Claude Levi-Strauss on police
November 4, 2009 3 Comments
If you haven’t heard the news yet, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss passed away last week. his passing has sparked a considerable amount of reflection and commentary–including a couple of attempts to synthesize, or, on the other hand, separate out a particular aspect of his grand corpus.
One aspect of his thought that most reviewers emphasize is his consistent critique of modernity through a complicated anthropological lens which emphasized both a sensitivity to cultural diversity and universal human structures. One under-remarked element of his work, however, is the way that police and policing, as ethnographic figures, functioned within his critique so as to make it possible.
I think we’re all agreed that it’s one of our shared goals here at Anthropoliteia to point out the centrality of police and policing to the anthropological project, so as a supplement to the various orbituaries and syntheses mentioned above, I thought I’d highlight a passage from Tristes Tropiques which I think illustrates my point. Pay attention to the complicated ways in which police both illustrate and push forward his anthropological critique of modernity:
(The text is quoted, at length, after the break. I know it’s a bit lengthy for a blog post, but there really is no way to edit the twists and turns of his prose, in that the meandering juxtapositions are often the very point. Believe me, by the time you get to “The atmosphere thickens, everywhere” you’ll think every word has been worth it.)
When the clocks struck two in the afternoon Fort de France was a dead town. There was no sign of life in the hovel-bordered main square , which was planted with palm-trees and overrun with rampant weeds a patch of dead ground, one would have thought, in which someone had left behind a statue of Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie, later Beauharnais. No sooner had the Tunisian and I checked into the deserted hotel than, still shaken by the events of the morning, we hired a car and set off towards the Lazaret, with the intention of comforting our companions and, more especially, two young German women who had led us to believe, during the voyage out, that they would be unfaithful to their husbands just as soon as they could get properly cleaned up. From this point of view the business of the Lazaret was yet another disappointment to us.
As the old Ford stumbled up and down the rough tracks in first gear I had the pleasure of rediscovering many vegetable species which had been familiar to me in Amazonia. Here they had new names, however: caimite foifruta do condeza artichoke in shape, with the taste of a pear corrosol forgraviola, papaye for mammao, sapotille for mangabeira. Meanwhile I went over in my mind the morning s painful scenes and tried to relate them to others of the same sort. For my companions, who had for the most part been hurled into their present adventure after a lifetime of tranquillity, the soldiers mixture of imbecility and spite appeared as a unique, exceptional, hardly credible phenomenon: they and their jailers were in the grip, they thought, of an international catastrophe such as had never before occurred. But I had seen much of the world in the preceding years, and the incident was of a kind with which I was not entirely unfamiliar. I knew that, slowly and steadily, humanity was breeding such situations as a sick body breeds pus. It was as if our race was no longer able to cope with its own numbers and with the problems greater every day that resulted from this. Facility of communication exacerbated these feelings alike on the material and the intellectual plane. And, in the French territory in question, war and defeat had accelerated a universal process, and facilitated the establishment of an infection that would never again disappear completely from the face of the world. No sooner would it have vanished in one place than it would appear in another. Not for the first time, I was experiencing those manifestations of stupidity, hatred, and credulity which all social groups secrete within themselves when history comes too close to them.
Only a short while before, for instance, on my way home to France -it was a few months before the outbreak of war I went for a walk in the upper section of Bahia. As I went from one church to another there are said to be three hundred and sixty-five in all, one for each day of the year, and varying in their architectural and decorative style as if to fit the day and the season and photographed such architectural details as took my eye, I was pursued by a gang of half-naked little nigger boys who kept begging me to Tira o retrato! Tira o retrato! Take a picture of us! I found it touching that they should beg for a photograph that they would never see, rather than for a coin or two, and in the end I agreed to do as they asked. I hadn’t gone another hundred yards when two plain-clothes policemen tapped me on the shoulder. They had kept me company since the outset of my walk; and now, they informed me, I had been caught in an act hostile to Brazil. My photograph, if put to use in Europe, would confirm the legend that some Brazilians have black skins, and that children in Bahia go barefoot. I was arrested not for long, happily, because the ship was about to sail.
That ship brought me bad luck, undoubtedly. Something of the same kind had happened to me a few days before when I was embarking, this time, and the ship was still at the quayside in Santos harbour. Hardly was I on board when I was arrested and confined to my cabin by a senior officer of the Brazilian Navy in full-dress uniform and two marines with fixed bayonets. That mystery took four or five hours to unravel: the Franco-Brazilian expedition of which I had been in charge for a year had been subject to the rule by which all finds were to be shared between the two countries. The sharing was to be done under the supervision of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, and this museum had notified every port in Brazil that if I were to attempt to leave the country with more bows, arrows, and feather head-dresses than had been allotted to France I must be put under immediate and close arrest. Subsequently the museum had changed its mind and decided to make over Brazil s share of the finds to a scientific institute in Sao Paulo; consequently our French share had to be dispatched from Santos, and not from Rio. Meanwhile the previous instructions had been forgotten and not, therefore, countermanded; with the result that, in the eyes of the port authorities, I had committed a crime.
