Michel Leiris and the Origin of Postmodernism
I. Framework: Poststructuralism, Postmodernism and Posthumanism
“My sense of posthumanism is thus analogous to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s paradoxical rendering of the postmodern: it comes both before and after humanism: before in the sense that it names the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technological world … But it comes after in the sense that posthumanism names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human [becomes] impossible to ignore …” (Wolf 2010:102-103)
Cary Wolf in the above quotation from her What is Posthumanism? (2010) evokes posthumanism, postmodernism and poststructuralism all at once without further deliberation on their relationships. This is a clarification I’m going to make now because it is crucial in establishing my central argument, the WWI origin of “post- isms”. With minimal understanding of all three concepts, I will closely follow her text.
The word Poststructuralism doesn’t appear in the above text, yet it is not only implied but also essential to the idea of posthumanism. “Embodiment” and “embeddedness” Wolf uses denote the structural nature of posthumanism: it is a trinity of humanism in its broadest sense with animal (“biological”), technicality (or materiality) as well as an humanism in a narrower sense. This trinity have never been outside humanity and they interact horizontally. But the emergence of posthumanism as a conscious and active movement is a vertical or an historical event when the animalistic and technological aspects of humanism become “impossible to ignore” – here, the introduction of history into structure in Wolf’s argument is poststructuralist through and through. A close re-inspection of this text also reveals its extraordinary resemblance to a central poststructuralist text from Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference, a text I will refer to again later in the essay:
“Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an ‘event’ … the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as …Western science and Western philosophy – and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language … Nevertheless, up to the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure – or rather the structurality of structure – although it has always been at work, has
always been neutralized or reduced …” (Derrida 1978: 351-352, emphasis is mine)
Derrida’s text begins with an “event” and ends with a structure that is “always been at work”. Wolf’s text twenty years later begins with structural “embeddiness” and ends with an “event”. The two texts have the same gist. Their difference is that of scale: in this particular essay Derrida devotes his attention to anthropology in general and Claude Levi-Strauss in particular in their contributions to the decentering practices; a revolt against ethnocentricism is the key. Cary Wolf’s text, in a way, is an expansion on these decentering practices from anti-ethnocentrism to anti-anthropocentrism.
As a theory, posthumanism is built on the structure of poststructuralism. As a set of practices, it is not only “analogous” to postmodernism but part of it. Cary Wolf doesn’t feel it necessary to make this connection explicitly, but her references to postmodernism throughout the book prove the point, such as in her discussions of films (Wolf 2010:2469), architecture (Wolf 2010:3024), , Kantian aesthetics (Wolf 2010:3069), and social system of art (Wolf 2010:3123), etc.
The above list also reveals postmodernism’s close relationship with art. This prompts me to sort out poststructuralism, posthumanism and postmodernism in a novel but systematic way. I will first present the following diagrams:
(Figure 1) Chronology of the Tripartite
poststructualism → postmodernism → posthumanism
(Figure 2) Different Emphases of the Tripartite
(Figure 3) Re-scaling (Reduction) of Posthumanism Issues to Postmodern Issues
Ethnographic other/ Nature / Artefacts
Self / Culture / Art
Figure 1 assumes there is a linear development of the tripartite, or to use a music or dance term with a beautiful double entendre, a “canonical” development – in music, a canon is “a contrapuntal musical composition in two or more voice parts in which the melody is imitated exactly and completely by the successively entering voices though not always at the same pitch and which either ends with a coda or begins over again” (Merriam-Webster); in dance, “certain dancers follow the patterns previously set by others who then change to new patterns” (ibid).
Figure 2 assumes what is new. Poststructuralism is essentially a theoretical concern born out of structuralist linguistics and branched into anthropology and then philosophy, as documented by Jacques Derrida (Derrida 1978:351-370). Postmodernism is a more daring and more diverse variation in which artistic endeavours are particularly favoured – and art, as we know, is something between “thinking” and “doing”. Finally, posthumanism is a return from aesthetic frivolities to serious concerns. But this time, ethical practices become as central as metaphysical theories.
