ANT204H1 Lecture Notes - Noble Savage, Monogenism, Cultural Relativism
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Tuesday June 2nd, 2009
1. “Primitives and Savages” in European History (Monogenism and Polygenism)
2. “Greening” the Stereotype: Ecologically Noble Savage (History, Agency)
3. The politics of indigeneity
Last lecture Conclusion
-Cultural relativism – a philosophical position that states that if you want to understand how other people do
things, you need to philosophically suspend your value judgements and attempt to try and understand the other
way of doing things from the point of view of people who do it like that (exact opposite of ethnocentrism or
- Example from article – some Muslim women like to veil
oIf you take a culturally relative position, you can begin to undersand how for some Muslim women,
veiling is a choice, not an imposition. They choose to do it because it reflects to the world their sense of
status and morality etc
oDo not view it from Western view that it is oppression, need to look at it from their perspective
- One of the pitfalls of cultural relativism is that when we stand in that place, we run the risk that we may deny any
responsibility for how other people live their lives
-It is valuable in so much that it allows us to put aside our judgements to see why people do what they do, but it
should NOT be used to justify culture talk, i.e “its just their culture”
-The position should not encourage us to be apathetic in the face of justice
- If we accept that all cultural ideas are the product of historical interconnections and relationships, then it turns out
we are all mutually responsible for how we all think and live
- Ex. Some people may find fundamentalism attractive,
oCanada would not be the place it is today if it were not for the brutal subjugation of First Nation people
oIf we look at First Nations people, and their drug and suicide rates, we cant take evidence of their
behaviour and put them in a container that says, their culture and their container, their high drug and
suicide rates are because of what Europeans (i.e. Canadians) did to them
oNeed to say – is there anything I have done to contribute to what has happened? Don’t put them in boxes,
see them as common humanity, see how our decisions are connected to their decisions and attitudes
oThere are interconnections and therefore mutual responsibility
- Does that mean we should go help/save people who are experiencing justice?
oAbu-Lughod: She asks us to recognize the inherent claim to superiority in the idea that “we” should save
oThis is a claim to superiority. Saying that we KNOW how to make it better or have the power to make it
better – i.e. we are politically or intellectually superior
oIf you look at attempts to change other people’s history/lives, so many colossal errors are made, that we
should never do it again.
USA support of Afghan resistance to the Soviet, and what it created (Taliban problem today)
Impulse to say that we know better, we know you shouldn’t live communist. This idea created a
chaotic situation where, after Soviets left, Taliban were able to rise to power. Thousands died,
millions forced to leave, and the extreme domination of women
Ex. Iran/Afghanistan in 20th century. Western backed governments forced their own people to
adopt Western dress in the name of modernization
- Another way to imagine why we shouldn’t take this stance, is to imagine how WE would react in the same
oEx. If Saudi came here and imposed Muslim schools, or if people came here and bombed Wal-Marts in
the because consumerism is bad.
oIn 10 years, would we be wearing modest dress or avoiding Wal-Mart? No, it would never work the way
it was intended.
oThis is what happens when you take a stance of saving from an external party
- The answer is not for one group to change another, it is to change our OWN position and dealing with the globe
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- Abu-Lugod – Western feminists would be better if they worked more at home to reduce economic disparity (i.e.
work at home to ensure fair trade and equal terms of trade), rather than if they just tried to eradicate the veil.
- Going to look at how indigenous people are portrayed, and also how they portray themselves to achieve political
- Going to think critically about the politics of indigeneity (claim to indigenous identity)
Primitives and Savages in European History (Monogenism and Polygenism)
-Time of the Renaissance – 13th to 14th century Europe “rebirth”
-At this time, an interest in classical learning was “reborn” – i.e. Art, philosophy, etc. It was a time where people
were coming out of Medieval Europe where the dominant philosophical thinking was Catholicism, there was no
Protestantism yet. In that period of time, you were brought up to understand the world via church teachings.
-With the Renaissance, people stared to question this structure of knowing, “is that the only way to know the
world”? They were not anti-religious, but they were thinking that maybe there is another way that we can
construct knowledge. They said that the other way was to have curiosity about the wolrd and finding out for
yourself. Not just relying on church and Bible. Go out and seek your own answers. Promote idea of curiosity.
- 1500s –
-1492 – Columbus arrives in Hispaneola (?) and discovers the New World or Americas
- Late 1400s, Portuguese explorers were seeking a sea route around Africa to get to India and China. Columbus was
sponsored by the Spanish.
- Spain and Portugal were major naval powers, and both were seeking to get to the East. The reason was because
there were a lot of spices, perfumes, drugs, silks, and fancy goods that, if you got access to them you could make
-Goal – find access to rich East
- Once they reach Americas and see that it is a whole new world, people see that there are whole new possibilities.
They discovered people they didn’t even know existed.
- 1500s – Europeans come to terms with the new possibilities of new people around the world
- Debates and ideas circulating at the time
Monogenists vs. Polygenists i.e. one birth of humankind, or many types of people are born
-Monogenic explanation that there is a single genesis, single type of people, this is from the Bible. The bible was
seen as a history book about how the world came to be. They had a hard time proving monogenism
- Until 1800s, people believed that Earth had a finite history of 6000 or 7000 years (added up the average life span
of all characters in Bible)
- Catholics thought they had only 6000 to 7000 years to change the entire world’s people to become the same,
make them look and live the same
-Polygenists: Had an easier time logically, they could say people were different because they are a whole different
origin. They are still made by God but are different. But they were suggesting that the Bible was not the
complete truth, so they risked being accused of Heresy, which is denying the truth of the Bible.
- Polygenist theories started gaining more ground as church control started to loosen in the 1500s
oA wealth of literature that confined non-European people to inferior things – i.e. savages, etc (esp Natives
oThese characterizations focused on how these people lived. They were savage because they didn’t have (a
list of things that followed, like laws, writing systems, Kings, customs, arts, occupations, traffic,
agriculture, money, riches, weapons, morals, marriage, and clothes)
oBased their accounts on travel reports, they had never seen savages before
- Ideas of polygenists often underlie contemporary White supremacist today
-Thomas Hobbes (Died 1679): He said that without state and civilization, the life of savage was solitary, poor,
nasty, short, and brutish.
oWith this argument that savages lacked what Europeans had, it came to form a justification for any
cruelties made to the peoples in Africa and Indigenous areas during the same time
- Oppositional view:
- Golden Age – A time when all things were perfect, and an example is the Garden of Eden, idea was that before
the fall from Grace, it was a time of perfect human life with no problems or concerns (no famines, conflicts, etc)
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