Philippe Descola: “Thinking about new forms of political representations”

The light irony and lucid enthusiasm which the anthropologist Philippe Descola inspires in the future of his discipline, these are two traits that he never departs from in his practice as an Americanist, that is to say specialist in the peoples of pre-Columbian America. Wasn’t this scientist born in 1949 surveying his first ethnographer’s field just two years ago? He had discovered it in 1973, while he was the “doctoral student” of Claude Lévi-Strauss, in the land of the Achuar, a group of Jivaro Indians living in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, not far from the border between the ‘Ecuador and Peru.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also “The Shapes of the Visible”: Philippe Descola puts the history of art back into play

The years he spent among them cured him of the romantic temptations which lie in wait for so many ethnologists in France, and which the general public maintains. “Second book” that they often write on the basis of their experience as an observer and traveler. The expression was coined by Vincent Debaene, in Farewell to travel (Gallimard, 2010), and designates this particularity which pushes French ethnographers to redouble their scientific works with a more “literary” book.

Among the Achuar

Just like Claude Lévi-Strauss with Sad tropics (Plon, 1955), itself preceded by Easter Island, by Alfred Métraux (Gallimard, 1941), or Ghost Africa, by Michel Leiris (Gallimard, 1934), Philippe Descola published a “second book” which made him famous: The Lances of Twilight (Plon, 1993), a marvelous and often burlesque account of his stay with the Achuar in the late 1970s. “Basically, at one time or another, we all take ourselves for Rousseau, he confides to the “World of Books”. Or, at least, we try to draw philosophical lessons from our field experience, which does not exist among the Anglo-Saxons. In my case, I tried to make those who are not familiar with anthropology understand what it is to live for several years with a collective and how, thanks to a click, a conversation , builds an understanding of an interaction with this group, generalizing from small facts of this type. “

cave painting of a barramundi fish, Australia, early 20th century.

But the young normalien de Saint-Cloud, fascinated by Marxism (Althusser version) in the 1960s, soon “Defrocked philosopher” because he becomes an anthropologist by following the courses of Maurice Godelier, is aware that it is necessary, if one wants to make a career, to write a “First book before the second”, in this case his doctoral thesis, which is the main subject of Domestic Nature. Symbolism and praxis in the Achuar ecology (1986; republished Editions of the House of Human Sciences, 2019). From 1987, Philippe Descola will teach at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, before joining the Collège de France in 2000.

You have 45.53% of this article to read. The rest is for subscribers only.

Leave a Comment