Deconstruct to Reconstruct: An Interview with Maurice Godelier
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Paul Eiss: Could we trouble you for a quick resume of what you've been concerned with in the last five or ten years? As a sort of introduction, if you don't mind.
Godelier: What have I been doing lately? Of course I have been continuing my work in New Guinea which began in 1967. I've been doing fieldwork there for a total of seven years now, more or less in the same place. For the last four years I have been working on a book about kinship, not as you usually hear about it, but a book on incest, kinship, and power, a sort of general book. And I have been working for six or seven years on transitional processes: the transition to capitalist structures, and the former transitions to socialist structures. I'm trying to organize a network of social scientists in Bulgaria, in Rumania, in Russia, in Hungaria and some other countries, to deal with these two historical transitions. First to socialist structures, organizations and ideologies, and now the so-called necessary transition to capitalism, to capitalist society and democracy. Transition processes, are the most complex and the most exciting things to study. Then I have a small program for myself as a sort of hobby. I want to work on with what I call "objects of power," what was called sometime primitive money, valuables, and so on. If you go back to Mauss, there is what he calls the "power" of objects, the source of the obligation to give and then return the gift. Because I think there was something wrong with Lévi-Strauss' comments on Mauss, and because I've had some experience with the encounter and interaction of capitalist money and so called primitive money. I would like to continue with this subject for the next two or three years. I'm discussing it with a group of people, and well, that's about it.
Riyad Koya: You're talking about the way that commodities are exchanged within the kula ring.
Godelier: Yes, but the problem is that the societies were consciously separating the two domains. Some valuable enters into the society as a commodity, a necklace produced by another tribe one five hundred kilometers away which is produced to be exported, but often as it enters into the society it is no more bought or sold. It circulates as a non-commodity, as an object of gift and power. And so you see that people know very well the difference between a market exchange economy and things coming into their society as objects of gifts, of "God," or valuables to be manipulated through kinship, power structures and so on. So that disjunction between the two domains is very important. And so with capitalist society the two domains are collapsing. In capitalist societies, power often takes the form of money. And so the first category fuses with the second one. There is a sort of collusion and collapse of the distinction. But in New Guinea today, natives go to a farm and buy pigs, "agro-business" pigs; they know they are not the same as the local ones, they are the English brand of the species, weigh much more, they have nothing to do with a local pig. So New Guineans buy twenty of these English pigs with the money they earned from selling their coffee, and introduce them into the network of traditional competitive exchanges like native pigs; they transform industrial products and commodities into pigs to give. So Papua New Guineans know the distinctions, and oscillate between the two; there are modern things going on at the same time as the traditional ones; that is, before a total collapse of tradition itself. It takes a long time, as long as they can play this double game, it takes generations before the traditional logic fades away and disappears.
Paul Eiss: In the introduction to your essay "Mirror, mirror on the wall" you talk about the history and the present of anthropology, which speaks to some people's interests here in bridging the disciplines. In that essay you discuss the history and present of anthropology as more about presents than pasts, and more about a "non-West" than about the "West." In your view, are these basic epistemological differences, or are they a matter of disciplinary formation?