Figures 3 concerns my current project. As I point out above, posthumanism is a far more ambitious project than either Poststructuralism and postmodernism. It is also a vague late development and not-very-well-defined field in which our intellectual and social activist pioneers are still testing the water, as our readings throughout the course could testify. But its central characters, I believe, are in line with poststructualism and postmodernism because they come from the same source. Those characters include an emphasis on textuality, the increasing importance of visuality, the ambiguous oppositions between self and others (in poststructuralism the other is non-Western populations while in posthumanism it is expanded to animals), the blurring boundaries between the high and low (art and artefacts, or Being and technological utility), the dynamic binarism of rationality and irrationality (or animality), the practices of decentering (across geography, history, species and metaphysics), etc..
The operations useful in grasping the essence of a vague posthumanism, thus, are: (I) to reduce it in scale from more cosmological concerns to more “ethnographic” or humanly concerns; (II) to rewind it from the age of ethics to the age of hobbyhorse aesthetics or armchair contemplations; (III) to trace the common origin(s) of poststructuralism, postmodernism and posthumanism.
As shown in figure 3, the particular operations I’m going to take are : (I) to trace the issue of animality in ethnographic other (or as we will see, also in ethnographic self) and artefacts while tracing technologicality in essential self and art – this operation is arbitrary (animality and technologicality are supposed to be on the same side against essentialism) but it is useful tentatively; (II) to focus on the concept of postmodernism which I believe is not only transitional but also a broader term that can be used to include both poststructualism and posthumanism; (III) to trace their common origin beyond 1960s, beyond WWII, to at least WWI, in particular, the Surrealist movement.
Instead of grand linear narrative, true to the postmodern spirit, I would like to focus on a very particular individual and a set of very particular text+images and follow a highly digressive or decentralized course/discourse that brings me to Europe, Africa, and Indonesia. The timeframe expands from the last fin-de-siecle to this fin-de-siecle. The individual in question is the French surrealistic writer and ethnographer Michel Leiris. The set of text+images refers to a 1936 magazine article with surrealist artist Man Ray’s photographs of African art/artefacts from the famous Mission Dakar-Djibouti (1931-33) with commentary written by Leiris.
Before embarking on my trip, first I need to return to Cary Wolf’ text to clarify two points.
II .Questions and Their Theoretical Implications
1. Three Origin Theories of Postmodernism
The term “posthumanism”, according to Wolf, appears in the humanities and social sciences during the mid-1990s (Wolf 2010:53). However, it is rooted in the emergence of poststructualism and postmodernism in the 1960s’. A text of particular importance is Foucault’s 1966 The Order of Things which concludes with man’s disappearance from history, “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (Foucault 1994:387). The historical reason of mid-1990s exuberance is not given, but I tentatively locate it in the age leading to neo-liberalism.
There is a second theory concerning the origin.
Let’s pay close attention to a particularly quotable Montaigne text from his Of Experience: “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things”. In 1966, it appears in the chapter II The Prose of the World section IV The Writing of Things of Foucault’s The Order of Things (Foucault 1994:40). In 1978, it appears again in the chapter X. Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science of Derrida’s Writing and Difference as introduction (Derrida 1978:278). The full quote, however, should be: “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things. We need more books about books than any other subject. The world is swarming with commentaries; of [original] authors there is a great scarcity” (Montaigne 2003:996). In the same essay, Montaigne also declares “I judge myself only by actual sensation, not by reasoning” (Montaigne 2003:1024).
The scepticism expressed in the Montaigne text and its emphasis on embodiment and sensations distinguish postmodernism, poststructualism and posthumanism, hence the popular quote. I don’t know what prompted Montaigne’s scepticism, but there is a peculiar theory concerning the neo-scepticism appearing in the post-WWII France. According to this theory (proposed by one of my mentors), which I’m highly intrigued but without access to evidences (hence my omission of the source), French intellectual establishment’s attempt at evading the responsibility of war-time appeasement or even collaboration with the Fascists accounts for relativism, anti-science sentiment, and Third-Worldism which is said to be a geographical deflection of the domestic guilt. In other words, neo-scepticism is in fact an immoral disguise.
