Life on the Edge

In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place

by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
Princeton University Press, 350 pp., $14.95 (paper)

When the third world (as it was called before the second collapsed and the first lost its power to set the globe’s agenda) finally begins to modernize—in China, say, or India, in Mexico, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia—a very old phenomenon, as old as the displacement of the American Indians, the Australian Aborigines, the Bushmen, the Bedouins, the Lapps, or the Gypsies, gets a new lease on life. Those peoples who lack or are denied the means of participating in such modernization, or who simply reject the terms on which it is offered, become marginal, and this leads to the creation of encapsulated societies, societies viewed by the majority populations in the countries in which they live as “backward,” “traditional,” “archaic,” “static,” or “primitive.” Go-ahead states, bent on “take-off,” do not bring all their citizens equally with them when they join the contemporary world of capital flows, technology transfers, trade balances, and growth rates. Some, indeed, they quite ceremoniously push aside.

It is just this sort of “out-of-the-way” peoples—the more out-of-the-way the better—that cultural anthropology in its classic phase dedicated itself to studying, on the presumption that they were natural communities persisting through time, whole, autonomous, and undisturbed: “our primitive contemporaries.” The realization, grudging and belated, that this is not so, not even with the Pygmies, not even with the Eskimos, and that these peoples are in fact products of larger-scale processes of social change which have made them and continue to make them what they are—the same processes which have made and continue to make us what we are—has come as something of a shock and has induced a virtual crisis in the field.

Descriptive reports of “organic” societies governed by “integrated” cultures, settled shapes, and solidified structures “real as a seashell,” grow unpersuasive. Stark “great divide” contrasts between “modern” and “premodern” societies, the one individualistic, rational, and free of tradition, the other collectivistic, intuitive, and mired in it, look increasingly mythical, summary, and simple-minded. The very idea of a bounded, self-contained community, “We, the Tikopia,” “The People of Alor,” becomes suspect; that of a seamless way of life, “The Balinese Temper,” “The Cheyenne Way,” dubious altogether. There are no petrified survivors from the world we have lost; just hapless castaways, neglected and vulnerable, of the one we live in. The anthropological “science,” if it is a science, seems to have lost its object.

Or found a new one. If ethnological crystals, independent societies complete in themselves, are not to be had, and perhaps never were, then we will have to learn how to deal with dependent and incomplete ones. The study of marginal societies, of the process by which they are marginalized, pushed off toward the edges of modernizing states and left to adapt as best they can with whatever is left to them in the way of material resources (usually, very little) and spiritual heritage (often, surprisingly much) can be at least as revelatory, and a good deal more realistic, than the classical approach to one…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.