RSS Feed

Posts Tagged ‘dualism’

  1. Treading the Dualistic Universe

    June 23, 2012 by Fan


    Treading the Dualistic Universe

    -        A Critique of the Critique of Development Discourse

    Fan Zhang

          This paper intends to lay out a blueprint for a critique of the anthropological critique of development. It is also an attempt at a new style of academic writing pertaining to Foucauldian concepts treasured by contemporary anthropologists in the English-speaking world.


          In one revealing moment in the documentary Milking the Rhino (2009), the European manager of a Namibia lodge demands local villagers not to peddle their wares when the Western tourists visit. “They want to see authentic African life”, she explains. “But this is authentic – this is what they really want to do”, her local interlocutor argues in vain.

    A fundamental pair of dualistic oppositions in social life is disclosed upon careful inspection on the above summary: culture and economy. Endless spin-offs of this dualism can be played out in anthropology’s fantastic binary universe. For the purpose of this succinct essay (and by essay, I mean essai that is more than a thesis1), I will only select a few pairs serving as an index or a map threading developmental ideas into anthropology’s discourse of dualism:


    culture: economy

    nature: culture

    the rest: the West

    culture as nature: culture as culture

    authenticity: inauthenticity

    non-participation: participation

    to be looked at: look at

    symbolism: materiality

    art: everyday life

    multi-sited: single-sited

    world: local

    national: regional

    anthropology: history

    knowledge: power

    French school: British school


    (essay/essai: thesis)


    The relation between the last two pairs and proceeding oppositions is the most obscure but fundamental. The puzzle will be solved in the end of this paper. It’s sufficient to say here that this dualistic universe contains anthropological fields, developmental discourse, critiques of this discourse, and anthropological theory in general. The scope of this paper, thus, will slightly go beyond a critique of developmental discourse into a critique of this critique.


         Let’s begin with the first pair, culture versus economy.

    The mechanism of the Namibian project is conservation by tourism with the participation and empowerment of local community. Participatory development is its philosophy. Eco-tourism inevitably leads to Western tourists’ encounter with and interest in not only Namibia’s natural landscape but also its human landscape, or “culture”. Culture is thus seen, consciously or unconsciously, as part of local ecology.

    The participatory value for local people, on the other hand, is that they can benefit financially from eco-tourism. It is assumed – by the European lodge manager at least – that this will sufficiently compensate local population’s loss in stopping hunting wild animals. But reality doesn’t just stop at assumed sufficiency: local people will use all their ingenuity to advance their own financial interests when opportunities present themselves – they want to peddle their wares.

    The manager’s displeasure demonstrates that local people’s economic candour is seen out of participatory development’s project control. The direct logic of this need for cultural authenticity can be explained as such: since the pristine quality of local ecology is the mandate – tourists are here to look at not to change nature –  by logical extension without need for further articulation, the pristine quality of local “culture” is a given. Understandably it will be upsetting if the visitors realize that they have changed local people’s way of life. This awareness, in turn, will threaten to give tourists the impression that they might have changed the pristine nature as well.

    In other words, there are two types of culture according to this direct logic: Western visitors who come here to look belong to a culture outside nature, while non-Western residents who are here to be looked at belong to a culture that is within a nature that should be controlled or conserved.


          The underlying logic of the need for authenticity mentioned above, however, must be traced in history. As Professor Tania Li points out in The Will to Improve, contemporary development interventions’ constant concerns for authenticity are in fact continuous with earlier colonial powers’ strategy of governing through supposedly customary communities (Li 2007:675). Cultural traditions, in a way, are artificial constructs useful for political control. In other words, participatory development could be a form of indirect rule. The locals don’t have the power to participate equally and fully.

    But it is useful to remember that this assessment of participatory development is based on the observation of a “still” in an unfinished and unfinishable motion picture: it is neither the full picture nor the full story. A lot of nuances and changes must be allowed. It is also important to look at a “community” issue beyond local setting on national and global levels. Fred Meyer’s analysis of Australian aboriginal paintings’ proliferation, which I will relate in relative details, gives us a good example.




    The art-world boom of Oceania aboriginal painting since 1980s created rapid development of an indigenous art industry. There are admirers and distracters from different camps (Meyer 1995:45).

    For admires, native art’s abstract character is pleasing to modern Western sensibility. New Age spiritualism embraces its assumed “holism” or “totality”. Do-gooders make a point of supporting native rights by purchasing native art.

    For detractors, aesthetically the industrial proliferation of aboriginal art deprives its “power of strangeness”; politically it is a form of soft neo-colonialism in a world of unbalanced power-relations (Meyer 1995:70-76).

    On the national level, Australian government eagerly supports aboriginal art in a campaign to create cultural identity of a fully Oceania state as opposed to a former British colony (ibid).

    Meyer presents with approval many detractors’ opinions – some of them are his colleagues in anthropology, particularly those specialized in post-colonialism and post-development. In defence of the admirers, however, he points out that local population, in catering to international tastes, moral obligations and national agendas, not only benefit financially from the sales but also take the chance to revive traditional narratives such as mythologies and beliefs (Meyer 1995:86).

    More importantly, the new “traditional” native art, as an object allowing multi-sited appropriations, is absorbed by and transformed by – and is absorbing and transforming – different discourses across the globe. The concreteness of its materiality is inseparable from the vaporous ambiguity of its symbolism and affects this ambiguity is able to inspire. It is not a fixed thing but a process the meaning of which is in constant production. It connects “no man’s land” between various territories and traditions. It hangs on in world history, waiting for meaning-creation: an American buyer of native acrylic paintings might be accused by moral essentialists of superficial either in artistic taste or moral imperative, but this act of buying might well be the gateway to much deeper connections.




    In treating travelling and objectified art, we see look at and to be looked at are not necessarily excluding each other. We see materiality and symbolism embodies each other. We also see in elevating single-sited analysis to mutli-sites (Marcus 2007:1139), layers of dynamic meanings could be evacuated.

