unasked questions (2) cultural evolution

Tue, 24 May 1994 01:24:50 EDT

as "progress" in cultural change. Yet it is possible to argue about what
features of a culture conduce to making one society technically more dynamic
than another of the same general geographical area at the same time, that
is, by synchronic comparison, or the same society diachronically.

It is just as idle to deny that technical innovation has occurred as it
is to assert that "Progress" has occurred. The material wellbeing of the
statistically average human being appears to have reached a maximum around
1400. While it is the case that in some societies in some regions the local
culture fosters belief in ongoing Progress, elsewhere the percentage of
the population impoverished by local standards or actually starving is
at a record high; and this fact is also contributory to the sense of
Progress elsewhere. Progress is, that is to say, an ideologically laden
word whose compelling power must be explained.

The material wellbeing of the population of the US itself reached its
maximum in the period 1967-1973; most analyses show it currently declining,
with no end in sight. Some of those writing for mass consumption, eg, Lester
Thurow, Head To Head, Mickey Kaus, The End Of Equality, agree that it is
now perfectly possible for the US economy to expand and advance technically
to the advantage of only one fifth of the population. Another fifth would
show no change in the material standard of living. The bottom three fifths
would continue to suffer deterioration. The technical sophistication required
for employment, even in the bottom three fifths, might continue, nevertheless,
to increase. If so, this would not be the first time in human history that
the enhanced consciousness of the minority emerged pari passu with the
immiseration of the majority or at least the largest sector of the population.
In a famous sentence in The German Ideology, Marx said, "Mankind develops
within the framework of its own contradictions," meaning precisely that.

The ultimate in mutilation of human beings is of course human sacrifice.
Imagine a Mexico colonized in 1992; what would the religious policy of the
readers of this post, if any, be? And what kind of religious practices would
we expect, had the Aztecs and their successors nearly another five centuries
of development? Worse. Where some Europeans, in fictively constituting
themselves as The West, which Thingie having been misrepresented as in
continuous development since Classical Antiiquity (which the Europeans
in question forcibly annexed to their Past at the expense of Islam, whose
sense of Pasthood also embrases the selfsame Classical Antiquity whence
Muslims derived the veiling of women and the bathhouse), came to regard
it as part and parcel of religous Progress that human sacrifice should
have got sublimated into animal sacrifice, then into symbolism and iconography,
the admittedly incomplete archeological evidence seems to show that, in
this aspect of cultural change, Mesoamerica followed the bigger-is-better
principle. Which, in turn, for the Aztecs, at least, was conducive to their
political expansion (Conrad and Demarest, Religion and Empire, 1984). Had
Mesoamerica developed an ideology of Progress, the increase in human sacrifice,
rather than the sublimation of it, might have been included. (Which is not
to say that Christianity has foregone the emotional zinger represented by
the Crucifixion qua human sacrifice: To this day, Catholics affect to believe
in the Real Presence as in the Sacrificial character of the Mass; and even
Fundamentalist Protestants, when Saved, are "Washed in the Blood of the

In parallel fashion, monotheism is in the self-styled West part and parcel
of religious Progress. India, however, tended to the proliferation of deities.
Any conjectural Indian variant of the ideology of Progress would include this
feature as indigenously Indian, and specifically Hindu (If the BJP comes to
power, this is no joke.).

The point here is that there is no clearcut connection between the version
of the supernatural, with its associated ideological realm, which happened
to be lying around at the time of the critical technical breakthroughs of
the European Renaissance and subsequently became embedded in the "capitalist
mode of production," and the technological innovations in question. Society
ideologically reconstructs the past in keeping with the principle of
"facticity is teleology." (Or, as the tree has grown, so must the twig have
been bent.)

Just flashed on this. Is there anyone out there sick enough to imagine a
Mesoamerican feminism?

Daniel A. Foss
<who is confused tonight>