I could not testify if this theory is right or wrong. But the Montaigne quote is as good to describe Foucault as to describe a much more senior member of the French intellectual establishment: the surrealist autobiographer, dream-recorder and ethnographer Michel Leiris who is from a post WWI age and from the Surrealist movement prosperous then. His writing also fits Cary Wolf’s aesthetics of posthumanism of “hybridity, perversity and irony” (Wolf 2010:56) more than perfectly. I’m thus proposing a possible WWI/Surrealist origin of postmodernism/posthumanism.
2. The Question of the Sublime
The question of Poststructuralism, postmodernism and posthumanism is the question of scale. The enriching in meaning of ethnographic other in theoretical and practical outreaching, the deepening of globalization and inter-connectedness of world system, and the technological translation between the nano and the meta all contribute to their development. Not surprisingly, the Kantian idea of the sublime, which is individual’s affective response to scale, is essential in “post-aesthetics”.
Here I would only briefly point out Wolf’s inadequacy in rendering this Kantian idea via the route of Lyotard: “The sublime … is a ‘feeling’ that marks the incommensurability of reason … and the singularity or particularity of the world and its objects … this [kind of essentialism] is a price we have to pay …” (Wolf 2010:3094-3095). My criticism are two-fold: first, the sublime is more than a rational political decision one chooses to pay or not – it occurs in the moment of great spontaneity; secondly and more importantly, the sublime is more than a result of horizontal/structural opposition between the finite self and the infinite world, it is sparkled by the temporal movements of personal or collective history, as we will see in the discussion of Michel Leiris.
With my framework set up and two focal points in hand, I would love to move on to the discussion of particular objects in uncovering the WWI origin of post-isms.
III. Objects: Man Ray’s Art, Michel Leiris’s Text, and Postmodernism
The simple cover photo of Wendy A. Grossman’s Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens (2009, figure 4) serves as a fitting departure point to manifold digressions. It also leads me to an hypothesis of the surrealist origin of postmodernism.
2. People, Places, Objects, Photographs and Texts
Shot in 1934 by the title artist, French surrealist Man Ray, the female figurine in the spotlight was collected in 1898 by German merchant, explorer and colonial agent Gustav Conrau in Cameroon. It represents an earth cult priestess known as twins mother “Bangwa Queen” whose ritual importance might be inferred from Marcel Griaule’s 1948 ethnography of Dogon mythology Conversations with Ogotemmeli. The ethnography was published more than a decade after Griaule’s initial contact with Dogon people in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti from 1931 to 1933. An album of the artefacts collected during the mission, however, were published by Cahiers d’art as early as 1936. Again shot by Man Ray in similar style to “Bangwa Queen”, those pictures were accompanied by Bois rituels des falaises, an essay by the surrealist writer Michel Leiris who began his career as an anthropologist in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti but who never revoked his literary vocations. Ray’s photos and Leiris’ essay were intended as ethnographical documents, but both of them have since become objects of art criticism, not unlike the African objects appeared in the photos.
3. Michel Leiris’ Text : the Sublime Reversed
Here is a passage from Leiris’ Bois rituels des falaise:
“ Among the Dogon … there is not, as in our industrial world, this divorce, this division (or better, this dispersion) of being and things in such a manner that, for better or worse, the work of art, cut off from its roots in immediate use, finds itself reduced, once it leaves the hands of its creator, to being only a diversion of aesthetes.” (Herbert 1998:183)
“Divorce”, “division”, “dispersion”, and “diversion”. Admittedly through the fog of translation, the poetic and emotional strength of Leiris’ writing can still be strongly detected.
