In Tristes Tropiques, a seminal work of ethnography and travel writing published to international acclaim in 1955, the great anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss begins the account of his legendary research trip into the interior of Brazil in a sceptical tone: “I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions.”Despite its hybrid format – combining memoir, travel writing, and ethnography – Tristes Tropiques became a popular bestseller. Its readers went beyond the niche audience of experts and immediately established its author as a major figure in the fields of anthropology and structuralism. The book appeared at a historical turning point, not only in the way structuralism was transforming anthropology – based on the analysis of society through the structure of language and culture – but also because it was unveiled during the post-war period, when ethnography was being transformed by the great movements of decolonization. The changes occurring in the discipline required not just a rethinking of how anthropological methods (participant-observer fieldwork) and discourses (ethnographic writing) shape the understanding of colonized societies and ‘faraway’ cultures, but also a reassessment of the underlying system of colonial modernity that subtended the developmental dynamics at the centre of interaction between European and non-European cultures.
While not an avatar of the dramatic restructuring of the modern system, the book’s title, Sad Tropics, had a measure of the elegiac in its narration. Its essential point was that the incursions of modernity may have come at great cost to many fragile societies that had limited resources to resist its darker motives. Another telling aspect of the book’s title is the fact that the narrative hinges only on the sadness of the tropics and excludes Europe from such malaise. The subtlety of this difference emblematizes the principal dichotomy that has bedevilled the ethnographic craft for more than a century, namely that anthropology’s research is built on a spatial model that measures the distances between far and near. Tristes Tropiques excavates this dichotomy. Its fluid literary style is packed with stories that work on distinctions that are both personal and professional, self-conscious and unconscious. Its account includes different forms of self-ethnography by way of narratives of Lévi-Strauss’s family, the French educational system and its social hierarchies, left-wing politics in Paris, a brief dalliance with Surrealism, the arts, and so on. At centre stage, however, are the...
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What is the current state of the subject and what about the status of its self-image? In contemporary discourses we encounter more and more “fragile identities,” in artistic works as well as in scientific theories, and those are today much less referring to a critique of the concept of identity, but much rather to the relationship those concepts of identity entertain with the overall precarious state of the subject in current social conditions that are characterized by political upheaval and change.
The book Fragile Identities investigates among other things the chances and also the possible endangerments of such a fragile self and asks for the resurging urgency of a contemporary concept of subjectivity. The publication combines international artistic and scholarly contributions, discussions and project documentations in relation to the second annual theme of the cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.