The Vanishing White Man: Myth and History in Guyanese Culture Lee Drummond, Center for Peripheral Studies

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The Vanishing White Man:

Myth and History in Guyanese Culture

Lee Drummond, Center for Peripheral Studies

This essay is a somewhat revised version, with added Postscript, of one originally prepared for the international symposium, “Symbolism through Time,” organized by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. A number of the symposium contributions were later published in book form, Culture through Time: Anthropological Approaches. My little piece did not make the cut.

The Vanishing White Man:

Myth and History in Guyanese Culture

Lee Drummond, Center for Peripheral Studies

We do NOT know the past in chronological sequence. It may be convenient to lay it out anesthetized on the table with dates pasted on here and there, but what we know we know by ripples and spirals eddying out from us and from our own time.

— Ezra Pound

The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

— J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Papers

The sources of this essay are a bias. a puzzle, and a sense of dissatisfaction. The bias is simply my present assumptions about the topic of this symposium — the relation between symbolism and history — which inevitably surface in writing and are therefore best to note at the beginning. The puzzle is an ethnographic one, the result of some fifteen years of working in and writing about Guyana and the Caribbean. My sense of dissatisfaction is over the present state and past direction of the anthropology of the Caribbean, particularly as it has dealt with the phenomenon of cultural change. The bias, the puzzle and the sense of dissatisfaction have proved impossible to segregate in my recent work on Caribbean topics, and I therefore welcome the opportunity to work through some of their mutual implications in this forum.

The Bias
I have to confess at the outset that I find efforts to reconcile symbolic and historical studies fundamentally mis­conceived. Although the dialogue/dialectic between synchrony and diachrony, paradigm and syntagm, myth and history, culture and praxis, and structure and process has been a mainstay of theoretical debate, the basic arguments regarding the much sought-after reconciliation have been in place since Durkheim and Mauss's essays on symbolic classification.

As befits pioneers, they presented their case in stark fashion, unencumbered by decades of qualification and elaboration: Our remote ancestors developed a concept of time — began thinking of themselves as naturally living through tine — because they were social beings anxious to regulate and celebrate their effervescent group awareness. Time was a feature of the natural world only because it represented a feature of the social world. Extreme as their social determinism was, Durkheim and Mauss provided the basis for later work in symbolic analysis that has modified their ideas while remaining true to their inspiration that humanity has constructed its categorical home from experiences it creates of itself. Durkheim and Mauss's original insight into the symbolic nature of time has been amplified masterfully in Edmund Leach's articles on the symbolic representation of time and Marshall Sahlin's extensive treatments of interwoven cultural and historical processes. Since I am simply admitting a bias here, and not trying to embroider on the work of previous writers, let me state the case as simply and directly as I can.

History is not an obstacle for cultural analysis, since the underlying notion of history — time — is itself an eminently symbolic construct. Time and symbolization are inseparable because time is our most immaterial concept: it exists always in representations. English and the Romance languages betray etymologically the paradox that our ideas about time and its sacrosanct nature were originally fused with our ideas about the sacredness of place. “Time,” “temps,” “tempo,” “tiempo,” and a host of related words derive from the common Latin roots, tempus (something cut off or marked out) and templum (a place set apart, as in the dwelling of a deity). The Romans measured time by erecting a wooden pole in a sacred place and observing the movement of the sun's shadow on the hallowed ground (much as they wove cloth using the loom's wooden purlin, or templum, to keep the fabric stretched). Tempus was inseparably bound up with templum; time was an attribute of a holy place and all its mythic associations.

Time and space, history and myth are two pertinent instances of our civilization's penchant for first creating dichotomies and then soberly and methodically studying their interrelationship. Our obsession with “measuring time down to the last nanosecond with a series of increasingly sophisticated instruments reinforces a deep-seated prejudice that favors a scientific approach to time and historical process and frowns on a supposedly mystical invo1vement with now-ness and the mythic process that encourages that involvement. History is or can be made to be scientific and materialist; myth is inevitably sentimental and fictional, forever divorced from the real world of historical process.

The bias I parade here runs exactly counter to this prejudicial endorsement of dichotomies. I submit that the privileged position accorded the concepts of time and history in our thought is a fluke — an “historical” accident, a peculiar tale (histoire) —that occurred in large part as a result of the human sciences developing in the shadow of a persuasive but immature physical science which, in its newborn exuberance and ignorance, grossly misinterpreted the so-called “laws” of the universe. However, as classical physical science has matured or morphed into the fields of relativity, quantum physics, and complexity theory, these new fields of enquiry have dislodged and complicated the tidy Newtonian concept of time as a fundamental absolute of physical existence. Consequently, old assumptions regarding a natural fit between history, the study of the human career, and classical science, the study of a determined and determinate natural world, must be abandoned in favor of an entirely new way of looking at the world.

