ROOSEVELT IN AFRICA

Taxidermist at Work on the Roosevelt Safari Specimens (1911, Smithsonian Institute Archives)

Posting has been slow and infrequent these last couple of weeks, mostly because I am lucky to be on research leave this semester and I have been trying to focus my writing energies elsewhere.  At the moment, I am in the middle of revising a chapter that examines the intersection between ethnographic writing and cinema.  It begins with the following excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt:

I almost always had some volume with me, either in my saddle pocket or in the cartridge-bag which one of my gun bearers carried to hold odds and ends. Often, my reading would be done while resting under a tree at noon, perhaps beside the carcass of a beast I killed, or else waiting for camp to be pitched; and in either case it might be impossible to get water for washings. In consequence the books were stained with blood, sweat, gun oil, dust, and ashes; ordinary bindings either vanished or became loathsome, whereas pigskin merely grew to look as a well-used saddle looks.”

After the close of his administration in 1909, Roosevelt left the United States for a yearlong safari across east and central Africa with his son, Kermit.  Over the course of the year, he wrote a series of twelve articles for Scribner’s Magazine.  This collection of travel writing was revised and republished upon his return as African Game Trails, an expansive, autobiographical account of the first presidential expedition.  Roosevelt begins by describing his travel experience as fundamentally anachronistic.  The train transports him through prehistoric time, while remaining itself a sign of industrial modernity: “The railroad, the embodiment of the eager, masterful, materialistic civilization today, was pushed through a region in which nature, both as regards wild man and wild beast, did not and does not differ materially from what it was in Europe in the late Pleistocene.”  In this brief passage, Roosevelt collapses the difference between animal and (native) human, while distancing himself, remarkably, from both contemporary Africa and historical Europe.  Each chapter of African Game Trails reiterates the rhetoric of geographic and temporal disjunction and sustains the pattern of ethno-zoological confusion.  These internal consistencies owe, in part, to the publication history of the chapters.  Each one appeared independently in Scribner’s and each new submission presented readers with just one location in the “late Pleistocene,” one “savage tribe,” and one adventurous hunt for a species of “wild creature.”  This structure binds place, animal, and human together in historical past time and often lends itself to a seamless slide between descriptions of human behavior and animal appearances.

As a former American president, Roosevelt brings into sharp relief the strands of state power, academic authority, brutal violence, and popular culture that intersect at nearly every site of early twentieth-century ethnographic practice.  While the American press described the trip as a vacation from political life, Roosevelt’s preparations, as well as his written account, suggest a far more disciplined endeavor.  Three naturalists from the Smithsonian Institute accompanied him and the animals killed and preserved on the trip—more than 11,000 in total—were donated to the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History.

In his writing, Roosevelt likewise takes up a pressing concern for anthropologists: the place of the indexical arts in the discipline of anthropology.  Roosevelt constructs a taxonomy of ethnographic expression (i.e. photograph, moving image, text) that tries to control the tide of visual technologies.  Roosevelt privileges the text above photography and film (or, what he calls “the picture”).  The photograph serves the picture and the picture serves the text, leaving Roosevelt in the happy position of being served by both.

This preference for writing adheres to the standards of ethnographic practice at the turn-of-the-century, as well as the discursive regimes of colonialism and global travel, wherein the act of writing is bound to the privilege of knowledge and concomitant markers of the privileged race (white, European) and class (educated, wealthy). Roosevelt’s evaluation of visual technologies (necessary, but secondary to writing) also reflects the gathering influence of mass culture within the natural and social sciences, and the acute anxieties born out of these border crossings. Of course, Roosevelt himself embodies  the interstitial zone he tries to purify, torn as he is between academic anthropology and the popular imaginary of American political life.

Roosevelt nevertheless implicitly complicates the intrinsic value he (and the broader field of anthropology) assigns to the act of writing, as well as the distinction he makes between text, film, and photograph.  Throughout African Game Trails, Roosevelt refers to his “pigskin library,” a term that stands in metonymic relation to the discursive and ideological divisions between animal and human, force and reason.  The pigskin library names the collection of forty canonical works of American and European literature, poetry, mythology, and philosophy that accompanied him on the trip, each volume bound carefully in animal flesh.  Roosevelt’s description of his daily reading ritual oscillates between the pastoral and the macabre, and all three modes of reading—beneath a tree, beside a bloody carcass, while camp is pitched—betray the subtext of a class with the privilege to wait and read; his trip was stocked with porters and servants who skinned the animals and set up camp.  More interesting, however, Roosevelt’s picturesque account of the books in his library—stained with blood, sweat, oil, dust, and ashes—recasts the text as a taxidermic object and an index of time, joined with the spectral skin of an animal that once was and shaped by the physical impressions of past events.  Put another way: the indexical arts may stand in a kind of secondary relationship to writing, beneath or outside of the text, but they are also literally bound to Roosevelt’s library and essential to his conception of it.  One would be forgiven for confusing Roosevelt’s mummified editions with one of the “magic identity substitutes for the living animal” that André Bazin includes in his preservative genealogy of the moving image.

This passage also recalls (or anticipates) a different play with citations and another “second skin”: the rebound Bible gifted from Jakob to Sigmund Freud (father to son) on the occasion of the latter’s thirty-fifth birthday.  Jacques Derrida reads this book and its handwritten dedication, which includes a reference to the ceremonial seventh day of Freud’s life, as a “figurative reminder of a circumcision.”  The Bible commemorates the impression left upon Freud’s body with a second writing and a new skin; the father memorializes the occasion of this original incision and remindsFreud of the “dissymmetrical covenant” into which he was forced.  The historian Yosef Yerushalmi takes these documents as evidence of both Freud’s religious commitments and the influence of Judaism on the development of psychoanalysis. Yerushalmi’s history redoubles the violence of the (first and second) impressions; he repeats the gesture of the father from the position of a stranger, an outsider, external to the original event of circumcision and the second event of its commemoration.  In Derrida’s view, this series of inscriptions, returns, and rereadings transform the Bible into both “a writing and a substrate,” that is, both the Bible itself, “the book of books,” and an archive (of impressions, sediments, and historical layers).  The additional “skin” and signatures bind themselves to the original writing.  They confer meaning on the text and function as a repository of historical events and encounters.  That is, this archive and the archive “put into reserve (‘store’), accumulate, capitalize, stock a quasi-infinity of layers, of archival strata that are at once superimposed, overprinted, and enveloped in each other.”  This capacity to collect and commemorate is nevertheless tempered by an equal and opposite impulse to undo, annihilate, and forget.  Indeed, the archive is “always […] inadequate relative to what it ought to be, divided, disjointed between two forces.”  Insofar as the archive remains, by definition, external to the origin of objects and events, it circumscribes the original with another history and a different kind of writing, one that erases more than it preserves.  For Derrida, “If there is no archive without consignation to an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, of reimpression, then we must also remember that repetition itself, the logic of repetition […] remains, according to Freud, indissociable from the death drive.  And from destruction.”

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