The essay was written three year after the end of the mission in which a team of French intellectuals (ethnographers, artists, musicologists, linguistics) crossed the continent of Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea along the lower perimeter of the Sahara (Grinker 2010:285) and collected a huge amount of information and 3500 pieces of objects (Grossman 2009:114). Griaule and some other members on the team returned to the same region afterwards for further fieldwork. Leiris, however, besides writing occasional ethnographical comments such as Bois rituels des falaise, spent most of the subsequent years in Paris applying newly-acquired ethnographical methods to his writing of autobiography which was eventually published in 1939 as L’Age d’homme. Here is a typical passage from its English translation with an impossible title Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fiece Order of Virility (1963):
“In 1927, visiting Olympia during a trip to Greece, I could not resist the desire to offer a libation of a particular kind to the ruins of the Temple of Zeus. I remember that it was a beautiful, sunny day, that there were many sounds of insects, and that the air smelled of pine, and I still see the intimate offering flowing down the soft gray stone. I had the distinct sense … that I had offered a sacrifice, with all that this word implies of the mystical and the intoxicating” (Leiris 1992:30)
Susan Sontag, one of most prominent American Francophiles (and a friend of anthropology), observes in 1964 that the English translation is rather a puzzle: Michel Leiris was virtually unknown to American reading public – none of his some twenty books had been translated – but the book has no covering note and no author’s biography. What’s more, the translation doesn’t explain that the book was not a recent one but written three decades earlier (Sontag 1992:vii).
Sontag doesn’t offer an explicit solution to this puzzle. Instead, she immediately jumps to the comparison of autobiographical practices of Michel Leiris and Norman Mailer both of whom in their writings talk about their personal weakness in great details, such as undesirable appearances, sexual impotence, cowardness, and various indecent acts (Sontag 1992:xii). Had she paid the close attention to the passage quoted above, Sontag would have predicted Philip Roth who details his sessions of masturbation in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).
Literary anti-hero is what connects Michel Leiris to Norman Mailer or Philip Roth. Or what connects France in 1930s to America in 1960s. But Sontag also discovers their differences: While Mailer is boasting his personal failures as a prerequisite to literary and public success, Leiris is using literature as a psychoanalytic tool to get rid of literature, to return to “real life” which to a significant extent refers to his sexual life.
How do we position Africa in Leiris’ intellectual scheme? Is “Africa” literature or anti-literature to him? Is his fieldwork in Africa literature or anti-literature? Is his writing about Africa literature or anti-literature?
Leiris’ idea of African art, as indicated by the above quote from Bois rituels des falaise, is a union of utility and aesthetics. It’s easy to detect that this is also his ideal of art in general. Africa embodies the conflation of writing and practice: the antithesis of literature and anti-literature becomes synthesis.
His ethnographic trip to Africa also has double roles. It is anti-literature in that it is an escape from traditional literary order assigned to him by the French catholic society which he repeatedly shows his contempt. The “offering” of is semen on the Olympia mountain quoted above illustrates his longing for pre-Christian paganism in which he imagines that there is a union of body, materiality and spirituality. The same longing for primordial living inspired his African journey. It began with Jazz music which first appeared in Paris in 1916. Leiris was impressed by the frenzies of Jazz that “makes us regret … most contemporary performances”, that inspired “impassioned frankness we inarticulately longed for”, and that introduced the first public appearance of Negros, “the manifestation and the myth of black Eden which were to lead me to Africa and, beyond Africa, to ethnography.” (Leiris 1992:108)
Contradictorily, the African expedition is also thoroughly literary for him. In fact, it is not only an escape from European literary society, but also an escape from women, from his own body, and from chaotic metropolitan physicality exuberant in the city of Paris. 40 pages after the last quotes, Leiris in Manhood admits in great intimate details that what prompted his acceptation of invitation to Africa was his repeated sexual failures with various women:
“Coming out of this limbo, advised by my doctor and convinced myself that I needed a more strenuous life for a while, I seized the opportunity of making a long trip and went to Africa for almost two years, as a member of an ethnographical expedition.” (Leiris 1992:139).
It was two years’ high chastity until he “fell in love” with a local Ethiopian woman. But it is still a literary affair rather than a love affair, because he didn’t really have sex with her – he initiated the relationship because he found the woman “[correspond] to my double image of Lucrece and Judith [Roman and Jewish heroines respectively]” (Leiris 1992:140).