Those who founded and perpetuated anthropology — that “queen of the human sciences” — were so accustomed to thinking of the exotic doings they described as discrete events occurring in fixed time and space that it seemed a perfect congruence of reason and common sense to search out the interrelationships between the organization they discerned in those doings and their place (another effortless analogy) in an historical process. Their bias, like my own, was the result of diffuse influences from a variety of fields that came together in a theoretical perspective and research program. Whether we call this congruence a Kuhnian paradigm, a Foucaultian epoche, or just a plain old Californian mind set is immaterial, since I am attempting here to defend and promote a bias and not to explain it away.

If I am on the right track here, I believe a new paradigm/epoche/mind set is now taking root, one that knits together the concept of time and other fundamental ideas into a unified theory of history-cum-myth and myth-cum-history. A clue that this process is underway is the fine irony that has been served up to those social scientists who unimaginatively and often pompously endorse a natural scientific, quantitative orientation and reject as soft and subjective the kind of qualitative cultural analysis that is anthropology’s distinctive contribution to les sciences humains. These social scientists, practitioners of a craft Richard Feynman (a real scientist) derisively called “cargo cult science” (because their wishing would make it so) have been so busy parading their “scientific” methodology that they somehow did not notice that physical theory had moved on, leaving them holding an empty bag.

Contemporary theoretical physicists have found the cause-and-effect determinism of Newtonian mechanics inadequate to account for the highly peculiar processes of the physical world. In its place, they have advanced a wide range of concepts, formulated in relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and complexity theory, which assign priority to some exceedingly odd (non)entities: the emerging portrait of the universe is one of virtual particles, oscillating voids, multiple realities, chaotic creation, and, perhaps strangest of all, dark matter and dark energy. “Scientifically”-minded anthropologists have not followed, and quite likely not noticed, the dramatic twists and turns physical theory has taken during the past several decades. Instead, they cling to now-hackneyed concepts which they vainly refer to as “hard” science. In the context of physical theory which routinely describes the indeterminate and undecidable nature of events, their grotesque miscalculation renders them downright unscientific. The mind plays tricks on one’s categories.

A principal casualty of theoretical physics’ seeming and often-remarked dalliance with mystical forms of thought has been the classical concept of time. Although our elementary and high school students are still taught to construct their graphs with time as one axis plotted against, say, velocity, physicists have dropped time from the fundamental variables of matter/energy (charge, spin, momentum, “color”) that constitute the terms of their quantum field equations. And, perhaps more unsettling to us mere mortals, they have made time reversible: a positron is simply an electron traveling backwards in time.

Multiple realities, reversible time, action-at-a-distance, virtual particles and other highly exotic notions drawn from quantum physics violate common sense. The message I draw from all this is that a cultural anthropologist who is a genuine thinker, and not just some squawking parrot, must now incorporate into his analysis of human culture a vision of reality as a bizarre complex of ideas and actions which may possess radically different structures as an integral feature of its make-up and which may transform itself in abrupt and seemingly random steps. In a curious, provocative way the impenetrable (for me) math of quantum physics leads to a quite plausible notion of time, though perhaps not one we typically bring to mind. If we are forced to abandon the world of classical mechanics — that universe of “real,” physical objects possessing but. not being energy and moving in a constant temporal framework — then we may be amenable to a notion of the world conceived as a synthesis of the here and now. After a fashion, we may return to the union of tempus and templum which the ancient Romans envisioned as one of the first fundamentals of Western thought. “Time” cannot be retained as an elemental physical constant, but it can be apprehended in its highly intuitive, non-representational form as the sense of now-­ness or, better, here-ness, that pervades The Moment. That sense of being or being-here ultimately defies representation and enters the field of social action only through our shared implicit understanding that each of us is enveloped in a film or aura of here/now-ness. As Ezra Pound notes, any time-keeping or measuring we do is simply a mechanical exercise. It is a reflex of the mind’s penchant for bestowing systematicity, whether through the practice of Trobriand calendrical rites or the manipulation of laboratory instruments. Apart from that practice, in which we all routinely engage, is the individual’s inviolable sense of here/now-ness, the root from which experience grows, the anchor of the world's events.

