Remembering Claude Lévi-Strauss

The Internet is now full of the news that Lévi-Strauss has passed away, including an obituary at the New York Times and a collection of links at the AAA blog. Our blog — whose name is inspired by Lévi-Strauss — has discussed him in the past including some thoughts about his legacy on his 100th birthday. Many people have already shared their memories of him but what are we who never met him supposed to remember of his legacy? Perhaps it is time to be overly schematic and pare down the paeans to something more manageable for those who may be reading the news but find much of the veneration impenetrable. What, specifically, has Lévi-Strauss taught us? These are, to me, the things to take away from Lévi-Strauss’s writings:

First, Lévi-Strauss taught us that culture is a force in its own right. The idea that arbitrary and conventional systems of meaning are sui generis and have a determining force on our lives is one that is continually under assaults from various forms of reductionism. And yet Lévi-Strauss demonstrated forcefully and for all to see that the embarrassment of cultural riches found at our fingertips cannot be explained away as a result of protein or rational choice theory. Of course, we now have a much stronger understanding of how cultures work in practice than Lévi-Strauss had. But at a time when his work was interpreted at ‘intellectualist’ and people thought the etiolated visions of second-stringers like Marvin Harris were the ‘future of anthropology’, Lévi-Strauss demonstrated that it was impossible to ignore the power of culture.

Second, Lévi-Strauss taught us connoisseurship of culture. He treated cultures like works of art, and was in many sense the first person to analyze them — really analyze them — with the care that they deserved. Even today, when concrete analysis of culture has fallen by the wayside in the name of ‘theory’, Lévi-Strauss remains the great exemplar of how anthropologists work with cultural materials. The sources of his connoisseurship are varied — art appreciation, a French belle lettristic tradition, Boasian particularism — but there is no doubt that he was more or less single-handedly responsible for creating a mode of anthropological analysis that, while not universally practiced in our discipline, served both to create a distinct anthropological voice while demonstrating our utility and accessibility to other disciplines. Simply put, Lévi-Strauss taught us how to work with ethnographic materials.

More than that, Lévi-Strauss taught us to see anthropology as a work of art. He taught us that there was nothing wrong with writing beautifully — that in fact good analysis was itself beautiful, that its power to disclose new imaginative horizons was the result of its rhetorical power. Not everyone thinks this was a good idea — some see Lévi-Strauss as a harbinger of unobjective postmodernism, while others just bemoan the poor quality of the tremendous about of derivative work that followed in his wake. Whatever your stance on his position, no one can disagree that he showed us what a rigorous, humanistic anthropology looked like.

Finally, Lévi-Strauss got the relationship between the general and the particular right. He taught us to see the universal in small details. Boasian in his obsession with details, he also lifted us up to the highest and most abstract levels of thought, using little more than the detail on a piece of lace or the curve on the edge of a mask. Anthropology has always been haunted by its fierce commitment to the particular even as it strikes out towards general accounts of human society. Lévi-Strauss somehow knitted together ethnographic minutiae, comparative scope, and transcendent theorizing. This isn’t really an act that the rest of us can follow, but it was a vision that inspired others, and continues to set the tone as future generations of anthropologists try to imagine their own futures.

Of course — and I think this needs to be said despite the fact that this is a time for reverence — there was a lot wrong with Lévi-Strauss. While some pieces on the web hail mythologiques as his masterpiece, for many people it was a disappointment. The man is handed the world on a platter and the piece he produces to lead us on was… this? Its power was undeniable, and his positions much more complex than characterizations of his thought often presume (Marcel Henaff’s book Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Making of Structural Anthropology is the best (and extremely sympathetic) overview of his work). But still — there are points in the final chapters of Tristes Tropiques where I feel like my soul is being twisted by some titanic power to agree with a vision of the world that I find not just wrong but disturbing. His attempts to fit history and agency into his theoretical framework in his Introduction To The Work of Marcel Mauss always seemed painful and awkward to me. Nevertheless, the headlines are right — with Lévi-Strauss’s passing the world is watching one of its greatest intellectual move on. Will this spark a spate of fevered rereadings of Way of the Masks? Probably not — and we are probably worse off for it. And so now at the time of his passing we should celebrate him as he takes his leave from us to attain what is well and truly his regard éloignée.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

17 thoughts on “Remembering Claude Lévi-Strauss

  1. Cross-posed from OAC


    Keith has already mentioned one of my favorite passages from Tristes Tropiques, where L-S describes his search for deep structures as motivated by geology, Marx and Freud. There is also, of course, the image he conjured up of a Mendelevian table of the mind, a set of cultural elements of which all cultures are selections, permutations and combinations. That was exciting.