Leiris’ Africa and his trip to Africa are contradictory unions of literature and anti-literature. His writing on Africa possesses similar quality. British historian of photography Ian Walker compares Leiris’s anthropological writings, Bois rituels des falaise in particular, to his autobiographical practices – he finds a dialectic process.
Leiris learned from the African trip the value of “messy” field notes and tried to apply the method to the observation of his personal life. The result is a dense texture of long twisting sentences with multiple sub clauses curiously similar to the style of Marcel Proust who had never left Paris. In turn, he utilized those dense sentences occasionally in anthropological writings such as Bois rituels des falaise to “give a sense of deep connection in Dogon society between geography and social structure, everyday life and rituals” (Grossman 2009:115).
Walker notices in Bois rituels des falaise “shifts in tone and attitude between the cool accumulation of factual information and a passionate and indeed sometimes impenetrable poetic evocation” (Grossman 2009:115-116). He attributes the nuance to the double roles Leiris played: “The former is his response to an ethnographer, the latter as a creative writer and lapsed surrealist”.
However, the more important point might not be “horizontal” split between two somewhat oppositional identities, which is structural and synchronic. What decides the shifting in tone in the text, I believe, is Leiris’s sojourning in Africa and being away from this sojourning experiences – it is essentially temporal and diachronical.
Before we go further into Leiris’ change in tone in the text of Bois rituels des falaise, I would like to make a detour to the battlefield of Indonesia’s Atjeh region where the Dutch invaders were fighting the fierce local resistance. Our attention, again, is fixed on an album with the war-zone photographs shot by a Dutch photographer named Niuwenhuis. The companion text in the album was written by himself.
A shifting in tone is noticed: before the final victory came, facing tragic carnage and imminent death, Niuwenhuis kept calm and a syntopical view of the battlefield as if he was a total outsider to the event. But when the victory was achieved, his writing – which basically are the notes from his fieldwork – suddenly becomes excited with a great sense of elevation (Siegel 2011:84).
One interpretation of this change in tone, proposed by American anthropologist James T. Siegel in 2011, is that there is a uniquely Western sensibility of the sublime working in the situation. According to Kant, the sublime is a great feeling occurs when one has a narrow escape from death, and this is exactly what happened to Niuwenhuis when the Dutch triumphed (Siegel 2011:84).
However, Kant’s interpretation of the sublime is a “modern” one that accords to the general philosophy since the Enlightenment in which a Western sense of aggressive progress and triumph are assumed. On its basis, I would like to propose an exactly opposite version of the sublime which sheds light on what is called “postmodernism” in anthropology and philosophy but “modernism” in art and music. It also sheds light on Leiris’ change of tone in Bois rituels des falaise which intrigues us.
The modernist/postmodernist sense of the sublime, instead of a narrow escape or near failure, is provoked by a narrow survival or near success. In other words, death and failure, not life and success, become objects of desire or representation. This is intrinsically related to the aftermath of WWI with the collapse of Russian and Austrian empires. Not surprisingly, prominent attempts at creating new art form were often made by Russians, their expatriate community in Paris and Austrians.
Superficially there is a preference for order and mechanic beauty in the chaotic aftermath: geometric cubism reaches a high point in 1916; Sergei Prokofiev wrote his neo-classical Symphony No. 1 in 1918; Arnold Schoenberg devised strict method of twelve-tone composing technique in 1921; psychoanalytic movement – a rational attempt at the irrational – reached the pinnacle with the formation of The Committee 1922 under the leadership of Freud. But all those admirable quietude was probably only calm acceptance of what was inevitable. The intense silence is embodied in the photo” A heart-rendering group” depicting the 1927 reunion of severely mutilated veterans of WWI (figure 5).
