Return to Left Curve no. 24 Table of Contents
Revisioning the Millenium: Counter-Ideological Reflections on Modernity, Anthropology and Utopia
by Peter Laska
Revisioning is not revision. Revision reworks a text, revisioning sets about writing a new text. Revision is part of every tradition and every ideology. Revisioning tries to get outside the Escher-like structure of an ideological consensus. Revision is "in-house," revisioning seeks to begin construction of a new house. Philosophy in the classical sense is always about revisioning. Whether it is called de-mythologizing, transvaluation or reconstruction, the thrust is the same--to reconfigure the proleptic that shapes vision into an "outlook" or "world-picture."
The concept of ideology has been so abused that the mere mention of it tends to throw up flags of warning. We have come to think of ideology as the cynical manipulation of ideas for an ulterior purpose. We recognize that ideologies serve the interests of an economic and political agenda. By contrast, we value science for its ideal of an "interest-free" standpoint. But this approach has limitations. Whatever its success in the investigation of nature, its results in the social "sciences" are more likely to be a parody of objectivity obtained by suppressing presuppositions and interests. This pseudo-scientific objectivity reached its apogee in the Fifties and Sixties with the popularity of the "end of ideology" idea. Since that time the flight from ideology has given way to "postmodern" attempts at revisioning that more or less acknowledge their interests. The resulting effect on cultural and political discourse has been unsettling, as is evident in the appearance of what is now termed "culture wars."
Revisioning takes the form of counter-ideology. Judging from the Classical record, counter-ideologies have a long history going back to ancient times. But with the success of Modernity attempts at revisioning became identified with utopian thinking. Thomas More's Utopia, which appeared in 1514, would eventually give its name to the category wherein revisioning as counter-ideology is conceptually marginalized and classed with speculative literary fiction, thereby effectively segregating it from the arena of formative discourse. Thus, the revisioning that was an essential part of "the making of the Modern World" is not considered part of utopian thought, but any attempt to continue revisioning beyond the dominant system and ideology of Modernity is automatically labeled "utopian" and saddled with all the negative baggage associated with that nomenclature.
The ideological invention of the modern utopian category has all but gone unnoticed. Lewis Mumford, one of the more astute students of the subject, pointed out that "There is a gap in the Utopian tradition between the seventeenth century and the nineteenth" during which "Utopia, the place that must be built, faded into no-man's land, the spot to which one might escape."4 This gap is no accident. It marks a period when the new world order of Modernity was attaining ideological hegemony. The situation is similar to that of the twentieth century when Modernity was reestablishing itself following economic collapse and world war. As soon as the wreckage was cleared away, the houses of capitalism rebuilt and the opposition neutralized, the "end of ideology" appeared. Revisioning that went beyond the goals and limits of Modernity was shuffled together with the ever-present speculative literary imaginings that have no bearing on practical everyday realities.5 In this way utopia becomes, as Mumford put it, "another name for the unreal and the impossible."6 Understanding utopia in this way has proven to be one of the more effective myths by which the dominant order maintains its monopoly of symbols, goods and violence. By inculcating the idea that utopia is a fictional or distant ideal rather than an on-going reality, the hegemonic ideology monopolizes the future and makes it difficult if not impossible to conceptualize the current global hierarchy of elites for what it is-a successful and on-going utopian project that delivers the best possible life for a few at the expense of a good and sustainable quality of life for everyone.
