May 23, 2016

Absoultely Relative, Keith Windschuttle, 1997

MICHEL Foucault opens his book The Order of Things with a paragraph that has become one of his most famous. Foucault describes a passage from ``a certain Chinese encyclopedia'' that, he claims, breaks up all the ordered surfaces of our thoughts. 

By "our'' thoughts, he means Western thought in the modern era. The encyclopedia divides animals into the following categories: 

a) belonging to the Emperor, 

b) embalmed, 

c) tame, 

d) sucking pigs, 

e) sirens, 

f) fabulous, 

g) stray dogs, 

h) included in the present classification, 

i) frenzied, 

j) innumerable, 

k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, 

l) et cetera

m) having just broken the water pitcher, 

n) that from a long way off look like flies.'' 



Foucault writes that, thanks to "the wonderment of this taxonomy,'' we can apprehend not only "the exotic charm of another system of thought'' but also "the limitation of our own.''



What the taxonomy or form of classification reveals, says Foucault, is that "there would appear to be, then, at the other extremity of the earth we inhabit, a culture . . . that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think.'' The stark impossibility of our thinking in this way, Foucault says, demonstrates the existence of an entirely different system of rationality.



In May 1995 I gave a paper to a seminar in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, Australia. Although most of the postmodernists in the department declined to attend, they deputized one of their number, Alastair MacLachlan, to reply and, they hoped, to tear me apart. My respondent opened his remarks by citing Foucault and the Chinese taxonomy. 

Didn't I realize, he chided, that other cultures have such dramatically different conceptual schemes that traditional assumptions of Western historiography are inadequate for the task of understanding them?
There is, however, a problem rarely mentioned by those who cite the Chinese taxonomy as evidence for these claims. No Chinese encyclopedia has ever described animals under the classification listed by Foucault. In fact, there is no evidence that any Chinese person has ever thought about animals in this way. The taxonomy is fictitious. It is the invention of the Argentinian short-story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.

This revelation would in no way disturb the assumptions of the typical postmodernist thinker, who believes that the distinction between fact and fiction is arbitrary anyway. Foucault himself openly cites Borges as his source. The example is now so frequently cited in academic texts and debates that it is taken as a piece of credible evidence about non-Western cultures. It deserves to be seen, rather, as evidence of the degeneration of standards of argument in the Western academy.

THE American ethnographer Marshall Sahlins cites Foucault and the Chinese taxonomy as part of his case against his opponent Gananath Obeyesekere, in what has developed into the most hotly contested debate in anthropology of recent times. In his 1992 book, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, Obeyesekere denied the thesis of Sahlins that the natives of Hawaii in 1779 had regarded Captain James Cook as their returned god Lono. Obeyesekere claimed that the Hawaiians had too much "practical rationality'' to mistake an Englishman, who wore strange clothes, spoke no Hawaiian, and knew nothing of their religious beliefs or practices, for one of their gods. 
In his 1995 book How "Natives'' Think, Sahlins replied that Obeyesekere, although Sri Lankan, is captive to Western concepts, a man who cannot think outside this form of rationality and who imagines that Western thought constitutes the universal mind of humanity. However, says Sahlins, the existence of radically different systems of classification like that of the Chinese encyclopedia is evidence that different cultures order their perceptions in radically different ways.

Sahlins does not rely entirely on fictional evidence but also cites some findings by anthropologists. He gives the example of the Chewa people of Malawi, who classify certain mushrooms in the same group with game animals, rather than with plants, on the basis of the similarities of their flesh. For the Chewa, domestic ducks are not classified with birds, nor with wild ducks.

Unfortunately for Sahlins, it is not difficult to show that this more empirical type of evidence still provides no support for his claim. Let me give one simple example. I have in front of me a recent document from the National Heart Foundation of Australia. It contains a table classifying plant and animal products. It puts the following items into one group: skim milk, lean red meat, skinless chicken, fresh fish, egg whites, bread, pasta, all fruit and vegetables, legumes, water, tea, coffee, fruit juices. And it links the following together into a second group: coconut oil, butter, whole milk, fried meat, bacon, sausages, egg yolks, croissants, milkshakes, coffee whiteners.