Godelier: First, it was not exactly the non-West and the West, it was also peasants and ethnic groups in the west, because the state and the church wanted to control these people, and since their customs were not written down they had to send people to write down the customs, before trying to modify them where they seemed "barbaric" or an obstacle to their interests. So to me the genesis of anthropology came from two separate processes without anything in common between them at the beginning. On the one hand the task was to know more about the peasants, the local groups and ethnicities of Europe, the Slovene, the Basque and so on. And on the other hand was the expansion of Europe and contact with thousands of very different societies. So in fact the development of anthropology was historically a double development. First Europeans looked at the peasants, at people taken as backwards, seen from the point of view of people coming from the cities, from the state, from the church. And this reminds us that there is always in the background of anthropological work an unequal status between the observer and the observed. Really. You can't escape that. It's simply an ingredient of the cuisine, of the anthropological cuisine. But the two domains were relatively fused when anthropology became a "profession." We began to distribute work on peasants, on tribal people and so on. So it's not really non-western and western, it is more a part of the west plus the rest of the world. Secondly, you must distinguish between the profession of anthropology, and the historical importance of anthropology. Well, historically, there was what I should call nationalist ethnology, or nationalist ethnography, and then there was imperialist anthropology. They are not the same. I mean if you are Basque and you look at your roots and you fight for your identity against the Castillians, for example, you have to say like that, "we are the Basque, we came from Georgia three thousand years ago," and so on. Or take the Romanians who claim that, "we descend from Rome, that we are different from the Slavic peoples, we are the last vestige of whatever." So you need an ethnography to demonstrate your roots, the antiquity of your presence in one place, your claims and so on. And so you develop nationalistic, sometimes chauvinistic, ethnologies and ethnographies. But with the colonial expansion of France, England, and so on, you have imperial anthropology. You control or try to control hundreds of societies. So for the first time you have in front of you not only your local diversity but you have classless societies, tribal, caste societies and so on. And people like Morgan tried to classify the vast spectrum of realities in front of them, and to discover logics different from the west and opposed to the west. Like matrilineal kinship. That was not really known in Europe; classificatory cross-cousins did not exist in European kinship systems, and scholars like Morgan tried to find the order of those other systems. But at the same time they reconstructed a pseudo-history with the Anglo-Saxon kinship as the best, the most progressive, the most rational, with the republican American Anglo-Saxon social system at the very top of civilization. First you have an imperial context. And moreover at the time Morgan was doing fieldwork most of the North American Indians were already in reservations, ready for being "observed" in some way. But finally Morgan was the first in the history of mankind to have a universal look at kinship and to demonstrate the diversity of the logics of other systems, since they were as logical as the European one. They were not irrational, they just had another logic. But the same scholar that figured this out also wrote Ancient Society and distributed all the kinship systems into three stages, savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The conclusion is that western development is contradictory. And you ignore the contradiction by saying either "piss off with western civilization," or by saying "it's the best civilization." But if you start with reality, you start with contradiction. And you have to understand the opposed, contradictory developments of western knowledge. It is why now in the discussions you have in the States about modernism and post-modernism, the problem is surely to deconstruct but not to dissolve knowledge. To deconstruct is what you do if you are a nuclear physicist: you deconstruct a model of matter because of something wrong in the previous explanations so you construct another model in turn. You don't dissolve physics; you deconstruct to reconstruct another kind of physics. It's really the same with us, in social sciences. Otherwise we have to stop being in universities if all we can say is that we cannot know others. Why don't we all as experts on culture just go off and sell benzine. I mean if we don't have the possibility to build up a sort of knowledge of "otherness," we have to stop immediately, dissolve the university, the social sciences, and do something else. Like make money.
Paul Eiss: What about the notion of anthropology as oriented towards the collection of information about societies which are considered 'non-textual?' What do you envision as the future of the encounter between anthropology and history as anthropologists work among people who are eminently textual and historical, and envision and produce their own histories?
Godelier: In France we have been developing historical anthropology and anthropological history for about twenty years. Le Roy Ladurie, Le Goff and others. They thought it was necessary to pick up a blend of, to open their mind to anthropological ideas. For what reasons? It was very clear. The body. Sexuality. Kinship. Inheritances. And so on. And before them, the core of historical research in France, the Annales school, with Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel and all these prestigious people, the core was economic and political history. Of course Lucien Febvre was dealing with other topics as symbolism, practices, etc. Under the pressure of a new historical context and also probably because historians became "impressed" by what was perceived as "achievements" of anthropology in France with Lévi-Strauss studies of mythologies, of kinship, etc, historians decided to write so-called anthropological history. They wrote more and more about the body, sickness, symbols, genders. About ideology as myth and as system of myths. It was not a revolution, but it was the addition of many missing parts. It has multiplied the paths followed but it has not yet transformed the core of the discipline in France. But then you have the second current which is not developed in France like in your country. People from Togo writing the history of Togo, from Dahomey, etc. That history does exist, but it's not very developed in France. People rewriting their own history more or less independently from the basic models imported or exported from the west. I don't think it is very successful in France, since all the Africans who write about themselves have been living for twenty years in France. It is very difficult to separate what comes from their culture and what they got from years at the Sorbonne. But at least there is something. To me it is absolutely necessary to have at least a double view on history. And how could you understand what is happening in Bosnia and Herzogovina without going back at least to the 19th century? Many of these countries wanted to grab parts of other countries, and very often they wanted to modernize, to develop. And very often also the ruling groups and the elites of these societies were debating about the necessity to develop and modernize the society and about the way to do it. Following the western way or inventing another one, or even an anti-western one. We can't understand the situation in eastern Europe now just by looking at the communist era; we have to go back to the beginning of the 19th century in Russia, in Bulgaria, etc. An anthropologist cannot stop with the present, with the present state of local communities, there has to be an historical perspective. Even when the people in these countries don't want to have an historical perspective; even if they want to adopt a kind of amnesia about the communist regime, about 40 years which they want to forget completely. It is difficult for a historian to write with an amnesia about history. As if the history that stopped in 1940 could start again.
