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  1. Michel Leiris and the Origin of Postmodernism

    December 1, 2012 by Fan

    Michel Leiris and the Origin of Postmodernism


    Fan Zhang


    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

    Poststructuralism: Metaphysics

    Postmodernism: Aesthetics

    Posthumanism: Ethics

    (Figure 3) Re-scaling (Reduction) of Posthumanism Issues to Postmodern Issues 





    reduced to

    reduced to

    reduced to


    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

    1. Introduction


          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.


    (Figure 4)




    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).



    (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.



    4. Primitivism


    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.




    (figure 6)


    “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?



    1. 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).


    (figure 7)




    (figure 8)

          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.







    Clifford, James

    1998. On Ethnographic Surrealism. In The Predicament of Culture. Harvard: Cambridge University Press.


    Derrida, Jacques.

    1978 [1967]. Writing and Difference, Alan Bass trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    Foucault, Michel,

    1994 [1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.


    Griaule, Marcel

    2010 [1948]. Conversations with Ogotemmeli. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 292-301.


    Grossman, Wendy A.

    2009. Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens. Washington: International Art & Artists.


    Granet, Marcel

    2007 [1933]. Right and Left in China. In Beyond the Body Proper. M. Lock and J. Farquar, edits. Pp.41-49. Durham: Duke University Press.


    Heidegger, Martin

    1972 [1947]. Letter on Humanism. In Martin Heidegger Basic Writings. David Farrell Krell, ed. Pp. 210-265. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.


    Herbert, James D.

    1998. Paris 1937: Worlds on Exhibition. New York: Cornell University Press.


    Hertz, Robert

    2009 (1909). The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. In Saints, Heroes, Myth and Rites: Classical Durkheimian Studies of Religion and Society, edited by A. Riley, et al. London: Paradigm Publishers.


    Leiris, Michel

    1992 [1939]. Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility. Richard Howard, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

    1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Montaigne, Michel de

    2003 [1592]. The Complete Works of Montaigne. Donald M. Frame trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf  “Everyman’s Library”.


    Rapaport, Herman

    1997. Is There Truth in Art?. New York: Cornell University Press.


    Siegel, James T

    2011. “The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901,” in Objects and Objections of Ethnography. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 76-96.


    Sontag, Susan

    1992 [1963]. Forward to the English translation of Michel Leiris’ Manhood. In : A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility. Richard Howard, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. vii-xiv.


    Valdes-Dapena, Antonia

    2012. Richard Long’s Passage as Line: Measuring Toward the Horizon, speech given at the AIA symposium “Making Space”.



    Wolf, Cary

    2010. What is Posthumanism?. Minniapolis: University of Minnesota Press. [Note: The in-text citations here refer to the book’s Kindle edition which gives “location” number instead of page number]














  2. Michel Foucault the Anthropologist

    January 16, 2012 by Fan

    Michel Foucault the Anthropologists

    [Acknowledgement] This is the first response written in Professor Naisargi Dave’s Posthuman Anthropology class. Many thanks to Professor Dave for her kind acceptance and the enlightening seminar.

          The most brazen fact about Michel Foucault, for an anthropologist, is that he is not an anthropologist. The boldest statement one might make about this fact, on the other hand, is that he is indeed an anthropologist.

          Anthropology is often understood as the study of community, in particular, the communities of  “the other” (when the world is divided into the West and the rest). This statement overlooks the origin of anthropology when artifacts and ethnographical data of the other were used as objects for contemplation about mentality of the self. The origins of their own (our own?) mentality concern many of earlier anthropologists. Visually and visual tactics are especially important in this anthropological contemplation. When Edward Tylor was appointed the very first Oxford reader in anthropology in 1884, he was expected to lecture on  a museum collection donated by Pitt Rivers. To the latter’s  disappointment, in stead of focusing on the artifacts themselves, Tylor spent most of his lecture time on the discussion of symbolic culture. Pitt Rivers’ artifacts were only a departure point for him to penetrate the very essence of human mind, which he later used the word “animism” to characterize. One of the key features of symbols in Tylor’s scheme of thoughts is its visual nature: “Ideas [in literary societies], fined down to the abstract forms or species of material objects, and applied to other than visible qualities, have at last come merely to denote subject of thought. Yet to this day the old theory has not utterly died out, and the retention of the significant term ‘idea” (ιδέα, visible form) is accompanied by a similar retention of original meaning.” (Tylor 1920:498) The visual nature of thoughts, for Tylor, is how abstract symbols manage to represent a tangible physical world and less tangible human relations.

          It’s easy to see how visuality is also essential to Foucault’s contemplation of history of ideas when he opens The Order of Things with an extensive discussion of Vlasquez’s Las Meninas. From visuality, he isolates stages of modern history of thoughts: representation, analogue, and process. There are a few observations relevant to the history of anthropology. First, one kind of representation, aemulatio (Foucault 1994:19), corresponds to James Frazer’s sympathetic magic in his Golden Bough (Frazer 1996:13-57). Secondly, conventientia which links spatial entities by resemblance, especially in terms of numbers, corresponds to Claude Levi-Strauss’ ways of deduction. Foucault proposes that the transition from the representational to the analogical, in other words, from visual to linguistic, can been seen in the Western sign system’s change from a ternary system to a binary one (Foucault 1994:42). This recalls Levi-Strauss’ analysis of ternary system in real life morphing into dualism in social structure and language (Levi-Strauss 1963:132-163).

          The connection made here to anthropology is not casual. Three questions can be asked. First, if an “archaeology” or “ethnography” of Western canonical texts can result in similar discoveries to archaeology of primitive artifacts and ethnography of “primitive” communities? The second question is that if the classical and philological tradition in the West is actually behind both Foucault and anthropologists from Tylor, Frazer to Levi-Strauss, none of them were trained as anthropologist. The third concerns Foucault’s exuberantly lucid style and the omission of index and bibliography: is the beauty of text important to the future of anthropology?





    Foucault, Michel,

      1994 [1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.


    Frazer, James.

      1996 [1922]. The Golden Bough. London: Penguin Books.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

     1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Tylor, Edward B

      1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. London: John Murray.

  3. 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.