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The Tools of Last Resort
by Jan Sand
2008-03-06 09:07:45
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Life can get very tough indeed. No matter the huge advances in understanding the universe in general and untangling our own individual problems of obtaining even the minimum sustenance for staying alive and healthy, natural and social forces can be very frequently overwhelming. Even today with all our powers of technology a very large proportion of the current world population suffers from lacks of food, clothing and shelter and protection from the brutality perpetually pandemic within humanity.

In the dawn of human existence there were things obvious and things mysterious just as today, but those two classes have changed radically in their content. In the beginning the physical world held many unsolved problems about how to work the many materials that the environment offered. Tool and weapon development progressed through wood and stone to metals. Textiles and ceramics supplanted animal hides and hollowed out gourds. An understanding of the regular repeating seasons and time aided in the development of agriculture and a large spectrum of various structure developments formed the basis for collective living in villages and cities.

However, no matter the developing technology there were persistent unknowns that frustrated the processes in using tools, in growing food, in building stable structures. Solutions to dealing with these unknowns have been remarkably consistent even to present time with one major exception. Gradually, as pragmatic procedures have brought success, the obvious elements of experiment and conservation and dissemination of information about processes that prove successful have changed the world.

In ancient times variations in the way manufacturing techniques progressed were attributed to mischievous spirits. When assumed copper ores did not reduce to metal through simple heating a malicious spirit called a Kobold supposedly deterred the process. It was only much later in technical development that the assumed copper ore was discovered actually to be an ore of the metal cobalt which requires entirely different refining methods.

Overwhelmingly, in the beginning, the non-conformity of nature to what was previously known was assumed to be caused by strange invisible human type creatures with odd powers. There were gnomes in caves, fairies and goblins in the fields, dryads in trees, and great powers in the depths of the earth and odd human-like super-creatures that ranged the heavens who behaved like irresponsible children impelled by whims of love or hate or lust or frightful anger when their powers were confronted with resistance or disobedience. The only way to assuage these wild emotional outages was through the intervention of the priesthood who, like any group of self assigned effective charlatans, erected social structures and props to maintain their levers of power in a human environment largely ignorant of the forces of nature and how they affected natural events.

Gradually, as it became apparent to close observers of nature, many of the powers of these mythical invented creatures dissipated into what were the mere interactions of the forces of the universe driven by no more than a series of natural laws without good will or rancor. The priesthood, of course, fought this recognition since it deprived them of their assumed ability to circumvent disaster.

But humanity in general, to a great extent, has retained the ignorance of natural forces and there are still religious leaders who howl about human sexual deviations that are the basis for evoking tornados and hurricanes and other meteorological disasters. In Africa people are still stoned as witches. I don't know if somewhere people still put out a dish of milk at night to get the good will of "the little folk" but I am reasonably sure that little folk with long tails are grateful. And the horoscope page of newspapers worldwide is still immensely popular.

No matter our present medical and scientific sophistication, when cancer hits, when your kid gets struck by a drunk driver, when you buy a lotto ticket or sweat over the results of a university examination or even when you bring your car in for the annual examination, it's handy to have a rabbit's foot (which apparently was ineffective for the rabbit that had four of them), or a four-leaf clover, or not step on a sidewalk crack (which traditionally broke your mother's back).

What the Hell! It couldn't hurt. It's the tool of last resort.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-03-06 11:45:30
A comment from and excerpt from chapter 7 (“Myth as Origins of Self-knowledge”) of Emanuel L. Paparella’s book Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Mellen Press, N.Y. 1993), pp. 78-79.

“…The misunderstanding or caricaturing of mytho-poetic mentality explains the inability to imaginatively re-create origins. Let us look at an example from the film medium, the movie Quest for Fire which was inspired by the book The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. This movie purports to show primitive man’s first tentative steps toward his own humanity and civilized life. What it manages to do is to present a caricature of primitive mentality. It does so because it begins with a conceptual fallacy, namely this: ideas and institutions of all historical ages are the product of a human mind whose character is fixed. Let me explain.

What makes the film a spoof and a caricature is that far from getting an imaginative recreation of origins, we are served with an image of primitive man as seen through modern man’s Cartesian paradigm of reality. This is so because the narrator (Morris) and the film director bring to the recreation of primitive mentality (Vico’s age of the gods) all of their misguided rationalistic assumptions. The most egregious of this is the assumption that primitive man’s mind functions as a sort of lower underdeveloped rational mind, i.e., a mind still to be “enlightened.” The logical corollary to this assumption is that man’s origins can best be understood rationally, from the outside so to speak. This is the objectification of man’s humanity which begins with Descartes: I am the objective judging observer of man’s humanity but in the process I forget that the one who observes is a man with a human nature and a history made by man. (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-06 11:47:49
Those fallacies are apparent from the very beginning of the movie. Precious little of the Vihian “poetic wisdom” which characterizes primitive mentality come through. Nowhere is primitive man’s fertile imagination which creates the gods is explored. But as Vico has well taught us, without a recreation of early man’s religious impulse, basic to any primitive incipient civilization, without an imaginative re-creation of the fear and wonder inherent in this primordial religion, no beginning of civilization and man’s humanity can be recreated. In fact, nowhere in the movie is an act of “piety,” properly understood, presented; acts such as the burial of the dead, ritual dancing, ritual painting of one’s body and one’s cave, marriage and the incipient society of the family, the worship of the gods, all phenomena that anthropologist tell us are common to any primitive society and incipient civilization. Most glaringly missing is an exploration of the most powerful tool of primitive man: language.

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-06 11:49:57
On the other hand, what we see in abundance in this caricature of primitive man is strife, violence, indiscriminate copulation not that different from that of animals and a thinly veiled Darwinian competition for the survival of the fittest by possession of technology, tools and especially fire (hence the title of the movie). Savage competition is in fact the name of the game throughout the movie. The message is clear: only the fit deserve to survive. This is put forward despite the latest archeological findings of eminent archeologists such as Leaky suggesting that there may have been far more cooperation among early men than we have surmised all along. Cooperation was almost a necessity for the survival of the tribe and its common good, rather than competition for scarce natural resources and the extermination of neighboring tribes by superior weapons. (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-06 11:50:49
In short, what this movie presents is primitive man as seen through the rationalistic eyes of modern man (the naked ape of Morris at the apex of evolution: Anglo Saxon man). That explains why nowhere in the movie do we observe any “poetical” manifestations of primitive mentality: phenomena such as ritual dancing, initiation, fable and myth telling by which primitive man created order out of the surrounding natural flux assaulting his senses. Almost completely absent is the portrayal of the very first and most important institution of early man: language; an institution by which he humanizes himself. The few pathetic attempts with that phenomenon are on a purely rationalistic level, i.e., language understood as a mere means of communication and an instrument of social control. What is accorded a privileged position is the incessant quest for fire as a superior weapon and the constant struggle that its possession entails. The premise is clear: the tribe that controls fire wins the technological competition and earn the privilege to carry on the evolutionary process. The unfit simply perish. If we reverse the telescope and return to our times, what we see is modern man’s constant search and struggle for oil and all that it entails. Indeed, the ape is naked in more ways than one…

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