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FIY

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Posted in May 2010

on wondering what you are doing there

This is from Claude Lévi-Strauss "Tristes tropiques", p. 450 of the 1955 Plon edition. The translation and the bold text are mine:

One wonders, more than anything: what did I come here to do? With what hope? To what end? What is, after all, an etnographic research? Is it perhaps the normal activity of a profession like all others, with the one difference that the office or the lab are separated from the home by some thousand kilometers? Or is it the consequence of a more radical choice, implying a questioning of the system in which one was born and grew up? I had left France five years before, I had neglected my university career, whose steps my wiser classmates had been busily climbing; the ones that, like I used to have, had an inclination towards politics had by now been made members of the parlament, and soon probably they would be ministers. I, meanwhile, running around in deserts, pursuing the rubbish of humanity. Who or what, then, had pushed me to scramble the normal flow of my life? Was it a trick, a smart detour that would allow me to re-enter my career with superior, and recognized, abilities and advantages? Or did my decision express a deep incompatibility towards my own social group, a group from which, in any case, I had decided to live more and more apart.

I like this piece of Lévi-Strauss (among many others: it is a great book) because it comes to symbolize for me the moment of deep culture shock that awaits most (all?) visitors to other lands. At first it is all fun and fascinating strangeness, then routine sets in and then, when you think that you had it all tied down, contradiction explodes in your face.

 

You realize that, no, we cannot all get along, not without cultural compromise. You realise that the Indians (the Dutch, the Koreans, the truck drivers, the cops, the expectant mothers, the Italians…) are not actors in costume, cleverly playing at being part of a strange culture: they are really like that. They really think and act differently from you. And you are not going to change them, certainly not through frontal attack. This is when you have to fall back on your own strength, and when you have to remind yourself of the fondamental fact that you went to visit them, they did not come to visit you. They have a right to be exactly as they want to be, you have the duty to be compatible with them. 

The photograph shown above is from the Malinowski
archives at the London School of
Economics. You can see it

and many more at high resolution there. They also want me to say
that it is (c) London School of Economics and Political Science 2005.

 

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