What would it mean to celebrate the Levi-Strauss centenary?

Here on Savage Minds we are gearing up for Levi-Strauss’s birthday. Strong has been posting LS quotes for the past few days, and we are hoping to get some high-octane people to talk about the event. All of this preparation, however, has really gotten me thinking about what it would mean to celebrate the Levi-Strauss centenary.

Who is Levi-Strauss to anthropologists today? In my experience students regard him with a mixture of awe and horror, amazed at his ability to channel massive amounts of intellectual energy into brain-twistingly complex analyses that seem, to them, radically removed from anything that matters. Even those of us who think of him as an important figure also think of him as a historic one. Can anthropologists who received their Ph.D.s after, say, 1980, boil with anger when Levi-Strauss sees women as tokens to be exchanged by men, or thrill at the way that his analyses of myth open new horizons for analysis? Could it be that hommage is just another way of saying that this work does not particularly matter to us any more?

I’m particularly worried by the American tendency to fetishize French thinkers — do we find Levi-Strauss fascinating just because he is old and kooky and French? Of course the French have been busy fetishizing him themselves — in Paris this summer LS’s upcoming birthday was covered in magazines and newspapers, and a new edition of his biography appeared in paper.

I don’t doubt that Levi-Strauss should be remember and celebtrated, even if celebration brings debate (I like debate, you may have noticed!). But I’m not quite sure, yet, what it would mean to celebrate the Levi-Strauss centenary. Are you?


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 rex@savageminds.org

9 thoughts on “What would it mean to celebrate the Levi-Strauss centenary?

  1. I think he should be celebrated by taking his work as a going concern to help researchers think of things in different ways. Also, his big ideas should be treated as propositions subject to refinement rather than as fixed positions to be accepted or rejected wholesale.

    Take the exchange of women. Either it gives us the atom of kinship that explains the origin of society or it is misogynistic propaganda meant to convince the world that women are things. I’m always a bit surprised at the fact that those taking the former position usually do so in the absence of testimony from their field site that such exchanges take place, while those taking the latter position see red so quickly and vividly that they miss the opportunity to ask, “Is Claude Lévi-Strauss claiming that women are like ‘objects’ or is he suggesting that some ‘objects’ are like people?”

    I personally would like to see a few phenomenologists celebrate his work by taking the dedication of The Savage Mind to Merleau-Ponty as a starting point for what Lévi-Straussian structuralism might contribute to their own work.

  2. He was actually my introduction to anthropology. And I don’t mean that he got assigned in my first undergraduate course. I mean that for some reason, there was a copy of Tristes Tropiques in my house when I was a teenager living in Venezuela, and I happened upon it, and I was enthralled. So besides structuralism and phenomenology, there’s the way that particular book has influenced an era of anthropological writing about travel and hybridity and tourism and anthropology, anthropologist as traveler-tourist-tour guide — recall the natives of a local Indian village who have blue eyes because they intermarried with German settlers a century back, or the ones who ask him to photograph him so that they can be paid for it.

  3. Ah, yes, _Tristes Tropiques_. Who could forget Levi-Strauss’ description of the young anthropologist who learns in his philosophy class that any argument can be developed by dialectic, a skill that allows him to pontificate on any subject whatsoever in short order? Or the description of the tribes that made up the student body at French universities, the hale and hearty men of the world eager to leave school and get on with the business of life and their pale, monkish counterparts whose dearest dream was to never leave school? Or, on a more serious note, the incredible project described as creating a “Mendelevian periodic table of the mind” in which a limited number of elementary contrasts, e.g., the raw and the cooked, would account for all the permutations and combinations found in different cultures, as a limited set of phonetic symbols describes the sounds of every conceivable human language. It may be totally over the top, but I still continue to find it inspiring.

