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Marianna Torgovnick: Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives

– originally published as an Amazon review, May 19, 2005
– page added, Feb. 3, 2016

It is an undoubtable and continuous commonplace in scholarship that as ideas spread out from the core of its discourse, from that table of conversation at which are seated those who most fully know both the subject of discourse and the nature of the discourse itself, as the ideas are passed from that table to those standing around it, and to those others in the room, then out and into the world, there is with the dissemination a dissipation in understanding. This is how it always has been, and there is no way around it. From a certain point of view, a optimistic one, this is how is should be – for this is how understanding is to be given and developed: fully among those most fully able to understand, and in acceptable measures among those whose ability to digest can not yet handle that heavy a meat. That is in a way how Plato speaks of it in the Republic, with the ubiquitous example of the cave – an example which in contemporary times is coated with a great, ironic humor, in that most excerptings of the story removes it from its greater context, successfully performing the exact opposite of what the allegory is meant to teach: that those who see the shadows as shadows should go out and teach those who can not.

Unfortunately, in contemporary scholarship, we are faced with a related problem that may not be particular to our time but does seems rather overabundant. The above dissemination and dissipation of understanding occurs within academia just as it does in general society. Unfortunately, there is little if any effort in academia these days (especially as concerns cultural studies) to distinguish quality of scholarship – though one would think academia would have a stake in policing its own production. And the two-way bridge that crosses the scholastic with the popular – that of the populous giving strength-in-numbers to those ideas they find worthy of the day, and that of the academe responding to the pressure of that populist strength-in-numbers, whether for personal gain or in failing to recognize bias – adds greater complication. There arises now and again texts – and groups of texts – that gain popularity for saying that which is wanted to be heard, and then gains a false validation of its ideas based primarily upon that popular reception. The ultimate result is a reversal of the lesson of the cave: those who (supposedly) can see the shadows sometimes listen too blindly to those who can not, and call the shadows reality once again.

Torgovnick's Gone Primitive is such a text. It appeals to what is a rather popular sentiment among those levels of scholarship that are most in contact with (and influenced by) the beliefs (and desires to believe) of mass culture. It writes to an audience that knows what it wants to hear, and gives them exactly that. And as any orator worth their snuff can tell you, an audience eager to hear a thing does not need convincing. As such, academic rigor, argumentative strength, even factual basis becomes utterly unnecessary. Which is a good thing for Ms. Torgovnick. For if the popular audience would read with such, seeking in every conclusion a solid argument backing it up, Gone Primitive would have found itself with the approbations it merits: that is, a very small, and very brief publication run.

This text is some of the worst scholarship I have ever come across in formally published work: to a degree that it is remarkable to me that she teaches – with stature – at Duke. The problems in the book are rampant. If I may offer a brief list. Her understanding of her primary theoretical sources are at best limited to being able to repeat their ideas. Jameson's The Political Unconscious is very present throughout the book. But there is ample reason to believe her understanding of that text is limited to reiteration of (some of) its basic statements. She does not express an ability to understand the whys and wherefores of Jameson's ideas, nor the limits of their applicability: something evidenced in her applying him in blanket use to every critical situation. Unfortunately, much of what she is arguing against does not fall under the purview of Jameson's Marxist historiography: Jameson's ideas apply only to cultural groups: the individual does not exist in his arguments. But Torgovnick nonetheless openly applies the text to individuals and individual thought. Once you recognize this blurring of two distinct subjects into one (a blurring, because she is trying to speak to both subjects under a rubric that only covers one), her arguments become laughingly fallacious. Especially in that for many of her opponents that distinction is critical.

