Far Afield: French Anthropology Between Science and Literature, by Vincent Debaene

Jeremy MacClancy on the evolving relations between two complementary disciplines in France in the first half of the 20th century

July 10, 2014

For decades, French anthropology was famed for its theory rather than its practice. In contrast to its anglophone counterparts, it was celebrated for treatises, not monographs. Scholars raised in this tradition who did write ethnographies, no matter how excellent, felt stymied by the strictures of professionalised cultural accounts. This is why so many went on to produce much more ruminative versions of their fieldwork, analysing the events they had experienced and the broader questions they had earlier kept to themselves.

These “second books” are at the centre of Vincent Debaene’s brilliant, demanding book. They expose the tensions and contradictions in his overarching theme: the evolving relations between anthropology and literature in France in the first half of the 20th century.

According to Debaene, in France literature was seen as a key mode of knowledge in its own right. Its status and scope, however, were reduced as sections of its domains were annexed by the rising practitioners of formalised, autonomous disciplines: biology, history, then sociology and so on. But in the 1930s, a rapprochement between anthropology and literature emerged in their common rejection of the use of rhetorical language. On top of that, the more literary-minded of French anthropologists were openly nostalgic for the era of belles-lettres.

French anthropology was then thought a leader of the new humanism, which aimed to transcend the split between science and literature. It was vaunted as a reintegrative activity, helping to heal the ruptures opened by the social division of labour. The figure of the fieldworker was central here, as he (rarely she) melded the scholar and the adventurer. While eschewing the exoticising tendencies of travel writing, fieldworkers used their own experiences as resources contributing to their own expertise. In their second books, above all, they could strive to transmit the moral tone of a culture.

The best attempts were knowing failures. Michel Leiris, the Surrealist-turned-ethnographer, wanted to experience another way of life as fully as its practitioners. But his fieldwork forced him to accept that participation was impossible and a close communion highly unlikely. His L’Afrique fantôme (1934) is presented not in a narrative mode but as a series of diary entries; he wanted readers to apprehend the core disappointment of fieldwork for themselves.

Similarly Claude Lévi-Strauss, in Tristes tropiques (1955), sought to capture another culture’s ineffa­bility. But his field experience made him recognise that he could not come to know the unknowable, as any attempt to translate it undermined its distinguishing status. One consolation for him was that writing the book was akin to shamanic treatment, giving a comprehensible logic to a diversity of past events.

Debaene’s book is deeply researched, yet I was surprised that he presents French anthropology as distinctively distanced from the colonial enterprise. He fails to mention the rich, long tradition of French functionaries who produced solid ethnographic reports, whose worth later generations of academic fieldworkers would come to acknowledge.

Far Afield, beautifully translated, is as commemorative as it is celebratory; for contemporary French anthropology enjoys far less prestige, both at home and abroad, than its mid-20th-century predecessor. There is no candidate in Paris today who even aspires to match Leiris or Lévi-Strauss.

Far Afield: French Anthropology Between Science and Literature

By Vincent Debaene, translated by Justin Izzo
University of Chicago Press, 424pp, £80.50 and £24.50
ISBN  9780226106908, 07066 and 07233 (e-book)
Published 16 May 2014

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