This is the story of listomachia. Two lists. Two programs.
One program, the canonical program of imperial rationality, lists universals. But these universals turn out to be, on examination, universals-to-be. If the universals don’t seem to be universal, it is because the inhabitants of the border, the limit – the barbarian, the savage, the atavist, the criminal –have not yet disappeared. Disappearance and civilization are a couple. As civilization comes into contact with the savage, the savage must, to the resigned regret of the humanist, disappear. Patrick Brantlinger's Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930 contains loads of quotes about the disappearance, or vanishing, of the savage:
In his multivolumen Races of Mankind (1873), another popularizer, Robert Brown, indicates that disease and infertility are the causes of the ‘decay of wild races,” but he also makes it plain that violence from whites is an equally important cause. Brown quotes George Augustus Selwyn, Bishop of New Zealand:
They had heard it said that it was a law of Nature that the coloured race should melt away before the advance of civilization. He would tell them where that law was registered: it was registered in hell, and its agents were those whom Satan made twofold more the children of hell than himself (3:199)
Although Selwyn’s “language is somewhat forcible, even for a Colonial bishop,” Brown writes, it is nevertheless true: the disappearance of wild r aces before the civilised is, for the greater part, as explicable as the destruction of wild animals before civilised sportsmen” (3:199) (9)
The two modes of disappearance are the active - the suggestion of hunting down and exterpating the savage, or, at the least, destroying utterly his customs and religion - and the passive - the observation that something drew the savage on to destruction as he or she encountered civilisation. Sometimes, of course, one supposed that the savage was already disappearing. In New Zealand, there was quite a vein of this kind of commentary. All the native animals, including the Maori, were already dwindling before the first white settlers set foot on the islands.
However, the moment the savage is slated to disappear is the moment that civilization’s emissaries become researchers. They are equipped with tests of all kinds, and they foray out to survey the savage. They list the typical responses, they record the savage’s mythology and break it up into a list of motifs, they record the organization of the savage’s sexual life and find the list of structures that it expresses, and finally they find that the savage was, all along, obeying the laws of the universal. He or she never was a stranger.
The second listing program begins to be compiled as reports come back from the New World. At the same time, humanists, rediscovering Greek and Latin texts, come across more and more information that seems to violate all Christian norms. Herodotus, especially, is a trove of reports on strange customs. In the French tradition, this listing program begins in Montaigne and continues through the ‘dangerous’ texts of Francois la Mothe le Vayer and into the texts of the great philosophes – Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot. In la Mothe le Vayer’s dialogue on scepticism, his sceptic, Ephestion, defending the ‘divine’ Sextus, alludes to the “morals, customs and divers opinions’ of peoples – habit, he says, is the ‘fifth element’ – in order to show that what we take to be settled and absolute differs wildly historically and culturally. According to Herodotus, for instance, Egyptian men piss squatting, while Egyptian women piss standing up; the men stay at home and weave, the women go out and work; the men carry jugs on their heads, the women carry burdens on their shoulders; among the ancient Indians, the beloved dead were eaten, and the Indians rejected with scorn the Greek custom of burial. According to Marco Polo, a people conquered by the Chinese had the pleasant custom of giving their wives and daughters to their guests to sleep with – the Chinese emperor banned the custom, but after three years relented to delegates sent from this people, who pointed out that the skies had become like iron and the crops had withered since the custom was abrogated. The savages of Ireland, even now, attach the plow to the tail of the horse, as the Scythians once did; the French man asks the parents for the hand of their daughter, which would be received as an insult in Moscow, where the parents are supposed to take the initiative. Look simply at the diversity of natural settings – the stars themselves are arranged differently in the Southern hemisphere. Look at the assessments of beauty – among the Chinese, the smallest eyes gain the most praise; among the Japanese, it is the face with the most powder, and the most scarred and pitted. Chinese nobles and the negros of Malabar both grow their fingernails as long as possible. Egyptian women dye their shameful parts and their thighs yellow. We kiss on the mouth, but the Arabs of Libya find that more shameful than kissing the ass, and for the same reason – the stink of the mouth and the asshole, their part in digestion, etc. We look at the paintings of our grandparents and we are shocked by the clumsiness of their clothes – so much do customs change among us.
This listing program – cultural relativism – becomes a story, the story, in De Sade, where the list of all the bizarre customs becomes a script for action by fuckers who are at the very center of civilization, popes, kings, and grands seigneurs.
I saw some ordinary slaughter/ I saw some routine atrocity
... and paint your legs red.