According to the Sahlins view, this table should be a demonstration of the mentality of a radically different culture, which, like the Chewa, puts plant and animal products into the one category. Should we assume that the National Heart Foundation has become possessed of some unfathomably different rationality? Sadly, the answer is more mundane. The first category comprises foods low in cholesterol and saturated fat; the second, foods high in cholesterol or saturated fat.

Surely it is obvious that within any one culture, different uses generate different classifications. There is nothing surprising about a tribe that puts domestic ducks and wild ducks into different categories. We make exactly the same distinction in Western culture, else we would have little use for the words "domestic'' and "wild.'' Indeed, when we classify animals and plants for our own consumption we use groupings not dissimilar to those of the Chewa.

The big difference between our culture and theirs is that we also have a method of classification derived from the science of biology. In fact, biology is the most obvious example of a science whose classifications derive objectively from nature, despite the claims of postmodernists that such a thing is impossible. If animals or plants do not reproduce with each other, they do not constitute a species. This is a taxonomy that existed in nature eons before the emergence of Western science; indeed, it would have existed even if human beings had never evolved to discover it.

SAHLINS places his biggest single emphasis on the "different rationality'' of the Hawaiians because of the nature of the charge made against him by Obeyesekere. The Sri Lankan had accused the American not only of not properly understanding the Hawaiian mind but also of perpetuating European myths. As a non-European, Obeyesekere said he was able to spot a European myth when he saw one, and the belief that the natives mistook the white explorers for gods is in this category. 

The idea that Cook was taken for a god first appeared in print in the oral histories of Hawaiian beliefs recorded by American missionary schools in the 1830s. Since some of these texts contain a number of decidedly non-Polynesian concepts -- for instance, that before the Europeans arrived the natives were led by Satan and "living in sin'' -- the Hawaiians' oral histories had obviously been contaminated by their subsequent conversion to Christianity.

From Obeyesekere's perspective, two issues are raised. First, Sahlins's reputation as an ethnographer who can read a culture of "the other'' in its own terms is seriously called into question. Like the missionaries, he seems just another American with a low opinion of the gullible native mind.

Second, there is the broader issue of theoretical interpretation. The theoretical framework in which Sahlins is operating derives from the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who proposed that tribal mentalities are locked within their cultures. Events that European ``common sense'' might suggest would explode their world view -- such as the arrival of English sailors with vastly superior technology and with tales of other countries and peoples far beyond the limits of the world previously imagined by the natives -- do not have this shattering effect, since people cannot take off their culture as they take off their clothes. Obeyesekere, on the other hand, says that Cook's visit did have a profoundly disruptive impact on Hawaiian culture, all in a matter of weeks. Hence, major events can change people's ideas rapidly, and so structuralist theory does not provide a good account of native mentalities in the post-contact period.

The reason there can be such divergent opinions on this issue is that, apart from Hawaiians' memories of their former religion recalled fifty years later, the principal evidence about native beliefs in 1779 comes from the diaries and journals kept by officers and sailors during the relatively brief visits by the English ships. These men had only a smattering of the local language and gleaned what they could of native religious beliefs from observation of their ceremonies.

When Cook landed on Hawaii in January 1779 he landed at Kealakekua Bay, close to the site where the procession associated with the Makahiki Festival began and ended. Sahlins's thesis is that Cook was greeted by the natives as the manifestation of Lono -- a god associated with peace, games, and agricultural fertility -- and worshipped by both commoners and priests as the god. The priests took him to their temples for the appropriate ceremonies.

Cook departed the island but returned ten days later to repair a sprung mast. His return, however, coincided with the period dominated by the warlike god Ku. There were no welcomes this time; rather, the people and their chiefs were sullen and insolent. After an attempt to take the high chief Kalani'opu'u hostage for the return of a stolen cutter, Cook was turned upon by the natives and killed. According to Sahlins, the Hawaiians assaulted Cook because, in the season of Ku, Kalani'opu'u eclipsed the authority of Lono and killed his embodiment to usurp his godly powers.

