Friday, September 25, 2009

210. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 10 -- Myth and Counter-Myth

So. From what we've learned so far, it seems clear that the Mbuti are living happy, carefree, healthy, mostly non-violent, lives, hunting and gathering cooperatively, sharing food and other resources equally among themselves, expressing themselves freely, with females having an equal voice in decision making and a complementary role in hunting activities and forest life generally -- while, at the same time, squabbling endlessly, hiding food and other goods so they don't have to share, beating their wives and children, and, from time to time, shunning, exiling or abandoning those who don't fit in or can't keep up. And if some of these attributes seem contradictory, I'd have to agree. What makes all this interesting is the fact that the same contradictions, more or less, crop up in so many of the descriptions of other Pygmy groups, and even the most traditional of the Bushmen groups, the !Kung (Ju/'hoansi), "exposed" by one of their most active supporters, Richard Lee, as violent and even murderous.

Unquestionably there was a tendency among anthropologists up to and during the 50's, 60's and 70's, to idealize such societies while, at the same time, duly noting all the many behaviors that would appear to challenge that view, with the result that many of their reports are replete with unresolved contradictions. From the 80's on, however, a radical reversal has come to dominate anthropology, a lack of tolerance for contradictions of any sort, coupled with a strong tendency to see almost all the leading figures of the earlier generation as at best misguided and at worst outright frauds.

Over time, therefore, groups like the Mbuti, BaAka and Ju/'hoansi have come to be regarded in a highly cynical light, with any attempts to see them as representing traditional hunter-gatherer cultures of the past dismissed as "a myth." The word "myth" has indeed taken on almost "mythic" proportions among these so-called "revisionists," to the point that one might be justified in considering their position as a kind of counter-myth, i.e., a myth based on assumptions fully as questionable as the "myth" they are so eager to expose. Unfortunately, the revisionists have gotten so caught up in their own rhetoric that overused academic jargon too often substitutes for actual evidence, with the implication that the ideological issues are so obvious that evidence is almost beside the point. So focused, in fact, have the revisionists become on an array of fashionably post-modern certitudes that the most important new source of evidence to appear in a great many years, the revolutionary methods of the population geneticists, has almost completely eluded them.

As I see it, the contradictions encountered by the older generation (and here I am speaking of generations prior to my own -- though I am by no means a spring chicken, I belong to the generation that pioneered the more specialized, less speculative methodologies so dominant today) were actually, in themselves, very interesting, meaningful, and indeed potentially extremely fruitful. If committed researchers with minds of their own, such as Turnbull and Thomas, found it meaningful to extol groups like the Mbuti or Ju/'hoansi as carriers of a certain cultural ideal representing something of real importance, it's possible at this time to say, in the light of the new genetic research, not to mention my own explorations of the much-neglected musical evidence, that there was, indeed, a real insight behind their speculations, however weakened by tendencies toward idealization.

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