Re: Developmentalism and the primitive.

Robert Snower (rs222@WORLDNET.ATT.NET)
Tue, 6 Aug 1996 05:01:22 +0000

At 05:35 AM 8/4/96 +0000, john cook wrote:
>Ro. Snower 1st August comments on my previous post on the use of the
>idea of the "primitive"
>> Of course you don't tell somebody his culture is primitive, anymore than a
>> doctor tells a patient with only one leg that he has only one leg. But the
>> doctor doesn't go off and write an article to the medical journal that his
>> patient has two legs, either.
>> I don't think my hypothesis relies on a Darwinian base. At least, the
>> individual competition underlying Western culture is a long way from being
>> either biological or in terms of sexual reproduction, or a question of
>> literal survival. It is a magical metaphor of all of these. The ethnic
>> alternative which I deplore is far closer to being literally Darwinian.
>So let me see, you're happy to just think that someone is primitive
>but not tell them because you know they might be offended. The reason
>that the doctor presumably doesn't bother to tell the patient that
>they only have one leg is because it's probably fairly obvious to the
>patient that they only have one leg. It's probably only clear to the
>"primitive" that you think they are primitive, not that they actually
>are. This is the crux of it. The doctor doesn't write in a journal
>that his patient has two legs because his patient and him agree that
>he only has one. It is clear that as far as you are concerned that
>whatever the supposed scientist has to say about someone sticks,
>absolutely independent of anything the subject might have to say about
>it. Now this might be fine when you're sitting around chatting with
>like minded colleages in the staff club, but I don't think it will be
>found to be a terribly effective basis for communication or operation
>in any reasonably complex sociopolitical context (ie where the
>"subject" has some sort of access to what you are saying about them).
>I'd guess that you would have some difficulty in communicating many of
>your ideas concerning "primitive" to a group of African-Americans (but
>then maybe they represent the kind of ethnic collectivism you
>Now I don't want this to sound like some sort of pomo argument for
>the "voice of the other", the essential evils of anthropology as
>colonial discipline etc. Quite to the contrary. I am not interested
>in undermining the value of anthropological knowledge, pointing
>fingers at the bad old days or anything else. It simply seems that
>the days when we could all run around constructing categories of
>knowledge as though we lived in isolation from those things we
>construct about are fast changing (if they were ever even really
>there). It seems to me that the intellects and forms of knowledge of
>those we construct knowledge about must be treated seriously in their
>comments about our construction of knowledge (which is not to say that
>we neccessarily agree with them or accept their particular version of
>events). If anthropology was simply about finding in some other group
>something I'd already thought of (oh, what they are really saying is),
>I'm not sure I'd be all that interested.
>Just a word about "ethnic collectivism". I'm sorry, but I can't quite
>disconnect some of your previous comments about the relationship
>between racism, sexism, general intolerance and ethnic collectivism
>from the torrent of moral outrage that circulates around the collapse
>of the former eastern block. It occurs to me that maybe just a few
>years ago "communism" might have been substituted for "ethnic
>collectivism". In other words, I have an impression that your
>comments are indeed topical, but perhaps not quite as scientific as
>you might like. They are part of a generalised stream of current
>commentary (I hesitate to say discourse) about the nature of group
>identity and nation in the context of the collapse of the cold war

I will only respond to your last paragraph, and with a message I wrote in 1992.

Today's resurgence of ethnicism is the resurgence of a problem which has
really never gone away: a human nature deeply ingrained with primeval
intra-ethnic solidarity and inter-ethnic hostility. But that we find it
"resurging" is quite simply the direct result of communism's fall.
Communism was highly successful in minimizing competition between ethnic
groups. Communism failed because it failed economically. It was a
spiritual success and an economic failure. It reconciled many ethnic
enmities by offering the promise of a transcending alternative--economic
brotherhood, and the actuality of an egregious exception--anti-Semitism.
Today, much socialism, while beleaguered, manages to survive. It manages to
survive, usually, by avoiding this latter mistake, and moderating the
economic ones. It moderates the economic mistakes by incorporating some
measure of the meritocratic economics of self-interest, i.e., capitalism,
and the meritocratic politics of self-interest, i.e., democracy.
Democratic socialism, because it assiduously avoided the first
mistake, and the most obvious versions of the second, did communism's
spiritual success one better, and captured the "liberal" imagination world-wide.

Best wishes. R. Snower