Nietzsche expressed this notion far better than I, and for that reason (among numerous others) I have advocated that we adopt a Nietzschean anthropology to succeed the pointless wrangling now characteristic of cultural analysis (see “Culture, Mind and Physical Reality: An Anthropological Essay;” and “Shit Happens: An Immoralist’s Take on 9/11”). One of the grand ironies of Nietzsche’s thought is that this incomparable master of language was led, towards the end of Thus Spake Zarathustra, to renounce language in favor of the immediacy of the experiential world inhabited by his only companions, the eagle and serpent. Their “language” in Baudelaire’s phrase, exemplifies the temple où de vivant piliers resonate without the linear thought of speech.
“O Zarathustra,” the animals said, “to those who think as we do, all things themselves are dancing: they come and offer their hands and laugh and flee – and come back. . . Everything parts, everything greets every other thing again; eternally the ring of being remains faithful to itself. In every Now, being begins; round every Here rolls the sphere There. The center is everywhere. Bent is the path of eternity.” [[1888] 1954: 329-330]
It is this concept of “time” defined as that sense of here/now-ness which is the bias I want to confess and recommend in this essay. Every other means of expressing the concept is confounded by the regressive act of framing a representation of a process that is already representational. The intuitive sense of being-here may not seem like much, but I would argue it is all we have as a foundation for building a model of a synthetic myth/history, structure/process.

But how, having come perilously close to committing pop science, evoking mystical presence, and dragging in Nietzsche’s enigmatic notion of eternal recurrence, do we proceed to build that synthetic model? A start might be found in a variant of that comfortably worn heuristic device, “If I were a horse. . .” In keeping with my evoked quantum bias, we will not worry much about horses and will ask instead, “If I were a photon. . .” If we all were photons, the topic of this symposium would be quite incomprehensible, for photons — even more than the biased anthropologist I have been describing — disregard time and its attributes. Traveling along the relativistic continuum at the speed of light, the photon does not experience the passing of time; every event — whether the birth of our galaxy, of our planet. or of individual organisms — is now (and, therefore, here). The sense of here/now-ness that forms the basis for our representations of time is an all-embracing reality in the world of photons (and it is a tempting speculation to claim that our being able to sense here/now-ness at all must be tied to the fact that our physical selves are products of the same matter-energy interactions that have produced the time-denying photon).

Even resisting that speculation, it is still possible to conclude from this little masquerade that rejecting time and history as elementary constituents of a “real” world does not automatically drive one into the camp of mystified Om-chanters, psychics, and burned-out druggies — demons that every right-thinking social scientist attempts to exorcise from the tender undergraduate minds placed under his tutelage. When that exorcism is accomplished (as it all too often is), the real world of virtual being and indeterminate action — the world described by quantum physics — is veiled by a wistful, confused version of reality that elevates common sense impressions of things happening one after another to the status of scientific, authoritative truth. That tidy picture of a world ordered by causality and its pale shadow, the “statistically significant relation,” cannot be sustained, however, in a universe which, as a recent contributor to quantum theory has remarked, “may just be one of those things that happen from time to time.”

The bias I am describing is a virulent one: if supplied with any nourishment whatsoever it soon consumes the false dichotomy between symbolism and history and invades deeper, more vital tissue. Conventional notions of history and social science agree in maintaining that what the two disciplines reveal is the underlying pattern of the succession or correspondence of events. Something happened, then something else happened how are the two happenings, the two events, connected? The historian relies on assumptions about temporal succession and process in seeking the connectedness of events; the social scientist on statistical laws of association. But in searching for the connectedness of events, they ignore the fundamental question of what an “event” is in the first place, and particularly whether an “event” is the kind of thing that readily lends itself to substantiation or identification prior to sorting out how Event A is connected to Event B. As heirs of an incompletely assimilated classical mechanical worldview — itself incomplete and inaccurate — our stalking horse historian and social scientist wrongly suppose that “events” are neatly isolated facts, like beads on a string, that can be lined up, counted and marched off to the cadence of a more or less positivistic methodology.

Quantum theory dissolves this tidy notion of event and substitutes a model of a physical world where what happens depends on who or what is looking: event and observation, action and interpretation are indissociable concepts in the quantum mechanical world. It is useless for us, right-thinking social scientists though we may be, to demur on this issue, to claim, for example that we would rather go about our specialized task of observing and analyzing societies and leave the dilettantish business of popular science to less professional colleagues. Every sentence in every anthropological monograph published is infused with assumptions about the nature of the event and the observer's place in relation to it.

