Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pierre Clastres, "Birth," Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians, trans. Paul Auster

This ritual of birth is undoubtedly an illustration of the myth of the origin of the Guayaki, which is essentially the myth of the Atchei Jamo pyve, the Guayaki's first ancestors. What does the myth tell us? "The first ancestors of the Guayaki lived in that huge and terrible earth. The first ancestors of the Guayaki came out of that huge and terrible earth, they all left it. To come out, to leave the earth, the first ancestors of the Guayaki scratched with their nails, like armadillos."  To transform themselves into humans, into inhabitants of the world, the original Atchei had to leave their underground dwelling. To reach the outside they rose up the length of a vertical tunnel they had dug with their nails, like armadillos, who hollow out their burrows deep under the soil. The progress, clearly indicated in the myth, from animality to humanity, therefore involves abandoning the prehuman dwelling, the burrow, and overcoming the obstacle which separates the inferior animal world (the lower) from the human world of the surface (the higher): the act of "birth" of the first Guayaki was an ascension that separated them from the earth. In the same way, the birth of a child takes place not at the moment of the waa, the fall that renews the old union of man and earth, but at the moment of the upi, which breaks this bond: here is the individual's true beginning. The woman raises the infant, tearing him away from the earth on which he was left lying---and this is a silent metaphor for that other bond which the man broke several moments earlier with his knife. The woman frees the child from the earth, the man liberates him from his mother. Text and image, the myth of origin and the ritual of birth express and illustrate one another, and every time a child is born, the Guayaki unconsciously repeat the first episode in Guayaki history in a gesture which must be read in the same way that one listens to a spoken word.

The fact that the sequence of events in the myth determines the organization of the various phases of the ritual (or, inversely, that the pattern of the ritual furnishes the story with its syntax) is even more evident in the correspondence between one moment in the ritual and one sequence in the myth. Once the umbilical cord has been cut and tied, the infant is bathed, so that his first movement toward human existence consists of contact with water, whose presence here, while obviously necessary, is also probably dependent on the ritual order. In deciphering the meaning of the bath as a ritual act and not only as something performed in the interest of hygiene, it is helpful to conceive of it as the operation that precedes and prepares for the upi: in this way, the joining of child and water is preliminary to the separating of child and earth. 

Though it is somewhat obscure, there is a reference in the myth to water---in leaving the earth, the mythological Atchei had to pass through water: "The path of the first ancestors of the Guayaki for leaving and going out upon the huge earth was through a lovely water." The myth also seems to justify the reference to water because of the state in which the first men found themselves at the bottom of their hole: "The first ancestors of the Guayaki had very stinking armpits and bitter skin, very red skin"---which is as much as to say that they were dirty and, like a newborn child, they needed a bath. The mirror play between myth and ritual is confirmed even more decisively by the fact that for the Guayaki a camp in which a woman has just given birth is called ine, stinking. The secret order of things is thus uncovered little by little, the history and the ceremony share the same logic, the same mode of thought imposes the law of its unconscious forms on the succession of words and gestures, and once again the old forest is witness to the faithful celebration of their juncture.


  1. For man in primitive societies, the activity of production is measured precisely, delimited by the needs to be satisfied, it being understood what is essentially involved is energy needs: production is restricted to replenishing the stock of energy expended. In other words, it is life as nature that--excepting the production of goods socially consumed on festive occasions--establishes and determines the quantity of time devoted to reproduction. This means that once its needs are fully satisfied nothing could induce primitive society to produce more, that is, to alienate its time by working for no good reason when that time is available for idleness, play, warfare, or festivities. What are the conditions under which this relationship between primitive man and the activity of production can change? Under what conditions can that activity be assigned a goal other than the satisfaction of energy needs? This amounts to raising the question of the origin of work as alienated labor.

    In primitive society--an essentially egalitarian society--men control their activity, control the circulation of the products of that activity: they act only on their own behalf, even though the law of exchange mediates the direct relation of man to his product. Everything is thrown into confusion, therefore, when the activity of production is diverted from its initial goal, when, instead of producing only for himself, primitive man also produces for others, without exchange and without reciprocity. That is the point at which it becomes possible to speak of labor: when the egalitarian rule of exchange ceases to constitute the "civil code" of the society, when the activity of production is aimed at satisfying the needs of others, when the order of exchange gives way to the terror of debt. It is there, in fact, that the difference between the Amazonian Savage and the Indian of the Inca empire is to be placed. All things considered, the first produces in order to live, whereas the second works in addition so that others can live, those who do not work, the masters who tell him: you must pay what you owe us, you must perpetually repay your debt to us.

    When, in primitive society, the economic dynamic lends itself to definition as a distinct and autonomous domain, when the activity of production becomes alienated, accountable labor, levied by men who will enjoy the fruits of that labor, what has come to pass is that society has been divided into rulers and ruled, masters and subjects--it has ceased to exorcise the thing that will be its ruin: power and the respect for power. Society's major division, the division that is the basis for all the others, including no doubt the division of labor, is the new vertical ordering of things between a base and a summit; it is the great political cleavage between those who hold the force, be it military or religious, and those subject to that force. The political relation of power precedes and founds the economic relation of exploitation. Alienation is political before it is economic; power precedes labor; the economic derives from the political; the emergence of the State determines the advent of classes.

    -- Pierre Clastres, excerpt from "Society Against the State"