Monthly Archives: January 2008

Las películas están en la biblioteca

Las DOS películas, The Couple in the Cage y Burden of Dreams, están en reserva en la biblioteca. Hay que verlas allí, en las LISTENING ROOMS que siguen existiendo. 🙂

Los que hoy perdieron la clase o parte de ella, deben ver la segunda parte de Burden of Dreams para el jueves. Fíjense en el deterioro de los humores y las actitudes que entonces empiezan a transparentar. Observen la actitud de fascinación mezclado con horror de Herzog para con la selva. ¿Qué busca allí? ¿Por qué se frustra? ¿En qué términos describe y justifica su proyecto? ¿Está usted de acuerdo con la idea de que los “sueños” son universales, de modo que un artista como Herzog, con su trabajo, está articulando los sueños de los demás?

OJO: para las LISTENING ROOMS hay que pedir la llave y el control remoto en la mesa de reserva.


Posted by on January 31, 2008 in Film, News, Plans


Live People as Anthropological Exhibits

Today we’ve seen The Couple in the Cage, and the BBC is reporting on Burmese women functioning as a tourist attraction in Thailand:

For years the prospect of visiting one of three “long-necked” Kayan villages in this remote corner of north-western Thailand, close to the Burmese border, has been a major lure for foreign tourists.

Read the whole story. In what ways is this an example of the “anthropological gaze” our video criticizes?


This Thursday we finish seeing Burden of Dreams. Tuesday is Mardi Gras Day, and the following Thursday we discuss the two films, together with Torgovnick, chapters 2 and 7. That day a 250 word journal entry is due, relating any point in Torgovnick to any aspect of either film – or both.

Write on something that strikes you, and to which you would like to draw our attention. A possible example: headless people, brain and brawn, head and body. The Couple in the Cage discusses circus exhibits of acephalics or “pinheads,” alongside exotic animals, “primitive” people, and so on. There is a good discussion of headless people as metaphor in Torgovnick, chapter 7. How can we develop this? What is the idea of headlessness connected to?

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Posted by on January 29, 2008 in News, Plans


Torgovnick 7

Torgovnick Chapter 7: Traveling with Conrad

– Marlow describes the African jungle in a paragraph replete with primitivist tropes – it is frenetic

Heart of Darkness is much read, but typically discussions of its colonial setting and colonialist rhetoric are evaded

– Conrad is imperialist but also articulates and reinforces a system of gender values

– The novel can be seen as an indictment of Belgian colonialism (and the British, of course, assumed that their colonialism was better)

– Marlow condemns colonialism but goes on to say that “what redeems it is the idea” (of bringing liberty and enlightenment to primitive peoples)

– Marlow is famous for speaking vaguely. This vagueness is not depth: it serves to veil what Kurtz is doing in Africa, and what Conrad is doing in this novel.

– Kurtz has taken imperialism to a great extreme; his workers are enslaved and he has them worship him. Worse than that, he has an African wife.

Kurtz is also involved in head-hunting, but for individualistic and not communal purposes (and putting heads of vanquished enemies on pikes is also a European custom)

– Headless people (as metaphor): without thought, without language, in the realm of the instinctual… Kurtz was once a great, humanistic writer, but he has lost his voice…

– Kurtz’ experiences in Africa forced him to look inward, where he found nothing; he filled himself, therefore, with this version of the primitive as both brutish and sacred

– For Kurtz, isolation also destabilized language, so that his original intent, to suppress savage customs, became “exterminate the brutes” (or is it so complicated: did he just not finally express what he and his meant all along?)

– Kurtz was trying to recoup for the West the direct, unmediated experience associated with primitive societies, and to recoup for men the emotional experience patriarchy bars from them

– When Marlow gets back to Brussels, he is at first shocked by the emptiness of Western existence – but unlike Kurtz, he exercises restraint

The novel thematizes the power of words – words like work and business – to mask what is really happening in the Congo. Language is the saving lie for the Europeans, but in the end, words cannot mask “the horror” that lies beyond their boundary. The novel itself, in the end, falls into the same trap it exposes.

– Narrated by Marlow, the novel shares many of his limitations. It approaches, but then elides, radical themes. Marlow learns that the thoughts which came to him in Africa are to be repressed. And yet both Kurtz and Marlow experience loathing for Western culture.

– Indeed, in many of the writers under discussion in this book the creation of certain versions of the primitive is produced by a sense of disgust with Westen values. The primitive becomes a locale for the exploration of Western degeneracy and of ways to transcend it. Thus the primitive functions as a symbolic entity which responds to Western needs and becomes the faithful or distorted mirror of the Western self. Thus the hypercivilized and the primitive are collapsed and homologous. Both point to the dire fate of Western man and culture unless values like restraint and work can be made to hold.

