Allegory, Space, Colonialism : ‘Remembering Babylon’ and the Production of Colonial History

In the famous chapter from his autobiographical volume Tristes Tropiques entitled 'The Writing Lesson' Claude Levi-Strauss provides a fascinating account of the impact that the introduction of written script into the illiterate community of the Brazilian Nambikwara Indians had upon the codes of recognition that underpinned tribal life. Arriving among the Nambikwara, Levi-Strauss distributed pens and sheets of paper as a propitiatory gift. Because of their absolute unfamiliarity with written language, the Nambikwara amused themselves with the execution of a few desultory squiggles. However, the chief of the group, associating the anthropologist and the act of inscription with the possession of authority, insisted on conversing with Levi-Strauss by sketching nonsensical lines onto a writing pad. The illusion of communication deceived neither the anthropologist nor the chief; the point of the exercise was for the chief to 'astonish his companions, to convince them that he was acting as an intermediary agent for the exchange of the goods, that he was in alliance with the white man and shared his secrets' (Levi-Strauss 296) - in short, to invest in the system of differentiation that writing disseminates. Acknowledging the peculiar resonance of this incident as a lesson on the coincidence of writing and power, Levi-Strauss is impelled toward a more general conclusion: “The only phenomenon with which writing has always been concomitant is the creation of cities and empires, that is the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system, and their grading into castes or classes. Such, at any rate, is the typical pattern of development to be observed from Egypt to China, at the time when writing first emerged: it seems to have favoured the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment. ... My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery. The use of writing for disinterested purposes, and as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, is a secondary result, and more often than not it may even be turned into a means of strengthening, justifying or concealing the other” (229).

This is a rich and provocative passage not least in its suggestion that the idea of enlightenment in general (and writing in particular) conceals the effect of slavery within its emancipatory gestures. Also striking is Levi-Strauss's emphasis upon the interestedness of writing. Writing, in Levi-Strauss's view, can never claim to be simply an objective documentation of an independent reality; the opportunities it introduces for the preservation and classification of knowledge, the organisation and division of labour, and the distinction it enforces between different orders of subject (those who do and those who do not have access to the systemic codes of writing) shows it to have a directly sociological, and not merely an interpretative, function. The division that writing produces between illiterate and literate subjects is shown in the response of the Nambikwara, who 'withdrew their allegiance to their chief after he had tried to exploit a feature of civilisation' because they 'felt in some way that writing and deceit had penetrated simultaneously into their midst' (300).

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Published 1 October 1995 in Volume 17 No. 2. Subjects: Colonisation of Australia, Historical fiction, Historiography, Narrative techniques.

Cite as: Spinks, Lee. ‘Allegory, Space, Colonialism : ‘Remembering Babylon’ and the Production of Colonial History.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 1995.