What Is a Tribe? – The New York Times

Posted: April 13, 2020 at 8:49 pm


without comments

BEFORE THERE WAS a self, there was the tribe.

True, tribe is a troublesome word, bearing the weight of decades of anthropological study that privileged Western civilization over all other traditions. But let us rescue it here, pare it down to its simplest meaning, as a name for the first human communities that formed beyond the primal bonds of kinship the beginnings of the great experiment we call society, which taught us to be human.

Before there was a self, there was the tribe.

Our earliest ancestors did not stand alone; they banded together to survive. For vast stretches of history, our consciousness was shaped by our connections to the people in closest proximity to us. Identity was like a complicated address, at the intersection of birthplace and blood, the things we chose to worship and the ways we kept ourselves alive, in a finite landscape we knew as both home and world. We were defined not by our hidden interior life but by our outward gestures, the rituals and markings we shared, the tributes we paid to common ideals of goodness and beauty not by what made us different but by what made us the same.

Ernest C. Witherss I Am a Man, Sanitation Strike (1968). Dr. Ernest C. Withers Sr., courtesy of the Withers Family Trust

But how do we square this with the ethos of individualism that has dominated Western life for the past four centuries? The very idea of the individual (from the Latin for indivisible: that which cannot be separated from itself) is a late construct, specific to time and place. While some historians trace its origins as far back as 12th-century Europe, it was not fully embraced until the 17th century, at the start of the Age of Enlightenment, coinciding with the rise of the nation-state, which superseded and subsumed tribal allegiances into a single destiny. Becoming a citizen, part of an amorphous, disparate, geographically wide-ranging group many of whose members you would likely never meet was inextricably linked to becoming an individual, no longer beholden to the tribe that once claimed you, and free (at least theoretically) to decide for yourself who you are or want to be.

The primacy of the individual is still resisted by many cultures, particularly in much of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. For if you enshrine the self above all, theres the danger of dead-ending in solipsism, disavowing the responsibilities of public life in pursuit of a perfected solitude, as if being in the world and being true to oneself are at odds. The early 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger thought otherwise: that to be human is to be in the world. We come alive in the presence of others. The self is not a fixed goal but a flux, ever in progress, generated and modified by each encounter, in the space and sometimes the tension between what is expected of us by family, society, cosmology and what we might actually want. Even before we thought of ourselves as individuals, we had private desires, arising in response to the dictates of our context; as the American-Canadian historian Natalie Zemon Davis has written of the premodern era, being embedded in a circumscribed social sphere did not preclude self-discovery, but rather prompted it.

ITS WHEN THAT context grows too large, beyond the human capacity to grasp, that we may become unmoored: Our confidence in who we are starts to fray. In this age of globalization and corporate homogenization, when it appears that the generic is triumphing over the particular, there is a hunger to stand out, to resist the broader narrative. At the same time, the erosion of local institutions and neighborhood life has left a void: Some of us fear we no longer have a place to call home, in the deepest sense of the word, a place that is ours and can never be taken from us. In Idols of the Tribe: Group Identity and Political Change (1975), the American political scientist Harold R. Isaacs likened this alienation to the literal and spiritual displacement of immigrants transported across great physical and cultural distances; group identity is the ark they carry with them, the temple of whatever rules ones forebears lived by whatever form of creed or belief in a given set of answers to the unanswerables. To be part of a tribe is at once a refuge and a declaration of faith. It is to be anchored, to be certain that we have a role in the world.

Renee Coxs The Signing (2018). Pigment inkjet print

But is tribe the best way to describe the loose alliances of today, groups that transcend the old ties of kinship and language, united instead by ideology or aesthetic (itself often a manifestation of ideology)? The English language fails us. A clan is related by blood, a generation by age, a faction by politics, a sect by religion, a cabal by conspiracy. A clique doesnt scale beyond the intimacy of friends (and enemies), and a gang has come to be deployed almost exclusively in matters of youth and crime. To call a group a subculture presumptively shunts it to the margins. There is no English correlative to the Chinese suffix zu, which applies to both clan, zongzu, and ethnic group, minzu, and has been recently adapted as latter-day ethnographic slang, delineating the likes of yi zu, the ant tribe, college graduates from the provinces who move to the cities and wind up toiling at poverty level, and ken lao zu, the bite-the-old-folks cohort, young people who do no work and leech off their parents. Still, these are nicknames imposed by observers, not voluntarily chosen identities or loyalties.

Etymologically, tribe is fairly neutral, from the Latin tribus, an administrative category designating a voting unit: that is, a body of people endowed with a degree of political power. It does not presuppose an opposition, like the Japanese dichotomy of uchi-soto, which marks inside and outside, the familiar and the unknown, us and them each group explicitly defined by what it is not.