    Binary oppositions? That was more, “Of course.” I had already done enough logic and math as an undergraduate to know that any formula can be approximated to any desired degree of precision by a series of binary oppositions. No big news there. Just a lasting regret that L-S’s education equipped him with the Hegelian method by which, he also tells us in Tristes Tropiques, he could answer any question by posing a thesis and antithesis and then coming up with a plausible-sounding synthesis.

    To me the really exciting stuff was in the “Overture” to The Raw and the Cooked. To search, contra Leach, for “the logic IN tangible qualities,” instead of brushing aside empirical detail as mere butterfly collecting — that was a genuine call to action. There was also the image of knowledge as a galaxy slowly coalescing out of cosmic dust, with stars lighting up and forming structures toward the center but no clear boundary to confine them. That captured so beautifully what I’d learned from philosophy and history of science, that science is a series of approximations that approach but never capture the sum total of reality.

    That injunction, to search for the logic in tangible qualities and that image, in which each new insight is a star lighting up and entering into new relations with other stars, have inspired and shaped my thinking ever since.

  2. I suppose you’ve read the obituary written by Maurice Bloch in the Guardian…

    What do you think of it? There is a perception of Lévi-Strauss’ structural anthropology in the UK – and maybe in the US – which I wonder might hark back to Leach’s dramatic break with L.-S. It’s the link between linguistics and brain/cognitive science.

    My readings of L.-S. are not exhaustive, but still extant (with Mythologiques as principal intellectual investment). Do you know a reference in which L.-S. might have made the connection to brain/cognitive science himself?

    When I read L.-S. I found him quite critical to psychologising structuralism (just as he was critical of structural art because it’s generative informatic approach). In his own terms he rather was the archivist of the rainforest (a Middle Age that had not known its Rome).

    In this aspect, his work reminds me more of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project – still having mainly Mythologiques in mind – than a morphologist of the Amerindian mind.

    In Norway, when my teachers (hesitantly) taught L.-S., they always quoted the much celebrated rocks, ‘animals and plants are good to think…’ (sont bons à penser) and regularly added a ‘…with’. Interesting (in the light of what Bloch writes later in the article on the “hateful I” and the death of the subject). Old habits die hard.

    In my reading, L.-S. was more concerned with mathematical logic – the transformational geometry of Felix Klein (oddly unreferenced) – to make sense of how storytelling affected the subsequent possibilities of telling stories (contredire s’écrit ausssi conte-redire).

    In sum, he was concerned with groups of transformations, in a way that might bring him close to someone like Alain Badiou, to whom mathematics is more interesting as an ontology, than as a set of operations carried out by a mathematician.

    I guess this is what makes Lévi-Strauss a philosopher – in my mind and memory.

  3. bq. 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.

    Outside of Americanist anthropology my impression is that when Lévi-Strauss’ work is taught at all in the US that the focus tends to be on what he had to say about transformations at the level of the individual human’s mind. I think that sort of cognition is what Bloch intends when he writes “cognitive sciences” rather than what has been branded cogsci.

    bq. […] 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.

    Well said, in my opinion. Another common perception of non-Americanist US-based anthropologists is that Lévi-Strauss unerringly adopted an ahistorical point of view. That’s just received wisdom as Lévi-Strauss was clearly interested in temporal transformations.

    Lévi-Strass was also interested in transformations across space. I understand this as basically an adoption of the Boasian concept of culture area. A good reading is:

    address = {Lincoln},
    title = {Text, symbol and tradition from {Franz B}oas to {Claude Lévi-Strauss}},
    shorttitle = {Text, symbol and tradition},
    booktitle = {Coming to shore: {Northwest C}oast ethnology, traditions and visions},
    publisher = {University of Nebraska Press},
    author = {Regna Darnell},
    editor = {Marie Mauzé and Sergei Kan and Michael E. Harkin},
    year = {2004},
    note = {oclc = 55078480},
    pages = {7–22}

    I was totally unaware of Felix Klein’s or Alain Badiou’s existence prior to your post, so I can’t comment there!

