From Kinship to Geopolitics: A conversation with Maurice Godelier


Nic Ulmi's interview with Maurice Godelier was first published in Le Temps, Switzerland. Translated by David Broder.  

Godelier in 2014, via YouTube.

They called me Maurice the Red. Not for political reasons, but because of the sunburn." Maurice Godelier recalls thusly his stay among the Baruyas of Papua New Guinea. A great deconstructor of received wisdom, the anthropologist — today in his eighties — passed through Geneva for a conference organised by the University and the Latsis Foundation. There he reasserted the need to recognise the invariants at work in human societies, as well as the need to observe the way in which the imaginary transforms into social facts.

Le Temps: You identify two opposing tendencies in the "geopolitics of the twenty-first century"…

Maurice Godelier: Globalisation is a double movement. On the one hand — obviously — it is the movement of all the economies that come under the logic of the market. And on the other hand, it is the movement toward a rejection of the West, its domination, its diktats. At the cultural level, this disjuncture with Western domination implies the assertion of old identities, drawing on traditions that are forgotten most of the time, but which are being reinvented. We make the future with the past.

So instead of the cultural homogenisation that is often described, you see a strengthening of differentness...

Everyone wears jeans, and everyone protects themselves from the cold by wearing padded clothes, which are fundamentally a Chinese invention… But this is not the real depth of identities. In China you see a neo-Confucianism now taking off again. People are creating Confucian schools and reject Western teaching, saying that there is too much mathematics and not enough wisdom, i.e. reflection on how one conducts one’s life…

If we want to understand the contemporary world, we have to try and know which elements of peoples’ history are still active. We have to rewrite the school textbooks, re-centring them on a global history. For that is the world that young people are going to live in. They are not going to understand anything just from reading the French textbooks, which talk a lot about France and a little about the neighbouring countries.

You say that the foundation of any society is political-religious…

The Baruyas who I lived among threw away their stone tools and adopted steel machetes ten years or so before I arrived. I came over from Paris with my bookish knowledge, and I thought that I had arrived in a typical primitive society where kinship — the clan — is the foundation of everything. Spending several years on the ground, I was able to witness initiations. I saw that they took all the boys of the same age in one go, lining them up so that they could pierce their noses and initiate all of them, independently of their belonging to such and such village or family line.

Differences of clan or vicinity were wiped away; here, they were making generations of warriors and shamans that would serve the whole society. That did not mean that kinship relations were ignored, but they were surpassed by these great initiations where the whole tribe — some 2,000 people — were involved. Expanding my reflection, I saw that this was the case everywhere: for us as for the so-called primitives, there are institutions that subject kinship to an overall [global] political-religious order, through which the society can work on itself and represent itself as a whole.

How, concretely, did your fieldwork go?

First of all, I spent a month entirely alone in a hut on a mountain path, between two villages. I ate what I could, I had an oil lamp. The children from the villages came to see the White. After a certain time, I said to them: could you ask your parents if they would agree to me coming to live with them? After a month, three men came to get me. I built myself a house, with the tribe’s help, so that my wife and two children could come, too. When the Baruyas asked me why I was there, I showed them the books that I had brought along and I told them; part of the Whites’ strength is to be found in books: I want to do a book with you, about you.

You emphasise the need to move around in order to understand the other and you challenge the idea — widespread among those who uphold the most extreme deconstruction — that we can never understand anything about other peoples’ societies…

I spent seven years among the Baruyas. I was in the fields with families every day. I surveyed the demographics of every village, mapping out who was living next to whom. I studied family ties, who was married to whom, and producing what children. I was initiated: I did not understand everything, they did not tell me everything, but all the same they told me a lot about their fundamental myths. As an exception, I was able to attend the women’s initiations, which are forbidden to men… If you put all these data together, if you learn the language and have empathy for people, you do then manage to understand something about their society, and you can bear witness to who they are.

Fieldwork, you tell us, is also a labour on one’s own self…

You are forced to suspend your judgement. The older ones among the Baruyas had been cannibals. At the start, no one wanted to talk to me about it, because — we might say — they knew that Whites do not like this kind of thing. But it is important to talk about it, because hundreds of societies went through cannibalism, and human sacrifices did exist in the great religions. I will let you in on a little-known fact. When the people seized the Bastille in 1789 they killed all the officers, cut them up into slices, and then the revolutionary women took these slices of officers and ate them.

What is an anthropologist useful for, today?

Getting stuck in the academic world is of no interest to me. My work has to serve society — and, indeed, it was society that paid for my travels… I was consulted by two governments over gay unions. They asked me: is this a historical, anthropological reality?

I found two examples among the data I had collected. In Tanzania, if a woman became a widow, without children, she could marry another woman, legally becoming that other woman’s husband; she then chose a lover for this other woman, and the children resulting from this union were attributed to her own dead husband. This is remarkable in showing that kinship is a completely social fact, although this case is not really anything to do with homosexuality. The other example is the Maasai warriors, who married very late. Up to 35 years of age, they fought, and during that time they had a partner with whom they practiced intercrural sex, which consists of making love between a lover’s thighs.

So I replied that I did not know any institution in human history that established both a homosexual union and a family. Moreover, I was completely under the influence of psychoanalysis, so I said that a father figure was essential for its structuration. So I was not in favour of mariage pour tous ["marriage for all"; the prominent slogan of protests for same-sex marriage rights in recent years]. Subsequently I totally changed my view.

I supplied a report in which I cast light on the different historic lineages that led to this possibility: the valorisation of childhood, since Rousseau; the depathologisation of homosexuality, by medicine; the fact that in the West when minorities demand rights that take nothing away from the majority, they eventually end up winning; and the discovery that the primates closest to us, bonobos, are bisexual. Freud understood this well, on his sofa, but he did not know what to do about it. I think that we have to tell people, that by nature we are bisexual.

Maurice Godelier in four books:

The making of great men: male domination and power among the New Guinea Baruya, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

The mental and the material: thought economy and society, London: Verso, 2011.

In and Out of the West: Reconstructing Anthropology, London: Verso, 2008. 

L’Imaginé, l’imaginaire et le symbolique, Paris: CNRS Editions, 2015.