Ethnography, Thievery, and Cultural Identity: A Rereading of Michel Leiris's L'Afrique fantme Academic Article uri icon


  • During 193133 Michel Leiris took part in an ethnographic expedition across Africa, the highly publicized Dakar-Djibouti mission. This essay examines three documents related to the mission. The first, remarks that Leiris wrote before the trip, reveals his understanding, either conscious or unconscious, that theft would be an essential part of the mission's ethnographic strategy. In the second, a journal kept during the expedition, Leiris recorded specific incidents of theft. I argue that the ethnographers' thieving, portrayed as spontaneous acts, is in fact a political one that allows them to collect objects of great cultural significance while ensuring a European identity distinct from the identity of the colonized. The third document is the published version of the journal, which Leiris titledL'Afrique fantme.Variants in this version and a photographic illustration prefigure Leiris's rethinking of ethnography's role in decolonization.

published proceedings

  • PMLA/Publications of the Modern Language Association of America

author list (cited authors)

  • Larson, R.

citation count

  • 11

complete list of authors

  • Larson, Ruth

publication date

  • January 1997

published in