Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (1992) Revisited

Edgerton 02 Sick Societies COVER

Hardcover First Edition (1992)

A critique of cultural relativism, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992) by Robert B. Edgerton (1931 – 2016), an anthropologist and ethnologist who taught at UCLA for many years, has implications not only for how one might evaluate the pre-modern, non-Western folk-societies (primitive societies) studied by professional ethnographers and anthropologists, but for how one might understand both institutions and social practices – and perhaps even political ones – more generally.  Sick Societies provoked moderate controversy when it appeared, but probably few remember the book today.  Nevertheless, Sick Societies deserves not to disappear into the oblivion of the library stacks; or, more likely in 2018, to be purged from the shelves.  Revisiting it twenty-five years later indeed shows it to have maintained its relevance.  Provocative in its day, it remains provocative.  Sick Societies might well be a meditation on culture urgently apposite to the current phase of the West’s seemingly interminable crisis at the end of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century.

I. Adaptation, a Darwinian evolutionary concept, plays a central role in anthropology. The theory of adaptation articulates the anthropologist’s conviction that all societies manage to come to terms optimally with their external environment, and with the internal difficulties presented by communal life, as a people strives to fit itself in its environmental niche. This optimal coming-to-terms will be the case even when it might seem to uninformed or prejudiced outsiders that the beliefs and practices of a given community operate inefficiently or counter-productively and that they therefore fail to meet the requirements of human happiness.  Under this view, a modern Westerner’s disdain for magic or witchcraft or for elaborate rituals or proliferating taboos would itself indicate a deformation (“ethnocentrism”) because the objects of that disdain, which the anthropologist or ethnographer properly understands even where the lay person does not, operate by a concealed rationality that only the initiated might perceive.  On this assumption, seemingly irrational commitments and practices would in fact be just as rational as modern Western arrangements, but in a way that Western prejudice prevents people from recognizing.  From this position, in Edgerton’s words, “it follows that any attempt to generalize about either culture or human nature must be false or trivial unless it is confined to people who live in a specific cultural system.”  This would imply, in turn, that “Western science is only a culturally specific form of ethnoscience, not a universally valid way of verification or falsification.”  Edgerton does not directly state, but rather he implies, that, if the idea in the last sentence quoted above were true, as anthropologists and ethnographers by consensus assert, then that truth would hold important implications for anthropology and ethnography themselves.  Why, for example, must one validate the tribal belief in magic while withholding validation for the modern Western suspicion about magical thinking?  But ethnography does not treat Western skepticism about the other as adaptive.

Author Clyde Edgerton photographed at his home in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Robert Edgerton (1931 – 2016)

The idea that all societies have achieved adaptation, whether apparent to the outsider or not, thus communicates strongly with that longstanding strain in the modern Western mentality of irate rebellion against norms, simply because they are norms, and of seeking to replace the existing order, blamed for all sorrows, with a utopian one that straightens out all the kinks and knots of the existing condition.  In anthropology, this strain of antinomian rebelliousness can take on a rebarbative character, violating its own ostensible principle that cultures are “incommensurable” by extolling pre-modern and non-Western societies at the expense of modern Western society, the latter now coming under condemnation through a sneaky reintroduction of commensurability.  The ethnographer, becoming an advocate for what he studies, declares the ethnic societies to be better adapted than the modern Western society.  Adaptation as a concept belongs with the set of ardent convictions called cultural relativism, with the codicil that relativism is never really relative, but always serves the rhetorical purpose of establishing a covert, antithetical hierarchy.  How many times has one heard or read that a group of immigrants from some conspicuously non-Western society brings to the host-society its vibrancy or rich outlook on life – as though the host-society could boast of no such qualities?  The inescapable obverse of the enrichment is impoverishment.  The advocate for enrichment tacitly characterizes the host-society as, in some way, deficient or incomplete.

The rhetoric of cultural relativism stems classically from the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), who asserted, with literary flair, the supposed unique sickness of the European civilization of his own day.  Edgerton, whose willingness to admit reservations and concede opposing points makes him quite different from Rousseau, argues, not that no folk-societal arrangements are truly adaptive (some are), but that anthropologists and ethnographers have exaggerated adaptation, always taken to signify some type of rationality, into a dogma.  The acceptance of that dogma has rendered practitioners of the discipline uncritical of what they actually observe when in the field and, if not exactly incapable of an honest evaluation, then quite reluctant to embrace a strictly neutral type of objectivity.  Edgerton’s subtitle names the fixed position: The Myth of Primitive Harmony.  In fact, Edgerton writes, “it has never been demonstrated that all human customs or institutions, or even most of them, have adaptive value, but the assumption that this is so is still commonplace among scholars who study,” not only ethnic or primitive cultures, but also, in larger terms, “human evolution.”  Edgerton indeed brings against ethnology a universally observed phenomenon: “All populations yet discovered have agreed [that] a steel axe is better than a stone one.”  Against adaptation, as dogmatically construed, Edgerton posits “maladaptation.”  The term, he asserts, requires some subtlety in its explanation, so he throws out a number of complementary definitions and analogies.  Thus by analogy, and in Darwinian terms, “a single gene or number of genes that in combination may predispose an individual to depression, schizophrenia, or panic,” would illustrate the idea.

