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Synopsis of Jacques Derrida, ‘Nature, Culture, Écriture: La violence de la lettre de Lévi-Strauss à Rousseau’

[‘Nature, Culture, Writing: The Violence of the Letter from Lévi-Strauss to Rousseau’]

CpA 4.1:5–50

Along with the ‘Structure, Sign and Play’ paper given at the famous structuralist conference at Johns Hopkins in October 1966, which it resembles in subject and argument, ‘Nature, Culture, Writing’ presents Derrida’s most extensive discussion of Claude Lévi-Strauss and one of his most sustained engagements with structuralism in general. As such it has had a disproportionate influence on Derrida’s reception in the English-speaking world.

Derrida first presented a version of ‘Nature, Culture, Writing’ as two agrégation seminars on the 18th and 25th January 1966. A dual reading of Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss, the seminars responded to the agrégation program that year: Rousseau was an author on both the written and the oral sections (The Second Discourse for the oral), and the newly introduced thematic part of the written section included the keyword ‘civilization,’ on which both Lévi-Strauss and Rousseau had written extensively.

Derrida’s concentration on the theme of writing in the essay develops themes first announced in ‘De la grammatologie’, two articles that he published in the journal Critique that winter. Writing, which Derrida had first discussed in the famous seventh section of his Introduction to Husserl’s ‘Origin of Geometry’ (1962), became the central motif of his work in the 1960s and 70s. Such was the intimate connection between De la grammatologie and ‘Nature, Culture, Writing’ that when Derrida came to publish ‘De la grammatologie’ as a book the following year, a slightly revised version of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse text (including Derrida’s ‘Avertissement’) was placed between the re-worked Critique articles and Derrida’s long analysis of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Language, which was published for the first time.

‘Nature, Culture, Writing’ is in large part (27-48) a close reading of the ‘writing lesson’ Lévi-Strauss gave to the Nambikwara, as recounted in his travelogue style Tristes Tropiques (1955). As Derrida presents this short chapter, a reading that Lévi-Strauss would challenge in his short but testy response in CpA 8.5, ‘the writing lesson’ exemplifies the Rousseauian qualities of Lévi-Strauss’s project: ‘a declared and militant rousseauism’ (CpA 4.1:11). The analysis of the Nambikwara mirrors in its structure Rousseau’s presentation of a state of nature, a nostalgic description of a ‘crystalline’ and ‘authentic’ society before violence and social hierarchies (27), which was corrupted by the arrival of the white man (Lévi-Strauss) and the abrupt introduction of his ‘civilization,’ as represented by writing (20, 36, 48).

Once the Nambikwara chief had learnt how to write, he used it to consolidate his position (34-35). Applying his theory of the difference between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ societies best elucidated in the Entretiens from 1961, Lévi-Strauss depicted the advent of writing as a contamination that allowed the production of social hierarchies and violence. In asserting the purely negative social effects of writing, Lévi-Strauss carefully downplayed its epistemological and intellectual benefits (36, 39-40). Writing, for Lévi-Strauss, was unambiguously bad. As Derrida describes Lévi-Strauss’s account of the writing lesson: ‘each semanteme refers to a recognized function of writing: hierachization, the economic function of mediation and of capitalization, participation in a quasi-religious secret; all this, verified in any phenomenon of writing, is here assembled, concentrated, organized in the structure of an exemplary event’ (35).

In a classic deconstructive gesture, Derrida argues that Lévi-Strauss’s text provided evidence that challenged his intended narrative of the rape of a pristine ‘cold’ society (19-20), leading to the introduction of social injustice (27). Derrida agrees that writing was a condition of violence and social hierarchies, but he argues that this was true of writing broadly understood, and not just the Western ethnocentric version that Lévi-Strauss analyzed. This more general form of writing was already at work in Nambikwara society, which could, consequently, no longer be presented as pure and innocent.

Drawing from the extensive analyses in the De la grammatologie articles, Derrida called this more general form of writing ‘arche-writing’ (34). For Derrida, the metaphysical tradition and classical linguistics have always presented writing as secondary to and dependent upon speech, which they understood as the absolute immediacy of meaning, of the signified to the signifier. Nevertheless, the rigorous development of linguistics by Saussure and his followers demonstrated that spoken language was structured not by a referential relationship to a signified but rather by the homology of the differences between signifiers and the differences between signifieds. In this situation, despite Saussure’s continued and classical disdain for writing, the traditional understanding of writing provided a better model for structural linguistics, because it also forewent the immediate presence of a signified to its signifier. The general structure of language then could be named ‘arche-writing’. From this perspective, ‘the passage from arche-writing to writing as it is commonly understood… is not a passage from speech to writing, it operates within writing in general’ (34).

