Re: Developmentalism and the primitive.

john cook (japa@OZEMAIL.COM.AU)
Sat, 3 Aug 1996 10:44:52 -1851

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