Friday, June 29, 2007

Imagine All the People...

...Living for today.

You don't have to be a dreamer, because these people seem to exist. They are called the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN). They are described in this New Yorker article:
...They playfully tossed my name back and forth among themselves, altering it slightly with each reiteration, until it became an unrecognizable syllable. They never uttered it again, but instead gave me a lilting Pirahã name: Kaaxáoi, that of a Pirahã man, from a village downriver, whom they thought I resembled. “That’s completely consistent with my main thesis about the tribe,” Everett told me later. “They reject everything from outside their world. They just don’t want it, and it’s been that way since the day the Brazilians first found them in this jungle in the seventeen-hundreds.”

But his [Dan Everett, an American linguistics professor's] work remained relatively obscure until early in 2005, when he posted on his Web site an article titled “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã,” which was published that fall in the journal Cultural Anthropology. The article described the extreme simplicity of the tribe’s living conditions and culture. The Pirahã, Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”—terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition...

Unlike other hunter-gatherer tribes of the Amazon, the Pirahã have resisted efforts by missionaries and government agencies to teach them farming. They maintain tiny, weed-infested patches of ground a few steps into the forest, where they cultivate scraggly manioc plants. “The stuff that’s growing in this village was either planted by somebody else or it’s what grows when you spit the seed out,” Everett said to me one morning as we walked through the village. Subsisting almost entirely on fish and game, which they catch and hunt daily, the Pirahã have ignored lessons in preserving meats by salting or smoking, and they produce only enough manioc flour to last a few days...

...Everett hypothesized that the tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions—and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word xibipío as a clue to how the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience—which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipío—‘gone out of experience,’ ” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience.’ ”

To Everett, the Pirahã’s unswerving dedication to empirical reality—he called it the “immediacy-of-experience principle”—explained their resistance to Christianity, since the Pirahã had always reacted to stories about Christ by asking, “Have you met this man?” Told that Christ died two thousand years ago, the Pirahã would react much as they did to my using bug repellent. It explained their failure to build up food stocks, since this required planning for a future that did not yet exist; it explained the failure of the boys’ model airplanes to foster a tradition of sculpture-making, since the models expressed only the momentary burst of excitement that accompanied the sight of an actual plane. It explained the Pirahã’s lack of original stories about how they came into being, since this was a conundrum buried in a past outside the experience of parents and grandparents.
No cultural art...I don't want to come off as a kind of cultural imperialist here, but this really tests the boundaries of my understanding.

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