June 2008


“… Colouring the world is always a means of denying it (and perhaps one should at this point begin an inquiry into the use of colour in the cinema). Deprived of all substance, driven back into colour, disembodied through the very glamour of the ‘images’, the Orient is ready for the spiriting away which the film [The Lost Continent] has in store for it. … our studio anthropologists will have no trouble postulating an Orient which is exotic in form, while being in reality profoundly similar to the Occident, at least the Occident of spiritualist thought. Orientals have religions of their own? Never mind, these variations matter very little compared to the basic unity of idealism. . . . “It is this same ‘all things are alike’ which is hinted at by our ethnographers: East and West, it is all the same, they are only different in hue, their essential core is identical. . . . If we are concerned with fishermen, it is not at all the type of fishing which I shown; but rather, drowned in a garish sunset and eternalized, a romantic essence of the fisherman, presented not as a workman dependent by his technique and his gains on a definite society, but rather as the theme of an eternal condition, in which man is far away and exposed to the perils of the sea, and woman weeping and praying at home. . . . All told, exoticism here shows well its fundamental justification, which is to deny any identification by History. By appending to Eastern realities a few positive signs which mean ‘native’, one reliably immunizes them against any responsible content. A little ‘situating’, as superficial as possible, supplies the necessary alibi and exempts one from accounting for the situation in depth. Faced with anything foreign, the Established Order knows only two types of behaviour, which are both mutilating: either to acknowledge it as a Punch and Judy show, or to defuse it as a pure reflection of the West. In any case, the main thing is to deprive it of its history. We see therefore that the ‘beautiful pictures’ of The Lost Continent cannot be innocent …. ”

From “The Lost Continent” in Roland Barthes, Mythologies [US ed. 1972], pp. 94-96.

This is the privilege coveted by every society, whatever its beliefs, its political system or its level of civilization; a privilege to which it attaches its leisure, its pleasure, its peace of mind and its freedom; the possibility of unhitching, which consists … in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with more learning than all our books; or in a brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.

From Claude Lévi-Strauss. Tristes Tropique [1955]. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman, trans. New York: 1974, pp. 414-415.