Engels and indigenous peoples

Charles Brown CharlesB at SPAMCNCL.ci.detroit.mi.us
Tue May 8 10:30:06 MDT 2001

>>> cbcox at ilstu.edu 05/06/01 10:12PM >>>



Geertz is sort of the current premier cultural theorist in ethnology. When Marshall
Sahlins ( perhaps the most celebrated U.S. ethnologist) shifted theoretically about 30
years ago from a "premier" cultural evolutionist/materialist, to a culturalist and
semiotician, he basically signed on to Geertz's theoretical school.

Geertz and Sahlins are correct, although I think, and finally asked Sahlins, we must
ask, "how does the culture change" ? That is the dialectician's question. When Geertz

 "To supply the
additional information necessary to be able to act, we were forced,
in turn , to rely more and more heavily of cultural sources -- the
accumulated fund of significant symbols."

The fund of significant symbols accumulates through practical critical activity ,
trial and error,  through contradiction. It doesn't exactly just "accumulate" in the
sense of a collection that does not discard, throwout some of the old symbols and
symbol systems.

And here is my creative incite on this ( if I do say so myself). Funds of accumulated
significant symbols are logics or FORMAL LOGICS ( ideologies, structures) . They are
not "naturally" DIALECTICAL LOGICS. It is practice that supplies the dialectics, the
negations and contradictions, that cause SYSTEMS of symbols to change. Formal logics
are based on the principle of NON-CONTRADICTION ( A is A). They are not
"self-changing" because the basis for change is contradiction, and they deny
contradiction as their first principle  A system of significant symbols , as a formal
logic, does not change itself based on its own principles. It is only when practice of
the system runs into contradictions ( a great flood or something destroys the world as
the particular group had known, wiping out sacred geographical spots or the like) that
the system of significant symbols in place must change.  With the advent of class
based society and ultimately capitalism,  the system of symbols itself m!
akes practice a principle that more frequently generates symbol system changing

In ancient society ( the stone age and new stone age) this change was slow relative to
the rate of change in later class based-surplus based societies.

My incite reconciles Marxism and the Geertz-Sahlins-Levi-Strauss position in a way.
Since it is the change that makes or originates any system of symbols or ideology, all
systems of symbols are originally created by practical critical activity. But once in
place, the system of symbols, which is the ideas that in the main cause people to act
the way that they do, their culture, does not change frequently. Social being
determines social consciousness, but it does so intermittently, from time to time,
rarely, in social revolutions.  Most of the time society is not in revolution. The
SYSTEM of symbols , structure, remains the same ( plus ca change, plus la meme chose,
as the structuralist motto goes). But it is the revolutions that _determine_ the
systems of symbols , i.e. social being (practice) determines social consciousness (
systems of symbols).

This clears up a confusion that might occur on the issue of materialism/idealism.
Individuals to act based on their ideas and the systems of symbols or social
consciousness. But this is not idealism, because the SYSTEMS of symbols themselves are
materially determined or made through practice.

This comment of mine here applies to the period which is actually mostly post growth
of the size or symbolic capacity ( or whatever bigger sized brain represents) of the
human brain. That is I am not discussing the period in which the typical human brain
is still in development ; more specifically I am not offering an explanation for the
growth in size of the human brain in the transition from the first members of genus
homo to the species homo sapiens.


P.S. I copies of my letters to Prof. Sahlins on this to Maureen Anderson ( who Carrol
quotes ) when she joined one of the lists over a year ago.

>>> cbcox at ilstu.edu 05/06/01 10:12PM >>>

I have been following this exchange of Charles and Greg with interest,
partly because I think the subject itself is of importance and partly
because the modern attack on Marx often takes the form of attempts to
split Marx from Engels; hence the defense of Engels against various
vulgar (i.e., super-sophisticated) attacks is important in itself,
regardless of the specific topic.

I don't think the interactions of language, biology, culture, etc. are
fully understood yet, but in the context the following post from another
list is of interest. At the end of Maureen Anderson's post I have
included some of the material (from an earlier post of mine, which was
the context for her post.


-------- Original Message --------
Subject: cultureless humans
Date: Sun, 06 May 2001 15:13:05 -0500
From: Maureen Anderson <manders at uchicago.edu>

>>Nothing, ever, begins with an individual. Thought independent and
>>prior to language exists (and is the basis for thought in
>>language), but social thought can only come into being in language,
>>and language occurs only within social relations (Milton to the
>>  Carrol
>Where/when does thought leave off and language begin? Just what is
>thought prior to and independent of language?

Besides Damasio, and besides stuff by scientists like Terrence
Deacon, whom I brought up here before, Clifford Geertz long ago wrote
a couple of lucid articles that address these questions of language,
thought, wolf-children and other feral fantasies.

Though a bit dated (including early-seventies patriarchal language,
preserved below), both pieces eloquently explain the basic points, on
the significance of the brain's co-evolution with
language/symbol/society, echoed by others more recently.  (Both
pieces are in his 1973 volume, _The Interpretation of Cultures_.)


"Men without culture would not be the clever savages of Golding's
_Lord of the Flies_ thrown back upon the cruel wisdom of their animal
instincts; nor would they be the nature's noblemen of Enlightenment
primitivism or even, as classical anthropological theory would imply,
intrinsically talented apes who had somehow failed to find
themselves.  They would be unworkable monstrosities with very few
useful instincts, fewer recognizable sentiments, and no intellect:
mental basket cases.  As our central nervous system -- and most
particularly its crowning curse and glory, the neocortex -- grew up
in great part in interaction with culture, it is incapable of
directing our behavior or organizing our experience without the
guidance provided by systems of significant symbols.  What happened
to us in the Ice Age is that we were obliged to abandon the
regularity and precision of detailed genetic control over our conduct
for the flexibility and adaptability of a more generalized, though of
course no less real, genetic control over it.  To supply the
additional information necessary to be able to act, we were forced,
in turn , to rely more and more heavily of cultural sources -- the
accumulated fund of significant symbols.  Such symbols are thus not
mere expressions, instrumentalities, or correlates of our biological,
psychological, and social existence; they are prerequisites of it.
Without men, no culture, certainly; but equally, and more
significantly, without culture, no men."  ["The Impact of the Concept
of Culture on the Concept of Man"]


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