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Marcel Detienne and Ashraf Noor - Murderous Identity: Anthropology, History, and the Art of Constructing Comparables - Common Knowledge 8:1 Common Knowledge 8.1 (2002) 178-187

Peace and Mind: Seriatim Symposium on Dispute, Conflict, and Enmity
Postcript on Method

Murderous Identity
Anthropology, History, and the Art of Constructing Comparables

Marcel Detienne

Translated by Ashraf Noor

Beneath heaven's vault and since time immemorial, comparative studies have been undertaken, particularly in the humanities, but there is a special type that I want to defend. It is experimental, constructive, and distinguished by the extent of its ambition, claiming access to all human societies without exception. This polyvalent sort of comparative study invites anthropologists and historians, historians and anthropologists, to work together--to construct together objects that I term comparables--and to do so by experimenting in the field of human societies and their cultural inventions without acknowledging limits of time and space. There is nothing the human mind does more naturally. Comparing means establishing furtive analogies, perceiving resemblances, accentuating differences, and then, insensibly, developing an appreciation, allowing oneself to partake in the kind of value judgments that the most confident among us make, with good sense and no difficulty, as a by-product of our comparisons.

No comparative activity can emerge from a perspective too familiar and limited. When--in Europe, in the sixteenth century--free spirits began to take unfamiliar religions into account, they indulged in a dangerous and subversive [End Page 178] operation. To compare beliefs, attitudes, different from those in revealed Scripture, from those of traditional interpretation, and thus from those sanctioned by the authority of the church, was to begin investigating their rationales and questioning them in a way that transcended the intimate truths of belonging and conviction. It was in the sixteenth century, with the explosive expansion of choice during the Reformation, that an initial comparative history of religion was sketched by historians such as Jean Bodin and Henri de la Popelinière, who compared the mores and customs of the ancients and of the "Gallic Republic" with those of the New World. At a time when the historian did not yet have a profession and was indifferent to the kind of nationalism that the nineteenth century would invent, the most visionary of historians dreamt of taking to sea--to experience and know other, very different societies. In the eighteenth century, it was still the religious question that incited Father Lafitau to inquire into the strange resemblances between the Indians of the New World and the inhabitants of the Old. Intrigued by the behavior of certain men-women among the American Indians, Lafitau proposed that one see them not as sexually perverse but as "abstinent,"comparable in every way to the Phrygian acolytes of Cybele, known in antiquity as Galles. Focusing on singular elements in two societies divided temporally and spatially, Lafitau was led to defend the "religious sense" of the Indians, denied so vigorously by others. Adept at relating the native Americans to the peoples of the Old World by finding correspondences between their myths and fables, this Jesuit came to inaugurate with Fontenelle--who himself had no interest in any religion revealed before Moses--a comparative ethnology of European ancients and American savages.

A reconstructive or restorative comparatism--which sought at times to establish a spiritual genealogy and at times to situate cultures and civilizations on the grade of evolution--arose in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Somewhat later, new kinds of knowledge--paleontology, geology, biology--that use comparative methods had to confront the authority of the Bible even to begin unraveling the history of the human species, in all its profundity, and to discover the plurality of human cultural experience on the earth. In archaeology, in the eighteenth century, comparatism made possible the reconstruction of a prehistoric past--a European past, at first--by positing, for example, that similar conditions and an equivalent level of culture lead to the production of homologous instruments for requisite goods. Developing parallel to comparative archaeology, which followed the advances in geology, linguistics became comparative within the new field of Indo-European languages. This kind of comparatism sought to reconstruct, by studying some of the earliest civilizations, the ancient states of a language that India and the Celtic world had shared. From linguistics to mythology and from mythology to the Indo-European civilizations, Georges Dumézil's approach would be, from 1935 and for the next fifty years, an experimental comparatism [End Page 179] that set itself the task of reconstructing the way of perceiving, analyzing, and classifying what was common to the civilization of Indo-Europeans in all its variety. This comparatism was very innovative and enabled unknown aspects of polytheistic systems to be discovered; but as it was, at the same time, a linguistic comparatism, Dumézil's approach remained restricted to the so-called Indo-European world.

