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Blog Response to Davis

by on October 21, 2011

Maximilian Forte’s blog response to Wade Davis’ TED talk video criticizes some of the main topics Davis brings up about “endangered cultures”. Although Forte admires a lot of Davis’ work,  he points out that many aspects of Davis’ argument were problematic and double sided. One “problem” Forte focuses on  is that Davis tended to portray Westernized cultures as an overpowering force on indigenous groups whom are unable to resist westernized adaptations. He also emphasizes how different perspectives of change and progress of cultures affects how “endangered” groups are seen and stereotyped as fragile systems that are losing their cultural identity because of western influence. Forte questions how it is possible to see Americanized cultural change as “progress” when these same “progressions” being made by other cultures are seen as drawbacks. Forte also asserts that Davis’ approach to his argument is looking through a historical lens of anthropological thought by looking at the world with an ‘us vs. them’ technique.

Also, the article explains how Davis’ claim that politics are not a factor of global change is wrong; Forte believes that politics are involved in everything, even culture. Forte emphasizes that Davis has a double sided argument when he talks about ethnocide as being a result of human power rather than from political pressures. Forte asserts that politics are just as much a part of a culture as everything else. He points out that Davis and many other people study cultures by eliminating political factors in their research and only focus on what they think is relevant to revealing a cultural identity. Although Davis argues that politics get us nowhere, Forte claims that politics are still a part of cultural importance and influence our beliefs and ideologies.

As in previous discussions made in class and through readings online, we have come across this debate of the “us” vs. “them” dichotomy between cultures. Forte sees how this boundary of cultural difference affects how we perceive change in positive and negative ways. This is the idea that technological advances being made in Westernized society are seen as constructive development, and those same “advances” are  introduced into indigenous societies are seen as derogatory and harmful to their cultural identity. In Aliah’s article, she emphasizes how media influence in indigenous areas of the world positively impacts these cultures because it allows them to have a voice and be recognized as a people. Forte leans towards this idea of cultural development through change rather than Davis’ belief that technology is causing a sense of cultural loss.

Although I agree that cultural identities need to be protected from western influence, I also understand that there are certain aspects of globalization that we cannot control. Davis portrays these cultures as “endangered” species who have a spiritual background with nature, and even though he claims we are all a part of the “ethnosphere,” Davis makes our culture seem as if it is the main cause for cultural loss of other groups. Forte’s critique on the video shows how the TED talk is flawed because of how Davis defines what an endangered culture is and does not include problems of groups such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the West Bank. This question brought up in the article emphasizes how people like Davis only see certain cultures as the ones who need protection because of their size and remoteness from the outside world; however, Davis does not correlate these groups with popularized cultures because of the way National Geographic wants to portray and define certain groups. So this leads to the same questions brought up in class: what defines a culture and who is to define it? Which cultures are in need of protection, and who is to decide which groups are worse off than others? In the end, Forte would argue that answering these questions absolutely is impossible and Davis needs  include more of a holistic approach to the “endangered culture” problem.

Questions for the class:

How does Forte’s response to how we perceive cultural advancement and cultural loss affect your own beliefs on the matter? In other words, does westernized culture negatively or positively impact indigenous groups, and why?

How did your reactions and understanding of the video change after reading the blog post?


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  1. janellekramer permalink

    I found the TED Talk extremely interesting, but I can see what Forte means when he asks how “progress” is bad for every other culture yet good in America. I would answer that by saying that Progress in America isn’t necessarily good, especially when we are progressing as fast as we are, at least when it comes to technology. However, American culture is not at stake, and so people are not worried about it. The indigenous cultures are the ones that are being lost because American culture is infiltrating them, and so it is those most people are worried about. When Wade Davis says that 3,000 languages have been lost, we worry about those cultures, not the ones who speak English and rely on technology more than each other.

    • First off, I think Kelcy has asked some fabulous questions, so I do not wish to distract from those here. I hope the conversation she has begun will continue.