Carin MacCormack: I'd like to ask about your intellectual milieu which has produced so many of the theoretical developments currently in vogue in critical theory here in the United States. As someone who as "done Marxism" as an anthropolgist, how do you respond to what we receive here as "French post-structuralism" and "postmodernism"? People like Baudrillard, Derrida, who situate themselves with respect to something called capitalism, or "late capitalism." I'm curious about your view of their histories of capitalism. How do you think of them in relation to a Marxist tradition?
Godelier: First of all, don't put Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Lacan, and so on all in the same bag. Even though they are gurus in the states, they are not the same people. They are very different people. Foucault, for instance, is used in your country in a different way than in France. I knew him personally, we've done a great deal together, he was a communist for many years and so on. Foucault wrote as his first book, " Maladie mentale et personnalité," which you could have described as a Marxist one and rather materialist. Later he published a second edition in which everything Marxist or materialist had been eliminated. Foucault was a man who was dealing mainly not with subjectivity, but with the genesis of bourgeois institutions, the prison, madness, with how the bourgeoisie organized l'enfermement des fous, and the relationship between surveiller and punir. Foucault always spent years in archives before writing a book. So first he was an historian of things usually not interesting for historians. Secondly, he was open to important things like sexuality, the repression of sexuality, and the diversity of feelings and attitudes. I don't see myself today as "a Marxist." I am no more the Marxist I was thirty years ago, if you look at my books you will see that change. But I haven't changed because of people like Lyotard or even Foucault; many people like me understood a long time ago that there was no structural correspondence between a kinship system and an economic system. We have never been stupid, determinist Marxists. Twenty or thirty years ago all this was an open discussion in France. It was very open, Sartre, Lévi- Strauss…you can't imagine the intensity of discussion, it was fantastic. So Foucault is not probably what most people think. Derrida has just published a book several months ago called Spectres de Marx and I encourage people to read what Derrida says about Marx now. About Lyotard. He was also a sort of "Marxist." He doesn't speak of the capitalist system, he speaks of THE system. He fetishizes the system completely. It was very interesting for me, last year in Houston, to discuss with him THE system. So you have the transmutation of realities into various philosophical views. Derrida was a leader fighting for philosophy in France when the right government was trying to eliminate the teaching of philosophy from secondary schools. Derrida was really something fantastic. Foucault too. Lyotard is more of a skeptic, more distanced from things. I don't think that people like Derrida or Foucault are just commenting text on text on text. I don't think so. They are trying to study something new and linked to today's context, and they are not about dissolving knowledge but widening it. They want to deconstruct but in order to open and reconstruct, to multiply understandings. So I don't feel a basic opposition between some of the post-modernists; deconstructing to reconstruct is OK. If you deconstruct to dissolve knowledge writing about "others" risks turning into pseudo-poetry. I am not against poetry, but not poetry instead of something else. Of course we French can be proud that we have produced all these first-class people-at the same time I must say that we have no post-modernist anthropology in France. We have a lot of discussion about many things, about intimacy, the body, homosexuality, but we cannot say that there is a current calling itself post-modernist anthropology. It's a paradox you know. We are the producers, you are the consumers and even some of the consumers think they are the producers of their producers. In ten years the times, the context will have changed. And there is also the phenomenon of fashion. I remember when Foucault started to give his lectures at the College de France; there were nine hundred people sitting everywhere, outside, inside, the room was too small, it was for two hundred. It was like a revolution, a mini-revolution, with loudspeakers outside, and so on. He was saying really good things, but we have to understand that it was a crystallization projection process. What was crystallized by Foucault? What it was people were projecting onto him? That is very crucial. Because it's not only an intellectual problem, like self-criticism. It was a basic desire for something and from within some kind of vacuum. For the youth in France, in your country, there is a vacuum, a terrible vacuum, and the vacuum "attracted" Foucault. But what is the problem? I think it's not only a matter of intellectual debate. It's something like some emptiness which is proper to our civilization.
