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  1. Michel Leiris and the Origin of Postmodernism

    December 1, 2012 by Fan

    Michel Leiris and the Origin of Postmodernism


    Fan Zhang


    I. Framework: Poststructuralism, Postmodernism and Posthumanism



    “My sense of posthumanism is thus analogous to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s paradoxical rendering of the postmodern: it comes both before and after humanism: before in the sense that it names the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technological world … But it comes after in the sense that posthumanism names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human [becomes] impossible to ignore …” (Wolf 2010:102-103)



    Cary Wolf in the above quotation from her What is Posthumanism? (2010) evokes posthumanism, postmodernism and poststructuralism all at once without further deliberation on their relationships. This is a clarification I’m going to make now because it is crucial in establishing my central argument, the WWI origin of “post- isms”. With minimal understanding of all three concepts, I will closely follow her text.

    The word Poststructuralism doesn’t appear in the above text, yet it is not only implied but also essential to the idea of posthumanism. “Embodiment” and “embeddedness” Wolf uses denote the structural nature of posthumanism: it is a trinity of humanism in its broadest sense with animal (“biological”), technicality (or materiality) as well as an humanism in a narrower sense. This trinity have never been outside humanity and they interact horizontally. But the emergence of posthumanism as a conscious and active movement is a vertical or an historical event when the animalistic and technological aspects of humanism become “impossible to ignore” – here, the introduction of history into structure in Wolf’s argument is poststructuralist through and through. A close re-inspection of this text also reveals its extraordinary resemblance to a central poststructuralist text from Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference, a text I will refer to again later in the essay:


    “Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an ‘event’ … the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as …Western science and Western philosophy – and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language … Nevertheless, up to the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure – or rather the structurality of structure – although it has always been at work, has

    always been neutralized or reduced …” (Derrida 1978: 351-352, emphasis is mine)


    Derrida’s text begins with an “event” and ends with a structure that is “always been at work”. Wolf’s text twenty years later begins with structural “embeddiness” and ends with an “event”. The two texts have the same gist. Their difference is that of scale: in this particular essay Derrida devotes his attention to anthropology in general and Claude Levi-Strauss in particular in their contributions to the decentering practices; a revolt against ethnocentricism is the key. Cary Wolf’s text, in a way, is an expansion on these decentering practices from anti-ethnocentrism to anti-anthropocentrism.

    As a theory, posthumanism is built on the structure of poststructuralism. As a set of practices, it is not only “analogous” to postmodernism but part of it. Cary Wolf doesn’t feel it necessary to make this connection explicitly, but her references to postmodernism throughout the book prove the point, such as in her discussions of films (Wolf 2010:2469), architecture (Wolf 2010:3024), , Kantian aesthetics (Wolf 2010:3069), and social system of art (Wolf 2010:3123), etc.

    The above list also reveals postmodernism’s close relationship with art. This prompts me to sort out poststructuralism, posthumanism and postmodernism in a novel but systematic way. I will first present the following diagrams:


    (Figure 1) Chronology of the Tripartite

    poststructualism → postmodernism → posthumanism

    (Figure 2) Different Emphases of the Tripartite

    Poststructuralism: Metaphysics

    Postmodernism: Aesthetics

    Posthumanism: Ethics

    (Figure 3) Re-scaling (Reduction) of Posthumanism Issues to Postmodern Issues 





    reduced to

    reduced to

    reduced to


    Ethnographic other/ Nature / Artefacts

    Self / Culture / Art




    Figure 1 assumes there is a linear development of the tripartite, or to use a music or dance term with a beautiful double entendre, a “canonical” development – in music, a canon is “a contrapuntal musical composition in two or more voice parts in which the melody is imitated exactly and completely by the successively entering voices though not always at the same pitch and which either ends with a coda or begins over again” (Merriam-Webster); in dance, “certain dancers follow the patterns previously set by others who then change to new patterns” (ibid).

    Figure 2 assumes what is new. Poststructuralism is essentially a theoretical concern born out of structuralist linguistics and branched into anthropology and then philosophy, as documented by Jacques Derrida (Derrida 1978:351-370). Postmodernism is a more daring and more diverse variation in which artistic endeavours are particularly favoured – and art, as we know, is something between “thinking” and “doing”. Finally, posthumanism is a return from aesthetic frivolities to serious concerns. But this time, ethical practices become as central as metaphysical theories.

    Figures 3 concerns my current project. As I point out above, posthumanism is a far more ambitious project than either Poststructuralism and postmodernism. It is also a vague late development and not-very-well-defined field in which our intellectual and social activist pioneers are still testing the water, as our readings throughout the course could testify. But its central characters, I believe, are in line with poststructualism and postmodernism because they come from the same source. Those characters include an emphasis on textuality, the increasing importance of visuality, the ambiguous oppositions between self and others (in poststructuralism the other is non-Western populations while in posthumanism it is expanded to animals), the blurring boundaries between the high and low (art and artefacts, or Being and technological utility), the dynamic binarism of rationality and irrationality (or animality), the practices of decentering (across geography, history, species and metaphysics), etc..

    The operations useful in grasping the essence of a vague posthumanism, thus, are: (I) to reduce it in scale from more cosmological concerns to more “ethnographic” or humanly concerns; (II) to rewind it from the age of ethics to the age of hobbyhorse aesthetics or armchair contemplations; (III) to trace the common origin(s) of poststructuralism, postmodernism and posthumanism.

    As shown in figure 3, the particular operations I’m going to take are : (I) to trace the issue of animality in ethnographic other (or as we will see, also in ethnographic self) and artefacts while tracing technologicality in essential self and art – this operation is arbitrary (animality and technologicality are supposed to be on the same side against essentialism) but it is useful tentatively; (II) to focus on the concept of postmodernism which I believe is not only transitional but also a broader term that can be used to include both poststructualism and posthumanism; (III) to trace their common origin beyond 1960s, beyond WWII, to at least WWI, in particular, the Surrealist movement.

    Instead of grand linear narrative, true to the postmodern spirit, I would like to focus on a very particular individual and a set of very particular text+images and follow a highly digressive or decentralized course/discourse that brings me to Europe, Africa, and Indonesia. The timeframe expands from the last fin-de-siecle to this fin-de-siecle. The individual in question is the French surrealistic writer and ethnographer Michel Leiris. The set of text+images refers to a 1936 magazine article with surrealist artist Man Ray’s photographs of African art/artefacts from the famous Mission Dakar-Djibouti (1931-33) with commentary written by Leiris.

    Before embarking on my trip, first I need to return to Cary Wolf’ text to clarify two points.




    II .Questions and Their Theoretical Implications


    1. Three Origin Theories of Postmodernism


    The term “posthumanism”, according to Wolf, appears in the humanities and social sciences during the mid-1990s (Wolf 2010:53). However, it is rooted in the emergence of poststructualism and postmodernism in the 1960s’. A text of particular importance is Foucault’s 1966 The Order of Things which concludes with man’s disappearance from history, “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (Foucault 1994:387). The historical reason of mid-1990s exuberance is not given, but I tentatively locate it in the age leading to neo-liberalism.

    There is a second theory concerning the origin.

    Let’s pay close attention to a particularly quotable Montaigne text from his Of Experience: “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things”. In 1966, it appears in the chapter II The Prose of the World section IV The Writing of Things of Foucault’s The Order of Things (Foucault 1994:40). In 1978, it appears again in the chapter X. Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science of Derrida’s Writing and Difference as introduction (Derrida 1978:278). The full quote, however, should be: “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things. We need more books about books than any other subject. The world is swarming with commentaries; of [original] authors there is a great scarcity” (Montaigne 2003:996). In the same essay, Montaigne also declares “I judge myself only by actual sensation, not by reasoning” (Montaigne 2003:1024).

    The scepticism expressed in the Montaigne text and its emphasis on embodiment and sensations distinguish postmodernism, poststructualism and posthumanism, hence the popular quote. I don’t know what prompted Montaigne’s scepticism, but there is a peculiar theory concerning the neo-scepticism appearing in the post-WWII France. According to this theory (proposed by one of my mentors), which I’m highly intrigued but without access to evidences (hence my omission of the source), French intellectual establishment’s attempt at evading the responsibility of war-time appeasement or even collaboration with the Fascists accounts for relativism, anti-science sentiment, and Third-Worldism which is said to be a geographical deflection of the domestic guilt. In other words, neo-scepticism is in fact an immoral disguise.

    I could not testify if this theory is right or wrong. But the Montaigne quote is as good to describe Foucault as to describe a much more senior member of the French intellectual establishment: the surrealist autobiographer, dream-recorder and ethnographer Michel Leiris who is from a post WWI age and from the Surrealist movement prosperous then. His writing also fits Cary Wolf’s aesthetics of posthumanism of “hybridity, perversity and irony” (Wolf 2010:56) more than perfectly. I’m thus proposing a possible WWI/Surrealist origin of postmodernism/posthumanism.



    2. The Question of the Sublime


          The question of Poststructuralism, postmodernism and posthumanism is the question of scale. The enriching in meaning of ethnographic other in theoretical and practical outreaching, the deepening of globalization and inter-connectedness of world system, and the technological translation between the nano and the meta all contribute to their development. Not surprisingly, the Kantian idea of the sublime, which is individual’s affective response to scale, is essential in “post-aesthetics”.

    Here I would only briefly point out Wolf’s inadequacy in rendering this Kantian idea via the route of Lyotard: “The sublime … is a ‘feeling’ that marks the incommensurability of reason … and the singularity or particularity of the world and its objects … this [kind of essentialism] is a price we have to pay …” (Wolf 2010:3094-3095). My criticism are two-fold: first, the sublime is more than a rational political decision one chooses to pay or not – it occurs in the moment of great spontaneity; secondly and more importantly, the sublime is more than a result of horizontal/structural opposition between the finite self and the infinite world, it is sparkled by the temporal movements of personal or collective history, as we will see in the discussion of Michel Leiris.

    With my framework set up and two focal points in hand, I would love to move on to the discussion of particular objects in uncovering the WWI origin of post-isms.



    III. Objects: Man Ray’s Art, Michel Leiris’s Text, and Postmodernism

    1. Introduction


          The simple cover photo of Wendy A. Grossman’s Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens (2009, figure 4) serves as a fitting departure point to manifold digressions. It also leads me to an hypothesis of the surrealist origin of postmodernism.


    (Figure 4)




    2. People, Places, Objects, Photographs and Texts


    Shot in 1934 by the title artist, French surrealist Man Ray, the female figurine in the spotlight was collected in 1898 by German merchant, explorer and colonial agent Gustav Conrau in Cameroon. It represents an earth cult priestess known as twins mother “Bangwa Queen” whose ritual importance might be inferred from Marcel Griaule’s 1948 ethnography of Dogon mythology Conversations with Ogotemmeli. The ethnography was published more than a decade after Griaule’s initial contact with Dogon people in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti from 1931 to 1933. An album of the artefacts collected during the mission, however, were published by Cahiers d’art as early as 1936. Again shot by Man Ray in similar style to “Bangwa Queen”, those pictures were accompanied by Bois rituels des falaises, an essay  by the surrealist writer Michel Leiris who began his career as an anthropologist in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti but who never revoked his literary vocations. Ray’s photos and Leiris’ essay were intended as ethnographical documents, but both of them have since become objects of art criticism, not unlike the African objects appeared in the photos.

    3. Michel Leiris’ Text : the Sublime Reversed


    Here is a passage from Leiris’ Bois rituels des falaise:


    “ Among the Dogon … there is not, as in our industrial world, this divorce, this division (or better, this dispersion) of being and things in such a manner that, for better or worse, the work of art, cut off from its roots in immediate use, finds itself reduced, once it leaves the hands of its creator, to being only a diversion of aesthetes.” (Herbert 1998:183)


    “Divorce”, “division”, “dispersion”, and “diversion”. Admittedly through the fog of translation, the poetic and emotional strength of Leiris’ writing can still be strongly detected.

    The essay was written three year after the end of the mission in which a team of French intellectuals (ethnographers, artists, musicologists, linguistics) crossed the continent of Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea along the lower perimeter of the Sahara (Grinker 2010:285) and collected a huge amount of information and 3500 pieces of objects (Grossman 2009:114). Griaule and some other members on the team returned to the same region afterwards for further fieldwork. Leiris, however, besides writing occasional ethnographical comments such as Bois rituels des falaise, spent most of the subsequent years in Paris applying newly-acquired ethnographical methods to his writing of autobiography which was eventually published in 1939 as L’Age d’homme. Here is a typical passage from its English translation with an impossible title Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fiece Order of Virility (1963):


    “In 1927, visiting Olympia during a trip to Greece, I could not resist the desire to offer a libation of a particular kind to the ruins of the Temple of Zeus. I remember that it was a beautiful, sunny day, that there were many sounds of insects, and that the air smelled of pine, and I still see the intimate offering flowing down the soft gray stone. I had the distinct sense … that I had offered a sacrifice, with all that this word implies of the mystical and the intoxicating” (Leiris 1992:30)


    Susan Sontag, one of most prominent American Francophiles (and a friend of anthropology), observes in 1964 that the English translation is rather a puzzle: Michel Leiris was virtually unknown to American reading public – none of his some twenty books had been translated – but the book has no covering note and no author’s biography. What’s more, the translation doesn’t explain that the book was not a recent one but written three decades earlier (Sontag 1992:vii).

