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Thursday, June 9, 2011


Recall the two passages from Lee and an associate quoted at the beginning of this Part:

"One justification for studying the !Kung is that they are relatively pure hunter-gatherers living in an ancient territory, and they in many ways may be typical of South African hunter-gatherers in Paleolithic times." And: "[I]t seemed wise to plan a specific study of infancy as part of the long-range Harvard project. Like other aspects of the expedition, this study suggested itself with a certain amount of urgency. Hunter-gatherer life did not seem destined for a lengthy future, and with it would pass an important chapter in our knowledge of human infancy, especially of the evolution of human infancy. That is, its importance lay not mainly in its uniqueness as an ethnological variety, but in its position as representative of a group of societies resembling, in their basic subsistence ecology, the original human sociocultural form."

To study such peoples, one can easily imagine Lee et al. thinking, would be, in effect, to travel back in time, for if the practices of such peoples did not change from 100,000 years ago to 50,000 years ago, or from 50,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago, why can it not be that they have also not changed from 10,000 years ago to the present? Once history begins, there is no going back, no gaining of direct access to Revolutionary France, to medieval England, to Imperial Rome, to Biblical Canaan, but perhaps if we pack up our gear and hurry to the Kalahari, we can actually see people indistinguishable from their unimaginably ancient ancestors. Perhaps we can learn their languages, capture them on film and tape, study their tools and techniques, and thus acquire, through direct observation and access, a firm foundation for a complete theory of human history, by ascertaining the condition of the human race before the march of history began.

This, more or less explicitly, is the motivation for the massive efforts by Lee and his associates to study the living daylights out of the people whom they call the Dobe !Kung before assimilation has completely wiped out the last traces of pre-history.

Before turning to Wilmsen's critique of their work, let me take a moment to say something in their defense. Lee and his associates were not fools, nor were they at all unimaginative. They were aware from the very first that the Zhu stood in rather extensive social, economic, and even political relationships with other peoples in their region, including the Herero, various European colonial powers, the South African government, and so forth. Indeed, it was this awareness that lent urgency to their work, for they could see these interactions -- which they conceived as outside influences -- almost daily diminishing the purity, and hence the significance to them, of the pristine hunter-gatherer mode of life among the Zhu.

To note just one example of the intelligence and imagination with which they proceeded, certain members of the team undertook to gather direct, observational evidence of the fashion in which the Zhu make and use their campsites. They then compared that direct observation with the evidence from archeological excavations of campsites dating back scores of thousands of years. The similarities led them to conclude that the modern-day Zhu whom they were observing were indeed reenacting, essentially unaltered, modes of life and of interaction with nature that prevailed in pre-historic times. That is a sophisticated and potentially highly significant sort of investigation.

We should also note that Lee et al. conceived themselves to be taking a politically progressive position with regard to the treatment of the Zhu by the governments of Botswana and South Africa. If I can set their work and their orientation in the context of American politics, they were in theory and in practice very far to the left. The dispute between Wilmsen and Lee is thus not a standard fight between left and right, by any means. Indeed, a UMass anthropologist with whom I discussed this entire matter told me that Lee is, if anything, farther to the left and more politically active than Wilmsen has been. I mention this by way of a warning not to read too simple-minded an interpretation into the dispute.

Now, let me talk about Wilmsen's critique of the work of Lee et al. Immediately, I have a problem. Wilmsen's critique is rich, very complex, brilliant, and deeply influenced by Marx, among other theorists. I cannot begin to summarize or reproduce even a fragment of what he has to say, and I am afraid I can also not count on anyone going to the text and reading in it extensively. This is one of the reasons why I have concluded that this effort at a "bourse" is a failure. Instead, I shall quote just a few passages to convey the flavor of Wilmsen's book, and then try to summarize the main points of his critique. Perhaps I will inspire one or two of you to go to the text itself and read.

