26 August 2008

Importing Theory: Europeans and Indians

In her classic bestseller, Patterns in Culture (1946 [1934]), Ruth Benedict draws upon Greek myth to construct two categories of cultural practice. She states,
Like most of the American Indians, except those of the Southwest puebloes, the tribes of the Northwest Coast were Dionysian. In their religious ceremonies the final thing they strove for was ecstasy. The chief dancer, at least at the high point of his performance, should lose normal control of himself and be rapt into another state of existence. He should froth at the mouth, tremble violently and abnormally, do deeds which would be terrible in a normal state. (158)
In her chapter on the Pueblos, which she calls Apollonian, Benedict explains that these contrasting approaches to "the value of human existence" were "named and described by [Frederich] Nietzsche in his studies of Greek tragedy" (79).

She summarizes Nietzsche's analysis,
The desire of the Dionysian, in personal experience or in ritual, is to press through it toward a certain psychological state, to achieve excess. The closest anaology to the emotions he seeks is drunkenness, and he values the illuminations of frenzy. With [William] Blake, he believes "the path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." The Apollonian distrusts all this, and has often little idea of the nature of such experiences. He finds means to outlaw them from his conscious life. He "knows but one law, measure in the Hellenic sense." He keeps the middle of the road, stays within the known map, does not meddle with disruptive psychological states. (79)
This scheme for analyzing the rituals and spiritual practices of American indigenes, and perhaps also their secular practices, might suggest interesting research questions. But it might also get in the way of perception. This scheme may well filter out all observations that undermine the effort to apply an alien theory of existence to cultural study.

Benedict's expression of these categories has always provoked frustration--indeed I experience a passionate, negative emotional response, even thinking of tossing the book towards the garbage--each time I encounter them. Although I've been reading Patterns in Culture since the late 1980s, I cannot state with any assurance that I've read the whole book.

My resistance to Benedict's categories for analysis of North American tribal cultures stems from the sense that it is an inappropriate importation of alien culture theory, rather than the effort to discover and articulate indigenous theory. It violates a cardinal principle of the historian, and of the anthropologist, that peoples must be understood first on their own terms. Then, and only then, can we make comparisons to other peoples.

Benedict's scheme causes me to think of one of the clearest and most insightful statements I have heard from Russell Means: "Marxism is as alien to my culture as capitalism and Christianity" (Means, "The Same Old Song," 33).* In this essay, Means makes his case against Marxism.
Revolutionary Marxism, as with industrial society in other forms, seeks to "rationalize" all people in relation to industry, maximum industry, maximum production. It is a meterialist doctrine which despises the American Indian spiritual tradition, our cultures, our lifeways. Marx himself called us "precapitalists" and "primitive". Precapitalist simply means that, in his view, we would eventually discover capitalism and become capitalists; we have always been economically retarded in Marxist terms. (26)
Means argues that Marxism is steeped in European industrial values, and its revolutionary vision is rooted in an understanding of the needs of Europe. For an Oglala Lakota patriot, as Means describes himself, the importation of Marxist revoltionary theory does not offer relief from the destruction of Native lands by American industrial capitalism. Marxism wishes only to change the ownership of the industry, not embrace a more spiritual way of being.

Whether the theory stems from Nietzsche's analysis of Greek myth, or the economic analysis of capitalism by Marx an Engels, it represents the importation of alien ways of thinking. It produces bias that might interfere with perception.

*Russell Means, "The Same Old Song," in Marxism and Native Americans, edited by Ward Churchill, 19-33 (Boston: South End Press, 1983).

1 comment:

Prerna said...

Right, a problem with even so-called 'revolutionary' political economy theories like Marxism is that they place all nations on the same trajectory of development -- ironically, the same thing developmentalists / modernization theory architects like Samuel Huntington (barf). I consider myself on the heterodox political economist side and a lot of us do realize the cultural bias and economic determinism of Marxism as drawbacks of the theory. Of course, that does not mean the entire theory is impractical, just that grand, universalizing narratives are a no-no.

There are many histories that challenge History.

Have a good day James :)

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