Which is not to say Torgovnick's arguments are on their own not frequently forced, over-wrought, or revealing of a tremendous lack of understanding of much of the primary material. Her analysis of Heart of Darkness becomes at times more comedy than scholarship. But then, the majority of her arguments suffer from being trussed and viced by the necessity to reach her post-colonial conclusions. If you are capable of reading Gone Primitive with any sense of academic distancing, you need not go far to see how the arguments are created to fit the conclusions. The description of Malinowski's book cover is a near immediate and riotous example: one I have quite successfully used as an example to the contrary in teaching first year college students how to think out an argument and the use of evidence to that end.

Even beyond that, I and my compatriots have found errors in sources, ideas taken out of context, basic terminology mis-used and mis-understood. E.g., she does not seem to understand the precepts of Expressionism – or purposefully ignores it. For an understanding of the term completely dissassembles her analysis of William Rubin's discussion of "the expressionist misreading of primitive art" (126 ff.), and the broader, subsequent attack on Rubin and the MoMA 'Primitivism' exhibition. For those of you interested in rhetoric, Torgovnick's argument on these pages is a quality example of the manipulation of ideas to a desired result, and of a desired result manipulating the argument created to buttress it. Her book is replete with ad hominum arguments and appeals to emotion over argumentative rigor. When she writes of the writers of the MoMA brochure, "Obviously the writers of that statement recognized but sidestepped some of the political problems inherent in the exhibition" (122), she is diagnosing (in reverse) her own text: sidestepping scholarship, understanding, and basic knowledge to dwell solely on whatever political problems she can find.

The whole of her attack against Rubin and the MoMA exhibition catalog is exemplary of what is wrong with not only Torgovnick's work, but much of post-colonial and cultural studies, because of the utter fallaciousness of it. The quality of scholarship here is flat embarrassing, for Torgovnick, for Duke, and for the University of Chicago Press. My favorite moment: her preference to argue out of the exhibition's free brochure rather than its catalogue (in another demonstration of Plato's cave turned back). When she does use the catalogue, it's poorly. The exhibition's (and catalogue's) title: 'Primitivism' in 20th-Century Art. Arguably its primary idea lies in the distinction between the terms `primitive' and `primitivism.' Yet not only does Torgovnick not successfully make or maintain that distinction in her book, she does not even get the definition to the latter term – the term that anchors the title of the exhibition – correct. That is perhaps a small thing to popular press. But elsewhere, it is horrendously bad scholarship.

It is to me no small thing that she avoids direct confrontation with the MoMA catalogue. Never mind that her presentation in Gone Primitive gives me no reason to believe she could successfully engage the ideas therein. If she could, she would quickly discover her own ideas about primitivism have little ground, and her arguments against Rubin no ground whatsoever. In fact, they can barely be called arguments at all. They far more resemble table-pounding than anything else, or a preacher preaching to an zealously receptive choir. A case in point (and such cases are not hard to find): in a footnote Torgovnick says that "[Kirk] Varnedoe's contribution to 'Primtivism' in 20th-Century Art were more favorably received than Rubin's, in part because Varnedoe wrote sympathetically about contemporary forms of primitivism, often practiced by women, including sculpture and earthworks (his wife is, in fact, involved in these movements." I love moments like this in texts, for how much they reveal. If I may direct your attention, notice how Varnedoe is better received not because of the merits of his ideas, but because they are more politically acceptable, more culturally inclusive. And such is Gone Primitive: politically acceptable, culturally inclusive, one big, post-colonial, united-colors-of-Benetton group hug. But knowledge? Understanding? And if you would look here, a quick note that even the political activities of Varnedoe's wife holds more concern than the ideas. And then, here, the humor and irony of it all: for if Torgovnick had read, and been able to understand, and had enough intellectual honesty to address Varnedoe's essay on Gaugin, she would see that by itself he utterly undermines the whole of her position. And please, don't trust me on that. Look for yourself. It is the MoMA catalogue that is the text that should be being heralded. And if you wade through the politically-correct sludge that it's been buried in – nay, hidden behind –, you will find just how ludicrous Torgovnick's work and politics actually is; not to mention a fantastic piece of scholarship.