Torgovnick 1

23 Jan

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


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