Knowledge Replacement Therapy

Philosophy and Literature 21 (1997): 208-21.

Denis Dutton

Sometimes a book’s problems begin with its title. Take Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism, edited by Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush (Stanford University Press, $55.00 cloth, $18.95 paper). Sounds good, but what does it mean? In their introduction, the editors write of the “Other” as a construction of the Victorians; it belonged to “the prehistory of a future whose unsettling shadow had just crossed the horizon.” When did this future “just cross” the horizon for Victorians? By the time modernism came around, they explain, primitivism “had a long prehistory of its own.” But why a prehistory? Isn’t all history, pre or not, relative to some present or future?

This sort of jumbled thinking stands for much of the book: the initial suggestion of special, profound revelations which turn out to be either banal or confused. A handful of the sixteen contributions to Prehistories of the Future stay within reasonable limits and have something worthwhile to say. The others, starting with the pretentious, badly written editors’ introduction, purport to reveal hitherto unnoticed insights into intellectual history, but routinely come back to the usual moral lessons: In the old days people were racist! They didn’t have a clue about feminism and thought imperialism was okay! Cripes, they thought other cultures weren’t as good as Western culture! The uncovering of such crimes is now a regular academic industry.

It’s not all bad news. There’s a solid, intelligent piece, “Gauguin’s French Baggage: Decadence and Colonialism in Tahiti,” by Nancy Perloff (the first of two Perloffs in this collection), on how Gauguin “culled his imagery from his own Parisian milieu,” rather than relying entirely on his Polynesian experience. When we look at the later Gauguin, we tend to notice the exotic elements, but as Nancy Perloff shows, Gauguin brought with him to Tahiti a lifetime’s experience to help constitute his art. Equally respectful of empirical fact is Robert Dawidoff’s delightfully enthusiastic discussion of the African-American influence on Irving Berlin. Although I fail to see how the invigorating assimilation of black music into white American culture is a chapter in the history of primitivism, it’s no mark against Dawidoff’s excellent essay that it happens to appear in the wrong book. On the other hand, look at the silliness of Christopher Herbert’s “Frazer, Einstein, and Free Play,” which argues that Einstein’s claim that no co-ordinate system can be specially favored (the “relativity” of Relativity Theory) and the relativism of post-Frazer anthropology are “two cognate branches of a single revolutionary modernist discourse.” I find it almost unbelievable that a serious scholar would be arguing so late in the game the tired old canard that Relativity Theory can be meaningfully related to cultural relativism. In support of the usual postmodernist clichés, Herbert yokes in such Einstein throwaways as the remark that scientific theories are “free inventions of the human mind” of a “purely fictitious character.” Einstein, Herbert explains, was actually trying to “liberate us from the mystified regime” of Truth, like Nietzsche, I suppose. If so, it looks as if Nietzsche was much better at it than Einstein, whose theories of General and Special Relativity have, despite their discoverer’s apparently postmodern intentions, turned out to be (please whisper it) true.

Then there’s a long article by Ronald Bush centering on the visit of the sixteen-year-old Thomas Stearns Eliot to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where he saw a mock-up of a Filipino village, replete with dancing natives in loin cloths. Bush piles on enough information to persuade us that the American presentation of the Filipinos was patronizing and would today be considered offensive. But what has this to do with the teenage T.S. Eliot, or the man he later became? Maybe a lot, but there’s little evidence for it here. There is no question that the Eliot family went more than once to the exhibit, and especially enjoyed the Igorot village (or so shows the Japanese scholar Tatsushi Narita, upon whom Bush heavily relies). While the impression of the exhibit on the young Eliot must be “approached with judiciousness,” Bush says, “the historical formations that conditioned Eliot’s adventures at the fair were anything but trivial and would resonate for years through his intellectual world.”