Edgerton 06 Poop Map

Feces-Avoidance Map of San Francisco

Edgerton’s interest lies mainly elsewhere than in individual psychology, however; so he swiftly reminds his readers that, for example, “a group of related individuals’ refusal to engage in altruistic behaviors, or the absence of well-being among cooperating groups of people engaged in warfare or big-game hunting” would illustrate maladaptation just as well, if not better.  In the discussion of maladaptation, Edgerton writes, “the focus can legitimately fall on categories or corporate groups of people who share common interests and risks because of their age, gender, class, ethnicity, race, occupational specialty, or some other characteristic, or it can encompass an entire society, a kingdom, an empire, or a confederation.”  Edgerton imagines that, in certain circumstances, the whole of the human race might prove itself maladapted to some emergent global condition.  Nuclear arsenals on hair trigger might well have constituted such a condition, as more than one science fiction scenarist imagined.  In simpler terms, there is the old saying that defines insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different result.  The stultification of bureaucracy in modern society and the repetitive failure of ideological projects to achieve their results – think of the diversity agenda, social promotion in the schools, and affirmative action – exemplify the observation.  That the liberal-modern dispensation taken whole qualifies under the category of maladaptation finds its evidence in the fact that residents of San Francisco, the most liberal-modern city in North America, require maps in order to avoid the human feces that blight the city’s sidewalks.  Edgerton finally offers three formulaic definitions of maladaptation.  In the first of these definitions, maladaptation refers to “the failure of a population or its culture to survive because of the inadequacy or harmfulness of one or more of its beliefs or institutions.”  In the second, “maladaptation will be said to exist when enough members of a population are sufficiently dissatisfied with one or more of their social institutions or cultural beliefs that the viability of their society is threatened.”  In the third, “it will be considered to be maladaptive when a population maintains beliefs or practices that so seriously impair the physical or mental health of its members that they cannot adequately meet their own needs or maintain their social or cultural system.”  Edgerton’s first definition applies mainly to historical peoples, whose existence today only the physical remains or vestiges of their societies – items of their material culture – indicate.  Edgerton’s second definition operates historically but also implicates societies that exist today and are subject to observation; this would include the modern Western societies.  Edgerton’s third definition has the same range of application as his second.  Edgerton can thus draw on a wide range of evidence to lend plausibility to his argument.

II. In the main chapters of Sick Societies, Edgerton piles up the instances of maladaptation, one after the other, until the quantity of examples seems to make his case all by itself. In about two-thirds of these instances, Edgerton finds himself obliged to discuss, not only the particular maladaptation, but also the deliberate elision of failed or counterproductive or misery-producing institutions or practices in the field-reports of the ethnographers. Deliberate misreporting and the suppression of unflattering truths occur with alarming frequency in professional accounts of folk-societies, Margaret Mead’s romantic descriptions of the supposed sexual utopia in Samoa establishing the pattern.  Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The making and unmaking of an anthropological myth (1983) showed that Mead’s flattering descriptions of Samoan culture and especially her praise of the sexual freedom of the islanders were largely the projections of a sexually frustrated researcher whose informants found her so silly that they made a joke of telling her whatever she wanted them to say.  Aware of a widespread tendency to excuse the exotic Edgerton directs his analysis to two cases of specifically Western – indeed of American – sub-cultures that demonstrate how maladaptation can result in the destruction of a community.  These cases are significant because romantic misreporting has not distorted the relevant facts, which, belonging as they do to the historical record, no one disputes.  The first of Edgerton’s two preliminary cases is that of the Oneida Community in mid-Nineteenth Century Upstate New York, founded in 1848 by its leader John H. Noyes, and dissolved in a major scandal in 1879.  The second of these two cases is that of the “Duddie’s Branch” community in Eastern Kentucky in the mid-Twentieth Century.