This restorative comparatism, explored mainly in the nineteenth century, came to be opposed by Emile Durkheim's constructive approach to comparison, which sought to establish a typology without which any form of comparatism would be impossible. Durkheim held that the only scientific comparatism would be one that dealt with social types: the merchant, the priest, the prophet. He invited sociologists to construct such types by relating several systems and eliciting their common characteristics--the goal being to sketch a model or, as Max Weber would later term it, an ideal type. The work of the sociologist was, however, not to end there: what remained was to outline the differing traits of each chosen social type from one society to another, so that successive changes and variations could be discerned with respect to contexts. The key to human essence was, for Durkheim, to be found only through the analysis of social determinants. He thus inaugurated a tyranny of the social that anticipated the era of the social sciences.

Historiography and social anthropology differ in their relationship to generalization. While doing research recently on the use made of nationalism by historians, I was surprised to find that one David Potter, a member from 1955 to 1965 of an American "committee on historical analysis," was given the task of defining what a "historical generalization" might be. If a similar committee convened in the milieu of social anthropology, it would have to have been before 1865-1870, when E. B. Tylor developed his Science of Civilization: ever since, there have been Observers of Mankind. Anthropology was ambitious to be accepted as a body of knowledge, and so its project was to arrive at generalizations, whether these were rules about human relationships, the forms of social organization, or systems of representation. Anthropology was born comparative, while in the same era history, ambitious to qualify as a science, emphasized its deeply national and territorial roots, and asserted the incomparability of cultural histories. As I have already noted, history in the sixteenth century excluded no human society from its purview, recognized no limit to the knowledge it was possible to have about those societies, and claimed to study them without a priori assumptions. J. G. Frazer, not L. R.Taylor, became the first incumbent of the first chair of social anthropology in Europe, and his work compares ancient societies, the English and French medieval past, as well as primitive or archaic civilizations on all continents. It was only in the context of establishing history as a science in Germany and France, around 1870, that a series of divisions between cultures and historical periods came into use. [End Page 180]

The peoples until then known not as primitive but as uncivilized, devoid of civilization, came to be known as peoples without writing. "Without writing" could seem a mere statement of fact: ethnography in the nineteenth century paid scant attention to the graphic systems disseminated, on several continents, between the practices of divination and initiation. In the Enlightenment it was concluded that "without writing" meant "without history," and in the nineteenth century the equation was made a certainty. Since that time, history as a science and a discipline has concerned itself exclusively with societies that have writing. Even the "new history," in its various kinds and whatever their epistemological orientation, has remained faithful to this premise. Paul Ricoeur, a contemporary philosopher who likes to think for the historians, has written several volumes on the historiographical process without ever feeling a need to reflect upon the forms and practices of historicity in societies deemed to lack it. In France, Ricoeur's country, there are, so the experts estimate, some 8,000 professional historians, of whom more than 60 percent study the history of France. Outside the university, in the interstices of the Ecole des hautes études and the Centre national de recherche, there are perhaps 350 ethnologists, all more or less disconcerted at knowing this statistic and at knowing, too, the founding date of the sole department of comparative ethnology in France (at Paris-Nanterre): 1986.

Each historian in the West says that his or her interest is in a particular past but that this concern for the particular does not exclude desire for a larger vision. Yet what is a historical generalization? What right does the historian have to compare? These continue to be hard questions for a discipline on which all the weight of being a national conscience is said to rest--and not only in France. (The precise weight of this burden from country to country would make a good subject for comparative analysis.) It was between 1870 and 1890 that the science of history abandoned both contemporaneity and social comparison to human sciences then still in their youth. The very ambitiousness of historiography brought it to ignore the totality of societies labeled "other" and to understand "other" as meaning "without history." The comparatism that I am defending and would like to implement freely is a heuristic practice meant to appeal simultaneously to anthropologists and historians, drawing attention to the fact that if, as they claim, both are curious about human cultures and societies, they would profit from working together. I am suggesting not that historians and anthropologists juxtapose their inquiries but that they jointly practice a comparatism that is, as I said at the outset, both experimental and constructive. As such, its aim would not be to establish typologies or propose morphologies: the comparatism I am commending to anthropologists and historians could not, as a heuristic practice, seek correlations that might become general laws.

