Claude Levi-Strauss on police

If you haven’t heard the news yet,  anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss passed away last week.  his passing has sparked a considerable amount of reflection and commentary–including a couple of attempts to synthesize, or, on the other hand, separate out a particular aspect of his grand corpus.

One aspect of his thought that most reviewers emphasize is his consistent critique of modernity through a complicated  anthropological lens which emphasized both a sensitivity to cultural diversity and universal human structures.  One under-remarked element of his work, however, is the way that police and policing, as ethnographic figures, functioned within his critique so as to make it possible.

I think we’re all agreed that it’s one of our shared goals here at Anthropoliteia to point out the centrality of police and policing to the anthropological project, so as a supplement to the various orbituaries and syntheses mentioned above, I thought I’d highlight a passage from Tristes Tropiques which I think illustrates my point.  Pay attention to the complicated ways in which police both illustrate and push forward his anthropological critique of modernity:

(The text is quoted, at length, after the break.  I know it’s a bit lengthy for a blog post, but there really is no way to edit the twists and turns of his prose, in that the meandering juxtapositions are often the very point.  Believe me, by the time you get to “The atmosphere thickens, everywhere” you’ll think every word has been worth it.)

Continue reading