Bioethics Blogs

Ethnographic case, legal case: From the spirit of the law to the law of the spirit by André Menard

In 1956, Claude Lévi-Strauss addressed a letter to the 1st International Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris. In the letter, he stated that “after the aristocratic humanism of the Renaissance and the bourgeois humanism of the 19th century” the Congress announced the arrival of “a democratic humanism” in which “every human society must be represented, not just a few.”[1]

A societies’ access to the rank of civilization is, however, neither evident nor immediate, but requires the presence of representatives. Lévi-Strauss explained this situation in the following manner: “these civilizations of which you are the spokespeople have hardly had any written documents and some only devoted themselves to the monument’s transitory forms. For lack of these so-called noble productions, in order to comprehend them, one must focus oneself, with the same degree of passion and respect, on the ‘popular’ manifestations of culture: those shared by all members of society.”[2]

In this statement from Lévi-Strauss, we can see three things: an expression of the politics of deracialization policies promoted by organizations such as the United Nations and Unesco since the end of World War II; the promotion of the concept of culture over race as the new tool for the management of the human differences; and the creation of a new subject—indigenous peoples as an internationally recognized political and legal category.

What is perhaps most meaningful in Levi Strauss’ statement, however, is that this new global category takes the shape of a special kind of subject: the anthropological informant—that anonymous person or individual whose name always functions at a secondary level after the authorship of the ethnographer, whose role is to instantiate a collective category, which was understood in the past as race, and is today known as culture.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.