    Sontag doesn’t offer an explicit solution to this puzzle. Instead, she immediately jumps to the comparison of autobiographical practices of Michel Leiris and Norman Mailer both of whom in their writings talk about their personal weakness in great details, such as undesirable appearances, sexual impotence, cowardness, and various indecent acts (Sontag 1992:xii). Had she paid the close attention to the passage quoted above, Sontag would have predicted Philip Roth who details his sessions of masturbation in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

    Literary anti-hero is what connects Michel Leiris to Norman Mailer or Philip Roth. Or what connects France in 1930s to America in 1960s. But Sontag also discovers their differences: While Mailer is boasting his personal failures as a prerequisite to literary and public success, Leiris is using literature as a psychoanalytic tool to get rid of literature, to return to “real life” which to a significant extent refers to his sexual life.

    How do we position Africa in Leiris’ intellectual scheme? Is “Africa” literature or anti-literature to him? Is his fieldwork in Africa literature or anti-literature? Is his writing about Africa literature or anti-literature?

    Leiris’ idea of African art, as indicated by the above quote from Bois rituels des falaise, is a union of utility and aesthetics. It’s easy to detect that this is also his ideal of art in general. Africa embodies the conflation of writing and practice: the antithesis of literature and anti-literature becomes synthesis.

    His ethnographic trip to Africa also has double roles. It is anti-literature in that it is an escape from traditional literary order assigned to him by the French catholic society which he repeatedly shows his contempt. The “offering” of is semen on the Olympia mountain quoted above illustrates his longing for pre-Christian paganism in which he imagines that there is a union of body, materiality and spirituality. The same longing for primordial living inspired his African journey.  It began with Jazz music which first appeared in Paris in 1916. Leiris was impressed by the frenzies of Jazz that “makes us regret … most contemporary performances”, that inspired “impassioned frankness we inarticulately longed for”, and that introduced the first public appearance of Negros, “the manifestation and the myth of black Eden which were to lead me to Africa and, beyond Africa, to ethnography.” (Leiris 1992:108)

    Contradictorily, the African expedition is also thoroughly literary for him. In fact, it is not only an escape from European literary society, but also an escape from women, from his own body, and from chaotic metropolitan physicality exuberant in the city of Paris. 40 pages after the last quotes, Leiris in Manhood admits in great intimate details that what prompted his acceptation of invitation to Africa was his repeated sexual failures with various women:


    “Coming out of this limbo, advised by my doctor and convinced myself that I needed a more strenuous  life for a while, I seized the opportunity of making a long trip and went to Africa for almost two years, as a member of an ethnographical expedition.” (Leiris 1992:139).


    It was two years’ high chastity until he “fell in love” with a local Ethiopian woman. But it is still a literary affair rather than a love affair, because he didn’t really have sex with her – he initiated the relationship because he found the woman “[correspond] to my double image of Lucrece and Judith [Roman and Jewish heroines respectively]” (Leiris 1992:140).

    Leiris’ Africa and his trip to Africa are contradictory unions of literature and anti-literature. His writing on Africa possesses similar quality. British historian of photography Ian Walker compares Leiris’s anthropological writings, Bois rituels des falaise in particular, to his autobiographical practices – he finds a dialectic process.

    Leiris learned from the African trip the value of “messy” field notes and tried to apply the method to the observation of his personal life. The result is a dense texture of long twisting sentences with multiple sub clauses curiously similar to the style of Marcel Proust who had never left Paris. In turn, he utilized those dense sentences occasionally in  anthropological writings such as  Bois rituels des falaise to “give a sense of deep connection in Dogon society between geography and social structure, everyday life and rituals” (Grossman 2009:115).

    Walker notices in Bois rituels des falaise “shifts in tone and attitude between the cool accumulation of factual information and a passionate and indeed sometimes impenetrable poetic evocation” (Grossman 2009:115-116). He attributes the nuance to the double roles Leiris played: “The former is his response to an ethnographer, the latter as a creative writer and lapsed surrealist”.

    However, the more important point might not be “horizontal” split between two somewhat oppositional identities, which is structural and synchronic. What decides the shifting in tone in the text, I believe, is Leiris’s sojourning in Africa and being away from this sojourning experiences – it is essentially temporal and diachronical.

    Before we go further into Leiris’ change in tone in the text of Bois rituels des falaise, I would like to make a detour to the battlefield of Indonesia’s Atjeh region where the Dutch invaders were fighting the fierce local resistance. Our attention, again, is fixed on an album with the war-zone photographs shot by a Dutch photographer named Niuwenhuis. The companion text in the album was written by himself.

    A shifting in tone is noticed: before the final victory came, facing tragic carnage and imminent death, Niuwenhuis kept calm and a syntopical view of the battlefield as if he was a total outsider to the event. But when the victory was achieved, his writing – which basically are the notes from his fieldwork – suddenly becomes excited with a great sense of elevation (Siegel 2011:84).

    One interpretation of this change in tone, proposed by American anthropologist James T. Siegel in 2011, is that there is a uniquely Western sensibility of the sublime working in the situation. According to Kant, the sublime is a great feeling occurs when one has a narrow escape from death, and this is exactly what happened to Niuwenhuis when the Dutch triumphed (Siegel 2011:84).

    However, Kant’s interpretation of the sublime is a “modern” one that accords to the general philosophy since the Enlightenment in which a Western sense of aggressive progress and triumph are assumed. On its basis, I would like to propose an exactly opposite version of the sublime which sheds light on what is called “postmodernism” in anthropology and philosophy but “modernism” in art and music. It also sheds light on Leiris’ change of tone in Bois rituels des falaise which intrigues us.

    The modernist/postmodernist sense of the sublime, instead of a narrow escape or near failure, is provoked by a narrow survival or near success. In other words, death and failure, not life and success, become objects of desire or representation. This is intrinsically related to the aftermath of WWI with the collapse of Russian and Austrian empires. Not surprisingly, prominent attempts at creating new art form were often made by Russians, their expatriate community in Paris and Austrians.

    Superficially there is a preference for order and mechanic beauty in the chaotic aftermath: geometric cubism reaches a high point in 1916; Sergei Prokofiev wrote his neo-classical Symphony No. 1 in 1918; Arnold Schoenberg devised strict method of twelve-tone composing technique in 1921; psychoanalytic movement – a rational attempt at the irrational –  reached the pinnacle with the formation of The Committee 1922 under the leadership of Freud. But all those admirable quietude was probably only calm acceptance of what was inevitable. The intense silence is embodied in the photo” A heart-rendering group” depicting the 1927 reunion of severely mutilated veterans of WWI (figure 5).



    (figure 5)


    The eruption of the defeatist beauty occurred as early as 1887 when a young Gustav Mahler turned the cheerful nursery song “Frère Jacques” into a prolonged but gorgeous funeral march in his Symphony No. 1 “Titan”. In 1893, a St. Petersburg’s audience were stunned by the death finale of Pyotr Iiyich Tchikovsky’s Symphony No.6. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was published in 1915 in which the hero Gregor Samsa was eventually crushed to death. Those earlier examples of passionate expressions of defeat, however, make great contrast to the ethnographic (and Parisian) coolness to human misery as in Surrealist art such as Luis Bunuel’s mock documentary Las hurdes: Tierra sin pan, or Leiris’ autobiographical Manhood which amounts to a detached description of trivial humiliations he had suffered.

    Reversed sense of the sublime related to Mission Dakar-Djibouti Leiris participated six years ago explains this aesthetics of coolness. His personal failures in Paris very much proved a degeneratvie philosophy of history. The sublime feeling is produced – at least partially – by a gratifying sense of self-denying, because deep in his consciousness he knows that there are some people (Africans) in somewhere (Africa) that have been and still are producing original art with original beauty (African art). Continuing failures here and now justify the eternal triumph there and then – and that’s where and when his true self is still living in. This anthropological conflation of self with others is highly satisfying. There is a sense of immortality in the awareness of the spatial and temporal immensity of not just world but human world. The feeling is enhanced by the temporal proximity of “failure now” to “triumph then” when he wrote his autobiography immediately after he left Africa: he knows that he is still close to “there” and himself still close to “others”. This is the postmodern sublime.



    4. Primitivism


    The importance of the postmodern sublime lies in its ability to evoke self in other, often an individual self in collective other. This is ostensibly a spatial and discontinuous opposition between – in the Leiris case – a European self and an African other. But in essence it is also a temporal and continuous opposition between a primordial collectivity (as discovered in African ethnography) and an authentic individuality (as in art modernism). Their conflation is reflected in primitivism.



    5. Cahiers d’arts


          Two Dogon sculptures appeared in the 1936 issue of Cahiers d’art make an interesting comparison: the hermaphrodite rider has both his/her arms stretching overhead with two hands pointing to the sky (figure 6); the Dyougou Serou figurine, however, bury his face in his two hands.




    (figure 6)


    “We mustn’t understand those two works in isolation”, Leiris says in Bois rituels des falaise: we must defer to native connoisseurs – for them, the gesture of the hermaphrodite is an attempt at connecting earth and sky, while Dyougou Serou buries his face because he is in shame (Grossman 2009:116).

    Taken out of Leiris’ essay’s natural flow, this interpretation of those two artefacts hardly gives us more information than what is obvious to our own eyes, yet a slight familiarity with the French anthropology at the moment allows us to treat Leiris’ words with more seriousness: the “sky-pointing” explanation reminds us of Robert Hertz’s 1909 essay The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. The “shame” of Dyougou Serou, however, reminds us of Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli and Claude Levi-Strauss’s first major work, The Elementary Structure of Kinship System, published in the same year.

    Hertz’s essay intends to explain why the preference for right-hand is universal. His conclusion is that a religious preference for the concept of right dictates this bodily function. In establishing his argument, Hertz follows a Durkehimian logicality: (I) Right hand’s preeminence is a social fact, not a biological fact; (II) There is a universal opposition between the sacred and profane; (III) The concept of right is always associated with the sacred while the left with the profane; (IV). Human body is the microsm of the universe and reflexive of cosmology; (V). The cosmological opposition between the right and the left is translated into the preeminence of the right hand.

    In the essay, Hertz evokes biblical evidence to support the concept of the right’s sacredness: on the Judgement Day, God points out his right hand to the sky and left hand to the hell (Hertz 2009:96). This paragraph comes before Hertz links hands to right/left conceptual dichotomy, so it is circular logic. He obviously in the heat of writing forgot that the reason God uses his right hand to point at sky is that God is modeled after man. What interests us here is the comparison with Leiris’ interpretation of Dogon sacred figurine who points both his/her hand to the sky and who possesses two sexes – unlike God. There is an implied lack of religious and sexual dichotomy prevalent in the theories of mainstream French sociology/anthropology.

    Hertz’s circular logic mentioned above went uncriticised even now as far as I know, although his assertion of the universality of conceptual preeminence of the right over the left had be proven wrong as early as 1930s when his fellow Durkheimian and Sinologist Marcel Granet pointed out that the concept of the left enjoys more prestigious position than the right in China (Granet 2007:41-49). The general oversight, for me, indicates the spell of Christian essentialism still looming over anthropology and other disciplines of social sciences. This essentialism is what Michel Leiris wanted to overcome decades ago.



    The reason Dyougou Serou burying his face in hands in great shame is because he just had sex with his mother due to a lack of sexual partner. He is the first-born child of Mother Earth – in Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli, he is jackal the bastard child of Father Sky and Mother Earth. In that account, the jackal raped his mother because he wanted to get access to the secret of language (Griaule 2009:296). This detail of incest in mythology surpasses any saucy detail Michel Leiris provocatively wanted to share with us. In African mythology as represented by its visual arts, Leiris saw the deep meaning or great value he might have articulated himself.

    Claude Levi-Strauss, Leiris’ colleague from Musée l’Homme articulated the mirroring relationship between primitive art and modern psyche in his Effective of Symbols. In the essay, Levi-Strauss finds that the private thoughts and fantasies of neurotic patients analyzed by psychoanalysts is an extension of mythology in modern society where myth has no public venue (Levi-Strauss 1963:186-204). In other words, Michel Leiris’s messy thoughts and personal life suddenly had mythological significance – and African art satisfactorily gave him much needed evidence. In African art, he finds the middle ground between the private and the public.

    6. May Ray’s Photographs




    Leiris’s text is often dense. May Ray’s photos, on the other hand, often look simple and transparent. In the 1936 issue of Cahier l’arts, there are in total eight photographs (Grossman 2009:117). Besides the hermaphrodite rider and Dyougou Serou, there are masks and locks. The combination of text and pictures looks like just another magazine article. But careful inspection of Bois rituels des falaise, as we did above, and Ray’s photo, sheds lights on something extraordinary.

    The most unusual thing about Man Ray’s photos is its intensity despite its being still life. The Dogon objects are dramatically lit, often from the side. The background is complete dark, like the unlimited universe. The light travels across part of their surface to create rich contrast and texture feel.

    The aesthetics demonstrated in those photos makes stark contrast with the claim Michel Leiris makes in Bois rituels des falaise that lookers should contextualize the objects to understand it. Decontextualization is exactly what Ray did to give those objects – and pictures – powerful appeal to unsuspecting magazine readers. But it fits very well with the style of Leiris’ intense text. It also strays away from the neutral lighting typical of most ethnographic photos of the time.

