Wednesday, November 27, 2013

what are you looking for?

The following is a segment from an informative speech I did a few years back regarding the the Pirahã (pee-duh-hon) (you can read the entire text here):

They have no phatic communication—hello, goodbye, thank you, I’m sorry. Daniel Everett [in his book Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes] suggests these phrases "don’t express or elicit new information about the world" and are thus hardly as useful as actions could be in expressing the same sentiment. The closest they have to what we might call a greeting translates as "I have arrived." Thank you would be "transaction acknowledged." They prefer action over words and experience over ideas…

…and this brings us to our second point, two concepts specific to the Pirahã, first xibipíio [roughly pronounced ih-bih-pee-ee-oh], experiential liminality. Translated roughly as "going into or out of the limits of experience," xibipíio can be equally applied (as noun or verb) to a man going out of sight around a bend in the river or a candle flame going out. It is the reason they have no art and no fiction. Kate Douglas points out in "A people lost for words," New Scientist, 18 March 2006, "there is no creative storytelling and no oral history beyond two generations" with the Pirahã. They define the value of information by that which matters here and now. Bruce Bower says in "The Pirahã Challenge," Science News, 10 December 2005, that "no Pirahã refers to abstract concepts or distant places and times." Life, for the Pirahã, is about the immediacy of experience, which is why they rejected Daniel Everett when he first came to them as a Christian missionary. In the aforementioned New Yorker article, "The Interpreter," Everett describes for the author how he was asked by the Pirahã if he had met Christ. They wanted to know what he looked like. But, Everett hadn’t met him so they assumed his father had met Christ. When told that Christ had died 2000 years ago, they had no interest in hearing anymore about him.

They have no religion for themselves, though they do believe that animals and trees have something in them that translates roughly as spirits. They have no origin story for themselves or the world, and have no real concept of the universe, because such things would lie outside personal experience or the experience of, say, a parent or grandparent who could tell such tale. Their grammar and way of life is limited to experience "seen or recounted as seen by a person alive at the time of telling," as Daniel Everett describes it in "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã," Current Anthropology, August-October 2005.

xibipíio defines everyday life for the Pirahã. When they have food, they eat it until it is gone. They hunt every day, but share the chore, no one person working more than 15 to 20 hours in a week. The men hunt, the women gather, working maybe 12 hours in a week for a typical Pirahã family of four. Rafaela von Bredow calls the Pirahã a "carpe diem culture" in "Living without Numbers or Time," Spiegel, 3 May 2006. They do not have concern for the future. They do not store or dry food. And, they do not fear death, and find suicide to be such a foreign notion that they laughed when told about it. When a Pirahã does die, the body is buried for practical purposes… often buried in a sitting position as that involves less digging. There is no ritual to it. Ritual would imply—and result from—a more complex worldview.

That being said, the Pirahã worldview does include more than just themselves. They trade with Brazilians and other tribes living nearby. And, those who they deal with regularly get included under the title xahaigi [roughly pronounced ah-ha-ee-gee], one of only a few kinship terms used by the Pirahã. And, this brings us to the Pirahã notion of brotherhood. Kate Douglas, in her aforementioned New Scientist article, calls the Pirahã kinship system the "simplest… yet recorded." They have baixi [bi-ee-hee], for parent or grandparent or anyone to which you want to express submission. They have hoagi [ho-ah-gee] for son, kai for daughter, piihi [pee-ee-hee] for an orphan, stepchild, or favorite child. And, they have xahaigi, simply translated as sibling. But, the Pirahã do not use it to refer just to blood relatives. In fact, they do not use it to refer just to other Pirahã, but anyone with which they have peaceful relations (or, really, anyone with which they have relations, as war is unknown to them).

Mostly, I wanted to share the idea of xibipíio because I think it's probably similar to the way Phil Connors sees the world at least some of the time while he's inside the time loop. Things exist, and they exist concretely, but they also exist only temporarily. Any change is gone the next day so the sense of permanence has got to have been lost.