    But what about local people who live an everyday life and who are not obviously part of global spatial transition as high art and artists are? Do they have the power to “look back”? Does it matter if they do look back?

    Professor Tania Li in her study of local compromise in Indonesia and Anna Tsing in her study of  Meratus participation in “green” development offer relatively different answers. Professor Li concludes that local people’s (cynical) understanding of power relations in their everyday life could enforce the hegemony and could be taken advantage by those who are in the power (Li 1999:295-322). Tsing, on the other hand, is more optimistic: with the right leadership stance, it becomes possible to enter into collaborative projects for truly successful local advocacy (Tsing 1999:201).

    What accounts for the difference? We might look beyond similar developmental discourses at different oppositions to local actors. In Professor Li’s article, the other side is national governments throughout recent Indonesian history. In Tsing’s article, however, the other side is mainly NGOs.

    Here emerges the question of scale. Anthropology is traditionally the study of small communities. It takes care of “people without history” (Eric Wolf). Contemporary anthropology, however, inevitably encounters nation-states and historiography. Is there any possibility of an at least partial convergence of the scholarly discipline of anthropology and history? Professor Li in her study of communities fully incorporates national history. In fact, her study is part of Indonesian national history. So is Tsing’s exuberant In the Realm of Diamond Queen in which she, like an historian, gives name to the Meratus people and introduce them into Indonesia’s national consciousness (Tsing 1993:9, 300-301). If we take one step higher in scope and put anthropology at the service of the study of world history – a concept that has been instrumental in forming anthropology via Kant, Hegel, Karl Marx, Max Weber and a tragically lesser-known Arnold Toynbee, a concept more or less re-incarnated as a less original concept of world system, we may use treat national culture as a type of local culture and put the former firmly within the scope of anthropology. This is something this brave new world is looking for when professional historians are busy with miniatures and when political scientists such as Samuel Huntington keep producing coarse ideologies.

    One might argue that “national community” doesn’t exist – it amounts to nationalism at best (or at worst) – there are always various local communities that are ignored or oppressed by nation-states. But as Professor Cohen points out in the class, to begin with local “community” is also more or less a myth, a social construct serving particular needs.

    To get out of an argumentative mood, I will simply point out that this is only an analytic tool not without significance. In critiquing development discourses, we have been limiting our discussion mainly on aid-based development projects and on the post-WWII era. But as Escobar admits, the point of this periodization is not necessarily about new ideas or new objects, but about a new system of relations, or “discourse” (Escobar 1997:86). It is thus beneficial to look back at pre-WWII modernization across the world in order to truly understand the strength and weakness of postwar development discourse while at the same time look ahead. The most salient case for the former is Japan. The most salient case for the latter is China. Japan’s development is not a failure: it manages to achieve industrialization without giving up cultural traditions. Its history has been studied by anthropologists from Ruth Benedict to Dorinne Kondo. The lessons learned are not irrelevant to other parts of the world. The lesson can also be learned from newly emergent economies such as China, which at this very moment holds both symbolic and material significances to Africa and beyond (Moyo 2012:2019).

    Those facts haven’t escaped James Ferguson, hence his rejection of being labelled as a “post-development anthropologist”: “The claim that ‘development’ is over would surely sound strange to many people in … China, who … take [developmental] promises very seriously … not without reason.” (Ferguson 2006:2238)

    Ferguson’s voice is meek (“not without”). By comparison, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, who stays firmly within the development discourse, has the guts to say “let’s get rid of aid-based development model from the West; let’s learn from the Chinese” (Moyo 2009:1935).

    The fundamental difference between Ferguson, an anthropologist specialized in Zambia, and Moyo, an economist from Zambia, is that the latter believes in a strong nation-state while the former advocates relative benefits of a weak state (Ferguson 2006:2559). There is a clear anarchist undertone in his writing, which is in line with anthropology’s post-War II trend of moving away from co-operation with or participation in governmental affairs (Mead 1973:11).



    It’s high time to introduce the dynamic dualism of power/knowledge – instrumental in understanding our course materials – into the understanding of history of anthropological thoughts and our particular critique itself. The very fact that Anglo-American school of anthropologist have been ambivalent about their roles with regard to authority and government (ibid) decides their interest in concepts dealing with governmentality. It will be otherwise unfathomable that Michel Foucault, a philosophical historian (and not a very rigorous one according more specialized historians) whose primary concerns had been European modernity and state-building becomes the chief inspiration for Anglo-American anthropologists, although previous cosiness with Claude Levi-Strauss in the British functionalist school had setting up the stage for “detemporazation” (Ferguson 2006:2365).

    If we look back at our list of dualisms which in its discursive way brought out a discourse of anthropological study of development, not just a discourse of development, we will notice terms on the right side (materiality, economy, participation, single-site, everyday life)  can often characterize the British school, while terms on the left side (symbolism, “culture” in small c, high art2 , arm-chair approach to the field) often characterize the French school. It is between those two schools that modern anthropology in general and discussions on development in particular struggle. It can also be characterized as a kind of ambivalence caused by a need for action and a need for reflection. I don’t believe anthropology has found it, considering how irrelevant it is to the general public3. African development was one of the key topics on last year’s Munk Debate on China attended by thousands of enthusiastic listeners and broadcasted live across the globe. The economists Dambisa Moyo and Li Daokui,  the historian Niall Ferguson, the journalist Fareed Zakaria, the statesman Henry Kissinger and Bill Cohen were invited to give speeches. It would be nice if they have invited at least one anthropologist.




    A last word on the style of this very short paper, which is as important as its contents: the adoption of Foucauldian concept of discourse and the Deleuzian non-linear “rhizomian” thinking in anthropology (Ferguson 2006:2365) should have changed the highly linear and hierarchical academic style of anthropological writings in this milieu. But aside from Daniel Miller whose ethnography The Comfort of Things takes the discursive route (and since becomes a best-seller), essay in its original form (essai) still seems to be forbidding. Are we holding on to our own essentialist high-ground so as not to be criticized by others? I’m one of the others and this paper is a timid attempt at difference.