Ethnography, however, is not the great event-maker of our time: the ethnographer's arcane writings, secreted away in journals or university press books of a few hundred or a few thousand copies each, are rarely infused with the sense of everyday life pulsing around the observer. For the illusion of events in the raw, one must turn on a TV set or glance at a newspaper; there “what happened” is served up as straightforward, two-dimensional fact and very little room is left for the play of interpretations that more literary ethnographers now embrace. But modernity is difficult to escape: the ethnographer's subject — his “natives” — the inspiration of his cloistered writings, persistently appear on those TV screens and front pages. They assume a life and importance that owes little or nothing to his professional imprimatur; they become, for a few brief days or weeks, not ethnographic subjects but Dan Rather objects. And the “events” constructed around them — breathlessly reported by anchormen wearing safari outfits and standing before iconic sites — become immediate, presentational truths to the viewing audience, although what the anchormen think is important might be quite irrelevant to the people involved in those “events.”

Whatever the ethnographer may think of all this, he is powerless to decree an authoritative version of the natives’ truth, to insure that the tangled issues surrounding a colony’s independence, a religious war, or even an isolated and traumatic “event” such as Jonestown will receive their due in the sixty-second spot on the evening news (see my “Jonestown: An Ethnographic Essay”). As modernity slips inexorably into postmodernity, any chance of redeeming a naturalistic, self-contained concept of the event disappears in the heavy folds of thick description. Quantum theorists may be skirting mysticism in their frontal assault on commonsense, but the beleaguered ethnographer has no choice but to follow them into the thicket.

The Puzzle
The concepts of time and event, while partly obscured by the murky waters of quantum physics, are not so removed from the concerns of cultural anthropologists that we can simply let them slide off our field-weary backs. Still, it is refreshing to turn from those ponderous topics to a concrete ethnographic puzzle. The puzzle first confronted me in 1979, in the middle of my third research trip to Guyana. My previous work had been in the interior of that country, where I was interested in the cultural dynamics shaping notions of ethnic and tribal identity among the heterogeneous and shifting populations of Arawak, Carib and Warrau Amerindians, Afro-Guyanese prospectors and timber workers, Indo-Guyanese farmers, and the general Creole mélange of the frontier. The particular problem that had captured my attention was the fate and role of Amerindian myth in this rapidly changing, ethnically diverse new nation. I was fresh from graduate seminars in symbolic anthropology; the volumes of Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologiques were rolling off the presses at a dizzying rate; I was headed for South America to study Amerindians: my interest in Amerindian myth owed little to my own powers of imagination.

Amerindian myth in a context of Third World political and cultural upheaval — as I drafted my dissertation proposal the topic seemed to pose what had already become a classical problem in structural studies. As we all know and have been reminded too many times, Lévi-Strauss approached the whole corpus of Amerindian myth as one would an enormous clockwork, intent on observing how all the pieces fit together and operate. But what happened to this indigenous clockwork when energetic conquerors and colonizers those entropic beings spun off from the “hot,” thermodynamic, historical societies of Europe — arrived on the scene? Or, more to the point of my own research, what conceptual residue of indigenous Arawak and Carib myth remained to impact their lives in any significant fashion after three hundred years of contact and change?

Investigating the dynamism of myth turned out to be a difficult task, for it soon became evident that a study assigning myth a generative role in cultural change ran counter to established views. Curiously, Lévi-Strauss posed a major impediment here, for his insistence on separating myth and history was like the kiss of death to the sort of myth analysis I was attempting: each new volume of Mythologiques was another requiem for an extinguished pensée sauvage. When his followers sought to apply the structuralist approach to obviously non-indigenous myths which Amerindians tell (the coming of the whites, the story of Jesus, Brer Rabbit stories, etc.), they remained true to his dichotomous turn of mind and described the new quasi-historical narratives as corruptions, acculturative assimilations, or even “anti-myths” (Roberto Da Matta 1971). At the same time, the large contingent of self-styled anthropological positivists (remember, the ones who think they have “science” on their side) adopted a line similar to the structuralists they opposed and explained changes in myth as yet another demonstration that those imaginative narratives were merely the tail wagged by the dog of social action, of “real” historical processes. If Amazonian peoples began narrating the story of Jesus rather than or even integrated with that of the creator- spirit Makunaima, it was because political, economic and cultural forces had combined to produce a historical situation of assimilation to Western society.

