Call to order.
THE STRUCTURALISM OF CLAUDE LEVI-STRAUSS represents the most salient French theoretical contribution to the study of visual art. Or that, at least, is what I wish I could say. What I can say with conviction is that this was the case in my own intellectual formation and that, for better or worse, Levi-Strauss's mode of analysis remains with me in virtually all my thinking as an art historian. In speaking, however, of the theoretical turn in Anglo-American art history, the term to conjure with is poststructuralism, which by definition consigned Levi-Strauss to some surpassed era of theoretical prehistory. The barbarism of that term, which has no equivalent in France, has been well noted by others: Perhaps its most pernicious effect has been to forestall serious consideration of structural anthropology as part of the agreed-on kit of tools that any ambitious young art historian needs to master. As a consequence, Levi-Strauss has been all but ignored by the field, especially in comparison with the assiduous attention accorded such (worthy) figures as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze.
There has been, of course, more behind this neglect than intellectual fashion (as well as the inherent prestige of the prefix post-); at work, too, has been a general shying away from the uncertain moral standing of ethnography as a discipline. The position of mastery once occupied by the disinterested Western observer has disintegrated in the face of protests by voices among the formerly colonized refusing to be regarded any longer as unknowing objects of interpretation, while traditional indigenous societies the world over have come under ruinous ecological, economic, and cultural assault. Levi-Strauss's most widely known work has surely been Tristes Tropiques, first published in 1955, a meditative, autobiographical chronicle of his fieldwork in the Gran Chaco and Mato Grosso regions of southwestern Brazil during the 1930s. His British publisher issued the book in 1961, under the title A World on the Wane, and some of the book's more eloquent passages lament the unstoppable erosion of "cold" societies (his replacement for invidious terms like primitive and tribal, one that stresses deep ideologies of continuity and equilibrium) under the relentlessly expansionary drive of the dominant "hot" societies around them.
His time among the Bororo, Caduveo, and Nambikwara made an anthropologist out of the visiting professor of sociology, but Levi-Strauss would not devise the tools for comprehending his fieldwork until he found himself facing the potential eradication of his own cultural inheritance--both French and Jewish--after the Germans took Paris at the onset of the Second World War. Levi-Strauss succeeded in escaping occupied France, arriving in New York after a prolonged and risky voyage from Marseille via Martinique and Puerto Rico. Once settled in the city, he was drawn to the group of exiled intellectuals involved with the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes, an academy founded at the New School for Social Research by French and Belgian refugees. Seeking no more than some technical pointers in recording exotic languages, he attended a series of lectures by Roman Jakobson on the fundamentals of structural linguistics, though he had never heard of the speaker. But what Jakobson had to say hit the displaced fledgling anthropologist with the force of revelation: Simply put, the recognition that rules based on binary oppositions, rather than on the positive character of individual phonic events, defined the logic of a language. On that same plane of analysis, as Levi-Strauss rapidly recognized, were then to be located nested networks of commensurably arbitrary rules governing the propagation of myth, the conduct of ritual, and the preferences and prohibitions that constitute, in the title of his dissertation and first book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949).
Having experienced with such personal intensity the fragility of cultures caught in sweeping tides of historical change, he nonetheless set his own fundamental mode of comprehending culture at a ninety-degree angle from that chronological axis, to the "synchronic" dimension of simultaneity. After his study of kinship rules came the anatomization of all recorded mythology in the Americas under the rubric of Mythologiques. But even as that great series of books was unfolding--from The Raw and the Cooked (1964) and From Honey to Ashes (1966) to The Origin of Table Manners (1968) and The Naked Man (1971)--the temper of the academic humanities was turning decisively against totalizing narratives of any kind. So Levi-Strauss, necessarily positioned as a global interpreter, fell under a doubled weight of mistrust, both as the embodiment of the metropolitan European ethnographer speaking for the formerly subaltern and as the propagator of knowledge claims founded on grand narratives. But it is surely time, even without the occasion of his centenary death, to ask what has been sacrificed in the service of this dual aversion.
For the study of the visual arts, an answer arises when we examine the other transforming revelation of Levi-Strauss's exile period in New York--his encounter with the hall devoted to the American Indians of the Northwest Coast at the American Museum of Natural History. Unlike his friend the Surrealist and fellow ethnographer Kurt Seligmann, Levi-Strauss never visited the makers of these objects in British Columbia, just as, unlike Seligmann, he steered clear of mourning the perceived decline of traditional ritual life among the Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, and related peoples. He absorbed instead a vivid recollection of their art, which he regarded as the peer of all the great world traditions, husbanding a store of knowledge that took some decades to find its form in print--and even then had to be solicited by the Swiss art publisher Skira for a semipopular series. But for all its belatedness and brevity, La Voie des masques (translated imperfectly as The Way of the Masks), first published in 1975, brings home the core importance that structuralist thinking still bears for any systematic understanding of the visual arts that would go beyond the fragmented cases and anecdotes that have become the art-historical norm. A social art history in particular, while having become the default mode of academic practice, nonetheless proceeds without a theory--and so forfeits one key component of any credible discipline (body of knowledge + theory = discipline). The search for correspondences between observed characteristics of isolated artifacts and the potentially explanatory features of vast social landscapes has been proceeding for some time now with little rhyme or reason, apart from an inherently conservative reliance on common-sense analogies.