    The deep focus and drama of Man Ray’s pictures reminds us of another passage from Robert Hertz’s The Preeminance of Left Hands:


    “ … in the Indo-European domain, the community forms a closed circle, at the center of which is found the alter … where the gods descend and the graces shine … outside it stretches the vast night, limitless, lawless, full of impure seeds …at the periphery … the right shoulder turned towards the interior … on the one side, there is everything to hope for, on the other, everything to fear. The right is the inside … the left is outside.” (Hertz 2009:96)


    Hertz’s text gives mystic and sentimental feel to objects. It also translates body into objects and then into space and finally into religion.

    It is worthwhile here to make digression to Levi-Strauss’ 1958 essay Do Duel Organization Exist? from his Structural Anthropology. In it Levi-Strauss proposes what he calls the concentric dualism. As opposed to diametric dualism which is an opposition between two equal parts and which corresponds to restrict exchange, concentric dualism is the opposition between the periphery of a circle and its core. Levi-Strauss builds up his argument from native village arrangements, and then incorporates layers of ethnographic data on other aspects of native lives, finally reach a universal symbolism. Levi-Strauss, who is good at lifting small details from other people’s papers and then developing them to a full-scale thesis, doesn’t mention Hertz’s turn-of-the-century article but its influence is clearly there.

    There are three key elements in the concentric dualism: (I) individuality as represented by the lonely core of the circle; (II) religiosity or sacredness of the individual – in a concentric village, the center is always sacred (and also reserved only for unmarried men); (III) the need for external space: unlike equal binary form in which the opposition is defined by two elements against each other, concentric dualism is defined by the space between the individual (the core) and the collective (the periphery), as well as the vast space beyond the circle.

    If we return to Man Ray’s photos, we will find the African artefact in the center is not the only object in the picture – the dramatic lighting and darkness emphasize the space around it. Space is also an object that was photographed. His aesthetics highlights individuality, religiosity and spatial expansion crucial to the establishment of individuality and religiosity.

    The objects in the pictures are decontextualized, but this act of decontexualization allows us to re-contextualize them with higher sense of sensitivity. What the object contextualizes, however, is not Africa but Europe – and anthropology, which is born with the heightened sense of individuality in the age of nation-state building, missionary work and colonial expansion. All those elements are embodied in Man Ray’s deceivingly simple photographs.


    IV. Conclusion by Way of Two Vignettes



    1. The Derrida Moment: Decentering and Postmodernism



    Jacques Derrida deeply understands the connection between anthropology and new sensibility. In his 1967 essay Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science in which he pays tribute to anthropology and Levi-Strauss, Derrida advocates the decentering of the structure – in other words, the core of the concentric structure should leave the center and go outside the periphery to the “wildness”. He points out that this process of decentering is only possible with the advent of anthropology where we find “others”. It pushes the essentialist Western philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular back to deep history, turning a horizontal grid into a vertical pole. From one end of the pole, Europeans are able to trace back the origin of philosophy to proto-philosophy which is incest taboo discovered by anthropologists (in particular Levi-Strauss who in The Elementary Structure of Kinship System calls the incest taboo pivotal to the nature-culture division).

    Derrida regrets in the article that anthropologists and philosophers still position them as objective observers and scientists. He calls for “play” as a way of decentering and getting rid of ethnocentrism. This article becomes one of the landmarks of postmodernism.

    But if we look closed at the underlying intellectual milieu in France since last turn of the century, we find late 20th-century’s postmodernism in philosophy and early 20th-century’s modernism in art is closely associated. All the “play” Derrida advocates Michel Leiris had already done with his text and Man Ray with his photography, which appears perfectly together in the 1936 Cahier l’arts. Derrida’ – and other postmodernists’ – typical style of switching between a scientific and objective coolness and long-winding and intense reflexivity is already there in the change of tone of Leiris’ writing and the mystic contrast of Ray’s photos – and in the very nature of those African objects which at the same time denote a scientific other and an artistic self.

    The question is whether Africa is really crucial to the whole postmodern project? Or is it just another “playground” or even mere metaphor?



    1. The Heidegger Moment: Richard Long in Africa



    Three decades after Leiris left Africa, around the same time when Foucault and Derrida emerged on the European intellectual stage, British conceputal artist Richard Long began his African trips in the 1960s. Unlike Leiris who was seeking a human connection, Africans this time were completed left out. Long’s focus was the African landscape. The relationship in question is that between his solitary self and the World. What he was seeking is an Heideggerian Dasein in silence: he walked straight line, putting stones in order to experience the temporal dimension of Dasein (figure 7), and he walked in circle in order to experience the eternal and structural dimension of Dasein (figure 8). Leaving humanity aside, he consciously followed what Heidegger calls “poetically man dwells” (Valdes-Dapena 2012).


    (figure 7)




    (figure 8)

          Is Richard Long’s art art? In concluding Letter on Humanism, Heidegger says:


    “The thinking that is to come is no longer philosophy, because it thinks more originally than metaphysics … However … the thinking that is to come can no longer … become … absolute knowledge [but] its provisional essence. Thinking gathers language into simple sayings …” (Heidegger 1972:265)


    In that sense, Richard Long was attempting at this kind of “simple sayings” and “provisional essence” in recreating an original artistic language. Posthumanism, following this interpretation, is not a process of denying humanism but a process of recreating humanism from scratch with materials old and new.

    Posthumanists could walk with artists such as Richard Long in their exploration, just like earlier postmodernists walked with Surrealists such as Michel Leiris. On their way, they might meet one or two solitary Africans doing the same.







    Clifford, James

    1998. On Ethnographic Surrealism. In The Predicament of Culture. Harvard: Cambridge University Press.


    Derrida, Jacques.

    1978 [1967]. Writing and Difference, Alan Bass trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    Foucault, Michel,

    1994 [1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.


    Griaule, Marcel

    2010 [1948]. Conversations with Ogotemmeli. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 292-301.


    Grossman, Wendy A.

    2009. Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens. Washington: International Art & Artists.


    Granet, Marcel

    2007 [1933]. Right and Left in China. In Beyond the Body Proper. M. Lock and J. Farquar, edits. Pp.41-49. Durham: Duke University Press.


    Heidegger, Martin

    1972 [1947]. Letter on Humanism. In Martin Heidegger Basic Writings. David Farrell Krell, ed. Pp. 210-265. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.


    Herbert, James D.

    1998. Paris 1937: Worlds on Exhibition. New York: Cornell University Press.


    Hertz, Robert

    2009 (1909). The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. In Saints, Heroes, Myth and Rites: Classical Durkheimian Studies of Religion and Society, edited by A. Riley, et al. London: Paradigm Publishers.


    Leiris, Michel

    1992 [1939]. Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility. Richard Howard, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

    1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Montaigne, Michel de

    2003 [1592]. The Complete Works of Montaigne. Donald M. Frame trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf  “Everyman’s Library”.


    Rapaport, Herman

    1997. Is There Truth in Art?. New York: Cornell University Press.


    Siegel, James T

    2011. “The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901,” in Objects and Objections of Ethnography. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 76-96.


    Sontag, Susan

    1992 [1963]. Forward to the English translation of Michel Leiris’ Manhood. In : A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility. Richard Howard, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. vii-xiv.


    Valdes-Dapena, Antonia

    2012. Richard Long’s Passage as Line: Measuring Toward the Horizon, speech given at the AIA symposium “Making Space”.



    Wolf, Cary

    2010. What is Posthumanism?. Minniapolis: University of Minnesota Press. [Note: The in-text citations here refer to the book’s Kindle edition which gives “location” number instead of page number]














  2. Dasein in Silence

    November 25, 2012 by Fan


    Dasein in Silence


    Fan Zhang

          In Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), the Stalker, a village idiot, leads the Writer and the Professor to the forbidden center of an industrial ruin said to be the key to the individual happiness and human future. The two intellectuals are disappointed, agitated and argumentative, but the idiot falls into sound sleep by a creek. In the creek, submerged under the polluted water, there is an abandoned icon of John the Baptist. A black dog suddenly appears from nowhere, standing by the village fool in silence.

    The cinematic imagery sheds light on Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism. Let’s begin with Heidegger’s frustration at the limits of textual language:


    “… the questions raised in your letter have been better answered in conversation. In written form thinking easily loses its flexibility … it is difficult … to retain the multidimensionality … [by contrast] speaking remains purely in the element of Being.” (Heidegger 1972:219, my emphasis).


    Ostensibly concerning a mere technical detail of writing, the meaning of the passage might be deeply rooted in Letter on Humanism’s core idea, which I believe is the importance of a true essentialism, or, an authentic humanism (Heidegger 1972:227). For Heidegger, humanism as understood in Western philosophical tradition is a distortion of the original meaning of essence, because it is built on an artificial dichotomy of essence and actuality and a false opposition between soul and body (Heidegger 1972:229). When one pits essence against actuality, one diminishes essence and loses grip on it. But where to get hold of the original essence? It’s in language, “the house of the truth of Being” (Heidegger 1972:223). Two observations follow this proposition.

    The first is Heidegger’s colloquialism. Some of his unique terms such as Dasein (Heidegger 1972:229) are from spoken German. It is a technique used to bring philosophical language to its original meaning, but it also directs readers to the source of authenticity, the Volk. It’s noteworthy that Heidegger switched from Catholicism to Lutheran Protestantism in his late 20s. His philosophical stance on language, thus, might be seen in the light of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible to German directly from Greek, bypassing Latin. Unsurprisingly, Heidegger bemoans that “… Greek civilization is always seen in its later form and this itself is seen from a Roman point of view” (Heidegger 1972:225). He rejects humanism of a Roman origin.

    The second observation is that Heidegger’s emphasis on language excludes animals from the realm of essence, because animals are (arguably) without language. Heidegger was aware of this exclusion and its inherent dichotomy I suspect he wasn’t comfortable with. The solution he came up with, crudely speaking, is to treat animals as a lesser version of human, as opposed to treating human as an evolved version of animals. His evidence is philological: anima in animals refers to “soul” (Heidegger 1972:227) – what about animals, after all, are their souls. This is also seen in his understanding of Uexküll’s bee experiment – as dissected by Agamben (Agamben 2004:52) – that animals in their captivity is not without essence but just in a state of poverty (Agamben 2004:60-61) –their souls are “closed” by environment while human souls are elevated, with the help of language, to the totality of world. Agamben considers it “undue projection  of the human world onto animals” (Agamben 2004:60) and goes on deconstructing Heidegger’s thesis in terms of the open/captivity dialectics (Agamben 2004:65).

    It’s curious that Agamben doesn’t’ treat the open/captivity dialectics in terms of language. If we treat “open” as a consequence of language, and language one of the forms of communication, we are reminded of Alfred Gell’s African chimpanzee trap: its mechanism lies in its ability to arouse chimpanzees’ curiosity and induce their thoughts; when they decide to play with the net’s trigger, they are shot by the poison arrows (Gell 1996:26) and in turn caught. Here, the hunting ground (the ground of actuality) is also the symbolic ground (the ground of essence) for both hunters and chimpanzees. Essence and actuality are unified. Humans and animals are connected. Freedom of thoughts leads to both the caputure and the captivity of the body.

    Heidegger, thus, can be faulted for stopping at language – stopping at the doorstep of Art which has the ability to communicate in silence. Art, which depends on emotions and sensuality to communicate, is also inherently animalistic.

    This brings us back to Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s interesting that the three human beings appear in the film do talk a lot, but they talk gibberishes. They fail to communicate linguistically in their search for inner truth. The failure is partially explained by the intellectual division of logic (or science) as represented by the Professor, poetics as represented by the Writer, and faith/ethics as represented by the village idiot – we see the same frustration at the division in Heidegger’s Letter. However, for Tarkovsky, even the colloquialism of the village idiot, the language of the Volk, fails to move the two intellectual snobs who dwell much of their thoughts on their individual triumphs and vengeances. Language is a weak agent for the purpose of grasping essence, because it can be easily manipulated by the individual. At the two ends of spiritual connection, there is art, and there is silent affinity shared by the Stalker and the dog.





    Agamben, Giorgio

    2004 [2002]. The Open: Man and Animal. Kevin Attell, trans. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


    Gell, Alfred.

    1996. Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artwork and Artwork as Traps. In Journal of Material Culture 1(1): 15-38


    Heidegger, Martin

    1972 [1947]. Letter on Humanism. In Martin Heidegger Basic Writings. David Farrell Krell, ed. Pp. 210-265. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.


    Addendum: two reading questions


    1. Is there any religiosity in Heidegger’s critique of humanism?
    2. Imaging a city-country-forest ternary system where metaphorical transitions between the three levels are going on, where would you locate the Hedeggerian transition?






  3. Escaping Essentialism

    October 20, 2012 by Fan

    Escaping Essentialism

    Fan Zhang


    What do Talal Asad and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have in common? Both are Western anthropologists born outside the West – or to be precise, born in the liminal areas between the West and the Orient: Asad was born in Saudi Arabia to a Jewish Pole-turned-Muslim. Spivak was born in Calcutta, the West Bengal’s capital used to be the capital of East India Company. Both of them were educated and have careers in the West.

