Tom MacWright

Denial of coevalness

Favourite Ballads. With music and… illustrations

This approach to the history of music, in which non-European societies, particularly those in Africa, are seen as essentially “broken down” on the path to the progress exemplified by Europe, was just one manifestation of the broader ways in which anthropological theory developed at the time. Johannes Fabian famously dubbed this approach the “denial of coevalness”, a way of seeing the world in which various contemporary societies are interpreted as literally living in a different historical epoch. Its intepretive, moral, and political limitations – its misplaced confidence in progress and its unfounded hubris – are by now clear to most scholars. But this vision of the world still undergirds a surprising amount of work within the field of music.

This passage from The Banjo: America’s African Instrument has been in my mind the last few days. Two days after I read this and copied it down in my notebook, I was listening to Kevin Kelly’s interview with Craig Mod on Craig’s podcast On Margins and I was primed to notice two passages in which Kelly describes his experience photographing Asia in his teens and twenties.

There are towns in Northern Afghanistan that had no electricity. Not just a village. I mean, a town without electricity, so it was running with kerosene lamps being lit by a lantern lighter at night and stuff. It was medieval in that sense or, at least, pre-industrial.

And then, later in the interview:

The other thing, too, I realize about costumes and looking at historical stuff is there was fashion even a thousand years ago, meaning that they changed, the costumes changed over time, not centuries, but decades. People would be wearing something, and then the next decade they wouldn’t be, and they would be pointing to the people who were a decade behind, and so all these traditional costumes, when we think of traditional customs, were in tremendous flux. They aren’t static at all, and what is traditional is just really traditional for some time period, whether it’s in the 1700s or the 1500s or the 1000. That was another kind of a shock is that people had fashion even back then.

This idea, the denial of coevalness, struck me so deeply because I immediately recognized the fault in my own thinking and also in common thinking. The flaw: that we measure our own history by its technological milestones, and then compare the timeline of others with those same guideposts. As if every civilization needs to discover the same stone-metal-engine-electricity series to graduate.


Kelly slips into language that describes present-day cultures as asynchronous - describing another culture as Medieval (the period from the 5th to 15th century), but then describes how so-called traditional dress in other cultures is only as statically traditional as dress anywhere. I, of course, don’t mean to ‘call him out’ in the Internet fashion - if anything, he’s a paragon of understanding the world and other people as people. Craig Mod, too, and Craig’s other guests, like Jan Chipcase, are more worldly and experienced than I could ever hope to be. Avoiding language that reinforces the sense of otherness is difficult or impossible to do all the time.

Índios Isolados 4.jpg

Gleilson Miranda/Secretaria de Comunicação do Estado do Acre, CC-BY

Uncontacted peoples we only know from glimpses between trees, people aiming a bow and arrow at the helicopter - these people aren’t living in prehistory: they’re living in 2017.

Which is common sense. Except that language, ethnocentrism, and pattern matching lead us to deep-seated misconceptions about how history works.