For any local instance of a work of art to be comprehensible in terms of phenomena that dwarf it in scale, two things have to occur within the procedures of analysis: The governing social order needs to be subjected to some powerfully simplifying rubric, while the artifact in need of intelligibility must be complicated and enlarged, so that the two entities begin to converge in conceptual scale. Levi-Strauss's decades of immersion in the ethnographic record of the Americas had taken care of the former, in that he could readily anatomize the cognate societies of the Northwest Coast along interlocking lines of kinship, myth, and ritual. His previous efforts at grasping a visual matrix, beginning with the facial decoration of Caduveo women, had come up short. But the long-gestated apprehension of the objects he had seen in the Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians (assembled by the great anthropologist Franz Boas) provided a key to the kind of total social fact that he sought.
By all appearances, the mask called Swaihwe by the Coast Salish appears distinctly unpromising, aggressively simple, in the sense of "rude and provincial," by comparison with the astonishing refinement of carving among the neighboring and more powerful Kwakiutl. Its advantage as a point of departure, however, was twofold: First, appearances by the dancer wearing the mask evoked good lineages, achieved social rank, wealth, and public generosity, the values at the heart of the social order; second, the mask's easily demarcated and enumerated features allowed the transformations of those traits to be tracked in their passage across the social boundary that divided the two groups. Levi-Strauss discovered the Swaihwe at work among the Kwakiutl in a parallel symbolic position but in outward appearance utterly transformed: The Swaihwe bore a new name (Dzonokwa), switched gender, and acquired its own mythological backstory to match. Every salient trait of the prototype had been reversed. But Levi-Strauss's emphasis lay exactly on that completeness of transformation, such that the Swaihwe's identity had been conserved in a precisely negative form. This led Levi-Strauss to formulate a theorem predicting the behavior of forms--both sculptural and mythological--as they cross cultural boundaries: If the meaning is conserved, the traits will reverse themselves; if the traits are conserved, the meaning will be reversed. And such was doubly the case with the outwardly humble Swaihwe in its migration to the Kwakiutl, in that it was both formally reversed to become the symbolically twinned Dzonokwa and formally conserved under the cognate name of Xwexwe--but made into a wholly opposite character acting out selfishness and anomic chaos as opposed to generosity and good social bonds.
It is beyond the scope of a short essay to do justice to the detailed observation and argument that subtended Levi-Strauss's proposing this simplified rule.* What matters for the moment is the power of such a theoretical formula to enlarge and complicate what is meant by "the object of art." The complex of form and meaning set in motion by the Swaihwe writes itself over an unfolding cross-cultural pattern of transmission and reciprocal elaborations of social practice and mythological thought. The vessel of a single mask, whether simply or intricately composed, functions as point of entry and return, its significance complicated and enlarged along a network that is never visible all at once--indeed barely visible at all from a single vantage point. One lesson that ought to be drawn from our marking the death of Levi-Strauss is that we would do well to turn away from the pious cant that still surrounds conventional understanding of "the object," a category largely founded on noncognitive attributes of portability, marketability, and decorative convenience. By attending to his example, it is possible to comprehend the fascination exerted by the ostensible object of art as a glimpse of its place in a lived symbolic complex of perpetual transformation, which is to say, a higher and wider plane of existence.
A CONTRIBUTING EDITOR OF ARTFORUM, THOMAS CROW IS ROSALIE SOLOW PROFESSOR OF MODERN ART AT NEW YORK UNIVERSITY'S INSTITUTE OF FINE ARTS.
* I have attempted to do this in The Intelligence of Art (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 24-58.
MY MOST DISTINCT MEMORIES of Claude Levi-Strauss and the structuralist earthquake he introduced in the United States shortly before I first arrived here as a lecturer in 1971 are these:
A youngish man from the art school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in my regular cafe, engrossed day after day in a book called Structuralism (by Jean Piaget, as I later learned). Not much of a memory, you say, but the intensity of that young man's concentration sticks in my mind, emblematic of the extraordinarily exciting, almost religious passion then sweeping the University of Michigan campus. No one really knew or understood what structuralism meant, but there were plenty who were willing to explain it to you, as though offering a path to the promised land, if only you had the time--and in those days, unlike now, there was time (and unlimited cigarettes and coffee) to get you through. We had a map to Treasure Island, but half of it was missing. Structuralism held the promise of an intellectual utopia, by which I mean a Utopia of the intellect, a perfected diagram of the workings of thought itself that encompassed the hitherto hidden structures in any- and everything, from salt crystals to myths.
