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The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind

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Overview

We began as savages, and savagery has served us well—it got us where we are. But how do our tribal impulses, still in place and in play, fit in the highly complex, civilized world we inhabit today? This question, raised by thinkers from Freud to Levi-Strauss, is fully explored in this book by the acclaimed anthropologist Robin Fox. It takes up what he sees as the main—and urgent—task of evolutionary science: not so much to explain what we do, as to explain what we do at our peril.

Ranging from incest and arranged marriage to poetry and myth to human rights and pop icons, Fox sets out to show how a variety of human behaviors reveal traces of their tribal roots, and how this evolutionary past limits our capacity for action. Among the questions he raises: How real is our notion of time? Is there a human “right” to vengeance? Are we democratic by nature? Are cultural studies and fascism cousins under the skin? Is evolutionary history coming to an end—or just getting more interesting? In his famously informative and entertaining fashion, drawing links from Volkswagens to Bartok to Woody Guthrie, from Swinburne to Seinfeld, Fox traces our ongoing struggle to maintain open societies in the face of profoundly tribal human needs—needs which, paradoxically, hold the key to our survival.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
An examination of the continuing influence of tribalism on how humans think and behave is by times both fascinating and frustrating. Fox (The Red Lamp of Incest), professor of social theory at Rutgers University, applies our savage instincts to explain a wide variety of phenomena, including Middle Eastern politics, religious sectarianism, the 10 Commandments, poetry, and incest taboos. However, it is in the thesis itself that the trouble lies. The author argues that our notions of "human" and "rights" are historically constituted and relatively recent, yet goes on to essentialize his own view of human nature (tribal and antagonistic to strangers). More worryingly, he implicitly places all of humanity on a simplistic evolutionary scale that sees Western democratic societies at the top. The attempt to view so many dimensions of culture and politics through the lenses of an atavistic tribalism oversimplifies, doing little justice to the richness and variety of both the contemporary world and the author's own eclectic interests. (Apr.)
Chronicle of Higher Education

A lively, digressive work of startling range.
— Evan R. Goldstein

American Interest

The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind is an exciting synthesis of earlier work like the anthropological classic Kinship and Marriage (1967) and [Fox's] latest wide-ranging thoughts. In a way reminiscent of the breadth of Charles Hill's recent masterpiece Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, Fox ranges from a discussion of the Ten Commandments to an analysis of the great warrior epics and Sophocles' King Oedipus, from incest taboos and the myth of Isis and Osiris to the ambiguous nature of human rights, from the plot of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights to Karl Popper's thoughts on the desirability of 'open' as against 'closed' societies. But his most topical and provocative comments are found in a chapter entitled 'The Kindness of Strangers: Tribalism and the Trials of Democracy.'
— Roger Sandall

Taipei Times

Here is a veteran writer and thinker sounding off on a huge variety of subjects, ranging from why monarchy may not be such a bad form of government after all to why James Cameron's Avatar exemplifies an important anthropological thesis… The charm of this book…lies in this very eclectic approach.
— Bradley Winterton

Choice

In this stocktaking of the human condition past, present, and future, Fox draws on publications made throughout his illustrious anthropological career. Readers are treated not only to Fox's wide-ranging ideas on the topic, but also to insights into Fox the scholar, especially a chapter devoted to his enthrallment with the Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Though Fox makes an evolutionary argument, his goal is not to layout an evolutionary sequence leading to ourselves, but to make connections between what we see in ourselves as humans today and how this relates to our evolutionary past.
— D. Read

Roger Sandall
The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind is an exciting synthesis of earlier work like the anthropological classic Kinship and Marriage (1967) and [Fox's] latest wide-ranging thoughts. In a way reminiscent of the breadth of Charles Hill's recent masterpiece Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, Fox ranges from a discussion of the Ten Commandments to an analysis of the great warrior epics and Sophocles' King Oedipus, from incest taboos and the myth of Isis and Osiris to the ambiguous nature of human rights, from the plot of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights to Karl Popper's thoughts on the desirability of 'open' as against 'closed' societies. But his most topical and provocative comments are found in a chapter entitled 'The Kindness of Strangers: Tribalism and the Trials of Democracy.'
Stephen V. Faraone
The Tribal Imagination manages to be erudite and logical yet engaging and entertaining at the same time. The intellectual pace of the book is the cognitive equivalent of being smacked by waves on the beach.
Bernard Chapais
The Tribal Imagination is an elegant demonstration that human nature is omnipresent in the symbolic realm and that knowing about this is the best way to make sense not only of humankind's unity but of its diversity as well.
Francis Fukuyama
In The Tribal Imagination, Robin Fox brings to bear stunning insights from his wide knowledge of human societies and the philosophers, poets, and thinkers who have tried to understand them. He casts brilliant light not just on the human historical experience, but on contemporary issues from Iraq to human rights as well.
Melvin Konner
One of our most prolific and brilliant anthropologists has done it again. Marriage rules of simple societies, the rise of civilization, modern international politics, and literary examples ranging from the Bible and Greek mythology to Shakespeare and children's rhymes are all grist for Robin Fox's mill, which grinds out a fine understanding of how human groups function, given the Darwinian imperatives operating in history, the dynamics of family relationships, and the possibilities and limitations of the human brain.
Chronicle of Higher Education - Evan R. Goldstein
A lively, digressive work of startling range.
Taipei Times - Bradley Winterton
Here is a veteran writer and thinker sounding off on a huge variety of subjects, ranging from why monarchy may not be such a bad form of government after all to why James Cameron's Avatar exemplifies an important anthropological thesis… The charm of this book…lies in this very eclectic approach.
Choice - D. Read
In this stocktaking of the human condition past, present, and future, Fox draws on publications made throughout his illustrious anthropological career. Readers are treated not only to Fox's wide-ranging ideas on the topic, but also to insights into Fox the scholar, especially a chapter devoted to his enthrallment with the Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Though Fox makes an evolutionary argument, his goal is not to layout an evolutionary sequence leading to ourselves, but to make connections between what we see in ourselves as humans today and how this relates to our evolutionary past.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674059016
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/8/2011
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Robin Fox, anthropologist, poet, and essayist, is University Professor of Social Theory at Rutgers University and author of Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective and The Red Lamp of Incest: An Enquiry into the Origins of Mind and Society.
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