In ‘Nature, Culture, Writing,’ Derrida suggests that this more general form of writing could be observed amongst the Nambikwara before their writing lesson with Lévi-Strauss. The prohibition on proper names that Lévi-Strauss himself noted already manifested the relevant structural characteristics that Derrida analyzed in arche-writing. The prohibition demanded the effacing of the ‘proper’ connection between a name and its reference, just as writing resisted immediate referentiality: ‘there is writing as soon as soon as the proper name is effaced in a system’ (14). Derrida goes on to argue that the very use of proper names can itself be seen as a type of writing (15). Derrida’s suggestion is corroborated empirically: the Nambikwara already drew ‘zig-zags’ and ‘dotted lines’ on calabasses (17), and after the lesson they had the lexical resources to grasp what they were doing (32).

Given the evidence in ‘The Writing Lesson’ and other texts, Derrida argues that Lévi-Strauss could only class the Nambikwara as a society without writing, because of his adherence to a narrow and Western definition (16, 22, 30). Disembarrassing himself of this ‘ideological’ and ethnocentric restriction of writing to his phonetic form, Lévi-Strauss would no longer be able to draw sharp lines between hot/cold societies, bad writing/good speech.

As a consequence of the analysis of arche-writing, Derrida declares that it is no longer possible to present the Nambikwara as pure and without violence, as a rousseauian ‘crystalline’ and ‘authentic’ society (46). Further he argues that we cannot keep the negative social effects of writing distinct from its positive intellectual benefits:

If it is true, as I in fact believe, that writing cannot be thought outside of the horizon of intersubjective violence, is there anything, even science, that radically escapes it?... If one answers in the negative, as we do, the use of these concepts to discern the specific character of writing is not pertinent… In other words, if writing is to be related to violence, writing appears well before writing in the narrow sense; already in the difference or the arche-writing that opens speech itself (36-37).

Writing, Derrida claims, is the necessary condition of science, even as it is the condition of possibility for violence and social hierarchy (38-40). Furthermore the social effects of writing could no longer be seen as unambiguously bad. Derrida criticized Lévi-Strauss for not recognizing the ‘difference between hierarchization and domination, between political authority and exploitation’ (42). According to Derrida, Lévi-Strauss’s undifferentiated ethical condemnation of writing does not follow from his premises or his empirical evidence. Derrida rather suggests that other approaches ‘would lead us quite quickly to show that the access to writing is the constitution of a free subject in the violent movement of its own effacement and of its own bondage’ (43); arche-writing also opens up the possibility for law, positive right, and liberty. It is ‘the non-ethical opening of the ethical’ (50).

Derrida’s article is only a critique of Lévi-Strauss’s analysis in part. Though he discerns in both Lévi-Strauss and Rousseau a common denigration of writing, i.e. phonologism (7-8), Derrida remains sympathetic to Lévi-Strauss’s project. He suggests that it strained the limits of its conceptual resources and thus verged on deconstruction, just as Derrida had strained the limits of the speech/writing opposition in his elaboration of arche-writing. In particular, Derrida drew attention to Lévi-Strauss’s rejection of the nature/culture distinction, even though Lévi-Strauss continued to use it for methodological reasons. Derrida aligned Lévi-Strauss’s simultaneous critique and use of the tarnished conceptual opposition with what Lévi-Strauss, in the Savage Mind, had called bricolage in opposition to engineering (10). While in engineering new concepts can be forged to fit the object of study, in bricolage the scholar or myth-maker is forced to use those concepts at hand, even when they are not entirely appropriate for the job. Derrida’s preference for bricolage accords with his rejection of absolute epistemological breaks and his suspicion of purportedly ‘scientific’ languages. Though Derrida still remains wary of the concept of bricolage, which because of its opposition to engineering is ‘theological’ (49n.), through his reading of Lévi-Strauss, it has become a central concept in literary theory.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:

  • Derrida, Jacques. De la Grammatologie. Paris: Minuit, 1967. Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, pp. 101-140.

Primary bibliography:

  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques. Paris: Plon, 1955. Tristes Tropiques, trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Atheneum, 1973.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. La pensée sauvage, Paris: Plon, 1962. The Savage Mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Essai sur l'origine des langues [written 1754], trans. Victor Gourevitch as Essay on the Origin of Languages, in Rousseau, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Selected secondary literature:

  • Derrida, Jacques. L’Écriture et la différence, Paris: Seuil, 1967. Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
  • Dosse, François. History of Structuralism, vol. II. trans. Deborah Glassman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Gasché, Rodolphe. The Tain of the Mirror, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • Hobson, Marion. Jacques Derrida: Opening Lines. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Howells, Christina. Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction from Phenomenology to Ethics, Malden: Polity Press, 1999.