Note 4: (Un)Covering Identity. 1/14/99

Derrida has (un)covered an extreme moment in time, an advent of unimaginable significance, wherein a European (re)searcher, the anthro(a)pologist Claude Levi-Strauss, was caught, red-handed as it were, if not damned by his own words, in the act of forcing a tribal person to give up, reveal, expose a secret knowledge, a knowledge so mysterious, opaque, and unknowable that Europeans simply must possess and broadcast it if they are ever to sa(l)vage Western civilization from the barbaric state into which it has devolved because people of color have deliberately kept secret knowledge from falling into their hands. Derrida says, for instance, that

"From the moment that a proper name is erased in a system, there is writing, there is a 'subject' from the moment that this obliteration of the proper is produced, that is to say from the first appearing of the proper and from the first dawn of language. This proposition is universal in essence and can be produced a priori " (Of Grammatology, 108).

To understand what Derrida is talking about here one needs to focus on the notion, the proposition, that all Eurocentric discourse perceives the other as primitive. What this means is that people of color, no matter where they live, how they live, what they know, what they believe, are closer to (wo)man's original state of being purely in nature than any civilized person of non-color (white European) has been for thousands and thousands of years. In fact, according to white Europeans, they have never been in a state of pure nature at all but were, apparently, beamed down from a spaceship operated by an incredibly advanced race of (white) non-humans who did not evolve anywhere near this planet and resent anyone who implies otherwise. More seriously, European linguists "study" native languages and cultures in the hope of finding what Europe itself was like at the dawn of its and (wo)man's very beginning, a point in time they perceive as containing a glimpse of human reality before the species was corrupted by the original sin of advancing to a cultural stage where writing as a technique of producing and preserving truth became commonplace. People without writing, primitive people, people of color, tribal people are the only ones on the earth now who exist in that state and are thought to possess secrets and secret knowledge that will tell Europeans what they used to be like before time made them civilized.

The issue here is one of innocence. Primitive people are innocent. Europeans are sophisticated. Primitive languages are innocent, are uncorrupted by writing. European languages are so sophisticated that they cannot remember what it was like to be able to speak with innocence. European languages cannot remember "the first appearing of the proper," cannot remember "the first dawn of language," and so have fallen into a state of profound decay, of profound skepticism and doubt over whether there ever was a moment in time when they were able to speak at all in a language that had any connection to a natural state of being human, of being in nature instead of being in society, of being (un)inculturated.

Levi-Strauss, as Derrida reports, effaces the distinction between nature and culture (society) in the same text where he confesses (brags about) his ability to force a primitive person (a twelve year old female child) to expose herself by telling him the proper name of one of her play-mates, which then leads, through his clever and sophisticated manipulations, into the exposure of her own name (genitals?). Reading Derrida reading Levi-Strauss is like being forced to watch two white European child molesters get their crackers off in public. From a native American point of view, gentle reader, that is exactly what these two clowns are doing. Put a red ball in the middle of their collective face and you wouldn't be able to differentiate them from Bozo. Derrida may be less involved in the act of (un)covering the identity of these two tribal people, however, his decision to (re)hearse the event does not lead to its burial but only prolongs and (dis)plays the violation to a wider audience.

There is no distinction between nature and culture anymore in Eurocentric discourse because Europeans have managed to obliterate the natural world as they (mis) understand it. The forced violation of the twelve year old Nambikwara child that Levi-Strauss and Derrida engage each other in is the same activity that is involved in the destruction of the natural environment that allows a European to claim that there is no distinction anymore between nature and society (culture). If you destroy nature, completely obliterate it from the entire face of the world, taking with it all traces of the people who chose to remain living in it, then, of course, you can claim that there is no distinction between one and the other simply because the other no longer exists. That is the purpose of anthro(a)pology. That is the purpose behind Derrida's celebration of Levi-Strauss in his effort to (de)construct and (dis)inscribe logocentrism.

What gives a white European male the right, yea the duty, to (un)cover the proper name of a twelve year old child whose non-white culture demands that it remain unspoken? This has nothing whatsoever to do with "the dawn of language," nothing at all directed at "the first appearing of the proper." This is about nothing more and nothing less than just another case of Eurocentric molestation of that which it does not possess in its own right, of that which it cannot acquire (steal) from the other, of that which it does not comprehend in the other, of that which it (mis)takes for mystery, opaqueness, unknowability in the other. In short, primitive people, people of color, native people stand accused of practicing a willful concealment of relevant facts about the identity of the person who plays the role of other to the overdetermined, foreign gaze of a (self)styled Eurocentric master.

We do not speak our proper names. We will not tell you what they are. We taunt you by not-saying them. We drive you to distraction and run you to ecstatic self-doubt by refusing to grant you that one favor.