The eruption of the defeatist beauty occurred as early as 1887 when a young Gustav Mahler turned the cheerful nursery song “Frère Jacques” into a prolonged but gorgeous funeral march in his Symphony No. 1 “Titan”. In 1893, a St. Petersburg’s audience were stunned by the death finale of Pyotr Iiyich Tchikovsky’s Symphony No.6. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was published in 1915 in which the hero Gregor Samsa was eventually crushed to death. Those earlier examples of passionate expressions of defeat, however, make great contrast to the ethnographic (and Parisian) coolness to human misery as in Surrealist art such as Luis Bunuel’s mock documentary Las hurdes: Tierra sin pan, or Leiris’ autobiographical Manhood which amounts to a detached description of trivial humiliations he had suffered.
Reversed sense of the sublime related to Mission Dakar-Djibouti Leiris participated six years ago explains this aesthetics of coolness. His personal failures in Paris very much proved a degeneratvie philosophy of history. The sublime feeling is produced – at least partially – by a gratifying sense of self-denying, because deep in his consciousness he knows that there are some people (Africans) in somewhere (Africa) that have been and still are producing original art with original beauty (African art). Continuing failures here and now justify the eternal triumph there and then – and that’s where and when his true self is still living in. This anthropological conflation of self with others is highly satisfying. There is a sense of immortality in the awareness of the spatial and temporal immensity of not just world but human world. The feeling is enhanced by the temporal proximity of “failure now” to “triumph then” when he wrote his autobiography immediately after he left Africa: he knows that he is still close to “there” and himself still close to “others”. This is the postmodern sublime.
The importance of the postmodern sublime lies in its ability to evoke self in other, often an individual self in collective other. This is ostensibly a spatial and discontinuous opposition between – in the Leiris case – a European self and an African other. But in essence it is also a temporal and continuous opposition between a primordial collectivity (as discovered in African ethnography) and an authentic individuality (as in art modernism). Their conflation is reflected in primitivism.
5. Cahiers d’arts
Two Dogon sculptures appeared in the 1936 issue of Cahiers d’art make an interesting comparison: the hermaphrodite rider has both his/her arms stretching overhead with two hands pointing to the sky (figure 6); the Dyougou Serou figurine, however, bury his face in his two hands.
“We mustn’t understand those two works in isolation”, Leiris says in Bois rituels des falaise: we must defer to native connoisseurs – for them, the gesture of the hermaphrodite is an attempt at connecting earth and sky, while Dyougou Serou buries his face because he is in shame (Grossman 2009:116).
Taken out of Leiris’ essay’s natural flow, this interpretation of those two artefacts hardly gives us more information than what is obvious to our own eyes, yet a slight familiarity with the French anthropology at the moment allows us to treat Leiris’ words with more seriousness: the “sky-pointing” explanation reminds us of Robert Hertz’s 1909 essay The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. The “shame” of Dyougou Serou, however, reminds us of Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli and Claude Levi-Strauss’s first major work, The Elementary Structure of Kinship System, published in the same year.
Hertz’s essay intends to explain why the preference for right-hand is universal. His conclusion is that a religious preference for the concept of right dictates this bodily function. In establishing his argument, Hertz follows a Durkehimian logicality: (I) Right hand’s preeminence is a social fact, not a biological fact; (II) There is a universal opposition between the sacred and profane; (III) The concept of right is always associated with the sacred while the left with the profane; (IV). Human body is the microsm of the universe and reflexive of cosmology; (V). The cosmological opposition between the right and the left is translated into the preeminence of the right hand.
In the essay, Hertz evokes biblical evidence to support the concept of the right’s sacredness: on the Judgement Day, God points out his right hand to the sky and left hand to the hell (Hertz 2009:96). This paragraph comes before Hertz links hands to right/left conceptual dichotomy, so it is circular logic. He obviously in the heat of writing forgot that the reason God uses his right hand to point at sky is that God is modeled after man. What interests us here is the comparison with Leiris’ interpretation of Dogon sacred figurine who points both his/her hand to the sky and who possesses two sexes – unlike God. There is an implied lack of religious and sexual dichotomy prevalent in the theories of mainstream French sociology/anthropology.