Both approaches to this question of myth’s role in cultural change struck me at the time as inadequate; and my opinion has only hardened over time. Structuralism’s capitulation to a notion of history fashionably allied with Marx is at best intellectual trendiness and at worst simple dishonesty. The positivists, at least, are true to their own teaching: myth was never of critical importance in their understanding of how a society works (read functions), and its malleability in contexts of social change only demonstrates its secondary role in human affairs. The gaping hole in the positivist’s conception of myth, however, is their bland assumption that the whole complex network of actions, beliefs, artifacts, etc. that make up culture somehow takes shape independently of symbolic processes whose form is articulated and transmitted through myth.

I voiced these criticisms in an earlier essay (“Structure and Process in the Interpretation of South American Myth: The Arawak Dog Spirit People”) and attempted to back them up with a demonstration of the resilience and contemporaneity of a particular myth told by Guyanese Arawak. The myth, known in several variants throughout the Guianas and northeast Amazon, is the story of an Arawak man who discovers that his dog is a spirit which turns into a white woman and secretly does his domestic chores. Surprising her in his camp one day, he snatches the dog's skin that hangs on a peg and hurls it into the fire, condemning her to remain human. They then live together as husband and wife, and she becomes the ancestress of the matrilineal dog-spirit-people clan.

The intriguing thing about the dog-spirit-people myth is that it has a double edge. While it appears to be a Malinowski-style “charter” for a particular clan (with, perhaps, strong overtones of sexual fantasy – with which Malinowski was also familiar!), it is also the basis of a derogatory story about ethnically mixed Arawak. Members of the dog-spirit-people clan are also known as the “changed ones” (ebiswadu) in the ethnic mosaic of the Guyanese interior. This a pointed reference to their intermixture with escaped slaves, black woodcutters, prospectors, and other refugees from the coastal British colony who lived among and mated with Amerindians from the late 17th century onwards. Thus, the myth cannot be interpreted either as a rationale or charter for clan organization or as an “anti-myth” that chronicles the disintegration of indigenous society. It is a simultaneous affirmation and denunciation of intergroup marriage, and so provides a fittingly ambivalent portrait of contemporary Guyanese and Guyanese Arawak society.

The argument I developed in my earlier essay still seems valid: a principal role of myth is to articulate a model of human distinctiveness conceived as a system of differences (between one human group and another, between people and animals, between people and their artifacts) which sometimes unify and sometimes divide individuals. Arawak myth, and quite likely all myth, provides contrasting images of situations which the Arawak, like most of us, would like to have both ways if they possibly could. In multiethnic Guyana they identified themselves with their white colonial mentors and guardians (who indulged their own mythologizing bent to the fullest by thinking of “their” Amerindians as politically and culturally naive “children of the forest”). However, the Arawak found themselves at every turn involved with the black and East Indian Creoles who comprised their wider social world. The paradoxical result of this unsolvable quandary has been to transmute Creole behaviors and attitudes into “white” or “English” ones using the dialectical resources of mythic thought. As the Arawak were drawn into the complex interethnic milieu of the interior, they adopted the ways of blacks and East Indians yet, because those customs were generically alien, stereotyped them as “white.” The sharply contrasting interpretations of clan origin association with a spirit versus contamination by distrusted outsiders articulate the Arawak’s impossible task of making whiteness out of blackness.

As I discuss presently, this conception of ethnicity as a residue of dialectical and ambivalent thought articulated in myth runs counter to the direction of much Caribbean anthropology — and to much popular and official discussion of “race” in Caribbean societies. But when I was well into my 1979 research it was not these theoretical issues that captured my attention and started me wondering about the ethnographic puzzle I now present to you. Guyana, a tiny colonial society throughout most of its history and, like the British West Indies, firmly rooted in traditions of “Britishness,” had apparently undergone a major cultural transformation in less than a decade. White people were vanishing. They were vanishing, and not only from the streets of the deteriorating capital, Georgetown, but from the minds of those Guyanese who did not themselves join the flood of British and American evacuees. As a major ethnic category in Guyanese culture (romantically stereotyped in the colonial literature as a picturesque “land of six peoples”), the ethnic identity “white” or “British" was slipping into oblivion. I had gone to Guyana initially in 1969 to study what I fancied would be the “vanishing red man” in a multiethnic new nation rapidly developing its frontier; ten years later I found myself puzzling over the enigma of the “vanishing white man.”