Luckily, however, there still slumbered within every Brazilian official at that time a tradition of anarchy. Tags from Voltaire and Anatole France kept this tradition alive and had somehow been incorporated, even in the depths of the forest, as elements of Brazilian culture. (Once when I was in the interior I was forcibly embraced by an old man who, doubtless, had never seen a Frenchman before. Ah, monsieur, a Frenchman! he cried, almost in delirium. Ah, France! Anatole, Anatole! ) I’d met enough Brazilians to know that I must first show all possible deference to the Brazilian State, as a whole, and more especially to its maritime authorities. Next I tried to strike a note of deep feeling: and not without success, for after several hours spent in a cold sweat I was leaving Brazil for good, our collections had been packed away with my library and my furniture, and I was haunted by visions of my possessions lying in pieces on the quayside as the ship drew out to sea I was able to dictate to my interlocutor the exact terms of his report. In this he took upon himself the glory of having averted an international incident, and in consequence a humiliation for Brazil, by allowing me to sail with my baggage intact.
Perhaps I should have been less audacious had it been still possible for me to take the South American police system quite seriously. But something had happened, two months previously, to make this out of the question. I had had to change aeroplanes in a large village in Lower Bolivia. When the connection failed to arrive, my companion, Dr J. A. Vdlard, and myself were held up there for several days. Flying in 1938 was very different from what it is now. In the remoter South American regions it had jumped several stages of progress and offered itself as a sort of mechanical pick-a-back for villagers who, hitherto, for lack of decent roads, had had to reckon on a four or five days journey, on foot or horseback, to their nearest market-town. And now it had suddenly become possible for them to get their hens and ducks to market in a matter of a few minutes flying time though with, as often as not, a delay in departure of a week or more. The little aeroplanes were crammed with barefooted peasants, farmyard animals, and cases too cumbrous to be dragged through the forest; and in the midst of all this was oneself, squat-legged on the floor.
We were killing time in the streets of Santa Cruz de la Sierra when suddenly a police patrol, seeing strangers, put us under arrest. We were conducted, pending interrogation, to a room in the former palace of the Provincial Governor. An air of old-fashioned high comfort clung to the panelled saloon, with its glass-fronted bookcases, its rows of richly bound volumes, and the astonishing handwritten notice framed and glazed, likewise which I here transcribe from the Spanish: On pain of severe sanctions it is strictly forbidden to tear out pages from the archives for personal or hygienic purposes. All persons infringing this order will be punished.
I must own that if my situation in Martinique took a turn for the better, it was thanks to the intervention of a high official of the Fonts et Chaussees whose opinions, though concealed beneath an appearance of frigid reserve, were very different from those current in official circles; perhaps I also owed something to my frequent visits to the offices of a religious review, where the Fathers of some Order or other had accumulated box upon box of archaeological remains, dating back to the Indian occupation. I spent my leisure hours in making an inventory of these.
One day I went into the Assize Courts, which were then in session. It was my first, and only, visit to a trial. The accused was a peasant who had bitten off a part of another peasant s ear in the course of a quarrel. Accused, plaintiff, and witnesses expressed themselves in a flood of Creole eloquence which seemed almost supernatural, in such a place, by reason of its crystalline freshness. All this had to be translated to the three judges, whose robes, scarlet in colour and trimmed with fur, had wilted in the heat and hung about them like bloodstained bandages. In five minutes exactly the irascible negro was condemned to eight years imprisonment. Justice had been, and is still, associated in my mind with the notions of doubt, and scruple, and respect. I was stupefied to find that a human life could be disposed of so quickly and with such nonchalance. I could hardly believe that it had really happened. Even today no dream, however fantastic or grotesque, can leave me so entirely incredulous.
My travelling companions owed their release, meanwhile, to a difference of opinion between the maritime authorities and the Chamber of Commerce. To the one, they were spies and traitors; the other saw them as a source of income which could not be exploited while they were locked up in the Lazaret. The shopkeepers got their way, in the end, and for a fortnight one and all were free to get rid of their last French francs. The police kept a dose watch on all this and did their best to involve all the passengers, and more specially the women, in a network of temptation, provocation, seduction, and reprisal. The Dominican Consulate was besieged with requests for visas, and every day brought new rumours of hypothetical ships which were on thek way to take us all a stage farther. A new situation developed when the villages of the interior grew jealous of the harbour-town and intimated that they too had the right to a share in the refugees. And, from one day to the next, the entire company was moved to the interior and told to stay there. I was exempt from this, once again, but in my anxiety to visit my lady-friends in their new residence at the foot of the Mont Pele I came to cover on foot an unfamiliar and unforgettable part of the island. Thanks, in fact, to the machinations of the police I came to experience a form of exoticism more classical than that to be found on the mainland of South America: dark tree-agate, surrounded by a halo of beaches where the black sand was speckled with silver; valleys deep in a milk-white mist where a continual drip-drip allowed one to hear, rather than see, the enormous, soft, and feathery leafage of the tree-ferns as it foamed up from the living fossils of the trunks.
