01 March 2009

Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss

It's not surprising that much of Tristes Tropiques comes across as clearly written in another time, ie, that parts of it are somewhat appallingly offensive and obnoxious. Rather, what's impressive about the text is the fact that in spite of all that, many of its reflections are still resonant, and what's more, are quite fascinating. The book chronicles the adventures of the anthropologist Levi-Strauss. You could describe it as a kind of quest narrative, where Claude bravely searches for a civilization (or rather a lack of one! har har!) that is still truly "primitive", ie, untouched by contact with Westerners. Rousseau's state of nature, if you will - though as Levi-Strauss himself points out, even Rousseau acknowledged that such a thing may not exist. And this whole problem is kind of the question that the text orbits around. LS at one point realizes that in fact, there's been plenty of contact between various groups of people for a very very long time, and were he to exist in an era before that time (if one even exists), he wouldn't have the conceptual tools to make sense of the encounter anyhow. He doesn't quite follow this thought through, and think about how those very conceptual tools have been shaped precisely by those encounters - Claude has a distressing habit of implicitly assuming that Europeans invented most modern though - but the seeds are planted for the reader to ponder the matter. More broadly, this is what is most fascinating in the book; the way it reflects upon, or provides an occasion to reflect upon, how knowledge is produced out of encounters with the unknown. There's this amazing moment where he seems to actually find the "primitive" tribe he seeks, but alas, he doesn't have the time to really get to know them. He realizes, though, that if he did, once he got to know them, they'd no longer be unknown. Or rather, that what appeared initially as their radical difference would be normalized once he had figured it out and given it a name, or if it wouldn't, it would mean that it was ultimately unknowable. Later in the book, this reappears as a contemplation of how the pursuit of knowledge ultimately destroys its object. Good stuff.

There's also an interesting moment where he considers immigration. Curiously enough, in a surprisingly prescient way the question that he's tackling is of whether France could sustain a large Muslim immigrant population. He says that the US "took a gamble" in opening its borders, and he wonders whether France could do - and survive - the same. Intriguing stuff.

There are also some nice sections on the ethics, and position, of anthropology, though Claude himself could do well by taking a page out of his own book on that one, because man, some of his work comes across as pretty horrific. But when he turns to theorizing it, he comes up with some good ideas. 

What's also kind of interesting in the text is how ultimately, his newfound cultural relativism sort of explodes the work into the quasi-mystical contemplation of the world and the meaning of life. The book ends with a celebration of the sort of precognitive profundities of the universe, the scent of a lily or the gaze of a cat. Quite charming.

Anyhow, for all it's problems, overall it's a highly worthwhile read.

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