Boas Kwakiutl mask drawing - cropped.
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by John Kendall Hawkins
I remember fondly now the early days of my anthropology studies as an undergrad, talking bones in class, smoking bones after. Studying cultures, living it. Talking with my professor about Julian Jaynes's crazy theory that human consciousness originated in "the breakdown of the bicameral mind." And philosophy classes. Foucault, Sanity and Madness, the Narrenschiffen seaside asylums. Dancing in a tie-dyed tee after Mandela's release from the apart-hate system. Reading The Left Hand of Darkness (talk about mind fucks). Global Marley, white blues Dylan, we were changing the world one tune at a time, in our minds.
Two of the most-enduring cultural scenarios offered up in my studies prior to changing my major to philosophy, anthropology's old stomping ground, were the matriarchal community at Catal Huyuk and the Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri Forest. The former offered up a vision of a benign matriarchal world that was said to have existed long before, as Lennon put it, women became "the n-word of the world," and the latter seemed to depict a human world among the elephants that was truly communistic, without Marx, and the need for imported white intellectuals to translate 'dialectical materialism' to the jungle hoi polloi. It just worked.
But that was long ago, before the Internet came along, and made writers of us all, with sometimes out-of-control avatar egos requiring management by unknown moderators who, for all we know, are trolls in their full time day jobs. (Or work for intelligence hunters-and-gatherers who find such behavior valuable and 'play'able.) Everybody's clickety-clacketing; each of us knows how to solve the World puzzle. Everybody's talking at me - and you - and we can't understand what anyone is saying over our typing.
Out of all the din of such being, it brings to mind the 'father' of American anthropology (a German named Franz Boas) who wrote an essay, "On Alternating Sounds," which describes our inability to understand the tones of others; we have sound-blindnesses we need to overcome. Mark Twain expressed the problem best:
"In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language."
Tone-deafness abounds today, blind-sounds leading blind-sounds. Why, it's almost a postmodern Tower of Babel.
Not hearing, seeing, or understanding each other properly is the major concern of Charles King's new book, Gods of the Upper Air: How A Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. The main title comes from a line out of Zora Neale Hurston's memoir, Dust Tracks On A Road. And the book describes the career of Franz Boas, who, as a migrant from Germany, became the founder of the American anthropological movement, based at Columbia University. There he attracted the minds and likes of such intrepid spirits as Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria, who spread out, social scientists intent on letting living data drive them to the reality of Man.
The conclusions these American anthropologists came to believe and disseminate, alone and together as a Circle, are now well-known, though then radical, and can be summed up in an expression: Cultural Relativism. Instead of mocking the perceived differences between cultures from a 'privileged' position, we should be celebrating the variety of Man and revelling in our e pluribus unum. The more steps you took in another culture's moccasins the more the sweat of their soles seeped into your blood until, with enough mileage, you came to an understanding of two cultures - the foot's and the moccasin's - by osmosis.
At the time, this conclusion flew in the face of the prevailing conceit summed up in the popular book, The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant (1916). Grant expounds on the need for a eugenics (weeding the DNA) that would return us to the glory days of Nordic superiority. Hitler called this stuff his "Bible," and married it to his Kampf, Wagner's Siegfried, and the weak-minded gullibility of the Good German. This "scientific racism" (which showed how racist science could be, if given half a chance) eventually got adopted and incorporated as the modus o. of American Exceptionalism.
Charles King's strategy throughout the book is to show how the adventures and expeditions of these anthropologists are entangled with the personal puzzles each explorer is trying to resolve. It's a quest not only for the answers to the nature of humankind, but a method of psychodramatically playing-out the kinks and knots of their own private foibles and flaws - including questions of race, sexuality and gender. It all makes for rich characterization as you, the reader, play it out on the stage of your mind.
King begins by bringing us through the museum of Boas's memories, past stuffed archetypes, reified racial postures, and cobwebs of neural connections past their prime. We come to understand how his early experiences, education and family background led him, almost inevitably, toward a life devoted to finding out what made People tick - How are we different from each other, and the same? Is the observer superior to the observed? Do we live lives of one-way mirrors on each other? King describes Boas's upbringing in a fully assimilated Jewish family comfortable in German culture - "being Burgerlich-urban, educated, freethinking, bourgeois-was as much a defining feature of life as being members of a minority faith." Boas could afford to explore - and he did.
Franz Boas, writes King, was a product of Aufklärung, the German Enlightenment, a reader of noisy newspapers, knockin' on Heaven's door by way of Luther, a believer in the categorical imperative of Kant (the rich man's golden rule). He was influenced by the vision of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who observed, "Human civilization was a jigsaw puzzle of these distinct ways of being, each adding its own piece, some more rough edged than others, to the grand picture of human achievement." Boas got his first serious taste of jigsaw pie, when he went as a young man to frozen Boffin Island, fifth largest island in the world, where he lived among the Inuits, observing, laying down data-driven Krackelfusse (chicken scratches) in his journal.
Just as personal contradictions would torment members of his Circle later, Boas, too, had ritualistic hang-ups he couldn't deny. For instance, he had the need to posture, early on, demonstrating his mensch-hood by engaging in glove-slap fisticuffs. Boas was at home playing piano once when a neighbor shouted to keep it down, and Boas got out there, "escalated the confrontation into " a duel," during which each received a sword tick or two, they proudly called, Schmiss, or duelling scars.
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