Godelier: There are two basic things, two basic points to Marxist, or partially Marxist analyses of non-capitalist societies. I think you have to extend to non-capitalist societies the hypothesis that in order to understand not only social changes but the change of society, economic and political relationship and forces are more important than kinship and art. Nearly everybody agrees with that. Nobody will try to explain to you the evolution of western civilization since antiquity through the evolution of kinship. It's just not possible. So everybody is Marxist. Americans, as the Big Brothers of the world, are the best Marxists because they know how to manipulate economic reality and political power everywhere. So the idea that among these two basic forces explain not only social change but also the metamorphosis of society is not only that everything is determined by economic structure, but that there is a close "affinity" between forms of government and forms of production and property. So this is a revised view of Marx, if Marx was really saying that economics is THE generic foundation of society. If this was Marx's view, it has been criticized and rejected by history as movement, and also by science as a practice. We cannot explain the permanence of Christianity which was born sixteen or more centuries before capitalist society, by the capitalist system. All its basic paradigms, God died for, etc. came long before capitalism. So there is no direct correspondence between religion and a mode of production but a permanent re-adaptation of a long run ideological classification and view of the world, with different modes of production and system. So no direct connection exists between Christianity and feudal or capitalist society. It's a paradox, but that's how it is. When I was young at the university the professors taught us that because of the Christian postulate that God died for us, therefore the contract is the basis of western society, that it's really a religion for our society, that's why we're capitalist now, because of that Christianity. So the roots of capitalism were in Christianity two thousand years ago in Israel. Some people were saying things like that. The idea that to control people you have to control the material life and the will of people. I think this is an idea that will not disappear with Marx. But it doesn't explain why the French kinship system is like Eskimo kinship, and it has been like that for more than 800 years. So, you cannot keep as first general principle the idea that the economic relationships and the relationships with matter, nature, are the general foundations for social life. But at the same time, the Marxist view was that-and it was not proper to Marx-that a big part of ideology is a presentation of exploitation as reciprocity. There was a very fantastic idea discovered in the 19th century, that the pharaoh deserved to be given your life and your work because he is a God; so if you breathe, if you have water for your garden, it's because of him and of the rituals he was performing. So the language of exchange, and debt, not exchange only, is the seed, the milieu of caste and class formation. It's not in the logic of direct violence that you understand the violence of caste or class formations, but it's in the milieu of debt, personal and collective indebtedness. You cannot understand the milieu of power and the process of its crystallization without a view of unequal exchange and imaginary reciprocity. Well, I mean it is a basic idea in Freud and Marx that men do alienate themselves within their own products, within the products of their mind. It is a double answer to your question. I mean we are not "Marxists" now, there are no more Marxists now, except a few groups of guerilleras for instance. If you are an historian it is difficult to not look at economic and political relationships as something very crucial in the dynamic of a society. It does not eliminate art and music and symbols and sexuality and so on, but in the long run, if western society moved from some sort of feudal organization to a non-feudal one, with entrepreneurs and working classes it is difficult to explain all this only through symbols and gender and kinship and sexuality, music. Nobody will deny that. Now the idea that the pharaoh was a god, the son of Isis and Osiris and so the product of an incest between a brother and a sister, the idea that he was not a human being and will be reincarnated for three thousand years, this kind of idea was crucial for the rise and growth of society and for the legitimation of its order. To me, and this is against many Marxists, violence is not the main force in the implementation of caste and class and dominant structures. Consent is. But consent means the sharing of the same representations, even with different interpretation of the same ideas, with opposed interpretations. But if you live within the same circle of ideas, you reproduce them even with an opposite attitude, so that dialectic of opposed interpretations of the same representations is crucial to the understanding of many things in our own society, of many conflicts between genders, between classes, between groups. And so it needs a very complex theory of what is a representation and what