A second memory harks back to my student days in London in 1968, when street fighting, largely an expression of outrage against the Vietnam War and the suppression of dissent, spread across Western Europe, inflaming university students everywhere, and our professors became subject to what I can only call structuralist bullying. It was insane. Structuralism at that time consisted of a holy cross-Channel foursome: Levi-Strauss in anthropology, Jacques Lacan in psychoanalysis, Michel Foucault in philosophy, and Louis Althusser in political theory. We were all buried in Althussers notion of the "relative autonomy" of culture and the coupure epistemologique--the epistemological break--that transformed Marx from a mere humanist into a structuralist without his even knowing it. We were busy reading indecipherable essays on structural this and structural that in journals that sprang up like poppies in spring, bearing titles like Theoretical Practice. (That journal measured roughly eight inches across and six inches high, with monochrome covers in a different hue for each issue--of which there were not many.) British empiricism was out, French stuff was in, and our poor professors were put out to pasture. Anticolonial and Marxist politics coincided with "student power" and the worst obfuscations and marvelous revelations of structuralism.
In anthropology, the time-honored intellectual method of situating something in a context and finding the utilitarian links connecting part to whole was mercilessly sundered by structuralism. Levi-Strauss came out swinging, first with his overarching--should I say "cosmic"?--theories about nature and culture in his 1949 (English translation, 1969) Elementary Structures of Kinship, a five-hundred-page tome ostensibly on the arcane topic of cross-cousin marriage in so-called primitive societies. What grabbed one's attention, however, was his philosophical daring in granting the incest taboo (read: the gift) central importance. Inasmuch as it ensured marrying out of one's family and hence creating what we call society, the incest taboo was poised between the two great players in Levi-Strauss's scheme: nature and culture. In his words, the incest taboo is "where nature transcends itself." (1) The taboo leads away from static to dynamic analysis, he wrote. It is neither nature nor culture nor simply a composite of the two.
Levi-Strauss's style of thinking and of writing--his love of forms that transform and of binaries that somersault--is well brought out in the following quotation. "The prohibition of incest," he wrote, is the "fundamental step because of which, by which, but above all in which, the transition from nature to culture is accomplished. In one sense, it belongs to nature, for it is a general condition of culture. ... However, in another sense, it is already culture, exercising and imposing its rule on phenomena which initially are not subject to it." (2) From this you get a sense of the mystical quality adhering to his otherwise elaborately coherent and ingenious thinking.
Fundamental to the incest taboo is the principle of the gift as the infrastructure of all so-called primitive societies and, in a way, of all nonmarket societies as well. Of all gifts, that of a woman is the most esteemed. It is the gift underlying all gifts, and thus in one fell swoop not only is society created out of the family but other crucial exchanges and circulations are established, namely the exchange of goods and signs--i.e., language itself.
The next shock Levi-Strauss delivered, in 1962, was his demolition of extant anthropological theories of totemism, a word derived from a British fur trader working around the Great Lakes of North America in the late eighteenth century: the idea that American Indians and people like them were spiritually tied to an animal or element in nature and that this link was directly related to that animal or element as something useful to physical survival. Surveying the immense amount of anthropological literature garnered since the nineteenth century by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Smithsonian Institution--this was his modus operandi, making American anthropologists aware of the riches therein--Levi-Strauss convincingly argued that this condensation of beliefs and behaviors into an ism, such as totemism, and the subsequent reification of this ism into an evolutionary stage in the "development" of societies, was unwarranted, amounting to a sort of colonialist pigeonholing: It was an artifact of the observer's need for so-called materialist explanations.
His own conclusion was that animals and things in nature (plants, stars, thunder, vomit, heat, cold, the cardinal points, and colors, to name but a few) were seen by these remarkably observant peoples to form series and phyla that could be intricately coordinated with their society's divisions into various intermarrying groups and with the love of classifying in general. There was no one-to-one connection between Clan A and a raven or between Clan B and an egret (based on the desire to hunt and eat such). Instead, ravens were to egrets as Clan A was to Clan B. It was semiotic play, aesthetic and relational. Differences in nature were manifold, and, as with language, some of these differences could be selected to form systems by which to order our human world, too.
Hence a third memory I have, from the early 1970s, is of Christopher Davis, who had been a student of the anthropologist Irving Goldman at Sarah Lawrence College, telling me how wonderfully fortified Goldman was by Levi-Strauss's taking so seriously the intellectual character of so-called primitive cultures--reading myth and ritual, for instance, with the same seriousness with which one would consider Western works of art and literature. Let me quote Levi-Strauss's Savage Mind (first published in France in 1962), from the chapter called "The Logic of Totemic Classifications": "The 'savage' has certainly never borne any resemblance either to that creature barely emerged from an animal condition and still a prey to his needs and instincts who has so often been imagined nor to that consciousness governed by emotions and lost in a maze of confusion." (3) This was more than moral or political sympathy for colonized societies. It was intellectual and aesthetic respect as well, not for any particular individual so much as for the culture as a whole, just as we credit language as a collective achievement transcending any individual contribution. And of course the model of language, as filtered through the "new" linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson--meaning language as semiotics, or a sign system--was precisely what the Levi-Strauss revolution was based on.
