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In Search of North Africa

Saints of the Atlas

by Ernest Gellner
Chicago, 317 pp., $9.50

Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria 1954-1968

by William B. Quandt
MIT, 304 pp., $8.95

Wolves in the City: The Death of French Algeria

by Paul Henissart
Simon & Schuster, 508 pp., $8.95

The Battle of Algiers

directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

Change at Shebika: Report from a North African Village

by Jean Duvignaud
Pantheon, 303 pp., $6.95

Ramparts of Clay

written by Jean Duvignaud, directed by Jean-Louis Bertuccelli

Physicists, novelists, logicians, and art historians have recognized for some time that what we call our knowledge of reality consists of images of it that we ourselves have fashioned. In the social sciences this is just now coming to be understood, and then only imperfectly. The contribution of the investigator not only to the description and analysis of his object of study but to its very creation still tends to be obscured by the sort of mentality which regards the Human Relations Area Files, the Gallup Poll, and the US Census as repositories of recorded truths waiting merely to be discovered. In the arts, the unimplicated observer has been reduced to a minor convention; in the sciences to an unreachable limiting case. But in much of sociology, anthropology, and political science he lives on, masquerading as a real person performing a possible act.

Part of the reason for this failure, on the part of investigators otherwise only too self-conscious, to reflect on the way in which they first construct the objects they then inspect is that the issue has generally been confused with the not unimportant but rather less profound one of bias. Concealing private prejudices in public language is certainly an affliction of social scientific research; for some people, that, in fact, is its vocation.

But beyond the tired debates about “value neutrality” and the pious unmaskings of other people’s parti pris is the more disturbing question which the unreliable narrator raised for fiction, the complementarity principle for physics, and Rashomon for common sense: if what we see is to a considerable degree a reflex of the devices we use to render it visible, how do we choose among devices? Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird are twelve too many for someone who still believes that facts are born not made, and that differences of perception reduce to differences of opinion.

That they do not so reduce is apparent from a recent series of rather desperate attempts to get a sociological hold on the contemporary Maghreb—i.e., western North Africa—a part of the world which, resembling everything but itself (when Tocqueville first saw Algiers it reminded him of Cincinnati), has an unusual capacity for inviting the application of standard notions about how societies work, and then defeating them.

Academic monographs, social realism documentaries, and belletristic essays compete to develop a representational form in which Maghrebi society can be caught and communicated. The first result of the dawning realization that though society doubtless exists independently of the activity of sociologists, sociology does not, is a proliferation of genres. The second, still so faint as to be scarcely visible, is the development of the sort of radically experimental attitude toward modes of representation that set in so much earlier elsewhere in modern culture.

As would be expected, the academic studies—Saints of the Atlas and Revolution and Political Leadership—are the least affected, in both senses of that term, in this way. Gellner and Quandt are old believers. For them, there is still an object “out there,” like Everest, on the one hand, and on the other, a set of analytic abstractions, developed by scientists, designed to describe it. Research consists of the empirical investigation of the adequacy of the abstractions to the constitution of the object. And scientific works are systematic presentations of the results of research.

The document makers, whether in films, such as The Battle of Algiers, or magazine prose, as in the book Wolves in the City, are, if anything, even more bound to the notion that social reality is presented to them directly and that the main thing is to look at it with sufficient care and the appropriate attitude. But they are at least aware that some artfulness—the simulation of a Forties newsreel for Pontecorvo, Newsweek-Marches-On dramatization for Henissart—is necessary to convey the look of it to others.

Only Duvignaud (and, apparently, his cinematic translator, Bertuccelli) knows that the artfulness comes in very much earlier and very much more profoundly. His portraits of North African village life, both in his book and in the quite different, even contrasting, ways of Ramparts of Clay, the film made from it, are at base fictions, stories he has told himself and now recounts to others. There is not much left in Duvignaud’s “inventions based on life” of the immaculate perception view of scientific understanding, and nothing at all of the relaxing notion that the world divides into facts.

North Africa doesn’t even divide into institutions. The reason Maghrebi society is so hard to get into focus and keep there is that it is a vast collection of coteries. It is not blocked out into large, well-organized, permanent groupings—parties, classes, tribes, races—engaged in a long-term struggle for ascendancy. It is not dominated by tightly knit bureaucracies concentrating and managing social power; not driven by grand ideological movements seeking to transform the rules of the game; not immobilized by a hardened cake of custom locking men into fixed systems of rights and duties.

These features, which loom so large elsewhere in the Third World, are, of course, present on the surface of life. But it is only surface. Anyone who takes them for more (as do most foreign observers, but hardly any domestic ones) finds the society constantly coming apart in his hands. Structure after structure—family, village, clan, class, sect, army, party, elite, state—turns out, when more narrowly looked at, to be an ad hoc constellation of miniature systems of power, a cloud of unstable micro-politics, which compete, ally, gather strength, and, very soon overextended, fragment again.

