The Visual and the National: the Making of the Transylvanian Ethnographic Museum (1902)
Szabó Levente

2. The images of the ?new primitivity?: the different pragmatics of the ?primitive? and the ethnographic

In the then contemporary ethnographic discourse one understanding of this notion has priority over the other in a temporal sense of the word: in the period of mainly textually focused and literary embedded ethnography that preceded the attempts of working out a disciplinary independence for the study of the folk. Hungarian texts use the notion of primitiveas fiercely opposed to the notion of the civilized. The projected hierarchy of the primitive vs. civilized plays upon the culture vs. civilization dichotomy, picturing the folk as the depository of ancient values that have been "tragically: "fading out" with the advent of modernity. In their alleged perfection they always belong to a bygone antiquity (of the Hungarian nation), that can be recuperated by partly due to the destroying effects of modernity. Modernity is thus portrayed in these preparadigmatic and predisciplinary texts of early and mid-nineteenth-century Hungarian ethnography as the past and present peril of the nation trying to find the continuity with its own antique past and beginnings. This latter continuity is viewed as the sign of an alleged authenticity of the nation. This is one of the very reasons why the stigmatization of modernity (including and represented also by (industrial) progress) is so frequent in these texts: because in this view modernity is destroying not only the still preserved--even though sometimes perverted--traces of the beginnings of the nation, but also the very possibility of a nation-building, arising from a regained past, and cleaned of the non-essential components, the "impurities" of civilizing time.

This forceful vision of primitiveness that opposes the notion with the civilized and introduces a hierarchic stance into their relationship is not eraded from the later, even fin-de-siecle perceptions of ethnography, but one can perceive different and rethought versions of it. Naturally, these versions do not have an end in themselves, but can be interpreted as complex answers to different issues that emerged. A very interesting rewriting of the primitive vs. civilized dichotomy applied to the ethnographic type of data can be taken as a complex response through the heritage of this powerful Hungarian (and of course, not exclusively Hungarian) cultural topos to the emerging Transylvanian ethnic problem that came to be thematized as both a social and a national problem. József Sándor wrote in an 1892 issue of Erdély:

"From an ethnographic view there is nothing more important for us [i.e. Transylvanian scholars and intelligentsia] than the Romanians. Can?t you see that the scarce ethnographic information inherited about this group is the major reason for most of our linguistic and political internal problems? Isn?t this ethnic group the one that separates the Seklars from the Hungarian sea of the Great Plain? Those magnificent pinewoods and snow-capped mountains that stretch from Kalotaszeg till Abrudbánya and Zalátna are our Chinese wall that separate us from our mother country. The Hungarian culture and the spirit of the Hungarian state haven?t found their way yet, and this are the places from where the savage butchery began that killed our brothers both in 1784 and 1848. This was the place where Vasváry-Kovács was lured into a trap, and this would be the fate of our own armed forces in our own land of today. This realm is the trouble-maker in the midst of our beloved country. So this is the realm we have to sweep and remodel according to the rules of our national and state civilizationby means of bringing tourists to these places, creating holiday resorts and then through the creation of industrial companies. And this is even more urgent since according to some of our scholars a part of the people that are dwelling at these places and are not Hungarians anymore had been originally Sekler settlers and preserved the memories of their origins unconsciously even up to our days."

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