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Archeology of Violence

Archeology of Violence, New Edition

by Pierre Clastres; trans. Jeanine Herman and Ashley Lebner
Semiotext(e), The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1994
240 pp., Paper, $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-58435-093-4.

Reviewed by Allan Graubard
New York, NY 10019 USA


I came across Pierre Clastres quite by chance several years ago at a large bookstore affiliated with an uptown university in New York. The title drew my interest, and when I saw that the novelist Paul Auster provided the translation, I grew more intrigued. Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians was a revelation of sorts that Clastres' previous book in English, Society Against the State, framed. Here was an anthropologist whose research had convinced him that much of his predecessors' works on primitive societies had missed the point, some by a large degree, some by a small degree. Simply, despite the ethnographic evidence, anthropology was not immune from the ideological distortions that Western culture commonly made when considering primitive societies. Knowing how they lived did not ensure that we understood why they lived as they did. And at the heart of that distortion was the power of the state; a monumental presence that we, if only for the sake of clarity, struggle to engage and disengage.

Archeology of Violence, now in a new edition, carries a similar potency if in more discrete, self-contained chapters; 12, in fact, that focus on seminal issues dealing with the state and alterity, which Europe met in Native America.

By his insights, Clastres revives what alterity is and what it implies. His vigor in questioning has also served to instill a political context within anthropology precise to the culture and what we bring to it. From his docu-satire on tourism to his discussions of ethnocide, myths and rituals, primitive power and economy, the forms of submission so essential to states, the ethnocentrism of Marxist anthropology, the abstractions of structuralism, and war and the warrior in primitive societies, we are left with an evolving view that his sudden death in 1977, at the age of 43, cut off.

How much of this anthropology has taken to heart since then, and refined or refuted, is not for me to say. I am no expert. But when reading Clastres, I am compelled by his thought, the evidence he presents, and his capacity for a kind of interpretation that raises issues that strike home because of their immanence. Primary among them is our need for alterity, our expectation, however problematic, that it is still present, and the growing impoverishment of our world whose diverse reflections may very well congeal to a single covalent image mediated by commodity exchange and hierarchical structures of governance.

Is this the legacy that we will leave to future generations? For Clastres, as I believe for most of us, it seems so. And yet, because he uses science well, and knows the difference between qualities of logic, which theory all too often appeals to, and experience, which vitiates theory of its abstractions, his views open a glimpse on alterity that may yet prompt us to discern ways to nourish it as we can - a vivacity that Clastres seeks even as his, and our time, constrains it. With the stunning image that flashed across our screens in May 2008 of a "last uncontacted tribe" in the Amazon jungle near the Peruvian border, in an aptly named "ethno-environmental protected area," there is little question that the road ahead is opaque.

Most important, I think, is Clastres' insistence that our failures of interpretation, when faced with primitive hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, close the door on their worth as human organizations within the context of their needs and desires; based, as he often reiterates, not in subsistence but affluence, not in unity but differentiation, not in subservience but freedom (albeit a type of freedom that we find difficult to accept), and not in ignorance but with knowledge. Alienated individuality, as we know it in the West, is certainly not the point here.

War is also a central theme for Clastres. And why shouldn't it be? In primitive societies war is a global phenomenon, with very few exceptions. It is also a force that sustains it. His discussion thus not only turns the tables on anthropological views - that war comes from scarcity, that war advances hunting from animals to men, that war feeds a warrior class who make war on others as much to secure their servitude as the servitude of those in their own society, that war results from an exchange gone bad, and, finally, that war roots in a failure to sustain the peace - but also raises the issue in terms of his subject with a directness that would be exceptional were his descriptions, drawn from his data, not so evident. What war is in primitive societies is not what it is for modernity. For the former it is prestige that empowers, and war becomes possible only when it embodies the collective will. For the latter, power provokes war, with prestige a concomitant. Here, the maintenance of power by war within and over the state and enemy states is a given. That war emboldens the modern state while preventing the establishment of a primitive state is something that Clastres also asks us to consider. That war is continuous, a kind of stasis that relates and differentiates them and us, is simply a statement of fact.

And while Clastres does not explicitly question these differences in the essays that comprise his "archeology," there is an implicit contrast drawn between primitive and modern societies, including what we have gained and lost through our history of, and political organization for, war.

Published in books and journals mostly during his life - from Les Temps Mordernes and L'Hommes to Encyclopedia Universalis - the chapters in this new edition chart junctures in the author's research whose interweaving themes I have mentioned.

Do we understand primitive society with greater acuity because of Clastres? Is our interpretation of Clastres sufficient to provoke further or different unknowns for research? What can we use of him to clarify our dilemmas in this second decade of the 21st century? Are protected areas, the transfigurations of art, political imagination or the kind of adventures that reveal our limits, differences and commonalities enough to stave off an accelerating homogeneity? Surely the Archaeology of Violence will contribute to these, and other, debates.

Last Updated 1 December 2010

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