But are there not already, and above all in France, historical approaches [End Page 181] that have radically modified the distinction between societies to be studied historically and those to be studied by ethnologists? Could one not say that, since at least the early 1930s, the Annales school has restored the ambition of de la Popelinière and others in the sixteenth century to render every society susceptible to historical treatment? The Annales school did in fact experience a period of nomadic movement among historians, sociologists, geographers, and demographers. Having been trained by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, the historians of the first Annales generation wished to be more than servants of chronology (that old principle of selection and explication), more than mere interpreters of passing national phenomena. They wanted to discover the secrets of human society, comprehensively. But once that euphoria had passed, two facts made themselves felt: comparatists are rare and nationalism is a heavy weight. The only member of the Annales school to undertake comparative studies of historians in various societies was Marc Bloch, who in addition compared medieval societies throughout Europe. His approach to comparison was prudent, well-informed, and applied exclusively to societies neighboring each other spatially and contemporaneous in time. Bloch's was a comparatism constructed often ad hoc but it rendered privileged conceptual approaches problematic, and he had a taste for transversal questions. That taste could have brought him to transgress the frontiers of historical knowledge but, in my view, it did not. Later, in the 1960s, a cold war emerged between anthropology, a new field in France, and historiography. Attempts at cooperation between the two were experimental and short-term. It was then that historians discovered the charm of a historical anthropology that they could cultivate at home, among themselves, without running the risk of catching cold. Snubbed by anthropologists after being terrorized by sociologists, French historians remembered--they never really forgot--that historical knowledge has the benefits of age and legitimacy, and that history is a kind of knowledge both indissociable from and constitutive of nationality. Hence we still, in France (and elsewhere), produce and teach national histories that can form no basis for comparison. These are histories that, while assuming a "direct and familiar" objectivity about national tendencies, still tenaciously maintain value judgments bearing on neighboring countries that share with us a common past--a past dominated by "ours," which remains implicitly incomparable to "theirs."

I have thus far been describing the obstacles to comparatism that keep historians and anthropologists from working together to construct comparables. In order to avoid the "useful prejudices" that have for so long encouraged the maintenance of distance between two disciplines equally devoted to knowledge about human societies, it seems to me that working together in small groups or pairs is now essential. Each member must be convinced that to be nourished by the knowledge and questions of the others is as important as to analyze in depth [End Page 182] the civilization or society regarding which each is initially the professional specialist. But first, a shared question of methodology and epistemology arises: should we compare what are closest to each other or what are farthest apart? The one choice does not exclude the other, but ethnologists and historians acquainted with the poverty of the "direct and familiar" comparison will find most alive a comparatism that listens for dissonance and keeps scholars aware of the incomparable. I am not referring to the incomparable of those who from the first want to find incomparability, those who, for instance, want their nation, proud of its long heritage, to be incomparable to any other. I am not referring to the incomparability of the born Athenian, the native pure of all admixture. The incomparable in which I am interested offers an initial resistance to comparison and obliges the comparatist to ask how and why such and such a category does not exist or seems to have no meaning in one society investigated among others.

To be precise, I would suggest that comparison begin with the choice of a category not too strongly classificatory or too limited in implication--for example, the practices of "territorialization," the delineation of territory, in West African societies, ancient Israel, the Greek city-states,Vedic India, and (why not?) Japan. A reasonable choice of subcategory might be "foundation." How does founding take place in Vedic India, the societies of West Africa, and the rest?--Initial questions like this one are assured of their own banality until the moment in research when it turns out, for example, that there is no foundation, no idea of founding, in Japan. One does not found in Japan; one restores. A category that had seemed commonsensical is now inapplicable. Founding is just a particular way, one among others, of rendering territorial, of "territorializing." The plural comparatist immediately sets about reconstruing the verb to found, discovering progressively its complications and raising an ensemble of questions: what is it to commence, inaugurate, make historical, historicize? What does it mean to be born in a place, to have identity through birth, to be native, indigenous, with roots or deracinated? And what is a place or site? The conceptual components into which the comparatist dismantles the category or subcategory become ever more subtle, and the process involves traveling between the cultures and societies at issue in order to put the newly developed components to work. In this experimental phase, the comparatist finds the societies, the cultural ensembles, that react not only to the category being dismantled but also to the series of questions that its dismantling raises. To succeed, the comparatist must have liberty to leave behind the closest neighbors of the project's terrain and to depart in quest of cultures and societies that a self-respecting and thus respectable historian or strictly observant ethnologist would find untouchable.

