Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Wodaabe

Wittgenstein's Tractatus makes me think of a universe of possibilities, pictured as innumerable Cartesian axes, one for all possible colors, one for all possible notes, one for all possible degrees of hardness or softness, and so on. Our own world, the actual or real world, is just some combination of coordinates on these axes. It could be otherwise. Wittgenstein is suspicious of the idea that we can in any way map or chart the possibilities though. Kant wanted to investigate what computes and what does not compute in order to discover the workings of the mind, conceived as a sort of data processor. Wittgenstein suggests that to think you can see the limits of thought is to imagine that you can see beyond them. I suppose we might think of this as applying Kantian humility to Kantianism itself.

It isn't clear what can be imagined, or conceived, or understood, or found to make sense. Nor is it clear whether these are all different things. The uncanny, the strange, is not easy to see clearly and distinctly. But the wealth of possibility is beautiful, and the thought of contingency can be exciting as well as frightening. Things don't have to be this way. It ain't necessarily so. Which can be scary (I always think of Sartre's nausea) and amazing (I think of Chesterton's view of nature as a miracle). Roughly speaking, it's cool.

The relevance of possibility to philosophy makes literature relevant, but also anthropology. Anything that can teach us differences. And this is one reason why I recommend Michael Palin's series Sahara, especially the episode (I think it's number 3) in which he encounters the Wodaabe:
Despite hard lives and harsh conditions, the Wodaabe are by no means grey or ground down. Celebration, dance and the pursuit of beauty are important parts of their everyday life and all three come together in the Gerewol, an extraordinary Fulani ritual that will be part of their Cure Salée celebrations. The young, unmarried men spend hours making themselves look beautiful, painting their faces red, highlighting their eyes with white lines and their lips with black powder. The effect is to make them look feminine and prematurely aged at the same time. The display is combined with a formal dance, at which these richly adorned men vie with each other for the favours of the young girls. The girls make the choice. It's free and open, and whilst it does not have to end in marriage, it does have to end in a night together.
It's one of the strangest things I've ever seen. Perhaps it won't seem so strange if you think of the phenomenon as that of young men making themselves beautiful. Don't transvestites try to do that? But these are not transvestites. They are making themselves look both feminine and prematurely aged in order to make themselves more attractive to women. The idea is strange, and the sight of it is uncanny too.

And now I find that Werner Herzog has made a film about these people, which is probably better than Palin's:


  1. It's fascinating, isn't it? And then there's the Amazonian Piraha tribe who seem to lack the concept of mathematics entirely. Wittgenstein would've LOVED these guys!

  2. That's fascinating, thanks. I think I've heard of them before, but many of the details in that article are new to me. Mind-boggling.

  3. And then there's the Amazonian Piraha tribe who seem to lack the concept of mathematics entirely.

    Well, abstract concepts such as "mathematics" are often among the very last additions to the language of even societies that are already quite developed by the time they are introduced. Even my own native language, Finnish, lacked the concept of mathematics until the second half of the nineteenth century, when it was deliberately imported roughly simultaneously with many other abstract concepts (e.g. "state", "society", "science", "religion", "music"). This doesn't mean that there was no counting, calculation, etc., in Finland until then; but all those who had any practical need to refer to it with an abstract concept belonged to the social classes that were fluent in Swedish, Latin, or both.

    And it seems clear, even from a popular exposition such as this, that while the Piraha lack the concept of mathematics, they do not completely lack concepts in mathematics. Instead of having none, they have next to none - but that no longer differentiates them from many other indigenous peoples. That doesn't of course mean that discussing the Piraha cannot be 1) interesting or 2) Wittgensteinian; on the contrary, it can be seen as a part of a longer tradition of drawing parallels between Wittgenstein and various "deviant" cognitive styles among indigenous peoples. (Cora Diamond's discussion of Alexander Luria's research on the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in "Rules: Looking in the Right Place" comes to mind.)

    I've followed the Piraha business myself for some years now - largely because of the Wittgensteinian angle - but I have to say that just about all of the empirical details are highly controversial. Daniel Everett, who is quoted in all the popular articles as the leading authority on the Piraha, has met with a massive wave of criticism from both linguistics and anthropology, much of which seems to have been justified. (See, for instance, Everett's 2005 paper in Current Anthropology with eight peer commentaries at the end.) Many of the more extreme and sensational-sounding claims made by Everett about the uniqueness of the Piraha seem to be claims that are true, but only in such qualified and toned-down forms that the sensationalism is quite lost. Conversely, whatever Everett has managed to document in a watertight way has always turned out to be already well-known in linguistics and found equally among other indigenous peoples, both in Amazonia and elsewhere.

  4. I can't add anything to that, but this is very good to know. Thanks!