Two of the harder working doctrines in Modernity's axiomatic consensus have been the twin beliefs that utopias are not real, and that Modern civilization, which obviously is a reality, does not deliver a utopian existence (for some). Of course, if utopia is defined in a totalistic fashion as the redesign and perfection of an entire society, then the possibility of partial, exclusionist utopias for elites will be dismissed outright. It is no accident that Modernity defines utopia in precisely this way. In truth, however, it is just intellectual sleight of hand. It is a matter of record that modern elites have actively opposed or subverted every revolutionary attempt to redesign entire societies along utopian lines. The elites of Ancient civilization were more open about the meaning of "the good life" and about who deserved to have access to it. They looked on equal rights and equal entitlements as absurdities that contravened nature. What we find in the historical record is that a utopian life for elites is part of an ancient tradition going back to the founding of the world's first cities. This fact came as a revelation to Lewis Mumford, who, after revising his own thinking on the subject, wrote that, "the concept of utopia is not a Hellenic speculative fantasy, but a derivation from an historic event: that indeed the first utopia was the city itself."7 Mumford's revelation turns out to be only partly right. He failed to distinguish the urban from the nonurban utopia. Nonurban folk utopias may very well have preceded the foundation of the first cities. At any rate, the possibility cannot be ruled out by the semantic maneuver of defining utopian life in such a way that it can only occur in cities. A revelation that should have opened up an interesting question, possibly a crucial question, was truncated by Mumford's urban bias. All that his revelation can claim with certainty is that ancient cities were the first utopias created by and for power cults. Still, Mumford made an important breakthrough. Modernity's category of utopia has no way of handling his revelation that utopias are historically real, nor can it accommodate the fact that utopian enclaves exist now and that the principle beneficiaries of global capitalism are living in them. Evidence that we are emerging from a long sleep on this subject can be found in a recent book by Ruth Levitas. Although she doesn't actually cross the road
and acknowledge that utopias exist, she does expand the meaning of Modernity's concept by discussing "the free market utopia" of the new Right as "embodying a utopian project."8 She also argues that utopia refers not simply to a past or future state, but to "the past as immanent in the present,"9 which conceptually ties the goal of preserving existing inequalities while restoring lost ones to the privileged designs of utopian living in which these goals make eminent good sense.
The humble status of utopia in the modern ideological consensus is due in part to the prominence of the idea of progress. To conceive of utopia as a reality rather than a fictional idea is logically inconsistent with what the nineteenth century French historian Guizot called "the fundamental idea contained in the word civilization."10 Progress, according to Guizot, meant two things that have helped give legitimacy to Modernity's social and political hierarchies: "on the one hand, an increasing production of the means of giving strength and happiness to society; on the other, a more equitable distribution, among individuals, of the strength."11 The ideology of progress tells us that utopia does not exist and may never exist. It is only an ideal of perfection toward which progress is leading us. The instrumental increase, the first item in Guizot's notion of progress, cannot be seriously questioned (although whether there is an overall increase in happiness as a result of the increase in means is clearly open to doubt). It is the second item, that of a more equitable distribution, which is always threatening to destroy the legitimacy that Modernity so righteously claims. The idea that we are all in it together, advancing toward a better life with the help of modern technology, capitalism and its "free" markets, and the modern democratic state, is an idea essential to Modernity's substitution of "betterment" for "perfection," of progress for pie-in-the-sky utopia. If, however, the life enhancements that derive from new technology are not distributed more equitably, if the reality ahead is a proliferation of utopian enclaves such as exist now for a fraction of humanity, then the legitimacy of modern ideology is thrown into question. Progress means improvement, the upgrading of the human condition, whereas utopia designates an imaginary perfected state that has no need of "improvement." Mumford is again worth quoting here. Looking back in a new preface forty years later, he singled out the static aspect of the imaginary societies he surveyed in The Story of Utopia and noted that "each utopia was a closed society for the prevention of human growth."12 Mumford's words now appear prophetic in a way that he could never have imagined. From our vantage point at the beinning of the new millennium, after 400 years of "Modernity," the utopias of elites are all too real while progress appears more and more imaginary.
