Saturday, October 10, 2009

224. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 24 -- Tradition

The hidden assumptions of Schebesta and Turnbull are not fundamentally very different from those of their opposite number, the revisionists. By deconstructing anthropological revisionism I'll be completing my deconstruction of the Postmodern Condition from which the revisionists so painfully suffer, and will finally be in a position to move on to more fruitful territory.

Now pay attention, folks. And keep your eye on the ball:

I've already had a good deal to say about Kalahari revisionism, both on this blog (see posts 64 et seq.) and in my paper, "New Perspectives on the Kalahari Debate" (see table of contents for "Papers Available for Download"). Here's a quote (from post # 68) that seems worth repeating now:
As any good student of Derrida should realize, there is an important difference between deconstructing a concept and demystifying or debunking it. A deconstruction can be extremely revealing, even devastating, but is never definitive, never adversarial, never final. A demystification, on the other hand, in "exposing" a concept as simply false or deceptive, ends by reinforcing the fundamental opposition that gave rise to it in the first place. Thus, in attempting to "debunk" the "essentialism" behind notions such as authenticity and indigeneity, the Kalahari revisionists launched a puritanical crusade, a postmodern inquisition that only succeeded in re-establishing Western hegemony in another guise, with devastating consequences for some of the very people they were claiming to liberate.
I won't get into my old argument all over again, as there's no point. But I will refer you once again to an important book by an author who writes very eloquently on the damage done by some of the more over-zealous revisionists: Theory in an Uneven World (Blackwell, 2003), by Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan. In this context, I'll focus more on the issue of adaptation, rather than the more highly charged topics Radhakrishnan deals with, such as essentialization, authenticity, etc.

While revisionists display a healthy skepticism with respect to Turnbull-style idealizations of the natural environment, they focus with special intensity on the social environment, especially what we could call the socio-economic-political environment. Which, in terms of the argument I've been developing here, is not all that different, as we shall see. While traditionalists have tended to emphasize adaptation to that which is age-old, enduring, natural, primal and "pristine," revisionists focus on adaptation to that which is contrived, local, political, and "historical." And by "historical" I mean recorded history, not, God forbid, ancient or deep history, which they dismiss as the realm of myth. Nevertheless, as far as I am concerned, an environment is an environment -- and adaptation is adaptation. And the importance of both has been greatly exaggerated.

So. Rather than rehash all the complicated ins and outs of a complicated debate over whether or not some group herded cattle or goats five hundred years ago, or some other group was involved in a cash economy during the 1950's, or whether some group of bushmen or pygmies spent 80% or 40% of their time hunting, or whether some pygmy group was or was not dependent on some Bantu group at some point in the relatively recent past, I'll focus my analysis on the more fundamental issue of whether any of this really matters when considering (in the words of Cornelia van der Sluys, as quoted earlier) "the forces inside these cultures that tend to perpetuate their reproduction from generation to generation. . ."

For the revisionists, it matters greatly, because for them all African cultures have been largely determined by adaptation to political and economic forces that have swept through Africa from the Bantu expansion to the colonial era and beyond. And there is no problem with such a model, as far as it goes -- but clearly it does not go far enough. The real problem with the argument from socio-economic-political adaptation is fundamentally no different from the problem with the argument from environmental adaptation. Neither paradigm is capable of standing against the overwhelming evidence, both genetic and cultural, for a common ancestry and common cultural heritage, based on that ancestry, among so many different pygmy and bushmen groups scattered so widely over such a huge region. While insisting that anthropology must be historicized, their efforts in that direction don't go nearly far enough, because Africa has a very long history, dating to well before the forces that most concern them came into play.

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