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R.I.P. Claude Levi-Strauss

Claude Levi-Strauss

Claude Levi-Strauss

Brussels, November 28, 1908 – Paris,  October 30, 2009

From  Maurice Bloch’s obituary:

The fame of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who has died aged 100, extended well beyond his own subject of anthropology. He was without doubt the anthropologist best known to non-specialists. This is mainly because he is usually considered to be the founder of the intellectual movement known as structuralism, which was to have such influence, especially in the 1970s. He was one of those French intellectuals – like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoeur – whose influence spread to many other disciplines because they were philosophers in a much broader sense of the word than the academic philosophers of the British and American tradition.

As a result, these French writers have seemed more stimulating to some Anglo-Saxon thinkers, working in intellectually more imaginative, but perhaps less rigorous, areas such as literature, history or sociology than the home-grown product. Yet it is something of an irony that Lévi-Strauss should have been thought of in this way, as he considered himself, above all, a technical anthropologist, and he was a little surprised, if not also a little suspicious, of the enthusiasm for structuralism manifested by students of literature and others. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that he relished the literary fame that his work acquired, especially for his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques….

The basis of the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss is the idea that the human brain systematically processes organised, that is to say structured, units of information that combine and recombine to create models that sometimes explain the world we live in, sometimes suggest imaginary alternatives, and sometimes give tools with which to operate in it. The task of the anthropologist, for Lévi-Strauss, is not to account for why a culture takes a particular form, but to understand and illustrate the principles of organisation that underlie the onward process of transformation that occurs as carriers of the culture solve problems that are either practical or purely intellectual.

For him anthropology was scientific and naturalistic, that is scientific in the way that structural linguistics had become scientific. By looking at the transformations of language that occur as new utterances are generated, by using the tools that a particular language makes available, structural linguistics was able, so Lévi-Strauss believed, to understand not only the irreducible specificities of a particular language, but also the principles that made their production possible. In this way, linguistics, as he understood it, was a branch of the humanities and a natural science that is able to connect directly with psychology and neurology.

By studying the richness of cultural forms and their continued transformations, much the same was to be achieved by anthropology, which was to be both a cognitive and a historical science. Thus, the meaning of symbols and concepts had to be studied both within the context of the working of the brain and the specificity of the historical flow of a particular culture. Anthropology was for Lévi-Strauss one of the cognitive sciences. It was to be compatible with recent discoveries concerning the working of the brain, although as time went on he seems to have given up keeping up with developments in this field. He was, however, insistent that although the cognitive could explain structure, it could not explain content.

This is the programme lying behind all of Lévi-Strauss’s major works. But, in a sense, it is also a manifestation of a much more fundamental approach and mood from modern English-speaking anthropologists. In contrast to most professional anthropologists, whose work often seems contained within the controversies of their time and which lacks a general theory of human nature, Lévi-Strauss writes as though he were a naturalist from far away, observing our planet and the ecology of its different species, including the human species, with an Olympian lack of involvement.

He was thus interested in the human species in general terms but, because he knew that for 99% of its existence, humankind has consisted of small groups with very low population densities living in close interaction with a multitude of other living species, he considered the study of peoples such as the pre-contact Amazonian Indians to be far more important and relevant than the details of the short-lived modern industrialised world….

From “A Writing Lesson,” Tristes Tropiques:

Writing is a strange thing. It would seem as if its appearance could not have failed to wreak profound changes in the living conditions of our race, and that these transformations must have been above all intellectual in character. Once men know how to write, they are enormously more able to keep in being a large body of knowledge. Writing might, that is to say, be regarded as a form of artificial memory, whose development should be accompanied by a deeper knowledge of the past and, therefore, by a greater ability to organize the present and the future. Of all the criteria by which people habitually distinguish civilization from barbarism, this should be the one most worth retaining: that certain peoples write and others do not. The first group can accumulate a body of knowledge that helps it to move ever faster towards the goal that it has assigned to itself; the second is confined within limits that the memory of individuals can never hope to extend, and it must remain the prisoner of a history worked out from day to day, with neither a clear knowledge of its own origins nor a consecutive idea of what its future should be.

Yet nothing of what we know of writing, or of its role in evolution,can be said to justify this conception. One of the most creative phases in human history took place with the onset of the neolithic era: agriculture and the domestication of animals are only two of the developments which may be traced to this period. It must have had behind it thousands of years during which small societies of human beings were noting, experimenting, and passing on to one another the fruits of their knowledge. The very success of this immense enterprise bears witness to the rigour and the continuity of its preparation, at a time when writing was quite unknown. If writing first made its appearance between die fourth and third millennium before our era, we must see it not, in any degree, as a conditioning factor in the neolithic revolution, but rather as an already-distant and doubtless indirect result of that revolution. With what great innovation can it be linked? Where technique is concerned, architecture alone can be called into question. Yet the architecture of the Egyptians or the Sumerians was no better than the work of certain American Indians who, at the time America was discovered, were ignorant of writing. Conversely, between the invention of writing and the birth of modern science, the western world has lived through some five thousand years, during which time the sum of its knowledge has rather gone up and down than known a steady increase. It has often been remarked that there was no great difference between the life of a Greek or Roman citizen and that of a member of the well-to-do European classes in the eighteenth century. In the neolithic age, humanity made immense strides forward without any help from writing; and writing did not save the civilizations of the western world from long periods of stagnation. Doubtless the scientific expansion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could hardly have occurred, had writing not existed. But this condition, however necessary, cannot in itself explain that expansion. If we want to correlate the appearance of writing with certain other characteristics of civilization, we must look elsewhere. The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied it is the formation of cities and empires: the integration into a political system, that is to say, of a considerable number of individuals, and the distribution of those individuals into a hierarchy of castes and classes. Such is, at any rate, the type of development which we find, from Egypt right across to China, at the moment when writing makes its debuts; it seems to favour rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind. This exploitation made it possible to assemble workpeople by the thousand and set them tasks that taxed them to the limits of their strength: to this, surely, we must attribute the beginnings of architecture as we know it. If my hypothesis is correct, the primary function of writing, as a means of communication, is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings. The use ofwriting for disinterested ends, and with a view to satisfactions of the mind in the fields either of science or the arts, is a secondary result of its invention and may even be no more than a way of reinforcing, justifying, or dissimulating its primary function.


About John Madera

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.
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