  4. Far from being fetishized in the US academy and in US anthropology, I think LS is actually today under-appreciated and widely (and sometimes willfully) misinterpreted. Or if he is fetishized it is a negative fetish (or perhaps all fetishes are negative); ‘demonized’ would be too strong a word, but might capture some of it. I can think of at least one very famous US critical theorist (her name is Judith Butler) who has in publication completely misread some of Lévi-Strauss’s work. (E.g., see her misunderestimation of ‘Race and History’ “here”:http://books.google.ie/books?id=Pepy2_OXEe4C&pg=PA122&lpg=PA122&dq=judith+butler+race+and+history&source=bl&ots=b3o3pEIuXy&sig=Ch5ZNWj9t-ltUonij92v643rE8A&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result )

    What’s funny about your comment here, Rex, is that a few days ago you seemed to be lamenting the loss of the ethos of a certain style of connoisseurship within anthropology, where connoisseurship seemed to be defined as appreciation for details. John McReeryMcCreery “pointed out”:/2008/10/29/anthropology-as-connoisseurship/#comment-516921 that among the most accomplished practitioners of this lost style of attention to the minutiae (including the concreta and qualities) of sociocultural existence was the master himself. So it seems to me that you have already offered one answer to the question you ask: celebrating Lévi-Strauss would mean remembering that anthropology, alone among the social sciences I like to think, is capable of a broad but discerning embrace of the manifold complexities, including the aesthetic qualities, of human being(s).

    Now if there is a loss of a certain sensibility in contemporary US anthropology, I think that loss is perhaps captured by the _very idea_ that what Lévi-Strauss might have to tell US students is in fact ‘radically removed from anything that matters’. I think that a lot of US (cultural) anthropology has stopped asking big questions generated by something approximating basic science in favor of trying to answer much smaller questions articulated under the sign of ‘relevance’ (‘what matters’). Ironically, the shift from, say, ‘local’ to ‘global,’ while ostensibly expanding the anthropological gaze, has I think in effect narrowed it, as it collates a series of concomitant shifts in anthropological attention: from ‘culture’ to ‘identity,’ from ‘society’ to ‘power,’ and so on. This is narrowing is nowhere more visible than when read against the poignant example of Lévi-Strauss’s simply incredible corpus:

    bq. His corpus remains a transforming response to particular ethnographic and comparative pursuits: Boasian studies of Northwest Coast myths and contexts; Lowie’s approach to Primitive Society to a range of kinship organizations; analyses of “primitive and archaic” ritual practice, economic exchange, and social logic advanced by Durkheim, Mauss, and associates of L’année sociologique; Radcliffe-Brown’s too abstract formulations of social structure. (This list… is longer, resplendent enough, only partly outmoded, and perhaps encouraging) Both explicitly and indirectly, Lévi-Strauss has wedded and divorced his work, sometimes winkingly, to and from figures as varied as Bergson, Proust, Goethe, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Ruth Benedict, Saussure, Playboy, Marx-Freud-Archaeology, Hamlet, and at least three faces of Rousseau: Rousseau; Jean-Jacques; and Rousseau, Juge de Jean-Jaqcques. (This list too is longer, dazzling even by today’s interdisciplinary standards, and somehow comic, or tragicomic.) Boon, “Lévi-Strauss, Wagner, Romanticism, A Reading-back…”:http://books.google.ie/books?id=SaZggitYo-wC&pg=PA124&dq=%22A+Reading-Back…%22

    Though loss was an important theme in Lévi-Strauss’s writing (and Sahlins notwithstanding, I think there is still plenty of triste to go around these days as we think about the experience of the peoples anthropologists work with), I think it would be, yes, sad to register appreciation for Lévi-Strauss’s work only as a reminder of a superseded anthropological past, and not only because he still writes.

    But following Boon, a mistake in celebrating the centenary of Lévi-Strauss would in fact be in celebrating only the ‘voice’ of LS alone. A properly Lévi-Straussian celebration of “Lévi-Strauss” would be relational of course, linking (or dividing) authors as well as orders of experience.

  5. McCreery, please. Not McReery.

    But, yes, a very important point.

    _a mistake in celebrating the centenary of Lévi-Strauss would in fact be in celebrating only the ‘voice’ of LS alone. A properly Lévi-Straussian celebration of “Lévi-Strauss” would be relational of course, linking (or dividing) authors as well as orders of experience._

  6. I agree completely with MTB here, but I think this sort of pragmatic and heuristic engagement with the grand white boy theorizers is intercepted on the one hand by trendy incredulity toward metanarratives, and on the other by the reconstitution of anthropology and other social sciences as subaltern partisanship. The latter in particular has involved mything a contrasting bad old days of imperial partisanship, masquerading in a case like CLS’s as olympian detachment.

