Submitted by Christopher T. Dole on Wednesday, 10/14/2009, at 9:31 AM


Sample Response, Assignment #1


Bourgeois Existential Crisis: How Doubts about Modernity Fuel our Fascination with Hunter-Gatherers


For centuries there has been a tension in Western thought between “progress” and “nostalgia”—between the belief that scientific, technological, economic, political, and social “progress” have given us a better life than our primitive forebears and the nagging fear that they have (either on the contrary, or perhaps at the same time) burdened us or robbed us of some essential element of our humanity.  On the one hand, Thomas Hobbes famously argued that life for people in the wild (the “state of nature”) was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, Leviathan, xiii).  And Adam Smith, the father of economics, showed with his parable of the pin-maker how the specialization facilitated by market capitalism results in higher productivity and, thus, higher “standards of living”—a term that equates quality of life with the quantity and quality of material possessions that a person can acquire, since such possessions are presumed to make his life easier and more pleasant.  On the other hand, people like Henry David Thoreau have argued that, on the contrary, modernity has forced most people to “lead lives of quiet desperation” (Thoreau, Walden, 7), enslaved by money and materialism.  Romantics exalted primitive life as simple, honest, innocent, uncorrupted, and in harmony with nature.  It is this tension that is largely responsible for modern man’s fascination with primitive peoples, hunter-gatherers whose lifestyles we presume (perhaps not always correctly) have changed little since before the “dawn of civilization.”  We desire to see these peoples as earlier forms of ourselves, so that we can, by looking at them, reflect on what we have gained and what we have lost along the march of progress and civilization.  

A New York Times article by Juan Forero tellingly entitled “Leaving the Wild, and Rather Liking the Change” begins as follows:

Since time immemorial the Nukak-Maku have lived a Stone Age life, roaming across hundreds of miles of isolated and pristine Amazon jungle, killing monkeys with blowguns and scouring the forest floor for berries.  But recently, and rather mysteriously, a group of nearly 80 wandered out of the wilderness, half-naked, a gaggle of children and pet monkeys in tow, and declared themselves ready to join the modern world. (Forero, 1)

This introduction in many ways reflects the conventional modern view of such hunter-gatherers.  We see them as “isolated” and “pristine,” as living the way they have lived “since time immemorial,” that is, as living the way all humans once lived, as though in a time warp.  We pity them for their ignorance of modern ways; Forero writes, “the Nukak have no concept of money, of property, of the role of government, or even of the existence of a country called Colombia” (Forero, 1).  We pity them for their hard lives and lack of modern products and conveniences; Forero notes how much the Nukak like “‘Pots, pants, shoes, caps,’…matches and soap and other of life’s necessities” (Forero, 3), and quotes Dr. Javier Maldonado as saying “‘Nukak life is hard in the jungle’” (Forero, 4).  We pity them, not because they are truly unhappy or desire our pity, but as a way of resolving our own cognitive dissonance that results from seeing just how happy such people often seem.  We want to find fault with their “backward” ways to justify our way of life to ourselves, to allay our Thoreauvian insecurity about whether we ourselves are “really living.”  Because the truth is that life for hunter-gatherers (when they have not been displaced by Marxist guerillas and/or coca farmers, as the Nukak have) is not as hard or miserable as Dr. Maldonado (or Hobbes) would have us believe.  As Marshall Sahlins points out in “The Original Affluence Society” (chapter 1 of his book, Stone Age Economics), though hunter-gatherers do indeed have an “objectively low standard of living” (Sahlins, 11), they “do not work hard” (Sahlins, 17), but rather enjoy substantial amounts of leisure time (much more than most people in industrial societies) during which their freedom from economic cares allows them to genuinely enjoy themselves (Sahlins, 14).  However, since we cannot imagine ever being content with such low standards of living, conditioned as we are by consumer capitalism to constantly desire more, newer, better things, we assume that they must be as miserable as we would be in their situation—lest we feel inferior to them.  Thus, “having equipped the hunter with bourgeois impulses and paleolithic tools, we judge his situation hopeless in advance” (Sahlins, 4).  

Not only does modern life lead many of us to work long hours and yet still feel deprived or unsatisfied, but it also seems invariably to give rise to inequality, conquest, coercion, subjugation, exploitation, and (of particular concern today) the destruction of nature.  Hobbes described primitive life as a “war of every man against every man” (Hobbes, Leviathan, xiii), yet it is modern, “civilized” society that is characterized by relentless war, competition, and exploitation.  The development of agriculture, and later industrial capitalism, created the conditions for social stratification, forced labor, expansionistic conquest, colonial exploitation, and environmental degradation.  By contrast, hunter-gathers “are peace loving and unlikely to fight” (Forero, 2), live in highly egalitarian societies, and have little or no ecological footprint.   

Modern man likes to imagine that he has ascended to some godlike pinnacle of evolution, that he enjoys, thanks to our technological, industrial capitalist society, comfort and leisure unprecedented in human history.  Yet at the same time, as we muddle along through our daily lives, we are quietly insecure as to whether our lifestyle really is all that great.  We seek out primitive peoples, because we want to convince ourselves that their lives are truly poor and miserable, so that we can, by contrast, reassure ourselves of the richness of our modern lives, which all too often seem futile and unfulfilling, and sometimes even exploitative and destructive.  Failing at this, we marvel at them, perhaps envying their contentment and lack of material concerns, transfixed by the possibility that it is they, and not we, who have life figured out.