The idea that primitive societies have no history, that they are
dominated by archetypes and their repetition, is especially weak and inadequate. This idea was not conceived by ethnologists, but by ideologists in the service of a tragic Judaeo-Christian consciousness that they wished to credit with the “invention” of history. If what is called history is a dynamic and open social reality, in a state of functional disequilibrium, or an oscillating equilibrium, unstable and always compensated, comprising not only institutionlized conflicts but conflicts that generate changes, revolts, ruptures, and scissions, then primitive societies are fully inside history, and far distant from the stability, or even from the harmony, attributed to them in the name of a primacy of a unanimous group. The presence of history in every social machine plainly appears in the disharmonies that, as Levi-Strauss says, “bear the unmistakable stamp of time elapsed.” It is true that there are several ways to interpret such disharmonies: ideally,by the gap between the real institution and the assumed ideal model; morally, by invoking a structural bond between law and transgression; physically, as though it were a question of attrition that would cause the social machine to lose its capacity to wield its materials. But here too it seems that the correct interpretation would be, above all, actual and functional: it is in order to function that a social machine must not function well. This has been shown precisely with regard to the segmentary system, which is always destined to reconstitute itself on its own ruins; and likewise for the organization of the political function in these systems, which in effect is exercised only by indicating its own impotence. Ethnologists are constantly saying that kinship rules are neither applied nor applicable to real marriages: not because these rules are ideal but rather because they determine critical points where the apparatus starts up again—provided it is blocked, and where it necessarily places itself in a negative relation to the group. Here it becomes apparent that the social machine is identical with the desiring-machine. The social machine’s limit is not attrition, but rather its misfirings; it can operate only by fits and starts, by grinding and breaking down, in spasms of minor explosions. The dysfunctions are an essential element of its very ability to function, which is not the least important aspect of the system of cruelty. The death of a social machine has never been heralded by a disharmony or a dysfunction; on the contrary, social machines make a habit of feeding on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxieties they engender, and on the infernal operations they regenerate. Capitalism has learned this, and has ceased doubting itself, while even socialists have abandoned belief in the possibility of capitalism’s natural death by attrition. No one has ever died from contradictions. And the more it breaks down, the more it schizophrenizes, the better it works, the American way.