  7. An excellent place to start any reconsideration / reassessment of L-S would be Michael Asch’s article, “Lévi-Strauss and the Political: The /Elementary Structures of Kinship/ and the Resolution of Relations between Indigenous Peoples and Settler States” in /JRAI/ 11 (2005) (unfortunately not OA). By reading /ESK/ as a political treatise — the origins of society in the incest taboo leading to a fundamentally anti-liberal (i.e., anti-Enlightenment) understanding of the inescapability of relations — Asch reinvigorates the analysis of L-S’s œuvre, drawing focus back from what I think of as the intellectual sterility of his work on symbolism to his profoundly politically project. Asch offers a perspective which effectively counters the small-minded analyses which focus on his supposed misogynist objectification of women (what L-S calls “exchanges of women” are actually exchanges of marriage partners, both male and female, depending on the context) while reinscribing a relational approach which has ties to Mauss, and also (through Mauss and independently) as Regna Darnell has demonstrated in her /Invisible Genealogies/, back to Boas.

  8. Thanks all.

    Strong, its not funny but intentional that I ask this question after discussing a loss of connoisseurship in anthropology. Is that what Levi-Strauss has to offer us? Does this mean we really think the most important piece in his oeuvre is Mythologique? And… just because LS is about connoisseurship does that mean that all connoisseurship is about Levi-Strauss (as opposed, to, say, Boas)?

    Or do we view Levi-Strauss as the founder of a truly mathematical, abstract approach to modeling kinship system? Does it matter that the biological/genetic claims that underlay the central claims of Elementary Structures are now _six decades_ out of date?

    And finally, do we want anthropology to be a ‘universal discipline’ that hovers about philosophy and sociology history, etc.? Can we all be maitres a penser? Is anyone interested in us doing this beside… us? And even all of us?

    So yes, I think that thinking through the legacy of Levi-Strauss we do have to think about how we imagine the discipline.

  9. bq. So yes, I think that thinking through the legacy of Levi-Strauss we do have to think about how we imagine the discipline.

    Could how we imagine the discipline begin with how we imagine our predecessors? Do we turn to them for inspiration? Or for models to follow? In my own case, Claude Levi-Strauss and Clifford Geertz provide inspiration. My model is Victor Turner. The former provide me with flashes of insight but fail as models of how to develop those insights. Turner showed me how to do anthropology, in both his person and his methods.

    Thus, what do I take away from L-S? The hint to look for the logic in tangible qualities, a view of knowledge as taking shape like a galaxy with stars forming in the center but the edges remaining forever blurry, the provocation of a Mendelevian table of the mind. But would I make the _Mythologique_ or _The Elementary Structures_ my model? Heavens, no.

    The former is a gigantic exercise in searching for the logic in tangible qualities corrupted by excessive dependence on Hegelian dialectic. The latter is a prolegomenon to mathematical simulation written before computers made things like _SimCity_ possible. As examples of usable method, both are now, to borrow Joe Levenson’s pungent phrase, “of merely historical interest.”

    Geertz, too, provides me with inspirations. Yes, we do need thick description. But then he leaves me in the lurch. How precisely do you gather the necessary information and then proceed to write one? In article after article he, too, provides prologomena, provocations that point to possibilities but provide no model for further exploration.

    Turner shows me the nuts and bolts: We deal with three kinds of data, concrete social relations revealed in forms like village maps, hut diagrams, genealogies, extended case studies that reveal their dynamics; what our collaborators tell us; and what we see, taste, hear, smell or touch with our own senses. All are essential to a full ethnography. Without the concrete social relations, what informants tell us floats off into an ethereal description of ideas, a primitive history of ideas without a social context. Without the challenge of what our collaborators tell us, we stumble too quickly into imposing our own preconceptions. Without our own observations we fall too easily into taking what they say for granted, failing to note the contradictions between what they say and what they do or make. Our task, if we are willing and able to undertake it, is to consider all three and construct an ethnography as rich in detail as possible, so that others who come after us can point to what they notice and challenge what we say.

    As a practical matter we may not be able to do all this by ourselves. We may be forced to focus on one set of data or another. Then, however, we can turn to others who bring other information or ideas to the table. We can participate in conversations with people in other disciplines as well as other anthropologists.

    But, returning to where I began, we can, I think, leave off the business of counting academic coup and rummage through our history. Some of us may aim to perfect that history, to provide a new grand narrative on which to hang our disciplinary identity. Others, like me, may look for flashes of inspiration and models of what to do.

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