only 26 days…
Totemism is like hysteria, in that once we are persuaded that it is possible to arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation. In the case of grand hysteria, the change is sometimes explained as an effect of a social evolution which has displaced the symbolic expression of mental troubles from the somatic to the psychic sphere. But the comparison with totemism suggests a relation of another order between scientific theories and culture, one in which the mind of the scholar himself plays as large a part as the minds of the people studied; it is as if he were seeking, consciously or unconsciously, and under the guise of scientific objectivity, to make the latter—whether patients or so-called “primitives”—more different than they really are
From Totemism, (trans. Rodney Needham), p. 1
12 thoughts on “Claude dit:”
Nice to see CLS is as difficult to comprehend in English as he is in French… There no one like him.
I find that a lack of background in formal logic rather than bad prose trips up many would-be readers of Lévi-Strauss’s work. That being said, this particular quote hardly seems like mouthtalk, IMHO.
How do you interpret the opening sentence in this passage? I see L-S observing that once a set of observations are perceived as symptoms, our attention shifts to what we take to be the underlying condition. If someone then asks, Why these particular symptoms, with these particular observable properties? The question is either brushed aside or answered with the claim that the relationship is arbitrary, a more academically respectable way to do the same thing.
Am I totally off base here?
I wish I had written more of this passage (and I was tempted), as L-S continues this beautiful analogy between totemism and hysteria. Certainly there is the false logic of calling some social phenomena causes and other phenomena symptoms, when said phenomena might be better described as coconstituted.
But I think there is a larger social commentary against Victorian ‘irrationalities.’ Totemism and hysteria were systems of irrationality that created 19th century primitives (namely non-Westerners and women). By looking for the logics underlying these irrationalities, we give them their social force.
I immediately thought of Borderline Personality Disorder. The diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder is—or at least has traditionally been—mostly for the benefit of those who interact with Borderlines rather than for those who are diagnosed with the condition. The diagnosis lets family, friends, and professionals know that (1) “this woman is a lot of work” and, because it is commonly held that the condition is largely impervious to treatment, (2) “it might be unrealistic to invest too much time in helping them improve their condition.” The first isn’t necessarily bad—it does after all allow people to make some guess as to what involvement with this person might entail—while the second has always struck me as quite sinister. It not only provides the individual who gives up on the Borderline in life a means to cleanse their own conscience but also dissuades further investigation of how sufferers might be helped PRECISELY BECAUSE the investigations are conceived of as investigations of Borderline Personality Disorder. The search for an etiology is abandoned because previous research has consistently failed to yield results, so BPD is classed as something that’s simply inherent to the individual. (But how to find an etiology if the diagnosis itself is spurious?)
In the case of totemism, there’s something there, but it’s not a single complex of things that amount to an isolable institution. The problem of totemism lies in continuing to investigate it as totemism. The things being called totemism are more intelligible if investigated in the context of broader social, psychological, and cultural processes.
My effort to respond is probably less clear than Lévi-Strauss’s original, but I do hope it makes some sense!
MT, it makes sense. But my own thinking is moving in a different direction, shifting from psychopathology to method and epistemology.
That first sentence by L-S reverberates with a lot of different stuff for me. One example is Alfred North Whitehead, observing in _Science and the Modern World_ that scientific abstraction bifurcates the world into two components: one that lends itself to measurement and mathematical description, which is taken to be fundamental and the other which is everything else, including all sensuous and emotional experience, which is taken to be superficial. Consider, for example, Saussure’s linguistics, in which _langue_(language, an abstract structure) is separated from parole (speech, constantly changing and contingent). Another is Stephen Owen’s contrast between the typical reading of English Romantic poetry and the classical Chinese reading of Tang lyric in _Omen of the World_. We are taught, he says, to read English poetry by reading through the words to what we take to be some hidden, deeper meaning in them. The classical Chinese reader assumes instead that the meaning is present, embodied in the words themselves, connected via webs of allusion to previous and subsequent texts. Thus, for example, a reference to the moon shining in the Yellow River at a particular point along its bank is not a symbol for something abstract but, instead, a specific reference to a moment in Du Fu’s flight from the city of Chang-an, which has just been sacked by an invading army. The properly educated Chinese reader knows the exact reference and can thus imagine the poet’s emotions at that specific moment.
I take L-S’s contrast between the scientific and savage mind to be at least analogous to these contrasts. In the case of totemism, the scientist looks through the totems in search of an underlying object, a social structure composed of clans (or football teams) for example. He may, then, as Edmund Leach did, assert complete disinterest in ethnographic detail, abandoning the connoisseurship that Rex talks about for quasi-mathematical mind games. L-S prefers instead to consider the structure implicit in the totems themselves and to ask, for example, why its elements include both parrots and armadillos and how they fit in in relation to the jaguar and the monkey that also appear in the relevant myths. [Forgive me, I just made up this example, but I hope it conveys the difference in thinking that I’m talking about.]
Does this make sense?