    To this extremely short list I would like to add at least three names: the literary critic Edward Said, the Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong, and Melford Elliot Spiro. The inclusion of a non-anthropologist, a Chinese and a Western-born part-time psychoanalyst on the list needs justification. The justification, hopefully, would shed light on the elusive nature of the Subject, its collective representation in the name of ideology when the focus is an ideal totality, and discourse when the discussion is more empirical and object-centered. Hopefully, it would also demonstrate the importance of world history in shaping the  subject, ideology and discourse.

    Asad’s 1979 article is an attack on essentialism in anthropology. It also intends to restore an authentic Marxism. A particularly refreshing punch is thrown in the very beginning of the article when Asad denounces both the universalist camp and the relativist camp: both fail to “produce a viable theory of social change” (Asad 2006:244). Using a Foucauldian analysis of discourse and its objects, Asad points out that the reason for the failure is that social structure, “the object of change”,  is conceptualized in a wrong way (Asad 2006:244). What goes wrong? It is “constructed out of essential human meaning” (Asad 2006:245).

    The appearance of the words “essential” and “meaning” in the above sentence can be confusing, because Asad spends rest of the article criticizing anthropology’s essentialism and its over-emphasis on “meaning” as given by assumed ideology. The universalists or “rationalists”, who probably can be represented by the French top-down school (descendents of Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss and often arm-chair thinkers), pay attention primarily to cultural classification. The relativists or “empiricists”, who probably can be represented by the English functionalist school, pay attention to physicality and bodily existence and their extension in social totality. The meanings induced or deduced by both, however, are subject to a priori ideology. None of them gives  “events” or “parole” or “utterances” due consideration. None of them sees history. None of them allows human agency.

    Recent attempts at overcoming the impasse also meet with failures. Maurice Bloch in his critique of anthropology misunderstands Marxism and turns to a crude naturalism (Asad 2006:246). Bourdillon understands that “events” are not solely decided by social structure, but he still considers social structure a fundamental and indispensible way to look at social phenomenon (Asad 2007:247). Edmund Leach in his reconciliation of French structuralism and British functionalism wrongfully equates Kachin “ideology” with Plato’s metaphysics (Asad 2007:248-249), overlooking down-to-earth human realities abundant in his own ethnography. In Mary Douglas’ Africa and in her world view, individuals who don’t like dominant ideology have only two choices: adjust or leave – social structure is unchangeable (Asad 2007:251).

    What can Asad offer? Nothing new, he admits. He only wants to restore a true Marxism in which the mode of production is the true force producing history, and history is producing the change of social structure which is the basic object of anthropological discourse (Asad 2007:251-253). Marx’s concept of ideology, the crest of superstructure, is not unresponsive to and unchangeable by infrastructure, as wrongly assumed by half-baked Marxists in anthropology.

    Nothing in Asad’s critique is outside the terrain of Western scholarly tradition. But in disputing a priori approaches Asad evokes the concept of authenticity (Asad 2007:245), or in oppositional terms, the dualism of self and others, or the native and the non-Native.

    This brings us to the Spivak article and the aforementioned inclusion of the three names.

    In my extremely crude fashion, the gist Spivak’s article can be summarized as “white male chauvinists egos need brown women’s stroke”. The article itself, of course, is rather a lot more nuanced. Western intellectuals, even when they are attacking essentailism, they often stay in an essentialist glasshouse themselves – and the talks of “the Others” are often mere tropes to strengthen the glasshouse they stay in, because self or the Subject always need “the Others” and the object to be untouchable.

    Foucault and Deleuze in their deconstruction operate strictly within the Western subjectivity – they take down the old discourses but build new ones. The problem of both Frenchmen, Spivak points out, is their inability to criticize “the historical role of the intellectual” (Spivak 2010:275). They keep their intellectual toolbox closed, refusing others’ examination. As Western elite intellectuals, they only pay lip service to the oppressed mass and the Third World or other civilizations.

    The only person deconstructing from within, according to Spivak, is the “esoteric”

    Derrida who often writes in an obscure style. For Spivak, to escape essentialism is to combine authentic Marxism and Derrida’s decentering practices.

    Spivak demonstrates her position with the Indian case of  widow’s self-immolation. Her angry tone is not seen in the Asad piece but more ostentatious in Edward Said’s 1989 speech Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors in which he accuses Clifford Geertz and other interpretative anthropologists’ leniency given to native perspectives is only a smoke screen: in pretending “none of us is wrong”, they are hold on to their own subjectivity and refuse native authorities (Said  1989:205-225).

    This reminds me of Melford Spiro’s criticism of Geertz, who in the 1974 speech From the Native Point of View (Geertz 1984:123-136) declares non-Western individuals have no sense of “self”. Notably, in the entire essay of Is the Western Conception of the Self “Peculiar” within the Context of World Cultures?(1993), Spiro refrains from using psychoanalytic terms: his criticizes Geertz entirely on Geertz’s terms. But the psychoanalysis’s univesalist world view is there: an essay is a verbal session of therapy, and the self (Spiro the psychoanalytical anthropologist, or Geertz the ethnographers of Bali and Morocco) and others (Geertz the anthropologist, or non-Westerners who may or may not have a sense of self) are interchangeably the same (Spiro 1993:107-153) Is this the basic assumption Freud had when he combined ethnographical materials with his clinical observations? Spiro, despite being a Western-born Westerner, deservers a place on the opening list.

    Everything new in anthropology is probably old: Malinowski was keenly aware of the issues of essentialism and native views as early as 1939 when he wrote the preface for his student, a then 21-year-old Fei Xiaotong, to the latter’s Peasant Life in China. He declares that the book marks “a new departure” in anthropology when anthropological works are done by a native among natives (Malinowwski 1939:xiii) and when anthropology is not the hobbyhorse of elite outsiders but out of practical concerns of native people in their struggles in the course of history. He ends the preface eloquently with this sentence:

    “The present account [in this ethnography] is not a record of vanished history but a prelude to a new chapter of world history that will be written not in ink but in the blood of millions.”


    Malinowski was referring to the Japanese invasion and WWII. This reminds of us the finale of his Argonaut writtern years ago in which he turns his gaze back from New Guinea to a Europe facing the looming WWI: “The science of Man, in its most refined and deepest version should lead us to … knowledge and … tolerance …, base on the understanding of other man’s point of view?” (Malinowski 1922:518). How far have we gone?





    Asad, Talal

    2006 [1979]. Anthropology and the Analysis of Ideology. In Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology. Henrietta L. Moore, and Todd Sanders, eds. Pp.244-257. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.


    Geertz, Clifford

    1984[1974]. From the Native Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. In Culture Theory. Richard A. Shweder and Robert A. LeVine, eds. Pp.123-136. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


    Malinowski, Bronislaw

    1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Long Groves: Waveland Press Inc.


    Malinowski, Bronislaw

    1939. Preface to Peasant Life in China. In Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Village, Fei Xiaotong. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.


    Said, Edward

    1989. Representing the Colonized: Anthrpology’s Interlocators. Critical Iinquiry: 15 (2), pp.205-225.


    Spiro, Melford E.

    1993. Is the Western Conceptionof the Self “Peculair” within the Contexgt of the World Cultures?. Ethos: 21(2), pp.107-153.


    Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty

    2010. Can the Subaltern Speak?. In Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, R. C. Morris, ed.. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.21-78.





  4. Decentring in Philosophy and Anthropology: Reading Derrida and Levi-Strauss

    October 1, 2012 by Fan


    Decentring in Philosophy and Anthropology: Reading Derrida and Levi-Strauss

    Fan Zhang


    “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things” Derrida begins his Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences from his Writing and Difference (1967) with this quotation from Montaigne (Derrida 1978:278). But this is only half of the sentence. The other half is “we need more books about books than any other subject” followed by a disheartened observation: “The world is swarming with commentaries; of [original] authors there is a great scarcity” (Montaigne 2003:996). The title of the 16th-century author’s essay is Of Experience. Another quotable sentence from the piece is “I judge myself only by actual sensation, not by reasoning” (Montaigne 2003:1024).

    Overview of the book and the essay exposes a dilemma: Derrida’s book in many ways is no other than a book about other books, and this particular essay can be viewed as interpretations of Claude Levi-Strauss’ interpretations. A close reading of the essay, however, reveals that the playfulness of this dilemma (among other parallel dilemmas) is exactly the intended effects Derrida wants to create. He begins with this loaded sentence: “…something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an ‘event’ …” (Derrida 1978:278) The conjunction of “history” and “structure” is intentional. It responds to Levi-Strauss’ sly declaration in the opening chapter of Structural Anthropology:


    “ … anthropology cannot remain indifferent to historical process and to the most highly conscious expressions of social phenomenon. But if the anthropologist brings to them the same scrupulous attentions as the historian, it is in order to eliminate … all that they owe to the historical process and to conscious thought.” (Levi-Strauss 1963:23)


    Derrida is suggesting here that even when structuralism is eliminating history, it is still in a history of its own. This gives us a chance to clarify the concept of history: Is it socio-political history? Is it cultural history? Is it history of philosophy? An observation is that even when cultural history is becoming more and more part of “history” per se, history of philosophy is often standing on its own feet on a velvet carpet outside “history”. Recalling Montaigne, we realize that the reason for this separation is that “history” is a realm of “actual sensation” while “history of philosophy” is a realm of “reasoning”.

    Deconstructing the realm of reasoning, thus, would have to be Derrida’s next step. But where is it? What does it got to do with structure? Here is the answer:


    “… the concept of structure and even the word ‘structure” are … as old as Western science and Western philosophy – and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the episteme plunges in order to gather them up and to make them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement” (Derrida 1978:278)


    Yes, “structure” is philosophy, or to be precise, metaphysics’ metaphorical displacement. Since a metaphor is inherently visual – or there will be no point to even use a metaphor – from this point on, Derrida is able to officially begin his journey of discussing visuality, language, structuralism, anthropology and Claude Levi-Strauss with metaphysics or its deconstruction very much at his heart. This is also a journey full of dilemmas.

    The first dilemma is a visual one: that between the center of structure and its periphery. Since the focus of this essay is Levi-Strauss, we might as well look at the visual representation of structure in Levi-Strauss’ terms. The first question is: Does structure necessarily contain the opposition between a center and periphery in ethnographical terms? The answer is no. In Do Dual Organization Exist?, chapter VIII of Structural Anthropology, Levi-Strauss distinguishes two types of dual structure: diametric dualism and concentric dualism. Only in concentric structure in which a core is enclosed by a circle does Derrida’s concept of center exist. Since ethnographically concentric structure is more general a form than the diametric, according to Levi-Strauss (Levi-Strauss 1963:132-166), we can follow Derrida’s argument and discuss it exclusively from now on.

    A comparison of different orders in which the philosopher Derrida and the anthropologist Levi-Strauss in discussing the same topic (“structure”/ “metaphysics”) is interesting: Derrida gives the answer right away, while Levi-Strauss works his way up, one ethnographical case after another, in the most painful way – and not being explicit in the end. But their conclusions are supplementary to each other. Here I attempt to synthesize and develop their ideas:

    The origin of center, the core of a concentric structure, is its shadow point on any point of the peripheral circle which used to be a continuous straight line until one of its component points breaks away, elevates itself high above to the sky and becomes sacred. This discontinuity, or rupture, creates a central reference point that “limit … the play of the structure” (Derrida 1978:278). Throughout Western history, the center is in various incarnations, the most central and consistent one is probably that of metaphysics while religiosity (Christianity) and para-religious or post-religious essentialism and fundamentalism of all kinds (may I include “human rights” here?) are also crucial. Another incarnation is that of ethnocentrisms, but ethnocentrism only occurs when the decentring process of globalization with its ideological product anthropology appears on the stage of history (Derrida 1978:282). The parallel efforts of decentring outside anthropology are made by Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger. These efforts, if measured by the abandoning of metaphysics, have limited success because all three of them still operate within metaphysics (Derrida 1978:280).

    Finally comes Claude Levi-Strauss with his two conceptual breakthroughs. The first is that distinction between nature and culture, the origin of which is incest taboo that is truly universally and older than philosophy – in fact, it is at the roots of philosophy (Derrida 1978:284). This is the first successful attempt, by an anthropologist no less, to step outside philosophy. The second is his introduction of language to anthropology.

    Levi-Strauss’ brilliance can also been his admission of his theory’s mythological nature, hence a complete decentring to a non-essentialist position (Derrida 1978:286-287). But the catch here is Levi-Strauss has to rely on endless ethnographical data, or empirical evidences, or bricolage (Derrida 1978:288).

    Derrida offers his solution to the catch by introducing history we see in the beginning of his essay: What Levi-Strauss as anthropologist does is looking back for the pre-metaphysical (and prehuman/prehumanistic) origin. What can be done is to participate in the vibrant, abundant and colourful “full presence” (Derrida 1978:292). This participation can be done by “play”, which is a linguistic replacement – a hollowing process – of the once fundamental and essentialist center of the structure (Derrida 1978:289).