– In this novel Conrad approaches miscegenation, ritual slaughter and head-hunting as fantasy sites. But he never makes the fantasy explicit – it is “the horror, the horror.” Real psychological intensity is bypassed. It chooses instead the nightmare of Conrad’s gorgeous language – which keeps “the horror” at bay. The limits of identity are interrogated, and other narratives are hinted at, but the operation stops there.

– Conrad’s version of the primitive is thus a cheat: it promises much, seems to offer tolerance and sympathy, but it leaves out too much and is finally unable to transcend the Western values it attacks. Ultimately, all we get are stale stereotypes of Africa.

– Consider the African woman in this narrative, with “wild” sorrow, “dumb” pain, “half-shaped” resolve and “inscrutable” purpose. She is the primitive, and she presumably dies because she exposes herself to the pilgrims’ bullets. And she is associated with the African landscape, which is death in this novella.

– The primitive evokes women, sex, death, mortality, intuition, the fantastic, the collective, the seductive, the dangerous, the deadly, the unchanging, the eternal. The text evinces a yearning for and fear of boundary transgression, violence, and death. And the circularity between the concepts “female” and “primitive” is so complete that it is hard to see which is the primary set of tropes.

– Consider the binaries self/other, male/female, subject/object, dominant/subordinate: discussion of the primitive seems to be about male identity and the fearful attraction of its loss. Modernity is bound up with the articulation of the psychological subject and the individualistic self; the primitive evokes, apparently, a drama of identity.

– Masculinity is associated with separateness, apartness, restraint, control, everything which is not primitive.

– “Going primitive” means trying to go beyond modern, Western masculinity.

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Posted by on January 27, 2008 in Conrad, Torgovnick


Torgovnick 3 … with lagniappe on 4, 5, 6

Torgovnick Chapter 3: “But Is It Art?” 

– (Dis)organization of displays of African objects in museums: suggests that the Other needs Western order

– The statue of the Arab disputing the African for the woman: a sexual drama enacted for voyeuristic Western eyes

– In the Belgian museum display the implication is that Belgian intervention might not be so bad in this situation: Africans are already disordered, and are already subjugated by Arabs

– Notice how the logic here parallels that of the Tarzan novels: the Westerner is benign

– Late 19th century museum displays in France as well were designed to provide information about the countries France had colonized, and to posit the need they had of colonization (“civilization”). This ethnographic approach survives in many museums today.

– Also, museum displays preserve vestiges of dying or dead civilizations. Their ideological basis and practical origins are in conquest and killing. And now we would like to believe we have put that attitude, and those practices, behind us. Have we?

– Now, by contrast, museum displays of primitive objects resemble jewelry stores. The objects are isolated, beautiful, sensuous, mysterious, context-free.

– Displays sometimes force physical relations to sacred objects one should not or would not have in real life: looking head on at something not meant to be looked at head on, for instance, as though its ritual power really were mere superstition

– The example of “culture contact” (the girl with the palm fronds and flash cubes) – what is this “culture contact,” really? Remember that behind the West’s rhetoric about the primitive there is often an interest in power – psychological, sexual, economic.

– Western tropes invite us to associate the primitive with the irrational, the instinctual, the swarming, but what else does Western discourse associate with it in more veiled ways?

– Note that art historians originally thought of primitive objects as functional, and only later came to study them as aesthetic objects. What is involved in this shift? Is it really less condescending to see these objects as aesthetic?

– By saying these objects are art, we think we are honoring their makers by implying that they have a civilization, a culture (civilization produces art). But we are also ignoring what that culture might have thought of these objects – do they call them art? Does what they think matter?

Chapter 4 Preview 

– Note, in modern art, the association between African art, Blackness, women, sex, horrors, and death.

Chapter 5 Preview 

– Note writer Michel Leiris’ constant rewriting of Africa as a way to rewrite himself.

And note again the intertwining, in his work, of sexuality, misogyny, and Western interest in African art.

– Note how sex and violence are associated in Western culture, and how women are represented as either wounded or dangerous

– Leiris says he was interested in ethnography (because of) the ways in which he was interested in sex; to wield the penetrating, Western gaze in a museum of primitive objects was a source of pleasure to him

– What he has to say academically on these matters parallels in many ways what he has to say personally

Chapter 6 Preview 

– Modernism is very primitivist – it depended upon and absorbed the primitive.