    The object of this paper is both development discourse and its critique. The discourse of this critique of the critique of development discourse is anthropology’s dualistic universe. This discourse can be historicized and critiqued, but that’s another story altogether4.






    1. 1.     Modern acadmic use of the word “essay” is an abuse of its original meaning given by Michel Montaigne. Contemporary anthropology in the English-speaking world tries to immulate French school’s postmodern concepts, but fails to grasp its substance which happens to be its style. A brief treatment of the subject can be found in Michel Foucault the Anthropologist, my response blog writtern in Professor Naisargi Dave’s Posthuman Anthropology class:
    2. European paintings repeatedly serve as departure points for Foucault while Levi-Struass begins and ends his magnum opus Mythologique with anaylysis of classical music.
    3. Copies of an The Economist commentary on the need for anthropologists on Wall Street, such as Gillian Tett, were posted across the third floor of the Anthropology Building last year.
    4. A treatment of this subject, based on this short paper, is forthcoming. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ concept of concentric dualism as opposed to diametric dualism serves as conceptual guideline. The argument will be made on the concentric nature of imbalanced dualism as seen in local communities versus either NGOs or nation-states. The ongoing transition from a sacred discourse (eg. Christianity) to a secular one (eg. nation-states and NGOs) with a consistent languague of moral imperatives (either on developmental terms or human-rights terms) is the key narrative. The philosophical treatment of the subject can be found in my paper on Levi-Strauss written under Professor Gillian Gillison.







    Escobar, Arturo

    1997. The making and unmaking of the third world through development. In The post-development reader. eds. Victoria Bawtree, Majid Rahnema, 85-93. Cape Town: David Philip.


    Ferguson, James

    2006. Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham: Duke University Press. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Li, Tania Murray

    1999. Compromising power: Development, culture, and rule in Indonesia. Cultural Anthropology 14, (3) (Aug): 295-322.


    Li, Tania Murray

    2007. The Will to Improve. Durham: Duke University Press. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Marcus, George E.

    2007. Ethnography Two Decades after Writing Culture: From the Experimental to the Baroque. Anthropological Quarterly 80(4): pp.1125-1145.


    Mead, Margaret

    1973. Changing Styles of Anthropological Work. In Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 2. Re-published in digital format on Kindle Fire. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Moyo, Dambisa

    2009. Dead Aid: why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Moyo, Dambisa

    2012. Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World. New York: Basic Books. [Kindle Fire edition]: The in-text citations of this book refer to locations in its Kindle Fire editon.


    Myers, Fred

    1995. Representing Culture: the Production of Discourse(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic Paintings. In G. Marcus and F. Myers eds., The Traffic in Culture. Berkeley: University of California U. Press, pp.64-91.


    Tsing, Anna L.

    1993. In the Realm of Diamond Queen. Princeton: Princeton Univesity Press.


    Tsing, Anna L.

    1999. Becoming a Tribal Elder, and Other Green Development Fantasies. In Transforming the Indonesian Uplands. Tania M. Li, ed. 159- 201.


    Zhang, Fan

    2012. On the Same Levels: A comparison of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Do Dual Organization Exist? and The Story of Asdiwal Accessed on June 22, 2012.





























  2. On the Same Levels – – A comparison of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Do Dual Organization Exist? and The Story of Asdiwal

    January 9, 2012 by Fan


    Acknowledgement: This paper is supervised by Professor Gillian Gillison of University of Toronto in her Claude Levi-Strauss and Postmodernism course. I’m grateful to her fierce but always insightful criticisms. She is probably one of the few contemporary academics who are not only scholars but also thinkers.


          Claude Levi-Strauss published his study of the Asdiwal story in 1963, seven years after his Structural Anthropology. It is considered his first great success in the analysis of myth (Levi-Strauss 1967:1). How this study of myth relates to his theory of social structure is too big a question for this paper. What this author sets out to do is to compare his Do Dual Organizations Exist?, a chapter in Structural Anthropology, with The Story of Asdiwal with the intention of finding wider implications.



          Anomalies and contradictions in dual structures are the focuses of Levi-Strauss’ Do Dual Organizations Exist?. He differentiates two types of dual structures in the paper: diametric structure and concentric structure (Levi-Strauss 1963:135). The two terms are based on Levi-Strauss’ observation of geometric arrangements of native villages. Their implications, however, extend to every aspect of native social structures including two types of reciprocity, restricted exchange and generalized exchange (Levi-Strauss 1963:150). Diametric structure can be observed in equal division of villages, as in the cases of Sioux tribes and Ge tribes (Levi-Strauss 1963:135-136). Concentric structure can be observed in unequal division – that between the center and the periphery – of villages, as in the case of Omarakana (Levi-Strauss 1963:136). The most noteworthy structures, however, are those with ambiguous features.

          Levi-Strauss analyzes a Bororo village extensively in the paper. He brings up two anomalies in its structure. The first anomaly is the sudden change in the sequence of huts belonging to three different classes along the east-west axis, which divides the village into the Chera moiety in the south and Tugare moiety in the north (Levi-Strauss 1963:141). In the Paivoe, the easternmost clan of the Chera moiety, it begins with the upper class hut and proceeds with the middle and lower classes. The subsequent Apiboregue Clan, Aroroe Clan and Ivuaguddudogue Clan follow the same pattern. The moiety reaches its westernmost end in the Ivuaguddudogue Clan. Here the Tugera moiety begins. However, instead of continuing the upper-middle-lower class arrangement, the first hut of the westernmost Baddogeba Xebeguiugue Clan belongs to the lower class. It is followed by the middle and upper class huts. This pattern is repeated in the subsequent Quie Clan, Bocodori Clan and Baddogeba Xobuguigugue Clan until the last upper class hut which is adjacent to the very first hut of the Chera moiety. Two upper-class huts stand side by side here (ibid).

