Pierre Clastres

Antonio Helio Cabral (Reviews Journal)


preface to the book "Archeology of violence –. Essays in Political Anthropology”.

Someone else, more competent, would have the task of systematically presenting and analyzing the work of Pierre Clastres, partially known by the Brazilian reader, thanks to the translation of his book society against the state (Ubu Publisher). Another is the purpose of this brief note, which is intended only to point out some moments of his intellectual journey, which (interrupted, albeit by an early death) so profoundly marked ethnology, political thought and philosophy in France today.

A minor task that, being within the reach of those who were lucky enough to live with the author since the beginning of the 60s, can be useful to the reader, giving him a vision (even if impressionist) of the single move which, going through successive stages, culminates in his last writings, gathered in this volume. How, in fact, can one fully understand a work without reconstructing the sinuous progress that led to its most complete expression? That sometimes hesitant walk that the final version tends to obliterate, but which nonetheless inhabits the apparently white space between its lines.

Perhaps it is not useless to go back in time: like Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Clastres started in ethnology from a previous formation in the field of philosophy. But even though he took his first steps into this new domain under the inspiration of Lévi-Strauss himself, it is certain that such a conversion did not correspond to such a radical break as the one described in sad tropics (Companhia das Letras), where outdated philosophy was not preserved, but rejected as scholastic and sterile rhetoric. In the case of Pierre Clastres, respect for the master of French ethnology did not lead him to deny the past or philosophy: the practice of structural analysis did not interrupt his interaction, for example, with German philosophy.

Rare case, for those who remember the intellectual atmosphere of the time, when “structuralism” (the ideological or mundane effect of structural analysis) presented itself as a kind of Last Judgment of Reason, capable of neutralizing all the ambiguities of History and Thought. . If my memory serves me right, in the early 1960s, even during his harsh coexistence with the “primitives” of Paraguay, Clastres did not interrupt his meditation on the Letter on Humanism and essays and conferences by Heidegger. A heretic from the start, and at the most vigorous and dogmatic moment of the “structuralist” wave, he did not hesitate to glimpse, in the hegemony of linguistic models in the practice of the human sciences, something like an echo of the hegemony of Logos, of the idea that “language it is the mansion of Being” and that Man “inhabits the language”. For the orthodoxy of the time, sweetly positivist, more than heresy, such harmony would be a dangerous symptom of “irrationalism” or obscurantism.

Thus, contrary to the scientism of the time, it is understandable that Pierre Clastres always distanced himself from the purely formalist where a good part of Lévi-Strauss's disciples then glided. But this first heresy was not based only on a question of philosophical taste or, more simply, on a opinion external to scientific practice. Let us dwell for a moment on the beautiful essay “La Philosophie de la chefferie indienne” [The philosophy of indigenous leadership], published in 1962, accessible to the reader in the Brazilian edition of The society against the state, which exemplarily expresses the first moment of the work. The text matters to us because, being a starting point, it clearly reveals the pontine de heresy that we begin to describe: this clinamen, whose last result is the present volume and the crafts that animates you.

It's not just the presence of the word philosophy in the title (and which, however, has history), nor the absence of any algorithm throughout the text, which interest us at the moment (although both are not indifferent in the definition of a style). What interests us in this essay, which achieved great notoriety soon after its publication, is the way in which it calls into question the transparency of the exchange and communication as a rule of incorporation of the company. This is not the place to summarize this well-known text, but to underline the subtle way in which the author shows how the exercise of power in primitive societies introduces a minimum of obscurity into the clarity of pure reciprocity. The problem is that of the boss, the subject of ineffective power and a speech without interlocutors.

At this critical point, a society that unfolds according to the scheme of reciprocity finds its shadow or its negative: the place where all communication is interrupted. And yet this negative has substance, since it is indispensable to the sewing of sociability. The lesson learned from this is the following: it is not enough to build exchange models to capture the to be of that society. For that, it is necessary to capture something like a collective intentionality, deeper than the structures that express it, which precisely founds a sociability that search power as negative, to prevent their separation from the social body, just as it is capable of transforming language (which was a sign) into value. From the outset, ontology of the social and reflection on Power are closely associated.

But, with this theoretical decision, it is not just the famous empire of “structure” that enters into crisis, since, with it, it is the diachronic thread of the “philosophies of history” that suffers a great shock. Is it not paradoxical, in fact, that a society organizes itself to prevent the birth of a figure it does not know? Is not time, as we commonly represent it, severely subverted? Present, Past, Future cavort and seem to wrap themselves up in an incomprehensible way.

