Irene Albers, Der diskrete Charme der Anthropologie: Michel Leiris' ethnologische Poetik. Konstanz, Germany: Konstanz University Press, 2018. 902 pp.
Review by Priscilla Layne
5 February 2020
In this book, Irene Albers takes a comprehensive look at the work and life of French surrealist and ethnologist Michel Leiris. Albers argues that Leiris’ ethnopeotics should be considered a combination of experimental writing and ethnological research that attempts to understand the self through an examination of the foreign. Considering the breadth of Leiris’ work, Albers does provide a good comprehensive entry point for newcomers.
One of the book’s strengths is Albers’ attempt at a nuanced discussion of race as it pertains to Leiris’ work. Similar to other European avant garde artists and ethnologists of his time, Leiris had a complicated relationship to Africa(ns) and Blackness. He fell in love with jazz first, which he believed was more suited to breathe life into decaying European culture than Surrealism. At the same time, his love of jazz is what led him to an interest in Africa and a decisive break with Surrealism in 1929, because he saw it as another form of Western rationalism. Despite this interest in Black cultures, Leiris, like many ethnologists, may have been critical of colonialism, but he still promoted what he perceived as a "leftist, humane” type of colonialism
At some times, Albers appears to go easy on Leiris, trying to temper his thinking by saying he used “primitive” in quotation marks and that he celebrated the Other in contrast to Western culture, which he found decaying and negative. Nevertheless, such binary thinking can only lead to an understanding of Blackness that is essentializing. Leiris’ views on race did eventually become more complex over time. As an ethnologist, he sought to relativize the apparent universal plausibility and rationality of modern practices. And following WWII, Leiris shifted his focus from Africa to the Antilles, because rather than looking for an “untouched pristine” culture, he was more interested in studying cultures that had developed from a large degree of contact.
In 1950, Leiris begins to argue that casting African culture that has come into contact with European culture as “mixed” and thus inauthentic is essentialist thinking. One of the book’s weaknesses is its exhaustive length, as Albers attempts to discuss all tangential topics related to Leiris from jazz to world literature, which may result in some of its most important arguments competing with minor details. However, despite this fact, the book’s greatest contribution is perhaps how it unearths a European view that was critical of whiteness, long before Critical Whiteness Studies emerged as a field in the 1990s. Thus, Albers’ study of Leiris encourages us to perhaps push the origin of Critical Whiteness Studies much further back by taking a more nuanced look at unconventional thinkers and artists like Leiris.