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08 01 2009 | Frédéric Keck

Lévi-Strauss and Bird Flu

How to Do the Structural Anthropology of a Virtual Catastrophe

Conférence prononcée au
Centre de philosophie de l’Université de Tokyo
le 5 décembre 2008

On the occasion of the celebration of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s hundredth birthday at the Collège de France, Marshall Sahlins said that two things were sure for every thinker : first, that he will die, second, that his work will be overcome ; but he added that lucky thinkers are those for whom the second event happens before the first, because they can take a revenge. These last few years, a lot of young French researchers, both philosophers and anthropologists, rediscover the works of Lévi-Strauss while he is still alive, after many thinkers proclaimed structuralism was dead. The researchers of my generation don’t deconstruct Lévi-Strauss’s scientific pretensions by linking them to Western metaphysics, as Jacques Derrida brilliantly did in his reflections on writing ; nor do they show that the binary oppostions set up by Lévi-Strauss do not apply to societies unified by the reading of the Bible, as Paul Ricoeur has done in his works on hermeneutics ; nor do they go back to Lévi-Strauss’s fieldwork in Native America in order to criticize the philosophical categories that Lévi-Strauss inherits, as Philippe Descola has done in his reflections on nature and culture ; nor do they evaluate Lévi-Strauss’s stances on the universals of the human mind through a more elaborate psychological model, as Dan Sperber has done in his contributions to cognitive sciences. Although we are very much indebted to these four powerful readers of Lévi-Strauss, we are doing something else : putting Lévi-Strauss’s texts at work through confrontations with thinkers (such as Foucault or Deleuze), problematics (such as biopolitical regimes or technologies of the virtual) and ethnographic fields (such as China or Africa) that Lévi-Strauss himself never explored. We are trying to use Lévi-Strauss, all the more freely as, being physically alive yet intellectually not dominant, he entices us to think new problems and new objects through the intelligibility of human phenomena impulsed by his work.

I have started to read Lévi-Strauss more carefully when I did my thesis on Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, a philosopher and anthropologist who wrote a series of books on « primitive mentality », and whose work has been overcome by that of Lévi-Strauss – sadly for him, when he was dead and could not reply. I initially wanted to make a bergsonian critique of Lévi-Strauss through reading Lévy-Bruhl, since he was a close friend of Bergson and an attentive critic of Durkheim. I wanted to criticize structuralism as a static product of intelligence, contending that the encounter with alterity allows to study the emotions that give mental life its historical dynamism. So you can say that I am a « pre-structuralist » rather than a « post-structuralist », in that I have been investigating a set of problems to which Lévi-Strauss gave a powerful answer, but that, in my view, still remain actual and need to be adressed as problems before applying them ready-at-hand solutions. Indeed, Lévy-Bruhl is famous for saying that « primitive mentality » is « prelogic », which means it is a « logic of emotions » that precedes in the evolution of mental life the most complex « logic of signs ». Lévy-Bruhl started to work on Chinese philosophy, but, finding it too complex, he turned to what was called « primitive societies » - societies that were then under colonial rule in Africa, Australia and America – to study this « logic of emotions » in its most simple forms. In a famous example he draws from the German ethnologist Von den Steinen, who brings it back from its fieldwork in Amazonia in 1894, Lévy-Bruhl says that when Bororos perceive the Arara parrots, whom they take as their ancesters and whose feathers they wear on their bodies, they perceive them not « naturally », as mechanical bodies, but « supernaturally », as bearers of magical forces, as agents in a virtual field of influences. Lévi-Strauss, who observed the Bororo during his fieldwork in 1935, showed that Lévy-Bruhl’s analysis was incomplete. The Bororo do not identify themselves with Araras, in a magical and contradictory fusion of nature and culture ; rather, they assert their difference with another tribe (in that instance, the Trumai) who say they are Capivaras, a sort of big rat that lives in water. In Lévi-Strauss’s famous analysis of Le totémisme aujourd’hui, published in 1962, anthropologists should not try to explain resemblances but rather compare differences, since mental life, and this is the fundamental principle of structuralism, is made up with differences between signs that in themselves have no intrinsic signification.