    Derrida’s project resembles that of Foucault’s. In fact, the opening Montaigne quotation also appears in Foucault’s The Order of Things (Foucault 1994:40), and the ending of the essay resembles Foucault’s erasing of man from the sand (Foucault 1994:387). A thorough discussion of language, particularly the tension between “phonologism” – and excess emphasis on spoken form of language” and its temporal nature – and graphical/spatial presentation of language (e.g. Chinese writing system) as discussed in his 2002 interview with Kristeva connects the two authors more tightly. My big idea is that visual representation, a key anthropological idea since E. B. Tylor’s conception of animism, is far from satisfactory. For the moment, what we can learn from Derrida, is to treat history of ideas as history, and to experience language – words, phrases, sentences – with playful “sensation”. Or as an anthropologist, to embark on an anthropology of texts. After all, Derrida kno890ws what Montaigne means, and follows the older master closely.





    Derrida, Jacques.

    1978 [1967]. Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. In Writing and Difference, Alan Bass trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.278-293.


    Derrida, Jacques.

    2002. Semiology and Grammatology: An Interview with Julia Kristeva. In Positions: Jacques Derrida, Alan Bass trans. London: Continuum, pp.15-36.


    Foucault, Michel,

    1994 [1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

    1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Montaigne, Michel de

    2003 [1592]. The Complete Works of Montaigne. Donald M. Frame trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf  “Everyman’s Library”.



  5. Space and Body Modification: Rebecca Popenoe’s Feeding Desire

    August 3, 2012 by Fan

         (For summary and sample, view the book on Google Books here)


          Spatiality is the central concept in Popenoe’s ethnographic interpretations of Azawagh female-fattening practices, which I will refer to in the local term lebluh in the following passages. It allows her a systematic approach in the interpretation of the phenomenon. The limits of her understanding of this concept might serve as a departure point for further contemplation and theorization. 
          In the beginning of Chapter 7, The Exterior Spaces of Social Life, Popenoe observes that spatial organization is an important element connecting Azawagh individual to social life:

     “Lines … run from horizon through tent to body and outwards again … keeping the concerns of the most immediate bodily activity … aligned with the forces and order of the wider world” (Popenoe 2004:154).

    It is salient in all aspects of Azawagh life, from east-facing burials to the direction of bed at home. It is also assumedly an element starkly different from her Western experiences: “People … asked me frequently in which direction America was … [but] I was never asked what my country looked like or how far away it was.” (ibid).
          She further generalizes the Western-native differences in spatial conception: “ Coming from a world where space is largely imagined in terms of grids and graphs, it took me some time to realize that space was … ordered … like a circle, with radii running out in all directions from the center.” (ibid)
           Popenoe then focuses on the gender opposition this spatial conception is associated with: “women constantly gravitate to and occupy the center, while men gravitate constantly outwards towards the wilder world” (ibid). The importance of this observation is crucial to entire book’s argument. It contrasts a “fattening” female body which is situated –in fact sits – at the center of domestic space with a lean male body which is moving outwards to engage economic activities such as herding and trade.
           In a single stroke, Popenoe puts her core puzzle of female body and Azawagh’s cosmological system (in its geometric representation), economic system and kinship system in one picture. While all those aspects are deliberated in details in separate chapters, this chapter on spatiality unifies the entire book into one system. In that sense, it is the central section of the book, just as spatiality is the central concept to understand Popenoe’s overall argument.
          Whether Popenoe herself is aware of the centrality of space to her argument is debatable. Her casual manner of writing suggests that she might have unwittingly demoted the topic of spatial organization to just one chapter among others, as if those other aspects of Azawagh life have equal weights with regard to her analysis: “The point I make here about the relationship between how space is inhabited and how the social world is experiences are not new.” (Popenoe 2004:159) The anthropologists quoted in her endnotes to this sentence are a loose bunch , from new Afrianist Réne Devisch to old-hand Comaroffs to the classic Michel Griaule (Popenoe 2004:205). However, Pierre Bourdieu is quoted in the main text: “the appropriation by the world of a body thus enabled to appropriate the world” (Popenoe 2004:155).
           Bourdieu, in fact, is Popenoe’s theoretical departure point. The above quote from his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972) expresses in a highly concise way his philosophical animism that attempts to capture the dialectical relationships between the self and the world, subjectivity and objectivity, practice/agency and structure. Popenoe finds it necessary to rephrase Bourdieu’s text: “In other words, by being socialized in spaces … individuals absorb deep knowledge about the cultural categories …” (ibid). But Popenoe’s reinterpretation actually makes Bourdieu’s words more obscure. A simpler and more powerful rendition can be made as such: “Body is the microcosm of universe.”
           Bourdieu is known to have based his whole system of philosophy on Claude Levi-Strauss’ structuralism (Miller 2005:45) which is itself an extension of the Durkheim school of sociology (Miller 2005:60). Indeed, a quick review of the history of the French school reveals deep concerns about the connection between physical body and spatiality which is key to Popenoe’s argument.
           An earlier example appears in Robert Hertz’s monograph The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity (1909). In the monograph, Hertz, a student of Emile Durkheim, tries to establish the religious origin of a physiological phenomenon: the universal predilection for right hand – a project not unlike Popenoe’s. In the study, Hertz says:

    “… in the Indo-European domain, the community forms a closed circle, at the center of which is found the alter … where the gods descend and the graces shine … outside it stretches the vast night, limitless, lawless, full of impure seeds …at the periphery … the right shoulder turned towards the interior … on the one side, there is everything to hope for, on the other, everything to fear. The right is the inside … the left is outside” (Hertz 2009:96)

    Here Hertz associates the right with center/inside (and the sacred) and the left with periphery/outside (and the profane). In a separate quote, Hertz makes the gender connection to this classification of body and space:

     “How could man’s body, the microcosm, escape the law [of religious opposition of the sacred and the profane] which governs everything? Society and the whole universe have a side that is sacred, noble, and precious, and another which is profane and common: a male side, strong and active, and another, female, weak and passive; or, in two words, a right side and a left side?” (Hertz 2009:35, my emphasis).

    Compare Popenoe’s project with Hertz’s, we see revealing similarities and contrasts as seen in the following table:






    gender position

    physical attributes


    religiosity of the center


    right hand dominance

    concentric circle


    male in the center






    concentric circle


    female in the center




          Let me first explain Hertz’s male-centric gender position which is only apparent if we associate the two quotes above with each other: in the first quote, he points out that the center of a community space is sacred (“where gods shine”); in the second quote, he associates this sacredness with male and his activeness, hence the male-center connection. This connection, in fact, becomes the central tool of analysis for Claude Levi-Strauss and his structuralism. Levi-Strauss uses extensive ethnographic examples to show that in a closed circular spatial arrangement of native villages, the central space is always exclusively male and public (Levi-Strauss 1963:132-163).
          Clearly, while both describe space in its circular form, Hertz and Popenoe have different gender conceptions: for Hertz, men are in the center; for Popenoe, women are in the center. For Hertz, the center is associated god’s grace. For Popenoe, the center is associated with domesticity. How do we account for the differences?
           One important omission of Popenoe’s ethnography is a detailed comparison of the female fattening customs of Azawagh people with their neighbours, many of whom have similar traditions. While Popenoe attempts to explain the phenomenon in terms of the totality of Azawagh way of life, she fails to pinpoint its uniqueness – comparative methods are inevitable if this uniqueness is to be established.
            If I’m allowed to take over her project, with my knowledge of the French school of anthropology (with which Popenoe doesn’t demonstrate her familiarity either in the main text or in her endnotes and bibliography), I will utilize the aforementioned Popenoe-Hertz discrepancy and make such hypothesis: the nomadic way life shifts the sacred center to the remote Mecca. The entirety of the desert environment and tents in it, as opposed to Popenoe’s female-domestic-center proposal, belongs to the periphery to Mecca which is where the ultimate sacred and public space is. This requires a major reinterpretations of her ethnographic data which is beyond the scope of this short review.
          Popenoe’s lack of comparison is part of her shortcomings of particularist approach. As the Hertz text reveals, the circular arrangement is universal – they are not only prevalent in the desert but also prevalent in Europe throughout history. Popenoe’s assumption that the Western space is in grid form is based on her modern urban living experiences, which account for many other problems in the book. Nevertheless, she provides readers with interesting materials and departure points for further critique and contemplation, as this very review demonstrates.






    Hertz, R.

      2009 [1909]. The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. In Saints, Heroes, Myth and Rites: Classical Durkheimian Studies of Religion and Society, edited by A. Riley, et al. New York:Paradigm Publishers.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

     1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Miller, Daniel

      2005. Materiality: an introduction. In Materiality, edited by Daniel Miller, Duke University Press. 2005.pp. 1-50.


    Popenoe, Rebecca

      2004. Feeding Desire: Fatness, Beauty, and Sexuality among a Saharan People. New York: Routledge.

  6. Michel Leiris’ Manhood as Misread by Susan Sontag

    July 27, 2012 by Fan

           On June 12, 1961, a cool early summer day in Paris, a 28-year-old Susan Sontag jotted down in her diary a list of books she intended to buy:

    Michel Leiris, L’Age d’Homme
    George Bataille, L’érotisme
    Robert Michels, Sexual Ethics
    Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man
    Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity
    Brooks Adams, The Theory of Social Revolutions
    Jean Wahl, Défense et élargissement de la philosophie
    Le recours aux poètes : Claudel
    L’ouvrage posthume de Husserl : La Krisis
    R. Caillois, Art poétique

          The first entry, Michel Leiris’ L’Age d’Homme was crossed out, presumably after she bought it on a later day. It’s not known if she bought or read other books. Nevertheless, this list presents a coherent intellectual milieu enwrapping Sontag (and Paris) at the moment. Robert Michel, who wrote about sexuality, is also the founding father of moderation theory that leads to Christian Democrat parties in Western Europe. Thomas Torrance is a Protestant theologian paying attention to the relationship between science and theology. Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack tried to trace the essence of Christianity beyond the Roman world to the Greek world. Brooks Adams is a radical American critic of capitalism while Claudel is a conservative French poet with a penchant for ritual sacrifices. Wahl and Husserl are earlier existentialists from France and Germany respectively. George Bataille, Roger Caillois and Michael Leiris are all Surrealist artists associated with Marcel Mauss with different tendencies: Bataille focused on eroticism’s universal transcendence; Caillois, the founding father of gaming theory, tried to lead Surrealism out of narcissism to “play”, performance, and communal solidarity; Michel Leiris, the only full-time ethnographer in the group, experimented with the consolidation of mythology, ritual and autobiography-writing.
           Most of those writers flourished between the two World Wars, or, between the tragic aftermath and the looming uncertainty. This was a time when the familiar suddenly looked strange. The expansion of the colonial empire with its bureaucratic machinery and the influx of immigrants, especially those from Africa, on the other hand, made the strange and the exotic familiar.
          Another expatriate American, Ernest Hemingway, captured a total Parisian excitement at this particular moment in his little book A Moveable Feast. Sontag’s book list, written down some 40 year later, appears to be more fragmented – or may I say, “postmodern”. Nonetheless, a set of related key words or phrases can be dug out: Christianity; antiquity; poetics; self and others; mythology, ritual and ethnography; existentialism; aesthetics; Surrealism; eroticism; social reform.
          If I, as an outsider, take ethnographic liberty to speculate on things that might appear to be random and unrelated for those from inside, the concerns of those authors and books as a whole can be delineated into five threads: (I) an intention to trace modern European life to antiquity via Christianity – this is the temporal and self-contained line of inquiry; (II) a desire to expand outside the West – this is a spatial line of inquiry going beyond the self-constraint to the territories of others; (III) an tension between scientific objectivity and aesthetic subjectivity; (IV) a dynamic process from intellectual endeavours to socio-political engagement, and vice versa; (V) the interplay between the individual self/personhood and the world/worldview.
          Michel Leiris’ L’Age d’Homme is the only entry Sontag crossed out in her diary. From her review of the book published three years later in the New York Review of Books when its English translation (with the amusing title of Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility) first appeared in the US, she didn’t appear to have read other books on the list. In any case, she didn’t incorporate any of the five threads listed above into her analysis. Her reading is entirely rooted in her very own milieu, America in the 1960s. However, Sontag’s indifference to history is probably exactly what Leiris’s book is really about – it also explains why my assumed review of Michel Leiris’ book begins not with Leiris but Sontag.
          Let me outline (and sample) the actual contents of L’Age d’Homme, or as it will be called in the following pages, Manhood.
           Manhood is Leiris’ autobiography which he began to write in 1930 when he was 34. Quickly skimming through the book, a casual reader might well be puzzled and annoyed by torrents of trivial and banal details about Leiris’ rather uninteresting personhood and life.
          He opens the book by telling us about his unattractive appearances: average height, receding hair, big and protruding head that makes him look like a ram, small and hairy hands, legs disproportionally short, and hunched back. Sexually he is not abnormal – just cold and impotent and “not endowed”. He dislikes babies because “the diapers smeared with excrement”. Death intrigues him a lot more than life since his childhood. In fact, suicide fascinates him. The book is an inventory of his timidity, failures, boredom, lurid behaviours and physical injuries he suffered. But there are moments of absurd hilarity: when a 7-year-old Leiris accidentally cut himself, his panicking mother tripped herself in the living room and was unable to get up. His father was out-of-town and his bed-ridden uncle could do nothing but looking at the boy’s blood flowing on the floor while the boy himself was meditating with a certain coolness his own imminent death. There are also moments sacred profanity – or profane sacredness – such as when Leiris tells us that:

    “In 1927, visiting Olympia during a trip to Greece, I could not resist the desire to offer a libation of a particular kind to the ruins of the Temple of Zeus. I remember that it was a beautiful, sunny day, that there were many sounds of insects, and that the air smelled of pine, and I still see the intimate offering flowing down the soft gray stone. I had the distinct sense … that I had offered a sacrifice, with all that this word implies of the mystical and the intoxicating”

          Back to Paris from ancient Greek ruins, he tried celibacy in an asexual arrangement of ménage à trois, experimenting existential boredom by wandering around Parisian streets purposelessly with two friends (or rather comrades). But he finally was intrigued by a young woman named Kay. After a three-year relationship, Leiris decides that Kay is emotionally fake (not unlike Swann’s wife Odette in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu). More sexual misadventures, a fascination with the onset of Parisian black culture and Jazz music, and his psychoanalysts’ advice that he need to “get away from civilization” in order to cure his impotence, encourage him to join the famous Mission Dakar-Djibouti, an  ethnographic mission to the heart of Africa under the leadership of Marcel Griaule from 1924 to 1929. Upon return, however, Leiris discovers that Africa and Paris are one and the same. The only way to escape trivial follies, he declares in the end of the book, is to subject himself either to dream or to ultimate emptiness – death.
          Leiris’ story is not told in chronological fashion. Rather than a linear narrative of a life story, Manhood is a set of montage or collage. For already offended readers who were expecting a good (and morally uplifting) story, this is like adding salt to injury: bad contents badly written. For people who are willing to take a second or a third look at the text, however, the organization of the autobiography could be viewed as an intention to elevate trivial profanities of individual experiences to the height of sacred mythology. In fact, Leiris’ disappointing personhood and life are classically embedded in a system of cultural references. Leris and his milieu hold a belief that, as James Clifford points out, “… beneath the dual veneer of the real [there is] the possibility of another more miraculous world based on radically different principles of classifications and orders”. It’s this underlying set of classification and orders that turns autobiography’s banal details – indeed autobiographic writing itself – into a ritual performance, a rite of passage.
           Leiris delineates the life-cycle themes in Prologue when he put his trivialities under headings such as “Old Age and Death”, “Supernature”, “Infinity”, “The Soul”, and “Subject and Object”. The following chapter is entitled “Tragic Themes” in which he relates Goethe’s Faust, Wagner’s Parsifal, and Tales of Hoffman: he was able to connect, through his childhood memories, themes of Christian devotion (in Wagner’s case), pagan knowledge (in Goethe’s case) and vision and knowledge induced by intoxication (Hoffman’s tales are generated by binge drinking). The next chapter about Hellenic femininity manages to end with a section called “Brothels and Museums” – in other words, Leiris sees that the sacred and the profane are one and the same in pagan civilization (remember his seminal “offering” on Olympus?). But the subsequent chapters are entitled with Biblical heroines: Lucrece, Judith. However, the fascination with the sacred femininity is always accompanied by unfortunate incidents proving to Leiris that he is nothing but “the head of Holofernes’. He left for Africa, only to find the same gender antagonism.
          The biblical scale Leiris imposes on his trivial autobiography in this short book creates a certain ambiguity. This ambiguity is the entry point for future readers who intend to look beneath the surface. In fact, Leiris himself took advantage of this ambiguity to reframe the meaning of the book in 1940s. During that period, he was gradually more involved with Sartre’s political activism. In 1946, Leiris published what he considered to be the definite preface to the book, claiming the dark humours and “profound boredom” expressed in the book are actually not about Surrealist aesthetics but an inquiry into authenticity – the writing itself was a ritual performance of selfhood necessary in connecting the personal to political praxis. The book is thus a political statement renouncing Bataille’s aesthetic approach in favour of Sartre’s communalism. The autobiography, along with all its talk about suicide, is thus a ritual suicide of selfish selfhood.
          Those are not the impressions Susan Sontag got from the book: she considers it an exercise in anti-literature by clinically documenting the author’s mental aberration. Revealingly, she points out that the book’s English translation suddenly appears in the US in the early 1960s, the age of anti-hero. The book immediately became a bestseller despite the fact the unknown French author (even to the educated Americans) was not introduced in the translation. In the company of contemporary American writers such as Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, the shamelessness is all Sontag could see in Leiris.
          My reading of Manhood is neither the same as Leiris’ early Surrealist nor late Sartre-influenced interpretations. I also find Sontag’s interpretation crude and uninspired. In any case, it’s sufficient to say here that I have respect for any of those interpretations.
           The book, as the Michel Leiris intended, is a recreation of mythology. Mythology, as Claude Levi-Strauss contended, functions on different levels and intends to evoke multitudes of reactions. The writing of the book – and by extension, the reading of the book – is a ritual performance of a mythological text. A particular individual at a particular moment in a particular place gets his or her particular meaning. To fully grasp the gravity of this very trivial text, one needs to go back all the way to the five threads mentioned early, and it requires a major treatment.


    Michel Leiris as an ethnographer of Dogon culture:

  7. Objects and Philosophy: Anthropology Comes Home

    July 20, 2012 by Fan

    Objects and Philosophy: Anthropology Comes Home

    Fan Zhang


    Objects: photographs, kelewangs, bikayat, “ethnographic art” (a contradictory phrase? either ethnography or art?) and public rental bikes in Paris.

    Bodies: Derrida’s naked body (giving off the scent of best Parisian parfum), Siegel’ sweaty body on bike, Javanese aristocrats’ living bodies with all the ceremonial ornaments in Kassian Céphas’ photos, Atjehness dead bodies under the feet of Dutch conquerors.

    Gazes: from Derrida’s pussycat – and from Derrida when he looked back, from Dutch governor of Java who commissioned his “National Geographic” photographs, from Gauguin who saw them, from the battlefield photographer Nieuwenhuis who was not disturbed by the carnage in front of him, from enraged Amsterdam public who refused to appreciate Nieuwenhuis’ cruel pictures, from Parisian museum-goers (some of them came for art, some them were merely curious); the indifference of resistant fighters who were going to be executed, the smile of an old man who was about to blow himself up “with friend and foe”; the missing glances between the Dutch conquerors and native population; and Mr. Siegel on a bike who might or might not been seen by the traffic.

    Words: bikayat poetry “standing against everyday speeches”, Derrida’s 200-pages’ philosophical rant after seeing his lady cat looking at his naked body one morning in his bathroom, Jacques Chirac’s often paired spoken words (“peoples and civilizations”, “arts and civilizations”, but please no “peoples and arts”), the heated debates between ethnographer and art critics, Aztec god Quetzalcoatl who re-incarnated in French comics, Siegel’s very own (highly digressive) essays refreshingly free of jargons and inline citations. For once, essay really means essai, not thesis.

    The two Siegel essays we read this week present four fundamental tensions in anthropology and in human life in general: that between self and other, that between objects and symbols, that between art and science (or aesthetics and context), and that between history and structure (or practice and ideology). They crisscross each other and form a complex, expansive and elusive whole. What Siegel does, true to anthropology and true to his subject, is to grasp particular objects and locate them in particular discourses without losing a sense of genealogy and history. The excitement of his writing comes at the moments when different worlds meet. It also comes at the moments when the looked are looking back – or when they are not looking back. “Things” scatter across pages, but it is often absence that provokes curiosity. The result is Siegel’s’ multi-layers’ writing full of meanings and openings.

    The key absence in The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901 is a lack of native Atjeh photographers in the late 19th-century, despite the availability of the technology. This absence can be only noticed when it is compared to other parts of the Indies. Siegel examined in detail the history of photography in the 19th-century Java. He discovers that photography is not only uncontradictory to local tastes, it actually satisfies them to a greater extent than their traditional means of visual representation: photography’s very mechanical function of memorization satisfies Javanese need of social memorization  (Siegel 2011:78).

    The Javanese case is full of nuances. There is Dutch colonial authority’s ambition to do archaeological inventory of Javanese landscape and landmarks and its desire to show off the place in an aesthetically pleasing way: this is an opposition between science and art. The project itself makes contrast to the Javanese elite’s use of photography in which “dignity” is shown and social memory is preserved. The different opinions of Western and Javanese critics with regard to the artistic values of those pictures demonstrate cultural relativity: it is at the same time an opposition between self and other and an opposition between aesthetics and context.

    Many of Javanese photos were taken by native photographer Kassian Cephas. The only photographers in Atjeh around the same period, however, are the Dutch. Refuting a technological explanation, Siegel looks into the pictures taken by Dutch battlefield photographer Nieuwenhuis. What is lacking in those pictures and accompanying descriptions are exchange of glances between outsiders and locals often seen in other pictures taken in similar conditions (Siegel 2011:80). What is abundant is resistant fighters’ lack of fear in front of death.

    From here, Siegel traces the ideological reasons of the local indifference to photography. Again, he intertwine the aesthetics with context, self with other, “looking at” with “being looked at”. But he begins with the curious change of tone in the photographer’s description of battle scene: before victory, Nieuwenhuis kept calm and syntopical despite the carnage and looming danger. But after victory when the danger was gone, his writing suddenly becomes excited with a great sense of elevation (Siegel 2011:84). Why? Siegel utilizes Kant’s concept of the sublime: this aesthetic feeling often appears after a narrow escape of life.

    But this is a particularly Western sensibility. From here, a comparison of self and other indicates that the Atjehenese don’t feel the say way when facing the same situation. In their context and ideology, death in a Holy War means something else – it means living in paradise. In turn, escaping from death is not something to feel good about – it is almost a shame: who wants to take a shameful photo of himself?

    The puzzle is solved, but Siegel is not satisfied. In a tour-de-force move, he brings in klewang and bikayat, enriching the visual analysis with bodily experience, practice, and sound of poetry. This last point, epic poetry, demonstrates the tension between history and structure. The recitation of epic eliminates history. “When the bikayats ever to have been decisive, permanently effective, Atjehnese society would have disappeared. I argue that, in effect, this was what happened” (Siegel 2011:91). The aethetic analysis is crucial in understanding the social context: the very fact that bikayat stands against everyday speech indicates its strength in rejecting flowing social life. It’s a pity that Siegel doesn’t go further to bring in music: in Levi-Strauss’ analysis, music and epic poetry are both the reincarnation of “primitive” mythology in cultural history (Levi-Strauss 1981:656-660). In art, the tension between structure and history dissolves into sight, sound and words.

    Siegel carries his extremely “thick” approach to objects to “Tout autre est tout autre”. The tension between aesthetics and context, or that between art world and anthropologists, opens the essay. But there is a very strange contradiction here: art world is ready to appreciate the universal beauty while anthropologists love the exotic and the strange, but it’s anthropologists who in their contextualization give the universal meanings to art works while art world sometimes depend on art works’ exoticism to attract specters and buyers (Siegel 2011:125-126). The necessary dynamic between contextualization and decontexualization can also been seen in the fate of Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

    Siegel is not satisfied with the remote (Indonesia) or the sublime (art in a Parisian Museum): it is important to have those mundane (but sometimes strange) moments too. So he turns to Derrida and his very long and very difficult-to-follow Animals that Therefore I am. Sometimes it’s better to look at photos of a landmark than going to the landmark as a tourist – reading Siegel is certainly more of an enjoyment than that particular text by Derrida.

    But it’s still not enough. Siegel leaves aside Derrida and his cat’s bodies, rides bike in Paris, looks around, experiences his own body and contemplates it. At this very moment, anthropology returns from the other side of the world, back to its home: philosophy.





    Levi-Strauss, Claude

    1981 [1971]. The Naked Man. John and Doren Weightman, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    Siegel, James T

    2011. “The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901,” in Objects and Objections of Ethnography. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 76-96.


    Siegel, James T

    2011. “‘Tout Autre est Tout Autre’,” in Objects and Objections of Ethnography. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 116-153.





  8. Fragments Dedicated to Lin Jun

    July 2, 2012 by Fan

    Dedicated to the memory of Lin Jun, a young man who met his untimely and violent death on the night of May 24 when I was in the audience of Tafelmusik’s Beethoven “Eroica” concert.



    Fragments of News on July 1, 2012

    Eurocup. “Italy didn’t just lose. They were never in any danger of winning.” says Toronto Star: their disappointment and distress, thus, look childish. Meanwhile, on the scene at Montreal’s Angrignon Park, news outlets are reporting that Lin Jun’s head might have been found (Update: it is confirmed to be Lin’s remains).

    Lin was said to be uplifting and trusting, and this was not first time he became the victim of self-serving people, which reminds us of a newly-published Susan Sontag diary. The New York Times reviewer finds her constantly in danger of being possessed by self-absorption, self-pitying and other “malign spirits” if she stopped thinking.

    Sontag must have been well aware of or even self-stylized her narcissism. In her 1964 forward to Michel Leiris L’age d’homme (translated into English as Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility), she compares Leiris’s narcissism to that of Norman Mailer. Leiris took pleasure in his self-loathing while Mailer did it to gain public attention and fame, Sontag says. But she is wrong: Leiris might have written two-hundred pages of self-absorbing profanity, but that is one page of admiration – for one of his uncles who despite his social background, education, and noble sensibility chose the profession of street comedian and acrobat and had a preference for women from lower-background – that brought Leiris’ writing such sense of transcendent humour, something Sontag never managed in her own all-too-serious writings.