Hertz’s circular logic mentioned above went uncriticised even now as far as I know, although his assertion of the universality of conceptual preeminence of the right over the left had be proven wrong as early as 1930s when his fellow Durkheimian and Sinologist Marcel Granet pointed out that the concept of the left enjoys more prestigious position than the right in China (Granet 2007:41-49). The general oversight, for me, indicates the spell of Christian essentialism still looming over anthropology and other disciplines of social sciences. This essentialism is what Michel Leiris wanted to overcome decades ago.
The reason Dyougou Serou burying his face in hands in great shame is because he just had sex with his mother due to a lack of sexual partner. He is the first-born child of Mother Earth – in Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli, he is jackal the bastard child of Father Sky and Mother Earth. In that account, the jackal raped his mother because he wanted to get access to the secret of language (Griaule 2009:296). This detail of incest in mythology surpasses any saucy detail Michel Leiris provocatively wanted to share with us. In African mythology as represented by its visual arts, Leiris saw the deep meaning or great value he might have articulated himself.
Claude Levi-Strauss, Leiris’ colleague from Musée l’Homme articulated the mirroring relationship between primitive art and modern psyche in his Effective of Symbols. In the essay, Levi-Strauss finds that the private thoughts and fantasies of neurotic patients analyzed by psychoanalysts is an extension of mythology in modern society where myth has no public venue (Levi-Strauss 1963:186-204). In other words, Michel Leiris’s messy thoughts and personal life suddenly had mythological significance – and African art satisfactorily gave him much needed evidence. In African art, he finds the middle ground between the private and the public.
6. May Ray’s Photographs
Leiris’s text is often dense. May Ray’s photos, on the other hand, often look simple and transparent. In the 1936 issue of Cahier l’arts, there are in total eight photographs (Grossman 2009:117). Besides the hermaphrodite rider and Dyougou Serou, there are masks and locks. The combination of text and pictures looks like just another magazine article. But careful inspection of Bois rituels des falaise, as we did above, and Ray’s photo, sheds lights on something extraordinary.
The most unusual thing about Man Ray’s photos is its intensity despite its being still life. The Dogon objects are dramatically lit, often from the side. The background is complete dark, like the unlimited universe. The light travels across part of their surface to create rich contrast and texture feel.
The aesthetics demonstrated in those photos makes stark contrast with the claim Michel Leiris makes in Bois rituels des falaise that lookers should contextualize the objects to understand it. Decontextualization is exactly what Ray did to give those objects – and pictures – powerful appeal to unsuspecting magazine readers. But it fits very well with the style of Leiris’ intense text. It also strays away from the neutral lighting typical of most ethnographic photos of the time.
The deep focus and drama of Man Ray’s pictures reminds us of another passage from Robert Hertz’s The Preeminance of Left Hands:
“ … in the Indo-European domain, the community forms a closed circle, at the center of which is found the alter … where the gods descend and the graces shine … outside it stretches the vast night, limitless, lawless, full of impure seeds …at the periphery … the right shoulder turned towards the interior … on the one side, there is everything to hope for, on the other, everything to fear. The right is the inside … the left is outside.” (Hertz 2009:96)
Hertz’s text gives mystic and sentimental feel to objects. It also translates body into objects and then into space and finally into religion.
It is worthwhile here to make digression to Levi-Strauss’ 1958 essay Do Duel Organization Exist? from his Structural Anthropology. In it Levi-Strauss proposes what he calls the concentric dualism. As opposed to diametric dualism which is an opposition between two equal parts and which corresponds to restrict exchange, concentric dualism is the opposition between the periphery of a circle and its core. Levi-Strauss builds up his argument from native village arrangements, and then incorporates layers of ethnographic data on other aspects of native lives, finally reach a universal symbolism. Levi-Strauss, who is good at lifting small details from other people’s papers and then developing them to a full-scale thesis, doesn’t mention Hertz’s turn-of-the-century article but its influence is clearly there.
