Millennium

Essay Excerpt

Many anthropologists are indeed romanticists, and the general public can enjoy trying to comprehend an exotic way of life just as many of us enjoy reading history and trying to comprehend those lost, past worlds. Exotic escapism is diverting and imaginatively enriching. Yet central issues of multiculturalism cannot be sensibly considered outside realities of modern science and technology. Those areas offer no moral judgments; wherever and however moral judgments are derived, however, they cannot be formulated without recognition of the possibilities, good and bad, that science and technology offer. Comparing Australian Aborigines' view of The Dreaming with modern physicists' notions of quantum mechanics as Maybury-Lewis does is silly and irresponsible. It recalls the worst excesses ofLevi-Strauss's La Pensee sauvage, as where modern meteorological rain charts are compared to an Australian water serpent. Human thought, human societies, and human morality are strikingly similar at some levels, but the results of modern cosmology, whether rockets, penicillin, ormicrochips, whether bureaucracy, factories, or metropolises, pose very different issues from the outcomes of tribal wisdom. In such terms Maybury-Lewis's description of primitive peoples' choosing to reject modern knowledge and values seems simplistic, as does his New Age implication that we assume preliterate modes of understanding and valuing. His seeming approval of many beliefs and values regarding mystical cures, mythology, and the values of small-scale, anti-individualistic groups strikes me as troubling and nostalgic. The meaning of social choices becomes itself difficult to determine. When the full range and implications of choices are considered, the possibilities of tribal beliefs and wisdom must inevitably change and reflect their limitations. I do not doubt that many styles of life and morality are possible, but mystification of experience and the morality enforced in a small-scale, conformistic, insulated community seem features of tribal societies doomed to radical change if not destruction. They do not merit promotionas an idealized past. At the turn of the century, Durkheim sought ideas and forms to bolster a conservative France he feared to lose. Primitive societies did not provide Durkheim with useful answers any more than they now do for Maybury-Lewis. Societies and cultures teach us about relations between ideas, values, social organization, technology, and environment. These suggest malleability and diversity among human beings. Today these are changing irreversibly. Analyzing the past teaches us that it provides no atavistic blueprints for the present; however, this seems to be the message that Maybury-Lewis would have popular anthropology bestow upon the public. (Beidelman, 514-515)

About the Author

T.O. Beidelman is a Professor of Anthropology at New York University. His research interests are as follows: Social anthropology, Africa, religion and symbolism, witchcraft and magic, history of colonialism, Christian missionaries, African literature, urban neighborhood and landscape preservation movements, history of British and European anthropology and sociology. 

"This year I completed a book on colonial rule in a district of Tanzania, East Africa.  It is with a university press and I hope to spend the coming months editing the volume for publication.  I published an article on comparing secrecy in Ancient Greece and the Kaguru of East Africa, as well as numerous book reviews.  I continue to work on studies of the strategies of book reviewing in anthropology, on colonial courts in Tanzania, on the politics of historical landmarking in New York City, and on the use of Homeric studies for teaching introductory social anthropology."

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