an ancient "race" with an ancient culture that has never changed, closely bound to life in the forest, his thinking is nevertheless perfectly logical and in many respects convincing.

It is nevertheless, deconstructable. And I intend to deconstruct it, here and now, right before your very eyes, ladies and gentlemen.

And in the process of deconstructing Schebesta, I will also deconstruct, as an extra added bonus, the revisionists, who are more like Schebesta -- and Turnbull -- than they would like to believe.

(to be continued . . . )

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