The Languages of Difference: American Writers and Anthropologists Reconfigure the Primitive, 1878-1940

The Languages of Difference: American Writers and Anthropologists Reconfigure the Primitive, 1878-1940

The Languages of Difference: American Writers and Anthropologists Reconfigure the Primitive, 1878-1940

The Languages of Difference: American Writers and Anthropologists Reconfigure the Primitive, 1878-1940

Synopsis

Focusing on American culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, The Languages of Difference studies the pervasive and potent notion of the primitive - a notion with dubious colonialist backgrounds and intricate involvement with ideas of color and race, civilization and culture. Human difference and the relationship to the Other were highstakes issues both globally and within societies like the U.S., but this key defining term, the primitive, often provided only a crude amalgam of perceived difference, ethnic and personal bias, and indiscriminate classification of a variety of unfamiliar customs and characteristics. Its uses and significations, like the attitudes it projected, were various and changing.

Excerpt

The greeks of the classical period had awe-inspiring representations of their relationship to the distant forerunners of their civilization: sculptures and frescoes depicting legions of heroes and gods in mortal struggle—entangled in what would become victorious combat—with the satyrs, centaurs, serpents, and beasts from the dim reaches of prehistory. Western culture has this deeply seated motif of rejection of the earlier-stage ancestor. Ancient sculptors depicted it in terms of mortal combat, celebrating the foundation of Civilization as conquest of the unruly, the animalistic, the primeval, by representatives of heroic rationality, of morality and order—rejecting as subhuman and semihuman the creatures of their universe’s distant past. Alternatively, other cultures have had quite different myths of the primeval, imagining (as have many Native American peoples) a distant past inhabited by spiritual ancestors whose animal qualities became special endowments of perceptiveness, ingenuity, and courage in the people who were their inheritors.

Not only has EuroAmerican culture been haunted by its fear-andloathing images of its prehistoric past, but it has tended to classify the differences of contemporary Others according to those same imaginings—to see “primitiveness” in every notable difference of skin color, familial or social structure, or pattern of belief or behavior. the resulting ethnic arrogance has only relatively recently been widely exposed, along with the political and economic exploitations it sanctioned. What I am interested in studying here are the attempts of a few quite original writers and scientists to counter the prevalent, seemingly self-evident notions of the primitive and of such human difference as is included in that term, and to discover more subtle and humane alternatives. Their efforts began in perceptions of the imprecise, complacent and even immoral categories and approaches commonly used to characterize and deal with “primitive” Others. Their struggles toward understanding were ingenious accretions of insight, method, and language. But however insightful, their results cannot stand as definitive. the process of reconceiving those who once were considered “primitive” continues still.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.