Goldman, who lived in Brooklyn and had been a student and assistant to Franz Boas at Columbia University, had written few but fabulous books, beginning with The Cubeo: Indians of the Northwest Amazon (1963), which was based on fieldwork in the Colombian Amazon in 1939 and 1940. After some two decades of indifference or even hostility on the part of mainstream American anthropology toward Boas's legacy of culture as a pattern of meaning, Levi-Strauss provided an antidote to the watered-down Marxism then pervasive in the discipline as practiced in the US. An extreme example of this was the "cultural materialism" purveyed by Marvin Harris, who "explained" whatever wanted explaining in human culture as the search for scarce resources, such as protein (hence cannibalism!), and who was for a long time taken seriously, giving standing-room-only lectures at Columbia in the 1960s and '70s. But even cursory knowledge of cannibalism reveals an immense body of ritual in which the eating of the victim-cum-god--as with the Christian Mass--is highly symbolic.
It took that mischief maker Marshall Sahlins, in works such as Culture and Practical Reason (1976) and a series of essays in the New York Review of Books in 1979, to gleefully point out that Harris's approach was merely(!) the projection of the common sense of capitalism onto far different economies: This wasn't anthropology at all, but rather an unwitting endorsement of market logic. In his studies of Hawaiian and Fijian history (e.g., Islands of History  and How "Natives" Think: About Captain Cook, for Example ), Sahlins went on to bring Levi-Strauss into the postcolonial fold, as well as to bring history into a Levi-Straussian mode of approaching problems, a daring move that fundamentally altered the way many of us look at cause and effect in historical change.
But intellectual fashions are inevitably discarded after a decade or so. Nothing is so sexless, opined Walter Benjamin, as yesterday's fashion--indeed, not just sexless but the "most radical anti-aphrodisiac imaginable." Fate delivered that cruel blow to structuralism, such that after the veritable frenzy for cryptography in the 1970s, with anthropologists everywhere "cracking the code," claiming to discover beneath the chaos of observable life a hidden language or sets of correspondences--be it in artwork, the organization of male and female, or the organization of living spaces, rituals, myth, or dress--the structuralist project was spent. The anthropologists had been led to the promised land, parched, and had drunk accordingly. The inevitable surfeit of intoxicated revelation led to the routinization of charisma. What in the master's hands had been quicksilver magic became boring and predictable when secondhand, and the whole thing went up in smoke to make way for--what else?--poststructuralism.
And it must be admitted that a lot of what Levi-Strauss did was magical. It created wonder like a conjuring trick. His writing is meticulous yet contains innumerable shifting plates of oppositions, similarities, and transformations. He wrote some amazing essays on shamanism and was a shaman himself, in the sense that he concealed his sleights of hand--only his moves were tricks of language, tricks that his obsessively semiotic theories would never admit to. One of the more glaring ones, which appears in his essay "The Effectiveness of Symbols" (in Structural Anthropology ), and is basic to his entire method, was his notion of "inductive property," by which "structures," salt crystals as much as myth--affect one another through what I can only call their "structuration." The example brilliantly worked through was that of a Cuna Indian shaman in the San Blas Islands off Panama and Colombia in the Caribbean who is able to coordinate his nightlong song with the transformation of the heaving body of a woman laboring in obstructed childbirth such that her body is "restructured" and the baby is born. In reality, what this inductive property amounts to is anyone's guess, yet the ethnographic material--the story, if you will--is so heady that such mumbo jumbo on the part of the writer goes unseen. (Let it not pass unnoticed that Lacan said he got his understanding of the unconscious from this essay.) In other words, the natives' magic is used to propel your own--structuralist--magic.
But oh, what joy it was then to be alive! An offshoot of the exuberant '60s, Levi-Strauss's structuralism had more than a tangential relationship with what came to be called the literary turn in the human sciences. Together with the influence of Antonio Grasmsci, the literary turn demolished the economic determinism of regnant Marxism and opened the floodgates both to a passionate interest in culture as a force in its own right and to taking the idea of structure the full hog, as with Homo ludens Roland Barthes and with Derrida's Nietzsche-inspired vision of what it means to have a structure of relationships with no center.
Finding one's way through this potent stuff was wonderful and wonderfully confusing. I doubt there has been an intellectual and emotional revolution of this profundity since the advent of the "historical avant-garde" in the early twentieth century. My own path was guided as much by this intellectual ferment as by my fieldwork, first on the impact of agribusiness on peasant economies in western Colombia and then on the attribution of magical powers by colonists--rich and poor--to the Indians of the eastern foothills of the Andes, which drop off into the swirling mists of the Putumayo River basin, where William S. Burroughs had drunk yage with shamans in the early 1950s. My issue with Levi-Strauss was that his approach could only straitjacket the blooming, buzzing confusion of the all-night rituals involving hallucinogens, the sinuous quality of the shaman's wordless singing coming out of nowhere, the opening out of the body into multiple selves and organs, and the immensity of the fear and incandescent beauty--all experienced within an aesthetic of stops and starts and, of interruptions in speech, mood, and music, in the ongoing battle with sorcery. With its obsessive stress on signs to the neglect of emotion and ambiguity, structuralism has little purchase on the affective and aesthetic power of such experiences, which, if anything, turn structuralism on its head--a Dada-esque creative cacophony, as applicable in my opinion to the violence of the metaphysical struggle with one's body, imagination, and sorcery as to the atrocities of the early-twentieth-century rubber boom in the same area, as reported by Roger Casement to the British government. The underlying rhythm of order and disorder in ritual and colonial terror does not allow for structuralist magic bent on nailing things down but calls for a far more unstable and destabilizing confrontation, testing our writing to the full in an endless give-and-take with the elusive reality depicted.
