Friday, November 06, 2009

Thoughts on Claude Lévi-Strauss

In college in the fifties I fell in with a group of graduate students, sociologists and anthropologists who half convinced me that, taken together, these disciplines sufficed to define the world. Sociology (then at the height of its prestige) fully explained advanced industrial societies, while anthropology took care of the rest. I was always concerned that both seemed to disregard the highest achievements of human culture to concentrate on the average (and even the savage). For many, I suppose, this democratic feature was an advantage; to me it was not.

Of course the methodological problems that were to cripple the disciplines of anthropology and sociology had not surfaced, though a few were far-sighted, even in those optimistic, credulous days. W. H. Auden put it succinctly with his eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit a social science.”

Nonetheless in 1955 I dutifully acquired one of the required bibles, a vast tome entitled Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory, edited by the noted Americanist Alfred L. Kroeber. As I recall (the book has recenty fallen afoul of a necessary purge of my library), this volume contained essays by about fifty specialists, mostly reflecting the consensus of American anthropology at the time, dominated as it was by the tradition established by Franz Boas. I was struck, though, by a piece in the book by a mysterious Claude Lévi-Strauss, a maverick who attracted me by his independence. This little item was in fact my first introduction to structuralism, a subject to which I shall return in a moment.

The death last month of Claude Lévi-Strauss at the age of 100 offers a fitting opportunity to say something about his immense legacy and its significance for my intellectual development.

Towards the beginning of his fine obituary in the New York Times (Nov. 3, 2009), Edward Rothstein concisely renders the essence of the French savant's achievement. “A powerful thinker, Mr. Lévi-Strauss, in studying the mythologies of primitive tribes, transformed the way the 20th century came to understand civilization itself. Tribal mythologies, he argued, display remarkably subtle systems of logic, showing rational mental qualities as sophisticated as those of Western societies.

“Mr. Lévi-Strauss rejected the idea that differences between societies were of no consequence, but he focused on the common aspects of humanity’s attempts to understand the world. He became the premier representative of 'structuralism,' a school of thought in which universal 'structures' were believed to underlie all human activity, giving shape to seemingly disparate cultures and creations.

“His work [Rothstein continues] was a profound influence even on his critics, of whom there were many. There has been no comparable successor to him in France. And his writing — a mixture of the pedantic and the poetic, full of daring juxtapositions, intricate argument and elaborate metaphors — resembles little that had come before in anthropology.”

Lévi-Strauss is such a well known figure that the basic facts of his career may be quickly summarized. Born into a distinguished French-Jewish artistic family, he started in philosophy. Finding this subject too arid, he switched to anthropology. In the 1930s he had the good fortune of being invited to become a professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. From this base he launched his study trips deep into the habitat of the Amazon Indians, his only field work.

Having returned to France, he was briefly mobilized at the start of World War II. After the fall of France he made his way to Marseille where he was able to take a boat to the French Caribbean. He settled in New York City, then a haven for many distinguished European refugees. For Lévi-Strauss probably the most important contact during this period was with the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, who introduced him to structuralism. He also immersed himself in the classics of American ethnography (the famous Smithsonian series).

Returning to France not long after the war’s end, he brought out his first magnum opus, his 1949 volume Elementary Structures of Kinship. Characterizing a society's concepts and practices of kinship is of course one of the prime tasks of cultural anthropology, though for outsiders the subject is inevitably somewhat dry. In this book Lévi-Strauss examined kinship systems from a structural point of view, demonstrating how a myriad of social organizations were in fact simple permutations of a few basic patterns. Feminists have criticized him for focusing on the exchange of women. As he remarked, though, the process can just as easily be characterized as the exchange of men.

As I noted. I made my first tentative acquaintance with the French scholar’s work in 1955, though I had little notion of the way he might fit into the “map of knowledge.” In the course of the following decade a number of translations of accessible books made his ideas better known in the English-speaking world. Two volumes stand out, and still rank as good introductions. The first is his richly informative travel memoir Tristes Tropiques (1955). More directly related to structuralism was The Savage Mind, translated into English in 1966.

When I was teaching at Columbia University in the early seventies I fastened on the idea of trying to adapt structuralism to the field of art history. Lévi-Strauss had himself pointed the way with his studies of the masks of the Northwest Coast Indians. I formed a little group of graduate students to effect the adaptation. As with other such attempts to expand the horizons of art history, in the end our efforts did not amount to much. One problem was that structuralism, which seemed so promising, had been overwhelmed by the blight of poststructuralism, with the appalling Jacques Derrida in the vanguard.

I conclude with a few words about structuralism itself.

In my view the central insight of structuralism lies in its insistence that classification precedes exemplification. A famous example is Lévi-Strauss’s culinary triangle of raw, cooked, and rotten. Once this triad is established, we can fill in the categories ad infinitum; salads, sashimi, and nuts; stews, soups, and pies; camembert, aged beef, and lutefisk. One can easily imagine all sorts of variations. For example, there could be an advanced society with traffic lights in which red meant “go” and green meant "stop," assuming a different gamut of associations in which red connoted life, while green was linked with poison. The decisive feature is not the colors themselves, but the part they play in the overarching binarism. (Supposedly, such an inverted color coding was employed for a while to regulate traffic in Mao’s China, with red meaning "full speed ahead to the new socialist society." This seems to be an urban legend. But it could have been implemented, as long as the new scheme was applied consistently.)

The structuralist, then, looks for such patterns in his or her chosen field of endeavor, whether it be musicology, political theory, epic poetry or any other. Once the fundamental structures have been detected, one can proceed to allocate the empirical material in a way that is both logical and in keeping with the cultural norms prevailing in the realm one is studying.

More prosaically, structuralism is commonly traced to the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). In linguistics the trend manifested itself in both phonetics and semiotics. Yet many French intellectuals have perceived it as having a wider application, and in fact the model was soon modified and applied to other fields, such as anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and architecture. This iridescence inaugurated the vogue of structuralism as not just a method, but also an intellectual movement that came to supplant existentialism in 1960s France.

The new trend did not escape challenge. Some critics accused it of being too rigid and ahistorical. Moreover, in the highly charged political atmosphere of the sixties, it was decried for having no “liberational” application.

In retrospect it seems that structuralism became best known for its application to literary theory. However, some scholars notably espoused structuralist concepts within the philosophy of science, anthropology and in sociology. According to Alison Assiter, structuralism is a unified entity with four common features. First (as I suggested above), the structure is what determines the position of each element of a whole. Secondly, structuralists believe that every system has a structure. Thirdly, structuralists are interested in constants that address coexistence rather than change. And finally structures are the “real things'” that lie beneath the surface or the appearance of meaning. Following the linguist Noam Chomsky, this last aspect is sometimes termed the “deep structure” that underpins and regulates the surface manifestations of human culture.



Blogger Burk said...

Very interesting... I have to say that to me, structuralism may be a fancy word for "biology". Which is to say that we have inborn modes of perception, psychological archetypes, and ways of being that generate these structures, as exemplified by our reaction to rotten, raw, and cooked, our reaction to incest and exogamy, etc. A fine example is the structure of the rainbow, where its colors and boundaries are formed not of the light, but by our perceptual apparatus, quite automatically.

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