Posted by on January 27, 2008 in Torgovnick


Torgovnick 2

Torgovnick Chapter 2: Taking Tarzan Seriously

Tarzan is one of the most popular book series there are, and this in itself makes it worth studying: what is going on, why is Tarzan so popular?

– Tarzan the character is British, but the books are American and share many characteristics with the Western

– The first Tarzan novel was published in 1912, and the Western was born around the same era

– Tarzan lost ground during WWII, but in 1963 one in every 30 paperbacks sold was a Tarzan novel – partly due to audience demand. Traditional critics say Tarzan was popular because it was escapist fiction, and so on.

– But note that the middle class fiction considered “good” tells stories of limitation, acceptance of the establishment, and so on; Tarzan does not.

The original advertisements for the Tarzan novels promised a re-creation of the modern world, not an escape from it. Tarzan is white, aristocratic, intelligent, and so on; what he rejects is the drabness of the modern world. (Note: there is a modern Latin American tradition of presenting Latin America as an alternative (more human, more artistic, more spiritual, more ‘aristocratic’) modernity to the industrial modernity of the United States. We might consider ways of tying Tarzan into this.) The idea of recreation also echoes the avant-garde spirit of “making it new” (W.C. Williams). The primitive here is full of energy, and is a source of empowerment. (Note: this is like Sarmiento’s gaucho, which we will soon discuss.)

– Tarzan is presented as the primitive man, but the ape societies and some of the lost civilizations he encounters are as well, so that the primitive here has multiple meanings

– Burroughs (the author) repeatedly addresses ethnographic issues such as the nature of the primitive mind, the status of primitive beliefs, the nature of language, gender relations, and leadership patterns.

– The primitive in Burroughs also performs some of the functions of science fiction: commentary on the author’s society, projections of alternative possibilities, etc.

– For all of these reasons, the Tarzan novels are a great place to begin figuring out what stake modernity has in the primitive.

– The word primitive means first, original, originary, and so many have been interested it as a present which mirrors the past of Western civilization. It is ourselves gone “natural.”

That is why knowledge of the primitive is seen as capable of effecting social change (46).

– The Tarzan novels ultimately affirm white over black, man over woman, and so on, but early on, when Tarzan is a child, they also show how unnatural these hierarchies are, how subject they are to cultural variation (i.e. they are not universal), and how problematic Tarzan himself finds them (see examples, 47).

– But through Tarzan’s encounters with Africans and women, the race and gender hierarchies we are familiar with are (re)established. Tarzan learns that he is a man, a white man, etc.; he instinctively knows that Africans are not apes but men, yet not white men, and humans should not be cannibals (although the first African he meets, and kills, is a cannibal, i.e. a more savage being, and has killed Tarzan’s ape mother: notice how the whole story engages the boundaries between races and species).

– The Africans are savage, but the series points out that the Belgians are moreso: it is sharply critical of colonial savagery

– Jane gets to the jungle because she is abducted by a rebel ape, Terkoz, who of course is not interested in her Black servant, Esmeralda. See the quotation (51) from the battle scene between Terkoz and Tarzan, and Jane’s reaction. It is natural that man is woman’s protector, and that she can be won by strength and daring. And love of white women naturally makes white men civilized. (White women, of course, incite lust in villainous hearts, so one way we can tell the difference between white and other men, perhaps, is how they react to white women.)

– The threat of miscegenation is most directly invoked in Jungle Tales of Tarzan, the sixth book in the series. Tarzan wants a mate but does not consider a Black one. He fights an ape for an ape woman, and then realizes it would be inter-species sex and is a bad idea. So miscegenation and bestiality are associated, and the rejection of miscegenation is disguised as rejection of bestiality. The phrase “Tarzan is a man. He will go alone” is uttered when Tarzan has, importantly, distinguished himself not only from women but also from animals and Black men. He then goes on to establish himself as the head of various hierarchies.

– Tarzan becomes a king twice early on: of anthropoids and of an elite tribe of people. When he meets this tribe they mediate for him between ape society and white civilization. He has by now visited the U.S., Paris and London, and found them corrupt and more dangerous than the jungle (shades of Macunaíma, which we will read! This novel is from 1928: had author M. de Andrade read Tarzan?).

– When he is initiated as their king it is in a tribal rite, but he converts them to feudalism as they live with him on his estate as a sort of serf, and as they start calling him not king but the more colonial “big bwana.” According to the novels, Tarzan is evolving and bringing them with him: from tribalism to feudalism to an early form of capitalism. Really the relationship between the two exemplifies certain versions of imperialism and liberal neocolonialism. Western superiority is voluntarily recognized and rewarded by natives who had first adopted Tarzan as a lonely outsider.