          The second anomaly involves the disposition of privileged clans. In each moiety, there are two superior clans representing two mythological heroes respectively. The two heroes are the eastern guardian Itubori and the western guardian Bakororo (Levi-Strauss 1963:145). In the southern Chera moiety, the Paivoe Clan in the east end represents Itubori and the Ivuaguddudogue Clan in the west end represents Bakororo. Their positioning in the extremities apparently emphasizes the two cultural heroes’ directional functions (ibid). However, in the northern moiety of Tugara, eastern guardian Itubori is represented by the Bocodori Clan which is on the north end instead of the east end. Similarly, the west guardian Bakororo is represented by the northern Quie Clan instead of Baddogeba Xebeguiugue Clan in the west end. Unlike Chera moiety where the two privileged clans oppose each other in maximal distance, Tugara’s guardian gods stand next to each other.

          These two anomalies are not the same in nature. The first is that of discontinuity. The second is that of asymmetry.

          The discontinuity in hut sequence of different classes, the first anomaly, is only abnormal when we treat the village arrangement purely as a concentric one. If so, the huts on the periphery of the concentric structure should have been arranged orderly in a full circle. In that case, after the last hut of the Ivuaguddudogue Clan on the east, which by rule is a lower class hut, the first hut of the Baddogeba Xebeguiugue Clan has to be an upper class one, which is not the case. In reality, the continuity is broken along the east-west axis, but this discontinuity allows symmetry along the east-west line. Without the discontinuity, the hut on the two sides of the axis will be uneven. Discontinuity validates the east-west axis.

          The second anomaly is only abnormal when we treat the village arrangement purely as a diametric one. Only in a diametric structure divided by the east-west axis, would it be a  requirement for the prestige clans of both moieties to be symmetrically on both ends of the east-west axis. The fact that two neighboring northern clans of the Tugara moiety enjoy privileged positions undermines the diametric nature of the Bororo village. This asymmetry, however, allows continuity intrinsic to a concentric structure.

          One observation is that the concentric core where the men’s house and dance platform are located is right above the middle point between the privileged Quie Clan and Bocodori Clan. This middle point on the north end can be viewed as the shadow point of the concentric core. In turn, it forms a triangle with the east and west points. If the guardian deities Itubori and Bakororo are the polar oppositions in the diametric scheme, they stand side by side on this point. The are unified here. It is a transition from antithesis to synthesis. It serves as a mediating point between the western point and eastern point.

          This continuity, however, is achieved in the names of mythological characters. It is Itubori (the guardian of the east) and Bakororo (the guardian of the west) who carry the duty of continuity. This continuity, thus, is sacred in nature. This observation corresponds to the assumption that the northern point on the periphery between the Quie Clan and Bocodori Clan is the shadow point of the concentric core.

          A more dynamic way of looking at this point is to treat it as an empty point which breaks the continuity of the circle. In other works, the point is now in the core. It breaks away from the group and becomes an individual.

          This empty point breaks the circle. It also puts the circle at the risk of becoming a straight line by creating two ends and having them swing towards both sides. If we connect the two ends with the point above the line, we have a triangle.

          What’s the underlying reason for two different anomalies existing at the same time? According to Levi-Strauss, there is a necessary kind of ambivalence in the mind of Bororo villagers. With the abnormalities in continuity and symmetry, the two moieties are able to “conceive themselves, regularly or occasionally, as being one central and the other peripheral” (Levi-Strauss 1963:146) and in turn to create ambiguity between the sacred and the magic (ibid), or the sacred and the profane.






          In the Bororo case, the conflicts between concentric and diametric structures are subtle and most detectable in the village layout. In Eastern Timbira as studied by Curt Nimuendaju, however, the juxtapositions of the two kinds are often explicit and can be more easily detected on different levels of social structures including marriage rules, lineages, division of labor as well as village layout. The inherent ternary structures are also more pronounced.

          There are four different types of moieties in Eastern Timbira. The first type consists of two matrilineal exogamous moieties with the names of East and West (Levi-Strauss 1963:147). Their relationship is only superficially equal or diametric. In reality, the East is at the same time east and center while the West is at the same time west and peripheral (Levi-Strauss:149). In other words,  they are both concentric and diametric. The second type of moiety concerns patronymic classes. While for women it is a diametric dualism as expressed in the fact of two female groups, for men it is a mixture of dualism and triadism as expressed in the fact of six male groups (Levi-Strauss 1963:148). Both women and men can be alternatively divided into two parts according to their patronymic names: “people of the plaza” and “people from without”, in other words, a concentric dualism of the centre and the peripheral. In the third type of moiety, the male “people of the plaza’ are further divided into six groups, which again implies a mixture of dualism and triadism. These six groups are also explicitly classified into two larger groups with the names of “East” and “West”. This again implies a mixture of diametric and concentric dualisms (Levi-Strauss 1963:147-148).

          It’s worthwhile to emphasize the fact that the ambiguity of dual organizations in Eastern Timbira is expresses on different levels of social structure. Levi-Strauss makes a list of key pairs of opposition in Eastern Timbira (Levi-Strauss 1963:148). If the first pair between East and West is still ostensibly a spatial one, the second pair of Sun and Moon is a cosmological one. So is the third pair Day and Night, which can also been seen as a temporal one in a shorter cycle. The fourth pair of Dry season and Rainy season is temporal in a longer cycle, but it is also cosmologic and economic. The fifth pair of Fire and Firewood is peculiar: it can be viewed as a cosmological one, considering the association of fire with Sun and other cosmological phenomena. It can also be viewed as an economic one, considering both fire and firewood are associated with economic activities. The six pair of Earth and Water is a geographical one, but it can also be seen as a cosmological one in small-scale oscillation. If we treat both earth and water as materials, we have a technological pair which is at the same time opposite– earth is solid while water is fluid – and cooperative in that the making of pottery requires both earth and water. This leads to the last pair of Red color and Black color, which can be seen on a purely symbolic or aesthetic level.