Edgerton 03 Oneida Community

Oneida Community circa 1860

The Oneida Community functioned, in effect, as a large-scale experiment in group-marriage, the governance of which ran to the bizarre.  In Edgerton’s words, the Community’s rules of promiscuous cohabitation “prohibited any lasting emotional attachments (including those between mothers and their children), and required all men, except Noyes and a few other leaders, to practice coitus reservatus,” or non-ejaculatory intercourse.  Later on, Noyes imposed new strictures, according to which, “only older men… would be allowed to have sex with young… women,” whereas “young men… could only have sex with postmenopausal women.”  These arrangements, which exist elsewhere only in a comedy by Aristophanes, produced so much revulsion that communal order broke down in open rebellion, with Noyes fleeing to Canada in order to evade charges of statutory rape.  The Oneida Community was obviously a case of maladaptation.  In the name of a utopian fantasy, its ground rules violated every sensible observation about the governance of sexual relations that inflicted misery on its adherents.  Perhaps the original maladaptation was the idea that the moral code governing sexuality, rooting itself in the millennia of human experience, could be arbitrarily dismissed as though it was itself arbitrary.  Among its other sub-institutions, the Oneida Community separated children from their parents and forbade the parents to focus their affection on one another.  Members of the Community obliged themselves to submit to humiliating sessions in which others criticized them.  The Community flouted norms.

“Duddie’s Branch” was an extremely isolated mountain hollow in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, home to two hundred and thirty-eight incestuously related people, who, while nominally English-speakers, “spoke to one another so rarely that for some time [Rena] Gazaway,” the anthropologist who studied them, “thought that many of them were mute.”  The Branchers not only could not read or write; they could not even count change.  They had no notion of the civic order and could not name for Gazaway the (or any) president of the United States or explain their situation as citizens of a county or state.  The Branchers’ poverty and insouciance left them perpetually malnourished, especially the children; people defecated not in outhouses or trenches (they had none), but on the ground outside their shacks, in the perpetual mud where their louse-infested children played.  The Branchers found it impossible to reckon kinship both from lacking the requisite terms and “because sexual relations were indiscriminate… and illegitimate births were commonplace.”  Edgerton had written previously about the “Branchers” in his book on Mental Retardation (1969).  Following Gazaway’s account, Edgerton writes: “Disease is epidemic… They also live in filth.  The people rarely wash themselves, and then only their hands and face; their interest in hygiene does not including cleaning their shacks or washing their pots and dishes.”

Edgerton 04 Appalachian Poverty

Appalachian Poverty

Concerning the Oneida Community, the glaringly patriarchal and sexually exploitative set-up of the community makes it difficult for cultural relativism to mount any kind of rhetorical rescue, especially given Noyes’ final megalomaniacal rule that reserved to him – and to him alone – the jus primi nocti with any adolescent girl who had just experienced her first menses.  The regulatory structure of Noyes’ little kingdom cut across every propensity in the sexual side of human nature, exacerbated the predisposition of people to resent unjust shares, and more or less doomed itself to death by internal revolt.  The Branchers, by contrast, lived without internal regulation, and were so symbolically, as well as so materially, impoverished that they only survived through food-welfare from the county and state governments.  “There was little interaction,” Edgerton writes in Sick Societies, “among households, and none at all as an entire community,” no church or community council or neighborhood picnics on holidays.  Families slept in piles on the floor and “girls began to have sexual intercourse as early as the age of six.”  The Oneida Community qualifies as maladapted under Edgerton’s first and second definitions and the Branch community under the third.  It is interesting, however, and not a little provocative, that both cases involve sexual infractions of a lewd and disturbing kind.  Clearly the morality of sex is an adaptation so that ignorance or flouting of it necessarily qualifies as a maladaptation.

While it is next to unimaginable (or is it?) that even a committed cultural relativist would want to touch either the Oneida Colony or the Branchers apologetically with a ten-foot pole, the non-anthropological laity will probably – if only from its vestigial impulse to Christian charity – experience considerable sympathy for another case: that of the Tasmanians.  Yet according to Edgerton these people, whose demise came about in part due to heavy-handed European interference, present a case of maladaptation as vivid as any other.  At the same time, they present an actual people whose level of cultural development stands remarkably close to that of Rousseau’s speculative société commencée, the supposed happiest era of human existence.  Once the ice-bridge that permitted human migration to Tasmania melted, the Tasmanians remained in isolation from all other human contact for somewhere between ten and twelve-thousand years before the arrival of Europeans in modern times.  Not only did the Tasmanians have at least ten millennia to come to terms with their natural environment and learn how to live together happily in a territorially ample multi-tribal community; they also lived in a resource-rich, exploitable landscape that would have yielded a bounty, had only the denizens innovated an instrumentality and devised the social practices to realize the potential.  Instead, as Edgerton notes, “when Europeans first made contact with them in the Eighteenth Century, the approximately 4,000 Tasmanians then living had the simplest technology ever reported for any human society.”

