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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Academic Autobiography (2c)—Tristes Tropiques

One year ago on Round and Square (29 September 2011)—Fieldnotes From History: Cuisine
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Academic Autobiography"
[a] Perspective RF
Click here for the other posts in this Round and Square series on Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques:
Tristes 1          Tristes 2          Tristes 3          Tristes 4          Tristes 5          Tristes 6
III—Anecdotal Origins
          In exploring all this, I was being true to myself as an archaeologist of space, 
          seeking in vain to recreate a lost local colour with the help of fragments and 
          debris. Then, insidiously, illusion began to lay its snares. I wished I had lived 
          in the days of real journeys, when it was still possible to see the full 
          splendour of a spectacle that had not yet been blighted, polluted, and spoilt; 
          I wished I had not troddent that ground as myself, but as Bernier, Tavernier 
          or Manucci did...[1]
The search for origins is a key to Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology. The discipline is, he argues (at least when practiced correctly), a fundamentally receptive one. This goes far toward explaining for anthropologists (others have been less puzzled) why Tristes tropiques is such difficult reading, why it is, in the words of an American anthropologist, “though very far from being a great anthropology book, or even an especially good one…surely one of the finest books written by an anthropologist. Reading Tristes tropiques as one does a standard ethnography has led countless anthropologists to throw up (their hands) in despair. What, even a careful reader might ask, is Lévi-Strauss doing with the details he relates—a play in Calcutta, the description of a sunset, a snatch from the draft of a play written twenty years earlier (forgetting how it ended)? Let's continue with the quotation (one of the most famous in the book) that began this post.

          Once embarked upon, this guessing game can continue indefinitely. When 
          was the best time to see India? At what period would the study of Brazilian 
          savages have afforded the purest satisfaction, and revealed them in their 
          least adulterated state? Would it have been better to arrive in Rio in the 
          eighteenth century with Bougainville, or in the sixteenth with Léry and 
          Thevet? For every five years I move back in time, I am able to save a 
          custom, gain a ceremony or share in another belief. But I know that exts too 
          well not to realize that, by going back a century, I am at the same time 
          forgoing data and lines of inquiry which would offer intellectual  enrichment. 
          And so I am caught within a circle from which there is no escape: the less 
          human societies were able to communicate with each other and therefore 
          to corrupt each other through contact, the less their respective emissaries 
          were able to perceive the wealth and significance of their diversity.[2]
[c] Tract RF

Anthropologists reading Lévi-Strauss’s accounts of, say, village arrangement among the Bororo or family life among the Nambikwara as they might a chapter from Argonauts of the Western Pacific or, to use a puzzling example by which the author claims to have been inspired, Robert Lowie’s Primitive Society, come away from a reading with a profound sense of dissatisfaction. It is hard to know, at times, why Lévi-Strauss describes in minute detail items that seem to be founded on precisely the sensory and experiential data that he has condemned in earlier chapters.

The answer, which may not be of much interest, perhaps, to professional anthropologists, lies in balancing the various themes of the book—memoir, ethnography, philosophical text, and reformist tract. Even in the book’s later chapters, in which the world becomes his subject and the reform of Western society his goal, Lévi-Strauss quite consciously moves from a snippet of his travel experience, a page from his fieldnotes, to an ever-widening treatment of broad historical and philosophical themes. The role of the anecdote has been too little treated in interpretations of Tristes tropiques; I believe that it provides a key to understanding what Lévi-Strauss argues in the final passages of the work.

The “method” whereby the author moves out in concentric circles, as it were, from a primary datum toward its ever-widening implications, is what links the “co-occurring texts” in Tristes tropiques. What I shall call Lévi-Strauss’s anthropologie anecdotique is the engine behind his receptive anthropology. It is the method that allows him to move from a single experience, contextualize it, and make use of it for a broader and deeper understanding not only of the society at hand, but his own as well.
[d] Picture RF

Such analysis, as with his “study” of cannibalism in chapter thirty-eight, “if carried out sincerely and methodically, leads to two results: it introduces and element of moderation and honesty into our evaluations of customs and ways of life very different from our own…and it removes form our own customs that air of inherent rightness that they so easily have for anyone unacquainted with other customs, or whose knowledge is partial or biased.” It provides, in short, a method whereby the West can restore contact with that receptivity, that femininity, that needs to be rediscovered if it is to avoid the fate—to use Lévi-Strauss’s rhetoric—of Islamic civilization, as well as the last several hundred years of our own.

Anthropologists become frustrated, at times, reading Tristes tropiques because the details Lévi-Strauss relates are not merely building blocks for an “objective” picture of the society under study. They are, rather, carefully chosen and highly polished fragments of experiential data that constitute, like a fog-drenched Chinese landscape painting, only a shred of a larger meaning. The role of the anthropologist is to draw the lines, so to speak, between the ethnographic fragments and the larger meaning.

Let's conclude today's post with the dénouement of Lévi-Strauss's memorable quotation.

          In short, I have only two possibilities: either I can be like some traveller of 
          the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, or almost 
          all, of which eluded him, or worse still, filled him with scorn and disgust; or 
          a modern traveller, chasing after the vestiges of vanished reality. I lose on
          both counts, and more seriously than may at first appear, for, while I 
          complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I 
          may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since 
          I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable 
          of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another 
          traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I 
          might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: all that 
          I perceive offends me, and I constantly reproach myself for not seeing as 
          much as I should.[3]

Click here for the other posts in this Round and Square series on Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques:
Tristes 1          Tristes 2          Tristes 3          Tristes 4          Tristes 5          Tristes 6
[e] Vestiges RF
[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropique [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman] (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012), 43.
[2] Tristes Tropiques, 43.
[3] Tristes Tropiques, 43.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman]. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012.

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