I am going to begin with Wilmsen's lengthy and very rich discussion of the ways in which the people under discussion are referred to and named by European [and American] scholars. After a detailed linguistic discussion of the several languages from which such terms as "San" and "khoikhoi" and "Zhu" are drawn, Wilmsen summarizes his argument:

"Elphick (1977) identifies another acquired connotation of the native terms: 'This Bushman-Hottentot (or San-Khoikhoi) dichotomy has become one of those time-honored pairing mechanisms by which scholars automatically organize, but also distort, the complexities of historical reality.' To these have been added the forager/food producer and primitive/civilized dichotomies, anthropological analogues of those native terms.... All the terms have been reified in the agenda of anthropological practice, where they now serve as abstract signposts authenticating claims to knowledge about the society in which that practice takes place. In ethnographic discourse, they interpellate natives as ontological categories required by that agenda. These categories are designed to segregate historically, economically and politically the peoples they label and thus to isolate them socially -- and often racially -- from those who apply the terms.... In the indigenous classifications, these categories mark social distance; in the academic classifications, they mark supposed prehistoric persistence. ... Primitive, savage, hunter-gatherer, forager, Bushman, Basarwa, San; the names have changed, their predicates and the premises from which they are drawn retain their negation of historically constructed objects. An analytic discourse that unquestioningly accepted these homogenizing categories, appropriate only to the needs of its own moment, has left us nothing but a stereotype of its subjects."

What is this all about? To put it as simply as I can: When an historian or an economist or a political scientist undertakes to study, let us say, eighteenth century England, she begins with the expectation that she will find a complex society of men and women who have a history, a social structure, and some sort of division of the society into social and economic classes. Individuals in the society, she will assume, make their way in their social world, adapting the existing institutions to their purposes, joining cooperatively with some, struggling competitively against others. For example, as the historian Lewis Namier showed, 18th century English upper class society was organized around elaborate extended family relations. A young man might use his "connexion" with a wealthy, landed family to advance his career, appealing on the basis of even the slenderest kinship ties for preferment in securing a commission in the army or a living in the Church [as it was called.] Parents ambitious for their children would claim such kinship ties even when the evidence for them was at best sketchy. "Are you one of the Shropshire ffyfe-Joneses?", as a character in a novel might ask, was a way of attempting to identify filiations on which a good deal could turn. Thus something that we have learned to call the kinship structure of the society had, and was understood by everyone to have, economic and political dimensions. [Shakespeare's history plays, to cite an example from an earlier time, frequently turn on competing hereditary claims to the throne.]

But, Wilmsen argues, ethnographers like Lee, when they launch a study of a people whom they conceive as "primitive," construe family relationships as rigid timeless categories having no political or economic dimensions whatsoever. They cannot see a Zhu man or woman as manipulating extended family connections in just the way that an upwardly mobile eighteenth century provincial English tradesman might. They cannot see that the Zhu, like the French or the Russians or the Italians, have a history and a politics of which they are aware and which they use for their purposes.

At its broadest or most encompassing level, Wilmsen's critique invokes and adapts the notion of world systems advanced by Immanuel Wallerstein and others, mostly in the context of debates about Third World Underdevelopment. Wallerstein argued against the tendency among economists and historians to conceive of third world nations or regions [and, within anthropology, primitive peoples] as autarchic - as isolated, self-sufficient social systems whose principal characteristics could be, indeed had to be, explained by appeal to internal features. The interactions of these independent systems with advanced industrial capitalist nations [I am deliberately using the language in which these theses were advanced -- you must read my discourse ironically] were understood as secondary, externally imposed deformations, rather than as partially constitutive of the societies themselves. Wallerstein et al. argued, in effect, that it was no more reasonable to construe Latin America or Southeast Asia or Africa in this way than it would be to construe the working class of a capitalist economy and society as an independent social formation defined and determined independently of its relation to the capitalist class. Instead, they said, we must understand the entire world economy as a single system, in which, for example, the depressing of the prices of primary products relative to manufactured goods on the world market plays the same role as the depressing of wages within a market economy, and so forth. You can imagine without too much trouble the sorts of arguments they used.