The modern conception of progress has another essential role to play. Besides demarcating real societies from unreal utopian ones, it has been used to separate "civilized life" from "savagery" and "barbarism." Until well into the twentieth century those outside the utopian citadels of "civilization" were thought to live across a racial evolutionary divide. Following the success of Boasian anthropology in the post-World War I era, the evolutionary divide was downsized to a cultural and economic gulf.13 But in the late nineteenth century Social Darwinism held the field, and the difference between "civilized" and "uncivilized" peoples was understood to be racial in nature. The "grand foundation myth of Western Civilization," as Kuper accurately labels it,14 placed the white race mentally and morally above all
others. Civilization was understood to have begun in
the Near East (Mesopotamia) and North Africa (Egypt). The Greeks and Romans added essential components, and then, a thousand years later, these achievements were picked up and carried to new heights by modern European peoples. According to the myth then shaping anthropological theory there were two stages of racial evolution prior to civilization. "Savages" were at the lowest stage, closest to raw animal existence; above them on the evolutionary scale were "barbarian" tribes that showed evidence of crude social and moral progress. Every race, according to the theory, would pass through these uniform stages of development on their way to becoming "civilized." This conception of fixed stages of human evolutionary development informed and shaped the first anthropological studies of society, economics, religion, and cultural and mental life. It was an idea that accorded nicely with the theory of biological evolution. A strong tie-in with Haeckel's "Biogenetic Law" was taken for granted. The evolution of the human species was "recapitulated" in the microcosm of individual and tribal development. It followed that the "lower races" of humanity "must be considered as being in the arrested stages of childhood or adolescence"15
The heyday of the three-stage racial theory in anthropology is synchronous with "the Age of Imperial-ism" and its division of the world among capitalist combines. It is worth noting that the theory ended up as one of the casualties of the war that closed out the Age, a war in which the nations at the third and highest stage of racial adulthood brought new dimensions of meaning to the terms "savagery" and "barbarism." But even before the epochal calamity of world war and its genocidal holocaust terminated the "higher nation's" delusional racial and moral superiority, there was ample evidence that
the three-stage theory possessed the same evidentiary credentials as the theory of witchcraft.
In 1904, the theory was put on display in a brazen exhibit at the St. Louis World's Fair. The Fair had as its centerpiece an "Anthropology Exhibit" made up of indigenous peoples from around the globe. Organizers worked hard to assemble "representatives of all the world's races, ranging from the smallest pygmies to the most gigantic peoples, from the darkest blacks to the dominant whites."16 Representatives of tribes and nations were exhibited to the public behind fenced enclosures, and the "dominant" whites were invited to observe and photograph them. On March 6, 1904, the St. Louis Republic reported in an illustrated half page article on the "World's Fair Department of Anthropology" that, "The three, the Ainus, the Pigmies(sic) and the Patagonians will represent the lowest degree of human development. But many other strange races are included as typical of stages of aboriginal progress"17
After the Fair got underway, however, the three-stage theory underlying the Exhibit suffered embarrassment, particularly at the hands of the pygmies. It came
to the attention of the Exhibit's director that pygmy antics were disrupting the Fair's "Anthropology Days." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that after seeing the many marching bands and military formations at the Fair the pygmies decided to form a military company of their own. Armed with sticks they were conducting mock maneuvers alongside the American Indian marching band, and were keeping the Indians "convulsed with laughter."18 On command of their "captain" they would begin marching in all directions and then again on command regroup in perfect formation. The Director gave the pygmies a bad grade and criticized them for taking nothing seriously. The events scheduled during "Anthropology Days" were designed to show the superiority of whites and thus confirm racial evolutionary theory. There were intelligence tests and measurements of physical performance, which the pygmies turned into comic episodes. At the start of a track event, the pygmies "showed more interest in jumping all over the man with the starting gun than in getting to the finish line of the 440 yard run."19 The scene has the zaniness of a Marx Brothers movie. An anthropologist at the event commented with exasperation, "this is ludicrous." The mock-marches and antics were a problem for the "dominant whites" not only because of the disruption to "Anthropology Days," but also because of the negative assessment implied in the pygmy's refusal to participate in exercises they could see were meant to degrade them. The pygmy response was parody. The ridicule implied in their actions is unmistakable, and it points to the soundness of the conclusion that Boas had already drawn with regard to the races of man: "There must have been a time when man's mental equipment was different from what it is now That period lies far behind us and no trace of a lower mental organization is found in any of the extant races of man."20