Anxiety of influence, you ask? A predictable, even Oedipal, reaction to the master, as we see with Deleuze and the riches of poststructuralism in general? Of course. But so what? For so long as there is mystery, churned up as much by our own mad pursuits as by the world at large, we will be as alive and bug-eyed as was the face I still recall of that young man in Ann Arbor devouring Structuralism in Dominick's cafe way back when.
(1.) Claude Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 25.
(2.) Ibid., 24.
(3.) Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, trans. John and Doreen Weightman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 42. Following the passage I have just cited, Strauss goes on to bunch together with this "logic of totemic classification" not only magic as "the science of the concrete" but also the work of the alchemists of antiquity and the Middle Ages, as well as the writings of the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. Thus in one stroke we are catapulted into thinking hard about the coming science wars and global meltdown, ecological and financial--Green Hermeticism being in my eyes the most interesting philosophy of science available as an anarchist alternative to capitalist-generated systems of classification (for which see Peter Lamborn Wilson, Christopher Bamford, and Kevin Townley, Green Herrneticism: Alchemy and Ecology [Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2007]).
MICHAEL TAUSSIG IS A PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IN NEW YORK. (SEE CONTRIBUTORS.)
Any classification is superior to chaos.
"I HATE TRAVELING AND EXPLORERS," Claude Levi-Strauss famously declared at the opening of his memoir, Tristes Tropiques (1955). The disclaimer was an easy one, because he was no adventurer--though, in truth, he enjoyed the occasional voyage. Levi-Strauss wasn't an armchair anthropologist, at least not at the outset, and didn't reinvent primitive culture off the top of his shelves, as Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, founders of the French school of sociology, had done. Unlike English and German anthropologists, who were far more empirical in their approach, the French had waited until 1929 to launch their first major ethnographic expedition, a two-year affair directed by Marcel Griaule that rolled across Africa, from Dakar to Djibouti, like a bulldozer, uprooting information and some thirty-five hundred native artifacts to be shipped hack to the Musee de l'Homme in Paris. South America, colonized by the Spanish and Portuguese, was still off the French map. Although trained as a philosopher, Levi-Strauss first learned about ethnology in situ, and it was chance (or history) that forced him to trade the exotic tropics of Brazil for a more intellectual kind of exploration. In 1935, for a few weeks, he had a first go at the Bororo Indians near the Bolivian border, a material civilization that, he marveled, was still "almost intact." Three years later, he spent a few months among the Nambikwara Indians in the Central Mato Grosso, a region no ethnologist had ever observed, which was populated by hostile tribes reduced to "bare life" and much closer to the state of nature than he--or Rousseau, for that matter--had ever dreamed.
At the time Levi-Strauss wrote Tristes Tropiques, the travelogue was fast becoming a popular genre in France, and the anthropologist quickly cast his own sentimental journey as a "philosophical tale," although he hated philosophy as well, dismissing recent developments wholesale for their emphasis on subjectivity and in particular deriding Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism, the anthropologist's pet target, as "metaphysics for morons." Fortunately for Levi-Strauss, his sensitive self-portrait as a young anthropologist ran counter to his professed scientific neutrality, and Tristes Tropiques became his major claim to fame, making him a national hero in Brazil and the most renowned philosopher in France until his death last fall, at the age of one hundred.
Levi-Strauss is well known, too, for his book The Savage Mind (1962), which permanently changed the way we look at so-called primitive cultures. One might assume he made this discovery during his stay among the Bororo or the Nambikwara of Brazil, but no: He had this revelation in New York, in 1941, at the Free French school in exile (the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes), at the corner of Twelfth Street and Fifth Avenue, near the affiliated New School for Social Research, where he also taught during World War II. A colleague introduced him to the eminent Russian linguist Roman Jakobson. This meeting changed Levi-Strauss's life.
A polyglot with encyclopedic knowledge and boundless energy, Jakobson had been a major figure among the Russian formalists and the Moscow Linguistic Circle. Leaving Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, he became a traveling salesman for the revolution in linguistics. In 1926, together with Prince Nikolai Troubetzkoy, he founded the Prague Linguistic Circle, which, over the course of the next ten years, laid the groundwork for the study of phonology. The notion that linguistics could be a science in its own right was new. Ferdinand de Saussure had put an end to nineteenth-century evolutionary linguistics by emphasizing internal structure over history. For him, language was a system of signs to be considered in its synchronic solidarity. In his Course in General Linguistics, published in 1916, Saussure ventured to say that the actual sound of words mattered less than their "phonic differences." Jakobson and Troubetzkoy took it from there and turned sounds into a system of relations.
