Note 1: Frederick Engels and Eurocentric Domination of the Other. 5/27/99
The act of perceiving the other has never been a simple matter of looking beyond the limits of your own world view, as if there were a sheet of transparent glass between you and the subject/object of your scrutiny, into the world view of a group of people who may not share any of the values that constitute your own way of life. Too often in the past, even always, Europeans have treated the other, have perceived the other, as if they, or more properly it, were an exhibit in a museum of natural history precisely arranged in this or that hierarchical structure with all the necessary tools and implements that define the culture layered out and around the object of study in an order supposed to tell us who and what they are, who and what they are like. This is especially true in the discipline of anthro(a)pology. One can justly argue that such an approach to the culture of the other is fully legitimate were it ever true that the subject/object of study was in fact the other who has been put on display. In Eurocentric discourse, however, the other, as such and in-itself, has never been the point of the scrutiny.
The exhibit in the museum of natural history limits and defines the subject/object under study in a curious, if not fantastic, way. The objects behind the polished surface of the glass, a setting staged to illustrate the daily life and living conditions of an entire tribe of people, say, contains all the artifacts and implements any of them would use during the course of a single day to accomplish whatever tasks were necessary to sustain their lives. Any person on the outside of that barrier of polished glass knows instinctively, and without ambiguity, that the scene being depicted has nothing whatsoever to do with the way he/she conducts his or her own life. Even if the person looking in at the display happens to notice his/her reflection super- imposed on the scene being projected by the artifacts on the polished surface of the glass barrier separating here and there, the idea of a commonly shared human reality, even if only conditioned by juxtaposition and not by the interanimation of actual value structures, cannot be supposed to enter the mind of the observer at all. What the artifacts always tell us, and what they are intended to convey, by virtue of their oddity and strangeness in comparison with the tools and implements of our own daily experience, is that the "I" of the observer shares nothing in common with the "it" of the display.
Archeology, the science responsible for the task of gathering and classifying the artifacts of the other, since it only rarely searches for the remains of members of its own sociohistorical culture, usually when they are threatened by a construction project, a new shopping mall say, and then only does it with the utmost reverence so as not to offend anyone by digging up the graves of good Christians and true, has always been in the business of drawing the necessary distinction between what is old, alien, primitive, and savage from what is seen as belonging to the better, more refined, more advanced, and therefore, naturally dominant, class that commissions, supports, and affords the "dig" in the first place. The possibility that archeologists would uncover something better, more advanced, more sophisticated than everything they bring to the field themselves is virtually unthinkable. If it were better, more sophisticated, it would not be buried in the deserts of Outer Mongolia.
This same ideology, of course, has always defined the activities of anthro(a)pologists as well. From its inception, the idea of studying the other in his/her natural environment, in field work as it were, has always been flawed and compromised by the prior belief and conviction that the people who are going to be studied are somehow less advanced, less sophisticated than the individual, or team, who is going to be conducting the study are. The end result of such studies, sadly, are inescapably predictable in that they always find more proof to support what is always already known about the subject/object of the study--that they are less sophisticated than "we" are. This predictable result, of course, serves its own ideological purpose by putting the researcher, who is superior and dominant, in the same frame of reference, in the mirror of the display's barrier of polished glass, as it were, so that he/she can be favorably compared to the inferior and subjugated subject/object of the study. This circumstance, which is truly inescapable, always makes the study, not about the other, about the culture or civilization of the subject/object, but only about the way the inferiority and subjugation of the other is both real, inescapable, and necessary in relation to the status of the one who is doing the study.
In more practical terms, issues like this one have played themselves out in Europe's imperialistic expansionism into the Western hemisphere, much to the detriment of indigenous populations, who have always been the subjects/objects of Eurocentric speculation and study. An early example of how Europeans appropriated studies of native American culture as a means of positioning themselves, and the state of their own sociohistorical circumstances, in relation to and in contradistinction from the primitive tribal cultures of the other, can be seen in Frederick Engels's discussion of the Iroquois federation (Chapter 3) in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Engels explicitly states that one of his objectives in studying the social structure of the Iroquois federation concerns the fact that its primitive character mirrors the state in which Europeans lived during the early Greek and Roman periods and that certain gaps in Eurocentric perceptions of those ancestral states of living could be filled in by the knowledge gained from studying native Americans. He puts it this way:
"When we find a people with the gens as their social unit, we may therefore also look for an organization of the tribe similar to that here described; and when there are adequate sources, as in the case of the Greeks and the Romans, we shall not only find it, but we shall also be able to convince ourselves that where the sources fail us, comparison with the [native] American social constitution helps us over the most difficult doubts and riddles." (Chapter 3)
Wherever one finds a gap, an absence or lack of knowledge, therefore, in the normal pursuit of creating a story about the nature of European ancestry, it is possible, "where the sources fail us," if only we "convince ourselves" that it is so, to find and appropriate all we need from an "American social constitution" to fill out and complete the picture our current knowledge brings forth in broken pieces overmatched by "difficult doubts and riddles." To understand the primitive, barbaric stages of Greek and Roman civilization, then, one only needs to study native Americans. One obvious flaw in this reasoning, as if anyone really needed to isolate it, is the fact that these two cultures, one of which borrowed many of its imperatives from the other, and both of which employed written forms of language at an early stage of "development" when native American cultures for the most part remained essentially oral, and did so until coerced to write by European missionaries, experienced external pressures for change and development, the like of which never affected native Americans until only recently in their collective tribal history.
