Look, Listen, Read, Think, Being, and Becoming: From Lévi-Strauss to Siegel
“The first 12 days of March were changeable and windy with temperature mostly above average. Only after mid month, the weather became less unsettled. The mean temperature was 5.6 °C.” 1Total sun was 98 hours, average only 4 hours a day. London’s early spring in 1979 looked rather like that of 1879. Disregarding the weather, on the first Tuesday of the month (March 6), moment of revelation came when Talal Asad stood in front of a hall full of luminaries attending the 18th Malinowski Memorial Lecture and delivered the following words:
“Discourse which seeks to reflect on the nature of social conditions in a systematic way can, in the process of being re-stated, contested, acted upon, have some critical consequences for given conditions of social life. But ideology as such cannot be said a priori to have a universal, determinate function, because what verbal discourses (as well as other modes of communication) signify or do can only be determined by analysing the concrete social conditions in which they are produced. It is no accident, for example, that attempts to specify a determinate set of rules for defining performatives in English – let alone in all languages – have not succeeded. Because the developing material conditions of social life always determine the force, if not the occurrence, of discursive events ” (Asad 2006:252)
There is certain audacity, timidity and slyness in this paragraph, reflexive of a change of anthropological interpretation from structuralism to post-structuralism – a process has by no means finished. In directly criticising British Structuralists – Asad in the speech named Edmund Leach and Mary Douglas who might be sitting right in front of him – and in his juxtaposition of Foucaudian concept of discourse and Marxist emphasis on material conditions, Asad bluntly demanded anthropology’s return to the terrain of objects, materiality, contents and context. But he felt obliged to face the question of language – which looks rather like an elephant in the room – by giving a rather peculiar example about the performativity rules of the English language. The adoption of the word “ideology”, on the other hand, is a stroke of genius: I doubt Edmund Leach, Mary Douglas cared very much about the word, but by replacing the word “structure”, a word Asad almost avoided in the speech – with “ideology”, he successfully made his central criticism without being too impolite: what Structuralists did was to textualize and canonize the ideology of not a culture but its ruling class. Foucault’s concept of “discourse”, in Asad’s speech, provided a transitional word from “structure” to “ideology”, the central Marxist concept the authentic meaning of which Asad tried to re-establish in the entire speech.
What did Asad see in front of him when he was standing on the podium and delivering his Malinowski speech? People or just text? I’m not sure. In any case, in criticizing Edmund Leach, Mary Douglas and a legion of other anthropologists, Asad didn’t address the question of why those anthropologists thought as they did. In other words, he didn’t put anthropologists in a particular discourse with all its materiality and context. This makes great contrast to a confrontation between Edmund Leach and Fei Xiaotong – both studied under Malinowski – in the 1980s. In an anthropology textbook, Leach used three Chinese anthropologists’ examples to prove that native anthropology – or anthropology from a native point of view – is often a failure. He did give a pass to Fei who he called an exception to the rule, but the latter still responded with anger. Fei in a Chinese interview called Leach (and probably most other Western anthropologists) “hobbyhorse anthropologist” while his devotion to the discipline is out of concern for his own people.
Asad, while proposing a return to materiality in anthropological interpretation, didn’t treat anthropology itself as an object of anthropological study (re: people) but as an essentialist text. The centrality of text, in fact, characters anthropology since Claude Levi-Strauss, be it structuralist or post-structuralist. But the meaning of text is changing.
A comparison of Claude Levi-Strauss and James T. Siegel is in order. Poetry appears in both Effective of Symbols and The Curse of the Photography. In the Levi-Strauss’ case, it is shaman’s incantation. In Seigel’s case, it’s Atjehnese’s epic. The different nature of the two types of poetry as appears in respective anthropological analysis is revealing. In Levi-Strauss’ case, native incantation appears as written text, In Siegel’s case, the spoken characters of the epic has foremost importance. Levi-Strauss focuses on the narrative of the incantation. Siegel focuses on the linguistic form of the epic. But the differences are only superficial.
The process Levi-Strauss goes through in his analysis of the myth is a process of elimination of contents. As with his analysis of mythology later in his career, the key character of the incantation he discovers is that of oscillation. It is this oscillation which is becoming faster and faster in the performance that the boundary between a physiological world and a mythical world – and that between the individual and the collective – is eliminated. This text, with reference to Freud and psychoanalysis, seems to be pushing the boundary of linguistic structure to bodily structure. Levi-Strauss is sometimes accused of being staying in the ivory tower of language for too long. This essay, however, indicates that he was trying to turn the cold language into something warmer and more earthly.
Siegle doesn’t refer to Levi-Strauss in his article, but the latter’s influences are there, because in Siegle’s essay, objects (photographs, kelewangs, hikayat), bodies (Derrida’s Siegel’ own, Java royalties’ and Atjeh fighters’) and human behaviours (gazes and epic-chanting) are all texts. Levi-Strauss turns a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional text and devices a method of analysis, hence the “structuralism”. Keeping the method of analysis, like our youtube and IPad users, post-Structuralists bring back a three-dimensional visual culture and turn the word back into pictures. This process of going back to visuality – starting with Michel Foucault but is still continuing as Siegel’s text testifies – inevitably accompanies the process of bringing history back to structure.
