Wednesday, August 23, 2017

over at The Daily Beast Candia Moss summarizes the appeal ubranites keep finding in the pristine primitive society, despite the recurring debunkings the existence of any such society gets

In 1971, Manuel Elizalde, a government official in the Philippines and crony of Ferdinand and Immelda Marcos, announced the discovery of a previously lost “stone age tribe” of indigenous people on the island of Mindanao. Known as the Tasaday, the tribe became overnight celebrities, especially when it was revealed that they didn’t even have a word for “war” and were pacifist cave dwellers. They became the poster children for railing against the decadence of modern civilization. 
As it turned out, however, the Tasaday were a hoax. Linguists first became suspicious when it emerged that this group of supposed cave dwellers had a word for “roof.” Then, in 1986, a Swiss reporter discovered that the Tasaday weren’t living “like our ancestors” at all, but rather in typical houses in which they dressed in blue jeans and T-Shirts. Elizalde had convinced some members of local tribes to pretend to belong to the tribe in exchange for money. The villagers never saw any support and in the early 1980s Elizalde fled with (reportedly) $35 million of funds ear-marked for minority groups and a harem of teenage girls. Recent anthropological work has suggested that while some of the local tribes in the region were more isolated than others, there was no “stone age” group that was untouched by the modern world.

In the past three hundred years, as the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and others trawled the globe colonizing the world and exploring areas that were previously unknown (to them), they have often discovered groups of people who seem to them to be a throwback to the prehistoric world. While the majority of European propaganda caricatures foreign groups as dangerous savages to be subjugated, they were also described as “pristine tribes” as noble, simple, fierce, spiritual, and somehow more authentically human than those of us corrupted by  “civilization.”  

The idea of a group of people untouched and unblemished by modernity encouraged social scientists to see them as a control group when it came to asking questions about whether humans have an original nature that has been somehow sullied by civilization. Among the most popular questions are ones about the human capacity for violence and war. Are people inherently violent or was the slow march away from hunting and gathering that left us war-mongering and conflict-ridden? 


An American variant of this myth is that American Indians were more in touch with nature and each other than whites.  It isn't really the case but it was relatively easy to fabricate such a mythology.  After all, if a group of people has successfully wiped out a majority of a people then retroactively imputing to them a fabricated utopian social system isn't so hard, because it's not like enough of the besieged group survived to contest the credibility of the myths.

Moss mentions the Eden and Fall narratives, though without mentioning the most salient element of the stories, that there's no going back to Eden.  If anything Moss' articulate implies that the Genesis narrative played a bigger role in the myth of the noble simple savage than seems plausible.  If that were really a plausible account why was it that Genesis says the founder of the first city was Cain?  The impulse to what we can now think of as urbanization goes all the way back, but it's not necessarily an indication that the innocence lost can ever be regained. 

Working my way as I am through Jacques Ellul's book The Meaning of the City, Genesis describes the first city having been built as early as Cain, i.e. the very first generation after Adam.  A certain megachurch pastor taught a bit more than ten years ago that Cain building a city was what Cain did after he repented and felt regretful over his sin.  That seemed ... implausible at the time.  It seems wildly absurd now.  But then Driscoll tried to make a case that Abishag was Solomon's first love and probable first wife (over against the actual biblical narrative literature that mentions Solomon forming an alliance by marriage with Egypt as the earliest mentioned marriage in the canonical texts). 

The idea that hunter-gatherer societies were more equal and fair and in touch with nature will remain popular in every generation, it seems.  That the hunter-gatherer societies of the Pacific Northwest could still have class systems and slavery throws a monkey wrench into the idea that pre-industrial and even pre-agricultural societies had more equality.  Maybe some did ... .

But there are so many threads in the nostalgic utopian fantasy that have to be cut they probably have to be taken and cut through one at a time.  As Qoholet warned in Ecclesiastes, do not say to yourself "Where were the old days that were  better than these?" because it is not from wisdom that you ask that question.


Cal of Chelcice said...

Attributing some paradisiac state to natives, tribes, etc. can also be a means of diffusing responsibility and actual power differentials. Zizek loves to tell stories about English explorers who reflected upon the Hindu people. Yes, we have money and industry, but look at the simple holy man, washing himself in the river, in all piety and reverence; are these people not richer than we? Of course, this discursive move creates a reified other that one can marvel at, a kind of flipside to revolt and disgust. But at the end of the day, the British posses economic, social, and political power, and the pathetic lament has nothing to do with an actual shift. The same thing applied retroactively, when Indian nationalists used the same set of myths to protect their own power in society and prevent western interference.

I sometimes seem this same strange reification when neo-WASPy types ironically joke about "whiteness" and have a kind of fetish for minority groups. Of course, the existence of "poor whites" is embarrassing, and hence many times these people are addressed with such slurs as "white trash", which is itself telling. The mystique of primitivism is present in such positive neo-biologisms about "black" people having more rhythm. It's like "why be mad at me with my money, social prestige/access, etc.? You have true (cultural) riches!" It's an odd game, but one that obscures the fact that working people have much more in common with each other than race talk, and dreams of some primitivist fantasy, would allow.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Revivalism may be the biggest form of this kind of myth that plays out in Pentecostalism and American evangelicalism. The desire to recover a simpler, purer and more powerful religion is also central to revivalism in the United States, which I think could be the most interesting application of the myth of the purer past since it's explicitly and implicitly what people try to recover in American revivalism. Even though on historical grounds a case could be made that the early Church had very little explicit or implicit cultural/political power it's as though revivalist narratives impute all the social/cultural power a de facto civic religion in America really has to the primitive Christian experience.

Growing up Pentecostal I'd sometimes hear traveling evangelists talk about the powerful anointing of earlier Great Awakenings. Looking back on this decades later as someone who's not Pentecostal any longer it's as though the narrative shifted from an ancient church to a hugely less ancient experience, the revivalist impulses began to be worked out in lionizing not so much the ancient church as earlier revivalist movements. It may be the church movements most obsessed with revivalism are paradoxically those with the most current and up to date level of social influence or control?