On the Australian mainland, where the closest kindred-peoples lived, the tribes had developed “a substantially more complex array of tools, weapons, and other artifacts long before European contact.”  As Edgerton puts it, “the Tasmanians put the lie to the myth of Homo Faber.”  They also put the lie, once again, to “The Myth of Primitive Harmony.”  Tasmanian men dominated and exploited Tasmanian women, delegating almost all of the necessary subsistence labor, some it arduous, to them while taxing themselves hardly at all.  Worse: “Despite the risks that women took and their crucial role in the economy, Tasmanian women appear to have been treated harshly by men, and to have been denied access to the choicest foods.”  Tasmanian women complained of such maltreatment already to the earliest European travelers, clearly indicating their unhappiness.  Now institutions serve to mediate conflicts within a community, but, as Edgerton writes, “unlike the Australians, the Tasmanians had no initiation rituals, only rudimentary religious conceptions and rituals, and no elaborated forms of social organization.”  Edgerton’s discussion of the Tasmanians has implications for the massive south-to-north migration that currently threatens Europe and North America.  The migrants are fleeing the maladaptations in place in their native lands.  That is understandable, but when maladaptation becomes institutionalized, and when people are acculturated into misery producing patterns of behavior, they bring maladaptation with them wherever they go.  The prevailing cultural relativism then prohibits clear-sightedness in the host society.

Edgerton 05 Wall of Skulls

Aztec Wall of Skulls at Huey Tzompantli

III. Although the physical conditions of the island of Tasmania did not of themselves impose scarcity, the meager material culture did, as did also fierce tribal rivalries, which resulted in raids for women and food and counter-raids for revenge in an endless cycle.  “The Tasmanians failed to devise social and cultural mechanisms to control their destructive tendencies,” Edgerton writes.  An unhappy people, their way of life could not withstand contact with outsiders. Edgerton finds similar patterns of maladaptation among the Kalahari Bushmen, the Inuit, and the medieval Icelanders, among others, who all suffered from internal violence driven by social arrangements that exaggerated rather than reduced resentment and capitally failed to address matters of scarcity and fair distribution.  The much-romanticized Chumash tribes of California raided their neighbors for slaves and developed a materially impoverished forced-labor-economy that, while discouraging innovation, necessitated the devotion of considerable energy to policing the chattels.  Such practices stultified and brutalized the society.  In the case of the Icelanders, the sagas tell of the multi-generational feuds that steadily metastasized throughout the island, leading to hundreds if not thousands of deaths.  The Icelanders took pride in their independence, but so miserable had the unstoppable feuds made their lives that they submitted to the sovereignty of Norway in 1262 on the promise that the king would intervene in the island’s affairs and put a stop to the bloodshed.  But small and isolated societies are not the only ones vulnerable to maladaptation, as Edgerton shows in his examination of the Aztec Empire in the Valley of Mexico.

Aztec achievement at the level of material culture ran high although it never advanced to metallurgy beyond the beating of gold.  The remains of their pyramids and other sacred structure, and of the elaborate system of islands that they constructed in the marshlands around Tenochtitlan, testify to their engineering audacity.  The Aztec elites also articulated a social hierarchy, governed by elaborate rituals, on par with those of the Early Bronze-Age, Old-World kingdoms, from which they differed, however, in signally failing to win the friendliness and loyalty of the masses.  The bloody order of the Aztec polity – although defended by such relativistic lights of academic anthropology as Marvin Harris and Marshal Sahlins – justly inspires a high degree of popular revulsion.  The Aztec elites valued warrior-competency and male-super-dominance above all other values, practiced slavery, human sacrifice, and cannibalism all on a lavish scale, and incessantly raided their neighbors for slaves and victims – the latter also furnishing the viands for the great ritual feasts.  Aztec art celebrated these forms of brutality and the Aztec calendar provided a precise schedule for the bloody displays.  Edgerton writes: “The desire for human flesh was so great that many wars were fought for no other reason than the capture of prisoners.”  The commoners tilled, planted, harvested, and paid burdensome harvest-taxes to the nobles, who returned almost nothing in the other direction.

The nobles apparently believed in their many superstitions, and this credulity contributed to their downfall when Europeans arrived in the form of Hernan Cortez and his Conquistadors.  Montezuma, the Aztec Royal, interpreted Cortez in mythic terms as an avatar of Quetzalcoatl, a god whose return the prophecies foretold.  That served Cortez well, but even more so did the fact that the neighbors of the Aztecs, weary of harassment, willingly formed a military auxiliary to back up the handful of Spanish troops.  Spanish occupation of Tenochtitlan refuted Montezuma’s claim to divinity, broke the hold of superstition on the elites, and triggered a belated coup-d’état against the dynasty by the cadet branch of the aristocracy.  The spasm bespoke pure ire, as no possibility existed, once the rebels had assassinated Montezuma, that the commoners would then side with them to expel the interlopers.  Aztec society disintegrated rapidly, as did also Tahitian society, equally warlike if not equally sacrificial or cannibalistic, on initial contact with Europeans.  The complex of social structures and ritual practices characteristic of Aztec society, dominated by the haughty elites, ultimately doomed itself because it systematically shut out the masses from the actual commonwealth and aroused the hatred of the neighboring peoples through constant aggression and depredation.  It is worth saying that Spanish colonial society in the New World was almost as brutal and perverse as the societies of the sacrificial kingdoms – Aztec, Inca, or Carib.  The anomaly that redeems Spanish colonial society marginally is that it could produce someone like Bartolomé de las Casas, a man willing to speak out – at no little risk to himself – on behalf of native peoples against the atrocious colonial policies.