Note that ambiguous — sneaky, really — “resonate . . . through his intellectual world.” The phrase refers to either (1) the private intellectual world of T.S. Eliot (which might make Bush’s exercise important), or (2) the intellectual milieu (“historical formations”) of imperialism, modernism, science, religion, war, commerce, etc. that were the backdrop for any thinking European life led between 1888 and 1965 (which would render Bush’s article merely ho-hum). Bush seems to want to prove something about the first, while in fact he is talking about the second. So he recounts at length the books Eliot read when he was young (which thousands of others read), who published what in Paris the year Eliot went there, and how much anthropology he read when he was older and living in London. This is well-ploughed territory. Bush states that it is important “to realize that the fair’s representations of primitive man were framed by the most respectable schools of turn-of-the-century anthropology.” He points out that in charge of the fair’s physical sciences laboratories were “colleagues and students of Franz Boas” (was there anything in American anthropology going on at the time that didn’t include members of Boas’s circle?). Among them was anthropologist W.J. McGee, a believer, along with his Smithsonian co-workers, in cultural evolutionism. One of the “intellectual fathers” of this group, Bush tells us, was Lewis Henry Morgan, who had written back in 1877: “It can now be asserted upon convincing evidence that savagery preceded barbarism in all the tribes of mankind as barbarism is known to have preceded civilizations. The history of the human race is one in source, one in experience, and in progress.”

So there. All we need is to find out that Mr. McGee once sat beside Einstein on a bus, or stayed for a week with Gauguin in Tahiti, or better yet that Eliot saw Josephine Baker’s jungle dancing, to the music of Irving Berlin, on stage in Paris and was reminded of the Igorot village he saw when he was sixteen, or at least that’s what he told Walter Benjamin when they were waiting in line for a ticket, and then . . . and then what? Bush is presenting a mishmash of references and allusions to ideas anyone might have had access to during Eliot’s youth and later career. Bush concedes that “the ideology of modernist ethnography cannot be decided by dates or by precedence,” that we must think about the matter in a “nonlinear way,” i.e., mishmash-style. What he ought to admit is that he has been unable to find any coherent (or even incoherent) “ideology” of modernist ethnography whatsoever, and his essay proves, moreover, absolutely nothing about T. S. Eliot. Except that, as the handy Tatsushi Narita had already established, young Tom and his folks had a grand time at the fair.

Robert Nye’s “Savage Crowds” contrives to show how the Dadaists and other modernists had an interest in arousing and manipulating crowds. Yes, and a few others in the twentieth century have shared that interest. There is much said about the view of crowds expressed in nineteenth-century literature, but nothing about the rise of industrial cities and the demographic changes this brought about; I’d have thought that would be central to any history of crowds. The crowd as “savage” assembly is supposed to connect somehow with primitivism. Though far-fetched, this idea provides the excuse for including the essay in this book.

Christopher Steiner’s essay on the history of travel engravings is not just implausible, but downright objectionable, in my opinion. He has no trouble demonstrating how early engravers made mistakes. Years ago, Ernst Gombrich showed that in the 1493 Nuremburg Chronicle the same woodcut was used to illustrate both Damascus and Mantua. But as Gombrich realized, such symbolic uses of illustration (where a picture of some city can stand for any city) only works for an audience unacquainted with what Mantua, let alone Damascus, looks like. (Try today showing a picture of Paris and labeling it New York.) Naturally, early travel accounts, based as they often were on verbal descriptions or field sketches by artists other than the engraver, contain innumerable distortions, errors, or purely symbolic uses of graphic elements. Exactly the same can be said of illustrations of European subjects remote in distance, date, or culture from the artists who produced them (and think of all those Dutch religious paintings which depict biblical characters in Dutch dress and situate them in the geography of northern Europe). As for Steiner’s citation of the earliest, most fanciful depictions of New World wonders, such as the seventeenth-century’s Elephant-Headed Man or Hirsute Aborigine, I wish that rather than making them emblematic of Europe’s racist, primitivizing tendencies, Steiner would see them for what they are: forerunners of last night’s TV doco on Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

More disturbing, only because it is so typical of what passes for scholarship in postcolonial studies, is Steiner’s claim about what was “particularly prominent” in the iconographic repertoire of early travel illustrations he studied. His search through library archives uncovered elements in eight categories: (1) Europeans being attacked, pelted with stones, etc. by inhospitable natives; (2) Europeans being welcomed by obedient natives; (3) torture and mutilation by natives; (4) scenes of human sacrifice or cannibalism; (5) mass idolatry of fetishes or of native royalty; (6) “serpentine, seemingly mindless processions”; (7) “strange acts of courtship or evidence of unbridled sexual appetite and dishonest behavior”; (8) “savage merriment focused principally on drumming and dancing.”

