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Saturday, June 11, 2011


This is as far as I wish to go with my discussion of Wilmsen. Now, let me back off a bit and talk about what I see as some of the interesting philosophical issues of our experience of space, time, and causation that are raised by Wilmsen's book. What follows goes beyond Wilmsen, though I have at least some reason to think he would be sympathetic to the drift of my remarks. One of the things I want to try to do at this point is to connect up my discussion of Wilmsen with Mannheim's treatment of the various utopian orientations toward time itself. In conjunction with these remarks, I strongly recommend that you take a look at my paper, "Narrative Time: The Inherently Perspectival Structure of the Human World," which is available on

Narratives of voyages of discovery and ethnographical accounts exhibit certain literary conventions of form and content into which, I suggest, are encoded certain very fundamental conceptions of space, time, and causality. These conventions powerfully shape the way we think about the people who are the object of the narratives. By bringing these conventions to self-consciousness, we can begin the job of examining them and subjecting them to ideological critique.

Let me start with certain representations of such voyages in popular culture. Reflect, if you have ever seen any of them in movies or on television, on the literary conventions of the typical romantic account of explorations to the Dark Continent, or to the center of the earth, or to the New World, or to the South Sea Islands. I have in mind King Solomon's Mines [the earlier version with Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger], or the television dramatization of the search by Speke and Burton for the headwaters of the Nile, or even the movie version of Jules Verne's Voyage to the Center of the Earth, with James Mason. [I know, I know. None of you has ever seen or heard of any of these. There are limits to my capacity to conjure up bits of popular culture!]

Typically, the voyage begins in safe, comfortable, familiar surroundings -- a well-appointed sitting-room in an upper middle class Victorian London home, or a centuries-old university building at Edinburgh University, or the Court of Elizabeth the First. The adventurers plan a voyage to a remote place, far from civilization -- perhaps not even locatable on any available map. They seek diamonds, or the rumored headwaters of the Nile, or some notional geographic position such as The North Pole.

The earliest stages of the voyage are physically easy, and proceed quickly: a ride in a Hansom Cab to the docks, a long sea voyage on a regularly scheduled ocean liner, perhaps a train ride. The farther from their starting point the travelers go, the harder their voyage becomes. Encoded into this literary convention is the notion that space is not isotropic -- that there is a privileged position [London, say] where the laws of nature make movement easy and comfortable. The farther one gets from that privileged point, the more effort is required to keep going. The travelers endure all manner of hardship -- shipwreck, train derailments, the decampment of native bearers [who, it should be noted, somehow manage, even in the hardest stages of the voyage, to walk the same distance as our heroes and heroines while also carrying fifty or seventy-five pound burdens.]

Eventually, when their energy is almost exhausted, their health almost ruined, their endurance tested to the limit, they manage to stumble upon the North Pole, the headwaters of the Nile, or King Solomon's Mines. This voyage is represented, literarily, as a movement outward in space and -- when the goal is some primitive tribe -- backwards in time. [Recall one curious variation on this genre, the travel to an island where dinosaurs still live, or, for that matter, a giant ape.]

Frequently, on the trip back, the voyagers take with them a native whom they have come upon at the end of their travels. As they return to their starting point, the valences are reversed. The voyage is difficult at first, and gets easier. They are, so to speak, going downhill now. And [this is a crucial point] the native who accompanies them experiences the trip in exactly the same way. That is to say, he or she does not find the going easy at first, despite the fact that they are in his or her home territory. He or she experiences the early stages of the return voyage as hard, and subsequent stages as easier and easier, thereby showing -- in the terms of this literary convention -- that the world is objectively structured anisotropically. For the native, as well as for the travelers, London is a central place and the jungle or the desert is a peripheral place.

[In Greystoke: Tarzan of the Apes, a brilliant remaking of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan story, this convention is actually violated. Tarzan finds England a difficult place to live and when he returns to the jungle, he experiences a liberation. Things become suddenly easier for him again. The impact of this reversal signals, in a negative fashion, the hold the convention has on our way of thinking. In the original book, by the way, in one of the most marvelously wacky scenes in any popular fiction, the young ape-man learns to speak English by looking at reading primers in the ruined hut where his mother and father died years before! As a titled English Lord, he has upper class English in his blood. The movie invents a more plausible explanation for his acquisition of language.]

So, why have I wandered off on what appears to be an irrelevant tangent? Because these conventions, much revised, refined, and transformed, continue to shape ethnographic narratives written by sophisticated, self-conscious anthropologists, thereby carrying over into those
ratives the same fundamental assumptions about space, time,
and causality that are so
usingly obvious in popular culture. The anthropologists start out [as their narratives recount] in Cambridge, Massachusetts or Cambridge, England, or Paris, or Berkeley, or New York. They travel by plane, by train, by Land Rover, by foot to "their" tribe -- who are thus figured, by these conventions, as spatially far away and causally or physically inaccessible. [Note that the members of these "tribes" are, of course not at all inaccessible to one another! The local inhabitants live there, they were born and brought up there, they work, marry, have children, grow old, and die there, and however hard or easy their lives are, that space is, to them, home.] I venture to suggest that despite the extraordinary lengths to which the Lee group go in their ethnographic research, they never manage to overcome the sense that the !Dobe waterhole is not home - i.e. that the Zhu are living in an objectively marginal physical space.

Let us now look at some of the other ways in which the structure of the ethnographic research, and the narrative account of it, reproduce and reinforce .this anisotropic conception of the social space shared by the Zhu and the anthropologists, To begin with, of course Lee et al. have arrived to study the Zhu. They wear the clothes appropriate to their own culture -- or rather, to be more precise, the clothes their culture has decided are the appropriate garb for anthropologists living among a primitive people. They bring their material culture with them, which they use [as bribes, or payment] to persuade these people to serve as cultural informants.

Compare this situation with that of Marco Polo, say. Polo arrives at the court of Kublai Khan, and has to wait quite a while, as a very unimportant visitor, before being granted an audience. He represents himself, somewhat inaccurately, as authorized to negotiate agreements between European rulers [the Pope, etc.] and the Great Khan. Spatially and causally, his voyage is figured as a passage from one privileged place, Europe, through difficult intervening territory, to another privileged place, the empire of the Great Khan, centered in the capital of the Middle Kingdom. Despite the Eurocentric orientation of Polo, he manages quite well to communicate the fact that from the Khan's point of view -- a point of view buttressed by the world's largest and most powerful army -- the Europe from which Polo comes is a peripheral, impoverished, technologically inferior backwater. Indeed, as you may know, the European military of half a century earlier never succeeded in defeating the Mongol armies, who desisted from conquering Europe, which they could easily have done, because at a crucial moment, the first great Khan, Chingis [or Ghenghis], died, and all of his generals were recalled to a great Kuraltai on the banks of Lake Baikal to select a successor. They never returned, because Europe didn't seem valuable enough to them to be worth a campaign, as compared with China and Southeast Asia.

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