Par-delà the ethno-grapher: Descola in the *field*



‘’We had understood nothing of what they said, nothing of what they did: it was a typical ethnographic situation’’. STs-p28

Starting a new year with a good read is a seductive idea isn’t it?

And as coincidences (or there are just no coincidences?) would have it, just when Chol Chnam festivities (= Entering the Year) were settling here in Cambodia, I was opening « Les Lances du crépuscule » (”The Spears of Twilight”), the colossal and magnificent hybrid child of Philippe Descola. Hybrid as the book, while being extremely rich in ethnographic details and descriptions, can be read by anyone without any background in anthropology, and could very well be part of the backpack of any traveler on his / her way to Peru or Equator. But don’t get me wrong. STs (yes, we are on initials basis now!), is NOT an adventure book. And it is certainly not one of this very exotic ethnographic report from some mission civilisatrice. STs is an hybrid just as the author is (and thanks for that!).

A student of Lévi-Strauss, Descola studied both philosophy and anthropology before he got to start his fieldwork with the Achuar in Amazonia in the 70’s. While the book clearly shows yet another talent of his in literature, it follows an actual human being doing anthropology: sometimes he is lost, sometimes he gets a thing or two and yet doesn’t have a clue for the rest, sometimes he is out of place… Very often he wonders about his training, his capacity, his knowledge, his accuracy, his relevance… his place. But as history will have it, all those incertitudes, all those questions, all those hick-ups will make one of the most brilliant contemporary anthropologists. (So, dear fellow anthropologists-in-the-making:  do feel good in this continuous feel-weird of ours, do pursue in the hick-ups, do indulge in the out-of-place!).

Numerous Descola’s articles and his master-piece « Par-delà nature et culture » (”Beyond Nature and Culture”) were part of the readings which stimulated me the most during my doctorat, as they were offering a completely different take on the separation between the human and not-so-human worlds, which I think is quite a turn when your topic is identity… But I have to confess that I had never read LCs before – I mean apart from textbooks… and that doesn’t mean much! The old dusty yellowed and dog-eared second-hand copy bought as an fresh(wo)man was just patiently waiting for its turn in the esoteric reading cycle. As I was going further into the book – just as the couple of ethnographers were going deeper into the Amazon forest – I thought it would be nice for the chamattic to kick off the new year with a couple of quotes. I was particularly interested in those dedicated to the ethnographer work / vocation / life and its perception by / relation with others, either other disciplines colleagues, or plain general public.

Hope you will enjoy the read, and go for more!

* I am using LCs scans (Les lances du crépuscule, Plon, Paris, 1993) and quotes from the STs in the english translation of 
Janet Lloyd (The Spears of Twilight, The New Press, New York, 1996). 



”My companions, devoted to the uncompromising cult of epistemology, considered the social sciences an insufficiently rigorous kind of distraction, deplorably lacking in the ‘scientificity’ that they aimed to track down in Aristotelian ‘physics’ or the mathematical texts of Leibniz. My interest in ethnology thus won me a reputation for amiable futility, and the nickname ‘Feathers’.” STs-p22.



”Thus, the squabbling that is a feature of the discipline often simply expresses a mutual incomprehension between different styles of relating to others; and theoretical disagreements may mask far more fundamental incompatibilities relating to different ways of being in the world.” STs-p24



”The profession of ethnologist presents a curious paradox. The public perceives it as a pastime for erudite explorers, while those who practise it place themselves, rather, amongst the ranks of the orderly community described by Bachelard as workers for proof. The world to which we are accustomed is not so much that of the steppe, jungle and desert, but rather one of lecture halls and nocturnal struggles with the blank page, an ordeal repeated ad infinitum and far more daunting than any encounter with some unamenable member of the Amazonian bestiary. In a training devoted essentially to the carefree study of the humanities, there is nothing to prepare an apprentice ethnographer for the discomfort of camping that some imagine to be the hallmark of his vocation. If such a vocation exists at all, it is born more of an insidious sense of inadequacy vis-a.-vis the world, too powerful to be successfully overcome yet too weak to lead to a major revolt. Distant curiosity cultivated as a refuge ever since childhood is not the prerogative solely of ethnologists. Other observers of humankind make use of it in a far more spectacular fashion, bringing it to fruition with talents that the ethnologist lacks. III at ease in the great plains of imaginary representation, we are obliged to knuckle under to the servile obedience to reality from which poets and novelists liberate themselves. The observation of exotic cultures thus becomes a kind of substitute: it enables the ethnologist to enter into the Utopian world without submitting himself to the whims of the imagination. Directing a vacillating desire for power into the net of rational explanation, we are in this way able to appropriate through our thoughts societies whose destinies we should never be able to influence. No yearning for the heroic exploit is involved. Our contemplative world is not the world of men of action”.

Phnom Penh, April 13, 2013, Emiko Stock.

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7 thoughts on “Par-delà the ethno-grapher: Descola in the *field*

  1. Merci de nous faire partager tes lectures, Emiko.
    Je ne connaissais pas Descola, mais tu m as mis l’eau a la bouche, il me plait ton Descola !
    Bonne annee

  2. Thanks very much for making me aware of this book. Our university library has it, but shelves it in the closed stacks where browsers will never find it. I’m going to borrow it right now.

  3. Pingback: Descola Episode II: On classifications & identity, memory and anthropologist’s ”objectivity”. | ChamAttic

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