But there are different histories. In the Siegel piece, we see more cultural history – the modes of production or class struggle is not touched upon in that particular piece. It is probably more from an outsider’s eyes: after all, he sees the colorful and peculiar, and he tells us the colorful and the peculiar. Asad’s voice on the podium of Malinowski lecture that day, on the other hand, probably sounds a little more restrained and cold. After all, he wanted to say: “We are all the same – in modes of production and in class struggle”. The pitiful thing is, as far as I know, none of the Structuralists or post-Structuralists would pay much attention to the weather outside: ecology seems to be complete missing from this strain of thought.
What’s Derrida’s post-structuralist agenda in Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences if he has one? The word “event” with quotation marks in the very beginning of the essay reveals it all: Derrida, playing the role of Atlas, turning Claude Levi-Strauss’ horizontal grid into a vertical one. The center of that grid, somehow, becomes the pre-“historical” origin of the vertical grid. The history is coming back to anthropology: its first foray, is into the history of anthropology.
Anthropology has long been accused of ethnocentrism. The first kind of ethnocentrism is a historical kind. A child of Western colonial expansion in Africa, Asia, America and Oceania, anthropologists are professional “other-seers”: an acute awareness of others inevitably led to an acute awareness of self. With the advent of Darwinian evolutionism and a moving desire to find human universal, this particular Western self at “here’ and “now” is inevitably seen on the top of the vertical/historical grid (which in my imagination looks rather like a Maypole with all the gorgeous decoration on the top). In any case, everyone looked up.
But as Derrida points out, the beginning of ethnocentrism in the age of empire is also the beginning of decentering – or the abandoning of ethnocentrism. Anthropologists, in the process of cataloguing peculiarities and differences, inevitably see the similarity and universality. What’s more important is that anthropological discovery of the universality of incest taboo pushes the origin of metaphysics – essential to Western ethnocentrism – back to a primordial origin.
And then comes Levi-Strauss, who turns the old vertical column into a horizontal grid – and discovers that this grid is replicated across the culture. Levi-Strauss does have a shrine, which is in the center of his concentric grid in which a monotheistic god is sitting there. For Derrida, Levi-Strauss is one step short of paganism. After turning Levi-Strauss’ grid back to a vertical one, Derrida pushes the centre down to the origin. In that way, people no long look up but look down for inspiration. The gaze at the god is replaced by playing of words or body parts.
All these seem to be very abstract until one looks at the French intellectual milieu since 1900. One of the most significant ethnographic expenditure is Mission Dakar-Djibouti from 1931 to 1933. One of the members on the mission is Michel Leiris who has two identities: surrealist autobiographer who wrote in length about his personal failures or masturbation on the Olympia mountain in Greece (to offer his pagan sacrifice) … and anthropologist who is a friend and colleague of Levi-Strauss. The play of the word and image championed by Derrida in the late 20th-century, actually, already started in the early 20th century by a legion of surrealists-ethnographers. Those people are generally strong on data but timid in theory. Later development in anthropology from Levi-Strauss to the philosophers such as Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida, could be seen a theoretic or critic synthesis of earlier “play” – its is said, art critics often comes at the dusk of art. Do we have postmodern French ethnographies since Derrida to prove it wrong? Derrida’s theory is as hard to debunk as that of Levi-Strauss due to its abstract nature, but if we replace him with Michel Leiris who is unashamedly vulgar, we can see that there is a touch of navel-gazing in all those “play” – and when Africa doesn’t really mean Africa but only a metaphor, or Asia and Oceania …
We can not accuse Geertz of being vulgar or too abstract. In awesome prose, dramatic narrative, and with a sense of humour, Geertz gives us the impeccable concept of “thick description” – and it becomes a departure point to the dialogical relationship with others.
For most people, Geertz does bring conceptual tool to combat ethnocentrism. But not for Edward Said. He doesn’t deny the good intention of Geertz, but he looks at Geertz just in the way Geertz looking at others and has his own interpretation of what Geertz is actually doing: for Said, Geertz’s thick description is just a thick smoke screen. In giving everyone on the table time to speak, Geertz is denying the authority of the native.
Key to Geertz’s conceptual scheme is the absolute dichotomy between the West and the rest. This is a sure instrument in recognizing the valid difference of others, but it is also re-affirming the absolute position of self. It is not inconsequential: even established contemporary anthropologists such as Marilyn Strathern couldn’t get rid of this scheme. The dissenting voice such as Melford Spiro who wrote a whole essay rejecting Geertz’s absolute dichotomy is often unheard.
2006 . 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.
1984. 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.
1963 . Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.
1989. Representing the Colonized: Anthrpology’s Interlocators. Critical Iinquiry: 15 (2), pp.205-225.
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.
Spiro, Melford E.
1993. Is the Western Conceptionof the Self “Peculair” within the Contexgt of the World Cultures?. Ethos: 21(2), pp.107-153.