But, let's simplify and date: it is at the end of the 60's and at the beginning of the next that Pierre Clastres opens the second moment of his itinerary. It is here that he begins to draw the more general theoretical effects of his early works and moves from pure ethnology to what we might call a critique of ethnology. Would the so-called human sciences today think primitive societies differently from classical philosophy? In fact, classical metaphysics (and the human sciences dependent on it) accustomed us to thinking of time as linear and history as cumulative: let us imagine an ascending line, which leads from less to more, from nothing to being, from the possible to the real. .

Bergson, on the other hand, denounced both, particularly in his beautiful critique of the idea of ​​nothingness and the retrospective illusion. To decipher the past as an incomplete present is to describe the past as pierced by the voids of nothingness, Bergson would say. It is not very different what Clastres says about the dominant representation of societies PULL State: that organism that shelters, in its interior, the volume of a pure absence. But is it so, or does such a proposition derive from the retrospective illusion and the mirages of the absence, ghosts of our thought? Retrospective illusion, mirage of absence, conception of the State as the destiny of humanity – all these prejudgments are intertwined in the traditional representation of the primitive and of Reason, which remains alive in much of ethnology, philosophy of history and politics today. .

But – this is the insidious question posed by Pierre Clastres – what if we tried to think differently? Why not think of primitive society in its full positivity, freed from the linear relationship that condemns it to its other or your after? With this question, the problematic panorama changes shape: what is described as lack can perfectly be described as the autarchy of a society undivided. The birth of the State need not necessarily be considered as the passage from emptiness to fullness; can even be seen as is, passage from indivision to division.

Someone might ask: “If that is so, how to account for the birth of the State?”. Prudent, Pierre Clastres does not intend to answer (although his latest research on the war perhaps headed in that direction, as can be guessed in archeology of violence, chap. II, infra). But he could rule out at least some current responses. Mainly the one that sees the common thread of the passage or the logic of the jump in the calm continuity of economic history. As the answer which is one of the answers provided by the classics of Marxism (cf. Claude Lefort. The shapes of history, Brasiliense) and which came to become unique in today's dominant Marxism. This is what appears, for example, in the preface to Marshall Sahlins' book and in the various texts that polemicize so cheerfully and cruelly with ethno-Marxists. Contrary to this view, it is not economic division that creates the conditions of separate power; on the contrary, it is the emergence of the state or social division that triggers the Need, destination and economy.

Thus, this itinerary closes its circle: leaving philosophy, passing through ethnographic field work, discovering the articulation between the ontology of the social and the reflection on Power, expanding the theoretical scope of the first step towards a critique human sciences, we are returned to the fundamental questions of political philosophy (in time, if Clastres was a reader of Heidegger, he was always an attentive reader of Philosophy of law of Hegel and the Social contract of Rousseau).

Even before the publication, in 1974, of society against the state, his essays had already been accepted as an essential point of reference for French philosophy. This is what I could perceive, following the courses at the universities of Paris, already in 1970, perhaps before Clastres himself, very busy in his solitary work. But, I repeat, the circle closes with the third moment of the work, and its exemplary expression is the text on La Boétie, also present in this volume.

The Unspeakable, an expression that appears in the title of this essay, gives food for thought. For it is not just a political anthropology that one reaches the end of the itinerary (or the resumption of a perpetual reiteration), but the imbrication between anthropology, politics and metaphysics – or rather, the archeology of these discourses, now dispersed. If the ethnologist was obliged to abandon his society, to exile himself in a society other, to better understand his own, the thinker, unlike the scientist, is obliged to desert present political thought, seek his other in the past, to better assimilate what ruminates in the present. Especially if this other, like La Boétie, begins by calling into question the evidence that is normally (from classics to contemporaries) seen as a starting point: the paradox, formulated by him, of submission as an object of desire, and not as a fate suffered from abroad. A useless task, perhaps, for political scientists, for whom politics offers no mystery, but an indispensable task for those whom contemporary history has forced to distrust their most cherished certainties. What is Power? Was this a vain question?

* * *

I fixed three points and drew a line, roughly, as laymen are wont to do. Above all, I could not even evoke the living physiognomy of the author and the free man who let pass through his thought (he did not repress) the horror of the two “worlds” that divide our planet. At least I showed some of the moments of the impact that Pierre Clastres' thought had on his Brazilian friend.

*Bento Prado Jr. (1937-2007) was professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Carlos. Author, among other books, of some essays (Peace and Earth)


Pierre Clastres. Archeology of violence – Essays on political anthropology. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1982.



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