Levi-Strauss had no prior knowledge of linguistics, and his embrace of Jakobson's structural approach to the discipline opened the way to an entirely new understanding of traditional cultures. At the time, Levi-Strauss happened to be focused on the venerable anthropological problem of kinship, and he now cast it in an entirely different light. Studies on kinship traditionally relied on family ties (consanguinity or filiation). Applying Jakobson's phonological model, Levi-Strauss managed to show, on the contrary, that primitive societies use discrete biological elements (fathers and sons, brothers and sisters) to establish a social system of alliance between families. Enforcing the universal prohibition of incest was a way of taking nature "beyond itself" and turning it into culture. All it took was making sure that "a man must obtain a woman from another man," who must himself then give away a daughter or a sister in return. There is nothing natural about kinship, Levi-Strauss asserted. Kinship structures are arbitrary systems of representation. They exist only to produce logical structures in men's minds.
In the early 1960s, taking a pause between his first major work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), and his next ambitious project, Mythologiqnes (translated as Introduction to a Science of Mythology), a tetralogy on primitive myth that was twenty years in the making (and ultimately published in four fat volumes between 1964 and 1971), Levi-Strauss had another groundbreaking idea: Using structural analysis, he would entirely recast the notion of totemism, long considered a viper's nest within the profession. Earlier in the century, Lucien Levy-Bruhl had settled the question by asserting that so-called primitives were so steeped in nature that they made no distinction between themselves and their animal totems. His classic formula, "the Bororo are the araras" (the arara being a kind of parrot), summed it all up. Savages participated "mystically" in their totems, belying Aristotelian logic: A could be A and not-A. It was magic. Levi-Strauss had no patience for religion, his own included. He believed in rationality. Cleaning the ethnological house, he turned the tables on Levy-Bruhl, attributing the idea of syncretism to the anthropologist himself. In reality, he asserted, the Bororo were using the arara as a "totemic operator." They identified with araras to distinguish themselves from other tribes, which identified with other animals. The true function of the totem was to associate two series of differences, one in the natural world, the other in the social world. Levi-Strauss's slim volume Totemism (1962) established structural anthropology as a science, publicly demonstrating the structural character of mythical thought and its capacity to account for complex systems of transformation. The savage mind was not magical, but logical. Only its objects--animals, plants, inorganic matter--belonged to nature. Savages were just like us. It was quite a statement in its day, and it came in the nick of time, too. Primitive cultures were fast disappearing, and they had to be debriefed before they died. Structuralism was a shortcut to oblivion.
Totemism served as a critical introduction to The Savage Mind, which Levi-Strauss published the same year. It was a resounding manifesto, the clearest formulation so far of the structuralist revolution. Ear from being governed by organic or economic needs, Levi-Strauss asserted, "savages'" devote as much attention to botanical specimens as we do to concepts. Contrary to appearances, they have a capacity for abstract thought; they are intellectuals to the same degree, since they apply their minds to the classification of what is immediately present to their senses. Out of chaos, they create order. Levi-Strauss saw them devoured by a "symbolic ambition" and a "scrupulous attention directed entirely toward the concrete." The same, obviously, could be said of the anthropologist himself.
I should, of course, qualify this statement. Levi-Strauss's own ambition, often reiterated, was to establish a "science of the concrete" capable of bringing together the material and the mental, the empirical and the theoretical. He claimed that he could use natural categories (e.g., the raw and the cooked, the fresh and the decayed) as conceptual tools before elaborating abstract ideas that he would combine in the form of propositions. Prior to subjecting an ensemble of primitive myths to structural analysis, for example, he would insist that they had to be apprehended at the most concrete level, "in the heart of a community or of a group of communities sufficiently alike in their habitat, history, and culture." And then they would serve as a "laboratory" in which he would carry out an experiment that, he hoped, would be of universal significance. Paradoxically, the analysis of primitive culture was a way of imposing order on the entire civilized world. For this, Levi-Strauss had to prove the existence of a kind of "logic in tangible [sensible] qualities," which obeyed specific procedures and laws. It is a logic of this kind that he put to the test a few years later, with The Raw and the Cooked (1964). He then extended it, in a spiraling movement, to his second volume, From Honey to Ashes (1967), which involved a superior "logic of forms" (honey is over-raw, ashes overcooked). The third volume, The Origin of Table Manners (1968), explored the logic of qualities and the logic of forms through a civilizing process meant to establish the passage from nature to culture. And yet, moving from transformation to transformation, what remained of the initial cosmological relations dramatized in the myths was the human spirit--The Naked Man (1971), as he titled the fourth and final volume of his Mythologiques. In the end, qualities and forms got depleted, manners turned into mannerisms. Entropy kicked in. Myths collapsed and fell silent, leaving behind weakened forms--novels, historical works, or soap operas--their original meanings watered down to the point of meaninglessness. Contrary to what the public would expect (and certain anthropologists as well), it is not for their meaning that myths, or kinship, should retain our attention. Levi-Strauss was clear about this in "Finale," the last chapter of The Naked Man, in which he wrote, "We have to resign ourselves to the fact that the myths tell us nothing instructive about the order of the world, the nature of reality or the origin and destiny of mankind. We cannot expect them to flatter any metaphysical thirst, or to breathe new life into exhausted ideologies." The more we know, the less there is to know.