Pacific Peoples, by J.-G. Charvet (1805)

Strange that in his research Steiner nowhere came upon illustrations showing what might have been (9) the Noble Savage living peacefully in arcadian surroundings. Particularly from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, there exists an abundance of images of New World Indians and South Seas natives in which the “construction” of the primitive is quite at odds with Steiner’s formulation. For instance, Captain Cook’s naturalist, Joseph Banks, found the Tahitians friendly and intelligent, “poets as well as musicians,” he wrote, and the illustrations of his artists reflect classical Greek models. Louis de Bougainville said that in Tahiti he had “never seen men better made, and whose limbs were more proportionate,” and that the women incarnated the “celestial form” of Venus (he had been a long time on the boat). Then there is the famous wallpaper, “Les Peuples de l’Océan Pacifique,” produced by J.-G. Charvet in 1805 which illustrates a paradise inhabited by the most peaceful and civilized of human beings, the Beautiful People of Earth.

This notion of primitive as Noble Savage, honest and free, possessing Europeans’ wit and perception, but uncorrupted by religious hypocrisy or immorality, is the persistent counter-myth to the idea of the savage as cruel, thieving, over-sexed cannibal. It can be found through the prose and graphics of European discovery and observation from the fifteenth century to the present day. This literature and its illustrations are certainly not uniformly racist. That Steiner’s research into European travel engravings revealed for him only derogatory stereotypes of foreign natives is too bad, but there are people who only read Huckleberry Finn in order to look for the word “nigger.”

Steiner claims correctly that one of the most pervasive European images is of primitive peoples drumming and dancing. He regards engravings of dancing as a constructed tradition of illustration, stretching back to biblical condemnation of the adoration of the Golden Calf (a 1565 engraving of which he supplies, without remarking on the fact that its portrayal of the Israelites is no less naive than any of the others he includes). Dance engravings, Steiner instructs us, “were drawn from the mind,” and “drew on deep-seated sentiments and expectations shared by both their producers and consumers.” As proof he presents eight engravings of natives dancing (dating from 1619 to 1888) in order to show how the images borrow more from each other, and thus construct a stereotype, than they represent authentic reality: each “artist simply discovered the work of an earlier period — a prior formula or trope used by the image-maker to signal . . . the Otherness and ‘primitivism’ of the people being represented.”

Steiner’s exercise falls flat on its face. First, despite similarities of the images, he does not try to show that any of these engravers was familiar with the others, or even especially familiar with a travel-illustration tradition, if such a tradition even existed. Second, Steiner limits himself to depictions of group dancing, and there are only so many ways that a dozen or more figures can be shown dancing together. If they are dancing in an open space, a seated percussionist or other accompanist will probably be at the edge of the group; this is a likely arrangement in real life, and does not necessarily betray, as Steiner would have it, a constructed artistic pattern. If the subjects are dancing steps in unison, they will look alike; if not, each dancer will be in a different posture. There is to my eye little significant resemblance among Steiner’s eight illustrations except that each represents a group of people dancing, engraved in the European style of its day, with each showing pretty much how assembled dancers tend to look. (In fact, the last of his illustrations, an 1888 picture of Africans dancing at night, very much resembles to my thinking a contemporary Euro/American rave event.)

Finally, do Steiner’s engravings show that the European interest in dancing is intent on stereotyping the primitive Other as wild, licentious, barbaric? Hardly. Group dancing to rhythmic accompaniment is virtually universal in human history and cultures; it is both a participatory activity and a spectacle to be witnessed. Its importance in indigenous cultures would incline field artists to wish to record it. Moreover, since it is — or at least seems — more immediately accessible to European understanding than exotic political or religious ideas, graphic representations of dancing would find a ready and curious audience. That the European record of newly discovered peoples normally included accounts, verbal and illustrated, of their dances is completely predictable, and would be expected quite independently of whether or not European artists and audiences were “racist” or “imperialist.” Contrary to Steiner’s argument, the persistent recording of native dances is not in itself symptomatic of racism.

In marked contrast to Steiner is a superlative article, “Manipulated Images,” by Virginia-Lee Webb. It is about how photographers subtly or overtly retouched or distorted images of Polynesian and Melanesian people from the middle of the last century. The editors falsely attempt to enlist Webb’s account to support their constructivist ideology, claiming that she is engaged in the same kind of project as Steiner, that her essay “provokes the question of whether there is any such thing as an authentic photograph or artifact. In other words, can we ever have a ‘realistic’ photograph that ‘actually depicts a real event’?” But Webb herself indicates no doubts that there is demonstrable authenticity in the photographic record, and immense historical value as well. She is not tracking alterations in the photographic record — the embellishment of Maori tattooing directly on negatives, for example — in order to debunk in general the value of photography, but is trying to make us more perceptive, “vigilant,” viewers of old photographs, as she puts it.