I started a research on Bird Flu three years ago because I was intrigued by the fact that people were getting scared by birds, and particularly, by eating poultry. After the 2005 outbreak of the Highly Pathogenic H5N1 in a farm of Central France, the consumption of poultry fell by 20%, and people in the countryside had to close their backyards while people in urban spaces stayed away from pigeons and cats (as some cats were also found with H5N1). It appeared to me as very irrational, even « primitive », and I wanted to understand the rationality that lies underneath. So I came to formulate a problem very similar to that of Lévy-Bruhl : how have humans come to think of birds as dangerous virus-carriers, and how has it transformed their perception of the social world ? Working with experts in animal diseases in Paris and Hong Kong, I realized that the fear of H5N1 comes from the fact that this virus is genetically very close to the deadly H1N1 that killed 20 million people in 1918. Every time this virus shifts from animals, where it is usually adapted, to humans, where it behaves erratically, killing its host with 70% probability, it is possible that this shift is the first event of a series of inter-human transmissions that could lead to a worldwide pandemic, estimated by some experts as able to cause 60 million dead. So I am now interested to understand how, each time a bird is catching a flu in any part of the globe, the specter of a worldwide pandemic appears, authorizing powerful interventions such as massive cullings of birds to avoid the transmission of Bird Flu to humans.

How can Lévi-Strauss help us in adressing this problem ? We can say Lévy-Bruhl allows us to adress the problem phenomenologically : interviewing people in different places to understand how the fear of Bird Flu produces a certain perception of the social world. But this method meets the classical objections against Einfühlung or empathy : how can I know the emotions of fear of an other human being if I am not in his position ? Here Lévi-Strauss is more useful, since, in a classical Durkheimian, way, he forces us to study the social organization where these emotions appear, and to compare them to see differences. The fear of birds is not structured in the same way in Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Cairo or Djakarta, because the relation to the environment is not the same in these different cities. Although the specter of a worldwide pandemic appears in the same way everywhere, the signification that it takes varies according to the previous experience these societies have of animals and of diseases. This is what allows me to do a structural anthropology of a virtual catastrophe. I would now contend that the virtual is what produces the universal today (technologies that allow to trace the genetic profiles of H5N1 are the same everywhere), but this universal takes different forms in social organizations that are structured in different ways. This is a contention that I draw from the reading of Bergson : the virtual enlarges our experience, as it is in relation with life itself, but it has to be inserted into actual forms, to meet the demands of social organization. If you read Bergson, you can go to two directions : either you go to phenomenology to understand the emotions « from within », but you meet the problems that I have previoulsy mentioned, or you go to structuralism (this is the path of Deleuze) and you describe the rationality that transform these emotions into a virtual and universal space. This is why I see no contradiction between the virtual (that is usually associated with life, creation, emotions) and the structural (that is usually associated with immobility, rationality, organization) – as long as you say that the virtual puts us in touch with a coming catastrophe, and the structural allows us to say what meaning it takes when it becomes actual.

Having justified my title and my method, I will now give you four principles of structural analysis that seem to me relevant for an anthropology of Bird Flu. This will allow me to give a brief presentation of my reading of Lévi-Strauss while presenting some of the informations I have gathered on Bird Flu.

The first principle of structural analysis is to find order where there is apparent disorder by comparing phenomena that have the same (often unconscious) structure. The fear of birds becomes rational when you realize that Bird Flu appears after a series of animal diseases that are transmitted to humans in uncontrolled ways : Mad Cow Disease (going from sheep to cows to humans), SARS (going from bats to civets to humans), HIV/AIDS (going from monkeys to humans), rabies (going from foxes to dogs to humans), plague (going from rats to lice to humans)… I have put this list in a non-chronological order because Mad Cow Disease (or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathis) has been a turning point in the understanding of animal diseases (as Lévi-Strauss clearly recognized in an article he published in 1999 entitled « La leçon de sagesse des vaches folles »). Before Mad Cow Disease, infectious diseases were understood as coming from animal vectors that could be eliminated so as to get rid of the disease : the good example is malaria, as the fight against mosquitoes allowed to considerably reduce this disease endemic in tropical countries. After Mad Cow Disease, humans started to realize that animals transmitted diseases not by themselves but because they had been transformed by humans : the transmission of the prions responsible for the Creutzfeldt-Jakob symptoms of the disease was explained by the fact that the meat of sheep was given to cows to increase their amount of proteins, thus transforming cows into cannibals. Prion in itself is not a virus but a protein that, under certain conditions, such as a shift in alimentary regimes, can be replicated in a deadly fashion. So Mad Cow Disease can be considered as a paradigmatic case to understand animal diseases not as punitions of humans by God or as attacks of nature against humans, as in the classical representation of diseases, but as the consequence of the transformation of the relations between humans and animals. It is also a paradigmatic case because, for the first time in modern history, massive culling of animals were practiced to protect the health of humans, causing the death of millions of cows in regard to the hundred human casualities of the disease. It is tempting to see the Mad Cow crisis in Europe in the 1990’s as an originary sacrifice that produced a new rationality of public health, which would explain the persistence of forms of organizations (such as experts committees advising the State through an assessment of food safety risks) and of emotions (such as an ambivalent mix of fear and compassion for animals being killed to protect human health) that were replicated through other health crises related to animal diseases. So you can say that Mad Cow Disease allows to draw the « elementary structures of viral kinship » in that you can start from this very simple case of transmission of an infectious agent from animals to humans – the prion being less that a virus since it doesn’t replicate but only shifts its biochemical position- and then move to animal diseases that involve more complex living beings, such as viruses, bacteria and parasites.