Myths mean nothing; they are a myth themselves. The huge and complex edifice of mythology "slowly expands to its full extent, then crumbles and fades away in the distance." Nevertheless, myths make it possible "to discover certain operational modes of the human mind, which have remained so constant" through every epoch. "The mind is left to commune with itself and no longer has to come to terms with objects," Levi-Strauss wrote in the "Overture" to Mythologiques (that is, in the first chapter of The Raw and the Cooked); "it is in a sense reduced to imitating itself as object." This idea is echoed in his majestic "Finale." The study of myth uncovered not an empirical reality but an intellectual construct. The Wagnerian tetralogy had come to a close. Like the spirit at the end of Hegel's Phenomenology, the human mind had become transparent to itself. Before the curtain fell, Levi-Strauss brought out "the mythic character of ... the universe, nature and man which ... have simply demonstrated the resources of their combinatory systems, in the manner of some great mythology, before collapsing in upon themselves and vanishing, through the self-evidence of their own decay." It was the twilight of the gods and the apotheosis of the intellect. His last word was: nothing.
BY THE MID-1960S, it became clear that structuralism had gradually replaced existentialism in the public eye. In fact, after The Savage Mind's appearance, structuralism would become the rallying cry of the French intelligentsia. Louis Althusser was offering a structuralist reading of Marx's Capital at the Ecole Normale Superieure, while tout-Paris was packing the Ecole de Medecine nearby, to witness Jacques Lacan's harnessing of semiotics to a twisted vision of the unconscious. The media soon was eagerly casting Althusser, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Levi-Strauss together around a primitive fire as bona fide adepts of the new creed, while Tel Quel gave it the cachet of the literary avant-garde. Levi-Strauss himself, however, could only be described as skeptical about certain of these developments. Lacan, for instance, had been a close friend, but the anthropologist showed up for only one of his sessions, never to come back. And while Barthes had laid much of the groundwork for Levi-Strauss's reception by other disciplines in the academy--applying the deterritorializing power of Saussure to everyday life in his Mythologies (1957) and deconstructing "The Great Family of Man" in terms that perfectly apply to primitive culture (arguing, for instance, that myths are meant to immobilize the world)--Levi-Strauss would merely dismiss the strenuous attempt in S/Z (1970) to break away from the structural model as so much "structuralism-fiction."
Even so, it was under the careful guidance of Levi-Strauss that, half a century after Saussure's quiet revolution, the new linguistic paradigm was delivering the "human sciences throughout the entire culture." Levi-Strauss's election to the College de France in 1960--he was the first anthropologist to be offered a chair at this powerful institution--helped structural linguistics establish its scientific credentials. And it was from this position that he created a section of semiolinguistics (the Social Sciences Laboratory, directed by A. J. Greimas) in association with Paris's Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (where Barthes was already teaching semiotics, linguistics, and poetics), which led to a flurry of seminars and publications involving such major critics and semioticians as Umberto Eco, Gerard Genette, Julia Kristeva, Christian Metz, and Tzvetan Todorov--suggesting, intriguingly enough, that what is now known as "French Theory" was mostly elaborated apart from the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Superieure, academic institutions that observed the strict separation of disciplines. Instead, theory benefited from the anthropologist's special investment in extending the reach of linguistics to all the sciences, from psychology, demography, and biology to economics and chemistry. Indeed, today it is compelling to recall that Levi-Strauss was also fascinated by the progress of cybernetics, which relies on the same binarism as the human mind. For him, the discovery of genetic code and its implicit structural analogy with the verbal system of information reinforced the idea that a bridge exists between neurology and the cyberworld.
And yet today we cannot help but recognize a major stumbling block for Levi-Strauss, which he never quite surmounted: Unlike the natural sciences, the sciences of man--which he famously claimed "will be structural or they will not be"--had a hard time circumscribing their object. In time, with essays on his work starting to multiply, structuralism itself was bound to come under attack for the fiction of its own making. After all, Levi-Strauss's "mythemes," patterned on Jakobson's phonemes, remained rough approximations at best, and his Mythologiques remained more programmatic than scientific, with the percentage of myths he actually used for his studies being very small compared with the vast quantities littering the ethnographic record. Jacques Derrida's deft but implacable deconstruction of Levi-Strauss's phonologism and of the metaphysics of presence deployed in Tristes Tropiques (mostly in two chapters: "On the Line" and "A Writing Lesson") turned the tide once and for all--though, in typical fashion, the anthropologist simply chose to deride his critic with a pirouette, saying he "dissects clouds ... with the deftness of a bear."