IV. Dramatically deformed societies such as those discussed in the foregoing summary of Edgerton’s book represent only a small minority of known human communities, as Edgerton openly allows. Nevertheless, Edgerton writes, “all societies maintain some beliefs and practices that are maladaptive for at least some of their members, and it is likely that some of these social arrangements and cultural understandings will be maladaptive for everyone in the society.” Edgerton reminds his readers that his “insistence that maladaptive beliefs and practices are commonplace must not be construed to mean that humans never make effective adaptations to their environments.”  Edgerton confesses to being uninterested, finally, in the question “whether so-called primitive thought is less abstract, more magical, or less able to assess marginal probabilities” than modern Western thought.  Edgerton asserts otherwise that, “most people in all societies, including those most familiar with Western science, sometimes make potentially harmful mistakes and tend to maintain them.”  Thus as Edgerton writes: “It must be… acknowledged that populations have not always gotten things right,” but rather, “inefficiency, folly, venality, cruelty, and misery were and are also a part of human history” and “human suffering is one result.”

One can hardly read Sick Societies, twenty-five years after its publication, without speculating how Edgerton’s arguments and observations might apply to the existing condition of the West, governed as it is by dogmatic elites who would implement the antitheses of the market and repeal longstanding norms – I refer to redistribution of wealth, penalization of productivity, and the infliction, via immigration, of pre-modern and non-Western cultural forms on Western societies, under a doctrine that goes by the misleadingly abstract name of “Multiculturalism.”  For one thing, the maladaptation theory implies a consistent human nature that bad arrangements can violate.  The reigning cultural relativism rejects this notion of a consistent human nature, but the record of that rejection consists in a series of disasters and catastrophes.  Once again the case of San Francisco comes to mind.  In 1960, San Francisco likely deserved its admittedly self-bestowed title as the most beautiful city in North America, not least due to its fortune to be located on its lovely Bay.  In 1970, the Haight-Ashbury district had become a hippy-haven and a center of drug-trafficking.  A false tolerance prevented the city from addressing the issue.  In 2018, as earlier mentioned, San Francisco has become a place where it is impossible to live.  Many of its streets are open sewers.  The “homeless,” drawn by a counterproductive welfare policy further degrade the civic environment.  It is entirely the result of liberal policies.  Those policies are maladaptations.

Self-criticism is central to the Western tradition, from Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl.  The currently prevalent self-hatred, urged on the commonality by the elites, who certainly never show any similar hatred of themselves or their own beliefs, differs radically from genuine introspection.  One might trace the history of this self-hatred, while cataloging its destructive results, from Rousseau, who directly influenced the French Revolution and provided theoretical justification for its enormities, through Karl Marx’s inspiration of the Bolsheviks, with their homicidal record, to the deliquescence of civic society consequent on the socialist-and-multicultural policies of existing Western governments.  Not least of these inimical governments would be the increasingly radical and dictatorial Democrat-Party regime in the USA, whose idea of economics resembles the magical thinking of primitives and whose social policies, administered by “Czars,” mimic the most non-productive notions of Soviet-era Third-World governments.  Currently the Democrat-Party regime does not hold the executive or the legislative branches, and it has lost its majority on the Supreme Court.  Nevertheless the liberal-modern regime controls all other institutions of American society – and the maladaptive results of its policies become harder to ignore with each passing day.

Edgerton identifies the semantic slipperiness in the standard ethnographic claim that intuitively maladaptive practices operate by concealed rationality, which the professionally uninitiated cannot perceive or understand.  It is striking that the advocates and defenders of many-times-tried-and-failed public and national policies, invariably leftwing, make similar counter-intuitive claims.  High taxation and deficit spending first cause and then deepen economic recessions, but the authors of such programmatic devastation invariably assert that their tax-and-spend schemes “are working” to revive prosperity, even despite the non-appearance of the promised results and the worsening of the general picture.  The architects and defenders of borderless-ness claim that the massive unrestricted influx of foreign nationals, many of them linguistically and educationally handicapped, serves a goal of utopian (call it “neo-primitive”) harmony, even despite the visibly demoralizing, because culturally divisive, effects that large-scale demographic intrusions inflict on the host-society.

