Archaeology of Violence

I’ve just finished reading Pierre Clastres’ impressive 1979 book Archaeology of Violence, a study of power relations in Amazon tribes he and his wife lived with on the Peruvian-Brazilian border during the the Seventies. I was curious about the connective between Clastres and the motif of the War Machine as it is presented (along with a minor critique of Clastres) by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. Upon reading the Clastres book it is immediately apparent why D&G are so taken with Clastres’ anthropological polemic. Clastres, as a Nietzschean anthropologist, appeals to Deleuze and Guattari directly as they find an illustration of their aristocratic/anarchist outlook in his study. Here they find a clear expression of the War Machine, with all its affirmative traits illustrated and an identifiable (and frankly, quite terrifying) externality to our world.

The book not only elucidates how the ‘primitive’ political organization of the Yanomami and Guayaki tribes is horizontal, that is to say egalitarian, that they actively resist hierarchy and the rise of any one individual over the rest of the tribe through complex political structures. The tribe is cleary an expression the collective-for-itself, or the assemblage of the Collective Territories under Guattari’s genealogy of assemblages of enunciation. Violence in these societies maintains their singularity and resists the rise of power structures within the tribe and consequently the rise of The State, whilst operating as unitary whole. The role of the chief in their society is unique in that he has very little agency and authority within the tribe. His main role is to speak for the tribe and determine the collective will of the tribe. If he is too forceful or a initiates a war that tribe doesn’t want then he will be replaced or forced to commit suicide (usually through suicidal combat with an enemy tribe).

Clastres then levels his argument directly at Marxist anthropologists and takes issue with the ‘ethnomarxist’ presumption that primitive tribes live a life of subsistence, when in fact Clastres characterizes it as one of superabundance. Clastres also overthrows the received Marxist ethnological idea that the economy of these tribes is one of scarcity and poverty, he points out that if anything they suffer from an overabundance in relation to their needs that allows them to pursue their primary recreation: warfare. They work to clear the land for growing crops for two months of the year, the rest of the year is their own. They do much more than merely subsist.

By positioning the subject of warfare at the heart of the tribe’s principal activities, he asserts it as a positive affirmative trait which ensures the health and parcelization of tribal units that maintains their autonomy. For Clastres, violence is a positive/affirmative trait that maintains their difference (their heterogeneity). The more warlike they are the more they resist outside interference and this isolation protects them from our diseases. Homicide rates within their society is extremely high, and the average male has killed at least one other man in his lifetime. A couple of months ago the Brazilian department for Indian affairs released aerial photos of one of the last remaining uncontacted tribes on the Peruvian/Brazilian border. Members of the tribe were pictured fully painted red and black, which a representative of the Brazilian Indian Protection Agency identified as war paint, confirming this as a positive trait.

When I saw them painted red, I was satisfied, I was happy,’ he said. ‘Because painted red means they are ready for war, which to me says they are happy and healthy defending their territory.

In fact, it later turned out this tribe had actually been contacted in 1910, but since chosen to withdraw, probably aware of the negative, ethnocidal consequences of encounters with the outside world.

Through Clastres’ writings in Society Against the State and Archaeology of Violence we find an effective model for the War Machine that provides an example of how artistic-practice and other radical assemblages might function in creating externalities to capitalism, capable of instances of resingularisation and the preservation of heterogeneity.

About andrewosborne

Andrew Osborne has recently completed his MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmith's.
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1 Response to Archaeology of Violence

  1. D Hill says:

    The uncontacted tribe recently photographed by the Brazilian government’s Indian Affairs department wasn’t ‘contacted’ in 1910 – rather, it was about that time that outsiders became aware of their existence.

    The tribe photographed is just one of an estimated 100 uncontacted tribes, or fragments of tribes, around the world. Some, like this one, may have had some form of contact over a 100 years ago during the ‘Rubber Boom’ and retreated into isolation as a result, but we can’t say that for certain.

    For more information on uncontacted tribes – and what we mean by ‘uncontacted’ and how you can help defend their land rights – have a look at

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