In looking back at that speech, though, I noticed the concept of xahaigi and thought it was relevant to a discussion of Groundhog day as well, because ultimately Phil learns to be a part of the community and to essentially feel that sense of brotherhood inherent in xahaigi.

(Quoting a segment of something old also helps add a little density to my entry for today despite being a bit tired. This morning I was up by 4:00 AM and took 13 members of our speech team, and my youngest daughter, to volunteer at Midnight Mission in Los Angeles. Then I had my communication theory class and our forensics class as well as a couple hours afterward at school, including some workshop time with a few students. It's been a long day. I'm not complaining, mind you; I just don't know how wordy I might be working from scratch tonight. Of course, I'm not simply including this bit of an old speech arbitrarily; I actually thought of it while at the Mission. I don't want the following to seem trite, but I figure it's worth attempting to say: Seeing men and women who are effectively homeless but still have lively interactions with one another--that reminded me of xibipíio. It occurred to me that so much of what we more privileged folk experience everyday is so very fleeting; it could be taken from us at any moment. The Pirahã live in the moment more than any of us, more than Phil Connors. What is out of sight is out of mind. It's a remarkable concept...

And, I think it's a little... wrong, maybe, invoking the homeless to further ramble about Groundhog Day. Except, I have argued repeatedly that the film is about everyone, that Phil represents all (and each) of us. So, perhaps it would be hypocritical not to reference them.

Still, I think there's a certain relativity to our lives, however privileged or underprivileged as we may be, that allows for all experience to be comparable. I'm reminded of one of my novels, Twice into the Same River, in which at one point Olivia, a young girl who's had a rough life rambles a bit about what it means to have a rough life. She says:

“There’s so much that’s horrible out there in the world. But, as much as there is, most people will never have to experience the worst of it. They only get to hear about it. Most people think they have it bad, that life isn’t turning out how they want it, but they don’t even know just how good it is. They don’t know the agony that’s possible. They don’t know the pain. And, I’m not just talking about what my father did, either. I’m not trying to say my life is even the worst one anyone’s ever had. I’m not that arrogant. I’m just saying, there’s always something worse, always something different. One person loses the love of their life. One person loses a child. One person loses a limb. One person loses his sight or she loses her hearing. Or she chooses to kill her own child before it’s born because life will be too difficult when it comes. Or takes a job he doesn’t want because his passion in life just isn’t going to let him make it in our society. Or she gives up her dream of being a dancer because she’s got to take care of her ailing mother. Or he gives up his dream of playing professional football after he gets into an accident and gets paralyzed from the waist down. Or she learns that she’ll never get to have any kids because of an infection that could have been gotten rid of if she’d just gone to the doctor sooner. Or he learns he’s got three months left to live and it’s just going to be a painful ride the whole way. No one has it easy. The problems may be big or small, but they’re still problems. They still hurt. And, as they say, everything’s relative. One guy’s fear of going bald could really hurt him as much as another losing an eye. It just depends. And, I don’t pretend that there aren’t others out there that could have gone through what I went through and come out unscathed or come out well enough to live a life that at least resembled something normal. I don’t pretend anything. At least, I try not to.”

Olivia's a far stronger person than I am in some ways, but also so very weak (not to SPOIL the novel that isn't even currently available). She's also a bit long-winded, as I can be. And, because she's young she can get away with saying so much about something so simple and potentially trite. As I write this, Phil Connors is killing himself on the TV screen. And, I wonder, does he kill himself because he was rejected by Rita or because his rejection by Rita was the last straw in an increasingly difficult existence? Does it matter?)

That sense of brotherhood--I think if more of us felt that, we'd be a lot better off. And, I'm just full of trite thoughts tonight.

(And, yes, all of that other stuff, even the quotation from my novel, was a parenthetical in a blog entry that really only spans a few short paragraphs without quotations or sidenotes. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to save the likes of O'Reilly... though saving one life, or improving a life for just one day might be insignificant in the face of the regular flow of time.

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