        We conclude the Bororo case with the opposition between the sacred and the profane. Can we view a more diversified Eastern Timbira case in the same light? We could benefit from Levi-Strauss’ analysis of Omarakana village, the purest form of concentric structure.

          What distinguishes Malinowski’s Omarakana village, the first example of concentric structure Levi-Strauss uses, is its simplicity as well as its integrality and its explicitness in unequal oppositions. This last quality is particularly true with regards to the unequal gender opposition.

          Levi-Strauss uses the word “striking” to describe Omarakana villages’ layout and blames Malinowski for overlooking such a noticeable feature (Levi-Strauss 1963:136). It is a concentric structure devoid of complexities as seen in the Indonesian, Bororo and the Eastern Timbira cases. An Omarakana village is organized in a circular way with the division of the centre and the periphery. The centre is the plaza. The plaza is surrounded by the inner ring which is composed of yam storehouses and bachelors’ huts. Women and families live in the outer ring (Levi-Strauss 1963:137).

          The connection of this spatial organization to the village’s economic, social and ceremonial activities is unambiguous. The central plaza is the scene of public and festive life. The storehouses in the inner ring only allow the storage of raw yams. Men’s houses in the same ring are for bachelors only. The domestic scene, cooking, married couples and women are assigned to the outer ring.

          The symbolic meaning of this arrangement is explicit for Levi-Strauss. The fundamental opposition is that between the sacred and the profane. Unlike the oppositions in a diametric form, this opposition is asymmetric. Actual contents associated with this fundamental opposition is unequal. The sacred core is public, raw, male, and celibate. The profane periphery set is domestic, cooked, female, and conjugal.

          We may isolate from this observation two facts the fundamental nature of which is closer to that between the sacred and the profane than other kinds of opposition. This observation would in turn allow us to grasp more important characteristics of Eastern Timbira and other cases. The two facts are the opposition between male and female, and the role of marriage. Those two facts are obviously important in that they allow procreation and in turn extend an individual’s biological existence. They also force an individual community, such as a village or a clan, to move towards a greater collectivity, as we can see in the Baduj case.




          The dual structures of Omarakana, Bororo and Eastern Timbira, whether they are purely diametric, purely concentric, or a mixture of the two, are analyzed entirely on the village level by Levi-Strauss. Indonesia’s Baduj is different.

          Ostensibly, in a Baduj village, there is a kind of concentric dualism functioning in a similar way to that of an Omarakana village. The village is also divided into an inner and sacred part and an outer and profane part. But their actual contents are not elemental but aggregating. If the asymmetric dualism in an Omarakana village is represented by the masculine in the core and the feminine in the peripheral, the asymmetric dualism in a Baduj village is expressed by different groups in the kinship system. This is not a function of demographic components within a village, such as males versus females, but the consequence of an exogamous marriage system the geographical range of which is far beyond villages (Levi-Strauss 1963:138). The superiority of members of the core group comes from their roles as “bride-givers” in the kinship system, and the inferiority of members of the peripheral group comes from their roles as “bride-takers”. In other words, the hierarchical physical layout of a village is used to signify an unbalanced roles in marriage system. This inevitably signifies the difference between  “insiders, or “self” in collective terms, and outsiders, or “other” in collective terms. The differentiation of self and others signifies a wide geographical range.

          Concentric hierarchy related to marriage can be detected in a Baduj village. In fact, it can also be detected in Omarakana where the concentric structure is purer. Omarakana’s concentric village is divided by two rings into three sections. The first ring is chief’s matrilineal clan while the second the chief’s wives and the third commoners. The commoners are further divided into the locals who own the land and the outsiders who don’t (Levi-Strauss 1963:138).

          In the southeast Asia region, marriage rule is one of the most important agencies that carry the structure. Both in Java and Sumatra, there exists the opposition between “relative of the bid” and “relative of the overbid”.

          The Chinese example Levi-Strauss uses here is somewhat puzzling. He is obviously aware of the etymology of the words of “t’ang” and “piao”, something I doubt most of his non-Chinese readers know. His failure to explain those two terms is bewildering. In fact, even native Chinese speakers are in general not aware of the obscure origin of those two kinship terms: the former has its roots in “the internal (of a house)” and latter “the external”. How the etymology corresponds to “relatives of the bid” and “relatives of the overbid”  or “bride-givers” and “bride-takers” is never made clear. Asymmetric cross-cousin marriage – of which the matrilateral kind is preferred – has never been a norm in China throughout the recorded history in the past 2500 years despite Levi-Strauss’ extensive quotes from Francis Hsu, Fei Xiaotong and Marcel Granet in his The Elementary Structure of Kinship (Levi-Strauss 1969:346-358). It is at best tolerated, neither preferred nor widely practiced. Given the fact, the usefulness of this example is doubtful even if Levi-Strauss has used “t’ang” and “piao” in a precise manner, which I have my doubts.

          The only way to explain the author’s intention is that he is trying to extend the geographical implication of the concentric dualism as seen in marriage rules from southeast Asia to a wider region, In the opening sentence of the Chapter XXI of The Elementary Structure Kinship, Levi-Strauss says: “There is a great deal of information suggesting the existence in ancient China of a system of … cross-cousin marriage involving the exchange of sisters” (Levi-Strauss 1969:346).




          Besides highlighting the significance of marriage system in social structures, the Indonesian examples also offer the explanation for the inequality in the concentric dualism in formal terms.

          In a diametric structure, the two parts – such as two moieties – can be represented by two halves on the each side of the diameter, hence the equality. In a concentric structure, however, the two parts will be represented by two circles sharing the same core. Inevitably in geometric terms, their relative distances from the core will be different, hence the hierarchy (Levi­-Strauss 1963:140).

