Alan Tormaid Campbell
Getting to Know Waiwai
An Amazonian Ethnography

Routledge 1995


SMALL SCALE SOCIETIES

S. 111:  Authority - power - hierarchy

How do human beings keep their society going? How fragile is it? While animal instincts are usually so accurate, human drives and motivations are a mess. To keep us right in the society we know here, we're held together by all sorts of economic and political institutional arrangements that we think are enormously sophisticated. They are certainly obscure, and there are so many competing views
trying to tell us how it all works, how it could work better, and what the dangers of breakdown are. We are also bombarded with disparate information and have access to unprecedented quantities of knowledge. 

All this gives us the impression that somehow we (as opposed to them) live in enormously sophisticated societies. When we look at simpler societies from this point of view as mirrors of ourselves we think that it is they who lack something or another and we who have progressed to some superior state. But wherever you look it's the small-scale societies that seem to work. It's what's called 'civilization' that's responsible for crying 'Havoc!' and letting slip the dogs of war.

We think that our protection from havoc comes from our institutions, such as our governments and judicial systems, police and military organizations, and oh yes, our amazing scientific and technical sophistication with its basis in literacy. And I suppose that's right, in a way. We think that if these institutions disintegrated we would be at risk. And I'm sure we would be. But we then go on to reason that those societies that do not have such institutions must therefore be teetering on the verge of chaos.

William Golding's Lord of the Flies imagines a set up where all institutions of authority are suddenly removed, and the abandoned community of schoolboys slips into a process of degeneracy where dark, atavistic manners and arrangements emerge. It's generally assumed that our civilized institutions save us from some dreadful state like that; from some primitive state that we might fall into
again if we're not careful. And that line of reasoning produces our notions of savagery and primitive society. 

But this is all upside down. It's we who are the social children, living under the authority of grave, distant, paternalistic institutions of which we know little. Wayapi people, and so many others in similar circumstances, had nothing like that sitting over them (except, that is, when they were being interfered with by Brazilians). They had to know how to shift for themselves, and they did very well indeed.

How on earth did they do it? Only 150 people when I first met them and, if left to themselves, they could get on with it just dandy. No Lord of the Flies fantasy here at all. You could take any aspect of it you want. The one that I always find so intriguing
(since I find it the most mysterious human capacity) is language. 
They'd been cut off for generations from a much larger population with a shared language. Wouldn't the language somehow have shrunk along with their network of social ties and interests? Not a bit of it. Here were 150 people with a perfectly formed language, now uniquely theirs, still vigorously innovative, volubly expressive, giving them access to a vivid lore of beliefs, myths, and interpretations of their surroundings.

The notion that there's a useful contrast to be made between simple-primitive languages on the one hand and complicated-sophisticated ones on the other (like modern English, modern French, modern Arabic, modern Chinese) should be one of the easiest misapprehensions for comparative anthropology to correct. But it's just so widespread. I heard in the streets of Marrakech from university-educated Moroccan students that you couldn't possibly make a grammar book or dictionary of Berber (the language found in the Atlas mountains which looked down on them, and indeed one of the languages found on their own city streets) because 'it wasn't a real language', and I've come across the same reaction in university circles here: that the people I'd visited in Amazonia 'of course didn't have a proper language'.

What's so baffling about that kind of assertion is that there's absolutely nothing you can do to show them how wrong they are.Talking about the wonders of a particular language is useless. You can't talk about a language in that way. It's even further removed than talking about music. You can always play a tape of the music,
or even just whistle it. But there's no point in breaking into some Wayapi, or Berber if you were lucky enough to know it, sit back and expect them to groove away to the subtlety of the phonetics. If others want to be convinced, they have to plunge into it themselves and get some experience of what it feels like to swing off into an attempt at translation, unsure if you've got the momentum to get to the other side.
Wayapi people were not teetering on the edge of linguistic havoc where at any moment they might have slipped off into a morass of grunts and gestures. (It's we, as translators, who risk that.) They shared the same firm linguistic plateau that all other human beings are on.

