Monday, September 7, 2009

201. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition

I am reading an account of Ju/'hoansi Bushmen life by Joachim Friedrich Pfaffe, who lived among them for four years as part of a (failed) development project. He begins with the following description of "Bushmen" in general:
Bushmanland – home of the “Bushmen”, politically correct called the “San”. The San are certainly one of the oldest indigenous populations on our planet. They have been around for more than 20,000 years, with a history of living in small family bands. They never cared about riches or personal possessions, everything was shared among their people. Day-to-day existence was secured through hunting and gathering, although this was never easy in the desert and semi-desert environment of the wider Kalahari.
The story he has to tell is very sad, since the situation of today's Bushmen, especially the Ju/'hoansi, has deteriorated seriously and no one seems able to help. This is typical of the kind of reporting we see over and over nowadays regarding indigenous peoples. Their tragic plight overpowers everything else, with the implication that their current helplessness somehow casts a doubtful light on the meaning of their entire past. No one wants to talk anymore about this past, only to wring their hands helplessly over the "futility" of the current situation -- as though the values of the past had nothing to offer the present. His concluding words are, therefore, all too predictable: "Leaving again after a few weeks, I am beginning to realize that this story will have to contribute towards a better understanding of the over-mythologized San."

Why is it necessary for him to remind us that the San are "over-mythologized"? And what does he mean by that? What is it about the Bushmen that constitutes a myth? He has already informed us that they "have been around for more than 20,000 years", that they "never cared about riches or personal possessions, everything was shared among their people." Is that part of the myth? And if so, why didn't he make that clear in the first place? The phrase "over-mythologized" is simply tossed in as though it were expected, as though he had a duty to reassure us that all the wonderful things we've heard about certain "primitive" tribal peoples are really too good to be true, that losing such traditions doesn't really matter as much as we might think. With the implication that the "myth" is really all "our" doing, that "we" have been projecting our own values onto people totally remote from us, whose real values we couldn't possibly understand or appreciate.

We have seen this attitude already expressed in the writings of Michelle Kisliuk, whose mission from the start was to debunk the "idealized image of African pygmy life" offered by Colin Turnbull, "within a prevailing utopian narrative." Even after her own experiences time after time confirmed Turnbull's view, she could never bring herself to accept the possibility that his "utopian narrative" might have some validity after all. Her difficulty is encapsulated in the introduction to her book, where she explains her approach as follows:
Especially because this ethnography is focused among a population that has been so heavily represented in one way or another as hermetic and quintessential -- as the essence of a thing in its purest form -- to question those reductive representations, it follows that I would move away from a systems approach. The ethnographer Jan van Maanen characterizes this change of focus (sometimes labeled "postmodern"): 'Holistic perspectives of culture . . . have given way to representations of culture in flux, whose natives may have as much difficulty knowing it and living in it as the fieldworker'" (Seize the Dance, p. 12).
There is nothing wrong with such an approach to fieldwork, in fact it makes a great deal of sense. However, there is something wrong when the method determines the outcome beforehand, when the purpose is not to gain a greater understanding, but to "question . . . reductive representations," as though the "reductiveness" of those representations were already a foregone conclusion. It is one thing to express an "incredulity toward metanarratives," to quote the "father" of postmodernism, Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard, and another to proceed as though all efforts to attain an holistic perspective of culture are necessarily false or misguided, thus fair game for revisionist "deconstruction."

I won't elaborate again on the misguided revisionism behind the so-called "Great Kalahari Debate," but the puritanical zeal with which postmodernist "incredulity" manifested itself with regard to the status of the Bushmen resulted in arguments that were almost pure ideology, with very little basis in anything resembling responsible research. My views on this matter are expressed very clearly on this blog beginning with post 64.

Postmodern revisionism takes a more subtle form in the work of Barry Hewlett, who has no problem characterizing the Aka, in terms very close to Turnbull's view of the Mbuti, as "fiercely egalitarian and independent," with "core values" that include "sharing, cooperation, and autonomy," "intergenerational equality," and egalitarian male-female relations; among whom "physical violence in general is infrequent and violence against women is especially rare" (see post 184 for references). Yet, in his essay "Cultural Diversity Among African Pygmies," Hewlett all but ignores those same core values, and the striking similarity to the picture painted of the Mbuti by Turnbull (and Kisliuk as well), to base his comparisons on relatively external matters, such as hunting techniques, dependence on neighboring farmers, borrowed kinship systems, borrowed languages, etc., concluding on that basis that "it is difficult if not impossible to refer to an African 'Pygmy' culture." Do all pygmy groups share essentially the same core values; and if so, wouldn't that fact alone tell us there is an African Pygmy culture after all, if not fully persisting into the present moment, then valid at least in the past? Despite Hewlett's well intentioned, but incomplete, effort, this remains an open question.

In an effort to deal with this question, which appears never to have been properly asked, not to mention researched, I want to go further into what has become, in anthropological circles, a notorious issue (I was going to write "controversy," but apparently I'm the only one who sees it as controversial) -- the question of Colin Turnbull's motives and reliability as an objective observer of pygmy life. This will be possible thanks to the discovery, by Alex Liazos, of Turnbull's original field notes, the basis for a projected book, The 1950s Mbuti: A Critique of Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People. This project, now a work in progress, is the subject of a very interesting website, Turnbull and the Mbuti.

(to be continued . . . )

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