– The references to slavery and representations of servitude in these novels may also be an indirect way of addressing U.S. race relations… (58) It is not that the books explicitly accept or promote slavery or subservience for Africans, it is that they are so used to it that they (re-)present as almost natural.

– Important: Tarzan’s encounter with the ruins of a lost white civilization – actually, of twelve of them. (Ancient advanced cultures, in the colonialist mentality, had to be white! Note also the prevalence of the idea that the South American pyramids must have been built by space aliens, as Native Americans could not have built them!) So civilization in Africa was originally white, Blacks are just the people there now, they are not creators of culture, and Africa can be taken over by whites again.

– And, it goes without saying, note the penetration metaphors in the discussion of this: white men have penetrated to the center of darkest (and feminized) Africa.

– Ultimately the books are conflicted about race and colonialism, but not about women. Note that Jane profoundly changes Tarzan: first he goes to live with her in Europe for years and years, and then when they return to Africa, they live on a colonial estate. However Tarzan keeps needing/finding excuses to get back into the trees, and finally Jane stops requiring any – so Tarzan wins out in the end. (Look at this gender role drama! Jane depends on Tarzan in nature, but exercises control in the domestic arena. There she tames Tarzan and ultimately betrays his character. Woman is loved, but also resented …so this is one set of stereotypes about gender that the novels reinforce.)

– Consider the alternative heroine La: a priestess-ruler out in the wild! Ultimately he conquers her and other like her as well, and the Tarzan materials evince interest in and hostility to matriarchal societies. See especially Tarzan and the Ant Men (1924), where Tarzan comes into contact with a hideous matriarchal society which he saves by putting the men back in very firm control.

– Note how the early Tarzan novels flirt with the idea of remaking race and gender relations, and the later ones then back off! This is very important – it is the key issue for this study of primitivism. Contrast to it what happens in the 1984 Tarzan film Greystoke. In the books, unlike in this film, the fall into humanity which happens when Tarzan meets Jane means one cannot go home again: man is to be the master of women and beasts. And man is white, and the nonwhite is part of the world he dominates. And postmodern culture projects into the primitive a harmony and justice it cannot find in itself.

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Posted by on January 26, 2008 in Tarzan, Torgovnick



Here is Tarzan of the Apes, the first Tarzan novel, in full text from Project Gutenberg. It is full of primitivist tropes and very amusing to read! This is a description of the jungle from the end of the second chapter:

Scarcely had they closed their eyes than the terrifying cry of a panther rang out from the jungle behind them. Closer and closer it came until they could hear the great beast directly beneath them. For an hour or more they heard it sniffing and clawing at the trees which supported their platform, but at last it roamed away across the beach, where Clayton could see it clearly in the brilliant moonlight–a great, handsome beast, the largest he had ever seen. During the long hours of darkness they caught but fitful snatches of sleep, for the night noises of a great jungle teeming with myriad animal life kept their overwrought nerves on edge, so that a hundred times they were startled to wakefulness by piercing screams, or the stealthy moving of great bodies beneath them.

The Tarzan character is a white man who has become a noble savage in Africa. Wikipedia, as we know, is “not a reliable academic source,” but the Wikipedia entry on him is actually quite useful. Here are some fragments from it:

He is the son of a British Lord and Lady who were marooned on the West coast of Africa by mutineers. Tarzan’s parents died when he was an infant, and he was raised by the Mangani, Great Apes of a species unknown to science. Kala is his ape mother. Tarzan (White-skin) is his ape name; his English name is John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (according to Burroughs; Earl of Greystoke in later, non-canonical sources, notably the 1984 movie Greystoke). As a young adult, he meets Jane Porter who, with others of her party, including her father, is marooned at exactly the same spot on the African coast where Tarzan’s parents were marooned roughly twenty years earlier. When she returns to America, he leaves the jungle in search of her, his one true love. In later books, Tarzan and Jane marry and he lives with her for a time in England. They have one son, Jack, who takes the ape name Korak the Killer. Tarzan is contemptuous of the hypocrisy of civilization, and he and Jane return to Africa. . . .

Burroughs has created in Tarzan an extreme example of a hero figure unalloyed with character flaws or faults. Tarzan is described by Burroughs as being Caucasian, extremely athletic, tall, handsome, and tanned. He has grey eyes. Emotionally, he is courageous, loyal and steady. He is intelligent and learns new languages easily. He is presented as always behaving ethically in all situations, according to Burroughs’ definitions. He is deeply in love with his wife and totally devoted to her. Always the gentleman, in numerous situations where other women express their attraction to Tarzan, he politely and as kindly as possible declines their attentions. If presented with a situation where a weaker individual or party is being preyed upon by a stronger foe, Tarzan will invariably take the part of the weaker party (and invariably win). In dealing with other men Tarzan is firm and forceful. With male friends he is reserved but deeply loyal and generous. As a host he is likewise generous and gracious. As a leader he commands devoted loyalty.