    It is dangerous to go down. Claude Lévi-Strauss refused to go to the Parisian streets in the1960s student movement. He maintained his scholarly dignity and lived to 100 years. Luciano Visconti, whose films are generally in need of a sense of humour except for the superb melo-comedy Bellissima, refused to go to gay bars because they were “vulgar” as a new book on his Death in Venice revealed.

    Leris’ uncle lived in poverty in the turn of the century. Pier Paolo Pasolini was brutally murdered on Novermber 2, 1975. Lin Jun  lost his life violently on the night of May 24, 2012.

    Pasolini claimed that he had discovered Africa in his defeat of death in the following small poem – both  Michel Leiris who was on the Mission Dakar-Djibouti and Jacques Derrida who was born in Africa made the same claim.


    * * * * * *


    Fragment: To Death

    Pier Paolo Pasolini

    I came from you and I return to you,
    a feeling born of light, of warmth,
    baptized with a wail of joy,
    recognized as Pier Paolo,
    at the beginning of a frenzied epic:
    I’ve walked in the light of history
    but my being was always heroic
    under your dominating, intimate thought.
    Every real act of the world,
    of that history, coagulated in
    the wake of your light
    in the atrocious distrust
    of your flame, and in death
    every act proved itself entire
    and lost its life to regain it
    And life was real only if beautiful …

    The fury of confession, at first,
    then the fury of clarity:
    It was from you, Death, that such hypocritical
    obscure feeling was born! And now
    let them accuse me of every passion,
    let them bad-mouth me, let them say I’m deformed,
    impure, obsessed, a dilettante, a perjurer.
    You isolate me, you give me the certainty of life,
    I’m on the stake, I play the card of fire
    and I win this little, immense goodness of mine,
    I win this infinite
    miserable piety of mine
    which even makes my just anger a friend.
    I can do it, for I have suffered you too much!

    I return to you as an émigré returns
    to his own country and rediscover it:
    I made a fortune (in the intellect)
    and I’m happy, as I once was,
    destitute of any norm,
    a black rage of poetry in my breast.
    A crazy old-age youth.
    Once your joy was confused with terror,
    it’s true, and now almost with other joy,
    livid and arid, my passion deluded.
    Now you really frighten me,
    part of angry state, of obscure hunger,
    of the anxiety almost of a new being.

    I’m as healthy as you wish,
    neurosis sprouts out of me,
    exhaustion dries me,
    but doesn’t possess me: at my side
    youth’s last light laughs
    I’ve had everything I wanted, so far:
    indeed I’ve gone beyond certain hopes for the world;
    emptied, you are here within me,
    filling my time and all time.
    I have been rational and
    I have been irrational, to the utmost.
    An now … ah, the desert deafened by wind,
    the stupendous filthy African sun
    that illuminates the world.

    Africa! my only
    alternative …


    * * * * * *


     Fragments: Cinemas of Pasolini & Visconti



    * * * * * *


    Fragments: Lin Jun’s Life in Pictures



    * * * * * *


    Fragments of Memory: Lin Jun in the Eyes of an Acquaintance

    (Translated from a Chinese website)

    “My first acquaintance with Lin occurred 14 years ago when both of us were college students in Wuhan. My first impression was that he was very thin with big eyes and naughty mouth-shape. He liked to blink when talking to people – but he rarely spoke because he was shy. My friend who brought him to my place was very fond of him: “Is he cute?” He asked me again and again. They sticked to each other all the time and gradually I saw less both of them.

    But this friend did tell me more about Lin later. Lin’s parents were both factory workers with very limited income. As a child, he was sometimes beaten up, but he was loved and provided for. By the time he was in college, Lin fell in love with an handsome newly-graduate med student who rented a room in the vicinity of the campus. Lin moved out his dorm and stayed there. His lover was a bisexual who had a girlfriend with marriage persepctive. The relationship was purely casual for the med student but romantic for Lin –  he even brought him home to his mother. The “lover” got married eventually. Lin was very depressed for a long time.

    I saw Lin again many years later in Beijing when I was introduced by a friend to join a local swimming team. I met him there and was surprised by his rather chiselled body – he also dressed up like your typical gay jock. He was much less provinicial.  

     The last time I saw him in Beijing, he was with a very tall and muscular man shopping in a supermarket. We were never close friends so we just nodded at each other without even speaking a word. I didn’t expect he met his end in this way.”

  9. Treading the Dualistic Universe

    June 23, 2012 by Fan


    Treading the Dualistic Universe

    -        A Critique of the Critique of Development Discourse

    Fan Zhang

          This paper intends to lay out a blueprint for a critique of the anthropological critique of development. It is also an attempt at a new style of academic writing pertaining to Foucauldian concepts treasured by contemporary anthropologists in the English-speaking world.


          In one revealing moment in the documentary Milking the Rhino (2009), the European manager of a Namibia lodge demands local villagers not to peddle their wares when the Western tourists visit. “They want to see authentic African life”, she explains. “But this is authentic – this is what they really want to do”, her local interlocutor argues in vain.

    A fundamental pair of dualistic oppositions in social life is disclosed upon careful inspection on the above summary: culture and economy. Endless spin-offs of this dualism can be played out in anthropology’s fantastic binary universe. For the purpose of this succinct essay (and by essay, I mean essai that is more than a thesis1), I will only select a few pairs serving as an index or a map threading developmental ideas into anthropology’s discourse of dualism:


    culture: economy

    nature: culture

    the rest: the West

    culture as nature: culture as culture

    authenticity: inauthenticity

    non-participation: participation

    to be looked at: look at

    symbolism: materiality

    art: everyday life

    multi-sited: single-sited

    world: local

    national: regional

    anthropology: history

    knowledge: power

    French school: British school


    (essay/essai: thesis)


    The relation between the last two pairs and proceeding oppositions is the most obscure but fundamental. The puzzle will be solved in the end of this paper. It’s sufficient to say here that this dualistic universe contains anthropological fields, developmental discourse, critiques of this discourse, and anthropological theory in general. The scope of this paper, thus, will slightly go beyond a critique of developmental discourse into a critique of this critique.


         Let’s begin with the first pair, culture versus economy.

    The mechanism of the Namibian project is conservation by tourism with the participation and empowerment of local community. Participatory development is its philosophy. Eco-tourism inevitably leads to Western tourists’ encounter with and interest in not only Namibia’s natural landscape but also its human landscape, or “culture”. Culture is thus seen, consciously or unconsciously, as part of local ecology.

    The participatory value for local people, on the other hand, is that they can benefit financially from eco-tourism. It is assumed – by the European lodge manager at least – that this will sufficiently compensate local population’s loss in stopping hunting wild animals. But reality doesn’t just stop at assumed sufficiency: local people will use all their ingenuity to advance their own financial interests when opportunities present themselves – they want to peddle their wares.

    The manager’s displeasure demonstrates that local people’s economic candour is seen out of participatory development’s project control. The direct logic of this need for cultural authenticity can be explained as such: since the pristine quality of local ecology is the mandate – tourists are here to look at not to change nature –  by logical extension without need for further articulation, the pristine quality of local “culture” is a given. Understandably it will be upsetting if the visitors realize that they have changed local people’s way of life. This awareness, in turn, will threaten to give tourists the impression that they might have changed the pristine nature as well.

    In other words, there are two types of culture according to this direct logic: Western visitors who come here to look belong to a culture outside nature, while non-Western residents who are here to be looked at belong to a culture that is within a nature that should be controlled or conserved.


          The underlying logic of the need for authenticity mentioned above, however, must be traced in history. As Professor Tania Li points out in The Will to Improve, contemporary development interventions’ constant concerns for authenticity are in fact continuous with earlier colonial powers’ strategy of governing through supposedly customary communities (Li 2007:675). Cultural traditions, in a way, are artificial constructs useful for political control. In other words, participatory development could be a form of indirect rule. The locals don’t have the power to participate equally and fully.

    But it is useful to remember that this assessment of participatory development is based on the observation of a “still” in an unfinished and unfinishable motion picture: it is neither the full picture nor the full story. A lot of nuances and changes must be allowed. It is also important to look at a “community” issue beyond local setting on national and global levels. Fred Meyer’s analysis of Australian aboriginal paintings’ proliferation, which I will relate in relative details, gives us a good example.




    The art-world boom of Oceania aboriginal painting since 1980s created rapid development of an indigenous art industry. There are admirers and distracters from different camps (Meyer 1995:45).

    For admires, native art’s abstract character is pleasing to modern Western sensibility. New Age spiritualism embraces its assumed “holism” or “totality”. Do-gooders make a point of supporting native rights by purchasing native art.

    For detractors, aesthetically the industrial proliferation of aboriginal art deprives its “power of strangeness”; politically it is a form of soft neo-colonialism in a world of unbalanced power-relations (Meyer 1995:70-76).

    On the national level, Australian government eagerly supports aboriginal art in a campaign to create cultural identity of a fully Oceania state as opposed to a former British colony (ibid).

    Meyer presents with approval many detractors’ opinions – some of them are his colleagues in anthropology, particularly those specialized in post-colonialism and post-development. In defence of the admirers, however, he points out that local population, in catering to international tastes, moral obligations and national agendas, not only benefit financially from the sales but also take the chance to revive traditional narratives such as mythologies and beliefs (Meyer 1995:86).

    More importantly, the new “traditional” native art, as an object allowing multi-sited appropriations, is absorbed by and transformed by – and is absorbing and transforming – different discourses across the globe. The concreteness of its materiality is inseparable from the vaporous ambiguity of its symbolism and affects this ambiguity is able to inspire. It is not a fixed thing but a process the meaning of which is in constant production. It connects “no man’s land” between various territories and traditions. It hangs on in world history, waiting for meaning-creation: an American buyer of native acrylic paintings might be accused by moral essentialists of superficial either in artistic taste or moral imperative, but this act of buying might well be the gateway to much deeper connections.




    In treating travelling and objectified art, we see look at and to be looked at are not necessarily excluding each other. We see materiality and symbolism embodies each other. We also see in elevating single-sited analysis to mutli-sites (Marcus 2007:1139), layers of dynamic meanings could be evacuated.

    But what about local people who live an everyday life and who are not obviously part of global spatial transition as high art and artists are? Do they have the power to “look back”? Does it matter if they do look back?

    Professor Tania Li in her study of local compromise in Indonesia and Anna Tsing in her study of  Meratus participation in “green” development offer relatively different answers. Professor Li concludes that local people’s (cynical) understanding of power relations in their everyday life could enforce the hegemony and could be taken advantage by those who are in the power (Li 1999:295-322). Tsing, on the other hand, is more optimistic: with the right leadership stance, it becomes possible to enter into collaborative projects for truly successful local advocacy (Tsing 1999:201).

    What accounts for the difference? We might look beyond similar developmental discourses at different oppositions to local actors. In Professor Li’s article, the other side is national governments throughout recent Indonesian history. In Tsing’s article, however, the other side is mainly NGOs.

    Here emerges the question of scale. Anthropology is traditionally the study of small communities. It takes care of “people without history” (Eric Wolf). Contemporary anthropology, however, inevitably encounters nation-states and historiography. Is there any possibility of an at least partial convergence of the scholarly discipline of anthropology and history? Professor Li in her study of communities fully incorporates national history. In fact, her study is part of Indonesian national history. So is Tsing’s exuberant In the Realm of Diamond Queen in which she, like an historian, gives name to the Meratus people and introduce them into Indonesia’s national consciousness (Tsing 1993:9, 300-301). If we take one step higher in scope and put anthropology at the service of the study of world history – a concept that has been instrumental in forming anthropology via Kant, Hegel, Karl Marx, Max Weber and a tragically lesser-known Arnold Toynbee, a concept more or less re-incarnated as a less original concept of world system, we may use treat national culture as a type of local culture and put the former firmly within the scope of anthropology. This is something this brave new world is looking for when professional historians are busy with miniatures and when political scientists such as Samuel Huntington keep producing coarse ideologies.

    One might argue that “national community” doesn’t exist – it amounts to nationalism at best (or at worst) – there are always various local communities that are ignored or oppressed by nation-states. But as Professor Cohen points out in the class, to begin with local “community” is also more or less a myth, a social construct serving particular needs.

    To get out of an argumentative mood, I will simply point out that this is only an analytic tool not without significance. In critiquing development discourses, we have been limiting our discussion mainly on aid-based development projects and on the post-WWII era. But as Escobar admits, the point of this periodization is not necessarily about new ideas or new objects, but about a new system of relations, or “discourse” (Escobar 1997:86). It is thus beneficial to look back at pre-WWII modernization across the world in order to truly understand the strength and weakness of postwar development discourse while at the same time look ahead. The most salient case for the former is Japan. The most salient case for the latter is China. Japan’s development is not a failure: it manages to achieve industrialization without giving up cultural traditions. Its history has been studied by anthropologists from Ruth Benedict to Dorinne Kondo. The lessons learned are not irrelevant to other parts of the world. The lesson can also be learned from newly emergent economies such as China, which at this very moment holds both symbolic and material significances to Africa and beyond (Moyo 2012:2019).

    Those facts haven’t escaped James Ferguson, hence his rejection of being labelled as a “post-development anthropologist”: “The claim that ‘development’ is over would surely sound strange to many people in … China, who … take [developmental] promises very seriously … not without reason.” (Ferguson 2006:2238)

    Ferguson’s voice is meek (“not without”). By comparison, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, who stays firmly within the development discourse, has the guts to say “let’s get rid of aid-based development model from the West; let’s learn from the Chinese” (Moyo 2009:1935).