          Another formal revelation is that in Indonesia often there are odd number of social structures.  It will be problematic if we conceive the phenomenon in terms of diametric dualism. But if we conceive it in terms of concentric dualism, we can take out one element and treat it as a core, the rest will fall on the periphery in equal numbers – this mental process of “taking one out to make it even” is the conscious work of an anthropological interpreter, but it might as well be the unconscious mental mechanism of the Indonesian natives. In reality, ternary structure might be inevitable – for example, “the distinction between female cross-cousins … implies at least three distinct groups, and is radically impossible  with two” (Levi-Strauss 1963:140) – but it’s in the nature of human unconsciousness to reduce them into two (Levi-Strauss 1963:151), hence the concentric construction. This inevitably created hierarchy in formal terms.

          A third formal observation pertaining to the change from odd number to even number, recalling observations of the Bororo case, is the distinction of continuity and discontinuity. The formation of the core is a breakaway event: an individual element is taken out from the original odd numbers in order to make them humanly even. This discontinuity creates an individual that is in equal distance with each of the rest elements on the same periphery if the rest elements can form a continuous circle without this breakaway element. But as the second anomaly shown in the Bororo case, this loss of one individual results in the circle being incomplete and discontinuous. In fact, the very fact that the Upper-Middle-Lower class sequence switches to the Lower-Middle-Upper class sequence is an acknowledgement of the falsity of the circle and its continuity, hence the Guardian gods of East and West are located to the inner Bocodori Clan and Quie Clan in order to create a sense of continuity not in terms of the circle but in terms of the triangle, and not in terms of the profane periphery but in terms of the sacred core – at least the shadow of it. This mechanism is achieved by the so-called “zero-value” north-south axis. The north-south axis has zero-value only in profane terms. Although it has no function in earthly affairs, it functions sacredly by allowing the two guardian gods to be precisely located, by allowing the broken continuity to be mended in sacred ways and by allowing the breakaway core, which by now has achieved sacred status, has a shadow representation in the empty place where it was on the periphery.

          Those formal observations have prepared us for the discussion of Levi-Strauss’ analysis the Asdiwal myth. But before that, we should look at Bororo village’s north-east axis in greater details.




          Why does the north-south axis of the Bororo village has zero-value? Why does it permit Bororo society to exist even it has no obvious function of its own (Levi-Strauss 1963:159)? In the previous passages when we discuss two anomalies in Bororo’s village arrangement, we have already proposed that it allows the “shadow” of the breakaway point (the core) to be precisely located and in turn to be better situated the two guardian gods. The two guardian gods in this inner point, in turn, correspond to their namesakes on the east and west ends, thus the humanly diametric opposition is neutralized and unified by the sacred synthesis. The function of this operation is to recreate a broken continuity in the profane world with the help of the sacred. An observation of the triskelion model proposed by Levi-Strauss might answer the same question in more general terms.

          Let’s first look at the general structure of the triskelion model. It is composed of three small circles on the periphery. They are connected by a triskelion which can alternatively functions as a unifying rule between each circle or a common rule applied to each circle. The three small circles are unified by a large circle on the periphery which represents either a dualistic structure or a general rule (Levi-Strauss 1963:155).

          In the Winnebago case, the three small circles represent three clan groups. Two of the clans groups, Water and Earth, belong to the lower order. The remaining one, Sky, alone belongs to a higher order. The triskelion represents the exogamous marriage rule observed by all the three clan groups. The large circle is the diametric village layout as observed by the villagers of the lower phratry (ibid).

          In the Indonesian case, the three small circles represent the odd number of social groups which is reduced and labeled here by Levi-Strauss as three classes A, B and C (Levi­-Strauss 1963:156). Instead of an “inter-circle” regulation such as the exogamous marriage rule, the triskelion represents a fundamental internal division observed in all the three classes: the separation of gender. The large circle is the unilateral marriage system.      

          It’s worthwhile to compare the Indonesian case with the Winnebago case. As we have discussed before, the Indonesian system is distinguished by its unilateral marriage system. It in turn has a wider implication geographically. By contrast, the Winnebago system is self-sufficient within a village. In other words, in Indonesia the system is unified by a more or less intangible and dynamic social process while in Winnebago the system is unified by the village layout (the large circle) which is tangible and static. We might reach such a conclusion: in the triskelion model, the larger circle has an ultimate important function of unification, but the range of this unification is wildly different.   

          This conclusion is not unimportant, especially when we take into account the Bororo case. In Bororo, the three circles represent the upper, middle and lower classes of the clans respectively. The triskelion represents the impossibility of marriage between classes. The large circle is the diametric north-south axis which has no function.       

          If the large circle has the importance of unification, how does it have no function? A close examination of the Bororo triskelion shows that there is a lack of opposition between the sacred and the profane in its construction, unlike the other two examples.

          In the Winnebago case, there is an opposition between the high and the low, which is represented respectively by a single upper clan, Sky, and two lower clans, Earth and Water. Sky, according to Levi-Strauss, is actually a concentric core with the quality being inconsistent or momentary. Its role is alternatively coerce and protection, depending on the situation. The function of the other two clans, on the other hand, is consistent (Levi-Strauss 1963:153). In other words, it is an heterogeneous opposition between the discontinuity and continuity. It mirrors an opposition between the sacred and the profane.     

          In the Indonesian case, the most ostentatious dualistic opposition is that between male and female as explicit in the diagram (Levi-Strauss 1963:156). As we have observed before, this opposition is one of the most fundamental kinds in social structure. If we recall Malinowski’s Omarakana, it strongly correlates to the sacred/profane opposition.

          Now if we return to the Bororo triskelion, we will find that there is no opposition between the sacred and the profane without the large circle represented the by the north-south axis. As we already know, this axis has the function of precisely locating the guardian gods and creating a sacred continuity. In other words, it brings the sacred to the profane.

