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Monday, October 1, 2012

Academic Autobiography (2e)—Tristes Tropiques

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Academic Autobiography"
[a] Lessons 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
V—Anecdote Redux 
“Being too near the edge to contemplate the forest as a whole,” writes Lévi-Strauss of his first steps into Brazilian vegetation, “I concentrated on the details.” But Lévi-Strauss would have it both ways in Tristes tropiques. An interesting, though neglected, question is the rhetorical role that illustrations play in the text. With the exception of the beautiful Caduveo body-painting figures,[1] which Lévi-Strauss goes to great length in explicating, the reader may ask what precise function is served by details of a cavalry cross,[2] an ox-cart axle,[3] bamboo splinters,[4] hut wall paintings,[5] or a typical monthly budget for a family or four along the Machado, c. 1938.[6] It is not to say that they do not belong in the text, only that one wonders at their prominence. 
[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.

Of the hundreds of anecdotal musings in Tristes tropiques, perhaps the most famous is contained in “A Writing Lesson,” which begins with the author handing pencils and paper to assembled Nambikwara.

          It is unnecessary to point out that the Nambikwara have no written 
          language, but they do not know how to draw either, apart from making a 
          few dotted lines of zigzags on their gourds. Nevertheless, as I had done 
          among the Caduveo, I handed out sheets of paper and pencils. At first 
          they did nothing with them, then one day I saw that they were all busy 
          drawing wavy,  horizontal lines. I wondered what they were trying to do, then 
          it was suddenly borne upon me that they were writing or, to be more accurate, 
          were trying to use their pencils in the same way I did mine…[7]

The author is just warming up his readers here, just as the Nambikwara were taking only the initial steps in their own aesthetic creations. Lévi-Strauss will take his time; he continues:

          The majority did this and no more, but the chief had further ambitions. No 
          doubt he was the only one who had grasped the purpose of writing. So he 
          asked me for a writing-pad, and when we both had one, and were working 
          together, if I asked for information on a given point, he did not supply it 
          verbally but drew wavy lines on his paper and presented them to me, as if 
          I could read his reply…there was a tacit understanding between us to the 
          effect that his unintelligible scribbling had a meaning that I pretended to 
          decipher; his verbal commentary followed almost at once, relieving me of 
          the need to ask for explanations.[8]
It is the kind of situation anthropologists experience at least several times during their fieldwork; for most it would lie in their fieldnotes, perhaps appearing as an instructive tale in a graduate seminar: a chief underlines his authority by gaining access to a new form of power, at least of a sort. “I did not explore the matter further,” he writes, “and we began our return journey.”

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.[9]
[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.[10]

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:
Tristes 1          Tristes 2          Tristes 3          Tristes 4          Tristes 5          Tristes 6
[e] Foundations RF
[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropique [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman] (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012), 224ff.
[2] Tristes Tropiques, 114.
[3] Tristes Tropiques, 117.
[4] Tristes Tropiques, 345.
[5] Tristes Tropiques, 347-348.
[6] Tristes Tropiques, 369.
[7] Tristes Tropiques, 296.
[8] Tristes Tropiques, 296.
[9] Tristes Tropiques, 297-298.
[10] Tristes Tropiques, 299. 

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

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