Today I’d like to air a few connected topics, such as the difference between what it is to love and what to own (and when there isn’t a difference); the implications of calling someone else a “primitive,” or a “savage” purely by force of where they come from in the world or what group they belong to; and the connection between my previous two topics. This will in all likelihood be a sketchier post than usual, because these topics have been written upon by others with so much greater depth and skill that all I can do is point the way to writings other than my own meager post.
Perhaps it would be best to start with my first extensive intellectual exposure to one topic, which was an extremely readable and well-written book by Professor Victor Li entitled The Neo-Primitivist Turn: Critical Reflections on Alterity, Culture, and Modernity. Alterity means something like “otherness,” as when we experience contact with someone from a society which we at least perceive to be unlike our own. “Culture” is another term sometimes used to discuss perceived differences; and “‘modernity’ as a conceptual term can be shown to harbour a primitivist logic as well” (p. 153). In the course of his thorough exploration of these terms, Li discusses the works of other theorists on the topics involved. Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, Marianna Torgovnick, Marshall Sahlins, and Jürgen Habermas are treated in some detail. But don’t let me scare you away with fears that this discussion is hard to follow: Li is not only a scholar’s scholar, he is a writer’s writer, and discusses these topics in a manner to be understood by someone who has only previously encountered the above list of names on a syllabus, or perhaps some of them not at all. Let’s hear Li in some of his own words, from his “Preface”: “Knowing as we do today that there have never existed peoples untouched by history, why do we continue to believe that such groups of people, by-passed by modern history, still exist? Why do we still believe in the idea of the primitive when the term ‘primitive’ itself has been increasingly withdrawn from circulation? Why still harp on the primitive when we have been made aware that primitive society was an invention of the modern West?….We will no doubt notice, especially in these politically enlightened times, that the word ‘primitive’ does not appear in the description. Instead, acceptable terms like ‘individual cultures,’ ‘ethnic groups,’ or ‘living tribes’ are used….[These] may just be euphemisms inasmuch as they are still employed as concepts opposed, as ‘primitive’ once was, to a globalizing modernity” (p. vii). The terms of Li’s book are thus fairly easily inaugurated for discussion, and space requires that I leave you to discover on your own Li’s distinctive ability to follow all the ins and outs of his work. He uncomplicates as much as possible such an innately involved discussion. Lest we miss the point, however, he comments with wit and insight in the conclusion of his book on Will Self’s short story “Understanding the Ur-Bororo,” in which a fictional tribe is said to identify themselves as ‘”The People Who You Wouldn’t Like to be Cornered by at a Party” (this story can be found in Will Self’s collection of short stories The Quantity Theory of Insanity Together With Five Supporting Propositions). In contrast with the usual fictions structured around outlandish and/or “colorful” and/or particularly “wise” tribes, the story about the Ur-Bororos is that not only are they a “boring” tribe, but “[t]hey also view themselves as boring.” They are thus ultimately unsatisfying to theorizing. Nevertheless, Li sees in Self’s story also the point that though the story “dispels the myth of primitivism…the reader still takes away from the story a sense of longing for the horizon of difference represented by the primitive” (p. 219). This analysis of the story occurs in Li’s “Conclusion,” which has the accurately pointed sub-title “‘Theorizing always needs a Savage,'” a remark which Li cites as coming from Michel de Certeau.
With this excellent book in the back of my mind, I recently read Clarice Lispector’s short story “The Smallest Woman in the World,” in which an explorer actually locates a person, supposedly isolated by all but her immediate surroundings, from the rest of the world. We are told that the tribe she belongs to will soon be exterminated: “Besides disease, the deadly effluvium of the water, insufficient food, and ranging beasts, the great threat to the Likoualas are the savage Bahundes….The Bahundes hunt them….they catch them in nets and eat them.” The voice of the story is a primitivizing one, which compares the littlest woman (who is pregnant) to a “monkey,” and says “Little Flower [a name given her by the explorer who finds her] scratched herself where no one scratches.” Of her picture in the Sunday Papers in several countries, we are told “She looked like a dog.” But intertwined with this first voice, in the complexity of the narrative we soon hear a new voice, making comments about love, both about what so-called civilized people know of it and what Little Flower knows of it. Some of the readers of the Sunday tabloids flatly refuse to extend empathy when they look at her; others picture only how she would fit into their own society for their own use, as when they imagine her waiting at table, or being a “toy” for the children. One woman almost honestly considers “the malignity of our desire for happiness,” and “the cruel necessity of loving.” She thinks of her child who wants Little Flower as a toy as “clever,” “dangerous,” and “ferociously…need[ing] to play”; yet, she loves him “obstinately,” and though she knows her thoughts about her child will haunt her, she decided to buy him a new suit. In a switch back to the jungle picture, we see Little Flower rejoicing internally and falling in love with the strange looking white man, but not in any “me Tarzan, you Jane” fashion. Rather, she is as much in love with his boots and his ring as she is with him, and the source of her joy is because she hasn’t been eaten. “Not to be devoured is the most perfect feeling. Not to be devoured is the secret goal of a whole life….one might even say [she felt] ‘profound love,’ since, having no other resources, she was reduced to profundity.” She answer the explorer that it is “very nice to have a tree of her own to live in….because it is good to own, good to own, good to own.” Here we see both the similarity and the difference between the two “different” cultures. Both want to own, though because her difficulty of surviving is so great, Little Flower thinks of a tree home as something to own. She is as greedy in her desire “to own” as the “cultivated” societies are to own her, whether by the invasion of her privacy, the imagining of her as a toy or servant, or the simple turning away from their common humanity. Yet both share the same desire. And the story makes it clear: so often, when we think we love, we actually want to own a person or an experience, or what we think they symbolize. These are only summary points of a really quite gifted short story, which has to be read to be fully appreciated. I did, however, want to select not only short stories today but some intellectual background for them which if you take it slowly and carefully is just as good reading, and is very illuminating on its own.
So, to achieving a world of better understanding of each other no matter where we come from, and in favor of doing as little careless theorizing as we can, this is my post for today. I hope you will enjoy reading these texts as much as I did. shadowoperator