Before elucidating the nature of what comparables can be constructed, it may be worth explaining in personal terms why the comparatism that I am defending is both experimental and valuable. Some years ago, in my desire to [End Page 183] understand why it was necessary in Greek antiquity to "serve the gods" (sacrifice to and worship them) at the founding of new cities and of institutions for collective deliberation, I was led away from the academic discussion, ever dull, about ourselves and our Greeks--a discussion in which it is supposed that democracy falls out of the blue onto the Athenian agora, then moves on to the American Revolution and the invention of democracy, real democracy, during the revolution of 1789 in France. My detour via the gods did not lead me to choose a formula of a "politico-religious" or "politico-ritualistic" character. My choice was a short-cut that permitted bringing into play numerous experiences of beginnings, and not only in the hundreds of minuscule city-states of Greece and Magna Graecia, but also in the Italian city-states, of which there were dozens, in the Cossack societies of the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries, in the monastic communities of medieval Japan, in the French Constituent Assembly of 1789, in southern Ethiopia, in today's Ochollo. I looked to any place it seemed possible to observe the multiple ways of assembling to debate and decide matters of common interest to a community that thereby becomes self-conscious. I allowed myself to consider groups and societies that knew nothing of each other, so long as each was in the act of beginning to take unforeseeable paths toward fashioning (by their various definitions) "the political." I found that the political does not have to take any familiar form but can interrupt, efface, transform itself, or acquire new plumage. My sense of the possibilities for the political and for "assembling" multiplied, and grew more intricate and unpredictable, as I analyzed the configurations caught in my net; it was a question of finding comparables, of finding good ones without rushing to the best immediately. Experimentation could continue on these lines just so long as the plural comparatist moved everywhere it was possible to go by the grace of a historian or the friendship of an ethnologist.

Comparison is no simple operation--the methodological and epistemic obstacles that combine to ensure that no one can accomplish it alone with any responsibility ensure as well that no group can accomplish it with any speed. One cannot hurry in the land of cultural variability. Between my project on territorialization and a project that has taken shape around the trope of the Land and the Dead have been two decades linked by reflections on the affinities between being native and laying foundations in several societies, above all in the Greek city-state. This is an inquiry, still in progress, in which the comparables echo some of those that the comparative approach I sketched out in Tracés de fondation allowed me to construct. Seen from a distance, and thus at first sight, the natives who proclaim they are "born of the land" on which they stand appear to be at the antipodes of those who travel far to found new settlements and city-states. Seen from up close, matters appear completely different. We should take the indigenous discourse on being native in an approximate or ironic way, even in the [End Page 184] wrong way. The Athenians so prided themselves on their autochthony that we moderns have forgotten that their myths of identity were sometimes taken ironically at the time. I am thinking of Euripides and his tragedy Erechtheus, preserved by the sands of Egypt and discovered thirty years ago by someone's pupil. The most incomparably solid sense of autochthony, that of the Athenians, had to be founded and refounded. It may seem that Athena, with her self-reborn olive tree, relegated her unhappy adversary Poseidon to definitive oblivion when he came to claim the recently emerged city of Athens. But to accept this version of events means disregarding the second round, which saw the return of Poseidon, his victory over the first born of the earth, Erechtheus, and his installation at the heart of the Acropolis in the temple of the Erechtheion. This version of the founding myth bespeaks a sense of being badly planted and unstable, though finally deeply rooted by the grace of a god who made himself, on more than one occasion, the accomplice of Apollo the Founder, god of solid foundations and stability--without whom, no Athenian could feel native and rooted.

Political arguments and rhetorical postures based at some level on autochthony are not unknown in the modern world, but when comparisons are drawn, one hears that the Greeks are incomparable. There is no legitimate point of comparison, it is confidently said, between a Frenchman of the far right today and a pure, purist native of Athens during the democratic golden age. Neither can one, in a literal-minded sense, make the Greeks respond to the very French demand of La terre et les morts that Maurice Barrès thundered from the right in 1899. Comparatism was launched only after the vital question, "How does one become native?", was asked and dangerously answered. It was a question that could not fail to turn the heads of Serbs in Greater Serbia, the very French militants of the National Front, and contemporary Hungarians who have indulged in an orgy of reburial in post-Soviet Mother Earth. Anyone responsive to the Land and the Dead or to the Blood and Soil of the Germanic world (a trope scarcely abolished) would respond to Jean-Marie Le Pen's eulogy to the incomparable French people, "this community of the race of memories in which Man blooms. He adheres to it by his roots, his dead, the past, heredity, heritage." The Athenians saw themselves in opposition to the other city-states, which were said to be, all of them--an indispensable contrast--composed of immigrants, foreigners, inferiors. We, the citizens of Athens, are pure natives, without mixed blood, without the alloy of foreign blood. The Athenians had a myth of pure blood like--may we not compare?--that of the French nobility, which invented a mythology of class purity that was to last for five hundred years.