Hitherto I had been luckier than my companions. I was pre-occupied, none the less, with a problem which, if not satisfactorily solved, would have made it impossible for this book to be written. I had left France with a trunkful of material brought back from my expeditions: linguistic and technological files, travel-journals, field-notes, maps, plans, photographic negatives, thousands of sheets of paper, filing-cards, and rolls of film. It had already been very dangerous for the passeur to get this heavy load across the line of demarcation, and it was clear to me from our welcome in Martinique that I must not allow Customs, police, or naval security authorities to get at my possessions. The vocabularies would certainly strike them as an elaborate system of codes, and the maps, plans, and photographs they would interpret as pieces of military information. I therefore declared the trunk luggage in transit and it was sealed up and left at the Customs. Later I managed to effect a compromise by which the trunk, if put dkecdy aboard a foreign ship, need not be opened by the Customs. And so it was that I set sail for Porto Rico on board a Swedish banana-boat. For four days on this dazzlingly white vessel I found myself back in pre-war conditions; the voyage was uneventful and there were only seven other passengers on board.
I did well to make the most of it. For when I disembarked at Porto Rico two things became clear. One was that the U.S. immigration laws had changed during the two months that had elapsed since I left Marseilles. The documents I had received from the New School for Social Research no longer sufficed for admission. Second, and above all, the American police, when faced with my load of anthropological material, had their full share of the suspicions which I had feared to meet with in Martinique. In Fort de France I had been treated as a Jew and a Freemason who was probably in the pay of the Americans. Here, in Porto Rico, I was taken for an emissary of Vichy if not, indeed, of the Germans. I telegraphed to the New School to get me out of it, if they could, and the F.B.I. was asked to send a French-speaking specialist to examine my papers. (I trembled to think how long it would take to find a specialist who could decipher my notes, since these mostly related to the almost entirely unknown dialects of central Brazil.) Meanwhile I was interned, at the shipping company s expense, in an austere hotel in the Spanish style, where I was fed on boiled beef and chick-peas, while two filthy and ill-shaven native policemen took it in turns, night and day, to guard my door.
So it was at Porto Rico that I made my first contact with the U.S.A. For the first time I smelt the lukewarm varnish and the wintergreen tea olfactory extremes between which is stretched the whole gamut of American comfort from motor-car to lavatory, by way of radio-set, pastry-shop, and toothpaste and I tried to find out what thoughts lay behind the farded masks of the young ladies in the drug-stores, with their mauve dresses and their chestnut hair. There too, in the rather special environment of the Grandes Antilles, I had my first glimpse of certain characteristics of American urban life. The flimsiness of the buildings, their preoccupation with effect, and their desire to catch the eye all were reminiscent of a Great Exhibition that had not been pulled down; at Porto Rico one seemed to, have strayed into the Spanish section.
Ambiguities of this kind often confront the traveller. The fact of having passed my first weeks on American territory in Porto Rico made me feel, later, that Spain itself was Americanized. Similarly, the fact that my first glimpse of British University life was in the neo-Gothic precincts of the University of Dacca in eastern Bengal has since made me regard Oxford as a part of India that has got its mud, its humidity, and its superabundant vegetation under surprisingly good control.
The F.B.L inspector arrived three weeks after I came ashore at San Juan. I ran to the Customs house and threw open my trunk. A solemn moment! He was a well-mannered young man, but when he took up a card at random his face clouded over and he spat out the words: This is in German! It was, in effect, a note drawn from the classic work of von den Steinen, my illustrious and distant forerunner in the Mato Grosso: Unter den Naturvolkern Zentral-Braziliens, Berlin, 1894. The long-expected specialist was reassured to hear of this, and before long he lost all interest in my concerns, and I found myself free to enter the U.S.A.
But that’s quite enough. Each one of these trifling adventures calls forth another from my memory; and I could summon up others, more recent, if I drew upon my travels in Asia during the post-war years. My charming inquisitor from the F.B.I. might not be so easily satisfied today. The atmosphere thickens, everywhere.
“The Antilles,” pp. 30-37 in Tristes tropiques via archive.org