In The Mind of Primitive Man, first published in 1911, Franz Boas summarized the results of his revisioning of the modern idea of the primitive. His conclusion that, "There is no fundamental difference in the ways of thinking of primitive and civilized man"21 contradicted the central claim on which the "science" of anthropology was founded. There can be no racial evolutionary advance if the native capacities of humanity at the "highest stage" are essentially what they are at the "earliest stage." It follows then that human betterment or "progress" can only be understood culturally, as improvement in the quality of life. But the relativism implied in Boas's theory makes it impossible to evaluate across cultures. Boas himself seems not to have been fully aware of this consequence.22 He located the basis of culture and cultural diversity in originality and historical accident, and opposed any sort of causal determinism, economic or otherwise. Each human culture was to be understood sui generis as an organic whole, not reducible by rational analysis to functional elements. This must be counted as one of the reasons his views met with resistance and were slow to take hold. Another would be the fact that powerful entrenched authority does not like to be told its ideas are defective. Boas's refutation of racial evolutionary theory and his revisioning of its core idea of the primitive were resisted for decades. In his evaluation of Boas's work Paul Radin commented that "even scholars were slow to accept Boas's theories" that there is no inherent connection between race and culture, and that complex civilization adds nothing to the hereditary mental capacities of human beings.23
The impact of Boas's revisioning of the primitive was not widely felt until a generation later, when his former student Ruth Benedict published her enormously popular book Patterns of Culture, to which Boas wrote a brief introduction.24 Two things about this book are forcefully apparent at first glance. One is the use of the word "civilization" in the plural (the phrase "primitive civilizations" appears on the front cover as well as throughout the book), and the other is the complete absence of the terms "savages" and "barbarians." In fact, the basic categories of racial evolutionary theory have been discarded without so much as a footnote. The word "savage" occurs, but only in reference notes to works by Bronislaw Malinowski-for example, in his The Sexual Life of Savages. In place of racial evolutionary progress Benedict simply contrasts "primitive" with "our own" civilization. She has "primitive" peoples, and also "primitive" societies, cultures, tribes, customs and civilizations, all set in historically unexamined opposition to "modern" or "Western" civilization. There is no evolutionary advance in race or culture. On the contrary, the major premise of Benedict's book is a thoroughgoing cultural relativism, and she ends by affirming "as new bases for tolerance the coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence."25
We see then that from the point of view of the dominant tradition inherited from the 19th Century something startling has occurred. Although E. B. Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan, the 19th Century's leading founders of Anthropology, attributed some civilization to primitive peoples, what they meant was that these peoples were "partially civilized," or in the words of Frazer's The Golden Bough, that "savages" were the "least civilized." The idea that such peoples possessed a distinctive civilization would have made about as much sense to them as saying that they possessed literacy or knowledge of chemistry. In the evolutionist scheme a "primitive" civilization was simply inconceivable. "Civilization" meant cultural achievements of scale, and for the founders of Anthropology this meant the leaving behind of "primitive" modes of life and thought. Therefore, a phrase like "aboriginal civilization," which anthropologist Paul Radin uses in his The World of Primitive Man,26 would have been nonsense to the founders of Anthropology and Sociology, unless it suggested some sort of regression from "true" civilization. The revisioning by the Boasians is clearly and concisely stated in the following passage from Goldenweiser's Early Civilization. In the prevailing view, he wrote, "Man is many, civilization is one," meaning that "the races differ significantly in potential ability and that only one, the white race, could actually have achieved civilization. The reverse view reads thus: man is one, civilizations are many," meaning that, "the races do not differ significantly in psychological endowment, that the variety of possible civilizations is great and that many civilizations other than ours have achieved things of genuine and unique worth.27
The revisioning of the primitive by the Boasians can serve as a paradigm case of the ideological overthrow of a tradition-in this case 19th Century racial evolutionary theory. By 1944, Clyde Kluckholn, in his popular prize-winning survey of Anthropology, was referring to racial evolutionary theory as "naïve biologism" and "mythology."28 As a result of the Boasian revisioning, Anthropology's foundation theory had passed from science into myth, taking its racist terminology with it. Henceforth, the terms "savage" and "barbarian" would disappear from scholarly publications. The writings of the French anthropologist Levi Strauss document the change. As late as 1962, he was comfortable using the old evolutionist language, as the title of his book The Savage Mind indicates, even though in this work he follows the Boasians in using a multicultural concept of "civilization."29
But by 1977, when he gave the Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto, he, like most other scholars and social scientists, had abandoned expressions like "savages" and "the savage mind," and was even noting his discomfort with the word "primitive," which he insisted on keeping in quotation marks. Although he adopted this usage, he stated that his preference was for the expression "without writing."30
