Monday, October 5, 2009

221. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 21 -- Tradition

Ok, here's the promised deconstruction. Better late than never:

(. . . continued from previous post)

What's deconstructable in Schebesta is not his occasional idealizations of the pygmies as innocent, happy go-lucky, carefree "children of nature," since, as with Turnbull, there are so many disturbing counter-examples elsewhere in his writings; nor his argument that the pygmies must have always lived in the forest, which, given his premises, is actually quite logical; nor his conviction that the pygmies are an "ancient race," which, surprisingly enough, appears to have been borne out by the genetic research; but an especially idealistic assumption, rarely questioned because so widely held by so many anthropologists even today. See if you can spot it:
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. 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.
What makes something deconstructable, rather than simply debatable or wrong, is the existence of certain hidden assumptions rarely questioned by anyone, not only the deconstructee. It's easy to spot the bit about the "very ancient culture . . . unchanged throughout the ages," the sort of thing that's been continuously ridiculed over and over again as an essentialization, idealization, reification, what have you. Nevertheless, given Schebesta's very logical argument that pygmy culture must have originated in the forest because it is "in keeping" with the forest, and the pygmies are "in their element" only in the forest, it's actually quite a reasonable conclusion. If the pygmies actually did originate in the forest, if they have always lived there, and if their culture is based on their special relationship with the forest, then it's difficult to conceive of it being anything other than "very ancient" -- or older still!

So no, that isn't it. Look again. Notice the prominence of two words, one of which appears in almost every single sentence I've quoted from Schebesta since post 219: "forest" and "environment."

The word "forest" also appears repeatedly in Turnbull's The Forest People. It's in the title of course, and the first chapter is called "The World of the Forest," but the word appears as well many times throughout the book, and becomes a powerful symbol for the Pygmy way of life. It's easy to spot some of his more patently "idealized" and "romantic" expressions regarding the oneness of the Mbuti with their forest environment, which they see as both father and mother, apparently providing them with everything they need. Not so easy to spot is the more fundamental assumption on which such observations are based, an assumption shared not only with Schebesta, but a great many others, not only idealistic amateurs, but hard-nosed professional anthropologists as well. It's an assumption rooted in one of Darwin's most important insights and for a very long time firmly embedded as one of the fundamental dogmas of anthropology.

(to be continued . . . )

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