Obeyesekere's counter-claim is that, instead of treating Cook as a god, the Hawaiians treated him as a chief, most probably to enlist his support in the interminable warfare with the chiefs of other islands in the group. Cook was an obvious foreigner: he did not speak the Hawaiians' language and knew nothing of their religion -- unlikely behavior for an Hawaiian god. And instead of conforming to Lono's mythical procession around the island by land, Cook circled the island by sea.

Moreover, the rituals the islanders performed on Cook's arrival show he was not regarded as a god; for example, he was made to genuflect in a temple before an image of the god Ku. This was something a chief could do but a god could not. At the ceremony, Cook was wrapped in red tapa cloth, a garment that other chiefs wore. The Hawaiian chiefs and priests did not prostrate themselves before Cook as they would before a god. Only the common people prostrated themselves, as they normally did for their chiefs. While Cook was certainly given the name Lono, it was not unusual for chiefs and priests to be given divine names. One of the priests who greeted Cook was also named Lono.

Above all, Cook's death did not conform to Hawaiian beliefs about the legendary clash between Lono and the chief. This clash happened during the Kal'i ritual in which the king comes ashore with his warriors to confront the god, who stands before his temple. A warrior of the god attacks the king with spears. One of these touches the king and he dies a symbolic death as a foreign being, but at the same time is reborn as a Hawaiian sovereign. A sham battle ensues in which the king emerges as conqueror. 

Sahlins argues that Cook met his death because the warriors of King Kalani'opu'u were re-enacting the Kal'i ritual. But he also acknowledges that the events on the fateful day, February 14, 1779, diverged in a number of ways from the detail of the ritual.

This is where Sahlins loses the argument. There is so much discrepancy between his own account of what Hawaiian religion expects to occur between Lono and the warrior king, and what actually happened. First, when Cook went to Kalani'opu'u's house he was not treated as some kind of hostile god who had returned ``out of season.'' He was still regarded highly by the Hawaiians, who prostrated themselves before him and, while he waited for Kalani'opu'u to waken, presented him once again with gifts of pigs and red tapa cloth. Second, in the Kal'i ritual, it is not the god who comes in from the sea but the king. He then confronts the god on shore. Sahlins acknowledges this but still insists that the scene was "reminiscent of the climactic ritual battle, the Kal'i, but played in reverse. The god Lono (Cook) was wading ashore with his warriors to confront the king.'' However, even in this ``mirror image'' version, the ``cosmic confrontation'' did not occur in the way Sahlins says it did. Cook was not killed while wading ashore but had been on land for hours. When the attack occurred, the English were running through the water away from the beach, trying to get to their boats. Third, the king himself did not initiate any confrontation with Cook. If he was the "upstart'' representative of Ku, he appeared completely unaware of it himself until his wife persuaded him that Cook threatened his life. In direct opposition to the ritual, it was Cook, the supposed manifestation of Lono, who was the aggressor.

The credibility of Sahlins's account thus depends on his readers' accepting the notion that so many aspects of the ritual could actually be "played in reverse'' and that the ancient Hawaiians would see it that way, despite their religious traditions. On the other hand, a "Western bourgeois'' interpretation would read the events in far more prosaic fashion. Kalani'opu'u's wife was worried that if he went with Cook he would suffer the same fate as Kalimu, who had just been shot by Cook's blockading party. So the Hawaiians attacked the English to save their king's life. The central issue comes down to a matter of choice between anthropological "readings'' of the events on the beach that day, and the "bourgeois'' reading is less inconsistent and inherently more probable. Plainly, it is the reading by Sahlins that imposes its own interpretation on the native mind.

And not accidentally. Anyone who adopts a structuralist approach has already decided a great deal about how the story of what happened in history will be told. Structuralism imposes the primacy of culture onto history in the same way that Marxism imposes the primacy of the class struggle. It believes the world is made of language and culture in the way that Marxism believes the basis of society is the means of production. In postmodernist jargon, both structuralism and Marxism "decenter the subject'' -- they reduce or omit the impact of the individual upon history. Every one of these concepts and assumptions is a product of Western social theory and, from the perspective of "the other'' -- such as the ancient Hawaiians who believed that the gods were immanent in animate and inanimate objects alike -- makes no sense at all.

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