is a sharing of representation, conscious and unconscious, so when you say unconscious sharing it's difficult to analyze and investigate. Two years ago I created a big seminar in Paris called "Psychoanalysis and Social Sciences" attended now by more than one hundred people. Nearly eighty psychoanalysts came to discuss this with us sociologists, anthropologists, some historians, too. A third aspect of Marxism was political involvement in academic life. It was the idea (and the dream) to change the world, to accelerate the transformation towards something else. To be a Marxist was not to lead a contemplative life. It was not just a position, a very fashionable position, as it became in academic circles. It was to be involved politically, in the communist or Trotskyist or other leftist groups, to be kicked out of the university many times, and so on. It was not just a contemplation of ideas, materialist ideas, opposed to other ideas, and a practice different from another academic practice. It was also to be involved beyond and within the academy in political transformations, again the Vietnam War, May 68, and many things like that. But now with the collapse of the socialist regimes it's difficult politically to envisage a global alternative. That is the problem. But not too difficult to envisage many partial transformations, very costly, very painful to achieve, but I do think and I have always thought that this is possible. A long time ago I realized that democracy was something that has never been achieved. There are only partial democracies, like political democracy, voting. There is little social democracy, equal status between men and women, between races, ethnicities. And there is no economic democracy anywhere. Nowhere is there a common management of resources by the community of people working in the same place; so democracy is still in its first stage. The easiest democracy to give to the people is the right to vote; the second one dealing with identities is more difficult. And the third one, to manage in common the material foundations of power and life is even beyond that, no? There is no democracy in the world in terms of economic democracy.
Riyad Koya: What is the relationship between French colonialism and the current distribution of French anthropologists in the field?
Godelier: The bulk of our anthropologists have been working in ex-colonies. People like me are the exception. Polynesia was a territoire français in part. But the bulk of anthropologists were working in ex-colonies, or in France or Europe since it was easier to get there. And Dumont, of course in India. I remember discussing with Lévi-Strauss where I should do my fieldwork. I wanted to go to in Ecuador, or Colombia. I was pleased because I spoke a little bit of Spanish, and at that time my wife was a professor of Spanish, and so I had some idea of going there. I was also fond of Alfred Métraux, who suggested that I go there. But Lévi-Strauss told me, "Maurice, you well, you do what you want, but I would advise you to go to New Guinea. There are very few French anthropologists there; that's where you should go." And I could not say no to Lévi-Strauss. So if you take a map, and draw a map of where French anthropologists are working now, and there are relatively many, the majority is still Africanists. The second group is the Amazonianists and the specialists of Mexico, of the Andes, and so on. The third group is Oceania; the fourth group is India; and the fifth and last, southeast Asia and China. There is a also group of anthropologists working in Europe and it is developing because of new field work sites in central and eastern Europe. In terms of strength and size, probably the same number as the Amazonianists. So you see there are six or seven groups and 45 percent are still Africanists. But something has broken in the heart of the Africanists in France, they have not lost the stamina because of the collapse of so many things in Africa, in French post-colonial Africa. I think that French anthropology pays a lot for its proximity to colonial and post-colonial events and transformations. It is paradox, but people like me are more comfortable when we work in the colonies of others, than when working in the ex-colonies of the French. Maybe many anthropologists did not open the debate with the African, a good debate, a clear debate. Because you cannot continue to be an anthropologist without a permanent debate with the people among which you work. For example, when I was making films in New Guinea I negotiated with the Baruya for them to have a copy of all the films that were made. And I organized a visit of all the leaders of the Baruya to the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, and to various cultural and scientific institutions. Afterwards there was an official ceremony with the prime minister and also a representative of the Australian government to give the Baruya copies of the films. Too few anthropologists do that, you know. People have to recuperate what they have been doing with the anthropologists, they have to defend them, to control what is done with the products made from their culture. But we have to do this systematically. Systematically, you understand? And so the future of anthropology is there.