          My conclusion from the observation of the three triskelions is as such: a community will not be unified without the opposition between the sacred and the profane. This opposition, in fact, can be viewed as the essence of social structure.





          In Levi-Strauss’ analysis of dual organizations, we find the important opposition between the continuous and the discontinuous; we find it expressed on many levels of social structure; we find the importance of marriage rules; and we find the ultimate importance of the opposition between the sacred and the profane, which is often expressed in an obscure way as we see in the zero-value north-south axis. The question is: can we find those features in Levi-Strauss’ analysis of the Asdiwal myth?




          The Asdiwal story as retold by Levi-Strauss begins with two mediation points. The first mediation point appears with a winter famine scene when the husbands of two women, the patrilocally married mother and daughter, died of starvation. Both women decide at the same time to leave for the other’s home for help without knowing each other’s intention. They meet half-way and set up a hut under a tree. But they have barely any food for survival until the daughter is seduced by a handsome young man who gives the two women food. This young man is Hatsenas, a magical bird-god living on the tree (Levi-Strauss 1967:4).

          The origin of Hatsenas is not told in detail in the story. Neither is the question analyzed by Levi-Strauss. But one details noteworthy is that he is a bird flies between the heaven and the earth. The tree-top where the bird purportedly lives is also between the heaven and earth from human’s point of view.  Thus, Hatsenas’ original home, although not related in the story, is also a mediation point.

          A third mediation point is the reef where Asdiwal is left to die by his brothers-in-law from the third marriage (ibid). A reef is symbolically between mountain and sea. In the Tsimshian situation, it has both vertical (high and low) and horizontal (east and west) neutrality. A fourth mediation point appears in the end of the story when Asdiwal is stuck in the mountain which is between the heaven and earth.

          One observation of all the four mediation points is that they all possess the quality of being male, celibate, and raw. The very first mediation point where the mother and daughter meet seems not to be the case, but we must remember the fact that this is where the bird-god Hatsenas perches alone before they come and it is abandoned when the story moves along. The raw quality in this case can be seen in the rotten berry.

          In the second mediation point of Hatsenas’ original home on the three, the bird-god repeatedly throws raw food (dead animals) from this point to the younger woman (Boas 2008:7-8). This is a detail omitted in Levi-Strauss’ retelling of the story. In other two cases, both reef and mountain are hunting grounds so that the raw quality is a given.

          Are the mediation points sacred? This is a question far beyond this author not least for the question of how to differentiate the magical and the sacred. All the four points mentioned above are magical in one way or another. In the first point, the two women meet the bird-god. In the third point Asdiwal is saved on the reef by his father by turning into a bird so that he can perch on the magic objects his father gives him earlier on. The final point in Levi-Strauss’ retelling is incomplete, comparing to the original story. After Asdiwal forgets his snow shows and gets stuck on the mountain, his father comes: “It was he who went away with him to his own home, but his body staid behind and became stone” (Boas 2008:41).

          Assuming those mediation points are not sacred but merely magic, can we relate them to the quality of core of a concentric structure? One way to look at those points is that they are not the core, but its shadow. Using the example of a Bororo village, the mediation points don’t correspond to the core where the public square is located, but the middle point between the Bocodori Clan and the Quie Clan. Those two clans, as we remember, represent two guardian gods Itubori and Bakororo. The point they form by standing together allows the formation of a triangle and continuity from the east to west. It mediates the extremes of the east and the west. In the first case in the Asdiwal story, the point mediates the two villages of the east and the west. In the Bororo case, although the point is not sacred as the core, but it is privileged. Corresponding, in the Asdiwal story, the point saves the life of two women and is the birthplace of the hero. I thus propose that the mediation points in the Asdiwal story is in the same nature as the “shadow point” of a concentric core.


          One noteworthy fact is that the mother’s village in the west is probably also a mediation point. Later in the story, her grandson Asdiwal returns for a second time from the heaven to the village where he and his own mother (the daughter) moved into earlier in the story and where he meets his heavenly wife who disguises herself as a white bear. When he finds his mother has died, he moves further westward to the village Ginaxangioget (Levi-Strauss 1967:5) where he seduces a local princess. Whether Ginaxangioget is the maiden village of Asdiwal’s grandmother is neither mentioned in the collected story (Boas 2008:27) nor analyzed by Levi-Strauss, yet might be worthy of consideration. If so, originally there is a unilateral marriage system that exchanges women geographically from the west to the east, or from the downstream to the upper stream. This is a spatial expansion with economic and cultural consequences we discussed earlier in the Baduj and other Indonesian cases. However, what happens in the Asdiwal story is the reversal of this west-east movement. Here when Asdiwal reaches Ginaxangioget, his identity is not entirely unlike his father Hatsenas: he comes from heaven, he is a food-giver (Boas 2008:29), and he marries matrilocally. In that sense, this section of the story is a variation of the myth’s beginning.




          Let’s return to Bororo’s zero-value north-south axis question in the light of the Asdiwal story.

          It is noteworthy that the point between the Bocodori Clan and the Quie Clan in Bororo is where north-south axis begins. The axis, in Levi-Strauss’ triskelion model, unified Bororo societies with three basic triadic elements. But it in itself has no obvous social function. Our analysis above indicates that it compensates the sacred dimension lacking in other components of the triskelion structure. How is it in anyway relevant to our analysis of the Asdiwal myth?

          One important feature of myth, according to Levi-Strauss, is that it sometimes confirms reality but sometimes presents facts diverting from reality (Levi-Strauss 1968:29). For example, the middle point where the mother and the daughter live together becomes a matrilocal village in the story (ibid.:11), which is against reality. All the subsequent marriages happening in the story are all matrilocal ones and creates antagonism. For example, Asdiwal first marries in heaven where his father-in-law, the Sun, repeatedly tries to cause his death as he did to his many former sons-in-law (Boas 2008:19). Asdiwal’s two earthly and matrilocal marriages all result in deadly situations caused by his brothers-in-law. The imagined matrilocal marriages finally lead to a reversal to patrilocality near the end of the story when Asdiwal’s son leaves his mothers’ brothers and joins his father. The story begins with mother and daughter but ends with father and son. It is thus even more curious why Levi-Strauss leaves out the original ending: Asdiwal doesn’t die – he is save by his father Hatsenas.