Similarly, as regards their material welfare, if left to themselves they did not face the havoc of starvation and famine. That's something that's left for 'civilization' to perpetrate on the world. Here again it's the wrong way round. It is we, in our complex technological societies who are, in a childlike way, dependent on everyone else around us for the very basics of our existence, and it is Wayapi people who appear as self-sufficient adults, able to look after themselves. 

That's why all of us who went there and lived with them admired their skills so much and became so aware of how much we have lost. There is not a trace of romantic illusion in appreciating the wonders of their language. There is not a trace of romantic illusion in appreciating their superb technical skills and their knowledge of their environment. 

But what about the sociey aspect? How was havoc kept at bay there? Who decided what counted as right and what counted as wrong, what was decent behaviour and what was not, what was madness and what sanity? Who decided on punishment and revenge? Where did the restraints on violence come from? Where could appeal be made to for guidance? Why didn't it all just go to pot?
 

In one way the questions I'm asking are banalities. No one with the slightest anthropological experience is going to ask if you could find examples of a people without a 'proper' language. Nor would you entertain for long the idea of a people chronically incompetent in their environment (that is, a permanent hopelessness - one that is not the result of major disruption or sudden catastrophe). Similarly you can't really entertain the idea of 'a society that doesn't work as a sociey'. So we can say with some firmness: 'Look, it just is like that. That's what "human life" means - language, material culture, social codes. It's just as basic as walking on two
legs.'

But it's not as basic as that. It's not as simple as basic biology. There was no way of knowing when any of us started out in comparative anthropology that it would be at all like that. It's absolutely fascinating that it should turn out that way. And whereas
anthropologists might take it all for granted, there are an awful lot of people around us who would have nothing whatever to do with the conclusion that we, on one side, and primitive people on the other, are really all much the same no matter where and when, far less accept that a comparison between us and them shows that we have lost something extraordinarily important. 

It's easy for anthropologists to take it all for granted, especially while being there with them in the woods, with the details of the day to get through, and the strings of immediate anxieties and decisions to resolve. While there, an appreciation of the way they held the whole show together came only in scattered moments, being puzzled by something and deliberately stopping to wonder. It's only now, looking back, that I can properly admire what was going on.
 
 

Without the Law

The essence of the way they lived was that there was no higher authority to appeal to. There were no ponderous institutions nor grave abstractions (the Police or the Law) to take decisions or coerce.They had to sort it out themselves.

It's worth emphasizing the point about Law. Familiar stereotypes of primitive life manage to incorporate impossible inconsistencies at the same time, seeing the people so described as being at once unpredictably volatile and violent while also being fearfully hide-bound in rigidly limiting codes. Again these views represent worlds turned upside down. The authoritarian, autocratic chief, signalling
capricious judgements with a gesture is one of our inventions; another piece of fantasy. 

You quickly find that trying to puzzle out what the word 'chief' means is still one of the most intriguing social and philosophical puzzles that an encounter with Amazon
Forest peoples presents. ('Our-Big-One' would be the Wayapi way of putting it.) The word puts into question all our notions of power, authority, influence, and rule. We're sodden with notions of patriarchies (and matriarchies now and again), of kings (and queens now and again), of dynastic power and inheritance, of status, classes, castes, races, and of all manner of hierardhies. We're therefore baffled when we come across a political set-up which is most concisely summed up in the description: 'The chief speaks, and everyone does as they please.'

Professional commentators who approach the problem do so with contrived awkwardness. 'Well, you see, the chief is a sort of distributor. Being the political centre, he's given all sorts of material goods. But anything he gets he's got to redistribute. So although he remains materially poorer he gets the benefit of superior moral and political status.' 

This is functionalist fantasy. There was no centring of material production, no redistributing, no displays of giving. The awkwardness of explanations like that, the embarrassing lack of fit with the life you see, is, actually, understandable.

There are dozens of these explanations, including bizarre 'structuralist' ones where 'culture' takes over in the form of the chief and 'nature' breaks back through to deprive him of his power - weird bouncing dances of abstractions. The awkwardness is understandable because they are all trying to make sense of the question, 'How can you have political power in the form of a chief when nothing that the chief says has anything to do with executive decisions?' What on earth is a chief for, if not to dole out the orders? What's power without power?