The question Europeans ought to ask, but never do, is not, "what is your name?"; but rather, "why do you refuse to tell me what it is?" Europeans do not ask that question because they are afraid to hear the answer. Derrida is so frightened by the possibility that someone knows the answer, and might say it out loud, that he is driven to argue that we do not have proper names, that we have erased them, that the very act of refusing to say what they are proves beyond doubt that we do not have the sophistication necessary to name ourselves and have spent thousands of years waiting for a whiteman to show up who could tell us what they are. He says, for instance, that

"We have already noted that violence here does not unexpectedly break in all at once, starting from an original innocence whose nakedness is surprised at the very moment when the secret of the so-called proper names is violated. The structure of violence is complex and its possibility--writing--no less so" (111-112, emphasis in the "original").

Since the "structure of violence" here evoked is "complex," I assume, and Derrida confirms that assumption if only by a gesture of deferral, that we (he included) are not required to cut to the chase of the existence of that violence, to name it with its proper name, to identify it by calling it forth for what it is, simply because Derrida has decided that native people, the most innocent speakers on the face of the earth, that even they, who only now live in the prehistory of civilization, have always already given up, have erased the proper name, by refusing to speak it, and have replaced it with a "so-called," if not metaphorical, version of its real signification. Derrida classifies three kinds of violence before making the assertion that the third kind, because it incorporates the other two,

"reveals . . . [and] denudes also that which since then functioned as the proper, the so-called proper, substitute of the deferred proper, perceived by the social and moral consciousness as the proper, the reassuring seal of self-identity, the secret" (112, emphasis in the "original").

Violence then "reveals" and "denudes" self-identity and the secret of self-identity that is willfully concealed by the silence native people maintain toward demands made by Europeans that they speak their proper names.

There are three answers to the question that Europeans refuse to ask; that is, "why do you refuse to tell us what your name is?" The answers are: decorum, decorum, decorum. I cannot speak for every person of color who refuses to say what his/her name might be; I cannot speak for native Americans in general; I can only speak for myself. I decline to tell you my name because I do not want to embarrass you by pointing out how inadequate your own name is. There is no secret of self-identity involved in my silence. I am not concealing anything. What I am doing is making an effort to avoid becoming a braggart, to avoid empty, boastful speech and the arrogance it requires to engage in it. It is totally and absolutely unseemly for a person of my character to tell a stranger, a person I have never seen before, a person so strange and foreign that I cannot even comprehend what planet he/she came from, what my name is. People who are obsessed with Word, with Logos, completely devalue the proper because it does not extend from the mouth of God. John Smith, and I mean no (dis)respect to anyone named that, would not hesitate for a moment in telling any stranger "who" he was, what his name was, because his name in itself communicates nothing whatsoever about his character or his identity. Europeans are given names before they have identities. They are given names before they are even born. John Smith is arbitrary in the sense that it signifies nothing essential about the individual who goes by it. European names have no significance, which clearly accounts for the cult of celebrity that currently drives our culture.

Native Americans, on the other hand, are not named prior to the acquisition of identity. In fact, the name and the identity that a native American goes by are acquired simultaneously. The name is not given to a native person by her/his parents but by the spirit world, by the spirit that steps forward to guide that person through the power relations that constitute his/her life from birth to the grave. The name is sacred, in as much as a term like that has any meaning in native American consciousness, and preeminently personal and absolutely private. It isn't anyone else's business what my name is. The fact that you, a total stranger, demands to know it is a violation of trust and propriety so egregious, so embarrassing, so outrageous, that it simply defies comprehension. The demand renders us speechless, mute, which is why we never say what our name is. How can one speak into a cultural void and vacuity so deep and so dark that it cannot even perceive the difference between public and private in the realm of interpersonal affairs?

One of the names I go by, and I have decided to reveal it, or an approximation of it, in the spirit of provoking an openended (dis)course toward mutual understanding, even though there is nothing you can tell me in return that reaches to the absolute depth of the intimacy the revelation of my name encompasses, hence you cannot reciprocate, is Standing Bear. What that name encompasses is the fact that when I was eight years old, as I have already recounted elsewhere, I stumbled upon a mother bear who was digging grubs from a rotten log to feed her children along a game-trail on the Apache reservation in southern New Mexico. The bear was mostly concealed by the overhanging branches of a thicket of scrub oak and pine and I did not recognize the object I was looking at, did not realize, as I approached her from her backside, that the object in front of me was any kind of animal at all, much less a full-grown, 350-pound, six-foot tall, wild bear. I walked right up to her. Just before she backed out of the brush and turned around to confront me, I caught sight of her two cubs as they ran out the other side of the thicket. She stood up on her back legs as she turned to face me. Had I been able to move, if I had stretched out my arm, I would have touched her lower chest well before my arm had reached a full extension in her direction. Looming above me the way she was, I did not see her face, her eyes, before her forearm struck the side of my head and rendered me unconscious. I did not see anything after that half-second of standing, as it were, face to face with a wild bear on a sacred mountain.

