Far Afield (Review)

VINCENT DEBAENE. Far Afield: French Anthropology between Science and Literature (trans. Justin Izzo). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014, xv, 398 pp.ISBN 9780226107066

Far Afield traces the interactions between anthropological writing and literature in France from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 1970s, with an emphasis on the tension between ‘science’ and ‘literature’. Written by a literary scholar, Vincent Debaene, the book is remarkable in its detailed concern with the rhetoric of French anthropological writing until the 1970s and its depth of investigation into the historical links between anthropology, humanistic scholarship, social science, cultural critique, and fiction. Originally published in French as L’Adieu au voyage (Gallimard, 2010), the book also translates a different history of anthropology to the one traced in the Anglo-American canon, which offers valuable comparative insights to the historian of anthropology as well as the social anthropologist.

The book’s central object is the phenomenon of ‘second books’ peculiar to French anthropologists in the lineage of Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss. Marcel Griaule, Michel Leiris, Alfred Métreaux, Claude Lévi-Strauss – all these authors have tended to produce two books based on their fieldwork experience: an initial, ‘scientific’ monograph and a second, more literary work to complement the initial one (or in some cases, to anticipate the upcoming monograph). Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes tropiques and Leiris’ L’Afrique fantôme are well-known exemplars of this trend, but Debaene surveys many more works in the same genre, extricating in the process some common ground between these works and explaining how the boundary between science and literature is reframed through them.

Far Afield is structured around this ‘second book’ phenomenon, and it is broadly divided in three parts. The first part defines the historical and rhetorical specificity of interwar French anthropology; the second part delves into detailed case studies of well-known ‘second books’ (including Tristes tropiques and L’Afrique fantôme); and the last part explores the ‘disputes over territory’ (p. 249) between the social sciences and the literary field in France, with some attention to the shifting position of anthropology in these disputes. The reader with an interest in the history and theory of anthropology will find the first two parts most directly relevant, although the third part contains some valuable passages as well, including a clarification on the difference between Lévi-Straussian and Barthesian structuralism (pp. 296-307).

More specifically, and without undervaluing the book’s overall merit, chapters 3, 4, and 5 seem to present the most original insights. Chapter 3 examines the tension between ‘document’ and ‘atmosphere’ in interwar French anthropology. While the former designates the basic data on a given society gathered and classified by anthropologists, the latter designates the society’s ineffable life, which cannot be grasped by the dead document. The recurring yet insoluble tension between document and atmosphere in the writing of interwar French anthropologists explains, in part, why they sought to write ‘second books’ to describe this atmosphere and compensate for the document’s unliveliness. Yet, the document remains a powerful epistemological category insofar as the notion still inflects the ostensibly more literary style of ‘second books’ – some of which have sought to become ‘evocative’ or ‘living’ documents (pp. 71-73).

Chapters 4 and 5 examine anthropological rhetoric in more detail. Chapter 4 explores how indigenous texts were incorporated by French anthropologists into their ‘second books’, arguing that this incorporation attempted to evoke the society’s atmosphere in a documentary spirit (with mitigated success given the absence of common ground between the text and the reader). Chapter 5, on its part, situates ethnographic writing vis-à-vis travel writing, arguing that the rhetoric of distinction adopted by anthropologists against travel writers is similar, in some respects, to the rhetoric adopted by these writers against one another. Debaene thereby illustrates how the anthropologist’s disdain of travel writing might obscure common grounds between these two discursive fields in France.  

Setting aside their own substantive merits, these chapters bring into perspective how anthropology’s insertion in – and interaction with – broader discursive fields varies across national context. The French case is interesting in this sense, because there have been numerous interactions if not borrowings across the divide between science and literature over the 20th century, whereas in the English-speaking world, this boundary has been less porous, both in terms of institutional contact and stylistic influence. One should notice, moreover, how the very terms ‘science’ and ‘littérature’ did not cover the same discursive fields in France as they did in the English-speaking world (see Debaene’s preface to the English edition, pp. ix-xv). This illustrates how histories of anthropology, just as much as the anthropologist’s own work, need some cultural translation to relay how different historical contexts shape the discipline’s discourses and institutions in different ways.

This translation, moreover, enriches assumptions about the discursive fields within/across which anthropology has been situated. The circumstances in which French anthropology was written and received until the 1970s contrast heavily with the British or the American cases since WWII. In the latter contexts, the professionalization of social anthropology has created an insular institutional and discursive space where anthropologists talk to one another, without being integral to social scientific or literary circles as they have been in France. Thus, the contrast between the way in which anthropology is written and practiced today is more remarkable when one considers the discipline’s earlier phases or, better yet, its earlier phases across national borders. This is arguably the great benefit in reading the history of anthropology as a contemporary anthropologist, and Far Afield affords this possibility in a dense but well written volume. Overall, Far Afield is an excellent contribution to the history of anthropology and specifically, the history of anthropological writing in France. Given the breadth of the book’s scope, it would be too harsh to criticize it for including too little detail on the institutional politics of French anthropology; or for reducing the French anthropological tradition to the canonical lineage of ‘Durkheim-Mauss-Lévi-Strauss-Bourdieu’ (p. xii). The book is well researched, well translated, and will interest all scholars with a keen interest in the French anthropological tradition or the history of anthropology more broadly.

This review was initially published in 2017 by the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, vol. IX, no. 3, pp. 411-413