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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La tentation littéraire de l’ethnologie française

by Arnaud Saint-Martin

The Literary Temptation of French Ethnologists

{A Farewell to Travelling. French Ethnology between Science and Literature} By Vincent Debaene, Gallimard pub., 2010

Translated Tuesday 21 December 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

French ethnology is a frustrated scholarly figure. An explorer of otherness, the French ethnologist is caught in the vice of identity: while he aspires to the most positive science, he remains fascinated by literature, les belles lettres. If on the one hand he consents to transcribe his observations on the field in austere monographs written for his peers, he also breaks free from the limits of this exercise by writing a “second or ‘other’ book” that gives pride of place to subjectivity, style, and the moral edification supposedly fostered by learned travelling.

The list of those narratives is a long one, in which a potential writer’s talent is given free rein and whose authors sometimes find themselves consecrated by posterity both as scholars and as men of letters - so with Michel Leiris’ l’Afrique fantôme(1901-1990) [1], or Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes tropiques [2], and so many others.

The dilemmas of ethnologic writing reveal the configuration of the relations between science and literature. Vincent Debaene takes the full measure of those relations, and makes the most of the insightful hypothesis of the “other book”. As soon as the discipline emerged in the 1920s, French ethnologists were indeed torn between contradictory injunctions, to which the “other book” has brought a resolution. This kind of first person narrative strikes a compromise by incarnating the scientific study in the flesh of the writing. But as the author points out, “all those ’supplements to the ethnographer’s travels’ stand (often explicitly so) in an ambiguous relation to the scholarly work of which they are supposed to be the ’counterpart." Witness the view Claude Lévi-Strauss took of his Tristes tropiques: according to him, that short occasional work came only second to his most abstractedly structuralist works. And yet it was that work that consecrated him the public hero of a new anthropological humanism.

Besides, Debaene, a professor of literature, brings to light the thematic and formal kinship of this best-seller with Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He does this thanks to an “immanent understanding” of the rift between literature and science. His ambition is not to justify the existence or relevance of this rift, but to elucidate the social, intellectual and professional conditions that brought about those divisions in knowledge and perpetuated them through history. Thus the author shows how the values of the scientific nature and of the literary character of writings continually evolve through changing writing and reading practices, notably through criticism.

Beautiful pages are thus devoted to the reception of “supplements” by authors as closely concerned as Georges Bataille [3]. Maurice Blanchot [4], or Roland Barthes [5]. In addition to proposing fine interpretations of those pages, Debaene is just as competent as a historian of French ethnology. As a result, this work is a really complete and well-informed study.

Arnaud Saint-Martin is a sociologist.

[1Published in 1934. A French ethnologist, writer and art critic, Leiris’ first contact with field work was as secretary-archivist for the Djakar-Djibouti expedition, for which he was recruited by Marcel Griaule in 1931 despite his lack of academic degrees, owing to the interest he had shown, as a Marxist, in ethnographic studies. L’Afrique fantôme was unlike the traditional ethnographic writing style of Griaule, being both an ethnographic study and an autobiographical project. He was then appointed ethnographer at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, a position he kept until 1971.

[3A friend of Leiris, who greatly valued his anti-conformism and love of transgression, Georges Bataille (1897-1962) ventured into the fields of literature, sociology, anthropology, ethnology, economics, and art history

[4Maurice Blanchot (1907 – 2003) was a French writer, philosopher, and literary theorist whose work had a strong influence on post-structuralist ’French theory’.

[5Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician who explored a wide range of fields. His thought influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiotics, existentialism, social theory, Marxism, anthropology and post-structuralism.

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