5.3 Application of Deconstruction-3

Application of Deconstruction:

In order to show how Deconstruction works in philosophy, Derrida introduces in his Of Grammatology some great thinkers and linguistics like, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Rousseau and applies deconstruction to their thought. In this section we will discuss about Derrida and Levi-Strauss.


Derrida and Levi-Strauss

Derrida now turns his attention to French anthropologist Claude Levi-strauss, for it was Levi-Strauss who applied Saussure’s structural linguistics to the study of anthrology in general, and myth in particular. Both Rousseau and Levi-Strauss base all there arguments on the binary opposition between nature and culture. Nature is innocent, pure and natural. Culture is corrupting, perverse. Both Rousseau and Levi-Strauss favor nature over culture. Both long for a lost innocence in culture. And both see writing as a perverse supplement to natural speech.


Part II, chapter 1, “The Violence of the Letter,” is largely devoted to Derrida’s reading of two episodes in Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques. This reading makes possible both a focusing of Derrida’s argument and an expansion of it at the same time. Unlike Saussure, Levi-Strauss contributes little to Derrida’s theory of textual processes; but like Rousseau, he conceives of writing in broad historical and ideological terms that seem to invite Derrida’s deconstructive reading. Derrida begins by making a distinction between discourse and text. ‘Discourse’ signifies “the present, living, conscious representation of a text within the experience of the person who writes, or reads it,” whereas the ‘text’ not only exceeds such representation but does so “by the entire system of its resources and its own laws”[1], as though guided by an internal avoidance mechanism that keeps it from being totally captured by a single act of reading. Deconstruction might then be seen as operating in this problematic zone between text and discourse.


Derrida, however, delights in showing how Rousseau’s dream of purity, innocence and presence shows up even in a modern science like anthropology. The Text Derrida deconstructs here is Levi-Strauss’s “The writing lesson”, a chapter in his book Tristes Tropiques (sad tropics), this book is an extended and sweetly melancholy farewell to a world which ceased to exist between the 193Os, when Levi-Strauss was there, and 1955, when his book was published.[2] Tristes Tropiques is the story of Levi-Strauss’s anthropological field work in the wilds of Brazil. There he finds the Nambikwara, a tribe in which he sees the perfect example of primitive naturalness. In fact, in his role as anthropologist, Levi-Strauss feels guilty—like a voyeur, an communal innocence of this primitive culture which knows no writing—only speaking. Levi-Strauss admires there closeness to nature, their open, communal sexuality, there way of knowing through myth rather than through science.


‘The Writing Lesson’ begins with a stark reflection on the gradual extinction of the Nambikwara population, which declined from approximately 20,000 in 1915 to no more than 2,000 when Levi- Strauss visited with them in 1938. It is not only their exemplary helplessness that makes the Nambikwara important; they also constitute the goal of the ethnographer’s professional quest: “I had been looking for a society reduced to its simplest expression. That of the Nambikwara was so truly simple that all I could find in it was individual human beings.”[3] As the subject of Levi-Strauss’s dissertation, La Vie familiale et sociale des lndiens Nambikwara, published in 1948, they become intimately associated with his reflections on his own writing practices. In this tribe, Levi-Strauss is convinced, he succeeded in finding not only the most elementary of cultures, but also the equivalent of the natural origin of human life that Rousseau had sought but was unable to find.


It had been Levi-Strauss’s practice to distribute pencils and paper among the non-literate tribes he visited. When Levi-strauss was writing in his note-book he observes the Nambikwara drawing various wavy lines, he recognizes that they are simply mimicking what they see him do with writing implements. The chief of the tribe, however, had further ambitions, since “he was the only one who had grasped the purpose of writing.” What the chief understands is that writing is a matter of power and that if he convinces his companions that he has mastered the white man’s writing and has become an intermediary agent for the exchange of goods, then his power will be enhanced. But it is only after the fact that Levi-Strauss realizes that the chief had seized of writing not to acquire knowledge, to remember, or to understand, but rather to reinforce his prestige and authority, and to maintain the unequal distribution of goods in his favour, at the expense of others. This realization in turn leads Levi-Strauss to reconsider the common view that writing has increased the ability of humans to preserve knowledge, that it is a form of artificial memory, that it makes possible a clearer view of the past and an enhanced ability to organize the present and the future, and that it marks the distinction between barbarism and civilization. This view he rejects because one of the most creative phases of human history occurred before writing, in the early neolithic age; because there dearly was tradition before writing; because writing, invented between 4,000 and 3,000 BC, was itself a result of the ‘neolithic revolution’; because for 5,000 years, from the birth of writing, ‘knowledge fluctuated more than it increased;’ and because life for a Greek and Roman citizen was not ,vastly different from that of an eighteenth-century middle-class European such as Rousseau. These reflections lead Levi-Strauss to the conclusion that writing seems to have favoured the exploitation rather than the development of human beings.[4]