The second principle of structural analysis is that you have to start from a phenomenon situated at the limits between nature and culture – such as the prohibition of incest, the most universal rule of social life, or the totemic cult, that considers animals as representations or emblems of humans. Of course these categories of nature and culture have been criticized for carrying a heavy philosophical heritage, but they point to a profound phenomenon : the fact that societies are built up with biological structure swhich take a new signification when they become human. In Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of The Elementary Structures of Kinship, cross cousins are biologically similar to parallel cousins from the point of view of biological reproduction, but they are radically different from the point of view of social alliance, because they are linked to the prohibition of incest that forces to set up exchange with foreign groups. In the same way, Lévi-Strauss shows in Savage Mind (La pensée sauvage) that animals are perceived differently when they are taken as ways to mediate social conflicts through classificatory systems – what he calls the « totemic operator ». We can say that infectious agents (prions, viruses, bacteria, parasites) are perceived differently when they affect animals and humans : the transmission of the prion from sheep to cows is biologically identical to the transmission from cows to humans, but socially it is very different, because humans can kill cows to avoid this transmission whereas cows cannot kill sheep for the same reason. The same is true for Bird Flu : the transmission from poultry to cats is biologically equivalent to the transmission from birds to humans, but the first one reminds people of the massive killings of cats that occured in France in the 18th century (see the works of Robert Darnton) whereas the transmission to humans recalls the specter of the 1918 pandemic (on which several historical studies have been made since the first outbreaks of H5N1 in 1997). These different perceptions of the same disease will oppose different social groups : birdwatchers, farmers and veterinarians will try to protect birds from being massively killed since « it is only an animal disease », wherease public health officials, journalists and consumers will justify the massive culling saying « it is to avoid a future pandemic ». This conflict is very difficult to solve, as the behaviour of an infectious agent when it shifts from animals to humans is hard to predict ; but as anthropologists we can describe how the new classifications of animals (wild vs domestic, migratory birds vs poultry, traditional poultry vs industrial poultry) allow to displace the terms of the conflict, which fundamentally opposes humans and animals in a new ecology of the viruses. So we can say that we have to do a « savage virology », to borrow the title of Lévi-Strauss’s famous 1962 book, in that we have to analyse the mutations of viruses in a complex ecology in order to see how they are perceived differently by humans depending on the fear they have of a coming pandemic.