The social order is a field of small, pragmatical cliques gathering around one or another dominant figure as he comes, more or less transiently, into view and dispersing again as, largely traceless, he disappears. The cliques are somewhat more stable in the Moroccan High Atlas or the Tunisian steppe than they are in Algiers, but the difference is only relative. The social partitions of North Africa are everywhere movable and incessantly moved.

Gellner’s reaction to the difficulties such constant rearrangement of loyalties poses for social description is to perceive a fixed and well-formed ground plan half-hidden beneath it. And as his object of study is a Berber tribe (the Ahansal), his training is in British social anthropology, and his conception of social order is organismic, the plan he perceives is genealogical.

According to Gellner, for all the maneuver and conspiracy, blood is still thicker than water. Whatever the surface irregularity of social life, it is played out within a grid of kinship relations which both contains it and gives it meaning. The famous Semitic proverb, “Me against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the stranger,” crystallized into a nested set of lineages and clans, is the basic organizing principle of Ahansal society:

[O]ne might ask whether…in fact the society is not much more fluid than the neat tree-like patterns of group genealogy and alignment would suggest. Such a conclusion would be quite mistaken…. [Genealogical] organization displays a set of alignments, ratified not merely by custom, sentiment and ritual, but more weightily by shared interests which provide the baseline for alliances and enmities, for aid and hostility, when conflict arises. Calculation, feeling, new interests, diplomatic ingenuity may at times cause the final alignments to depart at some points: but the initial and fairly strong presumption is that allegiances of tribe and clan will be honored, and that other inducements must have been operative if they were not so honored.

The trouble is that such “inducements” seem almost always to be “operative.” “Final alignments” seem to depart not just at some points but at most. One could get about as far, possibly even further, with understanding North African society, Gellner’s somewhat special sample of it included, with the principle, “My cousin and I against my brother, the stranger and I against the whole lot of my horse-thieving relatives.”

Kinship alliances do play a role in North African social organization, especially in rural settings, but there is nothing particularly privileged about them. To raise them to the “constitutional” level of fundamental laws occasionally transgressed is to reduce the actual flow of North African social life to a collection of special cases arbitrarily explained. This is what happens to Gellner, as the surface of his initially so finely modeled book breaks up into a catalog of fragmentary observations. As he proceeds, the “neat tree-like patterns” become harder and harder to perceive, until at the end they seem overwhelmed altogether by “calculation, feeling…interests…ingenuity,” and matters trail off into a series of one-thing-after-another descriptions of particular facts about particular settlements, groups, and even individuals—micropolitical situations.

The book as a whole gives a picture of an overplanned enterprise getting instructively out of hand. And although, from one point of view, this is testimony to the fact that Gellner is acute enough to rise above his principles, from another, it suggests that the best way to solve the intricacies of North African society is not to descend upon it with a finished theory looking for an instance.

Yet, as Quandt’s book on the Algerian revolution strives to show, scientific opportunism doesn’t work very well either. Rather than proceeding with some organized set of prior principles to see how they fare in the world of facts, Quandt describes, in more or less everyday, “common sense” language, the social process he is investigating—the evolution of the Algerian political elite from the outbreak of the revolution in 1954 to the consolidation of the Boumedienne regime in 1968—and then puts together ad hoc categorial schemes and generalized hypotheses to order and explain it.

This makes for more flexibility than Gellner’s approach has; one feels less caught in a conceptual cage. But it also makes for more eclecticism. Although the schemes are inventive and the hypotheses more or less unexceptionable, they don’t do much more than restate the fact that rivalry is as pervasive among the Algerian elite as among a Berber tribe—a restatement made in phrases fashionable enough in Cambridge and Santa Monica to permit Harold Lasswell and Daniel Lerner to pronounce them, in their Foreword to the book, “the nascent language of the policy sciences.”

The language, alas, remains nascent, not to say embryonic: it is all banalities and promises. Quandt explains the fragmentation of the Algerian elite by the fact that its members entered it at different points in the development of nationalism and thus have different conceptions—“liberal,” “radical,” “revolutionary,” “technocratic”—of the nature of politics. He explains political instability by the fact that men seeking power naturally strive to attract as wide a variety of supporters as possible, while men arrived in power, when payoffs have to be made, seek, equally naturally, to narrow their base to a “minimum winning coalition,” thus creating disappointments, resentments, and lasting enmities as superfluous backers are cast off. And he explains why government tends to be ineffective by the fact that the Algerians generally are marked by a high level of distrust, an exaggerated sense of honor, and a chronic resentment of authority.

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