The name I have derived from the gift given to me by the spirit of the bear does no justice to the incident that conferred the guide I did not even know I had for the next twenty years of my life because I could not remember, did not recall, anything that happened to me on that mountain when the name and the guide were granted to me who was not even seeking one or the other. I did not even know I had no name, that I was a nameless person, before the spirit gave me one I did not know I had for the next twenty years of my life. When you demand to know my name, you ask me for information about (my)self that you have no way of reciprocating unless you too have stood before the spirit of the bear on the sacred mountain. John Smith tells me nothing at all beyond the fact that your parents were probably named Smith and decided to call you John. That establishes no ground whatsoever for exchanging the sacred commodity of (self)-identity. You give me nothing when you tell me that your name is John Smith. I give up everything when I say Standing Bear.

The point that matters the most, however, relates to ritual and ceremony as it is played out in the clan affiliations that accompany the acquisition of a name in native cultures. This is where the distinction between public and private fashions a line in native decorum that cannot be crossed simply because an outsider's arrogance does not allow him/her to perceive the barrier separating what is polite and what is egregious in interpersonal relationships. Anthro(a)pology has long reported the fact that clan knowledge, native American epistemology, if you will, is a closely guarded secret that is not even shared among people of the same tribe who are of different clans. This is certainly true but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Eurocentric conceptualization of the secret. In order for there to be a secret, the person who does not know or possess the knowledge that is concealed must want, must desire, to have that knowledge revealed to him/her. In the context of clan knowledge, no one living or dead who does not belong to that clan ever, under any circumstance, wants to know anything whatsoever about the business of the members of that clan. To ask a clan member what goes on in the clan, an act which immediately tells the other that you do not belong, because if you did you would not have to ask, is a violation of decorum so outrageous, so ridiculous, so dangerous, that no native person would even think of asking such a question. It is literally inconceivable.

Why dangerous? Because the person you ask might harm you for your violation of the prohibition against unseemly curiosity? No. That person would be so embarrassed for your stupidity that he/she would probably weep for your utter lack of civility. If able to speak at all, he/she would ask you what kind of grandparents you had; implying, of course, that they must have been morons for allowing you to grow up to the point where you had mastered enough language to ask such a question in the first place. Clan ritual depends upon there being no outsiders present when it is enacted. One does not invite the kinds of disasters that are precipitated by situations of ritual behavior where unknown elements are introduced by the corrupting gaze of the other, by the possibility that the other has knowledge of the ritual, that the other spirits that exist in the community are inadvertently involved in the practice of the clan's business. Allowing such things to happen reduces the community to chaos. Everyone knows that. Everyone would be endangered by such chaos.

There is, of course, a darker side to this issue. Some people believe that spirits are jealous of each other's territorial imperatives, so to speak. That spirits war against each other. That crossing the line of decorum between your spirits and someone else's spirits invites those other spirits to attack you or to attack your spirits. In either case, nothing but disaster could result from such a circumstance. This idea, however, is one that emerged in native cultures only after they were exposed to the corrupting influences of Judeo-Christian traditions. In Genesis (Chapter 2, Verse 19), God takes Adam to the side and parades before him all the animals He had previously created to see what Adam would name them. This concept, of naming, introduced the notion of hierarchy into Eurocentric discourse. Adam being the Namer became dominant over all other forms of life, since they were the Named. Europeans, of course, (dis)played this sense of their own superiority over nature as soon as they came ashore. The missionaries taught the lessons of Genesis to the people and the people watched what that lesson taught. White hunters reached the plains west of the Mississippi river and began to slaughter the buffalo, just as they had done to the beaver before that.

Derrida touches this sense of the Logos when he notes that both he and Levi-Strauss conclude that "violence is writing," and that this conclusion amounts to a "more or less overt reference to a fall into evil from the innocence of the word" (135). He goes on, however, to argue that Levi-Strauss (and by extension Derrida) does not make "this classical and implicit theology his own"; but rather that

"It is just that his anthropological discourse is produced through concepts, schemata, and values that are, systematically and genealogically, accomplices of this theology and this metaphysics." (135)

Where God and the Logos are concerned, of course, where a classical theology is involved, and shows complicity in crimes against humanity, no one can, or should, be blamed even when the crime might amount to genocide. It's just an accident of concepts, schemata, and values that brought about the righteous slaughter of the beaver and buffalo.

We were not surprised when he began to slaughter us as soon as we objected to his barbaric behavior. We became convinced that the spirits hated us because we had revealed their names to the foreign devils who invaded our land. We stopped saying the names in the vain hope that the course of events could be reversed. We know now that it has been. We are content to wait until the whiteman has killed every living creature on the earth. When he has finished venting his rage against the fact that "God" created him mortal, we will come back, we will take back, (re)claim what has never stopped being ours.

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