The culture Engels perceives as being so like early Greek and Roman civilization is characterized by him in the following terms: "this gentile constitution, in all its childlike simplicity! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits-and [where] everything takes its orderly course." I suppose one first becomes suspicious of Engels's point of view when he refers to native American culture, as it existed among the Iroquois after the European invasion of the Western hemisphere, as having a "childlike simplicity" in its constitution. Savages are like children in their refusal, or inability, to develop the means and modes of coercion and force that characterize the adult world of the sophisticated and dominant race of invasive masters who have come all this way to study objectively the natives' childish pursuit of culture so as to better understand their own Eurocentric kind. A first step in this process was to kill as many natives as possible and then to incarcerate the survivors in concentration camps where they could more easily be studied.
What Engels learned from his study of the Iroquois can be summed up in the following sentence, a characterization by the way that can easily be confirmed from numerous earlier sources and accounts transcribed by other Europeans who witnessed its reality first-hand, as we shall see: "[t]he gentile constitution in its best days, as we saw it in America, presupposed an extremely undeveloped state of production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide area." While one hesitates to call this observation a "commonplace" among Eurocentric thinkers, many of Engels's kind reached this and similar conclusions as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century. In fact, many other commentators who described America in the first century after its "discovery" tended to argue that the sparse population among native American tribes constituted an ill-use of the land that could only be remedied by its appropriation or confiscation by more mature and seasoned Europeans. Cabeza de Vaca, in his Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America (1542), puts it this way in Chapter 31: "[o]ver all the region we saw vast and beautiful plains that would make good pasture. I think the land would prove very productive if developed by civilized men." The curious thing about this statement is that de Vaca reached Engels's conclusion fully 300 years before the Marxist theorist did. Put another way: who needs Marxism if Cabeza de Vaca is capable of reaching the same conclusion that Marx and Engels get to 300 years later? Put that in a headline: Revolutionary Theorist Reaches Same Conclusion Cabeza de Vaca Saw in 1542.
The only difference I can detect between Engels and de Vaca concerns the fact that the sixteenth century Spaniard was considerably less disingenuous about some of the root causes of the sparseness of native populations in the Americas than Engels tends to be. In Chapter 50, as he and his several companions penetrate north America's southwestern region and draw into proximity to others of their kind, specifically other Christians, de Vaca reports that they encounter fewer and fewer natives:
"We hastened through a vast territory, which we found vacant, the inhabitants having fled to the mountains in fear of Christians. With heavy hearts we looked out over the lavishly watered, fertile, and beautiful land, now abandoned and burned and the people thin and weak, scattering or hiding in fright."
The natives in question, a large group of whom de Vaca found camped on a nearby mountain-top, were hiding themselves from Spanish slavers who were already driving a large band of shackled and chained natives in front of them looking for an opportunity to further reduce the population of the already sparsely settled land. Turning a free, though savage, people into slaves is always already a better option for a European future in the Americas, especially when you might be called upon to justify your confiscation of their land by force and coercion, if any of them are left alive after you work them to death making the necessary capital improvements civilization requires, than recognizing the fact that people everywhere, savage or not, have the right to use their own land in whatever way their prior life on it has taught them to do. The idea that Europeans had that right, simply because native Americans did not overpopulate and urbanize themselves into a position where they were forced to seize land from someone else, stands on absolutely no ground of reason, short of an insatiable taste for the pleasures of committing genocide against the other, at all. At least Cabeza de Vaca was still able to express some element of regret over what Christian Europe was in the process of doing to native America. Engels seems to have lost that modest ability altogether. Talk about progress. Europeans no longer feel any shame for what they do, for what they have already done and for what they will be driven to do tomorrow. The good news, from a native American point of view, is that we are no longer perceived as being in the way of Eurocentric greed. What that means, of course, is that Europeans will have to turn their slave-making aggression toward each other now, toward themselves. In time, and even shortly, they will have managed to work themselves into the kind of death they have always reserved for the other. No one here will lament their passing.
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