Indeed, it finally seems, as Levi-Strauss reflects back on this episode, that the Nambikwara knew this before he did, since they withdrew their allegiance to their chief because of his attempt to exploit a feature of civilization in order to assert his power over them. But even this is in accordance with a principle of Rousseau’s. As he becomes corrupted by the uncertain power of writing, the chief refuses to renounce his independence in the interest of the general will. Writing –even as mime—blinds him to the basis of social life. which consists of contract and consent.[5]


Derrida finds his opening for a critique of Levi-Strauss in an earlier chapter of Tristes Tropiques entitled ‘On the Line.’ Here the question becomes, whose violence is displayed in Levi-Strauss’s text? This episode opens with Levi-Strauss’s unconvincing assurance that “the Nambikwara were easy-going, and unperturbed by the presence of the anthropologist with his notebook and camera.”[6] He proceeds to describe playing with a group of children when a little girl, after being hit by a playmate, tried to ‘whisper something in his ear. He soon realizes that as an act of revenge against her enemy, she is violating the taboo against revealing proper names. Indeed, it had become a practice of the anthropologists to assign Portugue’s names to the Indians because they could not learn their proper names.

Levi-Strauss seizes upon the opportunity supplied by the quarrel between the two girls “to incite the children against each other and get to know all their names.”[7] As in ‘The Writing Lesson,’ Levi-Strauss is aware of the devastating consequences of the contamination by Western culture on the disappearing world of the Nambikwara, yet he is eager to believe that they were ‘untroubled by the presence of the anthropologist,’ proceeds to violate the virgin space of the girls’ play, to exploit unscrupulously—as he himself admit—their childish quarrels, to encourage the tribe to mimic literacy, and to tempt their chief to exploit the power of Western literacy in a way that leads eventually to his deposition and exile. Here the ultimate violence is not that of the children against each other or of the chief against his tribe; rather it is the violence of the ethnographer himself, who violates the virginal space of the Nambikwara first with his foreign spectator’s presence and then with his political ideology [8].

Levi-Strauss has felt at one and the same time the necessity of utilizing this opposition and the impossibility of making it acceptable. In the Elementary Structures, he begins from this axiom or definition: that belongs to nature which is universal and spontaneous, not depending on any particular culture or on any determinate norm. That belongs to culture, on the other hand, which depends on a system of norms regulating society and is therefore capable of varying from one social structure to another. These two definitions are of the traditional type. But, in the very first pages of the Elementary Structures, Levi-Strauss, who has begun to give these concepts an acceptable standing, encounters what he calls a scandal, that is to say, something which no longer tolerates the nature/culture opposition he has accepted and which seems to require at one and the same time the predicates of nature and those of culture. This scandal is the incest-prohibition. The incest-prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural. But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense one could call it cultural.[9]

Derrida recalls that Levi-Strauss had himself referred to the ‘Marxist hypothesis on the origins of writing’[10] to be found in Tristes Tropiques. That hypothesis–more accurately a blend of Saussurean phonocentrism and Levi-Strauss’s Marxism–combines the two constituents of the European hallucination: (1) man’s exploitation by man is the fact of writing cultures of the Western type, and (2) communities of innocent and un-oppressive speech are free from this accusation.[11] In his critique of Levi-Strauss’s political ideology, Derrida observes that Levi-Strauss does not distinguish either between hierarchization and domination or between authority and exploitation. As a result of this failure, he ‘confounds law and, oppression’ in a way that is totally alien to Rousseau, while nonetheless offered under the name of Rousseau.


Levi-Strauss argues a necessary coincidence of compulsory education, military service, which leads him to conclude that the struggle in the nineteenth century against illiteracy is ‘indistinguishable from the increased powers exerted over the individual citizen by the central authority” and that it is in the interest of the state for everyone to be able to read so that Authority can decree that ignorance of law is no defence[12]. Derrida warns against the temptation simply to reverse Levi-Strauss’s judgment. Indeed, in Europe in the nineteenth century, Derrida concedes, the progress of education and formal legality might well have had the effect of consolidating power in a given class or in the state. But it cannot be rigorously deduced that liberty, illiteracy, and the absence of public instruction go hand in hand. Levi-Strauss has been driven by the unexamined metaphysical and ethical weight of his suspicion of writing to adopt a univocal conception of law and the state, which substitutes anarchy for Rousseau’s contract and consent. In this sense, Levi-Strauss made his long journey into the jungles of Brazil only to deny the other, which was the object of his search. Without differance, which is the recognition of writing in speech, and without the ‘presence of the other,’ Derrida concludes, there is no ethics[13], only ethnocentrism replicated in the name of anti-ethnocentrism.


[1] Of Grammatology, p. 142

[2] Michael Payne, Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, p. 142

[3] Levi Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, John and Doreen Weightman (tr.), London: Jonathan Cape, 1973, p.416, As quoted in Reading Theory, An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida and Kristeva, p. 143

[4] Ibid., p. 144

[5] Ibid., p. 144

[6] Ibid., p. 145

[7] Ibid., p. 145

[8] Of Grammatology, p. 131

[9] Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, Alan Bass (Tr), London, The University of Chicago press, 1978, p. 283

[10] Of Grammatology, p. 119

[11] Of Grammatology, p. 121

[12] Of Grammatology, p. 131-2

[13] Of Grammatology, p. 139-40