This concept of a world economic system was buttressed by studies relying on Arabic and other non-European documentary evidence that showed that in the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries, there was a flourishing Old World system of trade and exchange that included Sub-Saharan Africa. [See the work of Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony, among other works. Eric Wolf notes that at one point in what we call the late Middle Ages, a taste for a certain kind of fine wool among West African rulers triggered a small economic boom in the north of England where sheep produced that sort of wool. The wool was sold in the periodic fairs of Burgundy, traded down to the Mediterranean, thence to North Africa, and then carried by Arab merchant caravans across the Sahara to West Africa. It was paid for with by gold dug from Nigerian mines, when then circulated around Western Europe.]

Adapting Wallerstein, Wilmsen argues that the Zhu can only be properly understood as thoroughly integrated into a larger economic system encompassing Southern Africa, Europe, Asia, Northern Africa, and the Western Hemisphere. They must be seen both as occupying a class position in that larger system, and as exhibiting an internal class structure based upon differential access to and control of land and water. If Wilmsen can make this case, then he has effectively refuted the theoretical classification of the Zhu as pre-historic hunter-gatherers.

Tomorrow, we shall look at some of the evidence Wilmsen advances for this devastating critique of Lee's hunter-gatherer conceptualization of the Zhu. I hope it is obvious that, as Mannheim shows us, this sort of critique is intended both to refute Lee's claims and to unmask him, discredit him, show him up as imposing a covert and unacknowledged agenda on the people of the Kalahari.

1 comment:

Noumena said...

Granting that you're giving us a highly simplified version, this debate seems to involve a false opposition. Lee says that the Zhu* are living a life very similar, in at least some important respects, to the lives their ancestors have led for the past several thousand years. Wilmsen, following Wallerstein, says that the Zhu are not isolated from the rest of the world, and that their interactions with the rest of the world have led, in at least some important respects, to changes in the way they live in the relatively recent past. But these are logically compatible, especially with the qualifications I've interpolated. It is entirely possible that the Zhu are living a life that is both importantly similar to and importantly different from the lives of their distant ancestors.

Lee and Wilmsen might be making stronger claims: that (almost) all features of the Zhu way of life can be understood only in terms of either (Lee) its similarity to the way of life of their distant ancestors or (Wilmsen) their interactions with the rest of the world. These two claims cannot both be true. But I take it both are implausible on their face: presumably things like the climate and geography of the land in which they live make an important difference, say by limiting the possibilities for certain kinds of agriculture.

One more, still more complicated, possibility occurs to me. Lee might be committed to some version of the view that societies come in discrete kinds. Today, the most familiar version of this is the taxonomy of the Marxist tradition: primitive communism, `Oriental despotism', slaveholding, feudal, capitalist, and communist kinds of society. The various economic, social, and political features of these kinds come together, more-or-less inseparably: except for relatively brief periods of transition between them, a society has the economic features of kind K if, and only if, it also has the political features of kind K, for example. So if Zhu society has any of the features of primitive communism -- and, and insofar as, it is stable -- it cannot have any of the features of any other kind of society.

Then, following Wallerstein, Wilmsen might be arguing that Zhu society (as a result of its interactions with the rest of the world) does have the features of other kinds of society, or that societies do not come in kinds with bundles of inseparable features, or even that societies as distinct units of analysis do not exist (and we must examine the entire system of the world instead). But, from the summary so far, it's not clear to me whether Lee is committed to the sort of picture that I sketched in the last paragraph.

* I'm a little lost amid all the terminology for different groups and sub-groups. In the last paragraph, it seems to me that you're using `Zhu' for the groups of people studied by Lee, so that's the term I'll use here.