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Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Can we move beyond primitivism?

On recovering the indigenes of indigenous religions in the academic study of religion

Armin W. Geertz

This chapter will explore the strange discrepancy between the indisputably central and inclusive role played by indigenous cultures in the development of theory in the social and cultural sciences on the one hand, and, on the other, the systematic exclusion, marginalization, and invisibility of living indigenous peoples in those same sciences. I suggest that a possible route to explaining this discrepancy is through the history of primitivism and evolutionism in European and American thought. It is important at the outset to emphasize that “primitivism” is a concept that has both positive (that is to say, romantic) as well as negative connotations. Even though the notion has often been used in a positive sense, it still draws on illusory ideas about indigenous peoples, and therefore I strongly advocate its demise. The problem, however, is that the phenomenon of primitivism is so firmly rooted in human culture (not just, by the way, in European and American cultures) that I fear any attempt to eradicate it would simply be quixotic. But I think it is our job as scholars to point out the inconsistencies and irrationalities of our cultures, indigenous as well as Western.

The route to be followed in tracing the history of primitivism is difficult because so many strands of thought arise from what can be called the “anonymous ideology” of primitivism. Basically, the route of classical primitivism is from antiquity through Medieval Scholastics, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic period. Surprisingly, primitivist notions (in the romantic sense) continued even more strongly during the heyday of evolutionism in the nineteenth century. One of the many reasons for this was because the full and true impact of Darwinism did not hit Western science until the 1930s! Thus, the absurd notions about “primitive societies” promoted by evolutionists were in fact expressions of a vulgar evolutionism that were more tied in with Victorian ideology than with anything that Darwin had to say. Another reason for the continuance of primitivist notions during the early nineteenth century, in America at least, was that Americans were deeply involved in constructing the “American myth” of innocence and restoration. These constructive efforts became attached to social Darwinism during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Primitivism in modernist guise thrived undaunted at the turn of the twentieth century mainly as a literary and artistic movement with firm roots in the primitivism of Romanticism. The new primitivism since the 1960s is a revival found in all sorts of academic and popular movements and philosophies that continue virtually unabated. Some of these have played central roles in the development of religious studies in the United States, the most prominent being theologians of various persuasions (including feminist theologians), Eliadeans, the

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