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The Neo-Primitivist Turn

The Neo-Primitivist Turn: Critical Reflections on Alterity, Culture, and Modernity

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Neo-Primitivist Turn
    Book Description:

    In recent years the concept of 'the primitive' has been the subject of strong criticism; it has been examined, unpacked, and shown to signify little more than a construction or projection necessary for establishing the modernity of the West. The term 'primitive' continues, however, to appear in contemporary critical and cultural discourse, begging the question: Why does primitivism keep reappearing even after it has been uncovered as a modern myth?

    InThe Neo-primitivist Turn, Victor Li argues that this contentious term was never completely banished and that it has in fact reappeared under new theoretical guises. An idealized conception of 'the primitive,' he contends, has come to function as the ultimate sign of alterity. Li focuses on the works of theorists like Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, Marianna Torgovnick, Marshall Sahlins, and Jürgen Habermas in order to demonstrate that primitivism continues to be a powerful presence even in those works normally regarded as critical of the concept. Providing close readings of the ways in which the premodern or primitive is strategically deployed in contemporary critical writings, Li's interdisciplinary study is a timely and forceful intervention into current debates on the politics and ethics of otherness, the problems of cultural relativism, and the vicissitudes of modernity.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8182-8
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. 1 The Neo-primitivist Turn
    (pp. 3-45)

    The passage from primitivism to neo-primitivism generally follows the trajectory of Western thought from nineteenth-century evolutionism and the belief in universal histories of progress to twentieth-century cultural relativism and the so-called postmodern incredulity towards modern universalist narratives. We need to examine this trajectory briefly in order to understand how primitivism was dismissed as a Eurocentric myth only to have neo-primitivism end up rescuing and renewing the Western subject of knowledge. We need to understand what the critics and theorists we will be studying reject in Western forms of primitivism, and what aspects of the repudiated primitivist forms they paradoxically continue...

  6. 2 Alterity: Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, Marianna Torgovnick
    (pp. 46-86)

    The title of this section alludes to Jean-François Lyotard’sThe Postmodern Conditionin order to make the point that the so-called postmodern critique of the modern relies heavily on the concept of the premodern or primitive. Tomoko Masuzawa, in her deconstructive reading of the quest for the origin of religion, uneasily observes: ‘[W]e wonder ... as to the meaning of the curious appendagepost-. Is this an extension – some kind of an afterlife, perhaps, of what it qualifies (structuralist, modern, industrial)? Or does it indicate a reversal of some sort, an atavistic return of what once was ... a return...

  7. 3 Culture: Marshall Sahlins
    (pp. 87-152)

    This chapter will explore the ramifications of Gayatri Spivak’s insightful remark that culture can be viewed in two ways: ‘culture as a battle cry against one culture’s claim to Reason as such ...; and culture as a nice name for the exoticism of the outsiders.’¹ In the first view, the relativization of culture combats ethnocentrism by questioning any one culture’s claim to possess universal reason. In this sense, culture can be mobilized against evolutionary primitivism’s ranking of peoples according to their achieved level of rationality. The concept of culture can thus be seen as anti-primitivist in spirit. In the second...

  8. 4 Modernity: Jürgen Habermas
    (pp. 153-217)

    If ‘culture’ functions as a displaced form of neo-primitivism, as the previous chapter has shown, ‘modernity’ as a conceptual term can be shown to harbour a primitivist logic as well. To claim, as this chapter will, that ‘modernity’ is not opposed to, but in league with, neo-primitivism will come as a shock to most readers. And to argue further that Jürgen Habermas’s committed and thoughtful defence of the project of modernity relies on the premodern or primitive Other, not only as its antithesis but also as its secret sharer, will seem an even more outlandish provocation. But a careful reading...

  9. Conclusion: ‘Theorizing always needs a Savage’
    (pp. 218-228)

    There is an excellent illustration of neo-primitivism as an anti-primitivist primitivism in a short story by the British writer Will Self. ‘Understanding the Ur-Bororo’ is a comic send-up of Western primitivist longings. The point of Self’s satirical story is that there is no primitive that we can turn to for an exotic alternative to the banality of everyday modern life. The primitive is neither a romantic ‘noble savage’ nor the source of ancient wisdom that can redeem us from our modern malaise. To the surprise of the Western ethnographic gaze, the Ur-Bororo are a rather dull tribe showing indifference to...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 229-266)
  11. References
    (pp. 267-280)
  12. Index
    (pp. 281-292)