The Real Universal, No. 3 – Part 3

Then there are the failures of conceptualization and the argumentative inconsistencies. Here’s one:

Derrida’s theory of writing is incompatible with an ethics of alterity. Anyone going back to re-read Lévi-Strauss should stay on the lookout for his most characteristic move. Examples of this argumentative pattern abound, but one especially telling instance arrives early in Tristes Tropiques, when Lévi-Strauss launches his celebrated attack on travelers and travel writing. The ethnographer begins his travelogue by arguing that we require an anthropology of Western exoticism itself. Or perhaps we don’t require new knowledge; maybe it would be enough to adapt what we already know back to Germany and Britain and the US. This is to suggest that anthropology in its current form can already help us understand why some white people—and especially young white men—are drawn to the jungle and the desert. The backwoods adventure, the study-abroad program, the New Zealander’s OE—these are all tribal initiation rites, in which the European male passes into adulthood via some pointless act of disorientation, self-abuse, and pseudo-heroism. The temporary journey away from one’s society is how some people achieve status in that society, by returning home from their gap-year walkabout bearing diaries full of fabricated wisdom: “Lofty and lucrative are the ‘revelations’ which these young men draw from those enemies of Society—savages, snowbound peaks, bottomless caves, and impenetrable forests—which Society conspires to ennoble at the very moment at which it has robbed them of their power to harm.”[i] One is struck by how much Lévi-Strauss’s observations anticipate postcolonial theory in its vintage, Saidian form. Travel writing is an industry for producing transformative encounters with the non-West, routinized encounters with the Third World, manufactured sublimity that, despite promising fresh experience, nonetheless only ever discovers the same few human types and hyperborean pigeonholes. That argument about well-trodden paths is itself by now a well-trodden path, but the distinctive Lévi-Straussian touch is the idea that commercial and urban societies have never really given up on rites of passage, that expeditions in search of ceremony are themselves ceremonial; that the adventure tourist and bush-league neo-conquistador is, indeed, close to the indigenous people that he seeks out, just not in the way he thinks he’s close; that Westerners are most like tribal peoples when acting out their Orientalism. A properly structuralist account of writing, then, would have to reason in this manner, arguing perhaps that indigenous people are quicker than others to comprehend the politics of literacy, because even before they have ever seen a book, they understand the capacity of marks to confer power, whereas scholarly people who live in and around written language are more likely to be duped by its content—all that information! Indigenous people are obviously well positioned to recognize the survival of non-civilizational social forms within putatively civilizational ones, and what they might therefore say about literacy is that when young Westerners document their travels in Bolivia or the Thai hill country, they are trying to absorb indigenous life by representing it—that’s an argument that Lévi-Strauss himself really does make. Western travel writing is a species of “black magic,” and this will be easier to spot if you already know a lot about magic, if you’re an anthropologist, I mean, or if you’re Azande.

This is all to say that Lévi-Strauss, no less than Derrida, posits a continuity between the practices of non-literate and literate peoples. “These customs are very much closer to our own that they appear.”[ii] In the aggregate, structuralism’s continual rediscovery of indigenous ways among Europeans amounts to a Big Argument, which is that we never really break away from pensée sauvage, that wild thinking is a permanent part of cognition. If I say again that all peoples are semiotic peoples, then I am saying that the content of any particular system of classifications is less important than the simple fact of system itself, that it is the ability to generate conceptual distinctions—to code the world in language—that makes society possible at all. Semiosis is the ability to organize human groups around basically fictional or at least contingent distinctions. But then to the extent that all societies do this, they are all sauvage—all premised on myth and taxonomy and the classifications that analogy makes possible.

Here, then, are some key points that Derrida and Lévi-Strauss agree upon: First, that indigenous people make marks, and that some of those marks resemble script.[iii] Second, that even the people we call native live at a permanent and unbridgeable remove from nature. On the terrain of this concurrence, one question remains at issue: whether we are going to assimilate so-called civilized societies to their stateless counterparts, by arguing that even Westerners &c. have indigenous minds, or whether we are going to assimilate indigenous people to the West by arguing that even uncolonized Indians have writing. The choice between Lévi-Strauss and Derrida is thus a choice between a universalism-of-the-other and a universalism of the self. You might have taken Derrida to be arguing that “Western thought” has always been locked into a certain structure; that it is “poisoned by metaphysics”; that it might nonetheless be possible to think outside of the West if we could patiently wean ourselves off those metaphysics; that until we do so, we will tend recklessly to project Western categories upon everything we see and fatefully upon the non-West.[iv] It is precisely if you are convinced that Derrida is right about this last that you would have to reject the Derridean category of “writing,” which is more egregiously Occidentalist than “presence” or “spirit” or any other philosopheme that deconstruction raises its crowbar against. There are in the end good reasons for thinking that writing engenders non-identity, and yet the indiscriminate argument-to-écriture is the most identitarian device in all of deconstruction. Alterity is nullified when the well-read ego can envision its others only with books in their hands.

[i] Ibid., p. 42

[ii] Savage Mind, p. 209.

[iii] I should note: There’s simply no way that Lévi-Strass thinks that native Americans were altogether without writing. At one point in Tristes Tropiques, p. 246, he mentions three pre-Colombian societies, the Hopewell, the Chavin, the Olmec, and then makes the following remark: “In all three cases, we are faced with an art that is cursive, free, supple, and marked by an intellectual delight in double meanings (in Hopewell, as in Chavin, certain motifs bear one meaning when read normally, and quite another when read upside-down).”

[iv] Derrida qtd in Peeters biography, p. 180.

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