I'm as puzzled as anyone else, and can't find much to say to solve the conundrum. But what delights me is that here again is something so unexpected. It throws up all sorts of questions about the nature and possibilities of human life by putting our notion of 'political power' into a strange light indeed. It's also one of the
best examples I can find of the way that, when translating between languages, the possibilities of holding on to meaning are stretched to breaking point. We're at the limit again. 

The word is “yanerowiyung”: 'Our-Big', or 'Our-Big-One'. It would be absolutely perverse to insist that we mustn't translate that as 'chief'. The point is we have to translate it as 'chief'. Everything in the habits of our language pulls us into 'chief' as if into a semantic black hole. And once in there, we find ourselves covered by layers of misconceptions. We have to go in, though. I'd insist on that. And once in there, we've got to start digging ourselves out again, through the layers of misconception, and try to find a way of reorganizing our notions of 'chief' and 'power' in order to find a way towards their notions. There's no other way but through our words.

Waiwai is a 'chief'. I think of him as a kind of moral commentator, like a stern and self-important writer of editorials in a national newspaper. Sure, he's a Thunderer when he walks about at night, or in early twilight, putting on his official voice and doing some 'hard talking' (that people shouldn't be lazy; that women should get up early and bathe in the river when it's cold, and so on). But people didn't take much notice. Certainly decisions were not his to take, and no one would think of asking him to make one.

So often you'd see the translation-mistake in action. Brazilians would come in and think that to get something done they had to negotiate with the chief, the “capitao”, as they'd translate it, and that once there was agreement with him, the rest of the village would follow. Well, you can forget your captains. That's not the way it worked. They would also make the mistake of thinking that if gift-giving or payment of any kind had to be made, the things could be given to the chief, who would then hand them to negotiate with the chief, the capitao, as they'd translate it, and that once there was agreement with him, the rest of the village would follow. 
Well, you can forget your captains. That's not the way it worked. They would also make the mistake of thinking that if gift-giving or payment of any kind had to be made, the things could be given to the chief, who would then hand them around in an equitable way. Not a bit of it. Give something to someone and it was his, no matter how much you give him, chief or no chief; and no one else in the village would expect it to be any other way.

I think some of the FUNAI staff (Brazilian Government Organisation) gradually got round to an appreciation of this. They noticed that there were always some
individuals who were more at ease with outsiders, more confident, more willing to pick up Portuguese, and who could be relied on to do business, and who could translate orders and instructions. These became a separate little class of trusties, good intermediaries, like honorary consuls. After a while the Brazilians would do their own promotions and start calling them capitao too, so entering another turn into the spiral of mistranslation.

I'm not sure why we fall so easily into mistranslations and misconceptions about this. Perhaps our hierarchies and patriarchies and our sense of parental authoritarianism urges us to think that everyone simply must have established patterns of dominion and submission. Surely every pack of primates has its dominant male. Even hens have pecking orders (or so it seems to us). Hence we
go into all sorts of contortions trying to fit our patterns of power on to this scene and, as the effort gets more and more awkward, so the explanations get more and more bizarre.

If I could just skirt around the matter of the sexual division of labour, of the man/woman categorical imperative, of the nuances of decision around the domestic hearth - quite a lot to skirt around, you'll agree - then the picture presented by these communities is one of power-degree-zero, hierarchy reduced to a minimum, authority no more than a posture, coercion no more than a gesture.
What are we looking at? Good old Gemeinschaft? The frozen, out-of-history, primitive society, perdurable in its synchronicity? Well, no. It's not a picture of a steady state. It's a picture of a fluctuating process that has managed, so far, to keep afloat and to get through. It's not a picture of functionalist synchronicity. It's a
picture of a practised tightrope walker in motion.
 

S.34

Parley

As the months went on the struggle with the language gradually grew, from initial, carefree bouts into daily skirmishes, and from that into a full-scale campaign. It was 'foot - slog- slog- slog-sloggin' over Africa' all right. No discharge in that war. All I had to start with was a missionary's list of twenty words or so collected in French Guiana, and another made by a nineteenth-century explorer in the same area and written in pre-phonetic script French. No dictionaries, no grammars; and no training in how to go about this most mysterious of all learning procedures. I had no idea what I was up against, what to look for, whether it would even be possible to 'learn the language' at all. Could there be such a thing in the world as a language that was impossible to penetrate? No, there isn't.

