Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Robin Fox's "The Tribal Imagination"

Robin Fox, anthropologist, poet, and essayist, is University Professor of Social Theory at Rutgers University and author of Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective and The Red Lamp of Incest: An Enquiry into the Origins of Mind and Society.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Tribal Imagination starts with comments on sectarianism in the Arab world as part of a commentary on sectarianism in general. In light of recent events it is perhaps worth quoting a bit of it.
The Sulafis represent that persistent tendency, noted by Ibn Khaldun, to try to return Islam to its pure form, and which is at the root of current “Islamic terrorism.” This reversion to purity was the aim of the Islamic Congress or Mujama, founded by Ahmed Yasin in Gaza, and the Society of Muslim Brothers founded by Hasan al-Bana… We could go on for there are many more, but the point is made. It is interesting to look at the world’s most thoroughly monotheistic religion to see that the unity of belief in one God and his prophet does nothing to prevent the sectarian tendency. And the sects are all derived, in Moslem countries and history, from male charismatic leaders, usually with a radical agenda to restore the purity of the religion. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are thoroughly recognizable as members of this lineage.
However (we academics love that word) this is not a book about religion or Islam and half of the chapter concerned is about animal dispersion and how the size of a population is constantly being re-adjusted downwards as the group grows. It then asks if that same tendency to disperse is behind the constant tendency to sectarianism in religions and denominations, however different they might be. Judaism is the next example on page 99: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Herodians, Samaritans, Ebonites, Nazarines, Zealots – on and on. Hinduism gets its start at the bottom of the page. So this is just part of an extended enquiry that asks how differently things will appear to us if we see the world as a constant struggle between our “tribal” human nature and our civilized aspirations, civilization and particularly industrial civilization being very recent events in our evolutionary history. Such an enquiry takes us more or less anywhere, and it takes us from the nature of time, through human rights, democracy in Iraq (and elsewhere), sectarianism of course, the Ten Commandments (which ten?), incest and the marriage of cousins and strangers as exemplified in literature, male bonding, poetry and memory, and the role of seafood in generating civilization. Much more, but perhaps that will whet the appetite. And remember that our appetites were forged in the pre-civilized era and are themselves struggling with the recent alarming changes.
Learn more about the book and author at Robin Fox's website.

--Marshal Zeringue