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  • A Necessary Vigilance: A Response to Torgovnick and Kuper
  • Victor Li

To view the cultural artifacts and works of art from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, one has to walk first through an upward-sloping, dimly lit ramp along which the filmmaker and critic Trinh T. Minh-ha has arranged light projections of slogans such as “L’entrée en soi ouvre sur l’autre” and “Entendre avec l’oreille de l’autre.” One of the museum’s guidebooks describes the passage through this ramp as providing “a subtle mental exercise designed to adapt the Western mindset to other ways of thinking.”1

In his review of my book, Adam Kuper points to the Musée du Quai Branly as a telling example of a continuing Western fascination with the “primitive.” Kuper briefly recounts the controversy surrounding the establishment of the Jacques Chirac–sponsored museum and explains that its innocuous place-name was finally agreed on only after objections were raised to other proposed nominations that included terms like “primitive” and “arts premières.” Yet despite the precautions taken, the museum remains a monument to primitivism—though with a difference. This difference, which makes it, in my view, an example of neo-primitivism, can be observed in its emphasis on respecting alterity, a valorization intended to resist, if not transcend, the ethnocentrism at the heart of Western primitivism. This is a noble intention that ends up, however, affirming primitivism by emphasizing, situating, and fixing (“museumizing,” if you will) otherness temporally in the past and spatially or geographically in the non-West.

The dilemma or aporia faced by a well-intentioned cultural initiative like the Musée du Quai Branly is similar to that present in the work of the theorists and critics I examine in my book—namely, the aporia I have called “anti-primitivist primitivism,” in which theoretical initiatives that seek to root out primitivism find it returning in new guises, and, in those new guises, becoming the very force that propels the anti-primitivist theoretical endeavors. Such an aporia demands, therefore, a continuing vigilance against the return of the dismissed or deconstructed “primitive,” a vigilance I try to practice in my book and for which I am [End Page 557] criticized by my two reviewers. It is interesting to note that their criticisms draw diametrically opposed conclusions. Adam Kuper criticizes my use of the term “neo-primitivism” for being too broad and sweeping (“baggy” is his word), while Marianna Torgovnick complains that my book is too narrowly judgmental and stringent. In response, I would like to say that what is “baggy” for Kuper is for me a sign of primitivism’s lability and mutability, its ability to adopt new, often unrecognizable guises, and what is stringent for Torgovnick is for me the continuing need to remain vigilant and critically reflexive in the face of primitivism’s metamorphic powers.

Kuper’s review largely consists of a reiteration of the views first expressed in his important book The Invention of Primitive Society (published in 1988 and revised and reissued in 2005 as The Reinvention of Primitive Society). It so happens that I agree fully with his argument that the “primitive” is “a modern Western invention” and that “primitive society is the mirror image of our current view of our own condition.” However, my agreement cannot hide my disappointment with his rather cursory and inattentive reading of my book. Allotting just four paragraphs to it, he remarks that although he finds my chapter on Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Torgovnick persuasive, my writing, in his opinion, becomes less convincing once it leaves “literary theory” (though one may wish to quarrel with that designation for works by Baudrillard and Lyotard) and ventures into social philosophy and anthropology.

He breezily dismisses my chapter on Jürgen Habermas, for example, with a one-sentence statement that there’s nothing new about Habermas’s “primitive,” who, he claims, is merely borrowed from Lèvi-Strauss’s work and used as a foil for the concept of modernity. Kuper’s assessment clearly shows that he has not paid much attention to the chapter’s argument that Habermas’s...


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