At the same time it must be admitted that it is a fantastic tool of knowledge. Because of the technique of merging yourself in another culture, and learning the language. And observing for years concrete relationships. It's not a sort of outside view with questionnaires and testing the answers with factorial analysis, etc. It's something different, a totalization in yourself of views of others, but with a permanent dialogue with others. I don't see an anthropologist without a dialogue with others all the time about his own interpretation. It is the basic rule to expose yourself, not to come back and say I'll write a book on the Baruya because I know the Baruya. Yesterday I gave a lecture and I explained that after 28 years of going back to New Guinea, there are a lot of things that I don't really understand. It doesn't mean that people know what I mean when I ask them questions, and it doesn't mean that, even if they understand, that they have the answer. Because a society is not a grammar or a dictionary. Society develops without everyone understanding his/her own culture. And I'm certain that I shall die before understanding very crucial points about the Baruya.
Paul Eiss: In anthropology the issues of gender, sexuality, power and the body-central issues in your work-have been brought together most powerfully by feminist anthropologists. How do you understand your work in relation to feminist anthropology?
Godelier: Because of the Baruya, I have changed. The Baruya have forced me to understand things I had never been "forced" to consider in my society, like gender, male domination, manipulation of ideas about the body and so on. It was obvious that there was no class and no class struggle among the Baruya, but there was great tension between the sexes. When I came back I read a lot of books that had been published by feminists, and then, I don't remember the date, in New Orleans, I met Eleanor Burke Leacock. Leacock has been a very influential feminist in anthropology. She said, "Ah Maurice, I am glad to see you, you have a reputation for being a Marxist," and I said, "Yes, I have read your stuff on hunting and gathering societies." Something happened there which was a big shock for me. She said "Come on, let's go to a women's caucus." And there instead of big fights about men and women, the first resolution was a vote against the Vietnam War. I saw all the feminists around me fighting for the same goals, but with gender issues. So I realized that I had always been waiting for the end of the revolution before to start to deal with issues of men and women. As if it will come at the tail of the comet, the historical comet. I realized I was wrong, and I changed my mind, my way of thinking completely. I wrote an article about sex as the social and cosmic foundation of the Baruya. Afterwards I wrote articles about the foundation of male domination, and that's when I was nearly kicked out of a Marxist Review. Later, when I decided to wrote a book on the Baruya, I decided to analyze the entire society only from the point of view of men-women relationships, because in this classless society the domination of men on women was present in all aspects of social organization and life. I was one of the few people to do that ten years ago, as a man; to view the society only from the perspective of men-women relationships in all contexts, gardens, kinship, initiation, views of the body, imaginary aggrandizement of yourself as a man, etc. And so some of the feminists were very pleased, and some were very annoyed. I mean my book has been used by the feminists in two opposite ways. A lot of people said, good, he is unscrewing the machinery of male domination. They said, your book is a feminist book. And the other group said it's not true! Baruya women cannot be so completely dominated, it cannot be true. There must be resistance of some kind. But I did describe in my book many resistances, women refusing to make love, to cook, wives even killing their husbands. But to resist is not to propose or to think of an alternate model, a social alternative. Social resistance is not social revolution. And before the coming of the whites, before the imposition of a different set of values, western values and rights, it does not seem that some Baruya women had already elaborated an anti-model, another model of society. Today yes. Things have deeply changed. So there were two answers to my book. Since then I have been developing things, and my next book will be about "incest, kinship and power(s)." I shall deal with the non-structural correspondence between the social form of production like capitalism and the social mode of reproduction like a kinship system. And the conclusion of my book will be something like it is wrong to oppose the individual to society. Basically, the individual is his/her society, and the society is all the individuals. And so the opposition between the individual and society is not basic. This view will be contrary to the one of many post-modernist philosophers. If you take twenty societies, you will see that individuals are born with an intimacy that is culturally gender-constructed, and the society is within you even from before you are born. You will meet your father and mother from inside your body and mind. As soon as you are appropriated by other people who claim to be your "parents," your "relatives," you have to appropriate them in order to grow, in order to develop yourself and to separate yourself from them. Through these processes you can see that the individual is his/her society and the society is the individuals.
At the end of March, Maurice Godelier spent a week at the University as a guest of the Institute for the Humanities. Professer Godelier is currently the Directeur de l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France, and Professor of Anthropology. It is safe to say that he is one of the two most famous anthropologists in France, along with his former teacher, Claude Lévi-Strauss. Professor Godelier gave several formal lectures, met privately with students and faculty, and he agreed to let Paul Eiss, a graduate student in the Program in History and Anthropology, tape a lunchtime conversation.