To build a nation, Barrès wrote in his notebooks, one needs cemeteries and the teaching of history. Certainly that is the principle of historiography in France, running from its source in Jules Michelet down to the present day. But there are other holy lands and chosen peoples, and in laboring to examine all of [End Page 185] them, each incomparable, the archeologist/historian encounters entangled roots. On the other hand, the Guyakis, Amazonians whom their ethnologists have made familiar in the Paris Latin Quarter, assert fervently that they alone are mankind, while they continuously traverse a vast hunting ground that has neither center nor limits and that they keep pure of all trace of themselves or their dead, whom they set out to destroy along with their names. Here is a radical identity that nevertheless defines itself by dismantling syntagma of the kind found in the France that Barrès revered. What could it mean, given the Guyakis, for the French or Serbs to have or want roots somewhere in particular or to descend from a certain stock? That such questions could be raised and shown to have point justifies the enterprise of experimental comparatism--for autochthony and origins and race comprise, if any subjects do, an area in which we are desperate for perspective.

What we learn from exposure to dissonant configurations we can learn in no other way. Think of the Amazonians without memory, who appropriate a territory without roots, without dead, without limits; the Serbs of Greater Serbia, who claim a territory consecrated by ancestral blood, spilled six centuries before in a battle lost against the Turks; the Japanese of the sixteenth century, who invented a tradition and thus a modernity by "restoring" imperial tombs as a means of transplanting Japan's roots into a native (not Chinese) past and soil. These are three contrasting configurations that permit us see that the Land and the Dead of France or the Holy Land of the Chosen People in Israel are choices, cultural choices among others, and thus constructions as singular as others, gatherable and analyzable by students of humanity, whether ethnologists or historians. To construct comparables, it is insufficient to stand at a distance from the familiar, insufficient to understand that the familiar, the obvious, the commonsensical is always a culture, a construction become quotidian, a choice with a more extensive pedigree than others. Such choices may be unconscious, even if particular wills work to fashion them at given moments in history. The choices made, consciously and unconsciously, by differing cultures are the comparables with which the comparatist works. In approaching a question like "How does one become native?", the comparatist cannot deal with whole universes of culture (Japan, the Greeks, Serbia, the French). Furthermore, there are no global ways, even within particular cultures, of thinking about the sense of being native. It is an essential part of the comparison to break the category "being native" down into a series of elements, of terms with their accompaniments: "to be born of," "with roots" or "rootless" or "deracinated," the "annihilated dead" or the "anonymous dead," the "great dead" (with or without historians to select and magnify them), "foundation/refoundation/restoration," "blood," "soil," "land," "territory" . . . Comparables are, finally, orientations--they are not "deep structures" and not in principle offensive to contextualist or specialist scruples. Orientations can be [End Page 186] brought to light and analyzed only when apparently incomparable societies and cultures are confronted with each other. The resulting comparisons are verifiable to the extent that specialists--historians and anthropologists--are ready to share their knowledge and to labor strenuously in tandem. But why compare at all? the historian and the anthropologist ask yet again, comfortable in jobs that, however taxing, present manageable tasks in cut and dried packages, demand little collaboration, and not much humane imagination. My answer to the question, as many times as it needs repeating, depends upon the rewards attendant on specific comparisons. As the Hellenist looks for worthwhile comparables in Japan, the means emerge--on the terrain of "being native"--of getting to know some mechanisms at work in the drives of murderous identity, those that move our societies today, as they did yesterday and will do tomorrow.


Marcel Detienne, currently a Guggenheim Fellow, is Basil L. Gildersleeve Professor of Classics at Johns Hopkins University. His books in English translation include The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece, The Gardens of Adonis, The Creation ofMythology, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society and (with Giulia Sissa) The Daily Life of the Greek Gods.

Ashraf Noor is a research fellow, and editor of the journal Nahareym, at the Franz Rosenzweig Research Center of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also teaches at the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel-Aviv University.

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