The puzzle emerged directly from interviews four Guyanese research assistants and I were conducting, and came as a complete surprise to me. The research project we were engaged in was designated by me as a “cultural analysis of ethnicity” and was intended to provide a wealth of detail about what Guyanese themselves thought about “race” and its manifestations in their daily lives. As a means of getting the interview underway, the respondent was asked to describe or comment on photographs of twenty Guyanese, most of them assembled from a publication of the Guyana Ministry of Information (definitely not a repetition of Marvin Harris’s highly suspect study of Brazilian ethnic categories in which he employed a Dick Tracy-style Identi-Kit). See Appendix 1, “Photographs of Guyanese.”

My first surprise upon beginning my own interviews and listening to interviews recorded by the research assistants was that none of the twenty photographs elicited the category, “white,” “British,” “European,” or “American,” although I was fairly confident that one or two of the twenty photographs was of a “white” person. This turned out to be a fabrication on my part, a result of a North American reflex to see pinkish skin, straight hair and green eyes as “white.” The Guyanese eye, however, is far more discerning — or imaginative — and searches relentlessly for the slightest trace of ethnic mixture that would situate an individual in the complex multiethnic society of Guyana.

Perhaps, then, my set of photographs was unrepresentative and compromised the results of the project. I prefer to think, though, that the absence of a bona-fide, fresh-off-the-Pan-Am-flight-from-New-York “white” person in my sample was one of those felicitous accidents of experimentation that open new avenues of research. For later in each interview we asked the respondent, after he or she had described or commented on the photographs, whether any “race” or ethnic group found in Guyana was not represented in the photographs. This provided my second surprise: in fewer than half of sixty-seven complete interviews (which averaged about three hours each) did the informant call the interviewer's attention to a missing category or group of “white people.” Even these corrections undermined the importance of “white-ness” in the eyes of our respondents, for they were made in the spirit of completing an assignment: our respondents had also read or assimilated the colonial stereotype of Guyana as the “land of six peoples” and were apparently merely parroting that lesson back to interviewers who must have seemed more than a little like schoolmasters.

That “white people” as a principal category of Guyanese ethnicity were vanishing along with the expatriates who once ruled British Guiana was underscored in other parts of the interviews. These “interviews” often became rambling, anecdotal conversations — and intentionally so, for they sought everyday accounts of what it was like to live in a multiethnic society. Respondents were asked to recount memorable stories of their friendships, hostilities, or other involvements with members of the ethnic groups they previously identified. The absence of whites from these stories was striking. Only three respondents volunteered an account of a personal relationship with a “white” person, and none was particularly detailed or intense. For the other respondents, who talked on and on about childhood friendships, adolescent adventures, and adult love affairs and conflicts, whites were definitely on the outer fringes of their lives. Object neither of desire nor dread, the “white man” has ceased being the aloof but ever-present colonial master or even tourist (Guyana has none; there is nothing to attract them) and become simply a phantom who doesn't matter in the turbulent reality of Guyanese life.

If my earlier essay was correct in claiming that Guyanaese ethnic categories form a cultural system which incorporates a great deal of ambivalence and trans-valuation — of Creole behaviors being interpreted as attributes of “white-ness” — I now believe it erred in clinging to a sense of orderliness and continuity which this episode of the vanishing white man dispels. In the 1977 essay I tried to document the working of what I termed “syncretic transformations” in myths which bear the imprint of contact and colonization — and thereby draw these “contaminated” myths into the domain of a semiotic analysis of myth. The 1979-80 research indicates that the reformulating powers of myth operate within a wider and conceptually more volatile field than is acknowledged by conventional cultural analysis. If myths ponder differences between human and animal, nature and culture, black and white, they do not regulate the pace of social change nor — as we know from Lévi-Strauss — do they actually succeed in resolving what are often fundamental antinomies of human experience.

Will the puzzle of the vanishing white man be solved only by abdicating the position that myth/history is an irreducible feature of culture and assigning a priority to material, temporal processes over the catch-up ideas of mythic narration? I think not, although I have just tried to establish that cultural systems — at least the Guyanese variety — are more deeply transformational than the familiar notion of “structural transformation” would allow. The solution of the puzzle rests in discovering what Guyanese culture, in David Schneider’s phrase, is all about. If the culture and its formulation in myth (which I find indistinguishable, as interlocked as sign and referent) are not in part about white people, if the mythology of ethnic categories does not include “whites” as an elementary unit, then what are its fundamental, organizing principles?

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