          I speculate here that the zero-value of the north-south axis in Bororo village in fact functions as the negative truth in myth by being perpendicular to the east-west axis, and in turn, by passing mythological messages spatially. This speculation can not be confirmed without ethnographical data. But if we accept that the middle point between the Bocodori Clan and the Quie Clan corresponds to the middle point where the mother and the daughter meet, the north-south axis beginning with this point is not absolutely negative. The mediation point in the myth is created by the determination of two women with the help of a bird-god. It is our hero Asdiwal’s birthplace, which explains the two guardian gods of Bororo village are located in the point where the core is “taken out”. There is a positive message in it: “the only positive form of existence is a negation of non-existence … [and] the need for self-assertion” (Levi-Strauss 1967:33). Correspondingly, the north-south axis has the function of negation and inspiring self-assertion. But what is it negating against?

          In his discussion of the concentric structure, Levi-Strauss stresses its ecological feature. The ternary system is not self-sufficient. Besides the central plaza and the circle between two rings, it also “demands a third element, brush or forest – that is, virgin land” (Levi-Strauss 1963:152). Virgin land, in a way, corresponds to the raw yam in the central storehouses in Omarakana. It is not only natural but also sacred. By contrast, this feature will be irrelevant in a diametric structure. Now let’s remember that the Asdiwal story begins with a famine, which is an ecological event. The reversal of this ecological tragedy is first seen in the mediation point where two women meet. If we see the Bororo shadow core point where the zero-value north-south axis begins in the same light, we might say that the very function of this axis is to bring the human on the periphery to the god in the core. A wilder statement I’m going to make here is: in the name of science, Levi-Strauss re-establishes the importance of religion in human life.





          Levi-Strauss’ analysis of the Asdiwal story has been discredited on many fronts. Ralph Maud who has been working with the Tsimshian people discredits it on actual ethnographical observations (Maud 2000:116-117). Some points out its logical weakness. For example, the middle point where the mother and daughter meet Hatsenas may well be the bird-god’s original home. In that case, the marriage between him and the daughter will be patrilocal (Thomas 1976:158).

          For me, however, those criticisms are beside the point. Levi-Strauss says that Freud’s analysis of the Oedipus myth is part of the Oedipus myth (Levi-Strauss 1963:217). We can extend this observation to Levi-Strauss himself. In other words, Levi-Strauss’ structural anthropology is a myth reflexive of the world he lives in. His cultural importance, in a way, is the testimony of this mythological significance. Like a myth, the theory may not be reflexive of reality. It has purpose of its own. It may not even logically coherent, but it is coherent on different levels. The comparison of those levels is the purpose of this essay when I compare his earlier study of social structure to later study of myth.

          A more speculative assertion I’m going to make here comes from my observation of the concentric core and the broken continuity of the periphery – as analyzed by Levi-Strauss. In a formal way it, it corresponds to my observation of the Western mentality in general. One of the greatest myths I detect is the assumed individuality of the liberal West. However, I believe the modern West is in many ways more collective to a premodern world or to non-Western societies.

          Using the example of music which I believe provides Levi-Strauss’ with a source of models including that of level or schema.  The history of the so-called “classical” music, in fact, parallels Western collective modernity. The wandering individual troubadours and minstrels before the rise of modern nation-states have their folk equivalents in other parts of the world. The religious Georgian art and Ars Nova which were more or less isolated from the general societies can find their counterparts in temples and churches in faraway lands. The birth of baroque music in the fading years of Renaissance (and heydays of nation-state building), however, is something completely new and unique. Highly organized music-making left church to the secular world. Secular music-making became highly organized and professionalized. The high went hand-in-hand with the low. The sacred became part of the profane. The individual musicians were united and became part of musical establishments. The individuality of composers were realized collectively by orchestras or other forms of ensemble-playing (Lang 1941:62-529). As anyone who has attended a symphonic or choral concert can testify, collectivity is the key to the Western brilliance. The same brilliance can be seen in any other aspect of Western achievement in the past six-hundred years, be it science in which standardization, team-work and peer-review are the keys, or democracy which can be said to be the broadest possible collective participation.

          Collectivity is essential to the Western success in the past six-hundred years, especially in the form of nationalism. It also leads to disasters as we see in Nazi-Germany – it’s worth remembering that prewar Germany was the center of great learnings. For that reason alone, many postwar thinkers look at the individual with bewilderment and fear: the opposition between the concentric core and the periphery is viewed with uncertainty. We rather hide ourselves in the false diametric equality of democracy or multiculturalism, pretending we are equals.





    Boas, Franz

      2008 [1912] Tsimishian Texts: New Series. Lexington: Forgotten Books.


    Lang, Paul Henry

     1941. Music in Western Civilization. New York: Norton & Company.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

      1967 [1963]. The Story of Asdiwal. In The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism. Edmund Leach, ed.. London: Routledge, pp. 1-48.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

      1969 [1949]. Matrilateral Marriage. In The Elementary Structure of Kinship. James Harle Bell, trans. Boston: Beacon Press, pp. 346-358.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

     1963 [1958]. Do Dual Organizations Exist?. In Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books, pp. 132-163.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

     1963 [1958]. The Structure Study of Myth. In Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books, pp. 206-231.


    Maud, Ralph

      2000. Transmission Difficulties: Franz Boas and Tsimshian Mythology. Burnaby: Talonbooks.


    Thomas, L. et. al

      1976. Asdiwal Crumbles: A Critique of Levi-Straussian Myth Anaylsis. In American Ethnolgoist 3(1):147-173.