But after Europeans began to explore other regions in the 15th century, the word tribe took on the shadow of colonialism, as a label reserved for non-Western peoples who were seen to represent an earlier and implicitly inferior state of social evolution. The American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has criticized the distinction long drawn between tribes and civilization as opposing cultures of war and peace, arguing that tribes are not innately fierce or predisposed to violence, and since the last half of the 20th century, the term has largely vanished from anthropological texts only to shift back into popular parlance. Today, American pundits speak in worried tones about the fragmentation of the country and an increase in tribalism, as if acknowledging a group identity were a retreat to a more savage time.

Dutch and Flemish authors photographed with personnel of the Dutch publishing house De Bezige Bij in the library of the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, on the publishers 25th anniversary, in 1969 (left); its 60th anniversary, in 2004 (center); and its 75th anniversary, in 2019 (right). 1969 Paul Huf/De Bezige Bij; 2004 Thom Hoffman/De Bezige Bij; 2019 Stephan Vanfleteren/De Bezige Bij

YET NO OTHER word in English carries the same promise of a family beyond family. Its a newly urgent notion in the West today, and to focus only on the clashes between partisans in the political sphere is to ignore both the multiplicity of tribes and how they bring vigor to public life. The strength of a culture lies not in its promotion of a single way of being but in its ability to sustain a diversity of viewpoints. How else are ideas generated but through exchange and debate, polyphony rather than a single voice? Among the groups celebrated in the pages that follow, borders are fluid; these are not hermetic bubbles but ever-expanding spheres. For some, membership is testament to a crucible of experience. The cooks who have passed through the kitchens of the seminal Mexican chef Enrique Olvera bear their scars and burns along with the banner of Mexican cuisine, staking its rightful place among the great culinary traditions of the world; the bond between the activists of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, founded in 1987 to denounce the fatal passivity of the medical-industrial complex in failing to confront the H.I.V. crisis, is sustained in part by the memory of their comrades who died too early. Others find their associates in the realms of art or fashion, like the black filmmakers championing the work of the formative American photographer and director Gordon Parks as they build legacies of their own, and the coterie of Guccis iconoclastic designer Alessandro Michele, including acolytes, muses and those who are both at once, in a give-and-take of inspiration. Sometimes connections are accidental rather than sought out, occurring by pull of gravity, as with the polymathic luminaries who over the past three decades have come to haunt humble Omen, a small country-style Japanese restaurant on a less-trafficked block of SoHo in Manhattan, whose indifference to chic paradoxically draws those most in thrall to it.

What these groups share is an experience of collective effervescence, in the phrase of the 19th-century French sociologist mile Durkheim. The catharsis and exaltation historically invoked in religious worship find a modern analogue in the electricity that snaps through a crowd gathered in common cause. There exists a source of religious life as old as humanity and which can never run dry: It is the one which results from the fusion of consciences, Durkheim declared in a 1914 speech. Transcendence can be achieved by the mere fact of coming together, thinking together, feeling together, acting together.

Tseng Kwong Chis Art After Midnight (1985). C Print Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc.

The 20th-century Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan attributed the decay of tribal culture to the overriding of oral tradition by a codified, written language, a process accelerated by the 15th-century invention of the printing press. He saw this as a corruption of our original unmediated sensual relationship to the world of things and to each other. Once we no longer needed to communicate face-to-face, to connect the message to the messenger, we grew estranged. McLuhan also predicted in a 1969 interview, before the dawn of the internet that electronic media would revive tribalism by creating a simultaneity of experience, bringing back the prelapsarian immediacy of a long-lost village. In this ceaseless flow of data, theres a risk of a tribe becoming no more than a brand, its members identities reduced to the products they buy swirly-hued bath bombs, say, or catchphrases memorialized in neon scribble signs choices that can easily be monetized and exploited as part of a capitalist system. Marketers speak of consumer tribes and corporate leaders are exhorted to instill in their employees a tribal culture, leveraging loyalty and a sense of mission for greater production and profits.

But true tribes shuck off labels, resist easy slotting within an index. Theyre instinctual, constantly shape-shifting, drafters of their own fates. Whether rabble-rousers or quiet meditators, crusaders on a mission or proclaimers of unexpected beauty, they are family: individuals who choose to become one, and make of that communion the beginnings of a new world.

Ligaya Mishan is a writer at large for T Magazine.

Read this article:
What Is a Tribe? - The New York Times

Related Post

Written by admin |

April 13th, 2020 at 8:49 pm

Posted in Enlightenment