In the second paragraph,
“Owen’s contrast between the typical reading of English Romantic poetry and the classical Chinese reading of Tang lyric in Omen of the World. We are taught, he says, to read English poetry by reading through the words to what we take to be some hidden, deeper meaning in[sic] them.”
“Owen’s contrast between the typical reading of English Romantic poetry and the classical Chinese reading of Tang lyric in Omen of the World. We are taught, he says, to read English poetry by reading through the words to what we take to be some hidden, deeper meaning behind them.”
MTB, your leap resonated with me but I have another perspective. Bpds are a lot of work. And so far there has been little success in developing reliable treatment protocols, largely because from what we understand of the etiology, bpd seems to be firmwired into worldviews and basic stimulus/response thresholds. So therefore at the moment it is unrealistic to invest too much time in helping them with their condition, although misery does love company.
In my view no one needs to feel guilty for not wanting to turn their lives into sacrificial misery-sharing. But here’s one where the cure becomes the disease. What you said about totemism is right on the money, and what bpds and savages have in common is that the ‘condition’ requires remediation only from the perspective of an alien (scientific) normativity that abstracts it from the broader context in which it developed and made sense.
Bpds don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, and neither do savages; they become ‘afflicted’ only in the context of cognitive/affective mismatches with others. It’s the relationship that’s disordered. Southern Italians are all clinically bpd, in my extensive experience, but in context they function just fine. So why do we think we need to fix them, CLS might ask? The proper company for bpds and savages is folks who think we’re interesting in our own terms.
It seems to me that this is all made clear in the second paragraph (viewable here):
L-S is claiming to be making an advance comparable to that made be Freud when he realized that the processes underlying hysteria are similar to those underlying the psychology of “normal” persons. Here, similarly, an understanding of totemism comes from understanding it as only (to quote from the last paragraph) “a particular illustration of certain modes of thought.” What vanishes is the need to make sense of the particular configuration at issue. As something of an aside, L-S also points out that in both cases, part of the impulsse behind seeing the particular configurations as somehow “natural entit[ies]” is to emphasize the distance between those identified with them and the scientific observer.
bq. What vanishes is the need to make sense of the particular configuration at issue.
Is it the need to make sense that vanishes or one particular approach to making sense? Isn’t the move here from grounding sense in the notion that totemism is an entity, to be explained as an entity, to seeing totems as examples of a general human tendency to classify, thus raising the question why any particular set of totems seems “good to think” for the people who embrace this classification?
Couldn’t we say that sense is still made but made in the manner of Jakobson’s phonology, where a small set of basic distinctions account for all possible sounds but leaves open the question why a particular subset is phonemic in a particular language?
I raise this issue because, thanks to this conversation, I have come to realize that my response to Levi-Strauss has changed over the years. As a graduate student I read him as attempting to do for culture what Chomsky was doing for language: describe a universal deep structure that would account for all possible variations. Now I see him as someone whose search for a logic in tangible qualities is more akin to Jakobson, whose phonology starts with how humans produce significant differences in sound, with a focus on structure in the sound, as opposed to structure in abstractions assumed to lie behind the sound.
As my speculative engine turns, I begin to see L-S’s thought evolving from _The Elementary Structures of Kinship_, a classic modernist attempt to identify a set of invisible elements that underlie social organizations, to the tangible logic of _The Raw and the Cooked_, with _The Savage Mind_ a mid point at which L-S realizes that the modernist move fails to see how the everyday bricolage that is all non-scientific thought actually works.
Of course, my speculative engine could be running totally off the rails.
John, yes, I do believe it is useful to point out that Jakobson is not Chomsky. If I understand the issues correctly, Jakobson’s focus was upon distinctions at the level of a/the system while Generative Phonology focuses upon underlying features and how they combine. Looking at Lévi-Strauss’s work with the Jakobsonian perspective in mind would seem to help us understand Lévi-Strauss’s admiration for Boas’s comment that “mythological worlds have been built up, only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments.”
bq. Jakobson’s focus was upon distinctions at the level of a/the system while Generative Phonology focuses upon underlying features and how they combine.
This description misses the point I am making here. When we talk about deep structure in syntax, we are talking about something whose relationship to what we hear is like that of software to what we see on computer screens. The underlying representation is radically abstract and invisible to our senses. The entities we postulate are, like elementary particles in physics, linked theoretically to observable output but are not themselves perceptible.
In contrast, the “underlying” features in Generative Phonology are tangible positions of the tongue, lips, and larynx, whose immediately perceptible properties constrain the possible output. (Here I remember a wisecrack from Charles Hockett, who asked us to imagine what it would be like if evolution had taken a different turn and we spoke in anal spirants.)
Here, while very different in other ways, the L-S of the _Mythologiques_ and Clifford Geertz seem to me to be on the same page. Both assert, in effect, that the proper subject matter of anthropology is what fieldwork discovers, the symbolism embedded in the tangible, public, material, perceptible stuff of the lives we share. Both reject the notion that culture is mental in the sense of being hidden inside individuals or concealed below that surface.
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