    The fundamental difference between Ferguson, an anthropologist specialized in Zambia, and Moyo, an economist from Zambia, is that the latter believes in a strong nation-state while the former advocates relative benefits of a weak state (Ferguson 2006:2559). There is a clear anarchist undertone in his writing, which is in line with anthropology’s post-War II trend of moving away from co-operation with or participation in governmental affairs (Mead 1973:11).



    It’s high time to introduce the dynamic dualism of power/knowledge – instrumental in understanding our course materials – into the understanding of history of anthropological thoughts and our particular critique itself. The very fact that Anglo-American school of anthropologist have been ambivalent about their roles with regard to authority and government (ibid) decides their interest in concepts dealing with governmentality. It will be otherwise unfathomable that Michel Foucault, a philosophical historian (and not a very rigorous one according more specialized historians) whose primary concerns had been European modernity and state-building becomes the chief inspiration for Anglo-American anthropologists, although previous cosiness with Claude Levi-Strauss in the British functionalist school had setting up the stage for “detemporazation” (Ferguson 2006:2365).

    If we look back at our list of dualisms which in its discursive way brought out a discourse of anthropological study of development, not just a discourse of development, we will notice terms on the right side (materiality, economy, participation, single-site, everyday life)  can often characterize the British school, while terms on the left side (symbolism, “culture” in small c, high art2 , arm-chair approach to the field) often characterize the French school. It is between those two schools that modern anthropology in general and discussions on development in particular struggle. It can also be characterized as a kind of ambivalence caused by a need for action and a need for reflection. I don’t believe anthropology has found it, considering how irrelevant it is to the general public3. African development was one of the key topics on last year’s Munk Debate on China attended by thousands of enthusiastic listeners and broadcasted live across the globe. The economists Dambisa Moyo and Li Daokui,  the historian Niall Ferguson, the journalist Fareed Zakaria, the statesman Henry Kissinger and Bill Cohen were invited to give speeches. It would be nice if they have invited at least one anthropologist.




    A last word on the style of this very short paper, which is as important as its contents: the adoption of Foucauldian concept of discourse and the Deleuzian non-linear “rhizomian” thinking in anthropology (Ferguson 2006:2365) should have changed the highly linear and hierarchical academic style of anthropological writings in this milieu. But aside from Daniel Miller whose ethnography The Comfort of Things takes the discursive route (and since becomes a best-seller), essay in its original form (essai) still seems to be forbidding. Are we holding on to our own essentialist high-ground so as not to be criticized by others? I’m one of the others and this paper is a timid attempt at difference.

    The object of this paper is both development discourse and its critique. The discourse of this critique of the critique of development discourse is anthropology’s dualistic universe. This discourse can be historicized and critiqued, but that’s another story altogether4.






    1. 1.     Modern acadmic use of the word “essay” is an abuse of its original meaning given by Michel Montaigne. Contemporary anthropology in the English-speaking world tries to immulate French school’s postmodern concepts, but fails to grasp its substance which happens to be its style. A brief treatment of the subject can be found in Michel Foucault the Anthropologist, my response blog writtern in Professor Naisargi Dave’s Posthuman Anthropology class:
    2. European paintings repeatedly serve as departure points for Foucault while Levi-Struass begins and ends his magnum opus Mythologique with anaylysis of classical music.
    3. Copies of an The Economist commentary on the need for anthropologists on Wall Street, such as Gillian Tett, were posted across the third floor of the Anthropology Building last year.
    4. A treatment of this subject, based on this short paper, is forthcoming. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ concept of concentric dualism as opposed to diametric dualism serves as conceptual guideline. The argument will be made on the concentric nature of imbalanced dualism as seen in local communities versus either NGOs or nation-states. The ongoing transition from a sacred discourse (eg. Christianity) to a secular one (eg. nation-states and NGOs) with a consistent languague of moral imperatives (either on developmental terms or human-rights terms) is the key narrative. The philosophical treatment of the subject can be found in my paper on Levi-Strauss written under Professor Gillian Gillison.







    Escobar, Arturo

    1997. The making and unmaking of the third world through development. In The post-development reader. eds. Victoria Bawtree, Majid Rahnema, 85-93. Cape Town: David Philip.


    Ferguson, James

    2006. Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham: Duke University Press. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Li, Tania Murray

    1999. Compromising power: Development, culture, and rule in Indonesia. Cultural Anthropology 14, (3) (Aug): 295-322.


    Li, Tania Murray

    2007. The Will to Improve. Durham: Duke University Press. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Marcus, George E.

    2007. Ethnography Two Decades after Writing Culture: From the Experimental to the Baroque. Anthropological Quarterly 80(4): pp.1125-1145.


    Mead, Margaret

    1973. Changing Styles of Anthropological Work. In Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 2. Re-published in digital format on Kindle Fire. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Moyo, Dambisa

    2009. Dead Aid: why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Moyo, Dambisa

    2012. Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World. New York: Basic Books. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Myers, Fred

    1995. Representing Culture: the Production of Discourse(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic Paintings. In G. Marcus and F. Myers eds., The Traffic in Culture. Berkeley: University of California U. Press, pp.64-91.


    Tsing, Anna L.

    1993. In the Realm of Diamond Queen. Princeton: Princeton Univesity Press.


    Tsing, Anna L.

    1999. Becoming a Tribal Elder, and Other Green Development Fantasies. In Transforming the Indonesian Uplands. Tania M. Li, ed. 159- 201.


    Zhang, Fan

    2012. On the Same Levels: A comparison of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Do Dual Organization Exist? and The Story of Asdiwal Accessed on June 22, 2012.





























  10. A World Without Me, A Project Without a Task

    June 15, 2012 by Fan


    A World Without Me, A Project Without a Task

    Fan Zhang


    “This is a self-reflective narrative, a wrenching dialogue with myself, based on my encounter with development …” (Shrestha 1995:266)


    The following text prepared for this particular assignment, not unlike Shrestha’s words quoted above, is autobiographical in nature. I don’t hold grudge against lofty ideas articulated on high theoretical planes. In fact, I have the highest regard for those who keep scientific detachment and distance from objects and objectives studied. But weakness of my position – and weakness of my character – decide for me that I could and should only begin my engagement of the issue of development with myself in order to reach certain degree of depth and sincerity. I only hope crucial questions of development’s moral nature, participant distance and its totality beyond technocratics would be succinctly but properly addressed in the process.




    In concluding my mini-ethnography of UofT’s Anthropology Students’ Association (ASA) written under Professor Tania Li, I wrote:


    “My observation of the Chinese peasantry or ASA members is: they don’t need anybody to save them. They have far more determination, intelligence, resource, and power to save themselves. What I see in anthropology, through this three months’ fieldwork, is a need for elitism. It is translated into a community that is not based on physical proximity but conceptual proximity. It transcends Fei Xiaotong’s native anthropology into the realm of Nicolas Rose’s nativity.” (Zhang 2012:14)


    A few explanations are necessary in order to develop the above paragraph’s relevance.



    In my observation of ASA which I treat as a microsm of current anthropology as a discipline, I notice that almost all its active members are Caucasians despite the association’s open membership. Its institutional culture can also be described as highly Euro-Canadian. Using Nicolas Rose’s analytical framework, in spite of the association’s university setting, it is a culture before the Age of the Third Way: its nativity is not yet decided by creative proximity but ethnic or geographical proximity (Rose 1999:168). At the same time, ASA is a highly active and efficient organization with great potential and in the process of rapid development: there is a natural rhythm in its own development.

    This correspondences to my observation of Chinese rural society where I do have familial ties. Needless to say, physical proximity has a far great presence there and in this proximity I see an almost visceral force driving towards what is called “development”. Most Westerners tend to think recent Chinese economic reform and “success”  begin and end with its export economy (and as a gift the West gives to China, signature mentality of development thinking).  Few of them realize that they are in fact continuation of its traditional peasant and mercantile economy in the age of globalization (Mai 1992:46).

    Chinese peasantry’s “visceral force” towards development is recorded as early as 1939 in  anthropologist Fei Xiaotong’s ethnography Peasant Life in China, his PhD dissertation supervised by Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski in its preface declares that the ethnography marks “a new departure” in anthropology when anthropological works are done by a native among natives (Malinowski 1939:xiii) and when anthropology is not the hobbyhorse of elite outsiders but out of practical concerns of native people in their own struggles in the course of history. He ends the preface eloquently with this sentence:

    “The present account [in this ethnography] is not a record of vanished history but a prelude to a new chapter of world history that will be written not in ink but in the blood of millions.”


    Here comes full circle with regard to our current topic of development: the questions of distance and moral imperative, two convergeable topics.  A quintessentially English belief (Malinowski is quintessentially English despite his Polish origin) in the interchangeability of morality and self-interest – a belief that is not alien to the Chinese – and a trust in the organic force of bodily and material reality lay the foundation not only for a vision of development , the focus of Fei Xiaotong’s ethnography, but also a vision of the development of anthropology and activism that emphasizes native participation. In other words, the distance is close to but not exactly zero: Fei is a Western-trained yet Chinese anthropologist who studied development.

    For me, Fei Xiaotong, who as Chinese government’s advisor in his old age advocated freeing the visceral-economic force of Chinese peasantry, is one anthropologist, if not the only anthropologist, who has significant impact on world history. His relatively non-intervention approach, in fact, is consistent with Lao Tzu’s governing approach quoted by Professor Cohen in his lecture (lecture notes of June 08, 2012). I will tentatively call this approach “naturalist”. This approach does have a tendency to reject missionary zeal of converting the other. In Tao Te Ching where Professor Cohen’s quote appears, there is also a sentence to the effect of “the greatest favour a man can do to his neighbour is not to visit him” (quote from memory). This is the morality of distance of zero – when one has no intention of overcoming this distance.

    A salient comparison can be made to the role of religion in modern development discourse as cogently (and elegantly) described in our readings by John and Jean Comaroff: evangelist capitalists in their passion to covert the primitive other unwittingly showed their essential similarities, and developmental conversion was in fact competition (Comaroffs 2001:498-499).

    My fieldwork carried out in the anthropology department was inevitably influenced by my Sinic disposition and my reading of Lao Tzu since very early age, hence my preference for self-determination in my conclusion of ethnography of UofT’s anthropology department. I did offer a solution which is partially influenced by Nicholas Rose’s concept of “third-way”, or, the creative making of communities. I chose aesthetic identification in my approach to “others” (Zhang 2012:15).

    Professor Li in her commentary asked me: “Why just aesthetics? Why not political engagement or ethics?” I confessed my feeling of powerlessness in my reply:


    “The reason I think about an aesthetic approach in anthropology is that I sometimes feel that local populations might not need outsiders’ intervention. The greatest “cultural shock” occurred to me when I visited Chinese countryside many years ago, discovering their poverty and beauty. But many poor peasants I knew then have become enormously rich now, and they are no more innocent than city dwellers. I believe their mercantile tendency is even stronger. My concerns then seem to be irrelevant to them.”


    Here, the phrase “cultural shock” denotes a sudden close of distance and a sense of beauty as well as a sense of moral obligation inspired by this encounter. When this encounter occurred, the part of countryside I visited was already in the heat of development guided by Chinese government’s multiple successful (by their measurement of course) “Five-Year Plans”. The same plans were changing the urban landscape where I came from. My reception of the (then) poverty of rural area was immediately gained a sense of romanticism: from the very beginning I rejected the discourse of development that put technological renovation and bureaucratic sophistication above everything else: I was stunned by the beauty of poor simple peasant life in the depth of gorgeous mountains, and I lost myself swimming in sweet rivers later would turn black.

    Many years later, a lot of those poor farmers I had my sympathy for then become capitalists buying properties across the country.

    This is a world without me. This is a world that doesn’t need me

    But is this a world without anthropology? Does world need anthropology?

    Those are the puzzles I brought with me to Professor Cohen’s course on development. My initial project, unrelated in the beginning of this write-up, is in fact a project without a task. Since I don’t claim to be a Westerner, or “one of us”, I hope I’m allowed an initial position of Taoist “doing-nothingness” as my project for the world.  Anthropology, for me, was and to a great extent, still is a project of self-cultivation – the rich shades of nuances and ambiguity I discovered in it brought me great pleasure. But I’m ready to enter another side of anthropology from the shadow of subtle ambiguity: I’m ready to enter a world of doing-goodness that has the power of countering the hegemony of development.








    Comaroff, John and Jean Comaroff.

    2001. The Colonization of Consciousness. In A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Ed. Michael Lambek, 494-510. London: Blackwell.


    Esteva, Gustavo.

    1992. Development. In The development dictionary: A guide to knowledge as power. ed. Wolfgang Sachs, 6-25. London: Zed.


    Mai Tianshu

    1990. Zhongguo Nongming [Chinese Peasants]. Beijing: Renmin Press.


    Malinowski, Bronislaw

    1939. Preface to Peasant Life in China. In Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Village, Fei Xiaotong. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.


    Rose, Nikolas

    1999. Powers of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


    Shrestha, Nanda.

    1995. Becoming a Development Category. In Power of development. ed. Jonathan S. Crush, 266-277. New York: Routledge.


    Zhang, Fan

    2012. Third Way in the Post Third-Way Age: Community Building of ASA and Beyond.