One cannot blame the current sickness of the West on governments solely, which after all acquire their mandates through majority endorsement at the ballot box.  To turn slightly an old observation: everyone in a democratic polity, no matter how wisely he votes, gets the government that the gullible majority deserves.  Many widespread traits of Westerners qualify as “sick,” from the willingness of the underclass to live on welfare, letting producers subsidize their destructive habits, to the willingness of elites to defend anti-social behavior, to the unwillingness of the middle class to assert morality, crippled as the bourgeoisie is, spiritually, by a metastatic “White Guilt.”  The elites have carefully inculcated the same “White Guilt” through the educational system for decades.  That again is “sick.”  An acquaintance of mine, a psychologist specializing in corporate culture, once asked me, in my capacity as a “humanist,” whether I could think of any historical precedent for the current “norm-hatred” of the elites.  I could not.  I can also not think of any historical society that was as absorbed in diversion as the modern Western society, whether it is the ubiquitous pornography of the Internet or the gangster-ethos of “youth-culture” or the stupidity of TV game shows and glitzy amateur hours and so-called reality-dramas.  Insofar as they abet the laziness caused by enthrallment to diversion, other practices, such as those that encourage “self-esteem” in individuals who have no real claim on it, also qualify as maladaptive and therefore as “sick.”  These customs and proclivities satisfy the conditions of all three of Edgerton’s operative definitions of maladaptation.

31 thoughts on “Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (1992) Revisited

  1. Pingback: Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (1992) Revisited | @the_arv

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  3. Interesting. I had never heard of this book, nor its author, until today. In the year of the book’s publication most of what I take to be its contents were barely beginning to make a faint blip on my radar, so I wouldn’t have been ready to read it in 1992 in any case, nor, I should think, in 2000. There are a number of passages in the article that were of particular interest. I will cite one for the time being. You wrote:

    The migrants are fleeing the maladaptations in place in their native lands. That is understandable, but when maladaptation becomes institutionalized, and when people are acculturated into misery producing patterns of behavior, they bring maladaptation with them wherever they go.

    Americans should know this by intuition, and it sometimes amazes me that so many of us don’t. Especially considering that when intuition fails us, hard evidences of the fact should supply the deficit. But of course when you consider the various elements that combine to form our own collective maladaptations, it isn’t that difficult to understand why something so simple and obvious gives us so much trouble understanding.

    You mentioned that the people in democratic societies generally deserve whatever government they have. R. L. Dabney once joked that once American “conservatism” capitulated on the “baby vote,” it would make its final stand against liberal attempts to extend the franchise to asses. News is out today in Oklahoma that numerous public school districts have declared that school will not be in session Nov. 6. The purpose is to accommodate teachers who would otherwise find it impossible to cast their ballots in the two hours previously allotted them to vote in all elections, as well as to give their 18 year-old students the opportunity to vote as well. The idea is to ‘get out the vote’ and unseat the rascally Republicans who forced the statewide teacher walkout back in April. Not to make light of your serious post, but they’ve got the baby vote; I guess it makes sense for them to use it.

    Maybe next election cycle they’ll be able to enlist the help of asses.

    • The cautious suspicion occurs to me that we have entered the very early phase, not of a new conservatism, but of a genuine reaction. It might well be that babies omit to vote. They prefer “acting out” in front of the manipulable adults. what Edgerton saw in 1992, presciently, many more people are beginning to see today.

  4. You’re building up quite a counter-cultural arsenal for us, what with this item, the article on Typee, and your discussion of the Koran over at Gates of Vienna. Thank you, Professor.

    • Let me thank you, PBW. I am especially appreciative of people who read and then comment on my posts. The dialectic no longer occurs in the university, where the students think that there is nothing, really, to learn, and where the professoriate is simply another extension of the hive-mind. The dialectic occurs at sites such as The Orthosphere, Gates of Vienna, and The Sydney Traditionalist Forum; and it occurs — for me, thank God — at my habitual watering hole, Larry Klotzko’s Old City Hall here in Oswego.

      • I am especially appreciative of people who read and then comment on my posts.

        It occurred to me a few of your essays back that I should add a comment or comments under your posts as a way of letting you know I am reading them. I almost always find time to read your essays, although I seem rarely to have anything to say to them that might add anything of any particular value. In such cases I generally remain silent, but do know that I am reading nonetheless.

      • If a hungry man gets into a banquet, he has not much time for digesting nor talking, except the occasional mouth full praise
        “This’ good!”

  5. As I like to say, the white man didn’t exploit the natives. He saw sick stupid people and their civilizations got what coming to them.
    Let’s hope aliens don’t show up here and go looking about. Particularly the west coast.

    • This is a very troubling statement considering the Columbian Exchange brought over news goods, crops, and ideas that indigenous cultures in America had cultivated for centuries. Europe was able to use the benefits of this exchange to revive a continent. How were First Nations societies sick and deserving of their fates?????