Solomon Islander circa 1890

Her most intriguing discovery concerns photographs of Solomon Islanders taken at the turn of the century by the missionary George Brown. Men of New Georgia Island used to sport enormous, distended ear lobes, enlarged to a ring as much as four or more inches in diameter. In recording these spectacular features, Brown inserted a clock in one young man’s lobe for one photograph, and an ammunition canister for another. If all we had to go on was the photographic evidence, we might well believe these were instances of appropriation by an indigenous culture of European objects for the sake of adornment. In this case, we are fortunate to have Brown’s testimony that he himself got the inspiration to insert the clock to indicate the size of the lobe rings. The moral for Webb is that such photographic evidence must always be interpreted with sophistication and sensitive awareness of ambiguities and unknowns. Contrary to the editors’ imputation, she is not even close to suggesting that there is no such thing as an authentic photograph or artifact. And speaking of artifacts, anyone knowledgeable in Solomon Islands art will be awestruck by the breast ornament worn by the man in one of the clock-in-the-ear photographs and the hair stylings of some of the others. Thank heavens for the camera.

The book includes two essays on Michel Leiris. The first, by Marie-Denise Shelton, centers on Leiris’s writing about his African experience as a member of the 1931 Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition. She says that “Leiris’s journal is sprinkled with predictable images of Africans and with indicting moral judgments of them as persons.” Actually, “predictable moral judgments” is a fair representation of how Shelton writes about Leiris. At the end of her article she claims, “my intention has been to make explicit the conditions of emergence of the primitivist discourse.” She has in fact not indicated conditions for anything, and I seriously doubt if she knows what the word “conditions” would mean in this context. What she has done is smugly to denounce Leiris for page after page as a sexist, imperialist lackey.

Michel Leiris

However, if there’s a Pulitzer category for first-rate anthology contributions, I nominate the second article on Leiris, “Tolerance and Taboo: Modernist Primitivisms and Postmodernist Pieties,” by Marjorie Perloff. The editors of Prehistories of the Future ought to have felt uneasy about including this essay, as it so effectively demolishes (by implication, not directly) the postcolonialist cant served up elsewhere in the book. Perloff begins with Marianna Torgovnick’s treatment of Leiris in Gone Primitive (1990), which turns out to be as crass, prejudiced, and ignorant as Torgovnick’s discussions of Fry, Malinowski, D. H. Lawrence, and Margaret Mead in that awful book (reviewed in this column, October 1991). Leiris is trashed by Torgovnick as someone whose attraction for Africa and its art is essentially pornographic, a focus for his diseased fantasies about women. The African women upon whom he inflicts his imperialist gaze, are objects: “He is in control,” Torgovnick writes, “empowered, unthreatened.” With some judicious quotation from Leiris’s autobiographical works, Perloff demonstrates deep ambivalences and ambiguities in Leiris’s writing, indeed, in his troubled, complex soul; he is a man anything but “unthreatened.”

Perloff’s aim, however, is not so much to rescue Leiris’s reputation as it is to call into question the style of cultural studies Torgovnick’s critique of ethnography represents. “Fieldwork, in this scheme of things,” Perloff writes, “is devalued as old-fashionedly empiricist, as is any sort of firsthand experience of ethnographic acts and their objects of investigation, the knowledge, for starters, of the languages of both the investigators and the investigated.” Why is fieldwork so derided? I suspect that the dismissive attitude of postcolonialist/cultural studies academics toward empirical anthropology masks a feeling of inferiority, an insecurity which springs from not having had the personal experience of fieldwork. Imagine the academic prestige-game being played at a faculty cocktail party: a professor of postcolonial/cultural studies is spouting off opinions about how ethnographers have victimized the Other, how anthropology represents the hegemonic West, refuses to allow the Others to speak in their own terms, and so forth. Of course, he’s never actually met an Other in the flesh who wasn’t a janitor in his building or a cook at his favorite ethnic restaurant. Suppose now that his views are challenged by another person present who, it turns out, spent years living with some remote tribe, speaks their language fluently, has a command of their history and spiritual teachings, and has participated in their daily life, their ceremonies and amusements. Between these two, who’s got the authority? Given the choice, who would be more fascinated to hear the opinions of the armchair moralist, the guy who never left Urbana? Not many of us. This, it seems to me, is sensed by writers in cultural studies, such as Torgovnick, and they try to compensate in three ways:

  • First, as remarked, they go all sanctimonious. They may not have any direct acquaintance with the Other, but by golly, they’re on the Other’s side — against colonialism, exploitation, and destruction of the rain forest. This bargain-basement moralism, along with the doctrine of the victimhood of the Other, would have to be one of the bloated “postmodernist pieties” Perloff alludes to in her title. (Note that such pieties normally skirt around discussions of things like traditional practices of clitorectomy, because “listening to the voice of the Other” on that subject gets so darned complicated.)

