Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pierre Clastres, "Archeology of Violence"

(Semiotext(e), 2010)

In 1977, at the time of his death by road accident, Clastres was compiling materials for his third book. Only 43, he had by then inaugurated a groundbreaking political anthropology in the wake of his fieldwork in South America. Having studied under Claude Levi-Strauss and, later, Gilles Deleuze/Felix Guattari, Clastres went on to severely if respectfully critique the structuralism of his early master and influence the authors of Capitalism and Schizophrenia considerably. He is now an essential reference for ethnologists as well as more radical French theory kids. He is also somewhat erroneously considered an exemplary "anarchist" anthropologist. Not in any obvious way concerned to put forth specific political programs (though his sympathies may certainly be detected), Clastres devoted his career to rigorously describing and theorizing what he termed "societies against the State".

Semiotext(e) has reissued Clastres's posthumous volume, Archeology of Violence, originally published in France in 1980. The essays collected expand upon his central argument, which defines "primitive" societies by their refusal of the State. Taking such societies seriously, for Clastres, means recognizing that they are not embryonic or proto-societies, but rather full-blown political totalities which have constituted themselves in a very conscious and deliberate way so as to prevent the rise of inequality, (non-sexual) division of labour and, ultimately, since these are its very substance, the State. In brief, since the State is a permanent possibility in human society, primitive societies constitute themselves as elaborate machines for warding it off. Accordingly, Clastres roundly rejects Marxist anthropology and other historicizing / economizing discourses (cf. his polemical essay "Marxists and their Anthropology"). It is the political, rather than the economic or the biological, which constitutes the horizon of primitive social life. According to Clastres, so-called "primitives" are actually very shrewd politicians. Even where one detects exoticizing tendencies in his turns of speech, Clastres is genuinely trying to take the people he is studying seriously.

While the general line of his argument is already trotted out in his earlier works Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians and Society Against the State, the main contribution of Archeology of Violence is to have examined "primitive" war as a tactic for keeping the State at bay. The almost universal bellicosity of tribal populations in the ethnographic record is thought by Clastres to reflect a centrifugal / atomizing tendency which at once asserts the group as a unified totality, and ensures maximum political dispersion between groups. Of particular interest is the final essay, in which Clastres examines the role of the warrior class in such societies. Since they serve the greater social interest of warding off the State, but also risk inaugurating the State via the quasi-monopoly of violence they engender, warriors become trapped in a social logic whereby their glory can only be secured by ever grander and more individualistic military exploits - thus rendering the warrior a being doomed to die. "Primitive" society is evidently sufficiently complex and canny to recognize and regulate tendencies within tendencies, machines within machines. Very Deuleuzo-Guattarian.

This brings me to my last point. Since Clastres's writing is wonderfully clear, and since he reiterates his positions in the book a great many times, the long introduction by de Castro really puts the cart before the horse. True, Clastres was influenced by and influenced Deleuze and Guattari. This is a very crucial and fascinating aspect of his work. Starting things off with D&G speak risks clouding things, however. Interested readers would do well to read the introduction last, since it does offer some great insights but ultimately gets bogged down in segmentarity, lines of flight and other such concepts.

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