      • Jim, I speak for myself and not for any other contributor to the thread. The native tribes of the Northeast had been at war with one another for centuries before the European arrival. The Iroquois-Huron enmity was notably vicious. In structure and attitude, the Iroquois and the Huron were not unlike the Aztecs: They were warrior-societies that institutionalized the taking, enslavement, torture, and sacrifice of captives; they were radically male-dominant societies that practically enslaved their women, to whom the men relegated everything that a modern person would classify as work. It is one of Edgerton’s points that there is a seductive and false nostalgia concerning the pre-European people of North America. To describe the tribes accurately, however, is not to excuse any European depredations, which undoubtedly occurred and which will be discussed endlessly under the current PC dispensation. If we could judge one, then why could we not judge the other also by the same criterion? Not only can we, but we must if we are to gain an accurate picture of the past and therefore of the present and of human nature generally.

        The phrase “deserving of their fate” requires some thought. When the Iroquois raided the Huron and then the Huron in retaliation ambushed the Iroquois, did the Iroquois men and women slaughtered by the Huron deserve their fate? No doubt there would be technically innocent parties (women and children), but technical innocence was not a concept of tribal society. It would be more accurate to say that the tribes, in raiding one another, insured their fate because they created a cycle of violence which possessed its own momentum. We could say the same thing, incidentally, about the Icelanders and their feuds. Did Njal deserve to die, burnt to death with his sons and friends in his own house? No, but he fated himself to die — and he fated many others to die — when for practical purposes he endorsed his wife’s having incited one of his servants to murder a man whom she believed had insulted Njal, when Njal, nagged by her, refused to do it himself.

        In Wagner’s Ring, concerning which you once wrote a fine essay, everyone dies at the end of the fourth part — and that would include the innocent. Indeed the whole world burns up in the great fire. And it all comes about because, back in the beginning, Wotan casually cheated the giants in the building of Valhalla, a deed which at the time he judged to be necessary but trivial. Wagner, a keen anthropologist who read the Icelandic sagas along with much else, knew that it belongs to human nature to set in motion supra-personal phases of cause and effect that sweep people up whether they assented to the original mischief or not and however they judge it. And the thing is — we are all implicated in these phases of cause and effect, the supposed Noble Savage of the warrior tribe no less than the contemporary Social Justice Warrior.

      • In a recent post, I quoted Thomas Carlyle saying that right liberalism was ““such a liberty . . . as the earth will not long put up with.” Whether or not that is correct, this seems to me a useful way to think about “deserving of their fate.” There are lines of conduct, collective and individual, that “the earth will not long put up with.” For instance, the earth will not long put up with a people that ignores the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” Earth here really means what Kipling called “the gods of the copybook headings.” History shows that Earth rids itself of civilizations that worship Moloch (and Mammon). When we look at the catastrophic fall of the Aztecs, I think it is reasonable to say that Aztec-style societies are societies that “earth will not long put up with.”

      • It’s a bad idea to mess with Mother Nature, or with her parent, GNON:

        The instability of evil is the morality of the universe. – Alfred North Whitehead

      • The original statement I commented on is troubling to me because I find it to be too general in nature. There were hundreds if not thousands of First Nations societies with their own cultures and languages. Even many of these nations would want to be viewed as human societies with their own problems and not these utopian societies many people believed existed in such complete harmony. This was never the truth or reality. The mounds at Cahokia had graves s that showed clear evidence their occupants were vicitms of human sacrifice. Tom, thank you for the kind words and remembering the paper I wrote. Your example is the type I wish was originally used by the person whose comment I had a disagreement with.

  6. The theory of “concealed rationality” that you describe is sometimes call functionalism, since it proposes that every cultural trait functions to sustain the society, even though it often requires considerable powers of invention to explain what that function is. There are two basic problems with functionalism, even when taken on its own terms. The first might be explained as the diminishing marginal return on investment as one approaches perfection, and described as the principle of “good enough.” No society becomes perfectly adapted because adaption becomes “good enough” well before that point. And, as your example of Duddies Branch shows, societies vary widely in what they regard as “good enough.” The second problem is that functionalism exaggerates the organic integrity of a society, and so fails to see how the functional adaptations of a subsets of the society can make the whole society dysfunctional. Your Aztec example seems to fit here.

    When I said that functionalism has problems even on its own terms, I meant that it has problems even if we accept its reductionist view of man as a clever animal. For those of us who believe man is not just a clever animal, it appears possible that societies can go mad or be possessed by demons. If you don’t like the word demon, we can say possessed by terrible ideas, which seems much the same thing to me.

    Darwin explicitly rejected the idea of perfect adaptation to environmental niche, whether by individual, species, or culture. Darwinism says that adaptation must be sufficient for survival and better than the next competitor. So, as you say, the survival of a society does not prove that it is maximally functional or adaptive. It just proves that it is functional enough not to die out or be displaced by a rival.

    One other thing is that the functionalism does not support arguments for “cultural enrichment” from foreign cultures. On functionalism, those cultures are adaptations to different environments, and so dysfunctional in the environment to which they are transplanted. Saying that a post-industrial society is “enriched” by agrarian peasants is like saying that a football team is “enriched” with gymnasts and synchronized swimmers.

