|[a] Lessons RF|
|[b] Authorship RF|
The careful reader of Tristes tropiques is, at times, puzzled as to whether he is not confronted at certain points by detail for detail’s sake—a kind of indirect sniping at another, more objectivist brand of anthropology.
But for Lévi-Strauss, much more remained to be said. In keeping with the “passages” theme of the text, however, we are treated first to another anecdote, this one a bit more peculiar—the author and an ulcerous mule lost in the bush. It is a comical scene: Lévi-Strauss, his photographic equipment near an unmarked tree, hanging onto the tail of a mule, caught between a desire to retrieve his “evidence” and the sheer practicality of survival. Later, safely back at camp (with his photographic equipment found by Nambikwara with ease), Lévi-Strauss thought over the day’s events. Unlike most anthropological discourse, Lévi-Strauss shows us on the pages of Tristes tropiques—albeit in a peculiar literary fashion—the progress of his thought.
Being still perturbed by this stupid incident [with the mule], I slept badly
and whiled away the sleepless hours by thinking over the episode of the
exchange of gifts. Writing had, on that occasion, made its appearance
among the Nambikwara but not, as one might have imagined, as a result
of long and laborious training. It had been borrowed as a symbol, and for
a sociological rather than an intellectual purpose, while its reality remained
unknown… A native still living in the Stone Age had guessed that this great
means toward understanding, even if he was unable to understand it, could
be made to serve other purposes.
|[d] Implications RF|
End of story—a short, stimulating discussion of the implications of language for power, with obvious Rousseauian strains. But Lévi-Strauss is not finished; he is just finding his voice. “Writing is a strange invention,” he begins. Here the real discussion commences. We leave the particularity of Nambikwara, or even Neolithic, experience and enter, for the next four pages, a discussion of writing as a civilizing tool that bears the seeds of dominion. From a careful monitoring of agricultural records and imperial bureaucratic structures, we begin to see how control of writing holds the potential for large-scale political domination.
To establish a correlation between the emergence of writing and certain
characteristic features of civilization, we must look in a quite different
direction. The only phenomenon with which writing has always been
concomitant is the creation of cities and empires, that is, the integration
of large numbers of individuals into a political system and their grading
into castes or classes…it seems to have favored the exploitation of human
beings rather than their enlightenment… My hypothesis, if correct, would
oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of written
communication is to facilitate slavery.
The primary function of writing, notes Lévi-Strauss, is neither enhancement of knowledge nor record keeping: it is power. In a few pages we have moved from an individual ethnographic experience to the foundations of inequality among men—a twentieth century anthropologist’s hypothetical history of the foundations of civil society, with rather less emphasis on property or amour-propre than Jean Jacques Rousseau’s model, but a good deal more on the language that links them.
We'll wrap up the series tomorrow.
Click here for the other posts in this Round and Square series on Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques:
|[e] Foundations RF|
 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropique [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman] (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012), 224ff.
 Tristes Tropiques, 114.
 Tristes Tropiques, 117.
 Tristes Tropiques, 345.
 Tristes Tropiques, 347-348.
 Tristes Tropiques, 369.
 Tristes Tropiques, 296.
 Tristes Tropiques, 297-298.
 Tristes Tropiques, 299.