There are three key elements in the concentric dualism: (I) individuality as represented by the lonely core of the circle; (II) religiosity or sacredness of the individual – in a concentric village, the center is always sacred (and also reserved only for unmarried men); (III) the need for external space: unlike equal binary form in which the opposition is defined by two elements against each other, concentric dualism is defined by the space between the individual (the core) and the collective (the periphery), as well as the vast space beyond the circle.
If we return to Man Ray’s photos, we will find the African artefact in the center is not the only object in the picture – the dramatic lighting and darkness emphasize the space around it. Space is also an object that was photographed. His aesthetics highlights individuality, religiosity and spatial expansion crucial to the establishment of individuality and religiosity.
The objects in the pictures are decontextualized, but this act of decontexualization allows us to re-contextualize them with higher sense of sensitivity. What the object contextualizes, however, is not Africa but Europe – and anthropology, which is born with the heightened sense of individuality in the age of nation-state building, missionary work and colonial expansion. All those elements are embodied in Man Ray’s deceivingly simple photographs.
IV. Conclusion by Way of Two Vignettes
1. The Derrida Moment: Decentering and Postmodernism
Jacques Derrida deeply understands the connection between anthropology and new sensibility. In his 1967 essay Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science in which he pays tribute to anthropology and Levi-Strauss, Derrida advocates the decentering of the structure – in other words, the core of the concentric structure should leave the center and go outside the periphery to the “wildness”. He points out that this process of decentering is only possible with the advent of anthropology where we find “others”. It pushes the essentialist Western philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular back to deep history, turning a horizontal grid into a vertical pole. From one end of the pole, Europeans are able to trace back the origin of philosophy to proto-philosophy which is incest taboo discovered by anthropologists (in particular Levi-Strauss who in The Elementary Structure of Kinship System calls the incest taboo pivotal to the nature-culture division).
Derrida regrets in the article that anthropologists and philosophers still position them as objective observers and scientists. He calls for “play” as a way of decentering and getting rid of ethnocentrism. This article becomes one of the landmarks of postmodernism.
But if we look closed at the underlying intellectual milieu in France since last turn of the century, we find late 20th-century’s postmodernism in philosophy and early 20th-century’s modernism in art is closely associated. All the “play” Derrida advocates Michel Leiris had already done with his text and Man Ray with his photography, which appears perfectly together in the 1936 Cahier l’arts. Derrida’ – and other postmodernists’ – typical style of switching between a scientific and objective coolness and long-winding and intense reflexivity is already there in the change of tone of Leiris’ writing and the mystic contrast of Ray’s photos – and in the very nature of those African objects which at the same time denote a scientific other and an artistic self.
The question is whether Africa is really crucial to the whole postmodern project? Or is it just another “playground” or even mere metaphor?
- The Heidegger Moment: Richard Long in Africa
Three decades after Leiris left Africa, around the same time when Foucault and Derrida emerged on the European intellectual stage, British conceputal artist Richard Long began his African trips in the 1960s. Unlike Leiris who was seeking a human connection, Africans this time were completed left out. Long’s focus was the African landscape. The relationship in question is that between his solitary self and the World. What he was seeking is an Heideggerian Dasein in silence: he walked straight line, putting stones in order to experience the temporal dimension of Dasein (figure 7), and he walked in circle in order to experience the eternal and structural dimension of Dasein (figure 8). Leaving humanity aside, he consciously followed what Heidegger calls “poetically man dwells” (Valdes-Dapena 2012).
Is Richard Long’s art art? In concluding Letter on Humanism, Heidegger says:
“The thinking that is to come is no longer philosophy, because it thinks more originally than metaphysics … However … the thinking that is to come can no longer … become … absolute knowledge [but] its provisional essence. Thinking gathers language into simple sayings …” (Heidegger 1972:265)
In that sense, Richard Long was attempting at this kind of “simple sayings” and “provisional essence” in recreating an original artistic language. Posthumanism, following this interpretation, is not a process of denying humanism but a process of recreating humanism from scratch with materials old and new.
Posthumanists could walk with artists such as Richard Long in their exploration, just like earlier postmodernists walked with Surrealists such as Michel Leiris. On their way, they might meet one or two solitary Africans doing the same.
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