    • Thank you for your addition to the thread, JM. The first, and I would say the greatest, of English-language accounts of the fall of the Aztec empire was written by Harvard historian William H. Prescott (1796 – 1859). The Conquest of Mexico appeared in 1839 after a decade or more of research. Prescott was a Protestant with a considerable anti-Catholic prejudice. He nevertheless concluded that, given even the colonial establishment of the Inquisition in Mexico by the Spanish conquerors, Cortez and his followers had done a justifiable deed in destroying Montezuma’s kingdom. He found the regime of the Dominicans, in other words, to be less dysfunctional than the cult of the death-god.

      You have probably read about the Wall of Skulls that archaeologists working in the subterranean remains of Tenochtitlan and its environs recently uncovered. It is what its nickname implies: A wall built of hundreds of human heads taken from sacrificial victims of the death-god cult. The Wall re-emphasized the industrial-scale brutality of the Aztecs, but… As soon as the discovery became news, scores of articles appeared in places like the New York Times whose writers reflexively sought to justify Aztec brutality. And the usual argument was: There is a logic, a functionality, to it that we can’t understand, and so we are prevented from passing judgment.

      Sociological language cannot adequately describe the extremity of modern decadence because it is, itself, part of that decadence. Only theological language can describe the extremity of modern decadence. I endorse the notion of demonic possession. When the streets of our big cities are covered in excrement and the city government apparently can do nothing about it, and when “comedy” has devolved to holding up the simulacrum of a severed and bloody head — then demonism is the only appropriate word.

    • Functionalism is trivially true, in the sense that we can be sure that every social (and for that matter neural) configuration or form has been adopted for functional reasons that seemed good at the time. Everything human does indeed happen for a reason. The problem with functionalism simpliciter is that it does not follow from its premise either that the reasons for a given custom’s adoption – whether these be evident or obscure – are good, correct, reasonable, and so forth, or that the given custom will in fact work out well.

      Like any trivial truth, functionalism then is incapable of furnishing any practical guidance about how we ought best to live. It is, i.e., unphilosophical.

      What’s interesting to me is that people will persist in policies that are *obviously* maladaptive far, far beyond the point where even a child can see that the Emperor is naked. Mimesis is powerful, I guess, is all. One doesn’t want to stand out from the herd when ostracism on account of oddness is a real and present danger.

      • It’s the flip-side of Girard’s mimetic theory that originality is the rarest of all human commodities. The majority is always vast and indolent. Conformity quashes innovation. All of this belongs to the fact that humanity is a fallen species.

  7. I was particularly interested in the following: ‘The much-romanticized Chumash tribes of California raided their neighbors for slaves and developed a materially impoverished forced-labor-economy that, while discouraging innovation, necessitated the devotion of considerable energy to policing the chattels. Such practices stultified and brutalized the society.’

    Replace ‘Chumash tribes’ with ‘Spartans’ and California’ with ‘Lacadaemon’ and it still rings true.

    • The largest corporate slave-holding entity in the South before emancipation was the Cherokee nation.

      • Indeed. But in Classical Greece, the ‘largest corporate slave-holding entity’ was Lacedaemon/Sparta. It was a brutal polity which contributed nothing to civilisation,
        except (of course) the repulsion of the Persians.

  8. Many of the tribes in the Southeast adopted African chattel slavery as a means of assimilation into white European society (other forms of slavery did exist in other nations at other points in history such as the Cherokee’s linguistic cousins the Iroquois). This attempt at assimilation proved to be a futile enterprise in the end. These nations are still dealing with the legacy of this policy through Freedman controversies that have occurred within the last 20 years.

    • Thank you for commenting, Jim. Slavery was common throughout North America for centuries before the European arrival. Earlier in the thread, I commented that the Chumash — their alleged descendants now refer to themselves as the Tongva — were predatory slave-takers like the Aztecs and Caribs. When I attended high school in Santa Monica in the early 1970s, our textbook of California history included a laudatory chapter on the wonderfulness of Chumash tribal culture, but it never mentioned that Chumash society was a slave society. Mendacity is a type of maladaptation and one of Edgerton’s targets in Sick Societies is the pervasive mendacity of the liberal-modern dispensation — something that comes out particularly strongly in the academic discipline of ethnography.

      Where is the hue and cry among the social justice crowd to remove and obliterate all public representations of the Cherokee and the Chumash? A double-standard is also a maladaptation belonging to the larger maladaptive category of mendacity.

  9. Wasn’t an ice-bridge. Tasmania is too far north (of Antarctica) for that. It was a land bridge, because the oceans were lower in the Pleistocene.

  10. Pingback: 52 New Books: Retrospective and Prospective | Roland's Horn

  11. Sick societies made a strong impression on me as a graduate student in cultural anthropology and I read it when it first appeared. I am glad it has re-emerged in this article.


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