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Friday, June 24, 2005, 13:03
Our obsession with the notion of the primitive society
(post in progress)
Quite regularily, newspapers report about so called "primitive peoples". The newest example is the Reuters-story "Hunter-gatherers face extinction on Andaman island" where we read "how primitive tribesmen came out of the jungle armed with bows, arrows and spears, raided a village in the Middle Andaman island and looted tools, food, clothes, cash and jewellery" and the reporter asks if this is an "indication that the Jarawa hunter-gatherers remain untamed primitives -- or a cry for help from man's earliest ancestors, their forests and their lifestyle, their existence under threat as never before?".
I've always wondered why Westerners are so obsessed with this notion of the primitive, with the notion of linear evolution where the so-called so called enlightened West reigns on the top. From an anthropological point of view one could explain this phenomenon like this: These so-called primitives are used by the West in order to construct a positive image of itself - the "primitives" play the same role as the so-called "Orient" - as shown by Edward Said in his classic "Orientalism".
Or as Adam Kuper wrote in his book The Invention of Primitive Society: "Primitive society was the mirror image of modern society - or rather, primitive society as they imagined it inverted the characteristics of modern society as they saw it."
This also applies to anthropologists as we know. Kuper writes:
"The anthropologists took this primitive society as their special subject, but in practice primitive society proved to be their own society (as they understood it) seen in a distorting mirror. For them modern society was defined above all by the territorial state, the monogamous family and private property. Primitive society therefor must have been nomadic, promiscuos and communist. (...) Primitive man was illogical and given to magic."
"Stone Age Tribes", tsunami and racist evolutionism"
UPDATE: See also Evamaria's ramblings: As an anthropologist, Cameron Diaz' travel show on MTV is pretty offensive to my sensibilities. 'The life of the Massai has remained the same for the last 600 years.' Ugh, that kind of remark makes my skin crawl! >> continue
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