The overthrow of racial evolutionism left Anthropology without an immediate replacement theory, at least without one that was acceptable to the dominant ideology of progress. This led to a charge of "negativism" being leveled against the Boasians,31 a charge that was not without substance. The latter's cultural relativism undermined Modernity's leading ethical and religious traditions. It struck at the sustaining values of expansionist capitalism and missionary Christianity alike. It implied that respect for all civilizations, even the most "primitive," should be the moral norm and non-intervention the practical implementation of it. But beyond this "respect for the Other," the Boasians had no guiding vision and no positive ideological alternative. In her popular book Benedict had gone out of her way to distance herself from utopian goals. Cultural Relativism affirmed the right of many cultures to flourish and implied a
pluralistic vision of utopia. But this is not the line that Benedict pursued. Instead, the characteristic Boasian negativism appeared: "it is most unlikely that even the best society will be able to stress in one social order all the virtues we prize in human life utopias of this sort should be recognized as pure day-dreaming"32
Benedict's use of "we" here is curious, since it obviously begs the question and is blatantly inconsistent with the pluralistic implications of cultural relativism. "The best society" is a meaningless expression in Cultural Relativism. The whole point of relativism is the recognition of a plurality of successful human cultural adaptations. Furthermore, some of them may very well have held in balance all the values prized by their members. The existence of "folk utopias" of this sort is a factual question for ethnology, not one to be answered a priori by the speculative anthropology that Benedict engages in when she writes that "no social order can separate its virtues from the defects of its virtues. There is no royal road to a real Utopia."33
Benedict's cliché pinpoints the error of the Boasians. For a strong case can be made that there is a "royal road" to utopia and that "royalists" have been traveling it since the founding of the first urban centers, if not before. In fact, the "royal road" is the traditional utopian strategy that elites have employed to obtain a superior quality of life for themselves, a life they define in terms of power, leisure, luxury goods, and freedom from all debilitating forms of labor. The cultural relativism of the Boasians should have led to a revisioning of the modern utopian category with its royal path to utopian living, but as we see here in the case of Benedict, it did not.
The "utopia of perfection" from which Benedict distances herself is not "pure day-dreaming." It makes its appearance in the period of Modernity under the banner of Progress, the never-ending quest for "betterment" on the royal road to Perfection. This is how the modern "utopian day-dream" gets translated into motivation and social action, disguising itself all the while as a democratic advance of the Good-for-all. This ideology of progress is never made the subject of Boasian revisioning, even though cultural relativism implies that it should be. For even if Benedict had been right in claiming that there is no "royal road" to utopia, the possibility of a "non-royal" folk road had not been ruled out. The Boasians who took seriously the doctrine of cultural relativism should have followed the implications of their revisioning and explored the folk alternative. The fact that they did not tells us something about the power of the dominant ideology to win conformity. The ignominious tale of Boas's censure by and near expulsion from the American Anthropological Society in l919 opens a little window into the corridors of power and gives us a glimpse of how far into Academia the tentacles of power extend.34 The failure to link the revisioning of the primitive to a revisioning of civilization and utopia gave ideological advantage to those whose interest it is to deny that the pursuit of elitist utopias has shaped Modernity. Seeing themselves as "social scientists" with academic careers, the Boasians stopped short of counter-ideology, and, after announcing that "the great mass of individuals take quite readily to the form that is presented to them,"35 turned a blind eye to consistency and embraced the doctrine of progress.
Thus the debunking of racial evolutionary theory that was an integral part of Boasian anthropology did not result in further revisioning. What happened instead was the mobilization of a fall back position. The ideology of Modernity gave up racial evolution for "cultural evolution," and the need to revision Modernity's category of utopia as unending growth ("progress") was ignored. When the Boasian revisioning of the primitive legitimized the use of civilization in the plural,36 the modern doctrine of progress could no longer grade human beings on a racial evolutionary scale of development from
"savage" to "civilized." To avert a crisis, an ideological adjustment was called for. A new standard of "improvement," a new criterion of "superiority," had to be found. Following the War, American post-Boasian anthropology rose to the occasion with "neo-evolutionist" theories designed to counter Cultural Relativism. The cat was already out of the bag in Redfield's 1953 evaluation of "the primitive world" in relation to "civilization."37 In his concluding chapter Redfield announced that "cultural relativism is in for some hard times," and that there is "a great historic cultural difference between uncivilized people and civilized people."38 Neo-evolutionist theories would soon make it known to the general public that unquestionably the direction of cultural evolution is from the former to the latter. Redfield spoke for many atavists in and out of his profession when he embraced the old racial evolutionist chronotrope, saying, "I find it impossible to regret that the human race has tended to grow up."39 It was taken for granted, of course, that Western European peoples were the modern representatives of human cultural adulthood.
