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

LCs-p439

LCs-p439

”[…] It is probably the very subjectivity of our discipline that assures its wider import”. STs-p405

A way overdue selection of quotes from Philippe Descola‘s  « Les Lances du crépuscule » (”The Spears of Twilight”). You may think I am rumbling around as I already talked about the author and the book in a previous post here, but I will of course deny that. Not on the basis that I am indeed in denial, but rather because the final pages of the piece skate over notions and ideas I find quite essential in anthropology to go back to.

I will tentatively ”classify” (interesting choice of word…) the notes into three areas:

On classification and identity: where it is shown that categories are always porous and moving, and how we tend as observers / describers to essentialize what is not always essential.

On memory: where we learn that other societies and people think about past, history and its remembering differently. Those questions of memory tickled me as I found them rarely discussed here in Cambodia, where they should be at the centre of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, beyond the rhetoric of ”duty of remembrance”[1].

On objectivity in anthropology: where the ethnologist’ irrevocable subjectivity blossoms to full recognition…

* 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). 

On classification and identity

Lances Crepuscule 249_A

LCs-p249

”[…] Perhaps because their tribal identity rests not so much upon a self-conscious apprehension of the distinctiveness of their customs but rather upon a particular configuration of relationships with other people, the Achuar feel no need to be always reaffirming who they are and so leave this to their neighbours, both close and distant, ethnologists included”. Sts-p223

Lances Crepuscule 442

LCs-p442

”The Achuar offered to me a contrary demonstration that ethnic nationalisms, in all the barbarity of some of their manifestations, are not so much a heritage from pre-modern societies, but rather result from ancient styles of organization becoming contaminated by modern doctrines of State hegemony. What history has done it may undo […]”. STs-p408

LCs-p247

LCs-p247

”Our obsession with classifications, typical of apprentice ethnologists, had blinded us to something that we should have suspected much sooner: here, definitions of identity proceed from distinctive oppositions; the same ethnic adjective may thus switch from one referent to another depending on the context and the term with which it implicitly contrasts”. STs-p221

On memory

LCs-p415

”Far from being a faculty to be cultivated, memory here is a regrettable inevitability to which one is subjected, an excitation of the mind triggered by another being. Accordingly, the funeral rites are expressly designed to prevent the deceased from seeking to stimulate memories, and most emphatically not to commemorate him/her.

LCs-p416

It is not the case that all remembrance can be wiped out in this way, but what the Achuar remember is not so much the person and the feelings they had for him/her, but rather what it was that linked him/her to them, his/her position amongst kindred, the immediate obligations and rights that his/her death produced, such as the duty of vengeance or levirate marriage. As a result of this quashing of emotions, the deceased soon becomes a pure abstraction, thereby paving the way for the collective amnesia that, within a few decades, wipes out all earlier generations. Just as they are given no tombs in their own names, they are allowed no memorials in the minds of those who survive them”. STs-p382

LCs-p415

LCs-p415

”To us, imbued as we are with the cult of memory and the ceaseless homage we pay to the dead, such an attitude may seem shocking. But we should not interpret this expulsion of the dead from the memories of the living as indifference. It simply reflects the notion that the living cannot be truly living unless the dead are completely dead”. STs-p381

LCs-p249

LCs-p249

”The remarkable indifference that the Achuar display towards the past may help to explain why any idea of sharing a collective destiny remains alien to them. Self-declared individualists as they are, and amnesiac by vocation, they get along very well without a historical memory, all recall of events that affected earlier generations being carefully erased by their spontaneous forgetfulness”. STs-p223

On objectivity in anthropology

LCs-p436

LCs-p436

”Ethnologists, who must construct a representation of a society by writing alone, cannot possibly deliver a faithful copy of the reality observed. Rather, they offer as it were a scale model, a likeness of the salient features of the prototype, which may never be fully described”. STs-p402

Lances Crepuscule 480_B

LCs-p480

”An ethnologist’s laboratory is himself and his relationship with particular people, his own naivety and cunning, the tortuous path he has intuitively followed, the chance situations in which he finds himself, the role that he is made to play, sometimes unwittingly, in local strategies, the friendship that may link him to the person used as a principal informant, his reactions of enthusiasm, anger or disgust – a whole complex mosaic of feelings, qualities and occasions that give our ‘method of enquiry’ its own particular hue. It is this essential part of our scientific procedure that the precepts of ethnological writing demand be passed over in silence”. STs-p444

LCs-p480

LCs-p480

”[…] By proscribing any subjectivity, classical ethnology rules out exploiting the very element that makes its endeavour unique amongst the human sciences, that is to say a knowledge that is based upon the personal and continuous relationship forged between one particular individual and other particular individuals – knowledge that has emerged from a collection of circumstances which inevitably varies in each case but is, notwithstanding, perfectly legitimate. Yet the lay reader is almost always left in ignorance as to the conditions in which this knowledge was acquired” STs-p443.

LCs-p438

LCs-p438

”Unlike a sociologist, an ethnologist analysing a culture cannot rely upon a statistical apparatus capable of predicting the norm on the basis of the frequency of particular occurrences. Instead, he must rely on his own inferences, intuitively constructed from a cloud of partial observations and fragments of the discourse of a handful of individuals. Consequently, in this book, as in any such work, the singular constantly serves as a springboard for the universal”. STs-p404

Lances Crepuscule 436_A

”[…] The fact remains that they [those interpolations] were thought and written later, as are all ethnological monographs. That is the main reason why this book has something in common with a novel. Ethnologists are creators as well as chroniclers, and although the mores and remarks of the people whose lives they have shared are in general accurately reported and, so far as possible, correctly translated the way in which they present and interpret them is a personal matter”. STs-p401-402

LCs-p436

LCs-p436

”[…] On to that measure of truth are grafted two literary effects that ethnologists are bound to exploit, even if they are sometimes loath to admit it: that of composition, which selects from the continuity of lived experience particular clips of action which are reckoned to be more significant than others; and that of generalization, which invests these fragments of individual behaviour with a meaning that can in principle be extended to the entire culture under consideration”. STs-p402

Lances Crepuscule 439_B

LCs-p439

”[…] An ethnologist does not believe in immutable correspondences between words and things. His work cannot dissociate description from invention and, even if the latter does not necessarily imply falsity, what it produces is closer to likeness than to truth”. STs-p405

LCs-p439

LCs-p439

”To evoke this self-reflexive experience that all ethnologists live through is not to suggest that subjectivity is the best mode of learning. Rather, it is a way of emphasizing the obvious enough fact that the judgements we pass on the mores of others are largely determined, in life generally as well as in scholarship, by our own individual histories”. STs-p405

Phnom Penh, May 12, 2013, Emiko Stock.

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[1] I am myself essentializing here. While the rhetoric is indeed quite never questioned by mainstream medias and institutions (such as the KRT) – making it quite overwhelming – a couple of journalists-researchers friends are now looking into alternative ways to think memory in Cambodia. If you are interested to go further I strongly recommend Ashley Thompson’s dissertation as a starting point: “Mémoires du Cambodge”, Centre de recherche en études féminines, Université de Paris VIII, 1999, 538p

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