  4. The concept of Klein’s group – a term, its opposite and their inversions – is used by L.-S- several places in Mythologiques: in L’origine des manières de table pp. 293-295, 315, 332 and 346, as well as in L’homme nu pp. 188, 240, 243-244, 289, 581-582.

    And – Badiou, Alain (2007) Being and Event, Continuum International Publishing Group.

    Thank you for the references.

  5. “Lévi-Strauss taught us that culture is a force in its own right…”
    and a “connoisseurship of culture.”
    Better to say he reminded people, or that he brought that understanding to bear on our understanding of foreign or “primitive” culture.

    The Humanist study of our own traditions is founded on scholarly connoisseurship,
    but “political scientists” and the new academy sees modernity as acultural modernism and a universal solvent for our problems.
    Don’t fall into the trap of arguing that Levi-Strauss invented what he was only trying to preserve.

  6. Another major trap: it sometimes is quite difficult to discern between what is being said – and circulated – about Lévi-Strauss (unreferenced), from what he actually wrote or said.

    There is an amount of myth-making – in the Barthesian sense – in academic discourse, that allows big names to be circulated as currencies. L.-S. is no exception.

    Benny Lévy (alias Pierre Victor) – Sartre’s legendary personal secretary in late years – makes a similar point about Marx in France (e.g., Louis Althusser’s reading of Marx).

    As to L.-S. as an archivist, or conservator – there is, in my view, a paradox: yes, he wanted to preserve, and in doing so – to get the work done – he invented a certain number of devices (e.g., topological ones as the Klein’s bottle [La potière jalouse/The jeallous potter] – this typing of space-time becomes even more evident as he passes from the analysis of myth to artifacts in La voie des masques/The way of the masks).

  7. I’ve been away from academic anthropology for some time now, and I find the outpouring of adulation for Levi-Strauss puzzling. Some of it can be explained as the traditional honoring of those who have died, but this post reminds me of why I didn’t care for Levi-Strauss’s work. Structuralism in its various forms never had much explanatory power and the binary concepts seemed simplistic then and now. I always thought that those who praised Levi-Strauss didn’t really understand him but thought his work must somehow be important. And calling Marvin Harris a “second-stringer?” I didn’t buy Harris’s emphasis on cultural materialism, but his critique of Levi-Strauss was on the mark (as well as what he wrote on structuralists like Radcliffe-Brown). Harris’s contributions to anthropological theory and history of anthropological thought, agree with him or not, were equal to anything Levi-Strauss wrote. I wonder Levi-Strauss would think of this new mythology created around him?

  8. Thanks, Rex, for this excellent, balanced assessment of Lévi-Strauss’ legacy. Between this and the comments, the topic has been nicely covered, but I did want to suggest one more way to approach it. A question: What do Lévi-Strauss and Don Corleone (the Godfather) have in common, and what might they be talking about right now?

    I raise this question as a heartfelt tribute to Lévi-Strauss (and the Don), not to mention as something good to think. I’ve written out my own answer in a short blog post with pictures (which won’t come out here), and if you’re interested, you can see it here:

    “And I refused to be a fool, dancing on a string held by all those big shots. I make no apologies–that’s my life.” –Don Corleone, GF

    “Writing…seems to have favoured the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment.” –Lévi-Strauss, “The Writing Lesson”

  9. It’s many months later…I have been reading articles about and by CLS in the Nouvel Observateur, a magazine from France, available here in Ottawa, Canada and no doubt elsewhere. The Nouvel Observateur produced a special issue on CSL containing 20-30 years’ worth of of 2-3 page interviews its reporters had conducted with him. Since NO is not an academic publication, Levi Strauss is plain-spoken in these reports, e.g. about his infulences and aims.

    The Guardian also presented a VERY cogent obituary by Maurice Bloch, an anthropologist.

    Finally, I suggest an amazing 3 page comic strip about the importance of CLS’s work, so well presented in the Financial Times. It was published Feb. 27, 2010. “Exclusive Claude levi-Strauss cartoon” by Apostolos Doxiadis et al.


    Catherine Beck

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