Wednesday, October 14, 2009

225. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 25 -- Tradition

As should be crystal clear to anyone following this blog with any degree of real attention, the revisionists were wrong. (I refer to them in the past tense because their day is done.) But there is a difference between demonstrating that they were wrong and deconstructing them, which is what I promised to do. And since deconstructing them is not the same as debunking them it's also important to understand in what sense they were wrong -- and also to what extent they were right. They were not completely wrong in exposing what they called the "myth" of pristine foragers living a timeless existence in the Ituri forest and Kalahari desert since the paleolithic era. Not because these people necessarily did not live in precisely that manner for precisely that long a period, with little or no fundamental changes in their lifestyle and/or value system -- but because the picture painted by people such as Schebesta, Turnbull, Lee and so many others was indeed a kind of wishful thinking -- based to some extent on solid evidence -- but to a greater extent on projecting their own world view and their own value system onto a society that they may or may not have been capable of understanding.

For all they or anyone else knew, our paleolithic ancestors might have been farming 100,000 years ago, or herding elephants, or perhaps making a living by gambling with homo erectus neighbors (dumb and easily conned); or possibly they'd even developed an advanced civilization back then, with automobiles, trolleys and subway systems, that could have been totally engulfed by a gigantic earthquake or volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, leaving behind not a single trace. Who could say for sure?

So the revisionists did us all a favor by reminding us that the traditionalist view was, to some extent at least, a construction, based on assumptions that couldn't completely be substantiated. But their "deconstruction" (actually only a debunking) of the "pygmy myth," or the "bushmen myth" or the "hunter-gatherer myth," was a projection of their own world view and value system, based on assumptions they too have never been able to substantiate. And the proliferation of ideologically-based rhetoric in their discourse, characterized by the continual repetition of dismissive terms such as "myth," "reification," "essentialization," etc., at the expense of reasoned argument, is a measure of how desperate they were to impose that view.

Where the traditionalists wanted to see foragers as representative of some ideal classless, egalitarian society that could serve as a model for some future utopia, the revisionists wanted to see the same people caught helplessly in the grips of a globally functioning, all-encompassing worldwide network dominated by the free flow of capital. Indeed, for Jacqueline Solway
these liberal theories give precedence to exchange and the market rather than to production and the ways in which surplus goods and labor are pumped out of society. They assume that all production is for exchange rather than use, and that capitalist social relations are natural. These theories locate the single motor for development -- exchange -- in the industrial capitalist countries rather than in the undeveloped periphery. . .

Thus the crux of Wilmsen's and Denbow's critique is that they do not like dialectical analyses that challenge the primacy of exchange relations, the dominance of the West, and the inevitability of capitalist expansion across the face of the globe. They imply that people have always been the way they are today and, since human nature is fixed, they cannot change (The Politics of Egalitarianism, 2006, pp. 61-62).
Hey, she said it, not me. (Quite well said too, I must say.)

[Added Oct. 17th: Sorry, but I got confused and attributed the above quotation to the wrong author. Jacqueline Solway is the editor of the volume, The Politics of Egalitarianism, but the quote is from a chapter in that volume, entitled "Subtle Matters of Theory and Emphasis: Richard Lee and Controversies About Foraging Peoples," by Thomas C. Patterson.]

There's one more item I'd like to cover, because it's important to understand that the revisionist position is actually worse than it might seem. It is not simply deconstructable -- which is, after all, no great sin. It is something far worse: an argument in bad faith. The clearest example of the bad faith of the revisionist position is in its treatment of the most compelling and indeed convincing aspect of the pygmy/bushmen value system: its very clear grounding in what could be called "radical egalitarianism." And on that score, the traditionalists have been able to make a very solid case indeed.

If all or almost all hunter-gatherer societies are essentially egalitarian in essentially the same ways, characterized not simply by gift exchange, but guided by values that promote (without always necessarily achieving) relatively equal distribution of resources with no expectation of repayment, then it's very difficult to challenge either the deep antiquity of such values or their ultimately "utopian" character. And in the face of overwhelming evidence that egalitarian values of this nature are in fact found among so many foraging societies in so many different parts of the world, the revisionists have had their work cut out for them.

We've already seen one example of their response in the theory repeated, and (tentatively) considered, by Michelle Kisliuk when she cites Chandra Jayawardena's argument
that egalitarianism is notably present among people who share a 'lower-class' status. He states that 'notions of human equality are dominant in a subgroup to the extent that it is denied social equality by the wider society or its dominant class.' If one were to view BaAka and Bagandou villagers [Bantu farmers who have established close ties with the BaAka] as subgroups of a single regional society . . . one might explain BaAka egalitarian values as having arisen in reaction to their oppression by their neighbors" (Seize the Dance, p. 28).
As Kisliuk notes, a similar argument is provided by Roy Grinker in his Houses in the Rainforest, where egalitarian sharing among the Efe pygmies is explained away as a response to their unequal status as an exploited servant class, dominated by their Lese masters. Since, for Grinker, both the Efe and Lese are indissoluble elements in a single social construct, no explanation based on any affinity they might have with any other groups living in other parts of the Ituri, or indeed the world, would be acceptable. I suspect that the source of such fanciful thinking can be found in the writings of Edwin Wilmsen, the arch revisionist whose cynical ideology has been so influential:
If, nonetheless, even to careful obeservers Zhu may superficially appear classless today, it is because they are incorporated as an underclass in a wider social formation that includes Botswana, Ovaherero, and others (Land Filled with Flies, p. 270).
In all three cases, we learn that egalitarian values, as expressed by the sharing of resources and the absence of class-based hierarchy, are not what they might seem to "idealists" infatuated with some "utopian" myth, but simply the result of some universal psychological trait shared by all humans when they find themselves dominated by a more powerful ruling class. Under conditions likely to promote either violently competitive behavior (e.g., so many "inner city" neighborhoods in the US and elsewhere) or an introverted, asocial passivity born of hopelessness (e.g., the starving masses of India), or a fierce resistance (e.g., the Russian, Chinese, Cuban, etc., revolutions), Wilmsen expects us to believe the downtrodden will respond by being extra nice to one another. A more tendentious theory would be difficult to find, but where all else fails, bad faith can always be counted on to muddy the waters.

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