In contrast to all these urbane and sophisticated capabilities and characteristics, Tarzan’s philosophy embraces an extreme form of “return to nature”. His preferred dress is a knife and a loincloth made from uncured animal hide. His preferred abode is a convenient tree branch which happens to be nearby when he desires to sleep. His preferred food is raw meat, killed by himself; even better if he is able to bury it a week so that putrefaction has had a chance to tenderize it a bit. Although Tarzan is able to pass within society as a civilized individual, he prefers to “strip off the thin veneer of civilization”, as Burroughs often puts it.

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Posted by on January 24, 2008 in Bibliography, Tarzan


Torgovnick 1

Here is the NYT review of Gone Primitive.

Torgovnick Chapter 1: Defining the Primitive / Reimagining Modernity

How have ethnographers constructed the primitive?

– Note the dichotomies within the image of the primitive. The “primitive” is:

A. gentle, in tune with nature, paradisal, ideal, noble savage, to be emulated

B. violent, in need of control, to be feared

– The primitive is knowable and definable by us, as if we were above it

– The primitive exists in a sexualized field; its sexual life is particularly interesting

– We are empowered to penetrate the secrets of primitive peoples (see the first full paragraph on p. 4)

– Note how the search for the “primitive” both presupposes and reinforces a dichotomy them / us, primitive/modern. It is as though the ethnographers were also teaching us, the readers, who “we” are supposed to be.

– On 5-6 ff., Torgovnick goes on to discuss Malinowski’s The Sexual Life of Savages. Even the cover art is about exalting the eye of the viewer which penetrates the Other. The narrative structure is like a striptease, seducing the reader to an act of voyeurism.

– Other social scientists, in other disciplines (e.g. Freud) at the same time sought the same goal: a universal truth about human nature, and thought primitive societies would provide the key to this. The primitive was a necessary stage of development (less advanced than us, but part of us); the world of the primitive was thus both exotic and familiar. They are free, irrational, mystical, libidinous; they are our untamed selves, ourselves as children or in childlike mode.

This is primitivist ‘discourse’, and it is fundamental to the Western sense of self and other. “In each case, the needs of the present determine the value and nature of the primitive. The primitive does what we ask it to do. . . . It is our ventriloquist’s dummy – or so we like to think.” (9)

– Note the words associated with Africa, the South Pacific, etc.: when they first come into view they are wild and dangerous places with dark hearts; once colonized, they become immature and childlike places one is “working on.” It is the Westerner which gives such places their voice – and the Tarzan books posit African civilization as originally white. Thus it is that the European finds his earliest self in the primitive, or reveals himself by defining the Other (see 11).

– Does modern art misconceive or misread the primitive? If so, what are the costs (to colonized peoples, for instance) of these misconceptions? (For instance: assuming we know better than they do what they need, that we have rights over them, etc. It is worth recognizing the persistence and fluidity of primitivist discourse.)

– The story of Fry and Josette: note how gender issues are always imbricated in Western versions of the primitive. (The primitive is sexual and seems to function as a threat to proper Western femininity…but also, women are ‘primitive,’ ‘natural,’ ‘instinctive,’ etc.)

So our idea of the primitive also helps us form our idea of ourselves as gendered beings. And we imagine ourselves through the primitive in other ways as well (e.g. to think about class and race).

– Primitive: first, early, “simpler,” “developing…” … so what drives modern and postmodern projections of the primitive? A first instance: Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops. Because Polyphemus is a ‘primitive’, Odysseus can act like a ‘savage’ (and incidentally, a villain). Now compare that story to Stanley’s stories of his adventures in Africa – on which many other respectable writers modeled theirs (26). In his encounter with Livingstone, Stanley has to maintain boardroom manners in order to preserve the image of the white man (30).

– Stanley’s relationship to his porters was colonial, but he imagined it was not; similarly, modernism and postmodernism imagine that their relationship to the primitive is enlightened.

– Finally, why is there so much modern and postmodern artistic representation of white women surrounded by primitive art? In the modern world, primitive art is a consumer good, something that we moderns cannibalize. It is not just interpenetration or “sharing” because of the hierarchies involved, and the reinforcement of categories (e.g. gender, race, class) used to oppress.

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Posted by on January 23, 2008 in Torgovnick