Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life

By Desley Deacon | Go to book overview

PREFACE

If you want biographies, do not desire those which bear the legend, "Herr So-and-so and his age," but those upon whose title page there would stand "a fighter against his age." -- Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations

ELSIE Clews Parsons was "a carrier of culture rather than its freight." Born in 1874 in the wake of the American Civil War, she helped create modernism--a new way of thinking about the world that has given the twentieth century its distinctive character--and she applied it, not to art or literature, but to life itself. Eric Hobsbawm, in his magisterial overview, concludes that the major revolution of the twentieth century--the one that has, in his words, brought millions of people out of the Middle Ages--is the revolution in social relations. Elsie Clews Parsons--feminist, anthropologist, public intellectual--was a leader in this revolution, using the new-cultural anthropology to "kill" nineteenth-century ideas of classification and hierarchy, and to establish new twentieth-century standards of sexual plasticity and cultural tolerance. In a new world that stressed secularism, empiricism, honesty, pluralism in thought and social relationships, and a fluid and constantly evolving self, the "new woman" was, in Parsons's words, "the woman not yet classified, perhaps not classifiable." And a vital culture was one that could, like the Southwestern Pueblos she studied, "keep definite cultural patterns in mobile combination."

The assertion of sexual plasticity and cultural mobility was part of the modernist project to repudiate history, to deconstruct established theoretical systems and their related concepts and classifications, and to demolish existing systems of values. Central to this "transvaluation of values" was the feminist destruction of the nineteenth-century concepts of "woman" and "family," and the creation of new, pragmatic relationships and moralities based on experience and experiment. Closely associated with this feminist

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