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Lévi-Strauss and Beyond (review)

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 83, Number 3, Summer 2010
pp. 679-689 | 10.1353/anq.2010.0012

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"Is there a French anthropology today?" The question might seem arrogant to many, but it was addressed to me in 2003 during an AAA (American Anthropological Association) meeting in Washington, DC when an American friend and colleague questioned me about contemporary French anthropology. Although a Francophone Belgian, and not French, I found myself deeply puzzled by this question. Historically, anthropologists in Francophone Belgium have been profoundly influenced by French anthropology and, in particular, by Lévi-Strauss's structuralism, mainly through the work of his disciple based in Brussels, Luc de Heusch, who still defends him "come hell or high water" (de Heusch 2004). As a matter of fact, even though things have changed a lot since these times of hegemonic structuralism, many of us still draw today on French anthropological academic traditions and networks much more than on American and British ones. Whilst I did not manage to provide a satisfactory answer to my American colleague at the time of the conference, I take this short essay as an opportunity to eventually give him a response—a response emerging from a slightly different standpoint located outside of French academia—and to discuss one major text of contemporary French anthropology.

The present landscape of French ethnologie is diverse and fragmented, from Marc Abélès political anthropology (1992, 2001) to Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan's Anthropologie du développement (2005), passing by Jeanne Favret-Saada (2009), Christian Bromberger (1998) and Alban Bensa (2006). There are indeed multiple anthropologies in France today, many of them having ingeniously incorporated influences from British and American traditions. Yet, the impact of Claude Lévi-Strauss is paradigmatically enormous and subsequent generations of anthropologists are still compelled to define themselves in relationship to him—either to strongly oppose his work (as Georges Balandier did), to part ways with it whilst recognizing Lévi-Strauss immense influence on their intellectual effort (such as Pierre Bourdieu and Marc Abélès), or to creatively pursue the structuralist agenda, a perspective held by Philippe Descola at his best. In this review, I would like to take the piece discussed here as a text embodying a legacy of Claude Lévi-Strauss's work, but also as an attempt to move beyond it by entering into discussion with post-structuralist scholars, such as Pierre Bourdieu, Dan Sperber, and Bruno Latour. It constitutes an excellent illustration of a well-represented domain of anthropological inquiry in France, where discussions about cognition, perception, dispositions, praxis, structure, and the search for universals have been for long paradigmatic.

An Anthropology Beyond Nature and Culture

Philippe Descola is a prominent French anthropologist who, for the last 30 years, has conducted extensive ethnographical research in the Amazon among the Achuar people located at the border of Ecuador and belonging to the Jivaro linguistic cluster. He is the Director of the Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale (Laboratory of Social Anthropology) and is a Professor at College de France (where he holds the Chair in the Anthropology of Nature), a very distinguished position in French academy, formerly occupied by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Françoise Héritier. In fact, Par-delà Nature et Culture constitutes an elaboration of Descola's last two pieces, both translated in English, In the Society of Nature (1996 [1986]) and The Spears of Twilight (1998 [1994]). Whilst the first exemplifies a fine-grained ethnography of Achuar material and symbolic relationships with their environment (that we, Westerners, would wrongly term "nature" ), the second belongs to a different genre, a monograph of Achuar society and a personal and philosophical essay all at once, which reminds us of Tristes Tropiques by Lévi-Strauss, Descola's mentor and Ph.D. supervisor. Building on his previous ethnographical research, the book presented here offers us a vast regional comparative work, mostly drawing on examples taken from so-called "non-industrial" societies, and a stimulating piece of anthropological theory. It invites us to penetrate the multilayered complexity of diverse symbolic and ontological universes within which different people tell their own stories about the world in which they live and their complex perception of it. And the apprehension of such ontological universes goes far beyond the categories of nature...

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