Quoting Levi-Strauss on ethnocentrism and barbarism . . . following a brief rambling prelude because I cannot help myself



The mural in the photograph above is one of many in and around the central Sardinian village of Orgosolo. It features a quote from anthropologist Alfredo Niceforo who, in 1897, wrote of a ‘criminal skull’ prevalent in region, ‘all belonging to the most savage and primitive peoples . . . particularly common in areas of central Sardinia.’

Anyhow, here is our friend Mr. Claude Lévi-Strauss (who writes with a great deal more clarity than is characteristic in this text, by the by):



‘The attitude of longest standing which no doubt has a firm psychological foundation, as it tends to reappear in each one of us when we are caught unawares, is to reject out of hand the cultural institutions — ethical, religious, social or aesthetic which are furthest removed from those with which we identify ourselves. “Barbarous habits”, “not what we do”, “ought not to be allowed”, etc. are all crude reactions indicative of the same instinctive antipathy, the same repugnance for ways of life, thought or belief to which we are unaccustomed.


The ancient world thus lumped together everything not covered by Greek (and later the Greco-Roman) culture under the heading of “barbarian”: Western civilization later used the term “savage” in the same sense. Underlying both these epithets is the same sort of attitude. The word “barbarian” is probably connected etymologically with the inarticulate confusion of birdsong, in contra distinction to the significant sounds of human speech, while “savage” — “of the woods” — also conjures up a brutish way of life as opposed to human civilization. In both cases, there is a refusal even to admit the fact of cultural diversity; instead, anything which does not conform to the standard of the society in which the individual lives is denied the name of culture and relegated to the realm of nature.


There is no need to dwell on this naive attitude, which is nevertheless deeply rooted in most men, since this booklet — and all those in the same series — in fact refutes it. It will be enough, in this context, to note that a rather interesting paradox lies behind it. This attitude of mind, which excludes “savages” (or any people one may choose to regard as savages) from human kind, is precisely the attitude most strikingly characteristic of those same savages.


We know, in fact, that the concept of humanity as covering all forms of the human species, irrespective of race or civilization, came into being very late in history and is by no means widespread. Even where it seems strongest, there is no certainty — as recent history proves — that it is safe from the dangers of misunderstanding or retrogression. So far as great sections of the human species have been concerned, however, and for tens of thousands of years, there seems to have been no hint of any such idea.


Humanity is confined to the borders of the tribe, the linguistic group, or even, in some instances, to the village, so that many so-called primitive peoples describe themselves as “the men” (or sometimes — though hardly more discreetly — as “the good”, “the excellent”, “the well- achieved”), thus implying that the other tribes, groups or villages have no part in the human virtues or even in human nature, but that their members are, at best, “bad”, “wicked”, “ground-monkeys”, or “lousy eggs”. They often go further and rob the outsider of even this modicum of actuality, by referring to him as a “ghost” or an “apparition”.


In this way, curious situations arise in which two parties at issue present tragic reflexion of one another’s attitude. In the Greater Antilles, a few years after the discovery of America, while the Spaniards were sending out Commissions of investigation to discover whether or not the natives had a soul, the latter spent their time drowning white prisoners in order to ascertain, by long observation, whether or not their bodies would decompose.


This strange and tragic anecdote is a good illustration of the paradox inherent in cultural relativism (which we shall find again elsewhere in other forms); the more we claim to discriminate between cultures and customs as good and bad, the more completely do we identify ourselves with those we would condemn. By refusing to consider as human those who seem to us to be the most “savage” or “barbarous” of their representatives, we merely adopt one of their own characteristic attitudes. The barbarian is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism.’



~ Levi-Strauss, 1958 [1952], Race and History, pp. 11-12.



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Filed under Anthropology, Incidental

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