In neo-evolutionary theory progress is downgraded to an advance in the complexity of the human prosthetic, including social and political organization. Societies pass from "primitive" to "civilized" with the appearance of complex technology and social and political hierarchies. This advance in complexity is what neo-evolutionists meant by cultural development. "Cultural evolution" turns out to be the grand foundation myth minus the overt racism and the fusty unilinear stages of savagery and barbarism. It is not races that progress from lower to higher, it is "cultures,"40 or cultural "universals."41 Ideologically, the net effect of this revision was to privilege Modernity and ratify its "advance" over other civilizations, whether designated as savage, primitive, Ancient or Eastern or Medieval. Cultural Evolution's criteria for development make it easy to tell who's "advanced." All you have to
do is look at a society's technology and its hierarchy of power.
Man, Culture and Society,42 a typical popular presentation of Anthropology in the Fifties, shows Cultural Evolution's bias at work. The book contains photos of then contemporary peoples in Peru, New Guinea, the Philippines and Bali captioned with the phrases "primitive people," "primitive agriculture" and "primitive society." It is clear that "primitives" have replaced "savages" and "barbarians" in scientific writing. But the purpose of the new designation remains what it was in the discarded theory of racial evolutionism: to contrast the more "evolved," the culturally "developed" (designated as "large, complex and rapidly changing societies") with
the culturally "backward" (designated as "primitive societies").43 What is important to see is that the question of quality of life, of human betterment not just for a generation but for the long term, is never raised. In the ideological defense of Modernity it is taken for granted that life with complex machinery, gadgets, overseers and bosses is better than any other alternative, and indeed is the only alternative. In this way Modernity monopolizes the meaning of progress and places all other alternatives lower on a progressive evolutionary scale. This is why the Boasian revisioning of the primitive had to be marginalized. By implication it placed other modes of living, other "cultures," on an equal footing with Modernity. Cultural Relativism contradicted the monocultural category of progress (or "development") and implied that civilization in the sense of a better design for living could not be the exclusive possession of any one cultural formation, no matter how complex or "superdeveloped"
it might be. Relativism of this sort is especially bothersome to a cultural design that depends on continual growth and expansion of markets, since it undermines the moral façade, the ideological cover, needed to justify its power plays against those cultures resisting the growth imperative.
Consigning racial evolutionism to the pseudo-scientific junk bin ultimately left Anthropology with two options regarding "the primitive." The first can be seen in popular ideological form in Adam Kuper's The Invention of the Primitive, a survey of Anthropology claiming that "the primitive" is an illusion, an invention of 19th Century anthropologists.44 It is obvious, however, that Kuper's dismissal of the concept's usefulness follows on the heels of the de facto disappearance of primitive peoples. The people are still there, of course, only their name has been changed. Modernity found it useful to re-classify them, first as "underdeveloped," and then when the latter term was found to provoke resentment, as "developing," or "emerging." In this way cultures outside the dominant stream of "progress" could be included in Modernity's global system and ideologically characterized as being "on the road to progress."
The language of development also has the effect
of turning certain formerly common expressions into archaisms. The expression "the civilized world," for example, has come to have the same discarded status as the expression "primitive culture." And peoples once said to live in primitive cultures are now understood to be "developing," that is, on their way to becoming "modern," to acquiring the prosthetics, attitudes, and lifestyles of the "culturally developed." These language games tell us that the ideology of Modernity is well versed in the ancient techniques of mystification and speaking in code. And by now it should also be clear that the whole point of this linguistic aggiornamento is the continued monopolization of the meaning and direction of "progress."
Anthropology's other option regarding "the primitive" is for the most part the road not taken by the profession. There is no mystery in this. Calling the primitive an illusory invention of 19th Century Anthropology's founders and replacing it linguistically with the euphemisms of development serve the same purpose as the end-of-ideology doctrine. A threatening dialectic is neutralized and replaced with a safe monocultural substitute. The primitive is discarded not only because it signals a condition that Modernity has left
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