Levi-Strauss claimed that "the elimination of the subject represents what might be called a methodological need," but Pierre Bourdieu and Paul Ricoeur accused him of practicing nothing less than "Kantism without a transcendental subject." There is no doubt, though, that what he himself willingly admitted to be a "vulgar materialism" became increasingly difficult to defend, particularly in later years, when he tied his system of binary oppositions to the genetic code. "As can be seen," he concluded triumphantly regarding the molecular form of DNA, "when Nature, several thousand million years ago, was looking for a model, she borrowed in advance, and without hesitation, from the human sciences: this is the model which, for us, is associated with the names of Troubetzkoy and Jakobson." Here Levi-Strauss was simply being true to his own long-held premises. And yet the very wild character of this extrapolation makes one suspect that the strict unity and coherence he attributed to structuralism must also have been permeated by a kind of disorder. Writing late in life of DNA's "sum total of the elements from which it blindly derives its substance," Levi-Strauss concluded that "as the nebula gradually spreads, its nucleus condenses and becomes more organized. Loose threads join up with one another, gaps are closed, connections are established, and something resembling order is to be seen emerging from chaos." The description, read in and of itself, says so much, suggesting that the insistent rationality Levi-Strauss upheld for so long--the entire system that came to encompass the universe, nature, and man alike--was never very far from a kind of delirium.
BUT THIS IS WHAT MAKES HIS SYSTEM, philosophically speaking, so fascinating. Unlike those who jumped on the structuralist bandwagon only to quickly leap off (Philippe Sollers, for instance, got tired early on of its "one-two, one-two" logic), Levi-Strauss wasn't afraid of going all the way. In spite of his narrow base--binarism--and his monochromatic thinking, his infectious conviction allowed him to approach complex and conflicting material and share with his readers the rush of discovery, the white magic by which he would continually turn chaos into order. One can't help but admire the elegance and inventiveness of his mind. Any order, obviously, has its drawbacks, but he bravely fought the nebulous chaos of the present time by turning primitive myths into our own and back again. Like his savages, he longed to freeze a world that was already going too fast to be stopped. He may have been keenly aware, just like Jean Baudrillard in America (1986), that "this entire society, including its active, productive part--everyone--is running straight ahead, because they have lost the formula for stopping."
Actually, contrary to appearances, Levi-Strauss's myths without origin share a lot with Baudrillard's vision of America, whose "immanence and material transcription of all values" constitute the perfect simulacrum. Wasn't Saussure the first to have tied the notion of linguistic value (the difference between signs) to the stock exchange? Levi-Strauss's delirium, if it is one (it certainly is widely shared), feeds on the principle of equivalence inherent in capital which makes history itself impossible. America, Baudrillard asserted, "cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity; it has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives ... in perpetual simulation, in a perpetual present of signs." He was even more specific. Americans, he wrote, have no sense of simulation, since "they themselves are the model. As a result, they are the ideal material for an analysis of all the possible variants of the modern world. No more and no less in fact than were primitive societies in their days. The same mythical and analytic excitement that made us look towards those earlier societies today impels us to look in the direction of America."
Instead of moving his theory to the United States, as Baudrillard did, Levi-Strauss chose to cultivate it in France. (He even became an "immortal," by entering the conservative Academie Francaise.) As a result, he failed to extend his rationality as far as he might have and thus couldn't cover the integrality of the mythical space he had promised to classify. Although similar in their approaches--both were extrapolators--the two theorists moved in opposite directions. While the anthropologist kept extending the logic of capital to primitive societies, desymbolizing savage minds and assimilating them to the contemporary semiotic universe, Baudrillard never tired of reintroducing symbolic elements extracted from primitive culture to oppose the radical exchangeability of speculative capitalism. In The Consumer Society (1970), he already had the idea that consumption can be compared to the kinship system, because it is based on a code of differences rather than on need and pleasure. He realized that the cool universe of digitality and simulation would triumph over the reality principle and that only death--duel (and not dualism), challenge, reversibility--could save us from cultural entropy or exhaustion.
Levi-Strauss knew all too well that the order he achieved would be temporary, inasmuch as "we are dealing with a shifting reality," he observed in his "Overture," "perpetually exposed to the attacks of a past that destroys it and of a future that changes it." These features, of course, are not only true to native societies, but also--even more so--of our own. He also failed again on one major account: Moving from the heart of tropical America to the furthermost reaches of North America, his primitive myths in hand, he forgot to visit that biggest tribe of all, what Baudrillard called "the only remaining primitive society" on the American continent. No wonder he ended up, back from his long journey, discovering that the myth of the Bororo Indians of central Brazil he had chosen as a starting point, "for reasons that are largely contingent," was in fact the matrix for the entire Mythologiques. The last chapter of The Naked Man is called "The Only Myth." As Lacan would have said, the delirium is "fixed." Turned toward the past, Levi-Strauss missed out on the "primitive society of the future": America.
SYLVERE LOTRINGER, THE FOUNDER AND GENERAL EDITOR OF SEMIOTEXT (E), IS EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF FRENCH AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IN NEW YORK.
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|Title Annotation:||Claude Levi-Strauss|
|Author:||Crow, Thomas; Taussig, Michael; Lotringer, Sylvere|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2010|
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