The miracle of translation

The bafflement of Babel is accompanied by the miracle of translation. Wherever languages find each other, time and again the astonishing processes of translation begin to grow. It didn't come easily for me though. The start was fine. It felt like
leaps and bounds each day. But that initial sense of speed quickly vanished and for months I felt trapped in a painful effort that seemed to be getting nowhere. A particularly depressing stage was when I began to record myth telling, and I'd have a few half-hour tapes that meant next to nothing to me. I'd play them over and
over again, baffled.

The limits of my language became prison bars. On a day in midsummer I tried to hurl myself against them, grasping them and shaking them in a mixture of anger, frustration, and despair. Would the effort make them bend any quicker? Would my world expand if I howled and beat myself against its limits? Would that break the
frozen stream of language and make it flow? 

That day I took two or three sentences and sat with Parahandy going over them and over them till I thought I saw what was going on, and till he was fed up. By the end I felt I'd struggled to the top of a small hill only to realize that Yanuari's myth on the 30-minute tape still reared up in front of me like a huge mountain. Would I ever scale that?

It's a commitment for years, not months. And yes, the sense of freedom does eventually come. To this day I return to notebooks, grammars, vocabularies to enjoy new discoveries and to keep familiar with the paths and clearings of the language that I've already come to know. It isn't just like 'knowing another language'. I've got to know a number of European languages. One or two I'm quite good at. Others I've got a smattering. The thought of having a look at one or two more doesn't dismay me. I know I could pick up modern Greek, Romanian, maybe even a Slavonic language. But the thought of starting on another unwritten language, while it would be a marvellous undertaking, daunts me.

When going well, it was satisfying to get talking and to start getting used to their peculiar conversational ways. I might start talking to a particular person within the hearing of others. My interlocutor would often be helped out and told what to say by
the others, in lowered voices. Part of the game was that even though I heard the others perfectly well, I hadn't to answer them. I had to wait until the answer was repeated by the person I'd initially begun talking to. Sometimes it was a help, when, for example, my interlocutor didn't understand me and the bystander did. Often,
though, it was a nuisance if the bystander was a busybody, determined to intervene.

I'd often be asked questions by someone who knew the answers perfectly well. Indeed, if I was having difficulty remembering the proper words, I'd have the answer supplied for me by the questioner. These performance aspects of conversation waxed and waned depending on the context. On fine evenings all the men would sit in line near a fire. I'd talk to everyone. But some men, although living together in an intimate village like that, maintained a social distance of silence. They were relationally remote and regarded each other as formal strangers. They wouldn't ordinarily talk. If they did it would be a rehearsed conversation, all the questions being familiar and all the answers heard before.
Waiwai's harangues were the most formal. He'd often start up at night, from his hammock, having engaged Yanuari, in his hammock across the village, as his partner in the performance. Waiwai's speech would be delivered in a loud singing monotone. When he paused he would be answered by expletives and assents on the same frequency. Now and again I'd be sitting with Yanuari when he'd have
to take part in a harangue, and he'd carry on a hurried, whispered conversation with me on one subject, breaking off at the required moment to cry out the responses on the artificial pitch.

Siro, independent and happily self-sufficient, was perhaps the man on the most formal terms with Waiwai. They found themselves one night at the communal fire with no one else there. They sat on their stools, their backs to one another. Waiwai went off on a harangue. His main theme on that occasion was to go over and
over the deaths, making the point again and again that there were so many Brazilians (karai-ko, as they call them) and so few Wayapi. Back came Siro's responses on the same pitch. Like the songs, these formal harangues seemed to be tied to an anchor note, like the A of the oboe as the orchestra tunes up. I like to think it's possible that they shared a sort of perfect pitch and a chosen tonic in which their songs and formal speech were rooted, but my musical ear is not accurate enough to say.

 
HOME   BOE    SAL    TEXTE