  • Second, they continuously justify themselves by badmouthing, in the style of Aesop’s fox, the grapes — the lived experience of tribal culture — they do not possess. So anthropologists who have lived in remote villages, it’s said, are fooling themselves that they could enter the mind of the Other by learning the local language; what’s worse, they’re probably helping imperialism too. As the editors of Prehistories of the Future baldly put it, “As for ‘primitives,’ they never existed. Only Western ‘primitivism’ did....” Empirical anthropology therefore was a delusion from the beginning. (In a way, it looks these days like the cultural studies people are winning this war of ideas, as it is now increasingly common for students to gain Ph.D.s in anthropology without actually doing any fieldwork. They can always read Torgovnick.)

  • And finally, there’s a sort of knowledge replacement therapy going on in much of this writing. Lacking solid ethnographic scholarship — firsthand cultural knowledge, command of a tribal language — the cultural studies folks compensate by feigning a wide mastery of everything else: they name-drop in a pose of broad erudition and open-mindedness. That’s why we find such diverse names as Montaigne, Scott Joplin, Clifford Geertz, Walt Disney, Kant, Louis Agassiz, Errol Flynn, Wittgenstein, Robespierre, Pound, Max Planck, Huysmans, Pliny the Elder, Sophie Tucker, and nearly eight hundred others mentioned in Prehistories of the Future. Maybe we’ll be too dazzled to notice the shallowness.
Josephine Baker demeaned as “barnyard fowl”

Perloff points out that throughout this kind of procedure, the “preferred method is to know what one wants to prove — in [Torgovnick’s] case, that modernism was riddled with racism, sexism, and colonialism — and then to collect one’s supporting exempla, the game being to ignore all ‘evidence’ that might point in contrary directions.” Hence, to apply Perloff’s remark to the other contents of Prehistories of the Future, we’re given Christopher Steiner’s “history” of travel engraving through a few carefully selected examples. Just as bad, but funnier, is the attempt in this book by Wendy Martin, head of the English Department of the Claremont Graduate School and editor of the journal Women’s Studies, to portray the free-spirited Josephine Baker, Folies-Bergères star of vast celebrity and considerable wealth, as a woman exploited “in her reification as exotic object.” Baker liked expensive jewelry and often appeared with a spectacular costume of egret feathers. “Yet even though she displayed plumage as an emblem of potential status and privilege,” Martin writes, “she was still associated with the theatrical tradition in which feathered women are equated with barnyard fowl — hens, chicks, ducks, and so forth.” And what precisely is the theatrical tradition to which Professor Martin refers? I don’t know if La Bakaire ever performed a production version of Old Macdonald Had a Farm at the Folies-Bergères. . . . But please, no jokes — Professor Martin hasn’t finished: “Jewelry, too, conveys an ambiguous message — think of the diamond necklace that is commonly referred to as a choker.” A choker! It’s clear that, no matter how rich, famous, and independent Josephine Baker was, it would make no difference to the thesis Martin has decided to prove: Baker was a victim of racism, sexism, fowlism, and her diamonds.

Marjorie Perloff’s parting shot concerns Torgovnick’s treatment of the redoubtable Margaret Mead. Perloff tells of a Washington dinner party with Mead in the 1960s: “She was wearing a long, colorful cotton dress and lots of wooden jewelry and supported herself on a large shepherd’s crook, which she would tap emphatically on the floor when she wanted to make a particular point.” This is the same Margaret Mead — “extremely exotic — a powerful, individual presence,” Perloff says — who is scolded by Torgovnick for having “never fully mingled with the Samoans or with the other peoples she studied” and who referred “routinely to male graduate students as ‘men’ and females at the same stage of professional life as ‘girls’.” This censure from the very Marianna Torgovnick who has declared that primitive societies should be “allowed to exist in their own times and spaces.” Perloff points out that this is not a courtesy to be extended to Margaret Mead.

Copyright © 1997 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.