The third principle of structural analysis is that we have to draw a comparison between different structures of this phenomenon situated at the limit of nature and culture, or of the biological and the social. Remember the basic principle of structuralism, that Lévi-Strauss draws from Saussure and Jakobson : compare relations and not terms, differences and not resemblances. When we apply this principle to bird flu, it means that we shouldn’t study the mutations of the virus itself – this is the work of biologists, when they draw a map of the mutations of H5N1 around the world – but how this mutation is perceived in different societies in relation to other social phenomena. When people in Hong Kong are scared by the viruses carried by birds, they don’t think only about birds : they also think about the wild civets that carried the SARS virus in 2003 from Guangdong to Hong Kong. To put it in Lévi-Straus homological equations : the relation between Hong Kong and birds is equivalent to the relation between Guangdong and civets, but the real relation is between Hong Kong and Guangdond, not between Hong Kong and Birds, which is only its symbolic transfiguration. In the same way, when people in France have apparently the same fear as those in Hong Kong, in fact they think of the Mad Cow Disease that came from Great Britain in 1995. In Cairo they will think of the chilled poultry that come from the United States and that the Egyptian governement has bought to replace the traditional backyard chickens. In New York they will think of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and of the Westnile virus carried by mosquitoes in 1997. In Jakarta they will think of the pigs that Westerners have brought through colonization, and that they will kill instead of the poultry as a sign of resistance against Western hegemony. In every city, Bird Flu is associated to other social phenomena linked to different animals, thus giving the universal specter of a pandemic a local signification. An anthropology of Bird Flu tries to relate these different cases through a study of the relations between social spaces that are cast in a symbolic way through Bird Flu. The fear of birds is a way to talk about the relations between Hong Kong and China, between Egypt and the United States, between France and Great-Britain. What is exciting with Bird Flu is that the same global phenomenon – the transmission of H5N1 from animals to humans – establishes communications between social spaces that are structured in profoundly different ways, which explains the misunderstandings between experts and media when they try to describe it only as a global phenomenon. So we can use the same method as the one used by Lévi-Strauss in his Mythologics : start from one society – the Bororo tribe for Lévi-Strauss and their myth about a boy climbing up a tree to cast Arara parrots – and then move to other societies where the relations of the initial myth are displaced and transformed. In the same way I would start my own Virologics with a study of Hong Kong, where the first outbreak of H5N1 was reported to the World Health Organization in 1997 – at the time of the handover to China, not coincidentally – and then I would move to other societies where this initial relation between Hong Kong and China – between a free trade society and a severelly controlled society – is displaced : France and Great Britain, Egypt and the United States, Indonesia and « the rest of the world » - as Indonesia seems to be the current epicentre of the disease, with half of the world’s human casualties and complicated politics of nationalist control of public health and animal surveillance. These Virologics would draw a map not of the H5N1 virus itself but of the social relations revealed by the transmission of the virus from animals to humans. They would clearly expose the geopolitical rationaly lying underneath the global fear of Bird Flu.

The fourth principle of structural analysis is that it can explain the various significations given to a historical event. If the H5N1 mutates to an inter-human form and causes a pandemic, it will be a historical event ; but this event is up to now entirely virtual, very much like what the Revolution represented at the time when Lévi-Strauss was attacking the philosophy of Sartre. To understand while humans perceive the beings of their environment through the horizon or the specter of a coming catastrophe, we need to draw a map of the previous events that organized the perception of the world in which this coming catastrophe takes its meaning : Mad Cow Disease (following the crisis of contaminated blood), Chinese sovereignty on Hong Kong (following the Tian’anmen massacre), 9/11 (following the end of the Cold War and the failure of peace in the Middle East). As you see, structural analysis is not opposed to historical understanding : it allows to establish a relation between events that does not follow the immediate emotions of individual consciousness, but that is symbolically expressed through an apparently marginal phenomenon such as Bird Flu. This is the way Lévi-Strauss analyzed the catastrophic encounter between Europeans and Native Americans through the analysis of a myth about lynxes and coyotes in Histoire de Lynx. But structural analysis also has a moral lesson to offer from this understanding of historical events : don’t be scared by the coming events (nobody knows for sure if the H5N1 will mutate to an inter-human form and cause a 60 million dead pandemic), but look at the social relations that have already been transformed by the prediction of these events. The question of vaccination against Avian Flu is a stimulating field for the study of these transformations : while developed countries have stockpiled massive quantities of Tamiflu and Relenza, that allow to cure seasonal flu, although they have had no human casualties, less developed countries such as Egypt or Indonesia, where there have been humans dying from H5N1, have not bought these human vaccines, but they ask multinational companies to give them in exchange for the samples of human serum that would allow to produce an efficacious vaccine against H5N1. On the other side, China, pretending to be a new leader of the developed countries thanks to its low-cost working force, has massively produced vaccines for poultry so as to avoid critics against the safety of its exports, but it has not bought vaccines against human flu and reluctantly communicates on its human cases. While the pandemic has not (yet ?) occured, the catastrophe for Western countries would be to be criticized by their citizens for not protecting their health, for less developed countries to buy vaccines at a huge costs, and for China to « lose face » in its new strategic engagement on the global market.

I hope this analysis, which remains very general and programmatic, has given you an idea of the use that can be made of structural analysis for the study of a very contemporary phenomenon. If « primitive societies » have disappeared, as anthropologists often lament, there are still very « primitive » phenomena in our globalized societies, such as the fear of birds. These phenomena ask for an anthropological analysis so as to understand how we can orient ourselves in this globalized yet chaotic world, without being fascinated by prophecies of coming catastrophes.

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