      I wanted to point out, however, that some feel that American culture is at stake (see recent immigration laws, the “English” only movements, etc). How do you feel these issues interact? What about Forte’s point about groups such as Palestinians? Or what about the cultures of those where we have engaged in war?

      Similarly, what about the issues or idea that Davis’s work implies a sort of cultural preservation. Do you think that Davis treats cultures as something solid, tangible, and unchanging? Can there be efforts at cultural conservation that allow cultures to continue to change/evolve? Should any culture be expected to be static?

  2. Davis does mention that cultures around the world have had to adapt to the changing environment, but he condemns globalization. The fact that 6,000 languages have diminished is a horrible side effect according to Davis, but speaking a similar language around the world could offer a better understanding between cultures. Though, it is important to allow a balance of power over the environment so that cultures can change on their own terms.

  3. shanewyenn permalink

    Kelcy-Davis talked a lot about how Western culture negatively impacts indigenous groups through deforestation, disease, and politics, however he neglected to mention the ways in which Western culture has at the same time helped some indigenous people. For example, I know a lot of effort has gone into water filtration systems to provide people in the third world with clean drinking water. In fact, one of my really good friends and CU graduate did her thesis on water filtration in China and set up a water filtration system in the mountains of China for the people that live there. I have another friend in Peace Corps who is stationed in The Gambia in Africa, sharing Western farming techniques to cashew farmers to help them produce a more efficient crop. I wouldn’t say these people are necessarily indigenous, but my point is that while Western culture is globalizing and messing things up (for a lack of better words), we should not forget that there are other Westerners who are trying to do what they can to have a more positive impact on indigenous and non-Western cultures.

    Nancy- It did seem that Davis treats indigenous cultures as something that is unchanging and static, which is silly because Western culture and even primate culture for that matter change all the time for a variety of different reasons such as environmental changes or technological advancements, so why wouldn’t these people change as well? As an anthropologist and biologist, you would think that he wouldn’t treat them this way. In response to your other question, are you talking about efforts to allow culture to change/grow without a Western influence? If so, I do believe that there can be efforts at cultural conservation that allow cultures to continue to change/evolve, however I am afraid that because the globalization epidemic is so huge, I just don’t see how it could be possible to keep Western culture away from them. This may or may not affect them or inhibit their evolution, but they will be affected nonetheless, like in the movie “The Gods Must be Crazy.”

  4. Benjamin N. permalink

    I found Davis’ talk to be interesting, and I initially saw it as accurate at face value. However, Forte’s blog made me reconsider and think harder. Forte’s question regarding the Taliban is what specifically made me think harder. Upon reading the blog response, I realized that Davis did take a sort of “us-and-them” approach to culture. He criticized the idea of the “noble savage” who needs protection, while simultaneously saying it is “our” duty to protect other cultures. I see that as a contradiction of his own logic.

  5. amygraceaustin permalink

    Wow! Forte’s critique of Davis’ TEDtalk just rocked my world! He is so dead-on! Because I am particularly interested in influence of media on how Gaza is portrayed, I absolutely love Forte’s title “Does Wade Davis Do Gaza?” because it shows how stories are designed with an audience in mind. National Geographic chooses to remain politically unbiased in order to make the largest possible profit. The blockade on Gaza and what that is doing to create a form of ethnocide is certainly not a sexy topic.

    Forte points out that when National Geographic and other institutions tell us stories about “endangered cultures” they are leaving out huge pieces of that story – primarily the political aspect.
    As I’ve been learning more about political ecology, I’ve been realizing more and more how the political is so naturally engrained in every aspect of life – it simply cannot be removed and the story remain consistent.

    In another class I’ve been learning about “intertextuality” and how there is always more than one story being told. The Davis video is certainly constructed within a particular context to achieve a particular means. It is portrayed as a linear story. Forte calls him out on portraying his video as “fact” and critiques various choices he made. I believe that videos like the one Davis made do serve a purpose but they should only be seen as one voice within a complex system of alternative points of view and various levels of meaning.

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